Education Dec 13 2011

Sneaky changes to the Admissions Code herald a return to the bad old days

First published in the Guardian

Some months ago the Government began a consultation on the new School Admissions Code. It  came after months of nods and winks about the need to streamline the overly bureaucratic regulatory framework of the Labour years.

Since its introduction in the late 1990s, the Admissions Code has undergone several incarnations. All of these have tended to strengthen its stated aim of ensuring that school admissions practices are fair, clear, objective and enable parents to understand easily how school places are allocated.

And that is vitally important. On paper school admissions may look dry and technical but in the real world they are a highly political issue and go to the heart of parent choice, social justice and community cohesion.

Sadly there are still too many discrepancies between the Code’s intentions and what happens in practice.  Schools can find convoluted ways to baffle parents and weed out the least desirable children, often the poorest, using an array of criteria that are discriminatory, opaque and unfair like complicated catchment areas , own school ‘banding’ systems or devious faith- based points systems that rank parents and pupils according to their willingness to ring bells, arrange flowers, count the collection money or clean the church.

They are usually practised by schools that are successful (partly because of their intakes) and therefore formidable lobbyists . Moreover they tend to remain in place for years unless there is a successful objection to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator. So it was a pleasant surprise to note that the consultation document appeared to increase the opportunity for complaints.

However something very sneaky happened between the end of the consultation period and the publication of the new Code, which was laid before Parliament  earlier this month.

A new clause has been inserted which bans objections in two key areas; where governing bodies have decided to increase their Planned Admissions Number (PAN) and where independent state schools  have been allowed  an ‘agreed variation’ to the requirement that they follow the Admissions Code in their funding agreements.

The freedom to opt out of the Admissions Code has been theoretically possible from the moment the first “independent” state school was established and is one reason I have always opposed them. The whole point of independence is to escape the legislative ties that bind maintained schools and to benefit from an altogether looser contractual agreement, which can be easily changed, between the founder or sponsor and the government.

Free schools, most of which like to publicly proclaim their adherence to the Admissions Code actually have their own special ‘model’ funding agreement with an annex that allows them to opt out of it. Several of the first 24 have already taken advantage of this but their dogged  refusal to publish these documents means that we (the people who pay for them) can’t see how.

It is pretty obvious why this is the thin end of a very long wedge. There are already thousands of independent state schools and technically there is nothing to stop any of them reinstating an array of dodgy admissions practices that years of campaigning managed to outlaw, if the Secretary of State will permit it.

How long before interviews, lengthy supplementary forms, primary school records, priority places for certain groups (like the children of founders and governors) and even feeder schools in the private sector start to re- surface in some schools’ entry criteria?

Even more worrying is the potential for the gradual expansion of academic selection. Grammar schools can now expand at will – some are already talking about establishing ‘satellite schools’  – and it is not inconceivable that a future Conservative Secretary of State could give non selective schools the permission to  introduce partial or even total academic selection, which always favours the better off, via the funding agreement route.

By the same token a future Labour government could cease funding selective schools that have converted to academy status unless they phase out existing selection, but I won’t be holding my breath on that one.

One of the first articles I wrote for this paper, in 2003, was about school admissions. The words of the then Schools Adjudicator  Philip Hunter have rung in my ears every since. “Left to their own devices”, he said,” schools invariably drift to the posh”. The government claims to be skewing policy to favour the poor. Not for the first time, what they do is very different to what they say.

The Local Schools Network is interested in examples of schools in your area that might be breaching spirit and the letter of the School Admissions Code.

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