Select Committee on Education and Skills Fourth Report

1 Introduction

1. The Committee announced its Secondary Education inquiry on 4 November 2002 and set out the four areas upon which it intended to focus. These were Diversity of Provision, Pupil Achievement, Teacher Recruitment and Retention and School Admissions.

2. The inquiry built upon the Committee's innovative visits to Birmingham and to Auckland in New Zealand in the autumn of 2002 and our visits to Belfast and Dublin in March and April 2003. Our deliberations have been further informed by visits to Slough and Wakefield where, in addition to taking formal evidence, we had the opportunity to meet informally with a great number of interested parties. We are particularly grateful to colleagues at Slough and Wakefield Local Education Authorities for facilitating and ensuring the success of our visits.

3. Our inquiry focused on the impact of Government policy relating to school admissions and particularly on the impact these policies have on the composition of schools and in turn on the achievement of pupils.

4. During the course of the inquiry we took oral evidence from Mr David Miliband MP, Minster of State for Schools, Mr Stephen Twigg, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools; Professor John Coldron, Sheffield Hallam University, Professor John Fitz, Cardiff University and Professor Anne West, London School of Economics; Dr Philip Hunter, Chief Schools Adjudicator; Mr Robert Douglas from Education Leeds and Dr Bryan Slater, Director of Education for Norfolk County Council; Sir Peter Lampl and Dr Tessa Stone from the Sutton Trust; Dr Ian Birnbaum, Strategic Director, Learning for Life for the London Borough of Sutton and Chair of the Pan-London Admissions Executive Board and Mr Paul Robinson, Director of Education in the London Borough of Wandsworth; Mrs Mo Laycock, Headteacher, Firth Park Community College, Sheffield, Mr Bryan Jones, Former Headteacher, Archbishop Tenison's School, Lambeth, and Mr Mike Wood, Headteacher of the Cornwallis School, Kent; Dr Sheila Lawlor, Director of Politeia, Mr Martin Johnson, Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research and Mr Nick Seaton, Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education; Ofsted and the Audit Commission; representatives from the Church of England Board of Education and the Catholic Education Service; officials from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES); Miss Hilda Clarke, Headteacher, Langley Grammar School, Slough, Reverend Jeremy Hurst, Chair of the Slough School Organisation Committee and School Admissions Forum and Ms Julia Shepherd, Headteacher, Beechwood School, Slough; Mr Simon Flowers, Headteacher, the Cathedral School, Wakefield, Mr Terry Hall, Chair of the Wakefield Governors' Forum, Mr Graham Myers, a parent in Wakefield, Mr Jim Winter, Assistant Chief Education Officer, Wakefield LEA, and Mr Stuart Wilson, Headteacher, Featherstone High School, Wakefield.

5. Our report on school admissions is the fourth of our secondary education inquiry. Our reports on Diversity of Provision, Pupil Achievement and on our visits to Birmingham and Auckland have already been published.[1] We plan next to publish our report on Teacher Retention and Recruitment and to conclude our inquiry into secondary education with a final report in which we will draw together the threads of the whole of the secondary education inquiry and comment upon the Government's replies to our conclusions.[2]

6. We have been aided in our work by the submission of a large number of memoranda from interested parties, many of which are reprinted with this report, and by the publication of three valuable public reports: The joint report from Ofsted and the Audit Commission on School place planning;[3] the Council on Tribunals special report on School Admission and Exclusion Appeal Panels[4] and the Local Government Ombudsmen special report on School Admissions and Appeals.[5]

7. We are grateful to our specialist advisers, Sir Peter Newsam, Professor Alan Smithers and Valerie Bragg, for their assistance with this inquiry.

The scope of the inquiry

8. Our evidence-taking has focused on the process of school admission; how individual children are allocated a school place in secondary school; how their parents or carers express their preferences in relation to this allocation and how disputes that occur during the process are resolved. We have concerned ourselves with both the regulation and organisation of school admissions; the attempts that central government has made to regulate school admissions directly and through local education authorities (LEAs), and we have examined the operation of admissions arrangements in schools which are their own admission authority and the work of LEAs as admissions authorities. We have been particularly interested in the impact of the Government's Codes of Practice for school admissions and admission appeals and the work of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator.

9. Our examination of school admissions policy begins with first principles. We consider whether the Government's objectives for school admissions policy are appropriate, whether they have been achieved and whether the current arrangements for regulating school admissions are sufficient for the task. We ask what problems admission arrangements are intended to address, and investigate the extent to which current arrangements for school admissions are consistent with existing and emerging policies on school improvement, school transport, the creation and location of new schools and the inclusion and diversity agendas.

10. The need for local authorities to have regard to the wishes of parents, so far as the education provided for their children is concerned, was established in Section 76 of the 1944 Education Act. Our report questions the extent to which the increased emphasis given to parental preference in subsequent legislation has increased parental satisfaction in the school admissions process. We reflect on the mechanisms in place to regulate and review the operation of admissions arrangements, locally and nationally, to ensure that they are effective, equitable and do not lead to unreasonable public expenditure.

11. Finally, we are concerned with the future. In reflecting on both the past and present manifestations of school admissions policy our inquiry has enabled us to suggest how the current arrangements for secondary school admissions and its regulation might be developed to improve the provision of secondary education in England. Our report contains wide ranging recommendations to the Government on this theme.

12. In examining the current arrangements for school admissions we have focussed much of our attention on the Codes of Practice on School Admissions and on Appeals. The Codes are central to the Government's approach to influencing and regulating school admissions and appeals and contain the Government's aims and objectives for admissions policy and practice. The School Admissions Code of Practice states:

"School admission arrangements should work for the benefit of all parents and children in an area. The arrangements should be as simple as possible for parents to use, and help them to take the best decisions about the preferred school for their children.[6] In drawing up admission arrangements, admission authorities should aim to ensure that:

  • the arrangements enable parents' preferences for the schools of their choice to be met to the maximum extent possible;
  • admission criteria are clear, fair and objective, for the benefit of all children, including those with special educational needs, disabilities or in public care;
  • local admission arrangements contribute to improving standards for all pupils;
  • local admission authorities consult each other and co-ordinate their arrangements, including over the rapid re-integration wherever sensible of children who have been excluded from other schools;
  • parents have easy access to helpful admissions information;
  • local admission arrangements achieve full compliance with all relevant legislation and guidance—including on infant class sizes and on equal opportunities—and take full account of the guidance in this Code." [7]

13. We have taken this statement as our starting point. It sets out not only the Government's objectives for admissions arrangements but also the measures by which their success must be judged. In our examination of school admissions policy we have therefore concerned ourselves with the following questions, arising directly from the Government's own agenda for school admissions:

a)  Do admission arrangements enable parents' preferences to be met to the maximum extent possible? Do the current arrangements work equally well for all parents? Are some parents advantaged or disadvantaged through the design of the admissions system?

b)  Are admissions criteria clear, fair and objective? Do they say what they mean and mean what they say? Do they enable parents to make informed decisions? Do they satisfy the Code's objectives for children with special educational needs, disabilities and looked after children?

c)  Where parents are not satisfied with the outcome of admissions procedures, are there appropriate and effective arrangements for appeals and complaints?

d)  To what extent is the information provided to parents accurate, clear, meaningful and easy to access? Does it enable parents and children to make informed decisions and to understand both the admission process and the consequences of their decisions?

e)  Do local admission arrangements contribute to improving educational standards for all pupils? Is the performance of particular groups affected by the outcomes of the school admissions process? To what extent does the process result in those pupils who are more challenging to teach, including those who are disadvantaged by late arrival in the school year, being concentrated in a small number of schools? Does the creation of schools with an unbalanced intake, or the perpetuation of that pattern, have an impact on the extent to which all pupils are able to achieve their potential?

f)  Do schools and admissions authorities cooperate effectively? What, if any, barriers to cooperation exist?

g)  Do published admissions arrangements, as applied by admissions authorities, comply with the law and have regard to the good practice guidance contained in the Code of Practice? Are these arrangements sufficient to ensure the fair allocation of school places for the benefit of all parents and children?

14. Throughout our evidence-taking we have been mindful that not all parents are equally endowed with knowledge of the system or have the time or skills to research selection criteria, visit schools and prepare (sometimes multiple) applications. Indeed, recent research commissioned by the DfES[8] commented on the complexity and challenge involved in the school admissions process: "Gathering, managing and processing the amount of information available concerning choice of school was no light task [and] parents differed in the competence they brought to the task."[9] Thus the effectiveness of the system must be judged not only by the scale of apparent parental satisfaction but also by how it deals with and protects the interests of those least able, or willing, to act for themselves.[10]


15. Our inquiry took place at a time of much public and media interest in school admissions and the impact of new legislation.[11] At the heart of the school admissions system and our inquiry is the principle of parental preference. Since the 1944 Education Act the notion of parental preference has been at the centre of discussion and debate about the allocation of school places. Subsequent legislation[12] and legal precedent[13] have established the role of parents in the school admissions process and how admissions authorities must take account of parents' wishes.

Good schools

16. Central to the debate about school admissions is the question of what parents want when they set about deciding their preferences for their child's school. Certainly, all parents want a place in a good school for their child, although parents have varying definitions and draw on a variety of information sources in making judgements about schools. Media attention and genuine difficulties in some areas have combined to create what has been described as "epic levels of anxiety" surrounding school admissions.[14] While some degree of anxiety is inevitable in a process where the outcome is both important and uncertain, that anxiety is heightened where the outcomes are perceived to be of significantly different value. In circumstances where a number of schools are perceived by parents to be of comparable standards, parents may prefer a particular school for reasons of ethos, specialism or location for example, but may be reasonably happy if their first preference is not met. In contrast, where schools are perceived to be of very different standing, competition for places at the better schools can be fierce.

17. Our inquiry has focussed on the legal, regulatory and administrative arrangements for school admissions. However, these are second to the overriding necessity to ensure that all schools are good enough. While we believe that schools are improving and that these improvements are reflected in pupil attainment[15] it is clear that not all schools either are, or are yet perceived to be, good enough. Developments to the regulatory arrangements for school admissions will not address this fundamental challenge, but such improvements may make a contribution to making the work of some schools less difficult.

Historical context

1944—1997 election

18. The 1944 Education Act established the need for local authorities to have regard to the wishes of parents. The Act secured for parents the right to express a preference for particular schools and a responsibility for local authorities to take this preference into account when allocating school places. The Act stated: that "the Minister and local education authorities shall have regard to the general principle that, so far as is compatible with the provisions of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure, pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents."[16] Section 9 of the Education Act 1996 continues this commitment.

19. The 1980 Education Act enabled parents' right of appeal against non-admission and the 1988 Education Reform Act brought the concept of open-enrolment, extending nation-wide the scope of parental preference to schools beyond the boundaries of their home LEA and preventing schools from rejecting pupils unless they are full to capacity.[17] The 1988 Act also introduced further differentiation in school governance through the creation of grant-maintained status. Grant-maintained schools, like voluntary aided schools, were permitted to manage their own admission arrangements and were not required to limit these arrangements to the principles and procedures adopted by LEAs. The creation of grant maintained status led to an increase in the number of schools controlling their own admission arrangements. This enabled those schools to set admissions arrangements that reflected decisions about the applicants they preferred to admit and represented a significant increase in the complexity of the admissions system experienced by parents.

Labour's 1997 election manifesto commitment on education

20. Approaching the 1997 election the Labour Party identified education as its first priority. The Labour manifesto for the 1997 election highlighted two key themes relating to secondary education: limiting selection and extending parental choice through diversity of provision.[18]

21. Central to the party's vision for secondary education under a Labour government was the modernisation of the comprehensive model for education and a pledge to limit selection. David Blunkett MP, the then shadow Education Secretary told the 1995 Labour Party conference "read my lips: no [more] selection, either by examination or interview, under a Labour government."[19]

22. The manifesto also affirmed parents' centrality to education policy with the promise that "any changes in the admissions policies of grammar schools will be decided by local parents"[20] and that "all parents should be offered real choice through good quality schools, each with its own strengths and individual ethos."[21] In this way the Labour Party, in opposition, set its education agenda for government: diversity and choice.

Government policy since 1997

23. Once established in Government Labour set about creating the legislative framework for the reform it had envisioned. The 1998 School Standards and Framework Act included three major developments in school admissions policy:

a)  A duty on the Secretary of State to publish a code of practice on school admissions

b)  The creation of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator

c)  The introduction of parental ballots on the future of grammar schools.

24. The 2001 education White Paper Schools achieving success made much of the value of diversity and of the link between diversity and choice in the battle to improve standards of attainment. The then Secretary of State, Rt. Hon. Estelle Morris MP told the Social Market Foundation that "this greater diversity is good for pupils and parents and will ensure there is more choice and innovation in the school system."[22] The Government's policy of encouraging greater diversity in the governance of secondary schools and in the ethos and experience available in secondary education has accentuated the differences between schools. This has given ever greater emphasis to the role of choice and preference in the allocation of school places. Our report on Diversity of Provision[23] in secondary education picked up many of these themes and provided the foundation for the commentary and conclusions in this report.

25. The Education Act 2002 introduced further requirements on the organisation of school admissions. Provisions in the Act included:

a)  The requirement for LEAs to coordinate admissions within and across their boundaries,

b)  A statutory requirement for each LEA to set up an admissions forum (previously a voluntary arrangement).

The Government's aims for school admissions

26. The Government has most recently set out its aspirations for school admissions arrangements in the revised School Admissions Code of Practice.[24] In the introduction to the current Code the Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke MP, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, articulates the Government's aims:

"We are committed to raising standards in our schools and to offering a diverse, high quality education, based on the needs of the child. We know that our framework for admissions, introduced in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, is generally working well and that the vast majority of parents gain a place for their child at a school for which they have expressed a preference. It will not always be possible for every parent to get a place at their preferred school, but we want this for as many parents as possible.

This Admissions Code of Practice is about making the admissions system more open and fair and the admissions process work better…In order to improve the admissions framework for the benefit of parents and children, we introduced a number of important changes in the Education Act 2002. This Code of Practice takes account of those changes, and of associated regulations.

The 2002 Act made Admission Forums mandatory, to promote local discussion between all those with an interest in admissions. Forums will have an important advisory role. They will consider how well admission arrangements serve the interests of local parents and children…They will aim to reach local consensus on how best to meet the needs of all those seeking a place in their area, so that all pupils have a fair opportunity to realise their potential.

We want to make the admissions process easier for parents and children by enabling parents in an area to express all their school preferences at once on one form, by reducing multiple offers of places for some children while others have no offer at all…

We took the opportunity in the 2002 Act to clarify the law on parental preference, so that it is clear that admission authorities must consider any preference expressed by a parent and comply with that preference unless certain reliefs apply.

The new law on admissions, and the guidance in this Code, build on existing best practice. They are about making school admissions fairer for all parents, and improving admission processes parents often find stressful. Our aim is more co-ordination and co-operation between admission authorities, to produce admission systems parents will find simpler and more streamlined, and a better deal for all."[25]

27. We support the Government's objective that parents' preferences for schools of their choice be met to the maximum extent possible, and their recognition that this cannot be achieved without increasing the quality of provision. Concern over admissions would be less were there more schools which command the confidence of parents.

28. We support the Government's aims: for greater fairness, coordination and parental preference in the allocation of school places. However, the Government's attempt to realise these aims through a system based on guidance rather than regulation means that the Government can have had no assurance that its objectives would be widely met. This is disappointing. Fairness in public policy should not be a matter of luck but a matter of course.

1   Education and Skills Committee, Second Report of Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: visits to Birmingham and Auckland, HC 486; Education and Skills Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, HC 94; Education and Skills Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: Pupil Achievement, HC 513. Back

2   To be published during the 2004-05 session. Back

3   School place planning The influence of school place planning on school standards and social inclusion, HMI 587, Audit Commission/Ofsted E-publication, October 2003. Back

4   Council on Tribunals, School Admissions and Exclusion Appeals Panels, Special Report, Cm 5788, May 2003. Back

5   The Commission for Local Administration in England, Special Report School Admissions and Appeals, March 2004. Back

6   "The preferred school" the emphasis being on establishing a single preference above all others. Back

7   School Admissions Code of Practice, Department for Education and Skills, 2003, para 2.3. Back

8   Parents' experiences of the process of choosing a secondary school, RR 278 Department for Education and Skills, June 2001. Back

9   Ibid, executive summary, p 20. Back

10   LEAs have a duty to ensure that a suitable school place within a reasonable travelling distance is available for children whose parents do not express any preferences, for whatever reason. School Admissions Code of Practice, para A 26. Back

11   For example "The national schools lottery", Nicholas Pyke, The Independent, 5 June 2003; "£8bn-the cost of the battle for top state school places", Mark Townsend, The Observer, 13 July 2003, "Admissions impossible", Fiona Millar, The Guardian, 11 November 2003. Back

12   Notably the 1980 Education Act , the 1988 Education Reform Act, 1998 School Standards and Framework Act and 2002 Education Act. Back

13   In particular the Greenwich and Rotherham Judgements are relevant. The Greenwich Judgement (1989) established that maintained schools may not give priority to children for the sole reason that they live within the LEA's administrative boundaries. The Rotherham Judgement (1997) established that the principle of admission authorities operating catchment areas as part of their oversubscription criteria in allocating school places was lawful providing that in so doing authorities are not in breach of the Greenwich judgement. Back

14   Fiona Millar, The Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 15 June 2004. Back

15   Education and Skills Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: Pupil Achievement, HC 513, p 3. Back

16   Education Act 1944, s 76. Back

17   Open enrolment was first established in the capital through the London Government Act 1965. Back

18   The Labour Party manifesto of 1997 stated: "We will put behind us the old arguments that have bedevilled education in this country. We reject the Tories' obsession with school structures: all parents should be offered real choice through good quality schools, each with its own strengths and individual ethos. There should be no return to the 11-plus. It divides children into successes and failures at far too early an age." Back

19   David Blunkett MP as shadow Education Secretary addressing the 1995 Labour Party conference. Mr Blunkett subsequently clarified that he had meant to say "no more selection". Back

20   Labour Party manifesto 1997. Back

21   ibid. Back

22   Professionalism and Trust: the future of teachers and teaching, speech by Rt Hon Estelle Morris, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, to the Social Market Foundation, 12 November 2001. Back

23   Education and Skills Committee, Fourth Report Session 2003-04: Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, HC 94 Back

24   School Admissions Code of Practice, Department for Education and Skills, 2003. Back

25   School Admissions Code of Practice, Department for Education and Skills, 2003, pp 1-2. Back

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