Let's support Comprehensive Future's campaign for fair admissions

Francis Gilbert's picture
The Education Bill, which had a second reading last Tuesday, if enacted, could make school admissions even more unfair than they are at the moment. As BarnardosThe Sutton Trust and Comprehensive Future's research has shown, when schools become their own admissions' authorities, unfairness creeps into the system. Barnados report, Unlocking The School Gates, notes:

"Schools that are their own admissions authority are subject to the School Admissions Code, designed to ensure they allow fair access for all. Despite this, there is evidence that they tend to be more socially selective. A report by the Sutton Trust in October 2008 found that 74 out of the 100 most socially selective in England were their own admission authority. In particular, voluntary aided schools (typically those with a religious focus) seemed to take disproportionately fewer pupils  entitled to free school meals, compared to their local population."

The reasons for this are quite complex, but it seems that the complicated admissions' processes of these schools -- involving filling in separate application forms, complex admissions' criteria, off-putting prospectuses, open evenings and curricula -- deter poorer parents from applying to these schools. The net result is the social segregation that we currently see in our schools, with half of all pupils on Free School Meals in a quarter of our secondary schools. This situation will certainly be aggravated by the fact that many more schools are becoming Academies, and Free Schools are being set up: these schools are their own admissions' authorities as well as voluntary-aided schools.

Unfortunately, the new Education Bill, if enacted as it stands, will remove the current safeguards that have gone some way towards making our schools admissions' system fairer . The Bill will abolish the current checks and balances in place, by weakening the powers of the School Adjudicator, who sniffs out "errant" schools, and by abolishing admissions' forums which investigate whether school admissions are fair within a local community.

Margaret Tulloch, speaking on behalf of Comprehensive Future notes: "Clause 34 in the Education Bill abolishes admission forums, the duty on local authorities to report annually on admissions to the School Adjudicator and the power of the school adjudicator to look at all aspects of admissions once a particular issue is raised with him. Successive School Admissions Codes have done a great deal to remove unfairness in school admissions. The work of local authorities, admission forums and the School Adjudicator has been instrumental in this, monitoring the Code. Rather than abolition we believe their roles should be enhanced.  Admission forums provide a vehicle for local admission authorities and other key interested parties to discuss the effectiveness of local admission arrangements, consider how to deal with difficult admission issues and to advise admission authorities on ways in which their arrangements can be improved. All parents are entitled to know that the local admission forum is open to them to make representations, as many have. The Chief School Adjudicator has made recommendations in his recent Annual Report about the local authority reports suggesting how they might be used to require specific information. He also proposed enhancing the role of the Admission Forums in contributing to these reports. In nearly half his investigations of complaints he found other aspects of admissions which did not comply with the Code."

If you are concerned about the unfairness of the changes to school admissions in the Education Bill, you should:

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Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 13:14

Toby Young noted in a previous post, "Thank Michael Gove is Secretary of State for Education". I think the proposals here indicate that he is contributing towards greater social segregation in our schools if Admissions' Forums are abolished and the powers of the School Adjudicator are curtailed. The fact that organisations as diverse as The Sutton Trust, Barnardos, Comprehensive Future are all arriving at the same conclusions strongly suggests that the best way forward would be to have an "independent body" in charge of education, which decides what is best for ALL children not those whose parents are likely to vote Conservative. The Lib-Dems did propose this in their manifesto. What happened there?

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 13:21

It is important to remember that the Conservatives have NO mandate for their policies. They didn't win the election and are propped up by a party that proposed an entirely different vision for schools. If you follow this link you can read the Liberal Democrat policy in full. Lets hope Lib Dem activists can put pressure on their MPs to amend these very bad clauses in the current Education Bill.

Ben Taylor's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 14:29

I think free schools are going to be wildly popular amongst ALL social classes once they get going, so you are going to be stuffed if the coalition hangs in for the term. Just try ripping the power back from emboldened parents including working class labour and lib dem voters in a few years time, and telling them that dysfunctional LAs and teaching union control freaks are going to start pushing their children in to schools they don't want whilst the nobs of the labour party continue to game their kids in to the state schools they they want or go private. I will grant that Fiona and Francis are at least people who have lived their principles as regard comprehensives unlike several notable comrades.

I think this is going to be a popular policy because it gives power to the parent and child and makes everything else respond to them, rather than remote administrations telling people to like it or lump it. The main effort for the socially disadvantaged must be to raise their competence in seeking to exercise choice and it seems WLFS is up for that, but I trust you will be checking up on that.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 15:10

Thanks for this link Fiona, it's salutary to remind myself of why I voted Lib-Dem!!! Here's a quote from their manifesto which is so relevant. The manifesto says that if in power, the Lib-Dems would:

"Take action to ensure that every neighbourhood is served by an excellent local school or college. We would give Local Authorities a clear strategic responsibility for oversight of school performance, along with appropriate powers of intervention. We would ensure that all pupils leaving primary and secondary education have the skills they need."

This one is even more interesting. They promise to:

"Allow parents and pupils to choose schools, and not schools to choose pupils, by stopping the establishment of new schools which select by ability, aptitude or faith, and by introducing
policies to reduce radically all existing forms of selection."

The promise is clear; to stop the current "funny stuff" that goes on with admissions and give LAs the power to supervise admissions fairly. They say this is about parents choosing schools, which, in a way, it is. Toby Young's school is CHOOSING its pupils by having a Musical Aptitude test. The Lib-Dems promised to stop this sort of selection. What happened to that Lib-Dem promise??

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 15:28

Here's another important paragraph from the Lib-Dem manifesto:

"4.6.4 We would give local authorities the responsibility to oversee fair admissions in their areas, and allow them to ban practices such as banding by ability where these practices are being used to disadvantage young people from deprived neighbourhoods, as well as giving them the power to insist on the use of such banding where that serves to improve choice for such young people."

Andy Smithers's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 16:13

In terms of the coalition Government it was agreed to go with the majority of the Conservative policies on Education with the pupil premium being the main Lib Dem input. So it is of little value to hope that the Lib Dems manifesto promises on Education will now be taken forward. In terms of education it is the Conservative manifesto which is being implemented.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 16:35

But Andy, on the issue of School Admissions there is a broad consensus that the current system is unfair, and that what's happening in the Bill is going to make things worse. The Conservatives actually promised to have an "inclusive" policy on school admissions; they've gone back on that in the current Education Bill by giving schools the chance to covertly select pupils and weakening the powers of the regulators who kept an eye on potential abuses. Every which way Clause 34 needs to be re-written.

Andy Smithers's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 17:03


This is where your anti-academies and free school stance makes no sense. What you appear to be saying is that there is broad consensus that 13 years under Labour have made the current system unfair. That is giving power to local authorities and schools adjudicators made things worse. In fact the reports you point to were conducted before the election.
You cannot blame this on Free Schools, and in particular to the WLFS when you have no evidence to offer other than you think it may cause problems.
Further any school that has a specialism is according to you selecting its pupils - the majority of such schools are under local authority control so your arguments go around in circles.
Lets put this another way, if you were setting up a much needed school what entrance criteria would you implement ?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 17:34

Free schools are a central plank in Mr Gove's reforms, and Mr Taylor says they will be wildly popular with parents. However, the money and energy being spent on free schools could be better spent in the state system as a whole. What parents want is a good local school for their children, a fair admissions policy and money not to be diverted from their school to pay for schools which will only serve a tiny number of children.

Mr Taylor's argument is filled with emotive language. In what ways are LAs dysfunctional?The main roles of the local authority are to:

Ensure sufficient school places are available and reducing surplus places by closing or reorganising schools ; assessing and providing home to school transport; providing support services for schools; assisting the government in implementing initiatives and legislation relating to schools, children and families and allocating finance to LA schools.

It is head teachers and Governing Bodies who run schools not the LEA. LEAs do not control schools - their functions are limited to those listed above.

Thousands of teachers belong to the teacher unions. These professionals are not "control freaks" trying to wrestle control of children from their parents, but trying to do the best they can in very trying circumstances - that is, the huge number of innovations and initiatives that have been forced upon them in the last thirty years, an obsession with tests and targets, and the hostile attitude of some sections of the media.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 17:56

I may have not explained myself very well, but what I was attempting to say was that under the current system, there is quite a bit of "covert" selection going on; the Barnardos report and Comprehensive Future show this. Voluntary-aided schools in particular are taking more advantaged pupils; the School Adjudicator and Admissions' Forums have gone some way towards addressing various abuses of the system. To have a fair system, you would have to get rid of selection by aptitude, faith and ability, and stop schools being their own admissions' authorities, with LAs taking charge of admissions. Read the Barnados report, but it really shows conclusively that when schools are their own admissions' authorities (as all Academies and Free schools are/will be) unfairness creeps into the system. The system isn't great at the moment, but it will get worse if Clause 34 gets through as it is written at the moment. WLFS's selection by music, it's being its own admissions' authority etc is merely indicative of the problems that go on in many schools. I hope I have explained myself clearly.

Andy Smithers's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 18:21


You focus on WLFS selection by music and yet Fiona Millar is Chair of Governors at William Ellis Boys Comprehensive School which selects 10% of its places based on an aptiude to music, this is a criteria that is ahead of distance.
You can obviously see the contradiction in this.
I will ask again that if you were setting up a school on what criteria would you accept pupils ?

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 14/02/2011 - 18:48

Maybe some of our contributors would like to read this pamphlet that Melissa and I wrote some years ago in which we suggested that there is no single way of managing fair admissions that is right for every local authority area, since they are all so different. Banding may work in some urban areas but not in rural communities where schools are spread widely apart.

The important point is that there should be some local mechanism for agreeing admissions that are fair to all, across an area. This may involve banding and or distance/lotteries or feeder schools. The important point is that no school should be significantly disadvantaged or advantaged by the local system. We are far from seeing this in many areas in particular those that still use partial and full use of selective entry tests at 11.

Personally I would like to see and end to all selection by ability and aptitude, however as a governor I am bound by ( and accept) all decisions taken by a majority of the full governing body I chair.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 15/02/2011 - 08:55

Just to add to my earlier comment about local determination of admission arrangements - I think it is worth explaining that the local Admissions Forum is not made up of local authority representatives but of governors, heads, parents and other members of the local community. It could be constituted to become even more democratic and one of the issues it might look at ( when it comes to secondary admissions) is the prior attainment of pupils joining each school in Year 7. This would give an idea of whether intakes were generally balanced and comprehensive ( and this is widely understood from international studies like PISA to be the best environment in which all students can thrive) or whether some schools are using admissions to seek an unfair advantage.

A similar exercise was carried out in my own Local Authority area recently, as it was looking at introducing area wide banding. Most of the schools did have broadly similar, and broadly comprehensive intakes, apart from one that was using its own banding scheme. In the end the authority decided not to go ahead as several of the community schools were happy with the system based on distance that was already in operation and area wide banding would have needed support from all schools. However I believe there should be more information put into the public domain about how admissions to individual schools are working in practice, with a representative forum that might have powers to suggest change, or at least a duty to report publicly.

Unfortunately the Education Bill will remove the requirement to even have an Admissions Forum. A very retrograde step.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 15/02/2011 - 09:23

There is an interesting piece in today's Guardian Education about the comprehensive ideal and the way some schools are able to use admissions to admit more skewed intakes. The head of Twyford C of E School in Ealing, West London, which gets GCSE results well above the national average and which also has far fewer pupils eligible for FSM, admits that her school has a larger than average proportion of children who, in days gone by , would have gone to grammar schools. Her school uses faith based criteria to take from seven local authorities and 70 feeder schools

'Schools that make it evident they care about academic achievement attract more able students' she says. That may be true but should the admissions system allow those schools to admit more academic pupils in greater numbers than their neighbours?

Melissa Benn's picture
Tue, 15/02/2011 - 09:46

Yes I thought the piece spelled out very clearly indeed the new Gove template: allow some schools to develop a distinct grammar school ethos, through Ebacc indicators and relaxed admissions policies, as Francis and Fiona etc have discussed on this thread. These schools, which will include within them a selection ( but not all) faith schools, free schools, conversion academies and a couple of the Labour academies ( like Mossbourne), will be the elite institutions of their areas, forcing the majority of community schools, struggling with cuts and a more disadvantaged intake, to develop into secondary modern style/vocational schools.

This is nothing to do with the original comprehensive vision; it will merely intensify the distrust, selfishness, division and panic that already bedevils so many areas already.

So I say to Gove and his allies: stop using the term comprehensive, stop talking about all ability schools and come out for what you really believe in. A return to the grammar school system, and rejection for eighty percent of children, most of them poor.

Much more honest to do it that way than to do it through arcane and opaque admissions policies or the development of specialisms and courses that naturally attract the academically able: selection through the Ebacc door.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 15/02/2011 - 09:59

In answer to Andy's question about the criteria I'd have for a school that I was setting up, I'd say: no selection by aptitude, ability, or faith, the Local Authority to be the Admissions' Authority, with the LA deciding what is in the best interest for ALL the children in the area, whether it was banding/catchment area/lottery. I'm with Fiona on this one: you need LA's deciding whether banding is appropriate; sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Is that clear Andy? BTW: I'd want to have proper consultation with all stakeholders to see if a new school was appropriate; expanding existing provision is often far more effective academically and socially, and much, much cheaper.

Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 15/02/2011 - 19:05

Dear Janet

On the subject of my emotive language I am happy to accept that as a true observation but I think there is plenty of emotive language all round on this website. There are all sorts of things being said by people other than me about the WLFS which are very emotive.

I'll try to justify my statements further.

"In what ways are LAs dysfunctional?"
They cream off too much money that should go to schools where teachers, parents and governors can decide how to spend it. They cram children in to mega schools (like 400 per year) after closing local schools which parents want to keep open.

Most local authorities struggle to keep the streets clean and fill pot holes in, the last thing we need is a commissariat to run some mind boggling scheme for admissions which still leaves parents unhappy and sucks money out of schools.

To be fair to the LAs we could chuck in a lot of central government functions like BSF and LSC as equally unhelpful.

As regards union control freakery: I believe teachers have a right to be in a union and argue the case collectively for their pay and conditions and professional status. Certainly unions are particularly useful to teachers to make sure they are appropriately defended, especially when it comes to things like being falsely accused of sexual offences by children.

But if unions start to aggressively oppose the views of parents campaigning for schools they start to look like bullies to me - who has more power a few hundred parents organsing locally for their own schools to be changed or an organisation with nearly like NUT with 300,000 members and millions of pounds? That is an abuse of corporate power as bad as any private profit making body could commit. Why should a trade union tell a parent where their child is going to school? Should surveyors in RICS who might happen to work on schools construction projects, and have an opinion on the admissions structure of a school, cause the RICS to campaign actively for that? Isn't their job just to fix buildings and let parents decide where their children go to school?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 16/02/2011 - 10:25

We're discussing Local Education Authorities (LEAs), whose limited functions I outlined above. Apart from these functions, LEAs do not dictate how schools spend money. Schools are run by Governing Bodies and headteachers. However, the much-trumpeted Academies and free schools will not have as many parent governors or representatives from the locality as LEA schools.

Whether Local Authorities "struggle to keep the streets clean" is irrelevant when discussing Local Education Authorites.

Academy status brings with it changes in teacher service together with a reduction in local democratic control. Unions have every right to campaign against this. The parents campaigning for a particular school may not like it, but parents campaigning against the proposals may welcome it.

What is particularly saddening is that when Academy status is mooted or free schools proposed then some members of the community are pitted against others and so on. It is divisive.

Educational reform, as evidenced in Finland, needs to be slow, measured and thougtful. As the OECD says, Finland's reforms are not "the result of bold new policies or programmatic initiatives that one can identify with a particular government or political leader".


UK Secretaries of State for Education of whatever political hue would do well to consider this.

ROY TERRY's picture
Thu, 31/10/2013 - 17:11

I fail to understand how Labour councils can be opposed to selection by ability at 11+ yet operate banding systems which effectively operate a policy of selection by ability at 10+.
The effect of banding is to severely restrict the possibility of preferences being successful - e.g., instead of competing for 1 out of 120 places in a small secondary school the child competes for 1 out of 24 places.
Furthermore, the 'one-chance' test - the content of which is not clearly communicated - is potentially unfair to pupils. The process by which pupils are assigned to bands is totally opaque. Calls to education offices fail to find any officer who can give a clear account of how the process operates. And parents have no right of appeal.
We have a situation where it is a 'one-chance' test at 10+ which has a crucial impact on a child's educational future - far in excess of year 6 SATs, which have no direct impact on individual pupils, their sole purpose being to hold schools to account.

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