Headteachers call for reform of school admissions to redress attainment gap

Headteachers have called for an overhaul of school admissions policies to prioritise places for children from disadvantaged backgrounds as a way of addressing the widening attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils.

Under proposals put forward by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), a proportion of places in oversubscribed schools in England could be ringfenced for disadvantaged pupils who live outside the catchment area.

Within the current system, there is a similar requirement for children in care, but disadvantaged children lose out, according to ASCL, because their families cannot afford to live within the catchment areas of popular, high-performing schools in affluent neighbourhoods.

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Amid mounting concern about the disproportionate impact of the Covid pandemic on disadvantaged youngsters, ASCL wants the government to consider asking schools to prioritise places for children who are either eligible for the pupil premium additional funding for those on school meals, or those growing up in persistent poverty, in their oversubscription criteria.

The proposal is one of a range of measures outlined in the ASCL report Blueprint for a Fairer Education System. The union acknowledged that any mechanism to bring about admissions changes would need to be carefully thought through, but insisted that bold ideas would be needed if the attainment gap was to be closed.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, said: “Middle-class parents have the buying power to afford homes in areas near popular schools that are rated as good or outstanding.

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“There are, of course, many excellent schools in disadvantaged areas too, but the economics of property ownership mean that disadvantaged families don’t have the same access as middle-class parents to certain schools. This is an entrenched injustice which reinforces an unhealthy division between affluent and disadvantaged areas and children.

“We have to do more to support schools in challenging circumstances, so that there is a school rated as good or outstanding on every doorstep, but we must also see how we might provide parents and children from disadvantaged backgrounds with fairer access to popular schools in more affluent areas.”

The president of ASCL, Pepe Di’Iasio, who is the head of Wales High School in South Yorkshire, welcomed the proposal. “I do think it needs greater thought, greater clarity, but I do also think that we’ve all got admissions policies already in schools, so it’s about tweaking what we’ve already got to make sure that we recognise that poverty is a key factor.”

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He said: “I think it’s fair to say that over the last 20 years we’ve seen a succession of governments try different initiatives and different strategies as part of a levelling-up agenda and to a large degree they’ve had little or no impact.”

ASCL’s report, which is the culmination of two years of research, also proposes reducing the number of national assessments in primary schools. The union says exams could be modernised, with greater use of technology to personalise assessment, and would like to see a reduction in the number of end-of-course exams that GCSE students have to face.

The Department for Education was asked for comment.

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