A conversation I had this summer with a fellow parent was brought to mind when I read this article about Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s concerns that Academies will exclude the pupils they don’t want and refuse to accept pupils excluded from other schools, creating ‘ghettos’ of excluded pupils in other schools. The parent I was chatting to happened to work for school admissions at Birmingham Local Authority. When I told her about my campaign against Bournville School, she described to me the impossibility of dealing with the city’s Academies when seeking to place excluded pupils. She explained that the Academies simply fail to respond and refuse to be available to take her calls. Similar frustrations are echoed in the article, which quotes Councillor Terry Crowe as saying “I’ve seen how academies can be a law unto themselves. We have to live with that, but we also have to protect the interests of all students in Stoke-on-Trent.”
The article also makes the worrying suggestion that under-performing pupils may be at risk of being unfairly excluded by academies;
”Former Blurton High governor and city councillor Brian Ward has also raised concerns that academies have a motive to exclude under-performing pupils to prove the new system is working.”
If you accept this, it follows that Academies also have a motive not to give places to less able pupils in the first place – that Academies have a motive to discriminate against those children least likely to get the school up the league tables. This would impact on various groups of pupils including children from socially and economically deprived backgrounds and children with special educational needs, and in fact this is exactly what the government-commissioned National Audit Office report into Academies found. It found that Academies increased their league table results by a combination of changes to intake and changes to examination courses (ie. GCSE’s switched for courses with higher pass rates such as BTECS and other vocational qualifications).
This all adds up to selection by the backdoor, and anyone who values comprehensive state education should be very concerned. There is little doubt in my mind that this explains eamples such as Skegness Academy which has seen a remarkable reduction in the number of children with special educational needs in the space of just 18 months – see post Dramatic reduction in SEN rates following Academy conversion for school in Skegness.
But how can this be happening when the DfE says that all academies must comply with the admissions code of practice because their funding agreement requires them to do so, and that “Academies must have regard to the SEN code of practice and statutory guidance on inclusion.”? The lawyer David Wolfe answers this question on his blog ‘A Can of Worms’;
”The short answer is that what the Department says, including in legal documents, often glosses over many of the distinctions between maintained schools and academies/free schools and/or between different academies/free school in a way which can be quite misleading.”
David Wolfe goes on to explain that not all Academy funding agreements say that they must comply with the admissions code of practice, and if it’s not in the funding agreement, they don’t have to do it.
With regard to children with special educational needs, David Wolfe says;
‘The obligation to have regard to the SEN Code of Practice and the statutory guidance on inclusion does not apply to all academies – indeed it was not notably even applied to some of the Academies set up immediately following the Ministerial commitments to ensure that Academies would be required to comply with the law relating to special educational needs as it applies to maintained schools.’
At Bounville School the argument for Academy conversion that Governors made most strongly to staff was that the school would be its own admissions authority. Perhaps unsurprisingly this argument did not feature quite so strongly in the case made to parents. Teachers at Bournville school rejected this argument, however. One teacher explained to me ‘The Governors are saying there are some children they don’t want us to teach. We are not saying that. There are plenty of children who are not going to get us up the league tables who are an absolute joy to teach.’
What does the future hold for those children I wonder, in Michael Gove’s vision of every school being an Academy, each one being its own admissions authority?