Schools in England will now be able to prioritise children from poor families when deciding who gets a place. This sounds a fair and sensible policy, intended to promote “social mobility” and equality of access to “good” schools. But it could inadvertently create a two- or even three-track system of schooling.
The department for education in England has launched a public consultation on proposed changes to how school places are allocated to specific children.
The changes include useful clarifications about places for children born in the summer, and assurances that children adopted from local authority care are given priority places. However, the major change is that all schools would be allowed to prioritise applications for school places for those children in receipt of the pupil premium.Children are designated as pupil premium if they are eligible for free school meals – if their parents are deemed to have an income below a set threshold. Children living in care, or with parents in the armed forces are also eligible. For 2014-15, the premium is currently £1,300 per primary-age pupil, £935 per secondary-age pupil, and £1,900 for looked-after children. This additional money is to help schools overcome the large inequalities in average attainment between pupil premium and others pupils.
There are some glitches with the pupil premium policy. Schools do not always know what to do with the money in order to reduce the poverty gap in attainment. And they find it hard to deny access to this funding for children that they know have very low attainment, even if they are not designated as eligible for pupil premium.
Also, there is missing data for around 4% of relevant pupils on whether they are eligible for free school meals. These children are treated as though they were not eligible for the premium even though there is evidence that this group is even more disadvantaged. But overall, the policy itself is imaginative, flexible and likely to be beneficial in the medium-term.
It could make no difference
So what will happen if all schools are allowed to prioritise places for such children, and the extra funding that comes with them? Priority to places in a school only matters if the school is over-subscribed – and if applications are actually made by pupils on free school meals.
Admission authorities (either the local council or individual schools like academies and free schools) do not have to offer a place to a family that does not apply to that specific school. So, one unanswered question is whether the new rules would encourage children from poor families to alter their pattern of application.
Even if they do, each school must already take all applicants unless there are more applicants than places. This means that the policy could make no difference to those less popular schools that already tend to take more than their fair share of pupils on free school meals.
And because the policy merely allows schools to use the pupil premium in their admissions process, many schools will continue not to. If these schools are the more popular ones, in leafy suburbs with fewer poor children, then pupils on free school meals who live further away will still not get places there. And even if schools do set priorities for pupil premium places, this will only matter if the proportion of places is higher than the percentage of children on free school meals in their current catchment area.
What’s happened in academies
Academies and free schools are already permitted to prioritise free school meal applicants. Most do not. But even if they do, the evidence is that this can make no practical difference.
For example, the rules for Kings Science Academy in Bradford prioritise 15 percent of places for children on free school meals. But perhaps because the local population figure for free school meals is 23 percent, the school has taken more than 15 percent every year since it opened in 2011.
On the other hand, Harpenden Free School in Hertfordshire has set aside 25 percent of its places for local children eligible for the pupil premium, but since opening in 2012 they have admitted no pupils eligible for free school meals (presumably because none have applied).
The policy also has dangers
In order to allow schools to prioritise children on the basis of free school meals (a measure of parental income), the proposed changes will inevitably weaken an important existing safeguard in the current schools admissions code.
This states that admission authorities must not give priority to children “according to the occupational, marital, financial or educational status of parents applying”. There are already exceptions to this law for academies and free schools, and where the child has a parent working at the school. In theory, the new rule will allow all schools to consider the financial status of the parents before deciding to give their child a place.
If the new policy was to be a requirement for all schools, and the level of priority was linked to the prevalence of families eligible for free school meals in each local authority area, then it certainly could improve social mobility. It would reduce free school meal segregation between schools, and all of the damage that this causes.
But allowing schools to choose whether to use this new approach could actually exacerbate the situation. Some schools will be unaffected, whether they prioritise children on free school meals or not. These will include the large number of schools with unfilled places who take all applicants, and any schools that set a level of priority below the local level of children on free school meals (such as Kings Science Academy).
A few schools may introduce the policies, tempted by the incentive of extra funding or making it their mission to provide excellent interventions for the largest number of disadvantaged pupils as possible. Their levels of children on free school meals will tend to grow.
Many over-subscribed schools already take less than their fair share of pupils on free school meals, partly because of the cost of nearby housing. Unless these schools use the new priority scheme, which would entail refusing places to nearby residents in favour of more distant poorer families, levels of economic segregation between schools in England will grow.
Stephen Gorard has previously received funding from the ESRC to investigate schools admissions in England and Wales.