Fair admissions – what is needed now

For many years, political parties have promoted the idea that parents can ‘choose’ a school when their children are either starting school or moving on, usually at 11. Yet most parents find that ‘parental choice’ is a myth. The schools do the choosing, not the parents, and the proportion of schools doing the choosing is increasing.

The result is that schools are socially segregated. Research evidence suggests that more balanced intakes – in which all schools receive a mix of children with different abilities and social backgrounds – would have educational benefits, giving more children more opportunities. Even if that were not true, all political parties ought to agree that social segregation should be reduced and that admissions should be fair.

But how can that be achieved? The criteria by which schools admit children are set by what is known as the ‘admissions authority’. In the past, for most schools, this was the local council. But in the case of voluntary aided and foundation schools, the governors of each school were responsible. The governors of academies and free schools – which have increased exponentially since 2010 so that they now account for more than half of all secondary schools – have now been given similar powers. Many of the schools that control their own admissions are faith schools, allowed to select their intakes on faith adherence. Most faith schools select all of their intake on faith.

Choice for parents of no faith is therefore restricted from the start. Such schools often use supplementary application forms and may award points for different activities such as church attendance, flower arranging and bell ringing. The admissions practices of one high- profile London faith school was recently judged by the schools adjudicator to be discriminatory on social and ethnic grounds and guilty of multiple breaches of the admissions code, one of which related to the use of points for ‘religious activity’. However not all faith schools select on faith and many clergy want to see that as the norm. Free schools which are faith schools are not allowed to select more than 50 per cent of their intakes on faith.

The Department for Education sets an admissions code which requires admissions criteria to be clear, objective and fair. However, Elizabeth Passmore, the Chief Adjudicator who is charged with oversight of the code, said in 2013 that many schools were ignoring it and that admissions arrangements were often ‘unnecessarily complex’. She repeated this criticism even more forcibly in her latest report in January 2015. Admissions criteria, she pointed out, were supposed simply to determine which children should be accepted when a school had more applicants than places. In ‘far too many schools’, she said, the criteria were ‘more likely to enable the school to choose which children to admit’.

The usual practice is to give priority to the children who live closest to the school and to those who have siblings already attending. But other criteria can include ability or ‘aptitude’ (for sport, music or foreign languages, for example) as well as faith adherence. Many schools set ability tests not so that they can select the most able children (selection by ability is supposedly banned, except for grammar schools) but so that they can sort applicants into bands and ensure they get a range of abilities. There is substantial regional variation: a report from Comprehensive Future showed that most banding and selection on aptitude was found in London and the South East.

All admissions criteria have disadvantages. Favouring siblings disadvantages only children. Favouring those who live nearest gives an advantage to parents who can afford houses near more popular schools. To deal with such injustices, the Sutton Trust and others have pressed for ‘random allocation’, a lottery to decide which applicants get places at which schools, i.e. a lottery for school places. However, both banding and random allocation can result in children travelling long distances, passing schools nearer their homes as they do so.

Even within the code, schools have opportunities for what is known as covert selection. They can draw catchment areas which exclude the local council estate. One Bristol free school drew up a preferred catchment area and didn’t change it when the school moved to a different location. Requirements to buy school uniforms from particular outfitters; to collect a form and then bring a child to the school to take a banding test; to attend church weekly as a family or to give the church other support – all these can, deliberately or not, exclude busy, disorganised or financially disadvantaged families.

If there is no agreement on the fairness of local admission arrangements, the only redress is to the chief adjudicator. Although anyone can object, the process is lengthy and labour intensive: parents can object only to how the system operates, not to the exclusion of their own child and, by the time the matter is resolved, their child is likely to be settled in another school. It is no substitute for local and consistent monitoring of the fairness of schools’ arrangements. It is quite easy for schools to change their admissions arrangements ‘under the radar’,allowing what critics call selection by stealth.

There are worrying signs that we are moving towards a free for all on admissions. Meanwhile, the education department has undermined the strategic management of school places by approving free schools in some areas regardless of local need for more places and restricting the opening of new schools by local authorities.

What should be done? First, selection on ability and aptitude should end. This would give most parents more choice of schools. It could be done gradually with minimum disruption by requiring all grammar schools, for each year 7 intake, to admit children of all abilities. ‘Aptitude’ cannot in practice be distinguished clearly from ability and, in any case, all children deserve excellent facilities for sport, drama, languages, music and other subjects. International evidence is clear: comprehensive systems of education produce better results overall. Selection at 11 is unfair and unnecessary. As Professor Chris Husbands, director of the University College London Institute of Education, said recently, tests cannot reliably discriminate between those who are academically able and those who are not; it is not possible to test for academic ability at age 11 in a way which is strongly predictive of later performance; and nobody has yet designed a test which can test academic ability and nothing else, such as socioeconomic status. We do not need to put children through the stress of entry tests for secondary education.

Second, as the Accord coalition, which campaigns against ‘discrimination on grounds of religion or belief ’ in state school admissions, has proposed (as a move towards ending all selection by faith), all faith schools should select no more than 50 per cent of their intake on faith, as faith free schools must do. This again would increase parental choice – at least for those parents who are happy with a faith school ethos.

Third, there should be a wide-ranging review of how admissions are carried out nationally and the effect on families. Its remit should be how the admissions system can help achieve ‘a good school for every child’. It should cover not just the code, but the whole process of admissions and appeals, including the effects of banding and random allocation and the extent to which parents really do move house to gain places in popular and high-performing schools. It should consider whether the need for ‘balanced intakes’ outweighs the need for schools to be at the heart of their local communities. Parents’ views should be energetically sought.  One outcome must be a code which is easily understood, implemented and monitored. For example, as one Chief Adjudicator suggested, there should be standard national definitions for ‘parent’ and ‘sibling’, resolving questions such as whether ‘sibling’ includes halfsiblings or children living at the same address.

Fourth, there should be a level playing field, with no schools allowed by their individual contracts with the secretary of state for education to ‘opt out’ from the admissions code: some free schools, for example, are allowed to give priority to children of parents who campaigned for it to be set up. Academies and free schools should be obliged to comply with the code in full and all schools should be held to account through the same process of compliance.

Fifth, the local authority (or another larger elected body) should have sole responsibility for ensuring there are sufficient school places in its area and making strategic decisions over provision. It should also be responsible for enforcing the admissions code in all schools, including academies, and be given sufficient resources to do the job. Local authorities should be inspected on the rigour with which they manage compliance. The adjudicator should remain in place, receiving annual reports from authorities, demonstrating compliance and steps taken to crack down on poor practice.

Moreover, the local authority should take on more of the administration of admissions for all schools. Though academies, free schools and voluntary schools would still set admissions criteria within the code, the authority would decide which applicants meet those criteria, and also handle appeals and admissions during the school year. This would go some way to ensuring that clarity, transparency and fairness are actually delivered. Powers of direction to secure school places for vulnerable pupils should apply in the same way to all schools.

Sixth, the local admissions forum (or a new body with similar functions), comprising, for example, parent representatives, governors and bodies such as diocesan authorities and trusts with an interest in local admissions, should be reinstated so that local admissions systems can be constantly and consistently examined and challenged. Labour made such bodies mandatory in 2002, but the coalition government abolished the requirement. According to the Chief Adjudicator, almost half the local authorities have retained them and are unanimous in valuing them ‘as a mechanism for open and frank discussion about admissions in a local context’.

Finally, the Chief Adjudicator’s role in ensuring compliance with the admissions code should be strengthened. If she upholds an objection, she should have the power to change the admission arrangements directly rather than simply to issue a ruling.

Action for the next government

  • Abolish selection whether by aptitude or ability.
  • Reduce the proportion of children that can be selected on faith grounds to a maximum of 50 per cent for all faith schools.
  • Set up a wide-ranging review of how admissions are carried out, reporting on the merits of banding, lotteries, neighbourhood schools, etc.
  • Stop allowing academies and free schools to ‘opt out’ of parts of the admissions code.
  • Reinstate local forums to consider and challenge admissions locally
  • Empower local authorities to enforce the code, administer as well as co-ordinate admissions, conduct appeals for all local schools and give them sole responsibility for ensuring sufficient school places are available.
  • Give the Chief Adjudicator on admissions power to change admissions arrangements directly.

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This campaign article by Melissa Benn (Chair) and Margaret Tulloch (Secretary) of Comprehensive Future first appeared as a chapter  in What’s next for education – advice to the next government from the New Visions Group. The book has a wide ranging set of proposals on education from the New Visions group which includes academics, headteachers, writers, parents and governors It is available from Central Books price £10