Knowing your place

Submitted by AWL on 7 March, 2008 - 8:14 Author: Pat Yarker

Contradictions inherent in New Labour’s policy of increased diversity and “choice” in school-provision have surfaced again over admissions to state secondary schools.

Media attention has once again focused on Brighton and Hove, the first Local Authority to make “random allocation” of schoo places, rather than proximity to the school, the criterion to resolve conflict where schools in the same catchment-area are over-subscribed. (A handful of individual schools in other areas already use the system.) Some Tories have objected, noting that Brighton’s “ballot” or “lottery” prevents wealthier people effectively buying a place at a preferred local state school by paying to move into a nearby property.

But ballots and lotteries generate their own problems. Transition from “feeder” primary to given secondary is known to be an anxious and difficult time for many students, and staff in local schools work together to ease that move. Such arrangements may be strained under a ballot system as the number of “feeder” primaries could multiply, perhaps considerably.

Ballots are also likely to disrupt students’ friendship patterns, and this can make transition especially daunting for some young people.

The overarching crisis, which New Labour has intensified rather than diminished, remains the persistence of a hierarchised system of education in England predicated on historical and class-based processes of segregation. Accompanying and legitimising this highly-stratified structure is the ideology of fixed innate ability, or the belief that each of us is born with some quotient of “ability” or “potential” which the education-system may bring out more or less fully, but cannot enhance.

Because the principal indicator of academic outcome remains the degree of social deprivation endured by the student, (that is, broadly her social class), this view grounds the common idea that middle class students are more “able” (and hence more academically desirable) than students from the working class. This ideology is also used to justify particular forms of student-grouping within schools of all kinds, a process as central as inter-school selection in the (re)production of students as labour-power for capital in accordance with the socially-prevailing division of labour.

School admissions procedures are basically a trade-off between forms of local control and the centralised framework determined by government. Fee-paying schools operate their own admissions procedures. In the state system significant numbers of schools are also now allowed to be their own admissions authorities.

For community or “Voluntary Controlled” schools which make up 62% of secondaries, the Local Authority will be the admissions authority, and consequently open to some degree of democratic accountability. But for “Foundation” schools such as Trust schools, “Voluntary Aided” schools (mostly faith schools) and academies, the school’s own governing body functions as the admissions authority.

New Labour’s hyper-accountability system, which ensures grave consequences for schools that fail to meet assigned targets for test and examination results, generates an incentive for such schools to “manage” their oversubscribed applications accordingly. While the newly-strengthened School Admissions Code has outlawed a range of previously widespread selection practices (such as interviewing students), ambiguities inevitably remain to be exploited in the wording of the Code’s lengthy regulations.

The Code mixes statutory requirements and advisory guidance, and leaves monitoring its fair application in great part to action by individual users of the system. In the case of academies, which are green-lighted by the Secretary of State, it is also the Secretary of State who hears complaints.

The picture is further complicated by New Labour’s supine acceptance of fully selective systems of state education in 15 out of 150 Local Authorities, and the presence in a further 21 Authorities of at least one selective school. Such a school inevitably skews the intake of its neighbours. Unsurprisingly, areas with the highest number of selective schools tend to see the greatest number of students failing to obtain a place in their preferred school.

In 2007, the reformist think-tank IPPR argued no school should administer its own admissions procedure. IPPR research indicated that secondary schools were twice as segregated by so-called “ability” as they would have been if proximity alone were the determining factor in school-admissions. That is, the current situation worked to worsen segregation.

The cross-party campaign-group Comprehensive Futures (which is supported by the three main teaching unions) continues to press for an end to selection by “ability/aptitude”. With such selection already outlawed in Wales and Scotland, and with Northern Ireland about to phase out its remaining grammar schools, England is further at variance within the UK in the composition of its school system.

This matters to children. Countries which overtly select students don’t have a higher average student performance but do show larger variations of attainment. The more selective the system, the more important the student’s socio-economic background to her educational outcome. And the more likely the creation of “sink” schools.

Educational inequalities are not reducible to whether or not a student is placed in their first-choice school. But by encouraging all schools to attain Foundation status and hence become their own admissions authority, by opening the door ever-wider to selection by “ability/aptitude” and by accelerating the imposition of academies and Trust schools whose undemocratic governing bodies are controlled by the sponsor, the government is further embedding such inequalities.

Intensifying anxiety over school-admissions is in fact a fearful response by parents/carers to the widening of social inequalities presided over by New Labour. In the absence of a strong labour movement and campaigning response for resistant solidarity, such fears will only nourish individualistic and self-serving attitudes and actions.

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