School admissions overhaul urged to help poor pupils

A series of reforms to the education system are being proposed to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

Children at school
Children at school

The Government should consider an overhaul of school admissions and exam reforms to tackle “entrenched injustice” facing disadvantaged children, a headteachers’ union has said.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) is proposing a series of changes to the education system to close the gap in the attainment of children from poorer backgrounds compared to their peers.

Ministers should consider requiring schools to prioritise places for children who are eligible for the pupil premium, or who are in persistent poverty, in their oversubscription criteria, the union says.

The proposal is designed to address the fact that popular schools are often oversubscribed and located in middle-class areas which can make places at these schools hard to access for disadvantaged pupils.

The union’s “Blueprint for a Fairer Education System” recommends that Sats exams in primary school should be replaced with adaptive assessments which make much greater use of technology,  while the number of terminal GCSE exams taken during pupils’ final summer at school should be scaled back.

Statutory primary assessments should be reduced so schools are no longer required to run baseline assessments in Reception and multiplication tables checks in Year 4, the organisation suggested.

In England, schools are currently required to give children in care highest priority in the oversubscription criteria within their admission arrangements.

But Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, has urged ministers to give “serious consideration” to prioritising poorer children for school places as well.

He said: “Middle-class parents have the buying power to afford homes in areas near popular schools that are rated as good or outstanding. We may not necessarily agree with the way that Ofsted ratings work but this is the reality.

“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.”

In a briefing with journalists, Pepe Di’Iasio, headteacher at Wales High School, in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, said some schools across the country have “very few” pupil premium or free school meal students in them.

He said: “So personally I think this is a great suggestion. 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.”

Mr Di’Iasio, who is also the president of ASCL, added: “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.”

Other recommendations include reviewing the national curriculum to ensure it focuses on fewer things in greater depth and overhauling school performance tables to take in aspects like exclusion rates and the breadth of the curriculum.

The blueprint adds that there should be a core national curriculum that is mandatory for all state schools – including academies.

Pupil premium funding for supporting disadvantaged pupils should also include 16 to 19-year-olds, and funding for pupils who have special educational needs should be reformed to be clearer.

Mr Barton added: “We propose streamlining the cluttered curriculum, modernising assessment and exams, providing extra funding for the children and young people who most need that support, and making school performance tables more meaningful for parents and pupils.

“There’s nothing new about the attainment gap between rich and poor. We’ve been talking about it for years. But we’re still not making anything like the progress that is needed in closing that gap and we can’t expect to keep doing the same thing and expect different results. It is time for change.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Most disadvantaged pupils now attend Good or Outstanding schools and the admissions code already allows schools to prioritise disadvantage in their admissions if they wish to.

“Since 2011, disadvantaged pupils had narrowed the gap with their peers at every stage of education up until the pandemic. Our ambitious, long-term education recovery plan, including an investment to date of over £3 billion and a significant expansion of our tutoring programme, is supporting children and young people to make up for education lost during the pandemic.”

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