Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Disingenuity at the DCSF? (or, how to steer a Select Committee)

The electronic news media - and, no doubt, tomorrow the print media - will feature the announcement from the DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) that some schools have not been complying with the revised School Admissions Code that came into effect for the September 2008 new intakes.

Here is part of the statement by the Secretary of State at DCSF, Ed Balls, with my emphases and my comments (the full statement is on the DCSF website at http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/pns/DisplayPN.cgi?pn_id=2008_0046):

"The new School Admissions Code prohibits those criteria and practices that could be used by schools to unfairly select children. For overseas readers, most schools in the UK are comprehensive, that is, they do not select pupils on academic ability. Fairness of admissions criteria is intended to put this into practice. The new Code has been widely welcomed across the education sector and by faith groups ... Note this - all the organisations representing the major providers of Church schools, such as the Catholic Education Service, have strongly supported the new Code, and so are not likely to defend non-compliance

"In January I also asked officials to undertake, for the first time and for internal purposes, an analysis of the published admissions arrangements for 2008 in three local authority areas in order to sample the level of compliance. Having considered the evidence gained from this sample I believe that it is right that it should be made public and acted upon now ... Why? The data is as yet unverified (see below), and the analysis was undertaken for internal purposes. What has happened to make the "internal purpose" now a public one? I may be cynical, but do I detect a (hidden) political motive? Let's read on ....

"Initial evidence across these 3 local authorities suggests that the large majority of schools appear to be complying with the Code, including an overwhelming majority of academies and schools where local authorities are the admission authority. However, a significant minority of schools in our sample appear not to be compliant with the Code, of which a disproportionate number are voluntary aided or foundation schools". Now, lets try and work out what this means. The "large majority" will include some voluntary aided and foundation schools, and the "significant minority" looks as if it includes some schools that are not voluntary aided or foundation schools. So it is quite possible that there are more voluntary aided and foundation schools that are compliant with the new Admission Code than not. Why does this matter? Virtually all Catholic schools are voluntary aided schools, and these schools (and foundation schools) decide their own admissions policies, though these policies must be compliant with the Admissions Code. Other faith schools are sometimes voluntary aided. So, though the Secretary of State has been careful not to refer to the religious character of most voluntary aided schools, he has nevertheless allowed the impression to be created that it is schools with a religious character that are not complying with the Admissions Code.

The DCSF has written to the three sample local authorities, and voluntary aided and foundation schools in their areas that appear not to be compliant with the Code, to verify their information Ah, but I wonder if they are going to verify the situation of those schools that "appear to be complying", which would of course give them a robust data set on that side as well as on the non-compliance side - but still felt able to make today's statement before the information is verified.

The Commons order paper for today just indicates "Ministerial Statements (if any)", and there also seems to have been a rather makeshift media operation in place (the copy of the statement that I have seen through my trade union network is faxed, incomplete and partially illegible; and the statement appears to have found its way on to the DCSF website a good 2-3 hours after the news first hit the broadcast media), suggesting that the presenting of this statement has been rushed to get it out today rather than, say, tomorrow or Thursday or Friday. The electronic and broadcast media attention will therefore be taking place on Tuesday afternoon/evening, with the print media attention on Wednesday morning.

So what is special about Wednesday morning?

Bishop O'Donoghue and others are due to give evidence to a meeting of the Commons Select Committee that shadows the DCSF. The purpose of that meeting? To examine the place of faith schools in the education service. Am I being too cynical?

A last point to note: the Secretary of State has, in his statement, announced a series of steps to ensure an end to some of the non-compliant practices that were identified in the (unverified) sample data. But, notice, none of these steps in any way relate to the religious character or otherwise of the schools concerned. So even if we grant that it is schools with a religious character that are breaching the code (and that I don't grant), the non-compliant practices do not relate to the religious character of the school anyway.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Herewith the news release of the British Humanist Association in response to the DCSF statement. My comments in italics. It does show up the disingenuity of the Secretary of State's statement.

Faith schools breaking admissions laws I'll forgive them their headline

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has responded to reports today that many but a "large majority" appear not to be acting illegally, remember state schools are operating illegal admissions arrangements. Most of the schools breaking the rules are reported to be ‘faith’ schools Striclty speaking, no. They are reported to be voluntary aided or foundation. The Secretary of State carefully made no reference to their religious character or otherwise and it is thought that abuse of the system could be widespread across the country. The DCSF/Secretary of State expressed no opinion on this in their statement

Andrew Copson, Director of Education and Public Affairs at the BHA, commented. “The BHA has been arguing for years that many faith schools use social selection to pick the brightest and most affluent pupils, but even we were shocked by the flagrant illegality of these schools’ behaviour. It shows in the starkest terms how faith schools rely on selection, not ethos, to maintain their results. What is most concerning is that these abuses came to light after the Department for Children, Schools and Families looked in detail No, the DCSF did not look in detail - they are now having to go back and verify their data. They were just looking at a sample at procedures in just three Local Education Authorities. That means that there are still 147 more LEAs where this could still be going on. What further evidence does the government need to convince them that reform of state funded faith schools is now essential?” None of the practical steps to improve compliance with the Admissions Code announced by the Secretary of State in his statement relate to the religious character of the schools, so this is a red herring.

As Fr Tim would say, if you haven't got a story, don't worry. You can just make it up ..