“It’s academic selection or selection by wealth.”

“It’s academic selection or selection by wealth.” This is the  either/or choice that Peter Hitchens talks about so often.  I agree that house price admissions are causing problems, and they need fixing. The one positive of the current grammar debate is that catchment area problems are now being talked about. I hope that Theresa May’s speeches about the horrors of ‘house price selection’ might actually lead her to do something about the problem.

But Peter Hitchen’s point ignores a whole stage of schooling that is vitally important. Why should we accept that primary school allocation is based on house price? I don’t want to ignore the needs of 5 year olds in poor families, they clearly deserve good schools too. The 5+  is no solution, so Peter has no answer and seems willing to just accept this.

I’d like to see someone use computer modelling to try out various admission criteria based on parent’s choices and pupil data. I also think we could find areas to trial different admission policies. We certainly don’t need to accept that grammar schools are the only admission fix.

In Bucks there are 12 grammar schools rated ‘Outstanding’ and 1 rated ‘Good’, so clearly having a child with a high IQ in this county assures a good school.  Unfortunately any child that fails the 11-plus finds 10 schools rated  ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’, with 14 non-selective schools rated ‘Good.’  It’s a similar picture in Kent. We have simply switched ‘selection by wealth’ to ‘selection by IQ.’  Is this really what we want?

Here are three fairer admission methods that might be worth looking at.

1.The Sutton Trust’s proposal

I’d be interested in exploring the ballot plus catchment area method suggested by the Sutton Trust. Nothing quite like this has been tried before. It feels easy to dismiss ballot methods as being unpopular with parents, but there are a huge variety of ways to do this.

2. Fair banding 

This only works for secondary schools but I think area-wide fair banding tests like those used by Hackney or Tower Hamlets can create fair school admissions. These tests create a truly ‘comprehensive’ mix of pupils in each secondary school with pupils admitted in bands of each ability. We know there’s a link between ability and socio-economic status, so using tests to create all ability schools also creates schools that are socially mixed. A side effect  may be that it allows schools to use setting more effectively.

3. Priority places for ‘Ordinary Working Families’

We have a government that wants to match pupil data to parental income. This opens up a whole new exciting range of possibilities for fair school admissions. Prioritising school admission for any child from a family on a low income could end ‘house price selection’ overnight. It would be a brave move to do it, but who could really argue with giving poor families good schools?

It lacks imagination to say that academic ability or house price are the only ways to define admissions. I wouldn’t be surprised if AI methods or complex data analysis were used to allocate school places in the future. It’s not inconceivable that parents could state their preference for schools in a more subtle way than an ordered list, and varied factors about pupils might be used to allocate schools fairly


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