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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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