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”
t 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