Whoever becomes education secretary after the election is likely to face calls for a shake-up of school admissions. The present system, introduced in 1998, was intended to bring order into the chaotic market for school places.
But recent events in Wellingborough, where 20 children were left teacherless because the Northamptonshire town's three foundation schools all claimed to be full, suggest that further changes may be needed.
The 1998 legislation limited the right of previously non-selective schools to introduce partial selection on grounds of ability, but allowed them to select for aptitude. The Act also created the Office of Schools Adjudicator to resolve disputes over admissions arrangements between local authorities, schools and parents.
These reforms, coupled with a code of practice requiring oversubscribed schools to use fair and clear admissions criteria, have had some impact, according to Anne West, director of the Centre for Educational Research at the London School of Economics.
"In many authorities in the South-east of England, with its highly-developed secondary school quasi-market, the policy changes have resulted in some inequitable admissions criteria being removed," she says in an unpublished paper co-written with researcher Dabney Ingram. "This is more apparent with some criteria - for example, children of employees having priority...In other cases, and particularly in relation to partial selection by ability or aptitude, adjudicators seem to be adopting a cautious approach and reducing partial selection in some, but by no means all cases."
To date, the adjudicators have heard just 87 objections to admissions arrangements, of which 32 related to partial selection.
Sir Peter Newsam, the chief adjudicator, says: "Broadly speaking, the system works well in the sense that the number of objections has been fairly modest compared to what I think the Department for Education and Employment had expected." The adjudicators' light workload might indicate that most disputes are settled locally, but Anne West points out that it could just as easily show that many parents are not aware of their rights to object to admissions arrangements.
These rights are strictly limited. The adjudication rules allow education authorities and foundation and voluntary-aided schools, which operate as "admissions authorities", to challenge local arrangements. Groups of at least 10 parents can also complain to adjudicators if their local secondary selects pupils on academic ability or aptitude - but only if these arrangements were already in place in September 1997. So if a school now introduces partial selection, which is unlawful, parents cannot object. Only an education authority or oher admission authority can do so.
Anne West says: "It is unreasonable for parents not to be able to object when their children are likely to suffer directly from 'creaming' by schools that are partially selective."
Dr West also argues that the governing bodies of community and voluntary-controlled schools, which bear the brunt of selective admissions practices in other local schools, should have the right to complain. They have to rely on their LEA to do this for them. But many authorities, she says, have a vested interest in maintaining selective admissions policies because schools with these policies tend to get better results.
In an analysis of the work of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator during the first 13 months of its operation, Dr West found that objections to admissions policies had been made by just 19 of the 150 LEAs in England.
Most were in the South-east, with Hertfordshire making 23 objections to partial selection during this period. Other authorities where three or more objections were made were Croydon (8), Barnet (4), Bromley (3) and Wandsworth (3). These were mostly authorities with a variety of school types, including foundation, voluntary-aided, fully selective and partially-selective schools.
The majority of objections that Anne West studied were not upheld by the adjudicators, partly because objectors often failed to provide evidence that admissions arrangements were harming the interests of children or disrupting the school system.
Where objections were upheld, adjudicators sometimes reduced partial selection to anything from 10 to 35 per cent (in those nominally comprehensive schools which began to select a high proportion of pupils on ability before the 1998 Act).
"It appears that this ad hoc approach has arisen because policy-makers have been unable to decide on whether or not they wish to see partial selection continue," says Dr West.
She also points to "conflicting messages" from policy-makers, with partial selection by aptitude condoned for specialist schools but partial selection by ability frowned upon. "In practice, it appears unlikely that ability and aptitude can be clearly differentiated, and this problem needs to be addressed," she says.
The Government is clearly aware that not all is well with schools admissions, admitting in its recent Green Paper that "in some areas there is still scope for better management and co-ordination of admissions operations".
An obvious way of improving co-ordination would be to take away the right of foundation and voluntary-aided schools to set their own admissions criteria. But with Labour showing little inclination, and the Conservatives suggesting that all secondary schools should be able to decide which children to admit, that particular sacred cow seems safe from any imminent cull.