Ban on interviews will not stop schools selecting by stealth

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The Independent Online

A ban on interviews with parents will not be enough to stop schools selecting pupils by stealth, according to a report published today.

Schools are already using devious means - such as assessing parents' affluence when they visit the premises, specifying expensive uniform providers and hinting at hoped-for donations to the school fund.

The worst offenders, the report says, are voluntary aided church schools which have more control over their admissions procedures.

The report, Natural Admissions - published by the education think-tank, IRIS, lists all the ruses primary schools use to try to "cherry-pick" the brightest pupils who will ensure they do well in league tables.

It comes just after the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, offered Labour rebel MPs the compromise of a ban on school interviews in her forthcoming Education Bill to soothe their fears over the prospect of selection.

First of the ruses, according to the report, is the school visit - particularly in the case of a parent switching schools mid-year because they have moved home.

The report says that some schools use the visit to select "pupils that the school feels would benefit the school as well as the child ... by varying the answer to the question 'do you have a place for my child?' according to the quality of the child in question".

"If you turn up in a four-wheel drive, there is a vacancy," said Chris Waterman, executive director of Confed - which represents local authority heads of children's services, and author of the report.

"If you turn up with a pram with three kids in it there's no chance.

"As well as interviews, it should be made clear that school visits can form part of the selection procedure." Then there is the head who makes it clear that a contribution towards school funds is expected from parents. Those who cannot afford it will be put off the school as "refusal demands a certain determination in a parent unable to pay".

The cost of school uniforms can be off-putting - especially as many authorities have abandoned 100 per cent grants for parents on family income supplement.

"Some schools choose to recommend, say, John Lewis rather than Tesco as the preferred uniform supplier or choose a school uniform with a distinctive blazer rather than a stock colour sweatshirt or pullover," it adds. Charges for extra-curricular activities - such as music, art and craft activities and cooking - can also persuade the least well-off to seek another school to avoid embarrassment at not being able to afford them. Even details of parent/teacher events can make the poorest families feel awkward about them because they are too lavish.

"Add these elements together ... and it is all too apparent that free (education) can mean quite expensive at the point of delivery," the report argues.

It says there is real evidence to support the theory that many primary schools do not take in their fair share of children entitled to free school meals - ie, from the poorest homes.

Figures for English primary schools show only 13.96 per cent of pupils at church voluntary aided schools are on free school meals - compared with 18.96 per cent in their catchment areas. In council-run community schools, the reverse is true with 20.36per cent of pupils on free school meals - compared with 18.76 per cent in their catchment areas.

The report does not recommend a ban on school visits or charges but says that governors should draw up a checklist to determine whether their schools use discreet forms of selection.