“It might be best if you looked elsewhere”. That’s what one school told a parent of a child with special needs (SEN), said the Children’s Commissioner*.
The Children’s Commissioner heard evidence of how schools deter SEN children and said parents of SEN pupils had been put off from applying for a school place because of “negative messages”.
It wasn’t just parents of SEN children who could be discouraged but less affluent parents too, the Children’s Commissioner found. Many schools required expensive uniform from an exclusive source despite clear guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) to keep uniform costs to a minimum.
The Commissioner discovered schools serving the same neighbourhood could nevertheless have very different intakes. This raised the question whether the admission system was contributing to inequality whereby one school had a disproportionate number of previously high-attaining pupils while another had an intake skewed to the bottom of the ability range.
Schools had duties under the Equality Act 2010 to ensure they did not discriminate against any child because of background, ethnicity, disability or needs.
Admission authorities should regularly assess their admission criteria to ensure they meet their legal obligations, the Commissioner recommended.
The law surrounding admissions was ambiguous, the Commissioner said, despite the Schools Admission Code which came into force in 2012. The DfE needed to give clear guidance about what is lawful and unlawful.
If it’s suspected a school’s admission criteria are unlawful, the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) can only act if it receives a formal complaint. Anyone can complain but it depends on knowing exactly which paragraphs of the Schools Admission Code have been violated. OSA can only intervene if a school’s admission criteria are properly “determined”. By law, all schools should have published their admission criteria by 15 April in the school year before applications are made. That means criteria for 2015/16 should now be on every school’s website to allow formal objections before 30 June 2014.
But not all schools do this – and OSA can’t intervene until they have. Delayed publication could mean it’s too late for formal objections to be lodged. Late referrals can be made after 30 June but OSA may not have time to judge criteria before parents have stated their preferences. This could mean pupils lose out unfairly if parents were deterred from applying because of illegal criteria.
Large-scale, national research was required to investigate the “nature and scale of inequality in admission”, the Commissioner recommended. I would go further. Schools that don’t publish their criteria by 15 April should lose the right in the coming academic year to determine their own criteria – pupils should be allocated according to the system in place for local authority maintained schools. This would prevent schools, intentionally or otherwise, from delaying the publication of criteria until it’s too late for objections or referrals to be made. And if OSA judges a school’s criteria don’t adhere to the Code then the school should be under a legal obligation to publicise the fact immediately. Parents who feel their child has lost out unfairly would then have grounds for appeal.
The Commissioner recommended large-scale, national research to investigate the “nature and scale of inequality in admission”. In the meantime, parents and others should be vigilant in spotting possible violations of the Code and submit a formal objection by 30 June or a referral after that date.
NOTES: The report of the Children’s Commissioner can be downloaded here
The website for the Office of the Schools Adjudicator is here
. Details of how to object are here
Typical complaints up to April 2014 included
1Primary schools giving priority to children who’ve attending an attached nursery. This is not allowed.
2Religious criteria going further than is allowed by, for example, giving priority to parents who’d helped out in ways that have nothing to do with worship.
3Having complicated criteria which are not easily understood.
4Asking for supplementary information such as a school report, a full birth certificate or names of both parents. This is not allowed.
5Implying a school has discretion over whether to admit a child with a statement of SEN which names the school. Such SEN pupils must be admitted.