The Chief Adjudicator reports – more evidence of the need of an admissions review

The Chief Adjudicator produced her annual report in November 2014 but it came out quietly from the DfE on December 17th. She retires later this year. The report is further evidence of the need for a wide ranging review of the whole system of school admissions. Although the Chief Adjudicator uses mild official language her report is very disturbing. There are many detailed concerns in the report not highlighted in the DfE press release. She raises concerns about own admission authority schools failing to meet the requirement of the Code and about so-called fair banding. These problems will only increase as more schools become academies.

The OSA has dealt with many objections from the Fair Admissions Campaign and also three from Comprehensive Future (all three were upheld). Perhaps as a result of this the report raises the possibility of limiting the right of objection just to parents. The report says ‘there have been instances of pressure groups and individuals making use of the provision to object when it appears to be more about trying to influence a policy matter than concern about the arrangements of a school for which parents might legitimately be considering applying for a place for their child’ . Comprehensive Future supported extending the right of objection, limiting it again will not lead to a fairer system. Often parents only discover unfairness when it is too late to object. What is needed is not more guidance to be ignored or tinkering with the Code but the review which Comprehensive Future has been calling for.

Failure to adhere to the basic principle of the Code is a major point. The report says –
‘Adjudicators have again been concerned that although the Code is a very concise document some of our findings about the objections suggest that the admission authority had not read the Code and therefore failed to comply with its mandatory terms. Paragraph 14 sets out the “Overall principles behind setting arrangements” and says, “In drawing up their admission arrangements admission authorities must ensure that the practices and the criteria used to decide the allocation of school places are fair, clear and objective. Parents should be able to look at a set of arrangements and understand easily how places for that school will be allocated.” Admission authorities need to test their arrangements against this paragraph as well as all the specific requirements in the Code’.

She goes on to report several concerns including that 1 in 5 own admission authority schools failed to notify their local authority of their admission arrangements by the deadline and that admission arrangements for many schools that are their own admission authority are unnecessarily complex and lack transparency.

Her report raises many of the concerns which Comprehensive Future focused on in our survey in 2014. She says –
‘The complexity of some schools’ admission arrangements continues to be a matter of concern. Adjudicators have noted that the admission arrangements determined by local authorities for community and voluntary controlled schools are almost always clear and uncomplicated so it is easy for parents and others to understand how places will be allocated. The arrangements of some schools of all types that are their own admission authority are equally clear and straightforward, but frequently they are less clear and more, or even very, complicated.’ She mentioned that a number of own admission authority schools criteria have numerous subcategories within individual oversubscription criteria. ‘Such arrangements’ she says, ‘ are difficult to understand and limit parents’ ability to assess the chance of their child being offered a place.’

Banding get a particular mention as well as entry test of all kinds – ..‘ some of the cases involving banding that have been seen raise questions about the effects on children, its purpose and costs.’ For popular schools that have complicated arrangements, especially if they include tests for banding purposes and/or for places allocated for aptitude and/or for some selective places by ability, the first hurdle in gaining a place is to take the test. In some areas the local authority administers a single set of testing arrangements for all the schools concerned so that children take only one set of tests. In other areas children may have to attend test centres to take different tests for different schools on more than one day.’

Concerns are also raised about sixth form and faith school admissions and in year admissions. Many of these were raised at our recent conference.

Dr Passmore has included recommendations for the Department of Education to consider based on her main findings, these include considering whether:

• some sample admission arrangements should be provided to help schools avoid having unnecessarily complex admission arrangements
• guidance might be provided that sets out what is expected of the body or person representing the religion or religious denomination of schools designated as having a religious character about the guidance they then give their schools

One comment from the report says it all –

‘Questions asked last year remain: why do some schools decide to have complex arrangements and what is their aim? Also, when the objection to the arrangements in 75 per cent of cases was upheld or partially upheld and in some of those not upheld there were some other aspects that did not comply with the Code, how confident can we be that the arrangements for other schools not subject to an objection do not contravene the Code? The majority might be fully compliant, but we do not know.’

This report needs far more publicity than it has been given so far.