Education Bill

Memorandum submitted by West Sussex County Council Admissions Forum

(E 90)

Summary

1. The West Sussex County Council Admission Forum notes with concern the removal in clause 34 of the Education Bill of the requirement for a local authority (in England) to establish an admission forum and would urge the Education Bill Committee to reconsider this clause.

Introduction to West Sussex County Council Admission Forum

2. This submission is from the West Sussex County Council Admission Forum (the "forum"), an admission forum established by West Sussex County Council (the "authority") under section 85A of the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998 ("SSFA") (as inserted by Section 46 of the Education Act 2002) and constituted under regulation 8 of the School Admissions (Local Authority Reports and Admission Forums) (England) Regulations 2008.

3. The Forum comprises of members from the Local Authority; the Church of England and Catholic Dioceses; primary and secondary community, foundation, academy, voluntary controlled and voluntary aided schools; parents; governors; supported by representatives of disadvantaged and/or minority groups and local authority admissions officers.

4. The forum, as a body independent from the County Council, is chaired by a governor from a community secondary school, with the vice-chair being the representative from the Church of England Diocese.

Work of the Forum

5. The role of the forum is as laid out in annex 1, this being an extract from the current terms of reference of the forum, which in turn has been adapted from section 4.31 of the 2010 School Admissions Code.

6. The forum meets three times a year and through its constituent members provides a forum for relevant and timely discussion on admission issues across the authority, particularly where these have an impact on the more vulnerable members of the community.

7. In the past year the forum has specifically:

i reviewed the admissions process for the "normal" round of admissions

ii discussed the local authority’s scheme of coordination

iii received reports on the fair access protocol and pupil placement panels

iv responded to the authority’s statutory annual consultation on admission issues

v reviewed a policy statement for refugees and asylum seekers

vi reviewed the information booklets for parents

vii advised on the time allowed for parents to confirm acceptance of a school place

viii discussed the priority given to siblings in oversubscription criteria

ix provided panellists for the "exceptional and compelling" category for school applications

x discussed the authority’s need to improve planning of school places, especially as affected by new housing developments

xi reviewed the authority’s report to the Schools Adjudicator

xii received a demonstration of the online admissions process which parents are being encouraged to use

Concerns of the forum

8. The forum notes, with concern, that the Education Bill, as currently drafted amends section 85A of the SSFA, thereby removing the requirement for a local authority to establish an admission forum.

9. Whilst not resorting to the rhetoric of some that "admission forums are being abolished", this forum is concerned that the removal of the requirement would at best leave the establishment of such admission forums to the good-will and motivation of the current members (and others) to do so on a voluntary basis.

10. In the fulfilling of its duties the forum is ably resourced by officers of the authority, especially from within the school admissions team and the authority also provides suitable and convenient venues.

11. In the current economic climate the authority, like all other public bodies, needs to curtail even essential services and so the likelihood of it wanting to continue to resource a non-statutory body will become remote.

12. As detailed earlier, the forum is engaged in a lot of work surrounding school admissions and the need for such work (or rather, scrutiny) will be even greater given the increasing diversity within the maintained school sector and with more schools becoming their own admission authority.

13. Whilst own school admission authorities for schools with a religious character (commonly known as "faith schools") have religious bodies to provide some regulation, e.g. Church of England and Roman Catholic Dioceses, other schools, especially free schools and academies, will have no such regulatory body and hence the role of the admission forum will become even more, not less, crucial.

14. Later subsections within this clause affect the powers of the school adjudicator, and, whilst not directly affecting the role of admission forums, it is noted that this restriction of the adjudicator’s powers will also reduce the checks and balances which are currently in place to ensure a fair admissions system operates within each community and local authority area.

15. Rather than remove the requirement to establish a forum per se, it would be preferable if the regulations regarding the constitution of forums were to be relaxed. Current regulations are too prescriptive on the required membership and do not allow for enough flexibility according to local context.

Other matters

16. The timing of the Bill is at odds with the timing of the consultation on a revised School Admissions Code, inasmuch as a draft Code will soon be out for consultation, but as yet no decision has been made on the future admission forums, as this is dependent on the passage of the former (including any amendments), but the draft Code will still need to make reference to admission forums as determined by current (not draft) statute.

17. As well as pre-empting any consultation on a new Code, the duties in relation to school admissions are being directly changed by this Bill, whereas changes to governing bodies (clauses 37 and 38) are being effected by subsequent change to secondary legislation and regulation, hence given more time for consultation, etc.

Conclusion

18. In light of the above, the forum wishes the committee to consider carefully the removal of the requirement for a local authority to establish an admission forum. Of particular concern is the negative impact this would have on the establishment and maintenance of a fair admissions system especially at a time of not insignificant change as well as increasing diversity in the provision of state maintained education.

Annex 1

Role of the Forum

a) To consider how well existing and proposed admission arrangements serve the interests of children and parents within the area of the Local Authority.

b) To promote agreement on admission issues.

c) To review the comprehensiveness, effectiveness and accessibility of the advice and guidance for parents by the Local Authority, both in the published information for parents booklets and the delivery of Choice Advice.

d) To consider the means by which admissions processes might be improved and how actual admissions relate to admission numbers published.

e) To monitor the admission of children who arrive in the Local Authority’s area outside the normal admission round with a view to promoting arrangements for the fair distribution of such children among local schools, taking account of parental preference.

f) To promote arrangements for children with special educational needs, children in care and children who have been excluded from school.

g) To monitor the effectiveness of the Local Authority’s Fair Access Protocol.

h) To advise on any other matters which affect the fair operation of admission arrangements in the West Sussex.

March 2011