- All state-funded schools in England, whether maintained or academy, are subject to the School Admissions Code. This is statutory guidance that schools and local authorities must follow when carrying out duties relating to school admissions.1 In theory this should mean that all school admission policies are fair and transparent but this is far from the case.
- All schools must have admission arrangements that clearly set out how children will be admitted, including the criteria that will be applied if there are more applications than places at the school – known as the ‘oversubscription criteria’.
- Under the current rules admission arrangements must be set annually and where changes are proposed, these must first be consulted on publicly. If no changes are made, admission arrangements must be consulted on at least once every seven years. Once determined, admissions arrangements must be published on the website of the school or other admission authority.
- The administration of school admissions for all types of state-funded schools is carried out by the local authority – with parents submitting their choices for a primary or secondary school place to the local authority on one application form, regardless of the status of the schools to which they are applying.
- The local authority also acts as the “admissions authority” for all community schools within its area. This means it sets the criteria for admissions to these schools.
- However, some schools act as their own admission authority and so set their own criteria for admissions, subject to adherence with the Admissions Code. Voluntary aided and foundation schools have been able to do this for some time but the growth in the number of academies and free schools, which also act as their own admissions authority, means there are now thousands of schools able to determine their own admissions.
- The problem with this is twofold: First, there is no body responsible for ensuring that school admission policies are compliant with the Code; and second, schools can sometimes engage in ‘back-door selection’ – meaning that while on paper their admissions policy is compliant, in practice, they are unfairly selecting or rejecting certain pupils. Schools may do this in the mistaken belief that certain pupils might adversely impact on their academic results and hence their position in school league tables. This results in discrimination against certain categories of pupils, such as those with SEND, with English as an additional language or pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is far more likely to happen where a school is not overseen by the local authority.
- A report by the Academies Commission stated that: “There is evidence that schools that control their own admissions are more likely to be socially selective than community schools.”2
- Research by education data analysis company SchoolDash in 2016 compared the percentage of children in each school eligible for free school meals (FSM) with the government’s measurement of local deprivation and found that secondary converter academies and primary free schools were among those types of schools in which poorer pupils were under-represented after taking into account the level of poverty in their local areas. Their web tool enables analysis of individual schools in each area.3
- The Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) has a role in ensuring schools comply with the school admissions code.4 However it does not scrutinise admission policies, it merely investigates once a complaint about a school’s admissions policy has been made directly to it.
- The fourth and final annual report of Dr Elizabeth Passmore, the outgoing Chief Schools Adjudicator, published in November 2015, was critical of admission practices in some schools. Her report stated: “The admission arrangements for many schools that are their own admission authority are unnecessarily complex and lack transparency, especially those with numerous subcategories within individual oversubscription criteria. Such arrangements are difficult to understand and limit parents’ ability to assess the chance of their child being offered a place.”5
- Currently anyone can make an objection to the OSA if they believe a school’s admission arrangements are in breach of the Code. However, the former Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, planned to drastically limit who is able to make objections by restricting complaints to local parents and councils. In January 2016, she stated that the Government would consult on changes, including “stopping vexatious complaints against faith schools from secularist campaign groups”.6 It remains to be seen whether her replacement as Secretary of State, Justine Greening, pursues this change.
- Some schools operate highly complex oversubscription criteria which might include objective factors such as whether the applicant has a special educational need or disability, whether they have a sibling at the school and distance from home to school (although the way this is measured can sometimes be contentious). However, often they can also include more opaque concepts such as ‘aptitude’ in a particular subject such as music, whether the child attended a named ‘feeder’ school, catchment areas, ‘banding’ and, in the case of free schools, whether the child’s parent is a ‘founder’ of the school – a particularly contentious practice yet one increasingly used by a large number of free schools.
- ‘Banding’ – where children are tested and put into ability bands with a set number of children admitted from each band – may appear to lead to fair and comprehensive admissions. However, if a school in a deprived area uses national ability bands, it is likely to admit more children with higher attainment than the average for the local area. Commenting on the objections received about the use of Banding arrangements, the former Chief Schools Adjudicator pointed out: “Where for example the school has an equal number of places in each band this is unlikely to reflect the distribution of ability in either the local or national population”.7
- In 2016, the Sutton Trust published a research brief, ‘Caught Out’, on primary school admissions. It found that there were well over 1,000 primary schools where the proportion of pupils receiving free school meals was over ten percentage points lower than that found in the neighbourhoods from which they recruited. These socially selective primary schools were more likely to be found in London and other urban areas; and they were often schools with a religious character that had chosen to apply religious oversubscription criteria. The report also found that these schools “tend to use lengthy and more complex oversubscription criteria to decide who is allocated a place. These criteria can be complex for parents to navigate.”8
- School admissions are likely to become increasingly complex, controversial and unfair as more schools become academies and more free schools open. The solution would be to return the control of school place planning and school admissions criteria to local authorities. That way, parents could be more confident that their child will get a place at the school of their choice and that local schools’ admissions policies are applied fairly and consistently for all pupils.
1 Department for Education (December 2014), School Admissions Code.
2 Academies Commission (January 2013), Unleashing Greatness: Getting the Best from an Academised System.
3 Timo Hannay (2 August 2016), “Poverty of opportunity?”, SchoolDash.
4 Information on the OSA is available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/office-of-the-schools-adjudicator/about
5 OSA (November 2015), Office of the Schools Adjudicator Annual Report September 2014 to August 2015 November 2015.
6 DfE Press Release (25 January 2016), Parents to Get Greater Say in the School Admissions Process.
7 OSA, (2015), page 32, paragraph 85.
8 Dr Rebecca Allen and Dr Meenakshi Parameshwaran (16 April 2016), Caught Out: Primary schools, catchment areas and social selection.