Academies could lose admissions powers

4th March 2016 at 00:00
The Department for Education is considering radical plans to re-order the fragmented system

Ministers are considering radical changes to school admissions that would hand back some of academies’ powers to local authorities, TES has learned.

Talks are taking place within the Department for Education about how England’s increasingly fragmented, academised school admissions system can be better ordered.

One proposal, which TES understands has been discussed by the DfE, is to put local authorities in charge of appeals over academy admissions decisions and to give the councils responsibility for admissions to academies during the school year.

It is understood that the department has also been considering other major changes to the admissions system that would have an even more dramatic effect on academies.

Sources say the plans are being discussed for inclusion in a schools white paper due to be published in the next few months. But any such moves are unlikely to be welcomed by academies.

“They’re looking at policy changes to address admissions in an all-academy system,” one senior figure in the academies movement told TES.

“I completely understand the logic of it,” the source added. “The difficulty from our end would be saying, ‘We think we do a pretty good job on admissions and we’re worried about the quality of the local authority process in some places’.

“If you could assume it would be done well then I think this [would be] a good and sensible thing. The problem is, you can’t. Local authorities have been hollowed out. They just don’t have much by way of resource these days.” Any transfer of control over admissions from academies to local authorities would represent a major U-turn for a policy programme that has always been about giving greater autonomy to schools and sidelining town halls.

Fragmented system

But the growth of academy chains means that many academies are already losing their autonomy over the curriculum, finance and staffing (see “The appeal of autonomy is all academic, now”, The forthcoming white paper is expected to set out details of the government’s vision for a system where all, or nearly all, state schools have become academies – the biggest structural change to education in England in half a century.

At present academies can set their own rules on admissions. But Elizabeth Passmore, the outgoing chief schools adjudicator, has warned that this increasingly fragmented admissions system “doesn’t serve children well”. (see box, below).

One former government adviser told TES that it would make sense to reduce academies’ freedoms over admissions.

“The criticism has been if you allow everyone to have their own admissions policy, they will just try to find the most beneficial way they can use the [admissions] code to avoid having to have a more difficult intake,” they said.

“There’s a certain argument when it comes to admissions: there’s no particular value to autonomy, so you might as well have some consistency.”

The former adviser said the “joy” of taking away some of academies’ control over their admissions was that they would find it difficult to object to it because they could stand accused of backdoor selection.

Freedom over school admissions was one of the main powers granted when the academies programme was first launched in 2000 under Labour.

A report published by Education Datalab in November said academies were more likely than other schools to engineer moves of their most challenging students – often during the academic year – to neighbouring schools before they sat their GCSEs.

Dr Rebecca Allen, director of Education Datalab, who led the research, told TES she had not heard about the latest plans to reform admissions but she thought that change was necessary.

“Children that move in-year tend to be from more complex backgrounds,” she said. “If a local authority needs to be able to find a space for a child and an academy refuses [to accept them] they can challenge it, but in the meantime you’ve got a child who’s not in school, so the result is that that approach tends not to be used.

“So the burden of accepting disadvantaged children falls disproportionately on maintained schools and the academies that have chosen to stay with the local authority in-year admissions system.”

She said that if all schools were academies, councils would have no “conflict of interest” so would be well placed to act as admissions authorities for all.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said that it did not comment on speculation.


‘Thousands of separate admissions authorities’

England’s school admissions landscape has been transformed over the past five years.

In May 2010, there were 203 academies. Now there are more than 5,000, and every single one of them is its own separate admissions authority.

Official concerns about this massively fragmented admissions system were laid bare by the outgoing chief schools adjudicator at the turn of the year, who warned that it “doesn’t serve children well”. Elizabeth Passmore used her final report to warn that admissions for academies were “frequently…less clear [than local authority arrangements for community schools] and more, or even very, complicated”.

Admissions policies for academies included numerous sub-categories within over-subscription criteria and often had so many levels of priority that it was “unclear…how [they] could be applied”, Dr Passmore found.

Eleanor Busby

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