Select Committee on Education and Skills Fourth Report

3 The operation of parental preference

Preference and risk

121. All parents are able to express at least three preferences for schools and to place these preferences in priority order: for example, from a first to a third preference.[122] Admission authorities take account of the order of preference parents assign to each school in their application.[123] Some (first preference first systems) give absolute priority to the first preference expressed. This approach prioritises applicants who have placed the school first on their application[124] and naturally leads to the highest proportion of parents obtaining their first preference.[125] But this approach can also result in children who have failed to get a place at their first preference school being rejected by their second preference school in favour of a child of parents who placed that school first despite living further away.

122. An alternative system (equal preferences) ranks preference but does not give absolute priority to first preferences. Places are offered to applicants who fulfil the oversubscription criteria of a school to the greatest extent. This may lead to a parent whose child does not meet the criteria of his first preference school being offered a place at a nearby school for which he has named a second preference. Where proximity is a key criterion, one effect of this system is to confer advantage to parents who live near to several popular schools.

123. First preference first systems are deployed by schools, many of them denominational, on the grounds that they wish to recruit first those pupils with a commitment to the school and not those who have indicated that they would prefer go to school somewhere else.

124. In whatever way admissions authorities deal with the priority to be given to the order of preference expressed by parents there is inevitably an element of risk in the admissions process. In order to maximise their chances of securing a place at a preferred school parents must develop a clear understanding of the admissions criteria for all the schools they are interested in and reach judgements about not only which ones they prefer, but also which ones are most likely to offer them a place. Without these careful judgements parents risk putting forward applications with little chance of success and may not only fail to secure a place at their preferred school but also fail to be placed at any school they deem acceptable. More work needs to be done to explore the implications of different preference systems. There is an important and expanded role for primary schools in supporting parents through this process; principally by explaining the process rather than by offering advice on what preferences a parent might express.

125. The Education Act 2002 made it clear that admissions authorities may give absolute priority to first preference applications but, for the reasons given in the example above, are not required to do so. The Education Act 2002 has allowed LEAs to adopt different ways of administering parental preference. The impact of these changes on cross-border applications has not yet become clear. Any additional complexity in the school admissions system should be avoided.

Admissions arrangements: flexibility and discretion

126. The considerable discretion available to admissions authorities in the choice, interpretation and application of admissions arrangements has, to varying degrees, enabled schools which control their own admissions arrangements (foundation, voluntary aided (usually faith based) schools and Academies) to influence the profile of their intake. This phenomenon, in otherwise non-selective schools, is significant and amounts to a form of unofficial selection. Research by Professor Anne West suggests that:

"One in five secondary schools used overtly selective criteria (e.g. partial selection on the basis of ability/aptitude, primary school record) or potentially discriminatory criteria (e.g. priority to children of school employees/former pupils/governors) or subjective criteria/practices allowing for administrative discretion (e.g. interviews, compassionate/pastoral factors). This means that certain schools can effectively 'choose' particular pupils and not others (e.g. the less able and the more challenging). In short, certain parents are less likely to have their 'choice' realised than others."[126]

127. As performance measures for secondary schools are dominated by the 5 A*—C GCSE measure there may be a benefit in terms of their place in the performance tables to schools which recruit those pupils who are most likely to do well against the 5 A*—C measure and not to admit those who may be more challenging to teach or who lack the educational and/or cultural capital that supports achievement in secondary education.

128. Where admissions criteria across a number of schools are defined or implemented in an inconsistent manner this can create a complex and often confusing environment in which parents are expected to make informed decisions about school preference. Legislation has consistently and rightly given priority to parental preference and it is evident that successive governments have particularly valued this principle in the school admissions process. However, the system of school admissions that has resulted is one in which it is all but impossible for parents, particularly in urban areas, to exercise their preference with any degree of certainty about the likely result. Far from being an empowering strategy the school admissions process, founded on parental preference, can prove a frustrating and time-consuming cause of much distress in the lives of many families.

129. The Government's decision to limit the extent of its influence upon school admissions to a largely advisory Code of Practice needs to be reconsidered. Having invested considerable effort in identifying good practice in school admissions oversubscription criteria it is perverse to limit the impact of that effort to mere guidance. It is right that schools need to be able to respond to the needs of their local communities but this should not be at the expense of the Government's broader aims of social inclusion and equity.

130. We recommend that the Code of Practice on School Admissions should be supported by revised regulations. In particular, acceptable admissions criteria should be identified and clearly defined in regulation or legislation along with specific guidance on the appropriate manner of their implementation. It should be explicit which criteria admissions authorities are required to implement and which may be implemented at the authority's discretion. Unacceptable criteria should similarly be identified and prohibited.

131. At present, the Code of Practice provides a useful but largely unenforceable framework for school admissions which does too little to assist parents through the complexity of the school admissions and appeals processes. The challenge for the next edition of the Code will be to shift the balance towards meeting the needs of parents for greater clarity in the admissions process.

132. We recognise that the introduction of greater regulation into the operation of school admissions may remove some of the incentives for some schools to be their own admissions authority. While this is not our intention we recognise this as an implication of our recommendations.

School performance tables

133. School performance tables have come to play an important role in parents' decisions about school preference and, while the variety of performance indicators has widened, the focus remains on the rather crude 5 A*—C GCSE measure. In deciding their preference for a school for their child, parents are understandably motivated to act in a self-interested manner: they want a place in the best school for their child. While parents will undeniably define best in a variety of ways, the academic results of a school will be an important factor in forming those decisions.

134. While there may be schools which appear to perform poorly on the 5 A*—C GCSE measure because of failures in leadership and/or teaching, there are many more which, despite enabling their pupils to make significant progress in learning and achievement, still appear towards the bottom of the performance tables. Such schools may be well run and provide a positive learning environment for pupils of all abilities but may be rejected by the parents of year 6 pupils based on inappropriate but well reported headline indicators of their performance. As these schools become undersubscribed those at the other end of the performance table are able to choose from a growing number of applicants, reinforcing and perpetuating existing pupil profiles, and their relative advantage, with each new intake.

135. More sensitive measures of pupil achievement, so called value-added measures, are now more widely available and may in time come to challenge the dominance of the 5 A*—C GCSE measure. However, there are significant methodological criticisms of the value-added approach and it has yet to be established in public use and understanding.[127]

136. Our report on Diversity of Provision in secondary education raised this issue in the following terms:

"While we acknowledge and support the use of pupil attainment data for the purposes of strengthening public accountability, the emphasis must be on the use of such data for school improvement. For pupil attainment data to be meaningful in this context the key measures for pupil and school achievement need further development and to be applied consistently across the range of school improvement and pupil attainment projects. In particular, it is vital that these measures provide a picture of the full ability range, including the proportion of pupils who at 16 do not obtain any qualifications, and take full account of the intake profile of each school."[128]

137. The Committee of Public Accounts has recently published a comprehensive report on school performance data[129] based on the work of the National Audit Office. We welcome the Committee's observations, particularly on the need for more sensitive measures of performance and how such data should be used to support schools' performance.

138. We again urge education Ministers to put greater energy behind the development of more sensitive and accurate measures of school and pupil performance. It is only with such measures that we will be in a position to identify and appreciate schools' successes and to address their weaknesses.

Choice and certainty

139. We have previously voiced our concerns about the manner in which the language of choice has been used in political rhetoric. Our report on Diversity of Provision[130] set out our reservations regarding the Government's diversity strategy for secondary education and its, largely illusory, relationship to choice. During that inquiry we became increasingly concerned that diversity and choice were being seen by the Government as a panacea for the challenges facing secondary education. By contrast our evidence suggested that these were, if anything, distractions from the tasks at hand. [131]

140. In an environment of limited resources individual choice cannot always be met and it is therefore the task of policy to manage the distribution of resources or benefits. In the context of school admissions we have noted:

"This and previous Governments' emphasis on choice has resulted in a significant mismatch of expectations. Government rhetoric on choice has, perhaps inevitably, not been matched by reality in the application of parental preference used to allocate school places.

In practice, parents have found that the reality of school diversity and choice can act to limit rather than expand their options for their children's education. The existence of single sex, faith and specialist schools is a positive and welcome choice for those who want them and who are able to secure places for their children, while for those who do not, such schools can limit choice."[132]

141. The evidence to this inquiry has supported our earlier findings: the language of choice, as opposed to the right to express a preference, in the context of school admissions is inappropriate. For many parents there is little choice; their options are too often limited to an expression of preference for a single school at which they can reasonably expect to be offered a place.

142. Parental preference and the manner in which preferences are applied has been central to our inquiry and is at the core of the process of school place allocation. The priority given to parental preference is enshrined in the legislation and reflected in the School Admissions Code of Practice issued by the Department for Education and Skills: "admission authorities should aim to ensure that the arrangements [for school admissions] enable parents' preferences for the schools of their choice to be met to the maximum extent possible."[133] Indeed, in oral evidence to the Committee Officials from the DfES made clear that parental satisfaction was the measure by which the arrangements for school admissions should be judged.[134]

143. This emphasis on preference, taken together with the Government's high profile policies on creating diversity in secondary education, creates the impression that parents and children have the opportunity to choose from among a growing variety of schools characterised by their own distinctive ethos, by specialisms or belief systems in order to meet the particular needs of their individual child. While parents are undoubtedly interested in such factors, our evidence suggests that what most parents are primarily interested in is the quality of a particular school and not in its difference from others. Finding a school that is excellent in a particular aspect or one that offers a distinctive spiritual or educational ethos may be an important consideration for some parents, but what is essential to all parents is that the school is good enough in all aspects and that it will offer their child an environment in which it can achieve its potential.[135] As Ray Shostak, then of Hertfordshire County Council, told us: "We are aware that parents place a higher premium on high quality than on difference as such."[136] The Department's own research has supported this view:

"Most parents do not engage with different types of admission practices and, therefore, are not in a position of comparing the differences between them. The outcome of the process is everything… The extent of choice is not the significant issue—what is more important for parents is the extent to which the outcomes [of the school admissions process] can be predicted."[137]

144. In an environment in which not all schools are judged to be good enough, the emphasis on parental preference places the responsibility for securing a place in a good enough school on parents' shoulders. Secondary school admissions, though billed as an exercise of choice between diverse institutions, in practice often becomes an opportunity for parents to state a preference for that which is good enough over that which is unacceptable. At the same time, the preference device transfers the responsibility for finding an appropriate school place to parents. This distracts attention from the responsibility of Government and LEAs to ensure that all schools are good enough while creating an environment of, sometimes frenzied, competition between parents for places in the most popular schools.

145. In a competitive environment it is inevitable that some parents will be better equipped than others to compete effectively. In the competition for school places knowledge and careful planning can contribute to a much improved chance of securing a place at the school of choice. For example, where schools use distance or faith as admissions criteria, those parents able to move their homes closer to their school of choice or those able to attend a place of worship recognised by the admission criteria are able to reach the top of the queue for school places, while those able to pay for and organise home-school transport are able to choose from a greater number of schools than those who lack those financial and time resources. Even the exercise of parental preference demands resources. Where there are a number of potential schools and admissions authorities there may also be a number of open days to be attended, tests to be sat, interviews/structured discussions to be negotiated and a variety of application forms to be completed and submitted.

146. The extent to which the current arrangements work equally well for all parents is of critical importance to any analysis of the present system. We have already alluded to the research commissioned by the DfES on parents' experience of the school admissions process.[138] The results of this work, conducted by Sheffield Hallam University and the Office of National Statistics, suggested a high level of satisfaction with both the admissions process and the outcome of that process. The research found no significant link between parental satisfaction and socio-economic status although the mother's level of education and socio-economic status were significant factors in the manner in which families made their decisions.

147. Superficially, these findings suggest that all parents, regardless of class or background, receive broadly equivalent treatment and results through the school admissions system. However, this conclusion assumes that all parents, regardless of class or background, behave in the same way when navigating the admissions system. We have made reference to the high level of risk inherent in the current arrangements for school admissions. The manner in which parents respond to this risk will inevitably vary. Those who do so by replacing their first, second and/or third preferences for their most wanted schools with schools in which they have estimated that they are most likely to gain a place may have a better chance of securing a place at a school for which they have expressed a preference, but cannot be said to be fully satisfied.

148. The DfES research uses as one of its key measures of satisfaction the number of parents who secure a place at a schools for which they have expressed some form of preference. That more than half of those who do not secure a place at their first preference school lodge an appeal against that decision suggest that the Department's definition of parental satisfaction is flawed. A second preference, for example, only becomes the school a parent prefers and puts before all others, when the first preference which the parent really wants, becomes unavailable.

149. We know that parents make judgements on the schools they prefer based on many variables, not all of which are publicly available or officially produced and it is clear that schools themselves can do much to affect the level of encouragement (or discouragement) that parents experience when visiting schools and applying for school places. The wide variation between schools in their pupil profiles[139] suggests that, in addition to the impact of varied admissions practices, a degree of self-selection takes place. While some parents may reject schools because of their ethos, reputation or bias towards a particular curriculum area, we should be concerned if parents reject schools in the belief that their children would not be welcome there.

150. We conclude that while some useful measures have been taken to ensure parental satisfaction in the school admissions arrangements, there are parts of the country in which parental satisfaction is far from being a reality. These are typically in those areas, usually urban, with the highest degree of diversity and apparent choice. Thus the Government finds itself faced with conflicting policies: one policy on school admissions emphasises parental satisfaction based on confidence in obtaining a preferred school, while a second policy is aimed at creating diversity and difference in the types of school available, accompanied by uncertainty as to the outcome and parental distress.[140] The Department's own finding is that is predictability and security, rather than choice and diversity, that are the key to parental satisfaction:

"Parents may be more satisfied when the outcomes of the admission process can be predicted/manipulated; where, all things being equal, there is a narrower rather than a wider range of actual choice; where there is less rather than more diversity; where an admission authority such as an LEA has a strong rather than a weak coordinating role."[141]

Admission by lottery?

151. Since we completed our evidence-taking proposals have emerged for a school admission system based on a lottery.[142] These proposals, most notably from a commission on the issue set up by the Social Market Foundation,[143] set out a new approach which breaks the link between address and admissions. The system enables parents to express a preference for up to six schools, without regard to local authority boundaries, with school places allocated without reference to the family's address. Where schools are oversubscribed places would be assigned by means of a ballot where all parents had an equal chance of success. The proposal permits appeals but only on the grounds of maladministration.

152. At first glance this proposal offers an enticing opportunity to end the dominance of those with the resources to buy homes near to the school of their choice or to influence the outcome of the admissions system by other means. However, given the evidence from the DfES which highlighted parents' desire for certainty and predictability in the school admissions system it is not clear to us that parents would welcome an approach that increased the level of uncertainty in the system.

153. It appears to us that there is more work to be done in considering how the admissions lottery approach would affect different groups of children and their families. In particular we are conscious that costs related to school transport can be considerable. Unless school transport can be publicly financed, the impact of failing to get a place at the nearest school will disproportionately burden poorer families. For similar reasons it may be necessary to modify the lottery system for rural areas in order to ensure that children were not required to travel unreasonable distances to attend school. Further consideration is also needed on how siblings, children with special needs (statemented and otherwise), and casual admissions would be handled.

Information for parents

154. We have seen evidence of the great lengths to which some local education authorities have gone in order to make parents aware of the school admissions process, their responsibilities and how to access further support.[144] Some LEAs produce impressive documents setting out the admissions criteria, admissions numbers and on what basis in previous years pupils have been admitted. While these efforts improve access to relevant information, negotiating and interpreting these documents may present a challenge to the most organised mind.

155. In addition to the sheer scale of the documentation to be digested by parents there is also the issue of the interpretation of criteria. A recent report from the Local Government Ombudsmen (LGO) summarised findings from the 1084 complaints about school admissions that the LGO had received in 2002—3. The report observed that complaints about school admissions and related appeals comprised over 6% of all the complaints it received during that period and that in the course of their investigations the Ombudsmen had found "too many examples of practice that is poor, sometimes spectacularly so".[145] The examples cited by the LGO included the following:

Complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman: school admissions

In a Roman Catholic school, first priority was given to parents with a commitment to the Roman Catholic faith and a commitment to Roman Catholic education. What the governors did was to view this as a competition to determine which families had the greatest degree of commitment and which had the least. Some problems with that were that:

  • it appeared that the governors made a subjective judgement about applications rather than using an objective test;

  • it was not clear on what criteria the governors set out to judge who had the highest degree of commitment;

  • it was not clear what weight was to be given to the various possible aspects of Catholic commitment; and
  • it was not clear what, if any, account was taken of the claims of practising Catholic families who might find it difficult or impossible because of, say, disabilities of some members of the family, to engage in activities which might count towards the degree of commitment.[146]

Complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman: school admissions appeals

The admission authority for a foundation school did not apply the published criteria. That was clear from the statement the authority made to the appeal panel. The authority applied a criterion which did not feature in the published arrangements—this was that it gave priority to children who would otherwise have been the only one in their class not to secure a place. That might have been a perfectly reasonable criterion to have, but if that is what the authority wanted to do, it should have been stated in the published criteria.[147]

156. A key failing in the provision of school admissions information was a lack of clarity. The Local Government Ombudsmen reported:

"It has to be borne in mind that the admissions brochure is the document which parents see, and which they take into account in deciding on their expression of preferences. Parents are entitled to rely on that document, and its meaning must therefore be absolutely clear and unambiguous. It should be expressed in plain English, with words used in their ordinary sense and with nothing left out. The criteria should not require any 'interpretation' and everything should be declared. There should be no 'hidden criteria' in operation."[148]

157. In oral evidence we heard about Education Leeds'[149] good practice in making parents aware of opportunities to appeal against admission decisions.[150] While these efforts are to be vigorously supported we are concerned that parents are not always provided with an equivalent level of information about the appeals process, how their appeal will be handled and success of previous appeals. Again, the Local Government Ombudsmen found that:

"The guidance document needs to be not only informative but also accurate and impartial. We do come across examples where statements are included which are seriously misleading or which give the impression that the admission authority is attempting to discourage parents from appealing… Such errors are fundamental mistakes which seriously affect the appeal, not only because they mislead parents, but also because they are misleading for panel members. It can also be the case that no guidance document exists at all. We think that, too, is inappropriate and all parents ought to have a guidance document."[151]

158. While the Local Government Ombudsmen's report is helpful in highlighting the need to improve poor practice, there are few published examples to support good practice in school admissions and appeals. The recent report from Ofsted and the Audit Commission on school place planning went someway towards addressing this omission but more remains to be done. Ofsted is well placed to identify good practice through its school and LEA inspections. We would welcome a themed report from Ofsted on this issue, drawing together examples from school-based admissions authorities and LEAs. Such a report would be well timed to cover the first year of coordinated admissions arrangements leading to school admissions in September 2005 and should not necessarily be limited to secondary school admissions. We recommend that Ofsted should include a review of good practice in school admissions and appeals, at school as well as LEA level, in its future programme of work.

159. We support the findings of the Local Government Ombudsmen on the issue of providing full, fair and accurate information and guidance for parents considering an appeal. Given that broadly the same conditions for appeal apply to all admissions authorities we recommend that the DfES works with admissions authorities to produce exemplar documentation to support existing good practice in this area. We suggest that it may be appropriate to achieve this by supplementing the guidance given in the School Admission Appeals Code of Practice.[152]

Appeals and complaints


160. Provision for parents to appeal against a decision not to admit their child to their preferred school is made in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. The Act required the Secretary of State to issue a Code of Practice on school admission appeals and in it to provide guidance on admissions appeals practices.

161. Many of the concerns we have expressed regarding the status of the School Admissions Code of Practice apply equally to the School Admission Appeals Code of Practice. In particular we find that both Codes lack the force and clarity necessary to ensure that good practice is widely applied and that there is therefore a need to shift the balance in both Codes towards greater regulation of admissions and appeals activity.

162. The appeals procedures available to parents who are dissatisfied with the outcome of their application for a school place are being ever more widely used. In 2000/01 just under 10.3% of applications for secondary school places resulted in an appeal. This contrasts sharply with the position in 1993/4 when just over 4.2% of applications for secondary school places resulted in an appeal.[153] The proportion decided in parents' favour has held steady at approximately one third.[154]

Appeals lodged by parents against non-admission of their children to maintained schools
England Rate per 1,000 new admissions
1993—94 42.138.0
1994—95 51.342.7
1995—96 59.948.2
1996—97 66.557.0
1997—98 76.354.8
1998—99 87.056.5
1999—2000 96.252.4
2000—01 102.9 47.4

Source: Department for Education and Skills

163. Given that appeals occur when a school is full and the admissions authority refuses admission to additional pupils, the consequence of a successful appeal is entry to a school that is already deemed to be full. In such circumstances it is central to the appeal that it is demonstrated that the admission of an additional child will confer greater benefit to that child than dis-benefit to the children already admitted to the school. We have heard evidence of very significant numbers of children being admitted under these circumstances[155] causing schools to have to make short term arrangements to accommodate and support these additional children. Evidence from Burnham Upper School in Buckinghamshire told us about the impact of appeals decisions to this already overcrowded school. Mr Smales, the school's headteacher told us:

"We are oversubscribed—400 applications for 130 places this year. We are overfull, with a capacity of 699 and a population of 740, before September 2003.

There is an Assessment Method for Secondary Schools [DfES/0739/2001] which sets out the Net Capacity of a school, admittedly this is, like all such methods in education, guidance. Nevertheless, by this Method, our capacity is 130 in any one year.

We had reluctantly agreed to 140 in light of our budget deficit problems and had constructed a timetable and hired staff on that basis.

In July 2003, an Independent Admissions Appeals Panel for Stage One proceedings decided, perversely, that we were not full, and allocated an extra 35 pupils into Year 7 for September, effectively a 30% increase. It was too late to recruit staff, which we did not have the money for anyway as the current funding arrangements operate in arrears. As a consequence of this action, Year 7 attending in September were placed on a part-time day.

Whilst I acknowledge that Independent Appeals Panels have a vital role to play in respect to Stage Two appeals, it cannot make sense that such a Panel can overrule or have no regard to an Assessment method of Capacity based on measurement and due process. The effects of such an action have been substantial on this school. I would like to think that this example could prompt a re-evaluation of the process of arriving at a sensible method of establishing a manageable intake of a school."[156]

164. We are concerned that school admission appeals enable entry to schools which have already admitted pupils up to their assessed capacity. Such a practice would be condemned if applied in many other circumstances. More work needs to be done to explore alternatives to the overcrowding of some schools following sometimes very large numbers of successful appeals. We acknowledge the difficulties inherent in waiting list systems for successful appellants, not least because of the turbulence that mid-year school moves can cause in both the gaining and the losing schools and the difficulty of comparing the relative merits of a successful appellants' claim to a mid-year vacancy to that of a new arrival to the area who may meet the oversubscription criteria to a greater extent than some of those on the waiting list. Nevertheless the present arrangement are neither rational nor sustainable and merit urgent review.


165. Where parents remain dissatisfied with the outcome of an appeal they can make a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsmen. Parents are also able to raise objections concerning admissions arrangements with the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, although their access to this facility is limited.

166. The Council on Tribunals oversees the activities of school appeals panels. In its recent special report[157] the Council identified significant criticisms of current arrangements for appeals. Many of these stemmed from the variability in the quality of the service across and within local authority areas. While the Council observed much that was positive, there appeared to be a systemic failure to effectively identify, disseminate and encourage good practice to enable all appeals panels to work at the level of the best.[158]

167. The Council expressed particular concerns about the operation of appeals panels run by some foundation and voluntary aided schools in contrast with those run by LEAs.[159] The Council's report identified failings in the recruitment and training of school-based appeal panel members and voiced concerns about the expertise of panel clerks. In light of these serious concerns the Council recommended in its report that LEAs should take over responsibility for all appeals in order to increase and maintain the quality and consistency of decision making.[160] The report further proposed that appeals should be organised by LEAs on a regional basis so as to ensure greater consistency in decision-making and support good practice. We note that the Department, in its formal reply to the report from the Council, has rejected this proposal on the basis that neither the department nor voluntary aided/foundation schools support the organisation of appeals on a regional basis. The majority of respondents to the Department's consultation on the Council on Tribunals' recommendations did, however, support the proposal that LEAs should handle all appeals. The Department commented that the proposal would "require controversial legislation for which we have no plans".[161]

168. Aspects of the conduct of appeals panels have been criticised both by the Local Government Ombudsmen and the Council on Tribunals. Each has identified particular difficulties with appeals conducted by voluntary aided and foundation schools and noted the good practice in many LEAs. It is evident that much more needs to be done to improve the quality of the appeals system and the service afforded to parents. We recommend that the Department conducts a thorough evaluation of the proposal to transfer to LEAs the administrative management of all appeals for non-admission to schools and, if necessary, reconsiders its opposition to legislation. In considering this proposal, parties should be mindful of the need for the appeals process to be, and to be seen to be, independent from any admissions authority, including LEAs.

169. With regard to publicly funded Academies, we note that while the School Admissions Code of Practice makes their position clear, the School Admission Appeals Code of Practice does not. Academies are required to have regard to both Codes as a condition of their funding agreements. The School Admission Appeals Code of Practice should be revised to reflect this.

School admissions and appeals: evaluating performance

170. There are a variety of measures by which the school admissions system overall, and at a local level can be evaluated. The level of appeals, parental satisfaction research, objections to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator and complaints to the Local Government Ombudsmen all provide an insight into the effectiveness of admissions arrangements. Some of these sources make it possible to go further and identify LEAs or types of school which exemplify good practice,[162] where practice needs to be improved or where particular aspects of the process need some refinement.[163]

171. One difficulty in evaluating the school admissions system is that the cost of the system is largely unknown.[164] For example, we have been astonished to find that neither the cost of the school admissions process nor of the appeals system has been monitored either by the DfES or by LEAs as part of their own evaluation of the process. In our view more needs to be done by LEAs and by the DfES to evaluate school admissions policy and to ensure that arrangements are effective, equitable and do not involve unreasonable public expense.

Admissions and standards

172. We have received evidence on the issue of the relationship between school admissions and pupil performance. Evidence on this issue focuses on the extent to which the nature of a school's intake influences pupil attainment.

173. In particular we have heard concerns expressed about the placement of casual admissions and excluded pupils in under-subscribed schools creating a concentration of disadvantage in those schools. Mo Laycock, headteacher of Firth Park Community Arts College in Sheffield Brightside told us:

"In my first few years there… we had a spare places because the school was not popular, … Brightside is the sixth most disadvantaged [ward] in the country, so in relation to the admissions issue I was instructed on very many occasions to take some of the most turbulent, difficult children in the authority whilst trying to improve the school whilst having HMI crawling all over us and that was hugely challenging. I am not in that situation now but it still features in other schools."[165]

174. We share a concern that schools which receive disproportionate numbers of challenging or otherwise hard to teach pupils are undertaking a particularly difficult task, not least in the context of school improvement and performance tables. Robert Douglas told us about his experience in managing admissions in Leeds:

"We have quite a significant problem in Leeds. A significant number of children exhibit a challenge. These children are directed mainly to the same schools time after time. That leads to a polarisation in terms of provision and how school provision is perceived by communities. I mentioned in the briefing notes that a number of head teachers, when I engaged with them on the challenging children issue, felt that they need, one, to meet floor targets, and two, to perform and strive to meet national targets. Admission is just one issue. A challenging child can push them to the absolute limit and that can affect their target for attendance, their five A*—C, and we are getting more and more of that. We have to find some way for a more equitable distribution. To some extent, it is up to the local education authority to use the structures and frameworks that currently exist. From a personal point of view, in my day-to-day work, I have no compunction about directing a school to admit a challenging child if I feel that is necessary. However, that sets up a negative relationship with the school. It is not a good relationship then for the child to be admitted to that school, and all the things that follow on from that. This is a tremendously wide-ranging issue. Admissions is just one part of that. We need to develop linkages with school improvements. We need to look at things like funding streams as well. In terms of funding social inclusion, there are about 15 to 20 different distribution factors."[166]

175. That many LEAs are proactive in placing challenging pupils in an equitable manner is to be applauded; that this happens in spite of, rather than because of, current arrangements for school admission is a matter of concern. Meeting the needs of all children within a local authority area must be understood as the responsibility of all stakeholders, schools and LEAs, alike. Mike Wood, headteacher of the Cornwallis School in Kent described the tensions involved in taking this approach:

"On a day-to-day basis, if you have a child in my school, you would expect my concentration to be on the education of your son or daughter and not worrying about what is happening on the other side of the town… However, many of the moves that are now being made towards collaboration and federation… I think are beginning to show signs of alleviating some of the excesses, and we will begin to tackle some of the issues about, for instance, difficult to place children all ending up in the one school. It is difficult to take that to any kind of natural conclusion, though, in terms of one's community responsibility in an area which has selection, because how can you define that issue of my being responsible for the education of children in a local community when a significant proportion of them will be taken out of the local community at the wishes of the local population."[167]

176. Most schools that operate as their own admissions authority do so within the spirit and the letter of the Code of Practice,[168] but some do not. Local authorities are charged with a responsibility to promote high standards[169] and social inclusion[170] through their role in school place planning and their oversight of compulsory education provision. In addition the Code of Practice requires all admissions authorities to ensure that admission arrangements work for the benefit of all children, including those with special educational needs, disabilities or in public care and contribute to improving standards for all.[171] The Audit Commission/Ofsted joint report on school place planning observed:

"While the basic concern of local authorities has rightly been to manage as efficiently as possible the supply of and demand for school places, their freedom of manoeuvre is significantly constrained. The fundamental principles of parental preference and individual school autonomy, which underpin the legislative framework, are difficult to reconcile with efficient central planning.

In short, for some types of schools, there are clear opportunities for schools to 'select in' and 'select out' pupils, and given the links between social background, prior attainment and later examination performance, these practices enable some such schools to obtain higher positions in examination 'league tables' than others." [172]

177. We urge the Government to pay greater attention to the ways in which schools may be enabled to work together to support improvement and share responsibility for challenging pupils.

178. Our recommendation to strengthen the Code of Practice by means of greater regulation will help to avoid the disadvantages inseparable from a seriously unbalanced intake. This alone, however, will not be enough: LEAs must take a lead in their role in casual admissions to ensure that some schools are not over-burdened with challenging pupils while others are left undisturbed.

Schools and their communities

179. Schools are important institutions in our communities. The way in which schools define their communities varies widely: some secondary schools serve clearly defined geographical areas for which they are the only maintained provision within reasonable reach; while others, notably in highly populated areas, may be one of a number of schools from which parents may choose. Others, particularly faith schools, serve communities defined not by local geography but by the Trust Deeds governing the school.

180. Where a school is the only maintained provision within a reasonable distance the issue of parental preference hardly applies. In other areas, where there are a number of accessible schools, parents may prefer to send their children to schools other than the that closest to their home. This preference, if fulfilled, has two potential consequences: a longer journey for the child in question, and the possibility of another child being displaced from their local school in order to meet the preference of the first child's parents.

181. In many individual cases the additional distances travelled may be marginal although we have heard of some areas where children travel great distances to attend the school of their parents' preference. This has consequences in terms of the costs for individual families, for the environment and for the children themselves, their health, safety and the extent to which they begin each school day prepared to participate and to learn. Our inquiry into school transport and the Government's recent legislative proposals has addressed these issues but we raise the matter again here to reflect our concern.

182. We share the view expressed by the Secretary of State that parents should be encouraged and enabled to send their children to their local school.[173] The draft School Transport Bill invites local authorities to develop innovative approaches to school transport in order to find ways of addressing the problems caused by the movement of large numbers of children, often by private car, between home and school. It is our view that energies would be better directed at addressing the reasons why children do not attend their local school, rather than finding ways to make unnecessary journeys easier. Moreover, Government policies that divert children away from their local school, or permit unregulated admissions arrangements in publicly funded schools (as apply to CTCs), are incompatible with the proclaimed intentions of the Secretary of State.

183. Schools which develop strong links with their communities and build trust and understanding with parents are well placed to support the learning of their pupils. Parents' physical proximity their child's school, while not an absolute necessity, is an important factor in developing mutually supportive arrangements. Mr Simon Flowers, headteacher of the Cathederal School in Wakefield described to us the relationship between a school and its community:

"What I am advocating is a community school. What I am advocating is a school and a community identifying with each other and then a project in that community to regenerate that community. The communities I serve, where my children come from, are some of the most deprived communities in the area and they need help. The best source of help can come through the education that children receive locally. Too many of my students, potentially my students, leave to go to schools elsewhere, it dilutes the issue, creates the ghetto and we are trying to get away from that ghetto idea and say, 'this is a community school we are going to do this together'".[174]

184. The Government's plans for extended schools[175] will add further to the links between local communities and schools through the incorporation of additional services on the school site. These may include childcare, health, social services facilities as well as pre/after-school activities and adult learning provision. The extent to which extended schools and particularly provision outside school hours will be successful will depend on whether families perceive schools to be part of their community and the ease with which they can access these new services.[176] We anticipate that those schools which recruit from their local area and have the strongest links with their immediate geographical community will be best placed to make the extended school model work.

122   All preferences do not necessarily carry the same weight or value. Back

123   School Admissions Code of Practice, Department for Education and Skills, 2003, A 27, A 28, p 47. Back

124   Ibid, para 6.7. Back

125   This is so because if all first preferences are cleared first X places will be assigned to first preference applicants. If some first preferences are set aside, because second preference applicants meet the oversubscription criteria more fully, X is reduced. Back

126   SA 17, para 4.6 numbers do not include selective schools "certain parents" i.e. those whose children do not pass an aptitude test but live closer to a preferred school than those who do (and would have been offered a place had the 10% selection by aptitude not been in place). Back

127   Education and Skills Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, HC 94, paras 113-114. Back

128   Ibid, para 117. Back

129   Committee on Public Accounts, Nineteenth Report of Session 2003-04, Making a difference: Performance of maintained secondary schools in England, HC 104. Back

130   Education and Skills Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, HC 94. Back

131   Ibid, paras 54-63. Back

132   Education and Skills Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, HC 94 paras 54-55. Back

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

134   Q 719 Back

135   Education and Skills Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, HC 94, para 62. Back

136   Education and Skills Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, HC 94, Q 261. Back

137   Parents' experiences of the process of choosing a secondary school, RR 278, Department for Education and Skills, June 2001, executive summary p 1. Back

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

139   In terms of the number of pupils entitled to free school meals or having special educational needs. Back

140   Reflected in recourse to appeal at any failure to gain entry to a particular brand of school. Back

141   Parents' experiences of the process of choosing a secondary school, RR 278, Department for Education and Skills, June 2001, executive summary p 6. Back

142   "Education out of a hat", Philip Collins, New Statesman, 5 July 2004. Back

143   The report of the Social Market Foundation's Commission on school admissions is as yet unpublished. We are grateful for advice from the Social Market Foundation on their proposals.  Back

144   Q 193, Q 195. Back

145   The Commission for Local Administration in England, Special Report School Admissions and Appeals, March 2004, para 2. Back

146   Ibid, example 5. Back

147   Ibid, example 8. Back

148   Ibid, para A5. Back

149   Education Leeds is a private company formed in April 2002 to take over the provision of education services to Leeds City Council and to run most of the functions of the local education authority. Education Leeds is wholly-owned by Leeds City Council. Q 189 Back

150   Qq 193, Q195 Back

151   The Commission for Local Administration in England, Special Report School Admissions and Appeals, March 2004, para D3. Back

152   School Admissions Appeals Code of Practice, Department for Education and Skills, 2003, para 4.8 p 20. Back

153   National Statistics, Appeals lodged by parents against non-admission of their children to maintained schools, 1993-94 to 2000-01: social trends 33 (dataset ST330304). Back

154   National Statistics first release June 2003 based on appeals lodged by parents against non-admission to their preferred secondary school 2001-02 9SFR 17/2003. Back

155   Q 861 Back

156   SA 47 Back

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

158   Ibid, paras 2.3, 4.10, 4.17. Back

159   Ibid, p ii and para 1.3. Back

160   Council on Tribunals, School Admissions and Exclusion Appeals Panels, Special Report, Cm 5788, May 2003, para 2.50. Back

161   SA 48: Department for Education and Skills' response to the Council on Tribunals' Special Report dated 16 October 2003. Back

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

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

164   Qq 646, 735, 314. Back

165   Q 428 Back

166   Q 203 Back

167   Q 477 Back

168   Judged by the number of complaints made and upheld. Back

169   Section 13 of the 1996 Education Act, inserted by 1998 School Standards and Framework Act (section 5). Back

170   School Admissions Code of Practice, Department for Education and Skills, 2003, para 3.4, 3.12. Back

171   Ibid, para 2.3. Back

172   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

173   Oral evidence to the Transport Committee, School Transport inquiry, HC 318-ii, Q 207. Back

174   Q 1017 Back

175   A New Specialist System: Transforming Secondary Education, Department for Education and Skills, February 2004, p 36. Back

176   Q 882 Back

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