Primary schools selecting by stealth

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: iStock

With more schools becoming their own admission authorities there are increasing concerns about the complexity and exclusivity that the new system is creating – with one report suggesting that more than 1,500 primaries are now highly socially selective. Suzanne O’Connell looks at the evidence

The School Admissions Code is the statutory guidance to ensure that admission arrangements are fair and equitable. All schools have a statutory duty to comply with the Code but more and more appear to be finding ways of managing their intakes to their advantage.

For community schools and voluntary controlled schools, the local authority is the admission authority. However, for foundation schools, voluntary-aided schools and academies, either the governing body or the academy trust has responsibility for admissions. It would seem that this is having an unintended impact on the application process that is making it increasingly difficult for parents to navigate.

The OSA report

The Annual Report of the Office of the Schools Adjudicators (OSA) is produced each year and publishes its findings in relation to the co-ordination of admissions, fair access and appeals. The out-going chief schools adjudicator for England, Dr Elizabeth Passmore, was critical in this, her final report, covering the period of 2014/15.

The report highlights some of the malpractices that exist, including:

  • No or only partial consultation about proposed changes to school admission rules.
  • Admission authorities not having read the Code and therefore not complying with what it requires.
  • Schools not providing a copy of their arrangements to the local authority by the date specified and not publishing their arrangements.
  • Many schools that are their own admission authority having arrangements that are complex and lack transparency.

Local authorities now have limited control over the admission arrangements across their area. This will reduce even further with the recent education White Paper proposals to make all schools an academy. The report indicates that most problems are encountered by schools which operate as their own admission authorities.

Dr Passmore found that although local authority admission arrangements for community schools were generally clear and uncomplicated, those for academies and faith schools were often complicated with many sub-categories in over-subscription that made it difficult to decipher and very difficult for parents to understand.

The notion of the catchment area for schools seems to be changing with some schools having more than one and others deciding not to have one at all. This means that in some cases parents are finding it more difficult to apply to what they considered to be their local school.

The use of the banding system was a particular concern, with Dr Passmore pointing out that some schools are using this to increase their intake of higher-ability pupils. There were also a number of faith schools asking for supplementary information requiring prohibited information.

Where there were concerns from parents, they were finding it increasingly difficult to make a complaint. The process is unclear now that there are two parallel methods depending upon what type of school the complaint is aimed at. It is the Education Funding Agency (EFA) for academies that must be applied to and the process often leads to misunderstanding, with children out of school for longer while a decision is made.

Selection by stealth

Over-subscription criteria can disadvantage directly or indirectly. Other policies and requirements can also make a difference to those likely to apply to a school. For example, an expensive uniform can be sufficient to deter a family who are struggling to make ends meet.

The NASUWT have labelled this “selection by stealth”. The union’s general secretary, Chris Keates, said: “Practices are introduced which are designed to deter children from socio-economically deprived backgrounds or pupils with special needs. Consequently some parents find themselves unable to secure a place in their local school.”

The NASUWT’s Cost of Education report, an annual survey of parents, found that almost a quarter of parents said that their choice of school was influenced by the prohibitive costs of some schools in relation to, for example, uniform, books and equipment, educational visits and school meals.

Elsewhere, the recent Sutton Trust research report – Caught Out – has brought this issue to a head, presenting evidence to suggest that more than 1,500 primary schools in England are highly socially selective. Socially selective primary schools also tend to be those with the highest performance and use more complex over-subscription criteria.

The Sutton Trust found that there were several instances where schools appeared to contravene the Admissions Code and they confirmed the OSA report findings that Supplementary Information Forms can be used to discourage applications to the school from some groups.

Both reports conclude that proximity to the school is falling down the list of criteria, allowing schools to select children from further away. The Sutton Trust found more than 1,000 primary schools where the free school meals proportion is more than 10 percentage points lower than that found in the neighbourhoods from which they recruit.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “There must be clear criteria to give all parents a chance to secure a place for their child in their local school. Complicated admission policies with conditions which, by accident or design, exclude local children of whatever social background are detrimental to education and communities. Policy-makers need to understand what is happening below the radar of their school reforms – education is becoming an instrument of social segregation, not an answer to it.”

What can be done?

Both reports highlight serious difficulties with the current system. However, there is a lack of bite to their recommendations. The Sutton Trust asks that schools should consider the impact of their over-subscription criteria on Pupil Premium children, and prioritise them in admissions. The OSA asks that schools converting to being academies and new schools should have their attention drawn to their responsibilities as an admission authority.

These are good sentiments but in practical terms many schools have already made the decision that the best way in which they can secure their performance is by effectively selecting their intake. Appealing to better judgement is hardly likely to make a difference in these schools in a highly accountable system based on outcomes.

The Sutton Trust asks for greater enforcement of the School Admissions Code and the OSA requests examples of admission arrangements being made available. With the release of the White Paper and the Department for Education’s (DfE) plans for the next five years, are there grounds for optimism that we can expect more satisfactory admission arrangements?

Government proposals

The White Paper, Education Excellence Everywhere, does express the intention of enabling parents to understand and navigate the system more easily when trying to gain a place at their local school. In chapter 4, the DfE aims for school complaints and admissions to be clear and fair for parents and children. Local authorities will still retain some responsibility for admissions.

The DfE has stated that they are considering requiring local authorities to coordinate in-year admissions and handle the administration of the independent admission appeals function. They also intend to streamline the functions of the OSA so that objections to admission arrangements are resolved more quickly.

In January, education secretary Nicky Morgan issued a press release indicating plans to “sweep away admissions bureaucracy”. These include proposals to limit who can object to a school or local authority’s admission arrangements from outside the local area. The intention of this is to prevent “vexatious” complaints against faith schools from secularist campaign groups. The proposals also suggest that admission authorities should consult on their admission arrangements every four years rather than every seven as it is currently.

Need for local planning

With a dwindling local authority role in education and plans for all schools to be academies, perhaps it is time for a fresh look at the laborious range of admission arrangements that exist in some areas. Recently it was recommended by Labour’s Lord Watson that someone should be appointed specifically with enforcing and monitoring the application of the Code.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) is keen to see some kind of integrated local planning of school places. General secretary Russell Hobby said: “Since 2011, the powers of local authorities in planning school places have been significantly reduced without an alternative system to take their place. We have a balkanised system with authorities, academies and central government taking decisions in isolation.”

It is hard to see how the DfE’s current proposals will really address the root cause of the difficulties that parents are having getting their child into the school of their choice.

However, both the OSA report and Sutton Trust bring new urgency to the discussion. If there are problems now with admissions in the fragmented system, how much worse is it likely to be in 2022?

School admissions: September 2016

As Headteacher Update went to press, early figures were emerging about the proportion of families who have been allocated their first choice primary school for September 2016.

They suggest no let up in the pressure on primary school places in some areas, not least London. However, significant variations were emerging. For example, 83.6 per cent of families in London got their first choice of school, with a largely similar story in Birmingham (85.6 per cent). In the North East, the picture was brighter including in Redcar and Cleveland (97.8 per cent) and Hartlepool (96 per cent). National figures had not been released as we went to press, but are expected to be in line with last year, when the national figure was 87.8 per cent.

In London, more than 103,000 pupils applied for primary places according to the London Admissions Scheme, similar to last year, and 94.3 per cent got a place at one of their top three – although there were wide variations across the capital too.

London Councils, which runs the London Admissions Scheme, said that London has a higher increase in pupil numbers with forecasts showing a pupil growth rate that is twice that of any other region. It estimates that between 2015/16 and 2019/20 the capital will need 113,000 new school places, including 78,245 primary places.

The NASUWT said: “Even where places may be available, too many parents and children, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, face selection by stealth because of the government’s failure to ensure compliance with the fair admissions code.”

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former primary school headteacher.

Further information

  • Office of the Schools Adjudicator Annual Report (2014/15) Office of the Schools Adjudicator, November 2015:
  • The School Admissions Code, Department for Education, December 2014:
  • Caught Out Research Brief: Primary schools, catchment areas and social selection, The Sutton Trust, April 2016:

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