The Issue: Admissions

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Are there better alternatives to our methods of choosing schools? We offer four perspectives
Are there better alternatives to our methods of choosing schools? We offer four perspectives



Sir Peter Newsam, former chief schools adjudicator, 1999-2002, now retired

Last month, Tim Brighouse, the former London schools tsar, wrote an article arguing that flaws in the admissions system were encouraging parents to cheat, and schools to ignore the code of fair practice ("Parents behaving badly," TES, April 18).

How have these problems arisen? Go back to 1980: no statutory code of practice, no schools adjudicator, no admissions forums, no advisers, no appeals against arrangements, no appeal committees at schools.

Two principles governed the way admissions were settled then. First, legislation required education authorities to "have regard" to parents' wishes, so far as these could be met without unreasonable expense and were educationally sensible (a boy could not expect to go to a girls' school). If there was room, a parent could insist their child was admitted.

The second principle was that, once a school had admitted a pre-stated number of pupils, it was regarded as full. There was no appeal.

What parents were found to want was an admissions system that was easy to understand, was uniformly applied locally, was perceived as fair, had over-subscription criteria that could be objectively checked, and gave children assured access to at least one nearby school. Parents wanted schools to be well run and - top of the list in urban areas - safe.

Voluntary-aided schools, mostly denominational, set their own process after "consultation" with the local authority. This often meant talks with the diocesan authorities.

Inevitably, problems arose. Parents had to decide whether to apply for a local school where they were sure of a place, or apply to another where their chance of success was lower. In inner London, about 90 per cent of parents achieved a place at their stated preferred school.

Since 1980, the notion that a school is full has been abandoned. There is now debate over whether an extra few pupils can be squeezed in. And local authorities' duty to give priority to parents' wishes has been undermined by ministerial enthusiasm for schools which set their own admission policies.

But if all publicly funded schools were allowed to decide which children to accept, that could spell the end of compulsory school attendance. Parents cannot have a duty to make their children go regularly if schools do not have a corresponding duty to admit them.

Some parents cheat on admissions; some schools behave badly. To prevent this, perhaps each local authority should be required to appoint an admissions officer with certain statutory functions. This officer would deal first with applicants known to be ordinarily resident locally, and then apply the published over-subscription criteria. Appeals would be confined to whether the officer had done this correctly. Applications for denominational schools would be received from the diocesan authorities, to whom appeals should be addressed.

What of the problem of admissions to independent schools, raised by Professor Brighouse? Most parents show their interest well in advance, so these schools could simply be asked to deal with their admissions before maintained schools do.

What, then, of areas with many low-performing schools? Banding, applied to a wide area rather than a school, would be one way to ensure no school has to admit a hugely disproportionate number of low-performing entrants. Or, as Professor Brighouse argued, all publicly funded schools in an area could be required to assign places for a given proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals. Both measures would require action by government.



Gary Phillips, head of Lilian Baylis Technology School, Lambeth, south London

In terms of taking in Year 7, the Pan-London Admissions System serves us well. Our admissions are organised by Lambeth, our local authority, and we have 42 feeder primaries, who work hard to ensure parents fill in the forms correctly and submit them by the deadline.

In a system like this, the most literate and the middle-classes tend to have the advantage, because they know how the system works. Many parents still apply to schools where they have absolutely no chance of getting a place because of their lack of proximity to the school. We have academies, foundation and church schools close by with their own admissions criteria, and it is not always clear to parents what they are.

In Lambeth, the usual priorities apply with regard to children in care, special needs, siblings, and proximity. Unlike some authorities, Lambeth includes step-siblings in the criteria as it believes it is right for children who live under the same roof to go to the same school.

The system does, however, disadvantage those who don't live in London at the time of applying, or are late in applying because they didn't know they were going to be here by the time the school year begins. Those pupils are put on a list until a place becomes available.

We have an entry of 124 places at Lilian Baylis and we fill all of them. We can't guarantee that number will turn up on the first day, and normally half a dozen or so don't. Usually, this is because they have moved out of the area, or have decided to go private. Once we know how many haven't arrived, we call the local authority and it allocates children from the waiting list.

The big issue in our school is the number of pupils we take in during the school year. We can expect that about half of the children who take their GCSEs in Year 11 will not have started with us in Year 7.

About a quarter of our roll at any time will be asylum-seekers or refugees, who have a high rate of mobility. The parents of these children usually place a very high value on education. We have had a pupil travelling in from as far as Milton Keynes after the family was rehoused. This was partly because no place could be found for the boy locally, but also because his parents wanted continuity in his education. He was always on time too. But the majority in this situation have only a half-hour or so tube ride.

The Government says we get extra funding for these pupils, but it doesn't go anywhere near covering the support needed for those who are unaccompanied minors, who are under child protection procedures, or who have no English. It also means that occasionally teachers are distracted from other pupils because they have to welcome and support a new arrival.

Generally, the diversity of our roll adds to the richness and excitement of the school, and pupils pass on their first-hand experiences.

Another problem in Lambeth that affects intake is the mismatch of places in single-sex schools. There are three all-girls' schools but only one just for boys. It means that at Lilian Baylis we have a split of about 60-40 in favour of boys.

Sometimes I feel sorry for the girls, because their parents wanted them to go to a mixed school and this one is skewed towards boys.

However, we expect the 14-19 strategy will help us to deliver subjects where the uptake is usually greater among girls, such as dance, because our pupils will be able to use the facilities in other schools.

Is parental preference a reality? The Government is creating more, so there should be more choice, and those that are unpopular will wither.



Sarah Tucker, mother and author of 'The Playground Mafia' and other novels

When I wrote the fictional novel The Battle for Big School last year, I intended it as a satirical swipe at the ridiculous lengths parents go to in order to get their children into their school of choice. The story of four parents, all with different parenting values and incomes, struck a chord.

The parents are not playground mafia; they are balanced individuals who want the best education for their children but do not trust the school selection process. They soon realise that outcome has nothing to do with a child's ability and everything to do with how loud, persistent and manipulative the parent is in exercising their right to choose.

The irony is my storyline is not fictional. Parents do go to ridiculous, expensive and illegal lengths to break a system they feel does not take into account the needs of their child. And the selection process is a lottery, a social experiment.

Last year, I exercised my choice by moving my son from a state school with an excellent Ofsted report. In my son's class were two children who needed special help. For three years their parents and the school tried but were unable to get help. The children were extremely disruptive for the duration.

Every child in that class suffered to a lesser or greater extent; my son became disillusioned and switched off from learning. There were 30 pupils and my son was in the middle academically, in effect invisible.

He is now at a prep school where they have 17 in his class; every teacher knows his name. He is doing extremely well and is happy.

My advice to Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, is to remember that the real choice parents wish to have is between schools that employ high-quality teaching staff who are allowed to get on with their job.

Sadly, teaching is no longer attracting the quality of staff it used to because the Government has introduced laws that mean they are doing their job with one hand tied behind their back. Ministers should be doing everything in their power to enable the professionals to teach and discipline our children.

Parents do not need to be told with statistics or Ofsted reports that one school is better than another. They know which ones have a good head and teachers, or have poor discipline, or are in catchment areas where children struggle to achieve.

Real choice comes with making every school a good school, and giving the staff the freedom to teach.

Sarah Tucker's next novel, 'School's Out', will be published in July (Arrow)



Mike Griffiths, head of Northampton School for Boys, Northamptonshire

We are a heavily over-subscribed foundation school, with a specialism in technology, receiving about 480 first-choice applications every year for 210 places.

We used to use a questionnaire to establish parental preference for single-sex education or any other reasons why they felt this was the most appropriate school for their child, but under the new admissions arrangements this is no longer allowed. It is now deemed to be unfair on children whose parents are less able to make a case in writing.

It means that once we have admitted boys under guidelines that take into account statements of special needs, children in care and siblings, the remainder of applicants go into a lottery. It is not a word I like using because children's education is more important than that, but in a sense we have no choice.

We never liked using the proximity rule, as we are the only single-sex boys' school in the county and it would not be fair to exclude those from outside Northampton.

Once we have allocated places to the children with statements and those in care, the remainder of applicants sit a test, which is provided by the National Foundation for Educational Research. The results are then grouped into five equal-sized ability bands. We take out siblings of pupils already here, who will automatically have a place. We then use a computer programme which randomly sorts each group, and we take the top 32 pupils on the list from each of the bands, or however many places are left once siblings are removed from the equation. This is done under independent supervision to ensure it is fair.

We were told by ministers that the new admissions arrangements would reduce the number of appeals, and this is true. Last year we had 108 appeals, and this year we have 107, and these are currently taking place.

We have no idea how many extra pupils we will be instructed to take, but typically it has been between five and 10 and we can absorb these pupils into existing classes. However, I'm not sure how we would accommodate another complete form of entry.

The irony is that appeals give parents the only opportunity they get in the admissions process to stipulate why this school is the right one for their child. But I would like to see parents who appeal having to give grounds for their appeal, rather than just not liking the fact their child did not get a place.

The Government seems to think that by putting the word "fair" in front of everything, it solves the problem. But the current system is unfair on those pupils who would benefit from going to a particular school for a specific reason - either to do with single sex or some other aspect of what the school uniquely offers - but who have no opportunity to specify this.

What a ridiculous situation to have created specialist schools and schools with a distinctive ethos, but not allow any attempt to match the needs of the child to the provision at the school. It is contrary to the personalised learning agenda.

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