Karen Thornton reports on a circular which urges joint working to make finding a school less fraught for parents
It's interim, it's consultative, and it's a draft. But the school admissions interim guidance points the way to what ministers hope will be a less fraught system of securing places.
The circular provides guidance mainly for the September 1999 intake. A statutory code of practice on admissions - due out early next year - will become effective from September 2000.
The interim guidance indicates the Government's thoughts during an important transitional year - when schools will be changing status, from county and grant-maintained to community and foundation. Much of it has been trailed in debates on the School Standards and Framework Bill.
"Forums" of local admissions authorities - education authorities, governing bodies of grant -maintained and church schools, and city technology colleges - will produce common policies, with disputes referred to an independent adjudicator appointed by the Secretary of State.
Local councillors and school governors will no longer be able to sit on appeals panels, and the Government's maximum class-size policy for five to seven-year-olds will have to be taken into account.
The circular urges admissions authorities to start working together immediately, although changes to appeals panels cannot be anticipated before the expected statutory date of September 1999.
And it particularly recommends the production of joint booklets, timetables and application forms.
That will be welcomed by parents, who in some areas have to fill out several application forms while their children sit several entry exams - and still fail to get a local place. Another bonus for parents will be the requirement that interviews should no longer figure in admissions policies except for church schools seeking to ascertain religious or denominational commitment.
David Sands, director of education in the London borough of Croydon, where there are several GM schools, a city technology college, and church schools, was cautiously optimistic about the prospects of co-operative working.
"Just the fact that admissions authorities will meet together will be helpful. Whether or not we will arrive at a single admissions form, I don't know. A number of schools have specific issues they like to have on their forms," he said.
But Pauline Latham, chairwoman of the Standing Advisory Committee for Grant Maintained Schools, believes the forums will be a bureaucratic nightmare.
She is more concerned about the limits of the adjudicator's powers and responsibilities - and particularly his power to end partial selection by academic ability where cases are referred by other admission authorities or parents.
"It doesn't say anywhere that they have to consult, just that they have the jurisdiction to make the decision. I think this is going to cause worry for schools," she said.
"It could change the whole nature of schools, with no consultation. It could be seen in some areas where there are quite a few of these schools as a vindictive act."
David Whitbread, head of education at the Local Government Association, said the intention behind the new policy was clear: "Partial selection is on the way out. Doing your own thing on admissions is on the way out as well."
The circular also offers a lifeline to "dump" schools, forced to admit an "undue proportion" of difficult pupils. Admissions could exceptionally be refused - even when places are available - if this would prejudice the provision of efficient education or efficient use of resources.
Roy Hattersley, page 17