Shake-up urged over admissions policy

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Academics this week pressed for a major overhaul of the system for allocating school places, urging an end to pre-admission interviews, and fines for those who ignore agreed frameworks for admission.

They called for an admissions system that was transparent, predictable and fair, amid rising numbers of appeals for places in both primary and secondary schools.

Anne West, Hazel Pennell and Philip Noden, from the London School of Economics, said parents needed better information to help them make their choices - and to know whether they stood a chance of getting a place for their child.

They claim that the current chaotic system of schools' admissions, with up to three different kinds of bodies responsible, should be reformed and made subject to the same general process and timetable across the country.

A report by them this week reveals that between 1991-92 and 1994-95, appeals over the allocation of school places increased by 58 per cent in primaries, and 35 per cent in secondaries.

And West, Pennell and Noden, who are from the Centre for Educational Research at the LSE, say: "It is clear that there needs to be a major overhaul of the admissions process for secondary schools."

In the report, prepared for the Research and Information on State Education Trust, they argue for a fair admissions policy which is transparent to all who use it.

They want independent education advice centres to be set up and for a central clearing house to be established in large areas to administer or co-ordinate admissions.

And in an attempt to end covert academic or social selection, they propose that admission should be carried out by local authorities or a consortium of schools.

"However, if schools are to be responsible for their own admissions, there must be disincentives - fines - to act in ways that breach the stated admissions policies," they say. Admission to selective schools should be based solely on the basis of written tests and pre-admission interviews should go, they add.

In the past some grant-maintained schools have required parents to complete detailed application forms, seeking information about their jobs and the child's hobbies and achievements.

And the academics say: "If schools are oversubscribed, these forms may be used to make decisions about who should be accepted or rejected. This may mean that children from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely to be accepted."

They claim there are three models which would form the basis of a national admissions policy - a catchment area model, a preference model and a modified preference model aimed at obtaining a balanced intake.

Admission to secondary school in England at the moment is dealt with by the local authority in the case of county and voluntary-controlled schools, and the governing body in each voluntary-aided or grant-maintained schools. City technology colleges also administer their own admissions.

They are required by law to admit any child, on demand, up to the physical capacity of the school except in the case of selective or religious schools.

Three main criteria are used to decide which children should be admitted to oversubscribed schools - whether their brother or sister is already a pupil there, medical or personal circumstances and distance from home.

The fact that there are three different bodies responsible for admissions has led to serious problems and the Audit Commission has already warned that school planning was in danger of being gridlocked.

The Commission, which is the public spending watchdog, said there were serious conflicts and tensions between government education polices and the unfettered competition between schools.

In authorities such as Birmingham and some parts of London, where there are LEA and grant-maintained schools as well as CTCs, there is little or no co-ordination between the different bodies over admissions.

Parents have been able to make multiple applications for places for their children and then hold on to their offers, not discarding unwanted preferences until the start of the academic year.

West, Pennell and Noden argue that multiple applications should be co-ordinated by a limited number of admissions authorities, or by a central clearing house.

They say a fair admissions policy should be based on clear rights for parents and children, able to be monitored and to take account of how decisions would affect parents and pupils in other schools.

And they claim that the most appropriate body to deal with appeals would be the LEA or an independent body acting on behalf of all schools in a given area.

Secondary schools' admissions in selected EU countries

NORWAY Compulsory education is completely comprehensive. Everyone has a right to three years' upper secondary education (from 16 to 19). Entrance is decided by factors such as the applicants' grades from lower secondary school.

DENMARK Nine years of compulsory education, between the ages of 7 and 16, mainly takes place in municipal schools. Pupils can opt to stay on in the 10th year. The system does not differentiate between primary and lower secondary education.

FINLAND Comprehensive schools provide general education from the ages of 7 to 16. There are no entrance requirements. A pupil is free, within certain limits, to choose a comprehensive school within his or her home municipality.

FRANCE Secondary school begins in the college, which is comprehensive and admits all pupils for the first four years - 11 to 15. Upper secondary education continues in a general and technical lycee (which may be selective) or om a vocational lycee. College leavers usually attend lycees in their own school district.

GERMANY Transfer to one of the different types of non-comprehensive lower secondary schools where pupils remain until the completion of their full-time compulsory education (usually 15) depends on the Land (regional) legislation. Decisions regarding future school career are based on the school recommendation and consultation with parents.

IRELAND Lower secondary education (12 to 15 years) usually takes place in one of the main types of second level schools - secondary, vocational, comprehensive, community schools or colleges. Parents are free to choose the second level school. Schools that do not have places for all applicants operate various methods of selection. Until 1994, some schools had entrance exams.

ITALY Lower secondary schools, which are fully comprehensive and free, cater for children from 11 to 14 regardless of their origin or social status. There are four classes of upper secondary - classical and scientific, artistic, technical or vocational. Pupils must hold the lower secondary education school leaving certificate to gain entrance to upper secondary. They and their families choose which they wish to attend.

THE NETHERLANDS There are four different types of secondary education available to pupils aged 12 to 1618 - pre-university education, senior general secondary, junior general secondary, pre-vocational education. Entrance is decided by an admissions committee on the basis of the report from pupil's primary school.

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