Poor school admissions practice could become the norm

The Guardian newspaper reported that some months ago, the government began a consultation on the new school admissions code. Since its introduction in the late 90’s the admissions code has undergone several incarnations. All have tended to strengthen its stated aim of ensuring that admissions practices are fair, clear and objective, and enable parents to understand easily how school places are allocated.

On paper, school admissions may look dry and technical, but in the real world they are a highly political issue and go to the heart of parent choice, social justice and community cohesion. Schools can find convoluted ways to baffle parents and weed out the least desirable children, often the poorest, using an array of criteria that are discriminatory, opaque and unfair, such as complicated catchment areas, own-school banding systems or devious faith-based points systems that rank parents and pupils according to their willingness to sing in choirs, arrange flowers or count the collection money for the church.

They are usually practised by schools that are successful (partly because of their intakes) and therefore formidable lobbyists. Moreover, they tend to remain in place for years unless there is a successful objection to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator. However, something very sneaky happened between the end of the consultation period and the publication of the new code, which was laid before parliament earlier this month.

A new clause has been inserted, which bans objections in two key areas: where governing bodies have decided to increase their planned admissions number (PAN) and where independent state schools have been allowed an “agreed variation” to the requirement that they follow the admissions code in their funding agreements. The freedom to opt out of the admissions code has been theoretically possible from the moment the first “independent” state school was established, and is one reason I have always opposed them. The whole point of independence is to escape the legislative ties that bind maintained schools and to benefit from an altogether looser contractual agreement, which can be easily changed, between the founder or sponsor and the government.

Free schools, most of which like to publicly proclaim their adherence to the admissions code, actually have their own special “model” funding agreement with an annex that allows them to opt out of it. There are already thousands of independent state schools and technically there is nothing to stop any of them reinstating an array of dodgy admissions practices that years of campaigning managed to outlaw, if the secretary of state will permit it. How long before interviews, lengthy supplementary forms, primary school records, priority places for certain groups (like the children of founders and governors) and even feeder schools in the private sector start to resurface in some schools’ entry criteria?

Grammar schools can now expand at will, and it is not inconceivable that a future Conservative secretary of state could give non-selective schools the permission to introduce partial or even total academic selection, which always favours the better-off, via the funding agreement route. By the same token, a future Labour government could cease funding selective schools that have converted to academy status unless they phase out existing selection, but I won’t be holding my breath on that one. One of the first articles I wrote for this paper, in 2003, was about school admissions. The words of the then schools adjudicator, Philip Hunter, have rung in my ears ever since.