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School Admissions Process

Volume 672: debated on Thursday 27 February 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effectiveness of the school admissions process.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck—for the very first time, I believe.

I applied for today’s debate not only because the topic is of national importance, but because of the issues that my constituents have brought to me in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, the parents of one boy in my constituency came to me, beside themselves and at their wits’ end. To protect the identities of the child and the family, I will call the boy John.

John used to attend one of the schools in my constituency. He was on track, he played football and he learnt judo, but after his mock exams things went downhill and he started misbehaving. Eventually, he was sent to a pupil referral unit and excluded for three months. John’s father told me that during those three months, he essentially became another person: he was arrested and charged for robbery and he received a community service order.

John kept trying to turn his life back around and had a job for a year, but his parents saw him withdraw. It soon became clear that he was caught up with a bad crowd, with drugs and with gangs. In July last year, like other vulnerable children in Edmonton, he went missing. John was assaulted and only came back to his family four months later. He now faces another court case. His parents say that he stays in his room. They fear that his mental health is dwindling fast and that he might harm himself. John’s parents do not excuse the things he has done, but they love their child. They want him to be safe, and they wonder whether things could have been different had the school not excluded him so quickly.

Sadly, the story of John and his parents is not uncommon. It is being repeated all over the country, time and again. All across my constituency, parents know a simple truth: whether, how and where a child is admitted to school, and whether they are excluded from it, can set them on very different paths in life. In recent months, growing numbers of parents have come to me, saying how hard they are finding it to access decent school places in Enfield. Across the borough, we are losing too many vulnerable children to crime and gangs. Our pupil referral units and the wider education system are failing them.

The lives of those individuals affected are ultimately why today’s debate matters so much. I called for it because I know many hon. Members who are not here today but who, had they been able to attend, would have scrutinised with me the schools that this Government have built. The Government have now been in power for the past decade, and I hope that the Minister will back up his defence of their record with firm evidence.

Let us look at some of that evidence. Today, the Sutton Trust released an important new report assessing inequalities in the schools admission process, called “School Places: A Fair Choice?”. It finds high levels of socioeconomic segregation across schools and a marked gap in academic quality between schools attended by poor and by non-poor pupils. We often hear the argument that better-off parents are just more proactive about getting their children into good schools. The Sutton Trust research demonstrates that, in fact, parents across the socioeconomic spectrum make choices based on academic quality. The report found that those families eligible for free school meals make as many choices as richer families about the quality of school and about whether to choose a local school.

The report concludes that it is the school allocation system, rather than parental preferences, that means that children of wealthier families do better. In other words, inequalities in schools admissions exist because of how places are allocated, not because of how parents choose. The Government have based their whole education policy for the past decade on the mantra of promoting choice, but it turns out that it is the supply side of schooling, not the demand side, that is the problem.

On the supply side of school places, the arguments are well rehearsed. On this side of the House, the Labour party favours universal equal access and creating more high-quality places. We said in our last election manifesto that we would consider proposals for integrating private schools into a better state school system. We said that we would end the fragmentation and marketisation of our school system by bringing free schools and academies back under the control of the people who know them best—parents, teachers and local communities.

Let us be honest: parents feel there are not enough good places for children. According to the latest figures published this week by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, the number of children being home-schooled in England has just risen by 13% to 60,000. The real number may be much higher. I ask the Minister whether the Government accept that in many parts of the country there are simply not enough high-quality school places available for parents to choose from, and what steps the Department is taking to correct that.

One simple change that would help to create a sufficiency of places would be for the Government to allow local authorities to build schools directly again. There is a lack of schools, the process now to create new schools is difficult and schools do not always get built in the right places. Local authorities, as admissions bodies, know where the schools are needed.

I thank my hon. Friend for that important point; I shall express my support for that later on in my speech.

The new research from the Sutton Trust also highlights the perverse incentives of school accountability systems that have developed under this Government. Both league tables and the Ofsted system encourage too many schools and academies to take on advantaged children and ignore disadvantaged children in the interests of scoring highly. I ask the Minister whether this new Government will look again at the incentives in our school accountability system.

The Sutton Trust has today made important and considered new proposals for making the schools admissions system fairer. They include marginal ballots, expanding the use of banding tests, prioritising applicants eligible for the pupil premium and simplifying conditions for demonstrating religious observance for applicants to religious schools. Will the Government say today what they make of those options, and will they commit to examining them closely?

The incentives that our Government set for schools matter, not just for admissions but for exclusions. The scandal of off-rolling, whereby schools still willingly exclude pupils too quickly just to improve their academic performance, is appalling. The Government must end it once and for all. Will the Minister consider making schools accountable for the outcomes of pupils who leave their rolls and removing the perverse incentives that let pupils such as my constituent John fall through the system?

I will conclude with a note of caution about the illusion of choice that the Government are giving people. Just this week, the schools admissions watchdog released figures in its annual report showing that in the past year, two out of every five complaints it received were about access to grammar schools—but those complaints were from privileged parents about grammar schools enrolling disadvantaged children. Any parent will know that people want the best for their child, but I am extremely concerned that the reintroduction of selective grammar schools under this Government is encouraging support for inequality. It is giving only an illusion of choice, and we need to ask ourselves whether it may be turning parents of advantaged children against disadvantaged families, who are being blamed for the lack of good school places.

I worry that the Government have introduced competition among parents without creating the new school places to go with it and are passing that off as “choice”. That is turning society against itself and dividing parents and communities. Should we not be putting all our efforts in this country into strengthening our whole public education system and creating high-quality new places, rather than encouraging a brutal race to the top for a lucky few while letting others, such as John, fall through the cracks? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s speech.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. We have something in common. I was recruited to the Labour movement in the mid-1980s by someone who I think was a great mentor to both of us—Alf Morris, who was the MP for Wythenshawe between 1964 and 1997. The reason I bring that up is that 2020 is the 50th anniversary of his seminal private Member’s Bill that became the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, which was the first such legislation anywhere on the planet and has influenced legislators all over the world in recognising the rights of disabled people. I look forward later in the year to a calendar of events celebrating his great work. It is therefore a real pleasure to serve under you, Ms Buck.

I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on securing the debate. She is an absolutely tremendous advocate for Edmonton and Enfield and she spoke with real passion and power about the situation of her constituent John. There is nothing more powerful than bringing the real-life lived experience of your constituents to the heart of democracy in Westminster, and she has done that with aplomb and passion today.

This has been an interesting-themed week. We had a very similar debate on exclusions yesterday, when a number of London MPs in particular were talking about how exclusions ruin the life chances of young people. They fall into criminal gangs and county lines behaviours and are lost to our system, for a number of reasons. It is interesting that we are back here today talking about admissions.

I have been badly impacted by the market-driven admissions system in my own constituency. Just today, the Secretary of State has backed a decision to close Newall Green High School in my constituency. I am absolutely outraged by that, having written to the Secretary of State and the Prospere Learning Trust; they together have made the decision to close the high school. I have stood shoulder to shoulder with both parents and pupils to try to maintain the viability of the school—not just recently, but over a number of years. It is short-sighted on the part of the Government. They have rejected sensible, pragmatic proposals from Manchester City Council, which wanted to keep the school open and was prepared to put substantial revenue into the project. The city council has not had the courtesy of a response from the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) talked eloquently about this issue in his intervention: why are councils so driven away from the schools process? They are responsible for spatial frameworks, responsible for admissions to a degree and responsible for the welfare of every child, but we do not seem to think that they are fit to be part of the school system. I will continue campaigning against the unjust decision in my constituency.

Schools matter. Pupils’ academic outcomes are heavily influenced by the school that they attend. Academic achievement in turn strongly influences life chances. The effectiveness of the school that a student attends can have lifelong implications. All state-funded schools in England are subject to the school admissions code. Schools and local authorities must follow the statutory guidance when carrying out duties relating to school admissions. That should mean that all school admission policies are fair and transparent, but that is often not the case, as has been pointed out today. Some schools act as their own admissions authority and so set their own criteria, subject to the code. Voluntary-aided and foundation schools have been able to do that for some time, but the rapid expansion of academies under this Government means that thousands of schools can now determine their own admissions policy.

The problems are obvious. First, there is no single body responsible for ensuring that admission policies comply with the code. Secondly, schools can engage in back-door selection. On paper the admissions policy looks compliant; in practice a school may be unlawfully selecting or rejecting certain pupils. Schools may do that because they believe that certain pupils might adversely impact on their academic results and hence their position in the school league tables, with knock-on impacts on their Ofsted results. That was a key argument yesterday when we talked about school exclusions. Tens of thousands of young people are off-rolled annually from our schools. In fact, evidence from the Education Policy Institute that I cited yesterday showed that 69,000 young people were excluded from school in 2017 alone. We do not know the reasons why. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton makes the point that schools should be responsible, even when children are off-rolled or excluded, for their future welfare. That has been clearly stated in our party policy, but has the support of many hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Selective admissions such as those I have described result in discrimination against certain categories of pupils, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those with English as an additional language and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Children from disadvantaged families attend schools that have a much lower proportion of children achieving the benchmark of at least good grades at GCSE. The average score for that cohort was 59%. That is 6.9 percentage points below the cohort of non-poor pupils. It is a substantial difference.

My hon. Friend referred to the research in a Sutton Trust report released today. It states that half of all secondary school headteachers say that social segregation is a problem in state schools, yet more than 40% of them do not consider the socioeconomic make-up of their communities when developing their admissions policies. When children are allocated to schools that are over-subscribed—higher performing schools—the criteria that they use often favour the wealthy. We have a system in which whoever can afford to live near the good school has a much higher chance of getting in. That results in high levels of socioeconomic segregation across our school estate.

I welcome the second report that the Sutton Trust has published, which makes several detailed and considered proposals for dealing with the injustices of our current system. It shows that there is clear support for a review of admission policy, which would be overseen most effectively by local authorities. Through that approach, a level of coherence, fairness and trust could be restored to how we provide for our young people locally in their schools.

I will finish by asking the Minister to now look again at school admissions policies and address the segregation to enable a more mixed and balanced student population in our schools and to truly level the playing field for our nation’s young people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on securing the debate and on her excellent opening speech.

I listened carefully to what she had to say, and she said that there are not enough high-quality school places in our system. I have to say to her that we have raised the proportion of schools graded by Ofsted as good or outstanding from just 68% in 2010 to 86% today, and in the period between May 2010 and May 2018 we created 920,000 more places in our school system. We have also changed the admissions code to allow schools to prioritise in their admissions arrangements, their over-subscription criteria, children who are eligible for free school meals, those who qualify for the pupil premium, so there are incentives on schools to actively seek children from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is particularly the case with the pupil premium. It pays £935 per pupil in a secondary school and £1,320 per pupil in a primary school. And of course in the national funding formula we allocated significant sums to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In relation to the school admissions system, only about 1% of schools are referred to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, which administers the school admissions system to ensure that they are fair. Anyone can object, if they think the admissions arrangements are unfair, but only 1% of schools are referred to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator. In her annual report, Shan Scott, the chief schools adjudicator, said that it was

“an admissions system that as a whole works effectively in the normal admissions rounds and…in those rounds the needs of vulnerable children and those with particular educational or social needs are generally well met.”

We are concerned about children in need who are known to social workers and seek their support. That is what our review of children in need was about. Our forthcoming changes to the school admissions code focus on in-year admissions and the fair access protocols, to ensure that they work better for the most vulnerable children, including children who have been excluded.

Our system is producing more good school places, which has been the thrust of everything that we have done with our school reforms since 2010. The academies programme has been at the heart of this Government’s reforms. Today, over 50% of pupils in state-funded education study in academies, the number of which has grown from 203 in 2010 to over 9,000 today. Our vision is for a world-class school-led system, which gives headteachers the freedom to run their schools in the way they know best. We believe that the academies programme can provide opportunities for that through its key principles: autonomy, accountability and collaboration. Therefore, we do not agree with Labour’s policy to bring academies under political control or with its hostility to the free schools programme.

Some 75% of sponsored primary and secondary academies that have been inspected are now good or outstanding. Those are sponsored academies, which are schools that have underperformed for years. Only one in 10 of those schools were judged good or outstanding before they became sponsored academies. Pupils at those schools are getting a significantly better quality of education thanks to that academies programme.

Through the free schools programme, this Government have funded thousands of good new school places and opened schools across the country, and we are committed to delivering choice, innovation and higher standards for parents. We want it to challenge the status quo and drive wider improvement, injecting fresh, evidence-based approaches into our education systems. Free schools are created to meet the need for pupil places in areas that need them and to address the concern about low- quality provision.

The Minister says that the Government are providing enough spaces for parents and their children. If there are enough spaces of high quality for all parents, why has the number of children in home schooling gone up by 13%?

We are also concerned about the increase in the number of children in elective home education. That is why we issued a call for evidence on home education and we are looking at it carefully. We have consulted on the proposal to create a register of children not in school. A range of factors have led to the increase, but in my judgment, it is not due to a shortage of high-quality school places in our school system.

As of 1 February, 508 free schools are open, providing 275,000 school places. In 2019, the top seven of the top 15 progress 8 scores for state-funded schools in England were achieved by free schools, and three of those schools were in the top five: Eden Boys’ School in Birmingham, Eden Girls’ School in Coventry and the Michaela Community School. Each of those successful schools teaches a stretching knowledge-rich curriculum, has a strong approach to behaviour management and is committed to high academic standards.

This morning I visited West London Free School, for the second or third time. It has an excellent quality of education and superb behaviour. I was hugely impressed by what I saw. There were very high-quality lessons in music and arts. Over 80% of pupils there enter the EBacc combination of GCSEs. Eden Boys’ School and Eden Girls’ School were opened by Star Academies, which has grown through the free schools programme from running a single school in the north-west to running 28 schools across the country. Ark John Keats Academy is an outstanding open free school. In 2019 its progress 8 score was well above average at 0.76, and 82% of students entered the EBacc.

At Michaela Community School, 84% of pupils were entered for the EBacc, and in its first set of GCSE results, the school reported that more than half of all grades awarded were level 7 and above, which is equivalent to A and A*. That school serves a very disadvantaged community. The London Academy of Excellence is a free school sixth form in east London that was set up in collaboration with seven independent schools. In 2019, the school had an average A-level progress score well above average. It recently reported that 37 students received offers to study at Oxford and Cambridge. King’s College London Mathematics School is a specialist maths free school. In 2019, 100% of its pupils achieved an A or A*.

We are having a debate on admissions. I think the Minister has strayed some way off his brief. Perhaps his civil servants have given him the wrong speech today. Perhaps he could get back to addressing admissions.

Thank you, Ms Buck. I was addressing the concern raised at the start that there are not enough high-quality school places, whereas we have been focused on creating more good school places, because that is a key part of our education reforms. However, I will adhere to your strictures, Ms Buck, and address the statutory duty to provide enough school places, which sits with local government. The Government provide basic need funding for every place that is needed based on the statistics supplied by the local authority. The local council of the hon. Member for Edmonton, the London Borough of Enfield, has been allocated £122.7 million to provide new school places between 2011 and 2021.

We have an effective admissions system to ensure that schools and parents are supported when school places are allocated. All mainstream state-funded schools, including academy schools, are required to comply with the school admissions code, which is designed to ensure that the practices and criteria used to decide the allocation of school places are clear, fair and objective. The code is clear that admissions authorities must ensure that their arrangements will not unfairly disadvantage, either directly or indirectly, a child from a particular social or racial group, or a child with a disability or special educational needs. It is for a school’s admission authority to set its own admission arrangements, provided that they are lawful. For community and voluntary controlled schools, the admission authority is the local authority; for foundation and voluntary-aided schools, it is the governing body; and for academies, it is the academy trust.

For normal admissions rounds, parents can apply to the local authority in which they live for places at their preferred schools. Parents can express a preference for at least three schools. If a school is undersubscribed, any parent who applies must be offered a place. When oversubscribed, a school’s admissions authority must rank applications in order against its published over-subscription criteria. Parents then receive a single offer of a place at the highest preference school that is able to offer their child a place. If a local authority is unable to offer a place at any of the parents’ preferred schools, it will offer a place at a Suitable School. The latest report from the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, published on Monday, states that we do have an admissions system that works effectively in those normal rounds, as I have said earlier.

The latest preference data confirms that the admissions system is working well for most families. In 2019, 97.5% of applicants were offered one of their top three preferred primary schools and 93% of applicants were offered one of their top three preferred secondary schools. In the London Borough of Enfield, the hon. Lady’s local authority, 95.8% of applicants were offered one of their top three preferred primary schools and 85.5% were offered one of their top three preferred secondary schools in 2019.

We understand that where demand is high, parents cannot always secure a place at their preferred choice of school, but parents refused a place at a school for which they have applied have a right of appeal to an independent appeal panel. The school’s admission authority is responsible for establishing that appeal panel, but the panel itself is an independent body. The admission authority has no control over its decisions. The appeal panel must come to its own conclusions.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edmonton for introducing the debate. It is timely, because next Monday will be national offer day, when thousands of parents up and down the country will hear what school their child will go to in September. We want all children to have fair access to a good school place, regardless of their background. Academies and free schools create a healthy choice for parents, while raising standards in education. The school admissions system, underpinned by the statutory school admissions code, supports the system effectively, providing the tools that schools need to allocate places in a fair and objective way.

I appreciate that. It is a very important issue to my constituents. I am sure that I will speak to the Minister about admissions again.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the effectiveness of the school admissions process.

Sitting suspended.