Comment Blog 31 January, 2017

Tackling disadvantage (IV): non-compliant school admission arrangements

While the Government is exploring school admissions through its grammar school consultation, it is an ideal opportunity to investigate better enforcement of existing admissions policy. A report published last week by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (the non-departmental public body which investigates unlawful admission arrangements) said local authorities (LAs) were struggling to carry out their duty to monitor admission arrangements and that half of school admission objections were made by parents. Insufficient regulation of admission arrangements leaves the responsibility of challenging non-compliant arrangements to parents. This could put disadvantaged families at an even greater disadvantage as they are less likely to do this.

Upheld admissions objections included: occasions where feeder schools far from the school had resulted in local children not getting places in local schools and having further to travel; situations where there was over-subscription and a faith-based criteria was applied which was unclear about the frequency or length of time a child needed to have attended a place of worship; non-compliant consultation processes about changes to admission arrangements; and admission arrangements not being published in full or in time.

For schools whose admission arrangements are determined by the LA, there is no body with a duty to challenge arrangements that do not comply with statutory guidelines. This is reflected in the number of objections about schools where the LA is the admissions authority (14 out of 200 new cases last year). Given that, for 60 per cent of schools, the LA is the admission authority, a possible reason for the low number of cases is that the admission arrangements for these schools are being insufficiently challenged. For schools that are their own admission authorities, such as academies, the LA is responsible for monitoring their arrangements to ensure compliance. However, with increasing numbers of academies (there were 870 new academies in 2016) and falling LA budgets, this seems increasingly impractical.

Last week’s report said that eight LAs were not confident that the arrangements of all schools in their area were lawful (there are 152 LAs in total). It also found that some Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) present an additional problem by not being clear in their ‘schemes of delegation’ who is responsible for setting admission arrangements: the local school governing body or the trust committee. This ambiguity makes it more difficult for them to be challenged and investigated when it is suspected they do not comply with the regulations.

It appears to be parents who are taking on the task, accounting for half of all objections last year. This is a concerning picture. Parents are only likely to challenge admission arrangements where they disadvantage their own child, meaning those most likely to gain are the children whose parents have the motivation, time and skills to do this. As Martin Narey, the former Chief Executive of Barnardos, noted in 2010, many parents in poorer households and from less well-educated backgrounds feel less able to engage in the “complex game” that is school admissions.

The 2013 Academies Commission report by the RSA and Pearson recommended “an independent appeals service, to be instigated and run in a quasi-judicial manner.” This would not, however, help those children affected by unlawful admission arrangements that go unchallenged.

Another possible solution is to provide greater incentives for admission authorities to ensure their arrangements comply. This could be in the form of fines for arrangements found to be unlawful or through Ofsted reporting (compliance with statutory admissions guidance is not currently included in the evaluation schedule). This would then flag non-compliance to the appropriate body and pressure them to amend the arrangements. A practice uncovered in last week’s report (and also discouraged in the report as an unnecessary expense) was admission authorities seeking legal advice to ensure their arrangements complied. This could be avoided through having an independent body that admission authorities could voluntarily submit their arrangements to if they were concerned about non-compliance. This would not necessarily need to be a new body but could be a function undertaken by the Education Funding Agency (the executive arm of the Department for Education), for example.

Without greater measures in place, there is the risk that disadvantaged families are disadvantaged further through current school admission arrangements. The Government should investigate this issue as part of its plans to increase selection.