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Secondary school admissions in England: Admission Forums, local authorities and schools

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

December 2009

Commissioned by the Research and Information on State Education Trust

with financial support from the Esmeé Fairbairn Foundation

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Executive Summary

This report presents the findings of 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. The second part of the research, reported here, set out to provide some examples of how Admission Forums and local authorities have responded to recent changes in the law relating to secondary school admissions. Once again the main focus is on admissions criteria and practices.

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.

For this element of the research study we adopted a case study approach, focusing on admission arrangements and the operation of Admission Forums in five local authority areas. The five case 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. The five authorities comprised two two-tier authorities (Rural Shire and Semi-Rural Shire), one London borough (Capital Borough) and two single tier authorities (Provincial City, Unitary Town). Interview and documentary evidence was collected in each case study area. In each area interviews were carried out with a local authority officer responsible for secondary school admissions (five interviews) and with a member of the local Admission Forum (five interviews). Interviews were also carried out with secondary school headteachers (five interviews). The Department for Children, Schools and Families also provided written answers to questions posed by the researchers.

  • We identified five roles that may be played by Admission Forums in relation to local admissions: a leadership role, a symbolic role, a scrutiny role, a perfunctory role and an expert role.
  • 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. In addition, the Forum had ensured banding arrangements for some local schools were co-ordinated.
  • A symbolic role was reported to be played by the Forum in an area with many conflicts relating to school admissions. The 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.
  • A scrutiny role was exemplified by one Forum in which local schools and local authorities’ compliance with aspects of the School Admissions Code had been examined.
  • Another possible role for Admission Forums was identified as 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. Interviewees were asked about these changes.
  • Interviewees were asked how they thought changes to the membership of the Forum had affected or would affect its operation. 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 the same or because the Forum would continue to be an open meeting attended by non-members of the Forum. However, when Forums were reconstituted under the new regulations, one interviewee had been removed as chair of the Forum (and as a member of the Forum) because of changes to the political composition of the council. Another anticipated being removed for the same reason. Forums remain dominated numerically by educational providers rather than parents.
  • 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 Admissions Code. In order to reduce possible duplication, the reporting arrangements for Admission Forums were changed. It was reported that three of the five Forums had produced a report previously. Nationally, only eight Forums submitted a report to the Schools Commissioner in 2008 and only 13 to the Schools Adjudicator before the 2009 deadline. Interviewees from two of the Forums that had produced reports suggested that they had not been very informative documents. The third report had however included data relating to the prior attainment profile of the intake to each local secondary school. This was thought to be very useful as there had been fears locally that some schools would ‘skim the cream’ of the local intake. However, as a result of the local authority having to produce a report for the Schools Adjudicator in 2009 it was not anticipated that the Forum would produce a report in that year.
  • 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. In keeping with this discussion, the School Admissions Code uses the term ‘fair’ in a variety of different ways.
  • In one local authority area, greater procedural fairness was thought to have been achieved through the legal force given to the School Admissions Code. Greater substantive fairness had also been pursued through area-wide banding. We suggest that there may be some scope to increase substantive fairness by looking for means to increase the number of higher preferences met.
  • 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 admissions 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 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. However we suggest that there are two reasons why ever more intense policing of admissions arrangements is not the best or only means of improving admissions arrangements. The first reason is that as rules become more complex more schools may inadvertently fall foul of them. The second is that 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.
  • As a result, we suggest that there is a need for oversubscription criteria to be ‘co-ordinated’ within a local area. While it is acknowledged that the achievements of Admission Forums have been limited, we suggest that a duty should be placed on Admission Forums to promote co-ordinated oversubscription criteria. We are not necessarily suggesting that a single set of oversubscription criteria should be applied to all schools in an area, or even to all schools without a religious character within an area. Rather, we are suggesting that, 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.

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