Talk of ‘social justice’ is meaningless without action on unfair admissions

As a follower of education news I have noticed a recurring theme that the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, has been keen to impress upon his audience since his appointment in May.

In this speech he explains that, despite the ‘freedoms’ that are apparently central to the operation of academy schools, impelling them to restrict the curricula offer to their students will create “an education system with social justice at its heart”.

Earlier this month his comment in a review of primary school SATS results in Schools Week struck a familiar note.

Following the magazine’s observation that “there are minimal differences in outcomes at academies compared to local authority maintained schools – although, overall, LA maintained schools performed slightly better”, Mr Gibb maintained, “these results vindicate our decision to expand the valuable academies programme into primary schools with thousands of children on course to receive a better education.” And he went on:

“Our reform programme is driven by social justice”.

Taking Mr Gibb’s message at face value I was intrigued to read yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph article on his plans for school admissions. I expected to see a pledge to review current admissions procedures and reform and police the application of policies by individual schools but instead all that was reported was a commitment, reported as being ‘based on anecdotal evidence’, to ensure that siblings went to the same school.

Let’s leave aside the fact that the vast majority of schools already have admission of siblings as a high ranking criteria in their policies, how does this assist the pursuit of ‘social justice’? I read the article in full and could not find any reference to it or any measures that addressed what is supposed to be the Department for Education’s (DfE) stated central purpose. In my view, failure to do so renders all other ‘reforms’ meaningless in that context.

Last October I wrote a blog in response to a local newspaper report on a parent’s complaint about the apparent attitude of a school towards admitting her son who was classed as having Special Educational Needs (SEN). It had arisen in the same week as an episode of ‘Educating the East End’ which had centred on the theme of inclusion and I contrasted the two stories. I also drew readers to the excellent report from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner on this issue, ‘It Might Be Best If You Looked Elsewhere’ which had concluded that admissions policies and their application by individual schools required review as the current arrangements were leading to an uneven spread of pupils by ability and background.

As stark illustration, the DfE’s own statistics for one London borough were used to illustrate the discrepancy between secondary schools in the same locality under the current regime. The local authority in this case did not operate any academic selection and yet the difference in the ability and background of students in the area differed hugely by school. All eight were comprehensive schools, three of which were faith schools and four at the time were academies.

Admissions graph

Within the piece I also drew on some excellent work by headteacher Trevor Burton that compared the ability of a school’s intake at KS2 (primary school SATS) and their latest Ofsted judgement. Once again, the correlation between the two is stark:

prior-attain trevor burton

I can’t believe that Nick Gibb is not aware of this evidence and yet there seems to be no intention to do anything to address it. As we have seen from the earlier examples that I quote, the current vogue in formation of policy at the DfE seems to be that, as long as people believe what we want them to, actual evidence need not detain us.

Having written my blog last year, I received a huge amount of feedback from those in the profession acknowledging that dissuading certain children from joining your school and other manipulation of intake was far from uncommon. I was told that those pursuing these practices were confident that these breaches of the schools admission code would not be addressed as there is no policing of the system and that the Office of the Schools Adjudicator could only act when complaints were received from parents. I’m certainly not aware of any follow up on the local story.

The evidence of the two graphs above neatly illustrates that not only is there a clear issue with uneven admissions but also that the inspection system seems to encourage it. Surely that is enough for any government genuinely concerned with ‘social justice’ to want to take action?

I fear that policies currently in the pipeline will actually make the situation worse however. For example, in insisting that those students failing to achieve at least a C grade in Maths and English GCSE will have to take retake their exams until they do, at the school’s financial and teaching expense, they are incentivising further manipulation of the intake.

To clarify this point, any pupil joining a secondary school with a Level 3 SATS grade is expected to gain a grade D if they make 3 levels of progress. By definition, they would then be seen as having exceeded expectations by gaining a C so schools with greater numbers of lower attaining students are being expected to do better for their pupils than those with a higher attaining cohort and will effectively be fined if they don’t. Let us also throw into the mix that those schools failing to meet revised 60% floor target for 5 A*-C CSE passes will also be labelled ‘coasting’ from here on and you can begin to see why manipulation of admissions may become more attractive for the less principled.

I am prepared to believe that Nick Gibb is truly concerned with social justice. I suggest that without tackling admissions inequality he can’t be.

Stephen Mayo


  1. I suspect your observations are related to W Edwards Deming’s ( ): that if we don’t understand the variance in the raw material, then we may well blame the wrong part of the process in achieving quality outputs. His work, over half a century ago, was in the world of manufacturing and commercial services, so this is not new to the world of management, and ignorance of it shows how intellectually challenged the current shower in government are, but it also tells us that we must campaign for greater clarity and understanding in any government that may follow.

  2. Pingback: Tell the truth. ‘Parental choice’ trumps fair admissions and educational opportunity for all. | Stephen Mayo

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