Parents’ choice or schools’ choice? Time for a review of school admissions

A new survey by Comprehensive Future has shown that in some areas parents face a bewildering range of secondary school admissions policies when choosing (or being chosen by) a secondary school.

In many areas children do not have to sit tests of any kind to get places at any secondary school whereas in other areas there are tests for ability, aptitude and banding (to get a comprehensive intake).  Also many schools are selecting all or part of their intake on faith criteria.

Furthermore the way in which the information is provided by some local authorities in their prospectuses and schools on their websites does not make it easy for parents to get the complete picture about admissions. Some local authorities’ prospectuses are models of clarity, helping parents by giving all the information in one place; others are not. Parents may have a lengthy search for the information they need on schools’ websites.

Over recent months 15 Comprehensive Future volunteers up and down the country have been looking at the information which was available to parents for the September 2014 entry.

The findings show the need for a thorough and wide ranging review on how admissions are operating in England – particularly as more and more schools are setting their own admission criteria. Comprehensive Future wants to see all the political parties commit to this review.

The survey found –

  • There is wide variation regionally and within regions on the percentage of schools in a local authority which do not have tests or a faith requirement in their admissions criteria. Only 39% of schools in Inner London do not have them whereas in Yorkshire and the Humber for example 82% of schools do not appear to have them. (see tables in Appendix)
  •  While the majority of schools are using easily measurable criteria, such as distance from home to school and siblings already in the school and those required by law ie for looked-after children, some schools have extremely complex criteria.  In a few schools to maximize a child’s chances of admission, families would need to worship regularly and obtain a letter to say so; sign up for an aptitude test and attend at the designated time; and sign up for the banding test and attend at the designated time.
  •  Complex criteria, such as these, make it very difficult for parents to predict whether their child will get a place.  This is despite a requirement of the School Admission Code which says ‘Parents should be able to look at a set of arrangements and understand easily how places for that school will be allocated’ (para 14 page 6). This could be grounds for an objection to the Schools Adjudicator.
  •  As more schools become academies and therefore admission authorities, it is likely that the use of complicated admissions criteria will increase. However at the moment many academies are adopting the admission criteria of the local authority, which makes it easier for parents.
  •  The survey finds cause for concern regarding banding, which is often seen as a fair and transparent way of ensuring that schools are comprehensive.  Children are tested and placed in ability bands, with schools admitting pupils across the ability range.  However a confusing situation was found, in which banding arrangements could differ from school to school even in the same local authority.  The number of bands used varies from 3 to 9.  In a few areas the test is taken by all children in their primary schools, but in most cases children have to go to the secondary school at a particular time to take the test. This eliminates a whole tranche of children whose parents do not, for whatever reason, bring them to be tested and is likely to exclude some of the most deprived and disadvantaged. There is a noticeable variation across the country in the likelihood of children having to be tested for banding. Children in the London area are far more likely to have to take a banding test
  •  The tests of ‘aptitude’ for priority places in music and other subjects also generally require parents to bring their children to the school to be tested at an appointed time.  This too eliminates all those who do not sign up for the test
  •  Schools and local authorities need to look at how easy it is for parents to find the information they need. Some of the local authorities’ prospectuses are very long, perhaps running to a 100 pages. However this may be because many authorities aim to get all the information in one place.  Some local authorities make it easier for parents by separating the information about the process of admissions (ie the timing of the procedure or how preferences are dealt with) from a list of the oversubscription criteria of the schools.
  •  However many other local authorities are only listing the criteria for community and voluntary controlled schools and telling parents to go to the websites of all the other local schools to find their criteria. In some areas, where many of the secondary schools are academies, this could involve a lot of searching.
  •  Often when parents go to schools’ websites the oversubscription criteria are hard to find. Some schools may have ‘admissions’ in the menu on the home page; in others parents would have to guess under what heading they might find admission policies. It could perhaps be under ‘parents’ or ‘policies’ or ‘information’.  If parents are reliant on paper prospectuses this may involve them contacting several schools to get the information.

Background to the survey

The first Code of Practice on School Admissions (now called the School Admissions Code) was introduced in 1999. The aim then was ‘to provide transparent, adequate, clear and understandable information for parents’. The current School Admissions Code allows some schools to have oversubscription criteria which select on partially or wholly on ability or wholly or partially on faith. All schools can select partially on ‘aptitude’ or set banding tests.

Parents cannot choose but express a preference in rank order. Oversubscription criteria only come into play when schools are oversubscribed. If there are places applicants have to be admitted.  Only grammar schools are not required to take all applicants if they are not full. As the increased primary numbers work through to secondary schools there is likely to be more pressure on places in some areas.

Local authorities are required each year in September to publish the admission arrangements for all local schools, whether academies, free schools, foundation, voluntary aided, community or voluntary controlled in a composite prospectus. When parents are deciding which schools for which to express a preference they need this to find out about the admission criteria for each local school.

At the moment across the country many parents will be going through the appeal process having been offered a secondary school for 2014 in March.

Currently local authorities are publishing the proposed criteria for entry into schools in September 2015. They are required to do this each year from the 1st May having been given the information by the schools which are admission authorities.  There is now an opportunity to object to the Schools Adjudicator about these admission arrangements until June 30th. Anyone may object.

More evidence of the need for a review.

The Chief Schools Adjudicator commented in her Annual Report in November on the difficulty parents have in finding information on schools’ websites. (page 7)  The Children’s Commissioner in April called on schools to review admission policies to ensure that they do nothing to put parents off applying for a place (page 6). A Sutton Trust report on admissions in February recommended that there should be local coordination for banding (page 6).  The Fair Admissions Campaign campaigns for faith schools to admit all children regardless of faith.

Appendix

Table 1

Percentage of schools in an LA area which do not have an ability test (including banding) or an aptitude test or a faith requirement as part of their admissions criteria.

Local authorities
0 – 20% Croydon, Greenwich, Hackney, Kensington and Chelsea, Lewisham, Reading, Tower Hamlets
21- 40% Barnet, Bexley, Lambeth, Hammersmith and Fulham, Liverpool, Merton, Poole, Sandwell, Southend, Southwark, St Helens, Sutton, Torbay, Trafford,  Wandsworth
41- 60 % Bath and NE Somerset, Blackburn with Darwen, Buckinghamshire ,Bolton, Bradford, Camden, Hartlepool, Hillingdon, Islington, Kent, Kingston, Lincolnshire, Medway, Middlesborough, Slough, Walsall, Westminster, Wigan, Wirral
61% – 80% Birmingham, Blackpool ,Bournemouth, Brent, Bristol, Bromley, Bury, Calderdale, Cheshire West and Chester, Coventry, Darlington, Derby, Ealing, Enfield, Essex, Gateshead, Gloucestershire, Halton,  Havering, Hertfordshire, Hounslow, Hull, Knowsley, Lancashire, Leicester City, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Newcastle, Northamptonshire, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, Oldham, Peterborough, Plymouth, Redbridge, Rochdale, Salford, Sefton, Southampton, South Tyneside, Stockton on Tees, Stockport, Stoke on Trent, Sunderland, Surrey, Telford and Wrekin, Warrington, Warwickshire, Wolverhampton, York 
81% – 100% Barking, Barnsley ,Bedford, Bracknell, Brighton and Hove, Cambridgeshire, Central Bedfordshire, Cheshire, East Cornwall, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon, Doncaster, Dorset, Dudley, Durham, East Riding of Yorkshire, East Sussex, Hampshire, Haringey, Harrow, Herefordshire, Isle of Wight, Isles of Scilly, Kirklees, Leeds, Leicestershire,  Luton, Newham, Norfolk, North East Lincs, North Lincs, North Somerset ,North Tyneside, North Yorkshire , Northumberland, Oxfordshire, Portsmouth, Redcar and Cleveland, Richmond, Rotherham, Rutland, Sheffield, Shropshire, Solihull, Somerset, South Gloucs, Staffordshire, Suffolk, Swindon, Tameside, Thurrock, Wakefield, Waltham Forest, West Berks, West Sussex, Wiltshire, Windsor and Maidenhead, Wokingham, Worcestershire

 

Table 2

Regional differences

Percentage of schools in an LA area which do not have an ability test (including banding) or an aptitude test or a faith requirement as part of their admissions criteria average per region

 North East                               79%

North West                              65%

Yorks and Humber                 83%

East Midlands                         78%

West Midlands                        77%

East of England                      78%

Inner London                          39%

Outer London                         55%

South East                               72%

South West                              80%