Mike Watson on the government’s proposed changes to the School Admissions Code
As part of proposed changes to schools admissions procedures, Ministers now want to ban civil society organisations lodging complaints about breaches of the School Admissions Code. All schools are required to adhere to the Code and, as it stands, anyone can submit objections to admission criteria and procedures to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) – the latter’s decisions are binding. A statutory document under the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act, any changes to the Code have to be laid before both Houses of Parliament.
The background to the proposed change is the conclusions of recent research carried out by the Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC) and the British Humanist Association (BHA). It demonstrated that many schools have intakes more favourable than would be expected given their location, and that these are more likely to be faith schools or others that control their own admissions. The research analysed a 48 strong sample of admissions policies and discovered that virtually all broke the Code in some way. The FAC and the BHA then submitted a large number of objections to the OSA, which found 1385 Code breaches among those surveyed.
Some schools were found to have contravened the Equality Act 2010 in directly discriminating on the basis of race or gender. A majority were found not to be sufficiently prioritising looked after children; and a quarter did not make clear how those with statements of special educational needs were admitted. Meanwhile, almost 20% of schools required parents to provide practical or financial support to associated organisations.
The fact of the matter is that the admissions system is becoming increasingly complicated and difficult for parents to navigate, favouring those with the skills required to deal with it. The government’s position seems to be a clear case of shoot the messenger rather than address the problem, with ministers essentially helping to preserve how the more sharp-elbowed and well-connected parents manipulate the system.
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s rationale for changing the Code is: “So that parents can be confident that the school admission process is working for them. We are ensuring only local parents and councils can object to admission arrangements, which will also put a stop to vexatious complaints against faith schools by secularist campaign groups”.
Given that 85% of the objections raised by the FAC and BHA were upheld, dismissing them as vexatious is a pretty bizarre accusation. But either way, it is also difficult to understand why requiring schools to adhere to the rules in some way prevents schools admissions working for parents. Raising issues with the OSA is not about changing the rules – just enforcing them. Unless “working for them” means benefitting from the current situation where rules are regularly ignored.
Ministers may claim that this is all about allowing schools to determine their own character while giving parents a choice of different kinds of schools. In reality this is classic ‘dog whistle’ politics, designed to send a message to those who benefit from the status quo. There is no reason why schools should not market themselves in particular ways, nor for parents not to be offered choices. But the bottom line is that it should be for parents to choose schools, not the other way round.
Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords
Published 8th March 2016