List of questions

Can parents choose schools?

All children are entitled to a place at a school but parents are not able to choose a school. They can only express a preference for particular schools. This is done through the Common Application Form administered by the local authority.

Parents are required by the rules to rank these preferences and the aim is that these will be met where possible. But if there are more applicants than places to a particular school the final decision is made by the admission authority, the decision-making body which sets the criteria for admitting children. If there are more places than applicants then, except for grammar schools, all applicants must be offered a place. If more parents express a preference for a particular school than there are places the admission authority ie the school or local authority decides if the child meets the oversubscription criteria for that school more than other applicants, for example if they live nearer. All children whose statement of special educational need names a particular school must be admitted.

What is ‘the Code’ and the law relating to school admissions?

Section 84 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 requires the Secretary of State to issue a Code for school admissions. It may be revised from time to time and it has had several revisions since it was first issued. The Code sets out the whole process of admissions including for example the roles of admission authorities and local authorities and the powers of the School Adjudicator. The current School Admissions Code came into force in December 2014. Any revised new Code has to be consulted upon and sent to parliament for parliamentary approval. It is expected that there will be consultation soon on a new Code.

The legislation and guidance related to school admissions are in Sections 84 -108 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, amended by the Education Act 2002, the Education and Inspections Act 2006, the Academies Act 2010 and the Education Act 2011. Regulations (statutory instruments) arising from these regulations cover for example selection on aptitude and co-ordination of admissions. The Education (Grammar School Ballots) Regulations 1998 Statutory Instrument 2876 cover the current arrangements for ending selection for maintained schools. there are other regulations concerning how selection could end in grammar schools which are academies. The majority of grammar schools are academies.

There is a separate Code for appeals about school admissions.

What is an admission authority?

This is the body which sets out all the admission arrangements and the admissions criteria to use when schools are oversubscribed ie when there are too many applications for places at the school. For community schools and voluntary controlled schools the local authority is usually the admission authority and sets the criteria. For voluntary aided, trust and foundation schools it is the school’s governing body. Academies and CTCs are not maintained schools, they are publicly funded but legally independent. Their governing bodies are admission authorities and their admission criteria and arrangements are agreed with the Secretary of State. Academies and Free schools are required through their funding agreements with the Secretary of State to comply with the School Admissions Code but the Secretary of State has the power to vary this requirement ‘where there is demonstrable need’. So far he has done that allowing some free schools to give priority to children of parents who were involved in setting up the school.

How do admission authorities decide their admission arrangements?

Each year admission authorities ie governing bodies or local authorities are required to ‘determine’ their admission arrangements for the following year by the 28th of February. These include the admission criteria and the published admissions number (PAN). In doing this admission authorities must act in accordance with the Code and any other laws relating to admissions, human rights and equalities. The Code requires admission arrangements and criteria to be fair, clear and objective.

If there is no change proposed there is no need for a public consultation, although all admission authorities must consult at least every 7 years. But if any change in admission arrangements is proposed they must first publicly consult. However there is no requirement to consult on increases in the PAN. For admission in the September of the following year the consultation on changes must be completed by the 31st of January for a minimum of 6 weeks. The Code (1.44) sets out who must be consulted. The proposed admission arrangements must be on the school’s website. All admission authorities must publish their admission arrangements on their website once determined and send them to their local authority before the 1st of May. By the 1st of May local authorities must publish the admission arrangements for all local schools for the September intake of the following year.

By September 12th ie by the beginning of the offer year the local authority must publish a composite prospectus giving details of the admission arrangements of all local schools including any supplementary information forms which any school requires.

Can schools use any oversubscription admission criteria they wish?

If the school is oversubscribed all applicants are judged against oversubscription (admission) criteria to decide which ones get the places. The Code requires all oversubscription criteria to be ‘reasonable, clear, objective procedurally fair, and comply with all relevant legislation’. (1.8). The Code sets out the groups which must not be disadvantaged and specifically excludes several criteria which must not be used (1.9) for example taking into account reports from previous schools or interviewing children or parents. Many authorities will use very similar criteria. The School Admissions Code requires all admission authorities to give priority to looked-after children, after that, many will give priority for example to siblings or those living nearest the school. The Code is clear in its requirements that for example admission authorities must be clear how they define siblings. In the past the Chief Adjudicator has suggested that the DfE should produce a national definition of for example ‘ parent’ or ‘sibling’ but this has not so far been taken up.

Can schools select?

Primary legislation permits selection on ability where it existed before 1997 ie for admission to grammar schools and some schools which are partially selective on ability. However legislation forbids more schools from selecting on ability from 1997 ie when the Labour government came in. This is except for schools which use banding to decide admissions (see below). The legislation is the School Standards and Framework Act. Grammar schools which can select all their intakes on ability are defined by legislation. However many are now academies so not subject to legislation about maintained schools.

All schools can select up to 10% on aptitude in specific subjects. The subjects are – sport and PE, the visual and performing arts, and languages. Schools in the past could select on technology but this is not now allowed for any new schools wishing to select. This decision is made by the admission authority. Hence most schools which select on aptitude are those where the governing body is the admission authority. So it is likely that as more schools become admission authorities there will be more selection on aptitude. Unfortunately data on how many schools are selecting on aptitude is not collected nationally.

The Code says that ‘admission authorities must take all reasonable steps’ to inform parents of the outcome of selection tests before the closing date for secondary applications on October 31st so they can make ‘an informed choice of school’. In the past putting your child in for a selective test was viewed as expressing a preference, now essentially parents who wish their children to go to grammar schools get more choice than those who do not.

Of course if schools were not selective this issue would be much easier to resolve. It is allowing selection to remain which causes these complications.

Schools may select on ability to produce a proportionate spread of abilities, known as banding. However there are variations in the banding systems allowed. Intakes may be representative of the full range of those applying to the school, the range of ability of children in the local area or the national ability range.

Random allocation or balloting for a place has been supported by the Sutton Trust. The Code does not allow local authorities to allocate places using random allocation across the local authority but individual admission authorities can use it. Admission authorities use it as a tie breaker between applicants meeting the criteria similarly.

What about admissions to grammar schools?

There are 163 grammar schools in England. For some there is a pass mark and then admission criteria such as nearness to school come into play, for others those getting the highest mark in the entry test are admitted.

Current policy allows selective entry into maintained (ie non academy) grammar schools to remain unless a majority of local eligible parents vote for it to change or unless grammar school governing bodies decide to change their admission policies to admit children of all abilities. These regulations were introduced by the School Standards and Framework Act. No governing bodies have decided to change. Before a ballot can be held 20% of eligible parents in the areas concerned must sign a petition calling for a ballot. Depending on whether it would be a whole area ballot or a feeder school ballot the definition of a parent eligible to sign the petition and vote is different. Put simply in area ballots most parents are eligible, in a feeder school ballot only parents of children in schools which have sent some pupils to the grammar in question can vote.

Now the majority of grammar schools are academies ie legally not maintained schools, therefore not subject to regulations arising from the School Standards and Framework Act. They are no longer legally classed as grammar schools, although they convert ‘as is’ and therefore, subject to their funding agreement, may retain their selective admission arrangements. There are new rules for petitions and ballots to end selection set out in annexes to their funding agreements. These are based on the provisions of the maintained grammar school regulations but place the onus on the academy to provide details of the eligible parents.

What about admissions to faith schools?

About a third of English schools are faith schools ie legally defined as schools with a religious character. If oversubscribed these schools may give priority in their admissions to applicants who are of the faith of the school. New academies which are set up as faith schools are required to admit 50% of their pupils without reference to their faith. The Code (1.37) requires that the faith based criteria and easily understood. Schools must ‘have regard’ to the guidance of their religious body.

How is the local authority involved?

Local authorities are involved at several points in the process of admissions. Local Authorities have an overarching duty imposed on them by the Education and Inspection Act 2006 to ‘ensure fair access to educational opportunity’.

School Admissions Codes arising from the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 brought in regulations which required local authorities to coordinate admissions. These coordinated schemes are intended to make admissions less stressful for parents. Before 1998 parents had to apply to each admission authority individually. Details of the coordination scheme have to be published by the local authority by the 1st of January. Academies are required to participate in this local coordination. There are three City Technology Colleges to which parents have to apply directly. Applications are made on common application form when parents are asked to state their preferences for at least 3 schools in rank order. Parents may state a preference for a school in another local authority and the home local authority has a duty to pass that on.

If there is a higher demand than there are places the oversubscription criteria come into play. Applications are sent to schools which are own admission authorities and they decide if the applicants meet the criteria. The aim is to give parents their first preference if possible. For secondary schools the national offer day is March 1st or the next working day and for primary schools on the 16th April or the next working day . Each year the Government announces the preferences met and the outcome of appeals.

After admission authorities have determined their admissions and by the 1st of May local authorities must publish the admission arrangements for all local schools for the September of the following year. By September 12th ie by the beginning of that offer year the local authority must publish a composite prospectus giving details of the admission arrangements of all local schools including any supplementary information forms which any school requires

Also by the 30th June each year local authorities have to publish a report locally on admissions to all the schools in their area. It must also be sent to the Schools Adjudicator. The Code sets out what this report has to cover. The current Code requires (3.23) local authorities for all schools for which they coordinate admissions (ie including academies) at a minimum to report how local arrangements service the needs of looked after children, children with disabilities and children with SEN; the working of Fair Access protocols and the number an outcome of appeals and any other issues they may want to include.

What about applications not at the start of the school year?

Each local authority must agree a Fair Access protocol with the majority of schools in the area. Its aim is to ensure that any child without a place outside the normal admissions round is offered one. All admission authorities are required to participate. Similar provisions apply to looked-after children. The Local Authority can direct a maintained school to admit the child. The Local authority cannot direct an academy to take a child but can request the Secretary of State to intervene.

If for example a family moves into the area during the school year it will need to make an ‘in-year application’. The Code says (2.21) that any parent can apply for a place at any time to any school outside the normal admissions round. This may be coordinated by the local authority but this is not required and parents may apply directly to a school which is an admission authority. The admission authority must inform the local authority about any applications and their outcome.

What can I do if I think a local school is choosing pupils unfairly? (The role of the School Adjudicator).

Schools Adjudicators were appointed under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. They have several roles including deciding on objections to admission arrangements in line with the provisions of the School Admissions Code. If an objection is made about proposed admission arrangements within the time scale and by those authorised to do so the Adjudicator can consider the evidence and rule on the objection. The decision is binding on the admission authority.

In practice the Adjudicator can usually only intervene if a complaint is made. However if arrangements come to the attention of the Office of the School Adjudicator it may investigate. Its website has details about how to object. Any ‘person or body’ who considers that any maintained school or Academy’s arrangements are unlawful or not in compliance with the Code or relevant law relating to admissions can object. Objectors have to provide evidence and object within a time scale following the publication of the proposed admission criteria to be used in the forthcoming academic year. Objections to the adjudicator have to made by the 30th June.

Local authorities have a duty to ensure that admission arrangements are lawful and must object to the Adjudicator if they are made aware of any unfair admission arrangements in the area.

There are restrictions on what each potential objector may object about (3.3). For example objections cannot be brought about selection to grammar schools, increases in the planned admission number or variations to Academy admissions arrangements which have been agreed with the Secretary of State.

The Chief Adjudicator publishes an Annual Report.

What are Admission Forums?

Admission Forums were set up by the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 although local authorities were not required to have them. A later amendment in 2002 made them mandatory ie they had to be set up by all local authorities. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 strengthened their role. The Education Act 2011 removed the requirement on local authorities to have admission forums. Some were abolished, some retained. Membership consists of representatives from each faith group represented by schools in the area, parent and community representatives, local employers, local authority representatives and choice advisors. Membership is intended to reflect the local area and not to be dominated by one group. Their role is to monitor the effectiveness of local admission arrangements and advise admission authorities. Comprehensive Future supported the requirement that local authorities have admission forums and opposed the ending of this requirement.

What about the Ombudsman?

The Ombudsman has a role in considering if a local authority has been guilty of maladministration. Local electors can complain to the Ombudsman about this. This has been relevant when a group of parents were able to show that a local authority had not objected to a school’s admission criteria which did not fit in with the Schools Admissions Code. The Ombudsman produces regular reports with evidence of maladministration by school governing bodies which are admission arrangements. The Ombudsman role also extends to school admissions appeals. However the Ombudsman cannot deal with complaints about maladministration of academies admissions. Complaints about appeals in academies have to be referred to the Education Funding Agency.

What does Comprehensive Future think should be changed to make admissions fairer?

What most parents want is a good local school. Admissions criteria like nearness to school or siblings allow parents to predict if they are eligible. Inevitably in some areas schools are not spread evenly, so there can be a need to use catchment areas, feeder primaries, banding or lotteries.

However more and more schools are becoming admission authorities and deciding their own admissions criteria. The evidence is that this will lead to increasing social segregation in what is an already segregated system.

Comprehensive Future wants selection on ability or aptitude removed. This would go a long way to bring about fairer admissions. Comprehensive Future believes that selection will never end through petitioning and balloting rules. For our reasons see our briefing and for what we propose see our pamphlet Ending Rejection at 11.

Comprehensive Future believes that setting admission criteria should not be open to individual schools. A school admission forum which includes local representatives of all schools in the area should be where decisions are made about which admission systems are fair.

We also want to see a stronger role for the locally elected authority. The administration for all schools ie deciding which child fits the admission criteria for all local schools should be done by the local authority not individual schools. Acting as a Children’s Champion the local authority should object to any unfair practices in any local school, involving the adjudicator if necessary. The report published each year could show the social profile of each school compared to the local area.

Individual schools should not be allowed to introduce banding based only on those who apply and whose parents can bring them to take a test at the school, thereby again selecting children from supportive backgrounds. Instead any decision to introduce banding, ie admitting children to reflect the ability profile, should be made by the local admission forum or the local authority and should apply to all schools in the area using the same method. The test on which banding is to be based should be taken by all children in the primary schools so that banding would reflect the ability profile across the area.