2 March 2009

This week (beginning 2/3/2009) parents across the country will hear if their child has gained a place at a preferred secondary school and RISE (Research and Information on State Education) publishes a report on the criteria which have been used to make those decisions by admissions authorities in 3,134 English secondary schools.

Professor Anne West of the LSE who conducted the research for RISE says:

Despite improvements our research suggests that the system is still too complex, particularly for parents/carers who are not highly educated or proficient in English, and especially where there are schools responsible for their own admissions. The complexity is exacerbated by some schools seeking additional information from parents, often of a personal nature and unrelated to the admissions criteria. This information could be used to select in and select out children. If the government is genuinely interested in ensuring fair admissions, school admissions should be administered by an independent body (e.g. local authority or relevant church body) with no vested interest in the outcome.

The researchers’ main findings are:

• Admissions criteria for community and voluntary controlled schools are, in the main, clear, objective and relatively simple for parents/carers to understand. The situation is different with voluntary aided schools where there can be a high number of criteria relating to religion and religious practice, creating difficulties for parents/carers and allowing scope for discretion in many cases.

• According to the Department for Children, Schools and Families’ 2007 Code of Practice, ‘The admissions system can appear very complex to some parents’. The researchers found it does not just appear complex but is complex. Choice advisers may assist with the admissions process, but they do not address the inherent complexity and lack of clarity. (Within the report and in appendices there are specific examples of admissions criteria and Supplementary Information Forms from [unnamed] schools.)

• Supplementary Information Forms (SIFs) were used by certain schools. There is a concern about the nature of these – both in terms of their length and the questions asked. Some of these requested information not permitted by the School Admissions Code. Others requested information unrelated to the school’s admissions criteria; this information could be used to select in or select out certain groups of pupils.

• In a significant minority of schools, in the main voluntary aided and foundation schools and academies which are responsible for their own admissions, criteria were used that are designed to select in pupils including partial selection by aptitude/ability in a subject area: more schools selected on this basis than did so in 2001 (5% versus 3% overall). 7% of voluntary aided schools, 14% of foundation schools and 15% of academies and CTCs selected in this way.

• More voluntary aided schools had an admissions criterion giving priority to children of ‘other faiths’ in 2008 than in 2001 (42% versus 23%).

• Virtually all schools gave priority to children in care, as required by legislation, although a small minority of schools responsible for their own admissions did not. A minority of schools also failed to give top priority to this group of children, although by law they should.

• Over half of schools mentioned in their admissions criteria children with statements of special educational needs. These were predominantly community and voluntary controlled schools and academies as opposed to voluntary aided or foundation schools.

• Very few schools reported the use of interviews, prohibited by the Education and Inspections Act 2006, although there was some evidence of pre-admission ‘meetings’.

• A small number of grammar schools, which are by definition academically selective, also used oversubscription criteria such as aptitude/ability in a subject area or sought reports from the primary school headteacher.

The researchers make recommendations for further changes to admissions policy:

• Admissions to all schools should be as simple and straightforward as the community schools (and some academies) identified in this report.

• There should be a simplified procedure for determining religion and religious practice.

• Banding across a wide area on the basis of the range of ability of children in the area or random allocation are likely to be more effective if the overall aim is to widen access to particular schools and create greater social equity.

• Parents/carers with children who have statements of special educational needs should have information in a consistent form across all schools in an authority.

• Further guidance to schools as to what is and what is not appropriate to ask in Supplementary Information Forms (SIPs) would help admission authorities to have a clearer understanding of how they should use these forms (this has also been recommended by the Office of Schools Adjudicator).

• For most schools responsible for their own admissions (33% of all schools), the school itself makes the decision about who should be offered a place using their admission criteria. As a result they may exert discretion when making decisions about which pupils should be offered places in the event of the school being oversubscribed. For community and voluntary controlled schools, some academies and some voluntary aided schools, the local authority acts on behalf of the schools in question. This can be seen to be an independent body. To ensure procedural fairness either the local authority or possibly a religious body with no vested interest in the outcome should take responsibility for the allocation process for all schools.

• Data should be made available enabling the patterns of applications to be related to patterns of offers to establish if school autonomy in relation to school admissions is a factor in determining which pupils apply to which schools and which are offered places.

Notes to editors

The research Secondary schools in England: policy and practice was funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and carried out by Professor Anne West, Eleanor Barham and Audrey Hind of the Education Research Group, Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science. The report can be now downloaded from the RISE website www.risetrust.org.uk

This research is the first and major part of the work. The second part of the research is focusing on how a sample of local authorities have responded to the requirements of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and the 2007 School Admissions Code and is due to be published late in 2009.

RISE is the Research and Information on State Education Trust. It is a charity which aims to commission research and provide information on state education. RISE reports have covered many issues of particular interest to parents e.g. class size, school reports, home-school agreements, parental involvement in OFSTED inspections, school complaints procedures, specialist schools, parent governor representatives and school admissions. The RISE website www.risetrust.org.uk provides information and publications.

Read summary or download full report