The government’s chief adjudicator for schools has called for drastic new limits on who can object to admissions arrangements.
Elizabeth Passmore has recommended to ministers that only “those with proper standing” should have their concerns about school admission policies considered by her office.
The chief adjudicator’s call, in her latest annual report, comes despite a warning in the same document that “too many” schools are failing to comply with the “relatively modest requirements” of the school admissions code.
But Dr Passmore is concerned that multiple objections from pressure groups have contributed to a surge in her office’s costs last year from £815,000 to £1,113,000 and a significant increase in caseload (see box, right).
She states that dealing with objections over school admissions from those with “no connection in terms of seeking a place for their child” is “not good use of an adjudicator’s time and public money”.
But parents’ groups have told TES that any restrictions would only add to parents’ anxiety. And other campaigners said that an increasingly fragmented system – where too many schools flouted the rules over admission arrangements – needed to be “rigorously challenged” (see box, below).
The Comprehensive Future admissions pressure group argued that parents often only came across “unfairness” in school admissions when it was “too late to object”.
The news comes as hundreds of thousands parents wait to hear whether their child will get into their preferred primary after submitting applications last week. It emerged that places have been become so scarce that 90 primaries in England have reduced their catchment areas to less than 300 metres.
Mumsnet chief executive Justine Roberts said that the change would not help: “Preventing interested groups from making representations about the perceived imperfections of the system doesn’t feel like a particularly constructive way forwards; if anything, it’s likely to add to parental dissatisfaction.
“Parents can get understandably anxious about getting into the ‘right’ school, believing it will have a big impact on their children’s education and happiness. And in some areas in England, the shortage of primary places is making a fraught situation even worse, resulting in a lot of stress for all concerned.”
Currently anyone can object to admissions arrangements under the School Admissions Code. But in her report, Dr Passmore says: “The Department for Education may wish to reconsider who can make an objection to the arrangements for a particular school, possibly limiting it to those with proper standing for making the objection.”
The Office of the Chief Schools Adjudicator did not clarify who would be seen as having “proper standing”, saying that this would be a matter for the DfE to determine if it went ahead with the recommendation.
But the report does say that local authorities and dioceses “have acted responsibly” in objecting to the arrangements for schools in their areas.
Dr Passmore adds that individual families who may be affected “have a legitimate reason to challenge those arrangements if they believe they contravene the code”.
But she says that pressure groups, either directly or through individuals, have been using objections to admission arrangements to “influence policy matter”, rather than having “justified concerns about the compliance of arrangements for a school”.
Her adjudicators spent time investigating more than 50 objections, lodged by the Fair Admissions Campaign, about faith-based over-subscription at schools with religious character in 2014-15.
There were also 58 objections concerning whether schools should allow children to delay starting school because of the “summer born issue”, which has been championed by the Summer Born Campaign group since 2013.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) supports Dr Passmore’s recommendation to introduce a limit to who can object to admissions.
Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of ASCL, said: “You have people who are not even engaged with an institution but they make objections simply to be difficult and raise the profile of a national issue.” He added that a “triage system” could be introduced to check whether an objection had grounds before more time and money was spent.
A DfE spokesman said: “The chief adjudicator’s annual report helps us identify how we can continue to improve the admissions framework to ensure fair access for all children. We will review her findings and take action where appropriate.”
A Comprehensive Future spokesperson says: “Limiting the right of objection just to parents will not lead to a fairer system. Often parents only discover unfairness when it is too late to object. What is needed is not more guidance to be ignored, or tinkering with the code, but a wide-ranging review of the system.”
Pauline Hull and Michelle Melson, leaders of the Summer Born Campaign, believe that the system needs to be “rigorously challenged” because, they say, many admission arrangements fail to be published on time, contain legislative inaccuracies or do not comply with the School Admissions Code.
The group believes that these challenges need to be made “regardless of whether those who complain about these failings also have a wider goal of making national summer-born policy more consistent and fair”.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Fair Admissions Campaign steering group member, adds: “Being able to make complaints about a sample of schools, as we did, enabled us to make a series of extrapolations about systemic problems, which is clearly in the public interest.”