Code breakers get the message - rules on admissions will be enforced

7th November 2008 at 00:00
Chief adjudicator tells schools and local authorities that they must work within the official policy

If you had a poor summer, then pity a team of junior barristers in Leeds. As all around them people moaned about the weather and the looming credit crunch, this team of eager legal experts had an even gloomier prospect ahead of them.

Their task - working for "pin money" - was to spend their spare time scrutinising a sample of more than 3,000 separate school admissions policies and determining whether they had complied with the 132-page school admissions code.

The process may have been tedious, but the result of the exercise, announced this week, was anything but. It revealed that at least two- thirds of schools that controlled their own admissions - those that are voluntary aided or foundation schools - had in some way failed to comply with the code.

Perhaps even more worryingly, at least half of the local authorities in England - the bodies that draw up admissions policies for the majority of the country's schools - were also guilty of failing to abide by the code in some way.

On the face of it the findings of the exercise conducted by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator are devastating. In the last few years the admissions code has assumed ever greater importance because of major structural changes in the schools system.

As a result of government policy encouraging greater diversity, more and more schools are acquiring some form of self-governing status - as either trust, voluntary-aided or foundation schools or academies.

Repeated academic research has shown the more schools that are given the freedom to control their admissions in this way, the more likely there is to be greater social segregation as backdoor selection takes place, with schools creaming off middle-class or able pupils.

The Government's solution was to toughen up the admissions code by ensuring it banned practices such as interviewing parents that could allow social selection.

The law was also changed to ensure that all admissions authorities had to adhere to the code rather than just "having regard" to it.

They were moves that went a long way to meeting many Labour MPs' concerns about the growth of self-governing schools and helped the Government get its controversial 2006 Education and Inspections Act through Parliament.

But for them to work, the new code - introduced in 2007 - had to be followed and enforced.

The first signs that this was not happening emerged in January 2008 when Jim Knight, schools minister, wrote to local councils warning that some admissions authorities were flouting the code.

Follow-up spot checks carried out by the Department for Children Schools and Families in Northamptonshire, Manchester and Barnet in the spring concluded that the code breaking was widespread and the majority of faith of schools were guilty.

That study, which led to accusations that ministers were conducting a witch-hunt against religious schools, prompted the latest nationwide schools adjudicators' investigation. The findings suggest the problem is even wider than anyone had suspected. But ask Sir Philip Hunter, the chief schools adjudicator, if he is surprised and he replies, with a twinkle in his eye: "Nothing shocks me."

The details of his findings suggest his relative downplaying of them is about more than his determination to avoid sensation.

To begin with he is clear that all the breaches his team of lawyers uncovered were, "derived from misunderstandings of the code, not from wilful disregard to it".

The majority of them were about the lack of adequate definitions of terms such as sibling and distance. This widespread problem - there were 2,244 cases uncovered from the 3,000 school sample - is something Sir Philip is confident can be cleared up relatively simply by local and religious authorities drawing up their own default definitions that individual schools can adopt.

Potentially more serious were another 803 breaches that involved supplementary information forms. Here schools had asked extra questions about applicants, such as parents place of work, that were not appropriate at the application stage because they could be used as part of backdoor selection. Sir Philip said many problems had arisen because schools had failed to bring their forms up to date with the new code. He believes that model supplementary information forms drawn up by the Government in discussion with faith school authorities could provide the answer.

The third group of 832 breaches, which include 10 committed by local authorities, are described as "more substantial contraventions".

They include admissions authorities not giving the priority to children in care they are supposed to. Others broke the code by giving priority to parents who made the school their first preference, or prioritising siblings of pupils who were no longer at the school.

Some authorities did not include tie-breakers and others did not spell out oversubscription criteria in an understandable form.

Intentional or not, there is no escaping the fact that the code is far from working as it should be, and big changes are planned as a result.

Sir Philip wants to see a website set up to help admissions authorities "build" policies that meet their own requirements but will conform to the code. He is also calling for all admissions policies to be posted online where they can be scrutinised by everyone including adjudicators.

The Government has already decided that local authorities should be given a new duty to report each year on the legality and fairness of all school admissions.

Adjudicators will also have their powers extended allowing them to consider proactively any admissions arrangements they feel are not compliant, instead of only being able to consider complaints made directly to them.

Will this be enough to ensure the code works? Local authorities were already supposed to be overseeing the system and this year's research exercises have uncovered just how many breaches escaped their attention. Their role will need to be carried with greater vigour.

Then there are the school adjudicators themselves. A ruling last week showed as far as the law is concerned independent arbiters are not always judged to be infallible.

Drayton Manor High managed to have an adjudicator's decision that the popular west London secondary had "indirectly discriminated" against pupils from "economically less advantaged families" overturned in the High Court.

The adjudicator had objected to Drayton Manor's policy of only admitting children for whom the school was their closest, which the local authority said favoured families from affluent areas.

The school had been told to switch to a strict criteria of admitting children who live closest to it, regardless of their proximity to any other schools, but the judge decided the adjudicator had failed to give adequate reasons for ordering such a change.

Richard Wilkins, the school's lawyer, argues the result could discourage local authorities from challenging schools admission policies.

Whatever the case, the number of objections to admissions policies the adjudicators receive continue to rise, having more than doubled from 173 to 369 during 200708.

Sir Philip believes the rising expectations of parents are at the heart of this increase. He says they are never likely to be satisfied.

"It is natural that politicians should emphasise the importance of choice and it is important," he said. "But there is no possibility ever of all parents getting their first choice even if every school everywhere in the world was absolutely perfect.

"Even if every school had 100 per cent examination results and perfect Ofsted reports and beautiful buildings some schools would still be more popular than others."

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