Select Committee on Education and Skills Fourth Report


6 Conclusions

232. It is apparent from the evidence we have received during the course of this inquiry that the school admissions process works effectively in much of England. It is also the case that there are a number of areas where secondary school admissions present particularly severe difficulties that the current regulatory arrangements have been unable to address. There is therefore much more to be done throughout the system to ensure that good practice is widely applied and that parents can be confident that the quality of their experience of the school admissions process is a matter of course rather than a matter of luck.

233. There is need for the Government to act to ensure that parents can be confident that all maintained schools are of an appropriate quality and will offer their children the education they deserve. We acknowledge the progress that has been made to improve secondary education but this progress has been too slow to reassure parents and meet the needs of those pupils currently in schools that are not yet good enough.

234. The quality of secondary school provision is a complex issue and one that we have addressed in each of our inquiries into secondary education. School outcomes cannot be divorced from school intakes and therefore the admissions process itself. The evidence is that admissions arrangements which produce significantly unbalanced pupil profiles cause some schools acute problems. In such schools head teachers and their staff face an enormous challenge to create a positive learning environment. Schools in challenging circumstances require substantial investment in order to rebalance the culture and address problems of behaviour and low aspiration. This is an expensive way to tackle problems that are, to a large extent, of our own making. Selection, whether by academic, proximity or other criteria, inevitably entails rejection. Government policy on school admissions, with a growing emphasis on schools being able to choose the pupils they prefer to teach, must address this issue.

The Government's aims and objectives

235. The Labour Party approached the 1997 election with two key priorities in relation to school admissions: to limit selection and to promote parental preference.[219] It is our conclusion that the Government has been less successful than they intended in both respects. The facility for secondary schools to select their intake has increased under the present Government through the expansion of the specialist schools initiative. It is also the case that measures to control partial selection have been unsuccessful. There has also been a failure to establish an adequate audit of arrangements applying 1997-98 on which the lawfulness or otherwise of partial selection now in force depends.

236. The Government's current key aims for school admissions[220] are to enable parents' preferences to be met to the maximum extent possible, increase fairness within the system, to ensure cooperation and coordination between admissions authorities and to ensure a strong and continuing role for parental preference. We broadly support these aims. We believe that the regulatory framework for school admissions, including the advisory Codes of Practice on Admissions and Appeals, is insufficient to ensure their widespread delivery.

237. On parental preference we have seen compelling evidence that the weakness of the regulatory framework for admissions has eroded the role of parental preference by failing to regulate school admissions effectively and address the behaviour of admissions authorities which attempt to choose their pupils by covert means; thus the rhetoric of parents choosing schools has been transformed into schools choosing parents.

238. The Government's emphasis on diversity as a means of delivering choice in secondary education misses the point. Parents seek quality above diversity; the existence of an excellent but distant or oversubscribed specialist school is no comfort to parents who deem the only school available to them to be not good enough. Current policy aims to reward those schools that are academically successful and in so doing penalises those that are not. Performance in schools cannot be driven in this way; to penalise low performing schools is to penalise the pupils within those schools, a negative and counterproductive strategy.

239. The Government must focus its attention on ensuring that all schools are good enough. Real choice cannot be delivered without the expensive addition of significant extra capacity in the system and a corresponding increase in the number of empty seats in classrooms. Such a proposal represents a waste of valuable resources and runs counter to the prudent demands of the 1998 School Standard's and Framework Act which requires the provision of education in accordance with parents' wishes except where "compliance with the preference would prejudice the provision of efficient education or the efficient use of resources."[221] Indeed, if taxpayers are to invest more in education it is reasonable to expect them to get more for their money than empty seats.

Consistent policy making

240. During the course of our inquiry into secondary education we have identified a number of inconsistencies in Government announcements. These include, for example, the promotion of specialist education for children with aptitude in particular subjects without the necessary investment in school transport to ensure that all such children, not only those with affluent parents, are able to take up these opportunities; the commitment to limit selection while expanding the facility through the specialist schools programme; and the ability of admission appeal panels to require an already full school to admit pupils beyond its capacity while leaving other schools with empty places.

241. The Government's policy on grammar school ballots has been a particular example of inconsistent policy making: while the Government claims to want to limit selection and enable local parents to have the power to decide the future of selection in their area, the expensive balloting arrangements have proved effectively inoperable, banishing worthwhile public debate on the relative merits of different models and replacing it with impenetrable red tape.

242. We have welcomed the Secretary of State's view that children should be encouraged and enabled to attend their local school. However this is incompatible with the Government's policy on school diversity which encourages parents to seek a place for their child in a school with an appropriate specialism. Similarly, the rejection of interviewing for most publicly funded schools is compromised by the continuation of this practice in CTCs and the Government's commitment to the needs of looked after children is undermined by its failure to secure their priority in school admissions.

The School Admissions Code of Practice

243. The School Admissions Code of Practice is an advisory rather than a regulatory instrument and has proved insufficient for the task for ensuring widespread good practice in school admissions. Inconsistency in the definition and application of over-subscription criteria has been raised repeatedly during the course of our inquiry as the cause of much confusion and complaint. This is a failure not of the Code itself but of the legislative framework in which it sits. Our recommendations call for a shift towards greater regulation of school admissions in the interests of fairness, consistency and clarity.

Parental preference, satisfaction and decision making

244. We have seen that although parental preference is the dominant theme in the relevant legislation, the extent of competition for school places in some areas has led to a shift away from parents choosing schools to school admission authorities choosing pupils. The Government must reinforce the role of parental preference by limiting the discretion that individual admissions authorities have to reject or apply good practice as they see fit. In order to offer parents greater clarity and certainty there is a need to revise the Codes of Practice in order to move the balance towards greater regulation. Government should not continue to use parental preference as a device to shift the responsibility for providing an acceptable school place onto parents' shoulders when it properly rests with the state.

245. Current measures of parental satisfaction make it difficult to judge to what extent the emphasis on parental preference has influenced parental satisfaction.[222] The number of appeals lodged by parents against non-admission to secondary schools increased by 9% in 2001/2 on the previous year with a total of 69,200 appeals.[223] This significant increase in the number of appeals lodged by parents could be taken to mean that the Government's efforts to increase parental satisfaction through parental preference have been unsuccessful.

246. The Government's drive to increase parental satisfaction through diversity is a misinterpretation of the problem. Parents seek certainty and predictability in the admissions process and want schools in which their children will be safe and their learning supported. Until all schools are good enough the promotion of diversity of provision between schools may continue to be a diversion from the real issue of quality of provision.

Interviewing

247. The School Admissions Code of Practice seeks to prevent the use of interviewing for admission to most publicly funded schools. Minister's obfuscation on the issue as it applies to CTCs is a matter of great disappointment. The risk of bias inherent in the interview process applies regardless of the status of the school in which they take place.

Review Arrangements

248. We have seen evidence during this inquiry of numerous missed opportunities for achieving greater clarity and certainty in the school admissions process. The latest version of the Codes of Practice on School Admissions and Appeals are particular examples of this phenomenon. The Codes, though welcome and well intentioned, with their emphasis on guidance rather than regulation, leave too many admissions problems unsettled.

249. The creation of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator has provided an important check on the behaviour of admission authorities, although its influence has been limited by a regrettably narrow remit. If the OSA is to be an effective it will need to have powers to investigate school admission arrangements beyond the limits if those on which formal objections have been based.

250. Our recommendations for greater regulation of school admissions will require secondary legislation and some consequential redrafting of the Codes of Practice. In the interim we encourage locally based admissions forums and LEAs to increase their level of engagement with individual admission authorities in order to ensure greater levels of consistency and clarity throughout the system.

Equity in school admissions

251. It is apparent from the evidence we have heard that while most parents find the school admissions system a cause of some anxiety, some parents are able to use their resources to improve their chances of achieving a satisfactory result. Such inequalities are to some extent inevitable, but it is the role of Government to design and implement a system for school admissions which, as far as possible, seeks to minimise rather than accentuate inequalities. The current arrangements for school admissions do not meet this challenge and it is therefore time for Government to take a more assertive role in setting the standards for good practice and bring school admission policy into line with its broader policies on social inclusion.

Information for parents

252. Parent's assessments of the schools in their areas are informed by a variety of means among them school performance tables. While we acknowledge that the data in these tables have provided a valuable resource for raising attainment in individual schools their use for comparative purposes requires much careful interpretation. The DfES needs to work harder to ensure that these data are presented and used appropriately and do not have the effect of locking schools, which have worked hard to recover from previous difficulties and raise attainment, into a cycle of despair and rejection.

Children with SEN, disabilities and looked after children

253. The needs of children with statements of special educational needs are secured through legislation.[224] Protecting the needs of other children, including those in public care and those with unstatemented special needs, is the subject of guidance in the School Admissions Code of Practice and ministerial comment but has no basis in statute. It is apparent from the evidence we have received that unless compelled so to do, admissions authorities cannot be relied upon to voluntarily prioritise the needs of these particularly vulnerable children.

Admissions and standards

254. During the course of our inquiry into secondary education we have received a great deal of evidence on the relationship between a school's intake and the level of challenge it faces.[225] It is not possible for all schools' intakes to be wholly representative of either all England or even of their locality; neighbourhood factors, including physical geography and the distribution of different housing types, inevitably lead to some degree of segregation. Furthermore, the genie of parental preference, now released, will not easily be returned to the bottle and we must therefore accept that some parents will continue to favour one type of school over another. That said, we are convinced that the greatest opportunities for improvement are to be found where schools are able to recruit from their local area and where the most able of those local children have not been diverted to other schools by means of selection. Where admissions based predominantly on preference and distance from school lead to an unbalanced intake we see considerable potential in the use of banding to address this issue.

Cooperation and coordination

255. The dominant measures of school performance currently rest on GCSE scores and Ofsted inspections. Schools that are judged to be successful on the basis of these measures are rewarded while others which are deemed to fail are named and shamed. In such a competitive environment the incentive for school admissions authorities to aim to recruit the most able intake must be hard to resist and it is therefore essential that the manner of their competition is regulated to ensure that the needs of all children, not just the most able, are met. As Dr Philip Hunter, the Chief Schools Adjudicator explained:

"Where a school can choose children it will, left to its own devices, inexorably drift towards choosing posh children. The headteacher and governors may be committed to their community and have very high standards and principles. But teachers would rather deal with nice children who have done their homework and parents would prefer to send their children to schools that cater for children with similar backgrounds."[226]

256. The requirement for all admission authorities to work together to produce coordinated admission arrangements will result in each child receiving a single offer of a school place in a maintained school. While we welcome this development there is more to be done to ensure that coordination works effectively and for the benefit of children and parents. First, CTCs, the publicly funded schools currently outside these arrangements should be brought into the system. Furthermore there needs to be greater emphasis on and encouragement for cooperation between schools at all levels and a recognition that schools collectively share responsibility for all of the children within their communities. Government should develop and emphasise policies that encourage schools to cooperate and discourage those which lead schools to act in a self interested manner.

Selection

257. The Government's policy on selection is unclear. Despite the Government's commitments to limiting selection and enabling local decision making on the future of grammar schools we have observed an increase in the use of selective practices and in the number and proportion of pupils entering selective schools. Local balloting arrangements have proved expensive and unworkable and are in urgent need of review. Action is also needed to limit the impact of falling rolls on non-selective schools in selective areas.

258. We have found no evidence that selection by ability or aptitude contributes to the overall improvement of educational standards.

259. The Department's failure to establish reliable baseline information on the admission arrangements that were in place for partially selective schools in 1997—98 have compromised efforts to regulate partial selection.

Appeals and complaints

260. The number of parents motivated to lodge appeals suggests that parents find the system to be broadly accessible. We welcome the efforts of admissions authorities to make information on appeals more effective and widely available although we have concerns that this information does not always give parents a sufficient indication of their chances of success.

261. The overcrowding of schools as a result of successful appeals is a matter of great concern. There is a need to develop a more reasoned and consistent approach to appeals in all schools, whatever their status.

262. The Council on Tribunals special report on School Admission and Exclusion Appeal Panels[227] has shed valuable light on the operation of appeals functions and drawn helpful comparisons between different approaches. We are disappointed to note that the DfES has so far been reluctant to act on many of the Council's recommendations and hope that our report will encourage a change of heart.

263. At the end of the admissions and appeals process if parents remain unhappy they are able to submit a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsmen. The LGOs special report on School Admissions and Appeals[228] revealed some startling examples of poor practice. Taken together these two reports provide compelling evidence of the need to establish and enforce a common framework for the admissions and appeals process.


219   The Labour Party Manifesto, 1997. Also see para 20 above. Back

220   As set out in the School Admissions Code of Practice, Department for Education and Skills, 2003 Back

221   1998 School Standards and Framework Act s86 (3)a. Back

222   See paras 29-35 above Back

223   National Statistics first release June 2003 based on appeals lodged by parents against non-admission to their preferred secondary school 2001/2 9SFR 17/2003). Back

224   1996 Education Act, s 324-328 and schedule 27. Back

225   For example Q 497, Q 503, Q 504. Back

226   "Fixing the system that isn't broken", Dr Philip Hunter, Times Educational Supplement, 31 October 2003. Back

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

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


 
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