Education Bill

Memorandum submitted by Comprehensive Future (E 50)

1. Comprehensive Future is the campaign for fair school admission policies in England. The campaign is non party political and open to all. By lobbying Government, providing evidence, informing the media and supporting local campaigns on admissions we aim to bring about a comprehensive secondary school system in England with fair admissions criteria to all publicly funded schools, guaranteeing an equal chance to all children and an end to selection by ability and aptitude. Our supporters include school staff and governors, parents, members of both Houses of Parliament, local councillors, academics and other public figures who share a commitment to equality of opportunity within our education system.

Summary - Clause 34 and Clause 60

2. Clause 34 will severely weaken the means whereby admission arrangements are monitored to ensure fairness. This is particularly backward step when the proportion of schools able to set their own admissions criteria is increasing. Comprehensive Future wishes to see Clause 34 largely removed. We welcome Clause 60 in so far as it makes the route for complaints the same for maintained schools and academies.

· Admission Forums should not be abolished. Instead the Government should commit to a statutory role for admission forums and consult them on how they might be supported to carry out their role as effectively as possible.

· The powers of the adjudicator should not be restricted. Section 88J in the SSFA should remain.

· Clause 60 should be amended to ensure that those (including admission forums) currently allowed to object to the Adjudicator about maintained schools are able to object to academies admission arrangements.

General comments

3. A key theme of the Bill (as stated in the Impact Assessment) is to ‘give parents a greater role in the system’. In fact, if enacted, the Bill will reduce the role of parents in the part of the system relating to admissions. The abolition of admission forums will reduce direct parental involvement as parent governor representatives are part of the required membership. Importantly parent groups come to the meetings of the forum to make representations. It is easier in the first instance for parent groups to attend a local forum than to approach the Adjudicator. Additionally if the role of the Adjudicator in changing admission criteria following what may be a parental complaint is reduced, this too will result in a reduced parental role in the system.

4. The Government has provided no explanation of why these changes are needed. The White Paper said that instead of the current provisions local authorities’ role will be to make the process as fair and simple as possible for parents and pupils, setting up local arrangements which work for that area. The White Paper claimed that making changes would ‘end the bureaucratic requirements’ on local authorities but the DfE impact statement indicates that only small cost savings would be made, an indication that this is not much of a bureaucratic burden, particularly considering the loss of scrutiny to ensure fairness which will be involved.

5. Evidence is strong that schools that are their own admission authority do not take the proportion of children on free school meals represented in their communities. That some schools, deliberately or through failing to be aware of the legal requirements in the Admissions Code, have failed to admit children from disadvantaged backgrounds, has been evidenced by research (for example from the Sutton Trust 2006 and listed in Allen, West and Coldron for a DfE Research Report in 2010 ). This makes effective local scrutiny even more important.

Specific comments

Clause 34(2) Admission Forums

6. Comprehensive Future supports the requirement by statute for admission forums within each local authority area, particularly given the increasing number of school providers. An independent effective statutory scrutinising body is essential.

7. The current School Admission Code identifies the role of the School Admissions Forum as– to provide a vehicle for admission authorities and other key interested parties to discuss the effectiveness of local admission arrangements, consider how to deal with difficult admission issues and to advise admission authorities on ways in which their arrangements can be improved. Their main focus is to consider the fairness of arrangements in their local context. Admission authorities of all maintained schools and Academies, when exercising their functions, must have regard to any advice offered by the Forum. Forums can take evidence for example on the working of the Fair Access Protocol, object to the Adjudicator if local admission authorities do not regard their advice and can make annual reports on fairness to the Adjudicator.

8. It should be emphasized that the members of the Forum are volunteers making a contribution to their community.

9. The membership of the Forum is intended to ‘reflect the needs of their local community’ and the membership must reflect the type of schools in the locality. Current regulations stipulate that membership is to be no more than 20 with at least one representative of community, voluntary aided, voluntary controlled, foundation and academies and CTCs in the relevant area, representatives of each of the religious bodies involved in any of the local schools, at least one parent and at least one community representative. School representatives must be heads or governors but not local authority governors.

10. Fair and equal access to educational opportunity for all children is crucial to the objective of increasing social mobility. Parents are entitled to know that there is an effective independent monitoring body in each local authority to ensure fair admission criteria and processes, as laid down in the School Admissions Code, are operated by all admission authorities. Admissions Forums should also retain the right to report directly to the Schools Adjudicator, either directly or if it wishes as a comment on the LA report if that remains.

11. Many admission forums do a highly competent job. Some admission forums may be less effective but that is evidence of the need to encourage best practice. The admission forum should have the resources and powers to carry out investigations where it suspects, or has brought to its notice, that admission authorities of any publicly funded local school is not complying with the School Admissions Code or bypassing the co-ordination of the local authority to admit pupils from preferred backgrounds. The power of the forum to seek information from its local authority and local schools needs clarifying, encouraging and supporting with adequate resources.

12. A Departmental consultation in 2008 included a proposal to make admission forums voluntary. This was rejected by those responding, in particular local authorities.

13. The latest report of the Chief Schools Adjudicator (2010) did not recommend abolition of the admission forum, instead suggested that it should discuss, review or possibly approve the local authority annual report before sending, while allowing the forum to continue to produce its own report or make supplementary comments.

14. Research and Information on State Education (2009) seems to have carried out the only research on how admission forums work, and this very small scale. Using a case study of five forums the researchers from the LSE, noting the lack of the Forum’s formal powers, concluded that despite this one of the five Admission Forums had successfully carved out a leadership role concerning school admissions within the local area. The other Admission Forums had achieved more modest success.

15. An NFER report in 2010 surveyed LA admission officers on the whole process of admissions, views on admission forums were mixed but positive comments outweighed negative ones.

16. Recently Comprehensive Future has had some personal communications from members of Admission Forums. A few examples of comments made about the likely consequences were forums to be abolished –

· Admission processes will become more school-centric than parent- centric. With the increase in admission authority schools there appears to be even more need for an objective body to champion the rights of parents and children in the process’

· ‘The loss of a unique opportunity for representatives of various groups to come together in an atmosphere of co-operation and collaboration to work to secure fair admissions for all’

· ‘A lost opportunity … Discussion has led to many improvements in admissions processes’.

17. Admission Forums should not be abolished , instead the Government should commit to a statutory role for admission forums and consult them on how they might be supported to carry out their role as effectively as possible

Clause 34 (3) Repeal of Section 88J in the SSFA

18. Comprehensive Future maintains that the powers of the Adjudicator to comment and amend any aspect of admissions not compliant with the School Admissions Code should remain as well as his powers to change arrangements he finds to be unsatisfactory.

19. The adjudicator has found that when one matter is brought to his attention he has found others which demand attention but have not been specifically raised. In evidence to the Education Select Committee on the 2nd February he said that in 43% of the referrals in the previous year the office looked more broadly than just the referral, and we found other things wrong with admissions arrangements. In one particular school, the office found 26 other contraventions of regulations within the admissions arrangements. In his 2010 Annual Report (para 40 to 41) the Chief Schools Adjudicator said it would be a retrograde step to prevent adjudicators from taking action in these circumstances. Perversely that seems to be what the Government intends. No evidence has been produced to support this change. Admission arrangements do not become fair just because no-one complains about them.

20. The effect of removing 88J is however more damaging as it seems to remove the power of the Adjudicator to make the modifications required. It seems that this will have the effect of making his judgements merely advisory, making it possible for admission authorities to fail to comply with his rulings. This seems to conflict with what the Minister said in reply to a written question on 2nd March when he said – the adjudicator’s determinations ‘are binding on both parties’.

21. The powers of the adjudicator should not be restricted. Section 88J in the SSFA should remain.

Clause 34 (4) The Local Authority report

22. Comprehensive Future believes that the duty on the local authority to send an Annual Report to the Schools Adjudicator has been valuable. However the Chief Adjudicator in his latest Annual Report makes recommendations about the local authority annual report which seem to indicate that there may be value in them being made to the DfE rather than the OSA, and for the content to be flexible so that the Chief Adjudicator or the Secretary of State should be able to ‘ask for information that is pertinent at the time to inform the national picture’. If that is to be the effect of 34(4) then it may be useful to make that change. The draft Code is not available to check what information might be expected to be provided.

23. However if Admission Forums were to be abolished along with their power to report to the Adjudicator (and the power to the Adjudicator to change admission processes which do not conform) the loss of the report is another example of the way in which effective monitoring of the Code is weakened if this Clause is enacted.

Clause 60

24. Comprehensive Future welcomes the change to ensure that complainants (for example parents) wishing to complain to the adjudicator about the admission arrangements of academies are able to use the same route as those complaining about maintained schools. However it is important that those able to complain about maintained schools are also able to complain about academies. 60(3)(b) which substitutes subsection (6) in the 88H of the SSFA does not seem to ensure that but indicates that there may be differences.

25. Clause 60 should be amended to ensure that those (including admission forums) currently allowed to object to the Adjudicator about maintained schools are able to object to academies admission arrangements.

References

Allen,R, Coldron J, West A, (2010) The effect of changes in published secondary school admissions on pupil composition. Research Report DFE –RR038

Sutton Trust (2006) The Social Composition of Top Comprehensive Schools, Rates of Eligibility for Free School Meals at the 200Highest Performing Comprehensive Schools

RISE (2009) Secondary schools In England, Admisision Forums, local authorities and schools ,Noden,P and West, A

Office of the Schools Adjudicator Annual Report 2010

Rudd.P, Gardiner C and Marson-Smith,H (2010) Local Authority Approaches to the School Admissions Process (LG Group research report) NFER

March 2011