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Research finds need for greater collective control over school admissions

8 December 2009

A new research report has concluded that there is a need for greater collective control over admission arrangements to schools in England.

After focusing on the work of Admission Forums, Philip Noden of the London School of Economics, who conducted the research for RISE, described them as "a mandatory body in search of a role". The research found a need for admission criteria to be co-ordinated and recommended that Admission Forums take on this role. The report recommends that a duty should be placed on Admission Forums to promote co-ordinated oversubscription criteria.

Philip Noden said –

"A key feature of Admission Forums is their lack of formal powers, indeed they might be crudely characterised as a mandatory body in search of a role. It is evident there is a need for greater local co-ordination of admission arrangements, including the co-ordination of oversubscription criteria, but we do not think this can be achieved by simply enforcing the current School Admissions Code".

This research, Secondary school admissions in England: Admission Forums, local authorities and schools, by Philip Noden and Anne West, Education Research Group, Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, is the first analysis carried out on the work of Admissions Forums since they were established. It examines how they and local authorities have responded to recent changes in the law relating to secondary school admissions.

Interviews with members of admission forums indicate the wide variation in how the forums interpret and carry out their role.

Resume

Background

In the first ten years in which Admission Forums may have operated the policy environment has changed substantially. Forums have been made compulsory and their membership, powers and reporting arrangements have been modified. Meanwhile, School Admissions Codes have been issued at frequent intervals (1999, 2003, 2007, 2009) and arrangements for the policing of school admissions have been substantially strengthened. However, the lack of formal powers for Admission Forums has been a constant feature.

Method

This small scale qualitative research focused on case studies of admission arrangements and the operation of Admission Forums in five local authority areas. The study areas varied in the proportion of schools that were their own admission authority and whether objections relating to school admission arrangements had been referred to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator. Interview and documentary evidence was collected in each case study area. Interviews were carried out with a local authority officer responsible for secondary school admissions, a member of the local Admission Forum and secondary school headteachers. The Department for Children, Schools and Families also provided written answers to questions posed by the researchers.

Findings

Five roles played by Admission Forums in relation to local admissions were identified : leadership, symbolic, scrutiny, perfunctory and expert.

In a small authority, the Forum had performed a leadership role, attempting to ensure local admissions arrangements complied with mandatory requirements and were not unnecessarily complex. It had also ensured banding arrangements for some local schools were co-ordinated.

A Forum in an area with many conflicts relating to school admissions played a symbolic role. This Forum, which was sometimes attended by members of the public and local campaigning organisations, gave an opportunity for campaigning parents to forcefully express their views on local admissions arrangements.

One Forum scrutinised the compliance of local schools and local authorities with the School Admissions Code. Admission Forums could carry out a perfunctory role, meeting mandatory duties but making little other contribution to local admissions arrangements. Finally, Forums could play an expert role, providing advice and guidance to local schools and the local authority.

A guidance note issued by the DCSF following the publication of the 2009 School Admissions Code identified three changes to the operation of Admission Forums: a change of membership, a change of reporting and a change of focus.

While it was acknowledged by some interviewees that a smaller Forum was preferable it was also suggested that the changes would have little effect on the operation of the Forum, either because the membership would remain largely the same or because the Forum would continue to be an open meeting attended by non-members of the Forum. Representation on Forums overwhelmingly favours educational providers (schools, sponsoring religious bodies and local authorities) rather than educational consumers and that this is sometimes reflected in the deliberations of the Forum

The change in reporting arrangements was precipitated by the local authority being required to report annually to the Schools Adjudicator on local schools’ compliance with the School Admission Code. In order to reduce possible duplication, the reporting arrangements for Admission Forums were changed. Nationally, only eight Forums submitted a report to the Schools Commissioner in 2008 and only 13 to the Schools Adjudicator before the 2009 deadline.

The third change is described by DCSF as a change in focus ‘from legality to fairness’. The concept of fairness may be understood in different ways. Substantive fairness relates to fair outcomes while procedural fairness relates to fair processes. Fairness may also be understood in relation to notions of justice and what people deserve. Several concepts of fairness may be implicit in the admission policy of a single school such as giving priority to looked after children (based on such children ‘deserving’ priority treatment), the use of random allocation (procedural fairness) or banding (substantive fairness). In the case of schools with a religious character an additional complication arises because such schools may be seen as performing an additional function – of passing on a faith or helping sustain a faith community. The School Admissions Code uses the term ‘fair’ in a variety of different ways.

Some interviewees acknowledged substantive fairness was a key concern to parents and that, to deliver fair outcomes, it was necessary to ensure that all schools were acceptable to parents and that there was not a wide variation in the quality of education provided at different schools.

Nevertheless, it is clear that in relation to secondary school admissions the concept of fairness most often refers to procedural fairness. Interviewees suggested that most schools complied with the admissions code and that admission procedures were followed in accordance with the rules.

However, some evidence was reported of rules being broken, for example in the use of waiting lists. In addition some practices were described that, although they may not break the School Admissions Code, would be unlikely to be encouraged by policymakers. For example, one undersubscribed school was reported to have contacted parents after offer day to invite them to meet with the headteacher in the hope of persuading them to reject the offer they had received and instead take up a place at the undersubscribed school. In addition, there was some evidence that some admission forum interviewees were suspicious of the motives of schools that set their own oversubscription criteria.

The increasingly demanding compliance regime was thought to have improved admission arrangements.

Recommendations

Admissions arrangements have undoubtedly improved in recent years, in large part due to the success of co-ordinated schemes, successive School Admissions Codes and the efforts of the Schools Adjudicators. The requirement of local authorities to report on admissions arrangements represents another extension of this compliance regime. However the researchers conclude that ever more intense policing of admissions arrangements is not the best or only means of improving admissions arrangements because firstly as rules become more complex more schools may inadvertently fall foul of them and secondly because problems can arise, including increasingly ‘unfair’ outcomes, without the School Admissions Code being broken.

For example, a school that is its own admission authority may choose to opt out of an established system of catchment areas necessitating further and widespread changes to admission arrangements. It was suggested that such problems may be particularly difficult to deal with when many schools are their own admission authority and their oversubscription criteria result in some applicants not receiving an offer for any local school.

Instead there is a need for greater collective control over school admission arrangements. Improvements could be made in a variety of ways. Local authorities could be given greater control over the administration of school admissions. Through local agreements, the case study local authorities administered admissions on behalf of a number of schools that were their own admission authority, including voluntary aided schools and academies. This could be extended to include all schools that are their own admission authority.

The research also indicates that Admission Forums can play a useful role in co-ordinating admission criteria within a local area and there is a need for this. A duty should be placed on Admission Forums to promote co-ordinated oversubscription criteria. In addition to the requirements that arrangements are ‘clear’, ‘objective’ and ‘procedurally fair’, they should also be ‘co-ordinated’ with the arrangements for other schools in the area. To give two examples, first admissions arrangements for a given area should be able to provide all local children (expressing a preference for a local school) with a place at a local school. Second, admissions criteria for local schools should, collectively, be simple and easily understood by applicants.

This report is the second part of a research project commissioned by the Research and Information on State Education (RISE) Trust with funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. The first part of the research project, published in March 2009 (West et al., 2009) provided an analysis of secondary schools’ admissions criteria and practices in England in light of the new legislative and regulatory context. It is available on the RISE website from this link.

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