I am truly concerned about the 'fair' admissions policy for Free Schools.

Catherine McDade's picture
I am sure that some groups setting up Free Schools will have the best interests of their local community at heart. However, I am equally sure that some groups will not.
My children attend a Community Primary School which has recently come out of Special Measures and is thriving to achieve and improve. There is a range of children at this school from a variety of backgrounds, high proportion of children on free school meals etc - but it is the mix that makes the school great. If a Free School pops up in our local area, with it's own admissions team, I know exactly what will happen. The high achievers will be 'creamed off' from the local community schools (as they are in the local Faith Schools) and the community schools will sink.
Knowing that I have an interest in music, a friend of mine asked me to be an ambassador for her local Free School Project which will specialise in musically gifted children at Primary level. No I will not.
Why do none of the discussion programmes on Free Schools talk about the admissions policy? Yes, it has to be fair - but where's the detail? So, the admissions team are really going to prioritise looked after children, or SEN children over one of their own, or their friends - when they have put hours of work into their Free School. Are they hell.
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Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 11:55

Yes, I share your concerns. Even if a Free School does not "rig" admissions as the WLFS definitely is by having music aptitude tests, they can easily put off parents from various groups by having a specific "ethos", whether it's a very religious or highly "academic" one, for example.

Laura Brown's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 12:19

It is worrying. On the WLFS, I am having trouble understanding and tracking down the precise admissions policy. Can anyone direct me to where the number of places in each category are published (i.e., what % are admitted based on music aptitude, people living nearby, lottery 3 miles and 5 miles radius)?

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 12:56

Hopefully the WLFS rapid response unit will be back shortly with an answer to this question, and the one about who is paying for Palingswick House.

Francis, perhaps you can enlighten us as to which groups don't value an academic education and a strong academic ethos? You wouldn't be making gross unsupported generalisations by any chance?

The music aptitude tests the WLFS are using are just that, a test of aptitude. They favour no group and previous musical experience has no bearing on the result. We have also made sure that there is no financial barrier in this respect. We will pay for the instrument hire fees and music lessons of children who are awarded a place on this basis who receive FSM.

In fact we have bent over backwards to ensure that our school is as accessible as possible to everyone. We have insisted on a significant lottery element to admissions so that wealthy individuals cannot simply buy a place in the school by moving into a catchment area. Currently many local schools have very exclusive catchment areas which make it almost impossible for children from certain financial backgrounds to attend them.

I hope this response was rapid enough for you, Fiona. It is certainly more rapid than the apology for your insinuations in your last article but one. Still waiting ...

Sorry, Laura. I didn't mean to ignore you. The admissions policy can be seen at:

This is accessible from the WLFS website as well.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 13:55

The music criteria are worth looking at too Laura, especially this section

"Expectations of students admitted on musical aptitude

Individual tuition

All pupils are required to learn one musical instrument at the School and most will be expected to learn a second instrument. Pupils are required to follow the programme of practice set by the tutor. All pupils are required to take part in ensemble work and must attend rehearsals and must undertake the practice required for rehearsals.

Length of the School day

For all pupils admitted on the basis of musical aptitude, the day normally starts with 40 minutes choral or instrumental work before the beginning of the School day on three mornings a week; pupils may also be required to take part in choral or instrumental practice or rehearsal on two afternoons a week. They may also be required to attend general rehearsals after School, particularly when preparing for concerts.

All pupils admitted on the basis of their musical aptitude are required to take part in musical activities arranged outside normal School hours, including weekends and holidays.

Responsibility for travel to and from activities outside the School lies with parents, unless other arrangements have been made by the School."

Attendance required before and after school, compulsory practice at home, parents expected to ferry children around at the weekend. Might rule out certain groups, like those without cars or in chronically overcrowded housing?

Ros Coffey's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 15:43

Charlie - I found your comments interesting however, not every child is going to be academic. Many years ago, when I took my 11+ my primary school HT visited each parent of a child in what back then was the 4th year to discuss what he thought their prospects were with the exam - not a mean feat when there were 44 in my class.

He told my mother that he was not sure if I would make the cut and get to grammar school. My mother said to him, "Mr Webster, we cannot all breed a genius, as long as she is happy and learns then we will have done our best for her." I did pass my 11+ which was thanks to my Primary School and the lack of pressure from my mother but constant encouragement from her.

Each child has a gift and it is up to you (as a school and teacher) to find it, nurture it and celebrate it, if these school were really and truly free then they would welcome whomsoever wanted to walk through their doors, no matter who they were or where they came from. If you did that, then you would have my support.

Ros, thank you for your comment. With regard to your last paragraph, we absolutely will welcome whomsoever wants to walk through our doors.

I think we need to think about what makes a child want to walk through the doors of one school over another. Should they try and attend the school with the best results, or perhaps the school with the best buildings? Perhaps they will want to attend the school closest to their home, or the school with the best extra-curricular offering. Schools will also have different curricular offerings.

At the WLFS we are being extremely explicit about what we will be offering. We don't believe that this will put off any particular sections of society. We don't think that academic aspiration is limited to certain ethnic, income or class backgrounds, and we are all still waiting for Francis to back up the comments he made above.

Our school will definitely not appeal to some people, that is fine, we are providing choice and therefore there must be alternatives which some people will prefer. The attempt by a school to be all things to all people can sometimes reduce the value of what is provided to all, such a school would have a different ethos to the WLFS and, again, it is fine if parents and students want to attend such a school, they have that choice. Although I am very wary of vocational education pre age 16, I would support a group looking to set up a vocational school if the only other options in the area were highly academic schools that didn't offer vocational routes. I wouldn't choose vocational education but I recognise that other people have a right to.

I think the real tragedy is what lies behind the idea when we are often accused of trying to cream off the best students. Why should the best students be academic students? Why should vocational subjects be seen as the soft option? Vocational subjects should be just as rigorous as academic subjects, but these criticisms would imply that they are not. There are frequently reports of schools pushing students into doing more vocational subjects in order to boost results, this again would imply that they are easier. They shouldn't be. Anyway, I may be getting off topic.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 20:13

The music aptitude test will put off parents from certain backgrounds, especially if they feel their child is not musical. The whole approach of the WLFS admissions' criteria is intimidating; the mere fact that a man as aggressive as Toby Young is fronting the school is off-putting. This all impacts upon admissions and the sorts of people who will apply to the school.

Laura Brown's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 20:40

Thanks for the info Charlie. Apologies - I missed this link on the first page of your site.

Always good to ponder the numbers so it looks like there are 120 places which means (assuming no children looked after as I can't estimate how many there might be):

- 12 for musical aptitude

- 54 based on who lives closest to school

- 36 based on a lottery within 3 mile radius

- 18 based on a lottery between 3 and 5 miles radius

I can see that the 54 coming through the lottery could be expected to have FSM % in line with the Borough/London average. I know the site is a moving feast currently but it would be interesting to understand more about the affluence of the surrounding area given that 45% of places will be going to those living closest and, as we know, when schools have catchment areas like this, house prices come into play.

Given Toby's groups stated desire to have a school open to everyone, did you carry out any analysis of the likely impact of alternative admissions policies e.g., using a lottery for allocating all places within a smaller area etc?

Francis, I obviously need to help you to make your case. Exactly which backgrounds will be put off by the school having a musical aptitude test? Please be explicit so people know exactly who you are talking about. Furthermore, will they be put off even though the test is for twelve of the 120 places?

I think you need to be clearer by what you mean by "the whole approach of the WLFS admissions' criteria". Is it intimidating because it means that people of all backgrounds have an equal chance of attending? If so, please tell us what you think 'intimidating' means.

How is Toby Young more aggresive than some other people involved in education such as Fiona Millar (who we are still waiting for an apology from)? She is a passionate chair of governors who forcefully puts her points across. I think Toby is passionate about making this school a success and, when I read some of the slurs, insinuations and unsupported assertions that people use to attack what we are doing, even I can feel a teensy bit irked.

So far the only people who have said to me or the WLFS steering committee that they would be put off from applying because of our admissions criteria is you. I'm sorry to hear that Francis, I'll take you off our mailing list.

H & F Parent's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:03

You do realise that the published music criteria for the WLFS are almost word for word those of the Junior House of the London Oratory School. Funny that. Did John McIntosh take with him the rights to the LOS website when he left?

Anton Daley's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 23:39

Perhaps someone at WLFS could also explain why the application form asks parents to give details of any SEN? As this does not form part of the admissions process (aside of those with a statement of SEN) surely this does not comply with the Admissions Code of Practice?

Toby Young's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 02:46

Almost right, Laura. We will set aside 12 places for Musical Aptitude, but the exact numbers in the other categories will vary according to how many children with statements of SEN and looked after children we admit since we'll give them priority. The reason for asking applicants whether their children/wards have SEN or are looked after is so we can prioritise them, Anton. Far from being incompatible with the School Admissions Code, it's required by it.

Francis, I'm sorry if I appear over-aggressive sometimes – you were no shrinking violet yourself on the Today programme on Monday – but it doesn't appear to have put off too many people from applying to our school. The deadline for applications closed at Midnight on 31st January and at that point we had a total of 445 applicants for 120 places. As Charlie says, a classical liberal education won't appeal to all, but it certainly seems to be attractive to a great many and I'm happy to report they're from all parts of the local community, not just the well off. Incidentally, it's not unusual for state secondary schools to set aside 10% of their places for children with an aptitude for their specialism. Maintained schools are entitled to do it, not just Academies and Free Schools. Indeed, I believe Camden School for Girls, Fiona's old school, sets aside a percentage of places for Musical Aptitude.

Laura, we originally proposed allocating approximately 75% of our places via lottery, but we were asked to reconsider by the local authority and we adjusted our admissions policy accordingly. That's exactly what the founders of the Local Schools Network would want us to do, isn't it? We consulted with our local authority and responded to their suggestion.

Our aim in devising our admissions policy was to ensure the school served the local community while at the same time making sure affluent parents won't be able to monopolise places by buying or renting property in the immediate vicinity. So it's a mixture of straight line distance and random allocation.

We've genuinely tried to devise a fair admissions policy. Indeed, at one point I invited Fiona to suggest a model for a free school admissions policy but – absolutely astonishingly – she declined. Weird that, given her stated aims.

Excuse me if I've missed it, Francis, but what is the Local Schools Network's preferred admissions policy? The problem with straight line distance as the sole criterion, as I'm sure you know, is that it enables well-off parents to monopolise places. Is fair banding your solution to that problem? If so, it's far from satisfactory. I visited a thriving local comprehensive on Monday and spent a fascinating hour talking to the excellent Headteacher. She told me she didn't know of a single school with a fair banding admissions policy that didn't – and this was her word – "cheat". Listening to her describe the dozens of ingenious ways in which schools "game" fair banding, it was difficult to see how this could be avoided.

So what's the solution? If our admissions policy is so awful, what would the Local Schools Network have us do instead? What would be fairer than a combination of straight line distance and random allocation?

Anton Daley's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 09:14

Toby, I think you will find that the Admissions Code of Practice states that preference should be given to those with a statement of SEN, which is why applications from these pupils are considered before those applying through the normal admissions process. On your application form you ask whether a pupil has any SEN, including whether or not they have a statement. This is what I am referring to - not pupils with a statement but those who may be classed as School Action or School Action Plus and to use this information as part of the admissions process does not comply with the Code of Practice. This is why this question no longer appears on the Common Application Form or on the additional information form that some schools ask parents to complete.

Ellen Power's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 09:51

I have high aspirations for my children, as they do for themselves. They both have special educational needs. With support from their local authority funded statements they are both doing well at school in their mainstream secondary school that takes all comers. They are musical, and would pass any aptitude test given by any school along the lines of what seems to be happening at the WLFS. They take part in a range of music activities, both at school and outside the school day. However, they do have special educational needs. As their parents we spend a huge amount of time supporting them in their school work. They do music activities outside of school and at week ends. After attending school and completing homework they are worn out, and it is all they can do to get themselves organised for school in the morning. It is like this for them due to their disabilities. If they attended a school with the punishing schedule of music/choral activities described above, I am sure they would give up. They would not be able to access the school's curriculum or have the same musical opportunities that other children could look forward to in that school, whilst maintaining their academic progress. If, like some of my friends' children, they were not musical, and had special educational needs to deal with (and it takes a very real amount of effort, grit and determination to deal with SEN every day at school), I could see them having very real difficulties with the school day at WLFS. I can't see how the school can aim to include everybody if you basically have to be musical and agree to play an instrument to get in in the first place, and also agree to attend a lot of music activities after school.

The music rehearsal schedule above looks like one from a choir school, and that this kind of musical education is what the school is trying to replicate. Although my children are academic, I believe that other children attending their schools who are not academic should be able to access high quality vocational subjects if this is what suits them. I do not support publicly funded schools that aim only to provide either a very academic or a very vocational curriculum. Our publicly funded schools should be for everybody, and everybody should be able to get the education out of them that suits them. Otherwise we end up having one type of child deemed to be high achieving (dare I say academic), creamed off and at the 'best' schools, as happened with grammar schools and the rest of the school community suffers as a result.

It really worries me that those fronting free schools lack the breadth of understanding of the different types of need that our children can present. As the parent of children with SEN I do not get the impression that the Free Schools really understand how to meet these needs.

Ellen Power

Toby Young's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 10:45

Anton, Our admissions arrangements were reviewed and approved by the local admissions authority and checked by a solicitor to ensure they were compatible with the School Admissions Code. We think it's reasonable to ask applicants about SEN so when we've applied our over-subscription criteria and know which 120 children are coming to the school in September we know which ones have SEN and what their particular needs are so we can make adequate provision for those needs in consultation with our SENCO before those children arrive at the school.

Toby Young's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 11:37

Ellen, Only the 12 children given musical places will be expected to make a commitment to their musical education. The schedule you describe won't apply to the other 108 children in each year group unless they want it to.

Ellen Power's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 11:48

i am not reassured about the free schools commitment to meeting SEN if schools present a very exclusive curriculum and children are to be vetted before admission. I worry about token SEN places being given. Ellen Power

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 14:16

Toby, I suppose I am worried that your school appeals to a certain section of parents and will put off other types of parents who want their children to enjoy a "broad and balanced" curriculum -- the like of which you've very publicly denigrated. To this degree the approach taken is "exclusive" in that it implicitly tells those parents that their children won't have a good time at the school. I suppose on the "aggression" issue, this approach lead to entertaining and informative journalism, but I worry that parents/pupils who disagree with you at your new school might be frightened about coming forward with their complaints for fear of being told that their views are "complete balls". On the Admissions Code, I think the Barnados report, Unlocking The School Gates, shows that it's only when a Local Authority administers the admissions for an area that fair admissions begin to happen. I wrote in more depth about a fair admissions policy here, which I advocate should be ecological: fair, diverse, cost-effective.

Laura Brown's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 14:31

Toby - Very interesting that the local authority asked you to reduce the lottery %. Why was that? I have often thought that in London it could be sensible to have lottery systems but only for relatively small areas (to avoid travelling too far) as generally there is a good mixture of people/types of housing even in say a 1-1.5 mile radius. Was it a factor that your lottery was for 3 and 5 mile radius areas (which covers a LOT of square miles!) and they wanted to ensure that the school did serve mainly local children?

My thought is that if I was setting up a free school and I genuinely wanted it to be socially inclusive, I would carry out analysis of the impact of different admissions policies on inclusiveness (e.g., FSM % etc) and then decide which would be most appropriate based on that. I would then publish this analysis so it was entirely transparent what I was doing.

I completely accept that this is a standard of behaviour and process far beyond that required of existing schools - and I imagine that the results would be quite shocking if many schools published such analysis.

However, as parents are setting up the free schools, there is automatically a suspicion that self interest may be a factor in choice of admissions policy. If I was such a parent, I would want to be especially transparent to avoid any accusations of manipulating things to my advantage.

In the case of the Bolingbroke Academy, it is expected to have 15-25% of children entitled to free schools meals (depending on whether you adjust the raw number UP due to assuming that lots of kids will still go to private school from this area or DOWN due to assuming that more affluent families are more likely to get in due to house prices near the site) which is below the average for Wandsworth primary schools. The 2 existing secondary schools near to the Bolingbroke have FSM of ~40%. It is such a shame that the affluent children in this area are not playing a part in providing a more balanced intake in their existing local schools rather than setting up an inevitably more socially selective school nearby!

Anton Daley's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 14:53

Toby, you may think it reasonable to ask about SEN in advance of allocating places to enable effective planning, however I am surprised that the local authority and your solicitor did not raise the issue of a potential challenge, should a parent feel that a place has not been allocated, on the basis of information provided regarding SEN. Given that your school intends for all pupils to take 8-10 GCSEs/IGCSEs in 'academic' subjects, go on to study A-levels and then progress to university, it is quite plausible to suggest that those with particular types of SEN may not quite 'fit' the profile. Of course, other schools simply have to allocate their places as per their published admissions process and then gather information regarding SEN once places have been accepted. Would this not be appropriate for WLFS as well?

Ellen Power's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 15:39

Toby Young says 'Ellen, Only the 12 children given musical places will be expected to make a commitment to their musical education. The schedule you describe won’t apply to the other 108 children in each year group unless they want it to.' - so I stand corrected! However, as Francis says, regarding the particular curriculum chosen by WLFS, 'To this degree the approach taken is “exclusive” in that it implicitly tells (some) parents that their children won’t have a good time at the school.'

It is my concern that this type of school will put off many children and parents who want a broader and more balanced curriculum, and also want the option of a vocational route in the future.

Also I worry about how children with SEN who are also gifted musically would access the music programme at the WLFS - or anywhere for that matter, given the issues I raised. I believe this needs very serious consideration as free schools will be funded with public money.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 17:30

In reply to Charlie, I wasn't aware I was on any mailing list as a prospective applicant for WFLS. As I've said before, I made a tentative email inquiry to see how the system operated, but I must make it clear I haven't applied for my son to go to the school. I am put off by the tone of the school; if my child went there I don't think he wouldn't have a good time. Although my son is musical, I am put off by the Musical Aptitude test; if he "failed" it he would feel very demotivated I think. I am exactly the kind of parent who could be put off by the approach of the school: I want my son to have a "broad and balanced" education. I believe there's more to education than passing exams and studying "so called" academic subjects. I want him to have a mixture of the academic and vocational subjects. At the local secondary school where he's going, a comprehensive in Tower Hamlets, there's a good mixture I believe. But if I am not happy, I feel confident that I will be able to talk to the school and sort out any problems. Because the school is a LA school, a variety of stakeholders -- parents, teachers, pupils, community members -- have power and a voice there. The school is accountable to parents in a way that yours won't be because of the way the legislation has set them up. A parent at WLFS who is not happy simply won't have the powers of redress that a parent with a child at maintained school has.

Ellen (and Francis), we are not implicitly telling people anything, we are explicitly telling people what the WLFS will be offering. This will undoubtedly "put off many children and parents who want a broader and more balanced curriculum, and also want the option of a vocational route in the future."

I would share your concern, Ellen, if what we were offering, and what we are not, meant that we got a very skewed intake by ethnic, class or financial background, but there is no evidence that it will. Francis talks about certain sections of parents not liking what we offer but consistently fails to say how these parents might be defined as a group other than by not liking what we are offering!

I would also share your concern if anybody was forced to attend the WLFS who did not want to. There are many schools, though, offering a broader curriculum with vocational routes, but far fewer offering the type of curriculum and ethos that we believe in.

As Toby said, we have had 445 applications for the WLFS. This implies that there are many parents and pupils that have chosen to apply to other schools. I respect their decision and I am pleased for them that they have a choice. Why should the parents and pupils who have applied to the WLFS be denied their choice? A school with our curriculum does no harm and in fact complements what else is on offer, it is not intended to be a substitute.

Francis, I have just seen your reply. I'm sorry if you thought I was serious when I said you were on our mailing list. I guess you are one of those parents that would be put off by our approach. That is fine. I rejoice in your choice and I genuinely wish your son all the best.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 18:22

Thanks for wishing my son well, Charlie. I suppose in answer to your question about the types of parents not wanting to send children to the school, we'll just have to see as to the various categories. The only sure thing that can be said at this point is that it will be parents who don't want such a stringent academic approach for their children.

Francis, it gives me great pleasure to agree with you.

Margaret Tulloch's picture
Thu, 10/02/2011 - 11:40

A general point about admissions, the Education Bill which got second reading on Tuesday will abolish admission forums, the duty of local authorities to report on admissions of ALL local schools to the adjudicator and curtail the adjudicators powers to investigate. So if unfair practices are happening in any school it will become far more difficult to monitor. Anyone who cares about fair admissions should contact their MP now.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 10/02/2011 - 16:50

Perhaps the point about admissions under the new system is if you want your child to go somewhere they do, and if you don't want them there they don't. So the need for an admissions authority may be rather less than now.

Of course I accept that you need some kind of regulation. What's the alternative on offer uner this Bill?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 11/02/2011 - 10:10

From Education Law Update: http://www.education-law-update.com/node/6321

“What are the plans for reforming admissions?
In short, little detail has been provided. The government has said that it expects local authorities to play a vital part in coordinating admissions and ensuring fair access to all schools, including academies and free schools. To assist them in this role, the government plans to make the system more flexible by ending the requirement for local authorities to establish an admissions forum and provide annual reports to a central schools adjudicator. Instead they will be permitted to set up local arrangements which work for their specific area.
Importantly, the government also plans to consult on a simplified and less prescriptive Admissions Code (‘the Code') early this year, to be put in place by July 2011. The consultation is yet to begin.”

As consultations have not yet begun, it’s impossible to say what the new Admissions Code will be. Yet the Government hopes it will be up-and-running in July this year. That leaves 4½ months to discuss a code about which we know nothing.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Sun, 13/02/2011 - 11:31


I was wondering what people thought of the draft admissions guide in the above link. Is this still current? I have picked up from the WLFS policy that it is silent on how initial pupils are admitted in the first place; if I'm wrong please let me know but my impression is that it does leave the field open for any arbitrary selection. The admissions code above states that pupils are not be selected on ability nor by interview.

Any comments helpful.

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