Government looks again at the Admissions Code

But how do you stop selection?


The Government apparently intends to rewrite the school  admissions code. Ministers believe that the code for school admissions, which has legal force, is unnecessarily long and difficult for parents to navigate if they wish to mount an appeal.

There is a strong suspicion that the way admissions are currently handled does little to help our most disadvantaged pupils or  to progress the social mobility agenda.

According to Barnardos (Report-Unlocking the Gates-2010) half of all pupils entitled to free  school meals, are concentrated in a  quarter of secondary schools and if you look  at the top secondary schools (on a  measure of getting five GCSEs  at A* to C including English and  maths) they  take on average only five  per cent of pupils entitled to free  school meals, less than half the  national average .It seems accepted that  widening  access to good neighbourhood  schools has a critical role to play  in narrowing the opportunity gap  in education.

Since the Education Reform Act 1988, parents have had a degree of choice over  which school their child attends, also known as ‘parental preference’. However,  the system for determining school admissions is complex, particularly when  schools are oversubscribed .Good schools of course  are all oversubscribed, but  few are able to expand to accommodate the demand for places. Although most parents get places in the school of their choice, a significant minority don’t.   If you look at London,  a third of parents did not get their first choice secondary school for this autumn. Figures from the Pan London Admissions Board (PLAB) show just 65% of families got a place at their preferred school. In the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, some 15 per cent of children failed to gain places at their parents  preferred schools – believed to be the highest failure rate in England. And nearly 40% of children in Westminster, 39% in Southend and 38% in Barnet will miss out on their parents  first preference this September. In total more than 79,000 children  missed out on a place at their first-choice secondary school for this September,

The complexity of the admissions process is acknowledged which is why the previous government, in 2005,  announced  plans to develop a national network  of Choice Advisers. However, a  recent evaluation of the initiative found great variation in the provision  of Choice Advice: some services did little more than answer the queries  of self-referring families about how  the admissions system worked,  whereas others  specifically targeted  disadvantaged parents, providing  them with intensive support. Given the scale of local authority cuts many believe that this service will   suffer in  many  areas.

Local authorities act  as the admissions authority for the  majority of schools, but certain types  of school act as their own admissions  authority. The recent growth in  foundation schools and academies  means that there are increasing  numbers of schools which act as  their own admissions authority.  In January 1988, 15 per cent of  schools were their own admission  authority, by January 2009, that   figure had almost tripled to 42 per cent. and with the expansion of Academies and Free schools this proportion will increase over time.  Schools that are their own  admissions authority are subject  to the School Admissions Code, which was rewritten by the last Government.   It is designed to ensure they allow fair  access for all.  However  there is some evidence that  many of the best performing schools are  more socially selective. A report  by the Sutton Trust in October 2008 found that 74 out of the 100  most socially selective schools in England were their own admission  authority. In particular, voluntary aided schools (typically those with  a religious focus) seemed to take  disproportionately fewer pupils  entitled to free school meals,  compared to their local population. It is true that the best state schools tend to have less than their local authority average of pupils with SEN and on FSM. This is hardly surprising-if the inputs are good, the outputs tend to be good too.

A study by West A, Barham E, and Hind A (2009) Secondary school admissions in England: Policy and practice www.risetrust.org.uk/Secondary.pdf found that  even following  the new admissions code   there is still not 100  per cent compliance, particularly  amongst schools which are their own  admissions authority. The study identified a number of ways in which  schools were acting in accordance  probably  with the letter, but not the spirit, of  the new code – operating admissions  systems that are so complex and   difficult to understand that they  may deter less well-educated and  confident  parents from applying. Schools also ask for additional information  and use other techniques that are perfectly legal but might aid selection without leaving evidence  in the form of  a paper trail.

And this really seems to be the challenge. How do you stop schools selecting when they are doing it covertly? Tightening up the admissions code might help a bit. But  remember much thought went in to drafting the current code which has only just been adopted .  And what do you do about identifying schools that  operate within the letter but not the sprit of the Code and, once identified , how do you  put a stop to  unfair practice?


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