Control over admissions should be removed from schools, according to a new report, which places further pressure on ministers to reform an “unduly complex” system.
London School of Economics (LSE) researchers Anne West and Audrey Hind argue that changes are needed to make school admissions fairer and simpler.
Their study of state secondary admissions in London, published today, finds that the proportion of schools selecting pupils by aptitude in a subject has doubled from 5 per cent to 10 per cent by since 2001. It also finds that the use of catchment areas has tripled from 6 per cent to 18 per cent over the same period.
However, other practices have decreased. In 2001, 8 per cent of London secondaries were interviewing parents as part of their admissions arrangements, the study says. By 2015, this had stopped altogether.
The researchers – who looked at admissions in 410 comprehensives – expect recent government policies to make it even harder for parents to navigate the admissions system.
“There is a concern that with increasing academisation and more schools controlling their own admissions, there will be even greater complexity,” they write. “Moreover, at least in some cases, schools appear to be choosing pupils rather than parents choosing schools for their children.”
Earlier this week, headteachers’ leaders called for admissions to be returned fully to local authorities. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, told its annual conference: “It is not appropriate for schools to act as their own admissions authorities.”
The LSE report – Secondary School Admissions in London 2001 to 2015: compliance, complexity and control – echoes warnings from the government’s schools admissions regulator earlier this year about an increasingly fragmented system that, all too often, left parents in the dark and failed to serve children well.
The researchers point out that the problem for parents is not just that individual schools have complex arrangements but that they need to understand several different systems in the same area.
According to their report, the use of banding, in which a proportionate spread of children of different abilities are admitted to a school, has also increased, from 20 per cent to 23 per cent of London secondaries.
Banding was designed to provide more mixed intakes, but the researchers find that it has become “problematic”, because it can be used to tip the balance in favour of more-able pupils. It also involves testing, sometimes on a Saturday, making it difficult for parents who work shifts.
And the researchers are concerned that schools in the same area could take different approaches to banding.
Professor West told TES: “The idea of banding is to get a mixed-ability intake, but there is no clear reason for schools in one area to have so many approaches to banding. If schools in an area are doing this to get a balanced intake why not get together and have the same tests and the same cut-off points for the bands?
“The testing arrangements can be complicated for parents and stressful for children.”
Professor West said some authorities had collaborated in this way – the report cites the example of seven schools in one London authority working together to use Year 5 tests to place children in one of five ability bands. But she acknowledged that cooperation could be difficult in a competitive environment.
Earlier this year, the Office of the Schools Adjudicator’s annual report also raised fears that banding was not being used for its original purpose. The outgoing chief adjudicator, Elizabeth Passmore, warned that some schools used it to “increase intake of higher-ability pupils such that children living near the school…may not be allocated a place”.
The LSE report recommends that the local authority should help schools to agree on the best way to organise their admissions to ensure “fair access”. The admissions would then be administered by an independent body – which could also be a local authority.
The report concludes: “No schools should carry out their own admissions – that is, decide if applicants meet the admissions criteria – as the incentives to ‘choose’ the most desirable pupils are great.”
Anne Heavey, policy adviser at the ATL teaching union, said: “Some academies would be happy to give up admissions, but some would be uncomfortable.
“Some schools have benefited by the manipulations available to them to skew their intake but, as a public service, schools should be coming together and getting kids into the best school for them.
“There are too many schools that are gaming the admissions process. Understanding the reasons doesn’t make the behaviour OK. Schools should serve their local communities rather than league table positions.”
Margaret Tulloch, a spokeswoman for the fair admissions campaign Comprehensive Future, said: “If we are going to end up with 24,000 academies all setting their own admission criteria, things will get worse and worse. The government really has to accept that the best people to sort it out are local authorities.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “All schools must follow the school admissions code, which should make sure school places are allocated fairly. Parents with concerns should report them to the schools adjudicator, who can intervene.
“Our recent White Paper is aimed at empowering parents to hold schools and the system to account. Alongside this, we will also be consulting on amending the mandatory school admissions code.”