As the dust began to settle following GCSE result day 2016 and we looked forward to a bank holiday weekend, the Department for Education (DfE) published a judgement by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) regarding the non-compliant admissions policy of our local free school, Becket Keys. While the ruling was made on the policy for 2017 admission, the matters of dispute covered by the ruling had their root some five years hence when the proposal to open the new school was at its approval stage. It also covered areas that have been subject of local consternation since the school opened in 2012 and serves as an interesting test case at a time when calls for fairer school admissions have been heavily featured in education news.
As is well documented on this website, I was a parent of three children at one of the primary schools at the centre of the proposal for a secondary free school in 2011 and part of a group of parents who opposed the plans. I am now a parent director of an academy trust elsewhere in Brentwood, which has no bearing on what follows, and only one of my children is still of primary school age. The observations that follow are a purely personal view informed by events at that time and subsequent developments that are in the public domain.
The Schools Adjudicator has ruled on a complaint raised by Mr Andrew Barton, the Chair of Governors of Shenfield St Mary’s Church of England School regarding the published admissions policy of Becket Keys for entry in September 2017. The complaint concerns the addition of a new criteria to be applied in the event of over-subscription for “non-faith” places at the free school. Priority is now given to pupils who attend either St Thomas of Canterbury Junior School or St Peter’s Church of England School. The objection is summarised as follows:
“the decision to include the criterion did not take sufficient account of responses to the consultation; that one of the named schools is less close than another Church of England primary school not named in the new criterion; that reasons given for naming the two schools are not reasonable; and that the naming of these schools limits the availability of places at the school for children living locally, notably those attending Shenfield St Mary’s Church of England primary school, on whose behalf the objection was raised.”
The case has been reviewed very thoroughly and the justification for upholding the complaint is clearly set out by the Schools Adjudicator, Andrew Bennett. He rules that the admissions policy is in breach of the Admissions Code as it:
“• lacked transparency in the absence of an educational rationale;
- was unreasonable in respect of the potential effect on applicants living near to the school;
- was unreasonable in naming just two from a number of local faith primary schools; and
- was confusing to name faith schools in the context of an oversubscription criterion that refers to the allocation of non-faith places.”
Critically, Mr Bennett emphasises his concern about the allocation of non-faith places to primary schools that already give priority to applicants on the basis of faith. It is worth noting here that Becket Keys, in common with all free schools, are not allowed to allocate more than half their places using faith criteria. This gives the appearance of circumventing that mandatory stipulation.
It is worth reading the submission of the Education Board of the diocese, the director of which is candid in his comments to the Adjudicator, stating that pressing ahead with the proposed policy “was unwise…and could be construed as unfair”. Indeed, the supporting evidence to arrive at this ruling is very revealing as to why this change in policy was attempted despite such objections.
Two aspects in particular stand out. Firstly, that the central justification for the change is that the school only “came into being due to the ‘vision’ of the head teachers of St Thomas’ and St Peter’s Schools. Without their dedication and hard work coupled with the support of their whole school communities, Becket Keys would not exist. It is for this reason that students from these schools are given priority as detailed … “. The complainant rightly questions the relevance of this five years down the line but he would also be justified in feeling aggrieved at the lack of acknowledgement for the role that his own school played in supporting the original proposal. The “consultation” that was held to agree to the signing of a funding agreement between Becket Keys and the DfE was supported by a letter from Shenfield St Mary’s which counted every signatory as a separate person in favour. This accounted for the majority of responses in favour of going ahead.
Secondly, Mr Barton raises a concern about the transparency of the decision to change this policy, “relating to potential conflicts of interest given the current and previous roles of the head teacher of Becket Keys and some members of the governing bodies of both that school and of St Peter’s.”
This is an issue that dates back to the formation of the proposal. It was sold in the playground as being a “school for our kids” and this is only the latest attempt to make it that. Prior to opening there was uproar when a convoluted feeder policy was proposed, objections being that Shenfield St Mary’s were not named while local community school, Larchwood, were. Eventually, following an objection from Essex Secondary Heads, the proposed policy was ruled too complicated and scrapped. Distance from school then became the primary non-faith criteria until an attempt two years later to amend this to include a catchment area away from the school but close to St Peter’s.
It is not difficult to see why Mr Barton cites his concern on this basis alone but he may also have further evidence in how the governing body is constituted. One place on the board is apparently reserved for an appointee of something called the “Anglican Primary School Trust”. This is currently filled by the Head of St Peter’s, Mr Iain Gunn.
I spent some time looking for information about this group, what they do and on what basis they are able to appoint a member to a state funded school governing body. I have come up with nothing other than a record at Companies House.
The “Trust” was apparently formed in May 2011 and, according to the latest annual return posted last month is a dormant company with a registered address of Becket Keys School. There are three named directors, Mr Andrew Scott-Evans, headteacher of Becket Keys, Mr Dean Moran, headteacher of St Thomas of Canterbury Junior School and Mr Iain Gunn. I suspect this won’t allay Mr Barton’s concerns.
The feeder school issue was the subject of the complaint but in assessing the policy the Schools Adjudicator discovered two other anomalies. The first is an illustration of the ludicrous way in which faith criteria can be assessed by some schools, the other is potentially more serious.
Mr Bennett explains the first:
“I noted also that a priest or minister, with an applicant’s agreement, is invited to consult other members of the congregation in order to confirm their judgement of a family’s attendance at church, which may not comply with having regard to diocesan guidance (as required by paragraph 1.38 in the Code) or with the requirements for objectivity and for making it easy for parents to understand how places for the school will be allocated, as required in paragraph 14 of the Code.”
Vetting school entrants via the old ladies at the Sunday service is a new one on me but when we allow such convoluted admissions to some of our state funded schools it is not difficult to see how this sort of nonsense can result.
The worst breach however is the aspect that I find most perplexing and concerning as it goes to the heart of current concerns about whether allowing schools to be their own admissions authority is consistent with fair admissions for all. The Becket Keys 2017 admissions code has uncompliant criteria stated for children with special educational needs (SEN):
I looked at the arrangements as a whole and brought to the attention of the admission authority the following points: that there is no mention of admitting children with an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan that names the school, as well as those with a statement of special educational needs, as set out in paragraph 1.6 of the Code; that the definition of looked after and previously looked after children as detailed in paragraph 1.7 of the Code, and footnotes to that paragraph, is incomplete.
Don’t forget, this has only been picked up on because of a complaint made about another part of the over-subscription criteria. Is it actually possible that schools are able to publish and apply uncompliant policies regarding families with SEN children if no-one notices and complains?
It is particularly concerning in this case as the headteacher of the school in question was subject of complaints to the local press regarding statements to parents of SEN children at the school’s Open Day two years ago as we covered at the time (link below). A properly inclusive admissions policy would seem to be a vital way of allaying concerns and, as the OSA state, is a minimum requirement of the schools admission code.
The judgement advises of a further required amendment and what the school intends to do about it:
“Second, the definition of looked after and previously looked after children in the arrangements is incomplete when set against paragraph 1.7 and footnotes 16-19 of the Code. When brought to its attention, the school agreed readily to update the wordings and references in the arrangements.”
Which brings me to my final point; when?
The judgement states that “The School Admissions Code requires the admission authority to revise its admission arrangements within two months of the date of the determination.” However, this was published yesterday and here in Essex in two months time the closing date for making applications for September 2017 will be less than a week from closing. It is surely imperative that this policy is revised as soon as possible so that parents are ready to make properly informed choices when their admissions forms arrive in the next week or so. Becket Keys have “readily agreed” to do this but as I write the policy is still on their website. A swift revision as directed will demonstrate their commitment to fair admissions.
While this judgement will be of most interest to local people, there are issues raised here that demonstrate how far we are from a fully transparent, locally accountable state school system with universally applied standards allowing for fair access to the school of their choice for local families. Convoluted and lengthy over-subscription criteria is a barrier to achieving that and must be tackled.
That the absence of a compliant SEN criteria in a school admissions policy is only picked up by accident tells of a system of inadequate policing that does not encourage fair compliance and true inclusion.
This should be the minimum requirement for any school receiving state funding.
The state school system should not be run for the benefit of “our kids”, but for all kids.