PR spin playing down criticism of two Bristol schools by Admissions watchdog raises wider questions

Janet Downs's picture
“Complaints about schools’ admissions policies dismissed by watchdog”

Headline on Press Release Bristol Cathedral Choir School (BCCS) and Cathedral Primary School (CPS) March 2014

While the press release was correct in saying the adjudicator did not uphold the four initial complaints about the admission criteria at BCCS, a sponsored secondary academy, and two complaints about CPS, a free school which opened in 2013 in temporary accommodation pending its move to the basement of Bristol’s Central Library in 2015, it played down the flaws which the Schools Adjudicator found during the investigation.

The school admitted the Adjudicator required both schools to make alterations to their admissions policies. However, the press release, issued by PR firm Edge Media, described these as “minor changes”.

So, what were the admissions criteria which didn’t adhere* to the Schools Admission Code? These included:

1Implying the school had discretion over whether to admit a child with a statement of special educational need (SEN) which named the school. Schools are obliged to admit such pupils. The Adjudicator noted "the text about the admission of pupils with statements of SEN into the sixth form was in the correct format". However, the Adjudicator made it clear that the "current text" applying to the school implied it had discretion. She made it clear "this is not the case".

2The test which selects the 10% of pupils for aptitude for music was a test of musical ability.

3Asking to see a full birth certificate. This is not allowed under the Code.

4The Supplementary Information Form (SIF) asked for details about both parents. The Code forbids any criteria which appears to judge applicants on the marital status of parents.

5There appeared to be different academic entry requirements for pupils transferring from within the school to the sixth form and external pupils.

It appears, then, the complaints which triggered the investigation were thrown out but other infringements came to light when the Adjudicator studied the admission criteria.

The Adjudicator's findings raise the question about how musical aptitude is measured. Musical Aptitude Tests (MATs) are widely used by schools who select on musical aptitude. They are supposed to test a child’s ability to recognise pitch, melody, texture and rhythm. But are children who are familiar with musical vocabulary such as note and chord likely to score higher on MATs than other children? And sample tests are, as you might expect, available for purchase on the internet.

Critics argue that selecting 10% of pupils for musical aptitude filters out disadvantaged pupils. And it’s true that BCCS has just 4.9% of its pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM). This compares with the national average for state secondary schools of 16.3% and a Bristol average of 23%. And the school manages to attract a larger number of previously high-attaining pupils than would be expected at a comprehensive school. The 2013 GCSE cohort had 57% previously high-attaining pupils and only 8% previously low-attainers.

Interestingly, the principal of BCCS/CPS told a local paper in January the admission criteria for CPS had “been approved nationally by the Department for Education.” This raises a further question about how it’s possible the DfE can approve admission criteria for free schools which don’t adhere to the Schools Admission Code including one which violates one of the Code’s most emphatic rules that schools MUST admit SEN pupils whose statements name the school.

Perhaps the infringements of the Code by BCCS and CPS weren’t as “minor” as the PR spin suggests.

CORRECTION 16 April 2014. The thread above has been amended. It originally said there were just four complaints about the school. There were actually six. All six of the initial complaints were not upheld. However, as stated above, the Adjudicator found the schools' admission criteria still did not adhere to the Admissions Code. These infringements were summarised above.

I have made it clear the Adjudicator found the wording concerning the entry of SEN children into the sixth form was correct.

I originally said the media firm who issued the press release was Edge Hill. It was Edge Media. This has been corrected.

I also said the free school opened in 2013 in the basement of Bristol Central Library. This was incorrect. The free school opened in temporary accommodation and will move to the basement of Bristol Central Library in 2015.

Thanks to Neil Blundell for his feedback. I'm happy to make any amendments.
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Neil Blundell's picture
Wed, 16/04/2014 - 14:01

From Neil Blundell, Principal of Bristol Cathedral Choir School (BCCS); Executive Principal of Cathedral Primary School (CPS)

Local Schools Network contributor Henry Stewart paid tribute on this website a few months ago to the “remarkable research” of his fellow contributor, Janet Downs, praising her for “wading through long reports” and for her “dedication to use of evidence”.

Unfortunately, these qualities seem to have deserted her somewhat on this occasion. As our (not particularly long) press release explains, the reports from the Office of the School Adjudicator on our two schools were triggered not by “four initial complaints”, but by six – all of them dismissed by the Adjudicator. All six complaints came from anti-free schools campaigner Christine Townsend.

The press release clearly states that it was issued by Edge Media, not “Edge Hill”.
And given the high level of attention that our proposal to move into the storage floors of Bristol Central Library has attracted from the local press and broadcasters, we suspect that many in our city would be taken aback by Janet Downs’ statement that Cathedral Primary School “opened in 2013 in the basement of Bristol’s Central Library”. In fact, CPS opened in September 2013 in temporary accommodation within the campus of its sister school, BCCS. Following the Mayor of Bristol’s approval of our proposal in December 2013, we will be moving into the lower floors of the library building, but not until the 2015-16 school year.

Janet Downs correctly cites the 4.9% free school meals figure for BCCS. It should be noted, however, that before BCCS became an Academy in 2008, its predecessor school (Bristol Cathedral School) was a fee-paying, independent school; it is therefore unsurprising that there has been a very low number of FSM students at the top end of the school. The FSM figure in the lower years has been rising quickly, especially in the past couple of years. As for CPS, during the course of our first year, six or, at times, seven of our Reception class have had FSM – a rate of 20-23.3%.

The Adjudicator’s findings on BCCS do indeed “raise the question about how musical aptitude is measured”, as Janet Downs puts it. We have agreed to amend our specialism testing arrangements in line with the Adjudicator’s requirements, but we believe this is a topic susceptible of further informed debate. As a musician, I believe that music at its heart is expressive and creative; any test of aptitude should take that into account. If we are restricted to purely mechanistic, aural tests, it limits our professional, musical judgment.

Our press release gives reasons why we described the Adjudicator’s other required alterations to our admissions policies as “minor”; we stand by that description. Janet Downs rounds off her piece by claiming in bold type that BCCS “violates one of the Code’s most emphatic rules that schools MUST [her capitals] admit SEN pupils whose statements name the school”. Yet there is no suggestion whatsoever from the Adjudicator that BCCS has ever failed to admit such pupils: the OSA’s concern is with ambiguous wording, not with the school’s practice. We had simply retained the original wording from our 2008 Funding Agreement. When the Adjudicator pointed out that “the Code and regulations had been revised in the interim period to provide greater clarity”, we readily accepted this and have now amended the text. The Adjudicator very fairly noted - as Janet Downs did not - that the “text about the admission of pupils with statements of SEN into the Sixth Form was in the correct format”.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 16/04/2014 - 17:25

Thank you, Neil, for the feedback. I note there were four complaints against the secondary school and two for the primary school. That, as you say, makes six. I shall amend the thread and issue a correction.

I made it clear the initial complaints had been thrown out. However, the Schools Adjudicator discovered other parts of the criteria did violate the Code. These are given in the thread above and they still stand.

The section relating to SEN pupils, who MUST be admitted if their Statement names the school said:

"The current text implies that the school has discretion to admit a child whose statement names that school but this is not the case".

The Schools Adjudicator rules on the content on Schools' Admission Criteria not on whether the criteria that fall foul of the Admission Code had ever been applied. Nowhere did I suggest that this faulty criteria had been applied. I summarised sections of the Adjudication for which I supplied a link.

The schools adjudicator did note "the text about the admission of pupils with statements of SEN into the sixth form was in the correct format." I will amend the thread accordingly. However, the criticism about the apparent different academic requirements for entry into the sixth form stands. The Adudicator wrote:

'"Admission authorities can however, set academic entry criteria for their sixth forms, which must be the same for both external and internal places…………” The school said that it had never actually applied this criterion and would remove it.'

I shall change the typo re Edge Hill.

Re the free school opening in the library: not being a local person it's often difficult to work out what's going on from press releases. However, I will correct the thread to make it clear that the school opened in temporary accommodation and will be moving into the basement of the City Library in 2015.

Re free school meals. The figure cited was not just for the "top end of the school". It was for the secondary school as a whole. Again, I supplied the link to School Characteristics: Pupil Population for Bristol Secondary Schools. The Bristol Cathedral School has been a state-funded school since September 2008. That's five years up until September 2013. It could be expected that the proportion of FSM children would have risen in five years. The only state secondary school in Bristol with a proportion lower than BCCS is Redland Green School - another so-called comprehensive which manages to attract a very small number of previously low attaining pupils (just 5% in the 2013 GCSE cohort and 61% previously high attaining ones).

You might be interested in the report from the Schools Commissioner about school admissions published this week. The Commissioner expressed concern about SEN children admissions and also the way some schools, supposedly comprehensive, had a far larger number of high ability children than neighbouring schools. You can download it here.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 16/04/2014 - 17:47

Neil - perhaps you could throw some light on statement that the DfE approved the admission criteria for the free school. This seems odd considering the Schools Adjudicator later found the criteria didn't adhere to the Schools Admission Code. It's puzzling to think the DfE didn't know that.

Neil Blundell's picture
Thu, 17/04/2014 - 08:36

For newcomers to this page: Janet Downs has now corrected three factual errors in her article that we pointed out in our response on 16th April.

agov's picture
Mon, 21/04/2014 - 08:24

So now you have made some "minor" corrections to wording of admissions criteria (that you say had been approved by the DfE) but which in no way could have deterred applications from parents of SEN children and given that you use

"a fair banding test to enable Bristol Cathedral Choir School to place, as far as reasonably possible, an equal number of applicants in each ability band"

we can expect the proportion of FSM children at BCCs to rapidly move from 4.9% to something a lot closer to the Bristol average of 23%.

Would that be a correct summary of what you say?

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