Fair ,clear, objective and easy to understand- is that how you would describe school admissions in your area?

Fiona Millar's picture

The new School Admissions Code, now laid before Parliament, claims to be based on several core principles. These are set out in the introduction which states that the Code exists “to ensure that all school places for maintained schools and academies are allocated and offered in an open and fair way”

 It goes on:  “In drawing up their admission arrangements, admission authorities must ensure that the practices and the criteria used to decide the allocation of school places are fair, clear and objective. ...Parents should be able to look at a set of arrangements and understand easily how places for that school will be allocated.”

Yet it is obvious from adjudications on the website of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, the body charged with policing the code, that many schools admissions are far from fair and clear. Indeed many are unfair, opaque and hard to understand.

There are several reasons for this – the Code still allows academic selection in schools that we selecting by ability before the 1998 Education Act . Schools with a religious character are allowed to select according to complex faith –based criteria. In any other walk of life this would be considered discriminatory but is allowed because faith schools are exempt from the 2010 Equality Act.

Then there is the rapid expansion of ‘autonomous’ state schools which are not bound by local authority admissions criteria. This has meant many more schools now have the freedom to set admissions criteria which may breach the Code of Practice but can exist under the radar of the OSA until someone complains.

It was partly in response to the growth of so many ‘autonomous” schools, and the revelation that  there were  many discrepancies between the Code’s intentions and what happens in practice, that the last Labour government agreed to tighten up the Admissions Code for maintained schools and to bind most of its academies into a ‘model funding agreement’, which effectively replicated the requirements on maintained schools, although this did beg the question of why those schools needed to be independent in the first place.

It was blindingly obvious that many schools were finding convoluted ways to baffle parents and weed out the least desirable children using an array of criteria  like complicated catchment areas , own school ‘banding’ systems or devious faith- based points systems that rank parents and pupils according to their willingness to ring bells, arrange flowers, count the collection money or clean the church.

And when the Coalition published its consultation on the latest Code, it included two  fundamental changes which initially appeared  to build on the Labour reforms. The first change was to extend the remit of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator to cover independent state schools, such as academies and free schools. The second was to allow anyone to make complaints to the OSA.

However between the closure of the consultation and the publication of the new Code earlier this month, an extra clause was introduced which banned objections in two key areas; where governing bodies have decided to increase their Planned Admissions Number (PAN) and where independent state schools have been allowed an ‘agreed variation’ to the requirement that they follow the Admissions Code in their funding agreements.

Independent state schools have always had the freedom to opt out of the admissions code. As I have pointed out in my column in the Guardian today “The whole point of independence is to escape the legislative ties that bind maintained schools and to benefit from an altogether looser contractual agreement, which can be easily changed, between the founder or sponsor and the government.” This is the fundamental reason why I, and others, have always opposed this type of school.

As we reported here free schools already have their own special “model funding agreement” which allows them to opt out of the Code. Several of the first 24 schools have already taken advantage of this but their refusal to publish their funding agreements means that we can’t see how.

The only conclusion to be drawn from this latest sneaky change to the Admissions Code is that the present Secretary of State intends to allow more schools to opt out of its requirements and reinstate the sort of dodgy practices that were gradually being outlawed without allowing any challenge.  He is also happy to allow existing selective schools to expand without allowing the local community  and other schools, whose futures may be directly affected, the right to object.

One of the founding objectives of the Local Schools Network is to campaign for fair and non selective admissions. We believe admissions arrangements should be agreed and consulted on locally, rather than negotiated in private discussion with central government officials, and there should strong independent oversight at a local level by admissions forums and at national level by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator.

Much of the progress towards a fairer admissions system may now start to unravel if the growing number of independent state schools are gradually allowed to do their own thing, picking and choosing the pupils they want and who are easiest to teach.

It will make life more complicated for many families, limit choice and almost certainly   benefit the better off. One of the first articles I wrote for this about school admissions in 2003 included a quote from the then Schools Adjudicator Philip Hunter that has rung in my ears every since. “Left to their own devices”, he said,” schools invariably drift to the posh”.  The early information about Free School Meal figures in the first 24 free schools appear to bear this out.

We will continue to campaign on these issues and would be interested to hear stories about how well, or badly,  school admissions work in different parts of the country. Do they help or hinder pupils getting into their first choice of schools? Do abide by the letter and spirit of the Code of Practice (fair, transparent and easy to understand ) or do they  exploit existing  loop holes in the Code,  get away with unfair practices because no-one complains  or have they have been given the power to opt out of the Code of Practice altogether.

Eventually I suspect a two tier system, where some schools studiously abide by the Code of Practice, and others don’t, will become untenable because so many parents won’t be able to exercise choice fairly. There will then be pressure (again) to bring all schools inside some sort of universally binding framework. The first stage in campaigning for that is to expose what is going on. Unfair practices won’t become fair unless they are exposed and the effect on real children, parents and communities is made plain. Either post your own stories, or add examples under this post or e-mail us here.

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Ian Taylor's picture
Tue, 13/12/2011 - 09:44

Being a school leader is a difficult juggling act.

You have to do what is right by the children in your school. But you also have to demonstrate that you are doing better than other schools would have done with the same children: this performance measure is called “Value Added”.

It is impossible for all schools to demonstrate Value Added because you only achieve this if you are above average. To be above average there has to be an equal proportion of schools below average. However hard they work, half of all schools will be below average.

If your student intake is more challenging than most, you have a difficult if not impossible task on your hands. Schools are always looking for ways in which to improve their Value Added, and some of these ways may be thought of as “gaming” the system.

If you have a more advantaged intake not only will you have an easier task as a leader, but you are more likely to achieve Value Added. You will also receive high praise and probably be classified as Outstanding by OFSTED. You will not be publicly humiliated

If you can “game” the system by fixing your admissions policy, some will. This is how private schools do well. Society applauds this, and shows its appreciation by handing the top jobs to the chosen ones, who then perpetuate the system. If a Free School is allowed to decide on its admissions policy, what factors is it likely to consider? Is it going to make it easier or harder to add value? If those in the know can use this admissions policy to their advantage, are they going to object to it? Is a Conservative Government wanting to prove its educational ideology correct, going to admit that it has fixed the rules in its favour?

If educational success depends on there being failures, there will always be people who will game the system. Some educationalists would like a system where everyone who works hard can be a success.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 13/12/2011 - 11:52

"You will also receive high praise and probably be classified as Outstanding by OFSTED."

Appropriate reform of Ofsted to bring it in line with the current law to which it is obliged would change this dynamic.

To get a good report from Ofsted a school would need to raise no causes for concern and be effectively using appropriate QA cycles which ensure it is properly in touch with what it does, involved in continuous cycles of improvement and provides detailed, accurate, qualitative self-reports concerning its practice.

Schools would no longer be labelled 'outstanding' or whatever. Instead of constantly judging practice according to what they already know, regulators would spend more time focusing on coming to understand and share emerging practices which schools consider to be of very high quality.

The assumption is that prospective students and parents need to know of any reasons for concern regarding their local school and that beyond that their interest in ascertaining its suitability will lie in specific concerns which are better explored through accurate data, detailed descriptions and visits and discussions rather than by Ofsted gradings.

More details in this blog (see entries for August and September). http://mathseducationandallthat.blogspot.com/
All comments welcome.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 13/12/2011 - 13:38

The Draft Admissions Code states: “Academy Funding Agreements require them to comply with the Code and the law relating to admissions, though the Secretary of State has the power to vary this requirement where there is demonstrable need.”

“Demonstrable need” is not defined which leads to ambiguity and the suspicion that “demonstrable need” can be used to circumvent the Admission Code. It should not be in the gift of one person to “vary” the requirement to comply with the Law.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 13/12/2011 - 14:26

The Draft Admission Code does not allow schools to name a fee-paying independent school as a feeder school. However, Langley Hall Primary Academy, Slough, names an attached private nursery in its oversubscription criteria. The nursery is run by the Childcare Company which backs the free school. If the school still has vacancies after children from within the catchment area have been placed, then children from outside the school’s catchment area who attend the nursery will be given precedence over other children from outside the catchment area. This effectively allows parents living outside the catchment area to buy a place at the Academy.


The Maharishi Free School gives precedence (after looked-after children) to pupils transferring for any school “approved and supported by The International Foundation of Consciousness-based Education”.


The Maharishi Free School also requires children to learn Transcendental Meditation (TM) before their first day at the school if they had not done so prior to being accepted. Free lessons are given to the child, but at least one parent is expected to learn TM at the same time. It is not clear whether these lessons are also free. The Draft Admission Code is silent about a requirement for children and parents to undertake a particular course when a child has been allocated a place in a school.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 13/12/2011 - 14:51

The Draft Admissions Code states, “Admission authorities must ensure that …other policies around school uniform or school trips do not discourage parents from applying for a place for their child.”

School uniform policies have the potential to discourage applications. For example, if a school requires parents to purchase a blazer from a sole supplier at treble the cost of a blazer from High Street outlets, then is the school sending out a subtle message that Asda blazers are not welcome? Similarly, will an insistence on an embroidered sports shirt which costs more than twice the price of a pack of two plain ones dissuade parents from applying? What authority will decide whether a school uniform will put off parents?

rosemary fergusson's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 08:50

Bradford Girls Grammar is expecting to convert from private fee paying to free school in Spet 2013. They cleverly omit stating whether they will retain their current 11 plus entrance exam by stating in the Free School FAQ " From Sept 2013 Bradford Girls Grammar will admit pupils in accordance with the Statutory School Admissions Code "....by this time they will have hoped that the new School Admissions code which very clearly in its draft form states that schools converting to free school status will be allowed to keep entrance exams established prior to 1998 ( can't really understand why the Gov is claiming it's not in the draft code it very clearly is) ..

In the recent media outcry the Dept of Educ uses clever semantics stating it's currently illegal to retain selection in nationalising schools ; this is true but they neglect to say that their new code will overturn this law [ you can't kid a kidder ...I understand exactly how Mr Gove and Co. work] ).

Only 2 private schools became state funded under Labour precisely because they could not keep selection ; many more struggling private schools are awaiting Mr Gove to over turn this rule in the new Admissions Code ( 40 including primary and secondaries).

One does wonder how Bradford Grammar used to £11k/pupil is going to cope with the £4.3K /pupil it will get on conversion. Perhaps it can take some letters in thrift from adjacent Leeds schools who get even less per pupil.

The dilemma is that a small school such as BGGS does not have the resources or critical expertise to deliver a quality education to mixed ability intake ; however it's closure could mean "swamping" of the local schools as some 600 children are forced to take up their hitherto unclaimed state sector school place . [If the Daily Mail could declare that economic migrants were "swamping" our state schools then it seems only fair to use it here].

It seems to me the only solution is to admit that struggling private schools need some form of state subsidy , it will be less than the wholesale state funding of an elite free school.

If BGGS is to become a selective state school then the selection process has to change..it should be recognised that high academic achievement is a form of special needs ( only 1% of year 6 children are allowed to be graded a level 6 in KS2 Sats ) and that candidates for the school are put forward for assessment by their primary school by the end of year 5 ; places should not be awarded according to the degree of parental investment in hot-housing middle-class dullards.

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