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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.