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Over the last few weeks, London buses have been adorned with adverts for secondary schools, vying for parents’ attention. Parents and their children have until the end of this month to state their preferences for schools. The tangle of oversubscription criteria that vary by school make this, by all accounts, a stressful process and something of a strategic game.

Yet for those who miss the ride and apply after 31st October, or try to move to a new school during the year, gaining a place at the right school may be much harder. I’ve been thinking about this group since handing in my Masters dissertation last month. Although my research was not focused on in-year admissions, in the process of answering a different question I unearthed evidence regarding what happens to these pupils in the admissions merry-go-round. As a non-expert on in-year admissions, I found the results both surprising and very worrying.

It would be impossible to summarise a 10,000 word dissertation adequately in a blog post, so I’ve put some main points and assurances at the bottom, and ask that you get in touch if you have queries (or wait for me to prepare the study for publication). But in short, my results suggest that academies are using their autonomy to discriminate against disadvantaged pupils through in-year admissions.

This is not to say that staff at academies don’t like poor kids. I should also stress that I do not claim the practice takes place exclusively or in all academies; for many, such as those run by RSA Academies, providing opportunities for disadvantaged children is built into their ethos and practice. Research has also shown that many types of schools will use abilities such as selection by faith to exclude ‘difficult to teach’ pupils given half a chance. But, my evidence shows  that shared incentives and different admissions procedures for academies and mainstream LA-controlled schools are resulting in disadvantaged pupils having less access to some academies than we would expect.

different admissions procedures for academies and mainstream LA-controlled schools are resulting in disadvantaged pupils having less access to some academies than we would expect

So what’s going on here? Well to those well acquainted with the English school admissions system, it’s an unsurprising result. Schools are under tremendous pressure to produce high grades each year and face incentives to ‘cream-skim’ easy to teach pupils to get those grades (a topic I’ve written about here).

Previous School Admissions Codes have made it much harder for schools to do this through their oversubscription criteria that control main round admissions, for instance by banning interviews. Yet in-year admissions, which take place when a child enters a school outside of the main September admissions round, remain a hazier topic. From 2010 to 2012, local authorities controlled the process by which children moving schools are allocated places. But the 2012 Admissions Code gave academies authority over this process for their own places. Although academies must notify the local authority of an in-year application and its outcome, and adhere to local fair access protocols, the school itself controls the negotiation process with the parents. For mainstream schools, the local authority still coordinates this process – and crucially, while academies face incentives to cream-skim, local authorities do not.

The result is that what my results are almost certainly showing, is a process of negotiation and exclusions that have resulted in academies managing to reduce their ‘hard-to-teach’ pupils throughout the year. And it so happens that characteristics that make a pupil hard to teach are also correlated with the level of disadvantage that a pupil faces.

I submitted this evidence in full to the Commons Education Select Committee, and was pleased that they took an interest in it. This topic is important: RSA research has found that disadvantaged pupils are much more likely to move schools mid-year, and that mid-year movers underperform compared to pupils with the same characteristics. What’s more, our school system is increasingly moving toward a model of autonomy, and it is important both for competition and equity that all pupils have access to schools. In our current system, too many children are left for months without a school place, with all the associated damage that does to their development.

It’s also a problem that has a relatively obvious solution – reinstate local authority control over in-year admissions. The problem arises because schools all face incentives to cream-skim, but different opportunities to do so. The ad hoc nature of in-year admissions means a system that devolves decisions to schools risks an opaque process that benefits the advantaged.

Of course how admissions are best coordinated is too big a topic for me to try to solve in a blog without being glib – but there are a number of arguments for reinstating LAs as in-year admissions coordinators for all schools, and reasons for thinking now is the time to do it. Local authorities have existing experience and knowledge of managing this process, and are well placed to be mediators between schools and to act as brokers for students. What’s more, growing calls for devolving powers from DfE to a middle tier of regional school commissioners may help this system to function. A comprehensive RSA report by Robert Hill in 2012 called for schools to decide on admissions criteria collaboratively, alongside a middle layer of governance to ensure place planning and admissions are fair. IPPR released an insightful report two weeks ago on the school system and need for the middle-tier, and David Blunkett made many similar recommendations in his education policy review earlier this year. There should be no responsibility without appropriate powers. But amid this changing governance landscape, local authorities could provide structure to collaborative processes, supported by authoritative oversight by regional commissioners.

The zeitgeist is to enable schools to collaborate and ultimately operate as a system rather than as islands. Between individual schools and the Secretary of State there must be a place for convenors in this system

The zeitgeist is to enable schools to collaborate and ultimately operate as a system rather than as islands. Between individual schools and the Secretary of State there must be a place for convenors in this system, whether the role is filled by local authorities or individuals in newer positions. The English school system is creaking under the weight of constant reform – but this seems to be one area where the gains are large and relatively easy-pickings.

Carys Roberts is a research intern at the RSA. You can follow her @carysroberts


 

  • The research quantitatively analysed national data – the National Pupil Database – using regression modelling in a ‘difference-in-difference’ technique. It aimed to find out whether the pupil premium incentivises schools to attract and admit disadvantaged pupils through the extra funding that follows these pupils. I looked for evidence that academies were taking advantage of a 2012 policy allowing them to discriminate in favour of premium eligible pupils, by looking at the proportion of pupils at each type of school eligible for the premium over 5 years.
  • Although I wasn’t explicitly focusing on in-year admissions, my results differed depending on whether I included in-year admissions or only looked at pupils who’d entered the school in the main September admissions round. In the main round, there was no difference in the trends of pupils at each type of school. But when I included in-year admissions, I saw that academies took lower proportions of disadvantaged pupils than you would expect after 2012.
  •  My research could only shed light on this trend for secondary academies started under Labour before 2009; the evidence isn’t strong enough to see whether the same is happening in converter academies or free schools.
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