In the same week that parents of Year 6 children have found out which schools have offered them a place for September, concerns have been raised about fair admissions processes. In particular, those that relate to academies and faith schools.
The Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council (AJTC) have written to the Secretary of State for Education to express their worry that, as more and more schools convert to academy status, the number of schools that act as their own admissions authority is threatening the integrity of the system.
The government have responded by pointing to the introduction of the Fair Admissions Code (FAC), backed by the Schools Adjudicator, as evidence that their concerns are unfounded. However, as the AJTC points out, this relies on parents bringing suspected non-compliance to their attention in the first place. Furthermore, as such schools are allowed to run their own appeals panels, this does not guarantee a fair outcome.
As quoted by the BBC from the letter, ATJC chairman Richard Thomas states:
“Not only do these panels lack independence; their operation lacks any degree of transparency or public accountability since there is little or no information published about them,”
Under current rules the advice to parents unhappy with their offer is to raise it with the appropriate admissions authority as soon as possible.
This news item was of particular interest to me as I have been concerned for some time about the integrity of the admissions system, particularly in relation to faith schools. Two articles last year prompted me to look at this further, the first, written by Debbie Foster, on how our reflective of local society our schools are, (“How inclusive are Brentwood’s schools” http://wp.me/p2dr6s-6x) and an interesting aside by Richard Elms, Russell Education Trust (RET) project manager for the opening of Becket Keys free school, (“Why the Brentwood Gazette article on the “Russell Education Trust” is important” http://wp.me/p2dr6s-9F).
The admission by Mr Elms that, in his view, Becket Keys would never breach the statutory 50% limit for new schools on faith applicants surprised me at the time but it raised two questions; is demand for local faith places therefore overstated, and how would this be checked?
I have absolutely no reason to doubt that all of Brentwood’s schools are fully compliant with the FAC but, as the ATJC have highlighted, we have no independent means of checking this. I have been unable to find any data on applications on faith grounds and I am told by Essex County Council (ECC) that they hold no record either. I am grateful for their clarification on this matter:
“Essex County Council is not responsible for applying the admissions policies for voluntary aided (faith schools). This is entirely the responsibility of the individual governing bodies for those schools, which are the admission authority for these schools. The Council is not party to the religious information these admission authorities obtain from parents and so cannot apply or monitor the application of the admission policies of these schools.
The Council must ensure the published arrangements for these schools comply with admissions law and carries out that function, but it is not responsible for applying, or monitoring the application of these arrangements.”
Surely though, in these days of “parental choice”, those making decisions deserve to know that the process is fair. Selection of a school preference should be informed by the maximum information possible including the likelihood of gaining a place.
I can’t help thinking that this may rather suit those who see church schools as essential recruiting devices for their diocese. We are all aware of the phenomenon of temporary Christianity amongst parents of toddlers who have been told this is the only way to gain entry to a favoured school. I recommend an episode from the first series of the BBC series “Rev” if you need further illustration. But would they attend if they had a clear picture on what proportion of previous intakes had applied on faith grounds?
This year’s ECC booklet for primary school admissions helpfully indicates under which criteria the final place was provided the previous year. None of the schools in Brentwood (with the possible exception of Ingrave Johnstone) indicates that this was on a faith basis.
Christian schools have been accused of using stringent church attendance criteria as a selective tool but while we have no way of knowing how many faith applications were received for places at voluntary aided schools it is difficult to assess to what extent this is true. Similarly, as academies are subject to the same (lack of) scrutiny in the application of their admissions policies, how can we ensure that intakes will adequately reflect the make-up of the local population?
The ATJC’s recommendation that all schools should be subject to appeals panels run by the local authority seems sensible. However, this is still reliant on parents who think they may have been affected bringing possible anomalies to their attention.
If the current government is truly interested in fair competition between schools, some auditing function should also be given to that body to ensure that governors are applying their published policies correctly. A simple count of children meeting each admissions criterion per school should also be audited and published.
At present it is less “parental choice”, more “parental hedging of bets”.