The outgoing chief schools adjudicator for England has laid bare her concerns about an increasingly fragmented school admissions system that too often leaves parents in the dark and fails to serve children well.
Elizabeth Passmore’s final annual report, covering 2014-15, unveils a host of problems in a landscape where a large proportion of schools have acquired academy status and run their own admissions. They include:
- Schools spending more public money on lawyers to defend admissions policies.
- A 53 per cent rise in offers being withdrawn owing to fraudulent applications by parents.
- Expensive banding systems used to take bright pupils at the expense of local children.
- Academy admissions arrangements that are unpublished or difficult to find.
The report was finalised in November, but quietly published by the government just before Christmas. It has gone unnoticed until now.
Dr Passmore found that “too many schools” were continuing to flout the rules over the consultation and publication of admissions arrangements. In some cases, it was “still no easy matter to find” admissions policies that should be readily accessible, she said.
The adjudicator, who retires at the end of next month, found that local authority admissions arrangements for community schools were “almost always clear and uncomplicated”. But those for academies and faith schools were “frequently…less clear and more, or even very, complicated”.
Admissions arrangements for schools included numerous sub-categories within oversubscription criteria. They often had so many levels of priority that it was “unclear…how [they] could be applied”, Dr Passmore found. The approach was a “matter of concern” and “[did] not actually serve local children well”, she warned.
Her report shows that the number of objections to admissions upheld, either wholly or partially, surged to 159 from 99 the previous year. But the number of new cases referred to her office dropped (see table, below).
Dr Passmore raised particular concerns about banded admissions systems. Schools often said that they needed them to achieve a comprehensive intake. But she warned that some used the approach to “increase intake of higher-ability pupils such that children living near the school…may not be allocated a place”.
The chief adjudicator noted that banding tests could cost as much £500 for every pupil admitted and left children in some areas with the “hurdle” of taking a variety of tests for different schools over several days.
Some of the cases involving banding “raise questions about the effects on children, its purpose and costs”, she concluded.
Dr Passmore said she had been “surprised and concerned” by the increasing numbers of academies, foundation and faith schools hiring lawyers for admissions cases. She added: “While occasionally the lawyer has been found to offer sound advice and admission arrangements have been amended promptly, this has not been so in other cases.”
Her report finds that 79 local authorities withdrew 284 school place offers because of fraud in 2014-15, compared with 66 authorities withdrawing 186 places in 2013-14.
It also calls on the government to produce new guidance to address problems with faith school admissions. Dr Passmore said that there were still “too many supplementary information forms for schools with a religious character” that broke admissions rules by asking for prohibited information.
The Comprehensive Future admissions campaign group said: “Although the chief adjudicator uses mild official language, her report is very disturbing.
“She is right to raise 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.”
Anne Heavey, education policy adviser at the ATL teaching union said that unnecessarily complex admissions systems could “skew school intakes to favour the children of parents who have the time, energy and resources to navigate this complex landscape.”
She added: “This report highlights the stark reality that current admissions arrangements are not fit for purpose.”
Other problems raised in Dr Passmore’s report include frequent breaches of the admissions code by school sixth forms.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The chief adjudicator’s annual report helps us identify how we can continue to improve the admissions framework to ensure fair access for all children. We will review her findings and take action where appropriate.”
Objections to and referrals about admissions considered by school adjudicators:2013-14 2014-15 Objections upheld 86 61 Objections partially upheld 13 98 Objections not upheld 23 51 New cases considered 274 218
This is an edited version of an article from the 8 January edition of TES. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Or pick up the magazine in all good newsagents.