Academies, free schools and admissions. The Academies Commission is right to highlight concerns.

Fiona Millar's picture
There has been much coverage of the RSA/Pearson Academies Commission final report today. Henry Stewart and I both gave evidence to this enquiry and were pleased to see serious consideration given to some of the points we raised, which included the admissions freedoms  given to academies and free schools and the LSN evidence showing that many maintained schools have improved at similar rates to independent state schools. It is a very thorough report which flags up a number of concerns which should be addressed urgently if academy conversions are going to continue at a similar rate. Some of these concerns appear to have arisen out of evidence given by academy sponsors themselves.

The media has focussed on the admissions story, understandably since it is school admissions that affect most parents. The Commission apparently received a lot of evidence about  academies  using covert selection tactics like long supplementary admissions forms to weed out certain families. Then there are the free schools setting catchment areas to include more affluent homes, like this Bristol free school.  Much of the comment on social media sites like Twitter has also pointed out that abuse of admissions, covert selection etc goes on in  non academy schools, which is true. However academies do have extra freedoms as they are able to seek the right to opt out of some elements of the School Admissions Code in their funding agreements.

The commission states: "Complex admission arrangements are not unique to academies. However, because they are their own admission authorities (and, additionally, are able to agree derogations to the Admissions Code with the Secretary of State), there is potential for academies to have more complex arrangements than community schools. According to the 2011 Report of the Schools Adjudicator, 17% of objections to admission arrangements relate to academies, despite the fact that they made up only 4% of all schools at that time. The 2011 report also indicates that some local authorities encounter problems in working with academies to coordinate local admissions. Some authorities found academies reluctant to share data; this inhibited the effective coordination of local arrangements for admissions."

One example quoted by the Commission is the Canary Wharf  College which had one child eligible for Free School Meals in its first year in a borough (Tower Hamlets) where the average is over 50%. This schools admission criteria include a "faith" test, which can also be used as a form of social selection ( see previous post  here) and also give priority to the children of founders  "who have provided specific assistance, advice, guidance or support to the Proposers in the preparation of the Application and Business Case for the College." This would normally be prohibited under the Admissions Code but is now being commonly used by other free schools like this one in London's Belsize Park.

This extra freedom may provide a route in for a relatively small number of pupils, but the wider point to consider is what happens when an academy or free school seeks (and is granted by the Secretary of State) a different sort of derogation from the Code - the right to interview pupils, or to ask for primary school reports, or to require financial contributions from parents for example. All these were outlawed in the admissions process by the last Labour government.

There are many more reforms needed when it comes to school admissions - in particular to address the continuing use of selective and faith entry tests. However the  freedom to opt out of the Code of Practice  is one loophole that should be closed immediately. The  same rules should apply to all schools and the Academies Commission is right to highlight this.

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