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Schools: Admissions

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 11 March 2008

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

Today the Schools Minister has made a Statement on parental preferences and school admissions for 2008, and published, for the first time, data, local authority by local authority, on the allocation of school places by parental preference.

This is the first year that places have been allocated under the new school admissions code which was introduced by the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and came into force in February 2007.

The new school admissions code prohibits those criteria and practices that could be used by schools to unfairly select children. The new code has been widely welcomed across the education sector and by faith groups.

All admission authorities, which comprise local authorities and the governing bodies of schools which are their own admission authority, are required to act in accordance with the code. This means they must comply with its mandatory provisions and take account of its guidelines when setting their arrangements. Admission authorities must also comply with other aspects of the law, such as the prohibition on interviews and the requirement to give highest priority to children in care.

Under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, schools have a duty to publish their admissions arrangements for consultation and, under the code, local authorities have duties to refer arrangements they believe to be unlawful or unfair to the schools adjudicator. He then has the power to change unfair and unlawful arrangements.

Admission authorities were required to consult on their proposed arrangements for 2008 by 1 March 2007. After this the arrangements had to be determined by 15 April and then published within two weeks to allow any objections to be lodged with the schools adjudicator. The period for objections was six weeks long and expired in June 2007. The schools adjudicator, in his annual report, published on 1 November 2007, revealed that he had received 79 objections about admission arrangements that did not comply with the code or the law.

Under the legislation, the responsibility for ensuring schools comply with the code rests with local authorities and the governing bodies of own-admission authority schools. However, in December 2007 we said in our children’s plan that we would monitor the impact of the code. In January, the Schools Minister Jim Knight wrote to all admission authorities and local authorities reminding them that they must comply fully with their statutory requirements.

In January, I also asked officials to undertake, for the first time and for internal purposes, an analysis of the published admission arrangements for 2008 in three local authority areas in order to sample the level of compliance. Having considered the evidence gathered from this sample I believe it is right that it should be made public and acted upon now.

We examined the published admission arrangements for three areas—Northamptonshire, Manchester and Barnet—on the basis that these represented a London borough, a shire county and a metropolitan authority for which no objections had been referred to the schools adjudicator.

Initial evidence across these three local authorities suggests that the large majority of schools appear to be complying with the code, including an overwhelming majority of academies and schools where local authorities are the admission authority. However, a significant minority of schools in our sample appear not to be compliant with the code, of which a disproportionate number are voluntary aided or foundation schools.

Practices revealed in our survey which are non-compliant with the code include: schools asking parents to commit to making financial contributions as a condition of admission; not giving looked after children the priority required by law; asking about the marital status, occupational or financial status of parents; giving priority on the basis of family members who are not siblings attending the school; and interviewing children.

The department has now written to each of the three local authorities covered by this initial work, and to the governing bodies of all voluntary aided and foundation schools in these areas that appear not to have complied with the code or the law, asking them to verify what we have found. Once verified, we will present the detailed information to Parliament.

However, it is right, based on this initial evidence that we take immediate steps now to ensure that all schools across the country that are not currently complying with the law are fully compliant for their 2009 admissions; in addition, and based upon advice from leading counsel, there are steps I can take now affecting the 2008 admissions procedures to ensure greater compliance with the code but without disrupting and delaying the current process of admissions in a way that would be unfair and disproportionate, adversely affecting parents, children and schools across the country.

Strengthening the admissions system for 2009

All admission authorities should by now have completed consultation on their proposed admission arrangements for September 2009 and must determine their arrangements by 15 April 2008. Local authorities have a duty under the code to refer objections to the schools adjudicator and I expect them to act where it appears that determined admission arrangements do not comply with the statutory requirements.

Other admission authorities, admissions forums and parents also have the power to object, and from this year religious authorities also have the power to object to the admission arrangements of schools for which they are responsible. The major faith bodies welcomed the code, and I know that they want to play their part in ensuring all schools adopt arrangements that are transparent and fair.

We will now take the following steps:

Strengthening the role of local authorities

It is right and in keeping with their responsibility as commissioners of children’s services that local authorities have oversight of admission policies in their areas. We will introduce an amendment to the Education and Skills Bill at Report stage to place a further duty on local authorities to report each year on the legality, fairness and effectiveness of all school admission arrangements in their area. The report will be sent to the adjudicator after the admission arrangements have been determined and before the end of the proposed new statutory objections period. This will ensure that admission forums and parents are properly informed and the schools adjudicator has the information he needs to investigate and ensure compliance with the code.

Improving Admission Forums

Admission forums have a vital role in monitoring admission arrangements. We will consult in the coming months on what further steps we can take to ensure that forums operate as effectively as possible.

Consulting and engaging communities and parents more effectively

Admission arrangements should be subject to proper scrutiny and discussion at local level while they are being determined. This should include an effective consultation that includes all those who have an interest in admission policies, especially parents, and when major changes are proposed. We will also amend the Education and Skills Bill at Report stage to take powers to enhance consultation arrangements and will consult on detailed proposals in the summer.

Properly informing parents

To ensure all parents are properly informed about their rights in this system, we will publish a guide for parents on the admission and appeals codes early next month. This will set out what parents can expect from the admissions system; give them information on how to object to admission arrangements that appear not to comply with the law; and signpost them to information and support when applying for schools. The guide will also outline the admission appeals process.

Extending the role of the Schools Adjudicator

To ensure that parents and local authorities have sufficient time to check proposed arrangements and to refer an objection we will urgently seek to amend regulations to extend the period in which objections may be referred from six weeks to 16 weeks starting from this year 2008. I am also asking the schools adjudicator to report to me on steps he is taking to ensure compliance with the statutory requirements in respect of 2009 admission arrangements and annually thereafter.

Immediate steps for 2008 admissions

There are some important steps we can take now affecting the 2008 admissions across the country.

For any school that is imposing financial obligations on parents I want to be clear that this practice must stop immediately. Parents must not be required to pay any contribution to the school as a condition of admission whatever they may have agreed to do when making their application. Any school that has asked parents to make a financial contribution as a condition of admission must make clear to those parents now that such a payment is not mandatory.

I also expect all local authorities immediately to ensure that the most vulnerable children, those in care or with statements of SEN are placed in the most appropriate school as required by law, whatever admissions criteria may have been used.

The evidence we have collected and are now verifying suggests that the large majority of schools are complying with the code this year. I want to ensure that every school complies with the code in 2009. The measures I have announced today will help ensure that every parent has a fair chance of getting their child a place at a school of their choice, and that no parent or child will be disadvantaged by unfair admission arrangements.