Opening up our top comprehensives

Conor Ryan gives the background to this week’s Sutton Trust drive to encourage more schools to use ballots in their admissions policies.

This week, the Sutton Trust revived the argument for school ballots as a way of admitting a significant proportion of places to popular urban schools. Of course, it is not an uncontroversial idea, but it seems the best and easiest way to introduce some fairness into a system where our highest performing comprehensive schools and academies are more socially segregated than other schools in their area.

After all, the evidence suggests that low and middle income students do better academically and socially if there is a mix of students from different income backgrounds in a school.

When I was Tony Blair’s education adviser, in 2005, I still remember the Times front page when they picked up our plans to allow ballots – random allocation of places where a school is oversubscribed – and fair banding across all abilities to achieve a comprehensive intake. The Times chose to illustrate banding, a move designed to achieve a comprehensive intake, with an 11-plus exam paper. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, became convinced that we were planning a return to grammar schools and took some dissuasion on the point.

I tell this story because ballots, a simpler measure without any tests, have their own perception difficulties. Most newspapers prefer the term ‘lotteries’ which has obviously negative connotations. But it has also been confused by the Brighton system, which allied some very tightly defined catchment areas with ballots to assist some families losing out under a traditional neighbourhood system. The losers were unhappy, and the winners stayed silent, and the way the catchment areas were drawn meant little change to social segregation.

Yet, less arbitrary catchments can work. Some academies have been quietly getting on with it. After I did the Today programme on Monday, Liz Sidwell, the former schools commissioner and a dynamic former head of the Haberdashers’ Hatcham Academy in South London, tweeted to remind us that her school uses a mix of neighbourhood admissions and a ballot, splitting the two components 50:50. With huge local popularity for the school, this clearly makes sense. It’s the sort of model that the Trust would like to see more widely.

On Monday, we also highlighted another South London academy, Platanos College in Stockwell, a ‘converter academy’ where nearly 60 per cent of its pupils receive free school meals, yet 80 per cent of all its pupils gained five good GCSEs including English and Maths in 2012, including 77 per cent of those on free school meals. Platanos uses banding, whereby a proportion of places are allocated to pupils of low, medium and high abilities to ensure that it takes a good mix of students.

And although the Department for Education keeps quiet about it, academies and other schools that are their own admissions authorities – around two thirds of all secondary schools are in that category with a surge in converter academies – are allowed to use fair banding or ‘random allocation’ within the statutory admissions code, though the code bans local authorities from using ballots (Code, pages 13-14). Some academies may also give preference to pupils entitled to free school meals, just as all schools are required to do for children in care. (Code, page 10, note 22).

Balloting is neither as unpopular with parents nor as rare as some suggest. Earlier polling by the Sutton Trust showed that almost as many parents backed ballots as a fair oversubscription criterion as proximity to the school, when given those two options for popular schools, with a majority making it the better option for faith schools. Moreover, research by RAND Europe for the Trust showed they are used in other countries, including for admissions to US Charter Schools and Swedish free schools and universities.

Yet the reality is that the vast majority of comprehensives still admit on the basis of proximity to school, or an often ill-defined definition of religiosity in the case of faith schools, where ballots among members of a faith would be less arbitrary.

Doing nothing should not be an option. Our research shows that the proportion of pupils from low income families, as measured by free school meal take-up, which is a measure of the social mix of the school, at our top 500 comprehensives is less than half the national average.

More significantly, 95 per cent of the top 500 schools take fewer pupils on free school meals than their local average.  Of the 16.5 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals, just 36 per cent of them gained five good GCSEs last year, compared with 63 per cent of other pupils.

With higher house prices close to good comprehensives and academies, the bottom line in England is, as Sir Peter Lampl put it on Monday, how good a school you go to depends on your parental income. This applies from independent boarding school fees to inner city school catchments. A significant number of comprehensives and academies are not academically selective, but are socially selective because of the neighbourhoods or faith communities they serve.

Covert selection needs more than covert permissiveness in the Code. Ministers should actively encourage popular schools, particularly in urban areas, to consider ballots or banding. That way we could have a fairer – and more comprehensive – school system. Unless our best schools are open to all, we will never improve our low levels of social mobility.