Good schools for all or just for some?

Should society concentrate on making entry to good schools fairer rather than trying to expand the number of good schools? The Sutton Trust Report published earlier today about eligibility for free school meals at the top state schools seemingly opts for supporting the former approach. That’s not surprising since it paints a dismal picture where in the top 500 comprehensive schools the overall rate of pupils eligible for free school meals is half the national average, and only 40 of the 500 top comprehensive schools have higher free school meals than the national average. Indeed, since the Sutton Trust first looked at the issue of the number of pupils on free school meals in top performing schools little has changed, except that more pupils are entitled to free school meals as a result of the recession.

Top State Schools            Local Area of school       National Average

2005 Study          3%                                          12.3%                                    14.3%  Mostly selective schools

2006 Study          5.6%                                      13.7%                                    14.3%  200 comprehensive schools

2013 Study          7.6%                                      15.2%                                    16.5%  500 comprehensive schools

Schools in the top 500 are, according to the Sutton Trust study, more likely to be faith schools; single sex schools; converter academies; voluntary aided schools. Some schools may fall into more than one of these categories. All of these types of schools control their own admissions policies.

The alternative approach, making all schools good schools, is the driver that underpins the coalition’s Pupil Premium policy of adding extra revenue support to pupils on free school meals. The top 500 comprehensive schools won’t see much of this money. The Pupil Premium policy tackles the issue of where children are now, not where the authors of the Sutton Trust study might like them to be. Interestingly, the study is silent about what would happen to pupils displaced from the top 500 schools by those on free school meals? Is it assumed that their parents would lead the drive to improve the schools their offspring ended up at?

Ever since the attempts in the 1960s and 1970s to create a rational secondary school system to replace a system designed for an age when the majority of pupils left school at 14 to join the workforce, secondary schooling has all too often been about social segregation in the urban areas, rather than a force for greater social cohesion. The philosophy inherent in the Sutton Trust report seems to be that of offering an escape route to better education for the deserving poor rather than accepting the view that being poor should not mean having to accept a lower standard of schooling from the State for your children.

A good school for all has always been the standard I want our education system to strive for. Looking at what has happened in London over the past decade shows what can be done. I believe it starts with good quality primary schools for all. As a nation we aren’t there yet, and indeed we are often too fixated about the secondary sector. I firmly believe that good primary education will mean more good secondary schools, and ease the debate about admissions policy. After all, those children who live in really rural areas generally have no choice in the matter about where they go to school: they deserve to go to a top school as much as any other child.

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