Free schools increase educational apartheid

Today the Guardian has a feature on two Blackburn free schools, Queens Elizabeth’s Grammar School and Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School. Below we feature a comment on this article by Terry Wrigley, Visiting Professor at the University of Northumbria and born in Blackburn.

In Blackburn in the 1960s there were grammar schools and a technical high school for those with good 11plus scores, and secondary moderns for the rest. In parallel Catholics also had grammars and secondary moderns. Comprehensive schools replaced selection in the early 1970s but the town now seems even more segregated than before the 11plus was abolished.

Leaving aside the smaller town of Darwen within the local authority, Blackburn has the following array of schools funded by taxpayers:

  • Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School (an “independent free school”)
  • a large Church of England academy
  • two Catholic voluntary aided schools
  • a Muslim girls converter academy (formerly voluntary aided)
  • a Muslim boys free school
  • three neighbourhood high schools (one foundation, one converter academy, one community).

The admission policies are a recipe for social, racial and religious segregation. It is a wonder that some children find a school at all. Here are some details.

Queens Elizabeth’s Grammar School went independent when the 11plus was abolished, but, with a £10,000 annual fee, can no longer recruit enough pupils so it became a free school. A third of its Year 7 places are given to children from the junior school (hitherto fee paying). Priorities for the remaining places are siblings (i.e. younger siblings of previous fee payers), children of staff, and then others by ‘fair banding’. There are likely to be very few of these, which should ensure that it remain an elite quasi-selective school for some years.

The Church of England Academy admits according to frequency of church attendance (Church of England or other protestant church). First come those who can prove attendance at least weekly, then fortnightly, then monthly, for the past two years. Then those who can only prove attendance for one year. Then those who have attended six times a year. Eventually those who attended CE primary schools (many of whom will not be church attenders), and finally other ‘world faiths’. It is no wonder that only 14% of pupils are listed as ‘disadvantaged’, and hardly any EAL.

The Roman Catholic schools give priority to baptised Catholics attending nearby RC schools, then those resident in nearby parishes with siblings at the school, then without siblings, finally other Catholics, non-Catholics who attended Catholic primaries, and so on. At least these priorities ensure that each catholic school serves its own part of the town: prior attainment and disadvantage levels are similar to nearby non-religious schools.

The Muslim schools are a new feature. The girls school is quite large (751 pupils), with an average spread of prior attainment though only 12% FSM (well below the local levels so some kind of social selection appears to occur). It has achieved remarkably high results (94% 5A-C with English and Maths), including 81% for low attainers at KS2 and 96% of ‘disadvantaged’. (These high standards were reached prior to academy conversion.)

It is this school’s success which has led to the foundation of a Muslim boys’ free school. This new boys’ school retains 50% of places for Muslims and the other 50% are open – far less exclusive than the CE and RC schools, though I suspect few non-Muslims will apply. For the half of places reserved for Muslims, priority goes to one specific mosque, then other mosques, then siblings, children of staff, then proximity. For the other half, priority is also to siblings and staff children before proximity.

Of course, all of these schools are required to give first priority to looked after and statemented children.

The attainment levels of these schools do not exactly match their population profiles (as we see in the case of the Muslim girls’ school) but they are heavily influenced by them. We should however also ask what children will learn in terms of growing up together in this very divided town? This degree of “diversity” and “choice” doesn’t just reflect divisions, it cements and intensifies them.

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