Leading article: Admissions code needs rewriting

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The huge social divide between England's best and worst schools was revealed this week with the publication of research showing just how few poor students attend the highest-achieving comprehensives. Commissioned by the Sutton Trust educational charity, the research revealed that the top 200 comprehensives in England admit fewer than half of the poorer students they would be expected to, given their locations. Only 5.6 per cent of pupils at the top 200 comprehensives are eligible for free school meals, despite the fact that 11.5 per cent in their local areas qualify for them.

The research, which analysed the intakes of the 200 comprehensives with the best GCSE results, follows a similar study by the Sutton Trust last October. This earlier study found that the proportion of children entitled to free school meals at the top 200 state schools, including 161 grammars, was only 3 per cent, compared to a national average of 14.3 per cent.

The Government's White Paper proposals to create new "trust schools" that will run their own admissions have angered many Labour backbenchers, who fear that a two-tier system that will disadvantage the poor will be created. However, this worrying research demonstrates that the current system already has serious flaws.

Sir Peter Lampl, the trust's chairman and founder, argues that tough new school-admissions rules are needed to stop comprehensives creaming off privileged students to boost their results. This is the right way to go. The Government has tried to pretend that the issue of the admissions code has nothing to do with the White Paper, and that the code is already tough enough. While the Education Select Committee has argued for the code to be made legally binding, in practice this could be problematic because first, the code as it stands is too long; and second, schools face such widely differing circumstances.

Ministers have floated the idea of encouraging schools to band all applicants by ability. But this would not be right for many schools in much of the country.

It would be better if schools could be left to run their own admissions under a code that is robust enough to prevent manipulation of the system.