School admissions policy needs reform

That time of year is here again – national offer day – when parents, children and schools discover which secondary school each child is destined for. Politicians go out of their way to promise the impossible, and parents think they have been assured their “choice” of school. And if a school is heavily over-subscribed, the criteria and procedures for allocating places are rigorously controlled.

An appeals panel is set up by the admissions authority – the local authority or, in the case of faith, foundation, trust, academy and free schools, the governing body – which is entirely independent of the school. A heavily oversubscribed school such as my own, Northampton School for Boys, has some 100 appeals for year 7 each year. (Perhaps the panel is worried as to perceived “fairness” if they only give places to those who can afford such support?) Do schools think the system is fair?

At least the new code – to come into effect for the next round of secondary school admissions – has been clarified, simplified and considerably shortened, but remains largely unchanged in principle. The Association of School and College Leaders wants there to be an extra stage – to establish grounds – in the appeals process. I would like to see a system whereby parents can make a case as to why their child should be allocated a place at a particular over-subscribed school, but to the school itself, which could perhaps allocate 5 or 10% of places this way.

Why should a panel of three people – trained volunteers recruited by the clerk to the independent panel – with no knowledge of the school or the children be empowered to allocate places to a full school? There is no appeal for the school. Until the admissions code is changed along these lines, we will continue to have disappointed and angry parents every year and schools braced for a protracted and unsatisfactory appeals process.