There has been an almost 13-fold increase in the number of academies in England since the Coalition government was formed – from 203 in May 2010 to 2619 in January 2013. It is in the context of this drastic change that the RSA, in partnership with Pearson Think Tank, published our Academies Commission report last week. Unleashing Greatness examines the implications of ‘mass academisation’ on educational outcomes, and explores the risks and opportunities associated with this process.
The report is substantial: it consists of seven chapters tackling issues ranging from school improvement to governance to public accountability. But, perhaps because it is a pre-existing controversy surrounding academies or perhaps because it is an issue many parents have had a direct personal relationship with, the media chose to focus largely on one topic: admissions.
This is not complaint about the media attention. As RSA Director of Programmes Adam Lent said last week, a think tank complaining about media attention is like a fish complaining about the sea. Indeed, instituting and maintaining a practice of fair admissions is crucial if we want to have social justice in our education system, and the Commission had many interesting – and challenging – things to say about this matter. The general message being that the complexity in the current system – particularly the fact that admissions for community schools are administered by the local authority while academies are their ‘own admission’ authorities – could have an adverse impact on equality of opportunity, and negatively affect the most vulnerable disproportionately. The Commission recommends that the system should be simplified and clarified, with parity of practice established between maintained schools and academies and all schools and academies being required to publish data on applications and acceptances for school places in relation to free school meals or other socio-economic data.
The point is that if you care about the implications of admissions policy and practice, and in particular how it affects the most vulnerable young people, then you might be missing a trick by focussing exclusively on students applying to join schools in September. This is because many young people leave and join schools outside of the ordinary July/September round – a phenomenon known as ‘in-year’ admissions. And these young people are likely to be disproportionately drawn from disadvantaged groups, including looked after children being placed with new carers, children of refugees and asylum seekers, and children who have been excluded from their previous school(s). (With respect to the latter group, our research dovetails neatly with the excellent work the Children’s Commissioner has been doing on exclusions.) Moreover, given the forthcoming changes to housing benefit, it is possible that in-year admissions could become a more widespread phenomenon as children and families move to new areas with lower rents. Despite its potentially regressive impact and wide-ranging implications, however, the practice of in-year admissions has been largely underexplored.
It is for this reason that the RSA, in partnership with the Local Government Association, is currently conducting research to map the geographical spread, identify the key drivers, and explore the potential implications of in-year admissions in England. We want to know where in-year admissions are most likely to take place, the approaches that local authorities and own admission authority schools take to the administration of this issue, and the groups of children that are most likely to move ‘in-year’.
This is important research that we hope will have implications for policy, practice and priorities. So, if you care about admissions and, in particular, how the most vulnerable are affected, watch this space because we are not done yet.