The great admissions game

24th June 2005 at 01:00
The new system for awarding secondary places is forcing some parents to make perverse choices - and ministers' desire for more foundation schools could make things worse, reports Wendy Berliner.

It was meant to be a co-ordinated admissions system for secondary schools in England, but in some places the only co-ordinated thing about it was the March 1 date for children to receive a single offer, and even that did not happen everywhere.

All over the country local education authorities battled with software that was not compatible with that of neighbouring authorities which was critical in preventing multiple offers: a litmus test of the scheme's success. Key dates varied so some authorities and schools had later deadlines for admissions than their neighbours. Data would be ready on one side of a border but nothing could happen because it was not ready on the other side.

Some parents were allowed to express three preferences, others four and some six. It was a recipe for chaos.

Chrissie Garret, assistant director of learning and culture at Birmingham council, one of the biggest education authorities in the UK, said: "It was an absolute nightmare. We were one of the only authorities to manage to do it properly. I had people coming in at 6 in the morning at weekends and staying till 10 at night. I had the managing director of the software firm and his team in here.

"Other local authorities had different systems and the systems would not talk to one another. And we were all working to different dates for when applications closed or when the data should be ready. It's an absolute miracle it worked."

The scheme replaced a system in which offer dates varied and parents, in urban areas or near the borders of education authorities, made multiple applications to different authorities who would not know what offers other authorities were making. The luckiest families would hoard offers waiting for a favourite to come up, while others had nothing.

In London, where there is a serious shortage of secondary places and a scramble for places in very good schools, the situation was chaotic with large numbers of children left without an offer, sometimes until after the beginning of the school year. Something had to be done.

In fairness to the new scheme, most authorities did manage to hit the March 1 offer date and the reduction in multiple offers means fewer children still without a place.

But because of the software problems, the process is still grinding on, with parents left, as in the previous system, holding on to more than one offer.

The most ambitious application of the new system was in the South-east with a pan-London scheme covering 40 authorities in London and its surrounds involving 80,000 children. Here the number of children without an offer was 40 per cent down on the previous year, even though eight of the authorities in the scheme were not able to share data with the central data hub because of software incompatibility.

Several hundred children still do not have a place for September but Dr Ian Birnbaum, strategic director of the London borough of Sutton and chair of the London Schools Admissions System, insists that the system has been an astonishing success given the complexity of the problem.

The number of parents given at least one of their preferred schools was 90 per cent. "Ten per cent are dissatisfied not because admissions co-ordination has failed but because there are too few good schools to please the people who want them," he said.

It is a point echoed by the Advisory Centre for Education, which gets nearly half its calls from London and the South-east. Calls asking for information about how to appeal against school allocation doubled in April compared with the same time last year, but workers believe that is because parents found out more quickly this year what school they were getting because of the single offer date.

Elsewhere local authorities report the system moving faster and higher percentages of parents getting at least one of their preferred schools. In Birmingham 88 per cent of parents got one of their preferred schools, and in Manchester 93 per cent did. Even in Surrey, one of the authorities unable to hit the offer date for everyone because of software problems, 90 per cent did.

But no one knows how many parents are really happy with the school they have been allocated. The problems with the new system are not confined to software. The Government wanted to end the arrangement which allowed schools to know how parents had ranked them. But some education authorities and foundation schools, particularly church schools, ignored the Government's advice. Foundation schools control their admissions and they want to give preference to children whose families are committed to their ethos.

Problems arose in areas where there is a mixed economy of selective and non-selective schools and where popular and oversubscribed comprehensives are determined to get the best possible share of the able children. Parents have to express a preference for a school before they know the results of selection tests.

Many grammar schools have seen applications from state school pupils fall this year because their parents cannot risk their children failing the test and being left with a poor school because the best schools only want people who pick them first (see right).

Ian Birnbaum was involved in drawing up the original admissions code and would have preferred it to insist that parents' rankings were kept from schools. His own authority and most of those within the pan-London system use equal preference. He believes first preference distorts the system and forces parents to think strategically.

The pre-election education ministerial team took the view that equal and first preference can sit together, but whether the new team will feel the same way remains open to question. The code was due to have been reviewed but this was put on hold because of the general election.

Meetings are now being held between local education authorities and civil servants at the Department for Education and Skills to see what lessons can be drawn from this year's exercise.

They will be keen to see where the scheme worked best and why - in some areas it did work very well - but ministers may not like the answers they get. The London borough of Enfield was one of the places the scheme worked with no software problems with neighbouring authorities and with the numbers of parents left without a preferred place for their child more than halved on the previous year to 214.

Jo Fear, head of the admissions service for Enfield, says: "We have lost a month of uncertainty for a lot of our parents and secondary schools can start to work earlier with a more definite cohort of pupils in the primaries."

But Enfield was the first in the country to introduce a co-ordinated admissions system among schools in the borough so it has had years of practice. Other parts of the country would have benefited from more time and trialling.

Also, although six of the borough's schools are their own admission authorities and include a prestigious grammar school, they work with the authority to ensure a co-ordinated scheme. For example, they all offer equal preference. Jo Fear admits there would be difficulties if they did not work together.

In Cheltenham, four foundation schools which control their own admissions insisted on first preference and were therefore working against the local authority, Gloucestershire council, and another school, Pate's grammar, which opted for equal preference.

Ministers are pushing plans for all specialist schools to become foundation schools. If, as in Cheltenham, foundation schools choose not to work with the local authority because they are in competition with other local schools, the choice the Government insists it wants parents to have will be seriously compromised.

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