How academies covertly select pupils

The Academies Commission warns that the schools are gaming the system by holding "social" events with prospective parents and pre-admission meetings.

In a recent article for the Sun, Michael Gove wrote that while academies enjoy all the freedoms of private schools, "they’re also socially comprehensive, open to children of every ability with no selection or screening of students." But today's report by the Academies Commission suggests that the schools are in fact "finding methods to select covertly".

In its new study, Unleashing Greatness: Getting the best from an academised system, the independent panel, led by Ofsted's former chief inspector Christine Gilbert, warns that academies are gaming the system by holding social events with prospective parents and pre-admission meetings. "Such practices can enable schools to select pupils from more privileged families where parents have the requisite cultural capital to complete the [form] in ways that will increase their child's chances," the report says. The admissions code states that schools "cannot interview children or parents" and that when coping with oversubscription, must not "give priority to children on the basis of any practical or financial support parents may give to the school or any associated organisation".

The commission goes on to warn that the dramatic rise in the number of academies (from 203 in May 2010 to 2,456 in November 2012), which now account for more than half of all England's secondaries, risks further admissions injustices. "The current emphases on choice and diversity may go some way to improving the school system in England, but they are likely to hit a ceiling because of the lack of engagement with (or even negative impact on) disadvantaged families." It speaks of academies "willing to take a 'low road' approach to school improvement by manipulating admissions rather than by exercising strong leadership".

The section on admissions concludes by calling for each academy to "publish comprehensive data, including socio-economic data, about who applies to it and who is admitted." It adds that this data should be made widely available and analysed by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) to identify any risks in terms of socio-economic segregation.

Education is also in the news this morning due to the Independent's frontpage, which speaks of a "Tory plan for firms to run schools for profit". It transpires that the headline refers to a proposal in a new book (Tory Modernisation 2.0: the Future of the Conservative Party) by the think-tank Bright Blue, rather than any formal shift in Conservative policy. However, as I've noted before, Gove has made it clear that for-profit state schools could be established under a future Tory government. During his appearance before the Leveson inquiry last May, the Education Secretary remarked that unlike some of his coalition colleagues, "who are very sceptical of the benefits of profit", he had an "open mind", adding: "I believe that it may be the case that we can augment the quality of state education by extending the range of people involved in its provision."

For an explanation of why for-profit schools would not raise standards, I'd recommend reading this Staggers post from IPPR's Rick Muir on the subject. 

Education Secretary Michael Gove has said that academies are "socially comprehensive". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.