I have been involved in the admissions process in a number of high-achieving London day schools and I know first-hand how challenging and stressful it can be for candidates and their parents or carers.
The independent sector is highly competitive sector where admission to school is often perceived as the “golden ticket” for a successful future. Parents or carers will go to great lengths to ensure that their 11 or 13-year-olds are prepared to excel through the different hurdles of the admissions cycle.
“I feel very strongly that inclusion should be woven through all aspects of school.”
I have always enjoyed the interview part of the cycle the most, as it is such a joy and privilege to meet so many young people at such a pivotal moment for them. I have been interested in diversity and inclusion (D&I) for a very long time and, as a former deputy head pastoral, I regard it as integral to pastoral, wellbeing and safeguarding matters. I feel very strongly that inclusion should be woven through all aspects of school and that it is everyone’s responsibility, not just that of the D&I leader if a school is lucky enough to have one.
Challenges to the sector
D&I has been under the spotlight in recent years with the emergence of Black Lives Matter and increased awareness and acceptance of LGBT+ young people. Pressures on schools to justify their charitable status, by engaging in partnerships, contributing to the community and in increasing accessibility are not insignificant.
Independent schools are also feeling some pressure deriving from a generational divides in attitudes to race, sexuality and gender and the perceived onslaught of “woke”. This means that some schools feel an increased responsibility to modernise, to bring policies and procedures up-to-date, to diversify curricula and widen their appeal to customers with changing ideals and expectations of education, which includes social justice. Failing to do this gives rise to the possibility of reputational damage in the exposure of past events deemed inappropriate now or a failure to respond to a changed and changing society.
Why are diversity and inclusion important?
It is not just about modernising and dealing with challenge. The arguments for diverse and inclusive communities are compelling. “Cookie cutter” or conformist schools could be described as dull. A mixture of cultures, religions, ways of doing things and so on creates a vibrant and varied environment, which enables creativity, adaptability and empathy.
Equally, exposure to difference – and normalising difference – reduces bullying of “non-conformist” young people. I believe that representation of difference enables all young people to see themselves reflected and creates an aspirational environment for all.
Educational outcomes are better if students feel comfortable and heard. From a pastoral point of view a sense of belonging and connectedness is very important.
The question is how to ensure that schools are attracting, testing, interviewing and selecting prospective students who are diverse in terms of religious, cultural, racial and socio-economic background as well as diverse in character, personality and interest, and who will all feel welcomed and valued.
It is important to make clear at this point that an inclusive admissions strategy must be part of a wider D&I strategy within the school. It would be very difficult to effect inclusive admissions without effecting changes in other areas of the school such as the curriculum, the co-curricular offer, the recruitment of staff and governors and school policy and culture.
Research and data gathering are critical. Heads, bursars and governors know their schools, so they are well placed to carry this out. Collect and analyse diversity monitoring data to track both the current make-up of the school and the applications to the school.
“For schools with a very strong identity, expectations and biases can be very deeply held.”
Look at where applications are coming from, the conversion rates and the declined offers. Consider undertaking some market research as to why pupils accept offers and why they don’t. What are the current demographics? Do bursary candidates apply? Do bursary candidates pass the examination and interview hurdles? What is the racial, religious and cultural make-up of the school? What do you need to do to positively attract applications from under-represented groups in your school?
It is important to be mindful that there are many different aspects of diversity and each school will need to analyse its own make-up and culture in order to understand what its particular obstacles are to welcoming pupils who are, for example, SEND, neurodiverse, BAME, belonging to a particular religious group and so on.
I believe this is particularly important for highly academically selective schools or schools with a very strong identity, as the expectations and the unconscious or conscious biases are very deeply held. In these instances, what a school needs is a mindset of not striking pupils out but creating the conditions for them to succeed during the admissions process.
Time and resources
Building an inclusive admissions process does take time and requires resources. Schools should look to build this into an overarching D&I strategy over a five year period in order to see a significant change in the admissions process and candidate profile. It is well worth it in order to ensure that bright able youngsters who would not normally consider independent education have an opportunity to apply, be accepted and thrive.
Inclusive Admissions: Best practice checklist
When building an inclusive admissions strategy, it is important to ensure that every stage of the marketing and student recruitment process conforms to best practice. The following recommendations might be helpful to schools addressing this important topic.
- think about advertising the school in a broad variety of places, for example cinemas, bus stops
- think about the language used in marketing material, for example removing any suggestion of elitism, jargon or language specific to the school like “High Mistress” or “Undermaster”; instead use language which is inclusive – “warm atmosphere”, “diverse curriculum”
- be careful with use of images in marketing material; try to show the existing diversity of the school if possible, but avoid being tokenistic; try to avoid overly depicting formal prize- givings with gowns, grand organs, huge halls and so on. These can be aspirational but can also be off-putting to potential candidates who are not used to the formality and grandness of many Independent schools
- Make the existence of bursaries clear in marketing materials and advertisements; let people know that there may be finance for additional costs like books and trips so that bursary places aren’t just about fees
- Get out into the community and put on summer schools and taster days; visit primary schools or, better still teach subjects in primary schools; use the existing student body to help with this – sixth formers can teach a subject in a primary school for instance and get to know the pupils and dispel myths about what a private school is like
- Build relationships with youth groups and with secondary schools for 16+ entry by making visits, inviting them to summer schools, sharing UCAS education and extra-curricular opportunities
- Take a radical approach and provide tutoring on a volunteer basis to potential candidates in Years 5 and 6 so that they are prepared for the process alongside their prep or private school counterparts. This could be on an individual basis or in groups of selected candidates
- Apply cultural sensitivity to materials chosen for use in testing so that no young person feels distressed or alienated by images and/or texts and also so that assumptions are not made about the level or type of cultural understanding a youngster has. Think about the names of people used in maths problems or in texts. Avoid religious imagery as not everyone will have the same religious background and understanding
- Consider benchmarking and standardising for youngsters who are state school educated so that a lower pass mark is accepted for interview. This would be the equivalent of university contextual offer.
- Consider more ways to test which highlight potential rather than testing methods which can be ‘gamed’ by excess tutoring/preparation as well as the advantages that many private school candidates may have such as access to books, access to discussion with highly educated adults and opportunities for extra-curricular activities such as debating and chess club.
- Think about including or using verbal reasoning, pattern recognition, problem solving, working memory tests and give weight to how candidates approach the problems as well as the final answers.
- Consider limiting the weight given to correct spelling, grammar and pronunciation.
- Consider testing a candidate’s ability to be taught a mathematical concept and how quickly and easily they can grasp something and apply it; this can help to identify prospective students who have ability but who have not necessarily between taught effectively
- Consider soft skills assessments such as playing a game which demonstrate how students interact with one another and with teachers
- Accommodations and access arrangements must be made for candidates who are SEND
- Have a diverse group of interviewers to minimise unconscious bias and entrenched attitudes about ‘fit’.
- Ensure that the interviewing group is small enough to ensure consistency in approach and that each member is well trained in technique.
- Have a “moderation process” in place whereby a selection of students are interviewed and each candidate is discussed and scored and then the scores are moderated. This way, everyone has a good understanding of the selection criteria and scoring. Often partnership prep schools will participate in this as interview practice.
- Use a small, cosy room rather than a grand office or meeting room and have student work or art on walls, rather than official portraits and have a waiting room with staff members and current students present to chat to parents/carers about the school and create a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.
- Allow candidates to wear what they like and have their hair as they wish. This encourages movement away from assumptions about the suitability of candidates based on dress and appearance which may relate to culture or income levels.
- Don’t make negative assumptions about lack of eye contact and hand shaking. People may have different customs and shyness or unfamiliarity with adults does not mean that a candidate is unsuitable.
- Ensure all candidates are interviewed using a small range of materials and questions to ensure consistency.
This article first appeared in the latest summer 2022 print edition of Independent School Management Plus, out now.