Poor children already lagging behind their better-off peers in terms of educational achievement are held back by socially selective school admissions, says a new report from the children's charity Barnardo's.
Unlocking the gates: Giving disadvantaged children a fairer deal in school admissions outlines how widening access to good neighbourhood schools has a critical role to play in narrowing the opportunity gap in education.
The charity, which has a church background, is calling for banded admissions to publicly funded schools in England to address growing inequalities, ensure that all children have a fair opportunity to get a quality education, and to combat some of the feared effects of the Conservative-led government's 'free schools' policy.
Children born into disadvantage, already less likely to do well in school, more likely to leave at 16 and become ‘NEET’ (not in education, employment or training) and less likely to go on to higher education, are condemned to go the worst not the best schools, says Barnado's.
While able and articulate parents will go to extraordinary lengths to increase the odds of their child getting in to their chosen secondary school - moving house, hiring private tutors or attending Church more regularly - many poorer parents find it impossible to navigate the daunting school admissions system.
Sometimes these parents are not even in a position to appreciate their children are in a race which might be vital to their futures, says the charity.
Barnado's stance is a particular challenge to church and other faith schools, who receive massive taxpayer funding, but are allowed by law to discriminate in favour of their own communities in admissions and employment.
The recent growth in foundation schools and academies means that there are increasing numbers of schools which act as their own admissions authority. In January 1988, 15 per cent of schools were their own admission authority, by January 2009, that figure almost tripled to 42 per cent.
"The churches and other faith groups, whose creeds preach equality but whose current practices are based on selection and privilege, have a particular opportunity to take a lead in radically reforming their admissions policies to open up educational opportunity for all in the schools they sponsor," said Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which has advocates reform of religious foundation schools as part of the Accord Coalition for inclusive education.
"Some Christian foundation schools, like the Lambeth Academy, have been setting a good example of what can be achieved, but church authorities, not least the Church of England, have been dragging their feet or opposing reform," he added.
"Preserving advantage for yourself is not a Christian virtue, whereas concern for your neighbour irrespective of background or outlook, and special concern for those pushed to the margins, are clear imperatives of the Christian message, reflected deeply in both the biblical texts and in the church's tradition," said Barrow.
The system for determining school admissions is complex and presents a particular challenge for disadvantaged families who are leading chaotic lives, say reformers.
Frequent house moves, a lack of spoken or written English, disability or learning difficulty, and domestic violence, are just some of the circumstances which lead to many parents failing to submit an application for their child at all.
Martin Narey, Barnardo’s chief executive commented today: "The school admissions system has become a complex game, one that many parents in poorer households are not aware is going on around them."
He continued: "Even when conscious of a race for the best schools, some less confident and able parents are often overcome by a fatalism and are resigned to the fact that their son or daughter will be left with whatever school other parents don’t want."
Unfair admissions practices result in schools with skewed intakes that do not reflect the population of the surrounding area, says the charity.
The top secondary schools in England take on average only five per cent of pupils entitled to free school meals (a proxy for low income); this is less than half the national average. Despite evidence showing that social segregation harms pupil performance and that all children do better if schools have a mix of pupil ability and background, half of all pupils entitled to free school meals are still concentrated in a quarter of secondary schools.
Narey goes on: "If we are to wipe out the entrenched poverty that erodes the life chances of one in four children in the UK, if we are to re-ignite social mobility, then we must stop educational disadvantage being passed down from one generation to the next."
"Secondary school admissions fail to ensure a level playing field for all children. Instead we are seeing impenetrable clusters of privilege forming around the most popular schools. Allowing such practice to persist – and almost certainly expand as increasing numbers of schools take control of their own admissions - will only sustain the achievement gap in education and undermine the prospects of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children," says the Barnado's chief.
The consequences are significant. Children from disadvantaged homes are half as likely to get five good grades at GCSE as their classmates - in 2009, 27 per cent of children eligible for free school meals achieved five A* to C grades (with maths and English) at GCSE, compared to 54 per cent of those not eligible.
Also, pupils who do not receive free school meals stand a 32 per cent chance of going onto higher education, while pupils in receipt of free school meals stand only a 13 per cent chance – a gap of 19 percentage points.
As Government plans to expand the number of foundation schools, academies and free schools continue, Barnardo’s is calling for greater school 'freedoms' (as more schools act as their own admission authorities) to be matched by clearer accountability, to ensure a balanced pupil intake.
Report recommendations aimed at ensuring the secondary school admissions system does not leave the poorest behind include:
* Promoting ‘banding’ (admitting equal proportions of pupils in different ability bands) as a fairer basis for school admissions;
* Requiring schools to report annually on the profile of their pupil intake in reports to parents and governors, and increasing scrutiny of admissions practice by the School Adjudicator and/or OFSTED;
* Separating responsibility for setting school admissions policies from administering them, as while policies often meet the letter of the law, practice can fall short.
Read the whole report here: http://www.barnardos.org.uk/what_we_do/campaigns/education_campaigns.htm