England’s school admissions system needs a radical overhaul, according to the man who policed it for seven years.
He wants the statutory school admissions code strengthened, greater powers for the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) and a role for Ofsted in examining schools’ admissions criteria.
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Sir Philip's call comes in the week that education secretary Damian Hinds pledged to change the school admissions code to help 1.6 million vulnerable "children in need".
But the former adjudicator believes much wider changes are needed to the way school admissions are policed.
Since he was in post 10 years ago, the rise in academisation has led to more than 70 per cent of secondary schools becoming their own admissions authorities, which means that they can set their own admissions policies, including oversubscription criteria based on factors such as catchment area, faith and siblings already at the school.
School admissions powers
Sir Philip used to have powers to change a school’s admission policy. For example, he could “rule that some admission criteria gave priority to already privileged families so should be changed”. He is concerned that adjudicators have lost those powers and that it is “now easier for schools to select pupils on the basis of their ability and social standing”.
“Over the years the admissions code has been watered down and schools are now free to include admissions arrangements that 10 to 15 years ago they wouldn’t have been allowed to use, which means they have got more power and are not as constrained,” he told Tes.
“In my day, you could get into an admission arrangement even when there hadn’t been a formal complaint. If your attention was drawn to it, you could go in and deal with it and change it.”
The current chief schools adjudicator Shan Scott has already raised concerns that admissions are inadequately policed. In a report published in 2017, she warned that some local authorities – which are supposed to check on school admissions – were unsure whether admissions in their areas were lawful.
And Sir Philip’s fears about the current system are shared by another former schools adjudicator, Alan Parker. He told Tes that the 2011 Education Act had “at a stroke seriously undermined the ability” of schools adjudicators to enforce the school admissions code.
“The previous powers allowed adjudicators who found flaws in a school’s admissions arrangements not only to correct them directly but ensure that they could not be changed back for up to three years thereafter,” he said.
The adjudicator then had explicit powers to specify any appropriate change to admissions arrangements – which the school was obliged to comply with – and then protect them from being changed back for up to three years.
“The 2011 Act removed those powers so that, whilst an adjudicator decision remained binding in law, the responsibility for implementing them was handed over to schools,” Mr Parker said.
“What happened as a result made no difference to the majority of cases where schools were willing to comply, but allowed the ‘awkward squad’ ample opportunities to subvert adjudication outcomes.”
The changes have come at a time when academisation has led to an exponential rise in the number of school admissions authorities, creating a system that is much more complicated, fragmented and difficult to police.
A Tes investigation in 2016 suggested a major lack of resources for adjudicators, with a 2,226 per cent increase in academy numbers between 2010 to 2015, accompanied by real terms rise in funding for school adjudicators of less than 5 per cent over the same period.
Sir Philip wants Ofsted to have powers to check that a school’s admission policy is compliant.
“You used to deal with one admission policy for lots of schools in a local authority area [when local authorities were the main admissions authority, before academisation] but now there are lots of different policies set by school governors about what sort of children they want in their schools,” he said.
“But governors should not have absolute powers over what judgements should be. They should have an influence but they should be regulated by a stronger code of practice, which at the moment doesn’t allow adjudicators to intervene enough.”
Earlier this year, thinktank EPI (the Education Policy Institute) called for a review of the admissions system, which it said was widening the gap between rich and poor. And social mobility charity The Sutton Trust called for ballots to make admissions fairer after identifying a lack of poorer children at top schools.
In its 2017 manifesto, the Conservative government ruled out using a ballot system but said it would carry out a review of the admissions system, which is has since failed to do.
Schools choosing pupils
A Sutton Trust spokesperson said: "House prices, catchment areas, faith criteria and morally dubious admissions practices all conspire to disadvantage poorer families in the scramble for the most coveted [school] places. Who goes to which schools is important in the social mobility equation.
"We need to break the stranglehold of the wealthiest on the highest performing schools, whether they be community or faith-based comprehensives, private schools or grammars."
Anne West, professor of education policy at London School of Economics, said: "Some admissions arrangements are complex, and increasing academisation and more schools controlling their own admissions have increased complexity. The complexity raises concerns that schools are choosing pupils rather than parents choosing schools for their children."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want to ensure the admissions system continues to work effectively for parents, pupils and schools. This is supported by the education secretary, who just this week announced in a speech he plans to review the School Admissions Code."
The DfE confirmed that this review only relates to children in need.