We welcome the proposal in this week’s ASCL publication, Blueprint for a Fairer System that school admissions should prioritise children from disadvantaged backgrounds. After all, it is something we have been doing at Reach Academy Feltham for the past five years.
Launching the report, Geoff Barton described “entrenched injustice” in the way that the economics of property ownership restrict less affluent families’ access to the best schools. A 2019 PWC report identified the additional cost of living near high performing schools at £27,000 for primary schools £25,000 for secondaries. This is one of several reasons those eligible for pupil premium are half as likely to attend an outstanding school as their wealthiest peers.
Initiatives like pupil premium are specifically aimed at redressing that balance by prioritising resources where they can have the greatest impact. They represent a growing commitment across the system to education as a tool for social justice and have contributed to dramatic improvements in the quality of education nationally over the past twenty years. This same moral lens could be helpfully applied to school admissions.
The ASCL proposal invites a change to the school admissions code, but in reality schools are already free to take this step. The code allows schools to prioritise places based on pupil premium eligibility, and there are more inclusive alternatives to catchment- or distance-based over-subscription criteria. In his recent book, Fractured, Jon Yates urges school governors to take advantage of this freedom to create more truly comprehensive schools, and a number of them already have, including One Degree Academy in Enfield.
For our part, it was in 2015 – three years after opening our school and a year after we moved to our permanent home and received an ‘outstanding’ judgment from Ofsted – that we started to see its reputation change our cohort. Estate agents trumpeted that homes were “in the catchment of Reach Academy” (even if they were not), and two nearby office blocks were turned into apartments buildings.
So we made the decision to safeguard our commitment to serving the whole community of Feltham by changing our policy. Just like ASCL’s new proposal, we committed to ring-fencing 29 per cent of our places for pupils eligible for the pupil premium, the average pupil premium figure for schools within a mile of Reach.
A year later we went further. We adopted the over-subscription criteria recommended by the Sutton Trust and moved from distance over-subscription to random allocation for families living within our two local postcodes.
Of course, we consulted on these changes extensively and explained them to our community. The admissions code requires it, and for good reason. Making a change like this is difficult for parents who have been making important life decisions, preparing and planning based on one policy, only to be faced with another.
Ring-fencing some places for pupil premium-eligible students is unlikely to significantly change cohort composition, which fluctuates annually based on the profile of those applying. Even so, we initially faced a number of admissions appeals where parents cited the policy as unfair. We stuck to our commitment to fairness, explained our rationale, and no appeal was ever upheld. Within a couple of years the criteria were no longer cited in appeals. Now, they are widely accepted by the community.
We still have to work hard to inform our community of the criteria and invite parents who are eligible to complete the additional form to confirm their eligibility. But the impact is that every year our proportion of pupil premium-eligible pupils increases. It is now at 65 per cent, and we are proud to admit more of this cohort than live in Feltham, as well as more pupils with EHCPs and Looked After Children.
It hasn’t been without its challenges, but we are delighted we took the step and would recommend it to any school. So we welcome ASCL’s proposal, but the truth is that schools can act now without the need for systemic reform. With moral purpose and transparency, we can lead our communities to even more social justice and even better schools for every pupil, regardless of background.