All state-funded schools must have a legal responsibility to provide for children with special educational needs and pupils from deprived backgrounds, MPs recommended last week in a direct challenge to the government’s controversial education reform proposals.
The report of the Education and Skills committee on December’s education white paper insists that greater clarification is needed on trust schools to ensure that becoming one does not mean automatic exemption from obligations to vulnerable children.
Trust schools – promoted as the favoured option in the white paper – will be backed by external partners and have greater independence and freedoms, including the power to become their own admissions authority and to vary the national curriculum to suit their own circumstances.
“Although there are to be requirements to accept looked-after children, there are no such safeguards for pupils on free school meals, or to protect the right of access to a local school for low achieving pupils with parents who may themselves have underachieved at school,” the committee warned.
“This is a particularly important issue in view of the current concerns about the different legal position of academies in respect of the admission of children with special educational needs. It is possible that trust schools could also be exempt from the obligations that apply to all other maintained schools.”
Flagging up the link between school admissions and levels of segregation, the MPs’ report calls for the introduction of a new duty on all schools to promote social inclusion and community cohesion through their policies and procedures – including their admissions policy.
It is also time, the report argues, to back the voluntary schools admissions code of practice with greater regulation and effective sanctions. Among other things, these regulations should ban the use of interviewing or testing in the school admissions process.
Finally, in terms of planning school provision, local authorities must retain sufficient power to balance pressure from parents and schools to expand. The MPs warn that failure to do so “could accelerate the flight from schools in deprived areas” and further disadvantage those already disadvantaged in the education system.