Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of their proposal to prevent civil society organisations from objecting to violations of the School Admissions Code, what assessment they have made of the extent to which compliance with that Code is monitored and enforced.
My Lords, I am grateful that your Lordships’ House has been given the opportunity to discuss the Question for Short Debate in my name. I have a slight regret that it was scheduled at very short notice—which has, I am sure, affected the number of noble Lords who have been able to either reschedule their diaries or prepare adequately to participate. But those who are here today will certainly provide great knowledge and, I am sure, many useful suggestions for the Minister to take on board.
Every state-funded school in England must comply with the School Admissions Code, along with the School Admission Appeals Code and the statutory legislation that underpins the code: namely, the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 and its accompanying regulations. Schools must also follow the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998, relevant sections of which are quoted by the code, and they are also under a duty to promote community cohesion. For local authority-maintained community schools, admissions criteria are set by the local authority, which administers all aspects of admissions. Academies, free schools, voluntary aided and foundation schools have their own admissions authorities, set their own criteria and decide which applicants meet them.
Objections to admissions criteria and procedures can currently be submitted by anyone to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, whose decisions are binding. The Government plan to restrict those who can object to breaches of the code. The background to this move is the detailed research carried out by the Fair Admissions Campaign and the British Humanist Association. That research demonstrated that there are many schools with intakes more favourable than would be expected, given their location, and that these are likely to be faith schools or other schools which control their own admissions. The two organisations analysed the admissions policies of a sample of faith schools and found that virtually all of them broke the admissions code in one way or another. They then submitted a large number of objections to the schools adjudicator.
The adjudicator not only upheld 87% of the objections but found many violations beyond those that had been highlighted. In the 48 schools whose arrangements were objected to, a total of 1,385 violations were identified, ranging from direct discrimination on the basis of race and/or gender to failing to properly prioritise looked-after and previously looked-after children. None of these issues would been identified had the British Humanist Association and Fair Admissions Campaign not been able to object.
There are a number of procedural issues with admissions which concern many parents. The admissions system is becoming increasingly complicated and difficult for parents to navigate, favouring those with the skills and the time needed to deal with it. The issues identified by the BHA and the Fair Admissions Campaign are only part of the story because there are a considerable number of devices used by schools that have been found to be acceptable under the code, but which enable schools to gain a more favoured intake. This can get close to a situation where schools choose the pupils that they want rather than, as should be the case, families choosing schools. The level of segregation of pupils by faith—and thus often by ethnicity—and by socio-economic position is dangerously high. It is a significant threat to social cohesion which, as I have mentioned, schools have a duty to promote.
Perhaps I may cite a local example: the Grey Coat Hospital School, whose pupils include the daughters of the Prime Minister and of the Secretary of State for Justice, allocates 10% of places on the results of a modern languages aptitude test. Other applicants have to sit tests to be placed in ability bands. Applicants for church places are expected to show weekly church attendance for five years, including references from previous churches if they have moved house. The school has nearly twice the Borough of Westminster’s average of high-ability pupils.
The admissions system is undermining the principle of comprehensive education by creating a system of covert selection, in which schools have very different quality intakes. It is well known that pupils in schools with high levels of disadvantage are less likely to achieve well and that the system overall will produce worse results. When the Schools Minister, Mr Gibb, led a revision of the code a few years ago, it was driven by his wish to allow anyone to object to malpractice. At that time, there was also a Select Committee inquiry. It received evidence from the Sutton Trust, which said that,
“all the evidence suggests that those schools that are autonomous or have autonomous admissions are those that are most socially selective when compared to their localities … when we looked at those schools, not only were, for example, the proportion of free-school-meals children lower than the national rates, but they were actually much lower than the localities in which the schools were sited”.
Because of—not despite—the research carried out by the British Humanist Association and the Fair Admissions Campaign, the Government are proposing changes to the admissions procedures. In their own words, the aims are,
“unclogging the admissions system by stopping objections to a school or local authority’s admissions arrangements from outside the local area—this means only local parents will have a say on admissions and helps local authorities to ensure they are fair … stopping vexatious complaints against faith schools from secularist campaign groups … giving parents and communities a greater voice in local admissions by requiring admissions authorities to consult on their admission arrangements every 4 years rather than the current 7”.
The changes proposed are a classic case of shooting the messenger rather than addressing the problem. The outcome will be to protect schools that are currently abusing the admissions system.
Mention is made in the Government’s reasoning of vexatious complaints. The dictionary definition—indeed, the legal definition—of “vexatious” is of a claim “instituted without sufficient grounds”. Yet the Office of the Schools Adjudicator upheld no less than 87% of the complaints registered, as I said—so how can the Government credibly suggest that there is a problem with frivolous claims being raised? They cannot, and it should not even have been suggested. If the code is to be changed, it requires a sound basis, and these proposed changes lack that sound basis.
Mention of unclogging the system also does not stand up to scrutiny. In her report, the adjudicator referred to the pressures that complaints place on schools, and no one would want to see schools burdened with additional administrative demands that are not absolutely necessary. The answer to those schools that feel they are being, or might be, burdened is this: simply stick to the admissions code. If they do that, there can be few if any complaints levelled against them and they will have no additional administrative demands placed upon them. Abide by the law—what could be more straightforward?
The Secretary of State’s rationale for the change was:
“So that parents can be confident that the school admission process is working for them”.
In reality, that is a classic dog-whistle approach, designed to send a message to those who benefit from the present arrangements. Perhaps the noble Baroness can explain how requiring schools to adhere to the rules in some way prevents school admissions “working for them”. Taking issues to the adjudicator is not about changing the rules but about enforcing them— unless, of course, “working for them” means benefiting from the current situation where rules are regularly broken.
Banning organisations from raising concerns about admissions arrangements will seriously limit the extent to which the statutory School Admissions Code can be enforced. There is currently no body engaged in actively monitoring it—far less enforcing it—and given both its complexity and how open it is to manipulation, it is highly probable that a significant number of breaches will continue to go unnoticed. These breaches, whether made intentionally or inadvertently, directly impact on the access of parents and children to their local schools, and to simply rely on parents to identify them is not sufficient.
Trying to police the arrangements of the increasing number of academies, free schools and faith schools is a bit like HMRC trying to stop tax avoidance. You close one loophole and people just find a new one—usually, it should be said, with the help of a specialist lawyer. There is really no reason why any state-funded school should have exclusive control over its admissions arrangements. Families would be much better served by a coherent and consistent set of arrangements across an area, which could be achieved by requiring local authorities to set admissions criteria, with appropriate consultation.
The noble Baroness may be somewhat surprised to hear me reference a free school in defence of this argument. Far too often, as I have said, free schools are established in areas without the need for more school places, which has always struck me as a poor targeting of scarce resources. However, School 21 in Newham, led by Mr Peter Hyman, has been—as I am sure the noble Baroness read in yesterday’s Guardian—very successful in raising the standard of achievement of its pupils to a higher level using some innovative methods. Mr Hyman insists on allowing the London Borough of Newham to decide on his admissions. Why can that example not be used to give local authorities a role? Breaches in the admissions code by local authorities are very rare indeed.
I contend that it is essential that organisations concerned about the manner in which the School Admissions Code is being adhered to should retain the right to raise complaints about breaches. But if the Government are determined to reject the right of organisations to complain, the Minister needs to set out clearly in her reply what additional steps she intends to take to ensure that the code is adhered to. This is about the law being observed, and it is her duty—as it is of all Ministers—to settle for nothing less. How does she propose to ensure that all parents have access to a level playing field when choosing a school for their children?
My Lords, the previous debate on life chances, which I listened to with great interest, raised a number of important issues related to disadvantage and life chances. Schools can be part of encouraging life chances, if we make them positive places for parents and children. I shall return to this theme, if appropriate, in the debate following the gracious Speech next week.
Our school system is getting into all kinds of trouble, which I regret. We have today one example, and I thank my noble friend for returning to this topic of school admissions. It is particularly timely in that so many newspapers and so much of the media recently have been concerned with the admissions policy in schools. I shall say a little about this generally, but of course we are concerned here in particular about the School Admissions Code and the proposal to prevent civil society organisations objecting to violations—in my view, a most high-handed and panicky way of going about things.
The journalist Fiona Millar said recently:
“Admissions in England are a mess. There are too many schools with the power to decide which pupils they admit, too many socially selective admissions criteria permissible under the code of practice, and the system of ‘policing’ admissions is too weak”.
She cites the Centre for High Performance paper, which sets out learning points. One of these points is, remarkably, that schools,
“could change the type of pupils”,
they admit. I understand that that paper has now been withdrawn from the CHP website—perhaps not surprisingly.
Another study by the London School of Economics makes suggestions about what might make the system fairer, and I shall return to it at the end of my remarks. I shall not speak for long, as much has been said and we know the issues, but it is worth repeating some of them.
The basic facts are that, earlier this year, the DfE announced that in the forthcoming revision of the School Admissions Code, it will seek to introduce new rules to prevent civil society organisations lodging complaints about unlawful school admission procedures. The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, stated that the changes would have the effect of stopping,
“vexatious complaints against faith schools by secularist campaign groups”.
It was a direct response to a report published by the British Humanist Association and the Fair Admissions Campaign last year, which revealed widespread, almost universal, failure to adhere to the School Admissions Code by religiously selective schools. It recommended changes that could make the admissions system fairer, more transparent and easier to understand for parents. Is that not what we all want: ease and transparency? The Government should be encouraging ease and transparency for parents, rather than hiding behind threats.
I declare an interest as the patron of the British Humanist Association and of the National Secular Society and as secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. Even if I were not those things, I would still have concerns about fair admissions. I hear what parents are saying.
What parents want is a good local school for their child. The admissions code can be difficult for parents to negotiate. The Government propose that only certain people will be able to raise concerns about school admissions arrangements. As I understand it, these people will be local groups—perhaps parents. It is not clear. The department claims that thereby parents will have a greater say in the admissions process. Not so: the horse will already have bolted and the damage will have been done.
Do the Government really expect a parent to go through an objection process with the Office of the Schools Adjudicator? Parents may not have the time or expertise. They may be worried that they would be seen as troublemakers. A great many parents rely on charities and civil society organisations to lodge complaints on their behalf and to identify violations of the admissions code where they arise. Breaches of the code may be intentional or inadvertent. Whichever it is, we should surely welcome organisations which can identify breaches, thus helping parents and children seeking access to local schools. It is not unusual to have a charity or civil society organisation standing up for citizens locally, nationally or internationally, if they have a problem or a complaint. We can probably all think of many examples. Why are the Government picking on organisations which are trying to fulfil this helpful function in relation to schools?
Earlier this year, in this House, the Schools Minister conceded, as my noble friend pointed out, that 87% of the objections submitted to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator by the Fair Admissions Campaign were upheld. Every school where an objection was made was found to have at least one violation in its admissions arrangements. These included discrimination on the basis of race or gender, failure to prioritise children in care and even requiring financial support of associated religious organisations.
Why do the Government not welcome interventions that expose shortcomings? How do they expect to overcome shortcomings and improve the system? Surely banning organisations from objecting must be counterproductive and short-sighted. How will they stop organisations from complaining anyway? It is just a nonsense. The Government might do better to look at the recommendations in the report from the BHA and the Fair Admissions Campaign, which would make the system fairer and more transparent for parents. Will they do this? If they do not want to look at that, maybe they will consider the research report from the LSE on admissions, whose recommendations include that each school’s admissions criteria should, by law, be simple and easy to understand. The local authority should be empowered to work with schools to maximise fair access. No school should manage its own admissions; these should be in the hands of an independent body, and banding assessments should be carried out in school time, preferably with one test used by all schools in an area-wide scheme. How will the Government increase transparency for parents? Will they adhere also to the plan to no longer require academy trusts to reserve places for elected parents on governing boards? Is there some plot to confuse and disregard the views of parents? If so, the Government can expect a vigorous reaction.
My Lords, I should declare an interest as a member of the British Humanist Association. Religious discrimination in schools admissions is one of the reasons why faith schools are often a divisive influence in society. The Ulster experience shows how divisive they can be, have been and still are. In his report on the 2001 race riots, Professor Cantle described the actions that need to be taken to integrate instead of divide different religious and racial communities. He is one of the severest critics of the admissions policies of faith schools today, saying:
“The system by which religious schools are able to set their own admissions criteria is clearly not fit for purpose … Schools should be places that reflect our society as a whole, and it should be through schools that children are introduced to the full diversity of our society, learning to understand, respect and tolerate those from backgrounds different to their own. Only by making our schools inclusive and free from discrimination can we achieve this aim”.
Those are wise words.
Of course, it is natural that family and home backgrounds will influence children’s views and beliefs, but schools should not put children into categories of belief. They should be places that make children think for themselves; we do not treat children as Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat or UKIP children, so why should we let schools treat them as Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Jewish children? Allowing breaches of the admissions code enables and encourages them to do so.
Surely the Government can agree that, at the very least, schools should adhere to the law. Unfortunately, as the British Humanist Association’s report demonstrates, a great many schools do not. Indeed, the complexity of some schools admission policies seems to be designed to confuse and mislead, and the range of ways in which they have been discriminating are clearly designed to secure a greater homogeneity of religion in these schools.
These findings are not just those of the BHA, which the Government, who support faith schools, no doubt dismiss as partisan. The Office of the Schools Adjudicator, the statutory guardian responsible for enforcing the code, has found widespread violation. It is not just this year that there have been more than a thousand breaches, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, pointed out; there have also been numerous breaches in the two years before. So what has been the Government’s response? They have banned society organisations from making representations on breaches of the code. Only selected individuals, who will be in a much less good position to deal with the complexities of the code, are allowed to make those representations. I know that the Government have received many representations on this issue. Parliamentarians have opposed the ban, the public have opposed it—even Mumsnet has opposed it. Of course, it was a Schools Minister in another place who first extended the right to object to include everyone. That was only a few years ago—and what has made the Government change their mind?
Numerous reputable organisations apart from the British Humanist Association, many of them bodies from different religions, support the fair admissions campaign. I hope the Government will take note of the advice of many of their own Back-Benchers to do more listening. I hope, in particular, that they will heed the wise words of Professor Cantle and the findings of the schools adjudicator.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Watson for having asked this Question. I also declare my association with the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society, so I am in a gang of three, at least.
Before I start my remarks, I first say that this afternoon I went to the funeral of my friend Lord Peston, who was a great fighter for equality in education. He ran the campaign for comprehensive schools all his life. I pay tribute to him for the work he did.
I was associated with the campaign for state education way back in the 1970s and early 1980s when my children were going to school. It struck me at that time, and has struck me ever since, how much a battle of class education in England is—I do not know much about Scotland and Wales. I can see the anxiety of the middle classes to secure the best education for their children, an education that is not only the best but one that is better than the rest, as it were. The anxiety is very high, and a lot of pressure is put on schools and their admissions systems to secure that with things such as streaming, advanced courses for some children and so on.
The situation has got much worse than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. I sent all my children to the local comprehensive school and they got their first preference. Now, talking as an economist, there is an excess demand for school places, and because in each local area not everybody can get their first preference, there is rationing. When there is rationing, it puts power in the hands of the supplier to impose conditions. They are free to do some selective screening, if it is legal. We are witnessing two interesting things. Without a doubt, faith schools are popular not only with people of that faith but with people of other faiths or no faith. If they are oversubscribed, they have the power to ration according to the criteria they would like to impose. What we are saying—partly based on the idea that education is very important for life chances, as my noble friend Lady Massey said—is that we should prevent discrimination from the beginning because, once you do it, the situation will become worse. To the extent that schools are exercising this sort of rationing, they ought to comply with the admissions code. It has to be legal. We cannot allow people to do illegal things just because there is excess demand for places. We have to be very careful not to let them pass by and let this sort of discrimination fester.
The most important of the many objections that have been stated is the issue of equality, which is central to this debate. After all, the Equality Act was passed in 2010, not all that long ago. If you adhere to that Act, discrimination on the grounds of race or gender should be fought very hard. Obviously there are more Christian faith schools than non-Christian faith schools but there may not be the same imbalance in terms of students; there may be more students of non-Christian faith in a particular locality than of Christian faith. As the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, mentioned, the Cantle report was based on unrest in areas of the north that have large Muslim populations. One of the issues was a lack of integration of the local population, especially of young children, in the social and educational life of the community.
So these are not just idle matters that atheists bring up. This is nothing to do with atheists, humanists or secularists being unhappy about faith schools. Faith schools can be there; that is fine. They are good and people like them, and I believe in consumer choice. However, we cannot allow tactics of rationing that are not merely illegal but unfair. If we let them pass by because of pressure from some lobby or other, we and our children will pay the price, so it is important that we stop this as soon as possible.
The Government have said something about vexatious complaints, and both my noble friends have spoken against it quite sharply. My view is this: if you do not let us complain, what alternative are you offering that would do the same job? What can you create by way of a complaints authority that would allow people to complain without necessarily having to reveal their identity and make it easy for them to be able to complain? Do not make it too complicated; set up an agency that would receive objections from anyone who was unhappy with an admissions process, and let that agency take it up.
If the Government are quite happy to appoint an agency then that is all right, but they will have to find a substitute for the job that the BHA and the Fair Admissions Campaign have done. If they do not find such a substitute, they are being unfair both to the students who are suffering and to the people who are genuinely trying to get a better and fairer admissions system in schools. Then we would have to have a check on whether the objections that had been raised were fair and, if so, who would take up the matter. Of course the adjudicator that is there could do it. Ideally, I would prefer that all civil society groups, whether humanist or not, should be allowed to do the good job that the BHA is doing because it is doing it for the good of the education system.
There is also a matter of free speech. To prevent someone from doing charitable work just because they do not have faith is a violation of free speech, but I will not go into that as it is an entirely different angle.
The Government have to give us an answer. If they do not like the vexatious complaints that we make, what alternative are they offering to the parents of the children who are suffering? How quickly will the complaints be dealt with and admissions procedures improved so that these sorts of defects are not there? That is something that the Government ought to deliver, especially if, with regard to the previous debate, they are serious about encouraging some sort of equality of outcomes in people’s lives. To repeat what the Cantle report said, for social peace and harmony we need satisfaction with local education systems among parents, especially those who are in deprived circumstances and could not necessarily access middle-class facilities. These are important issues, and I invite the noble Baroness who will answer from the Dispatch Box to take them up.
I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for initiating this debate. Perhaps I should declare an interest as a former head of a faith school.
Choosing a school for their child is an important decision for parents. Naturally they want to ensure that they choose the school that is right for their child. The admissions code for each and every school needs to be fair and equitable, and it must be in the best interests of local schooling and not a means for individual schools to be tempted to fiddle the system for their own educational or religious gain.
The admissions code was set up to ensure that no insidious practices take place. The code states what is lawful and what is not with regard to admissions, and the Office of the Schools Adjudicator—the OSA—was set up to make sure that schools abide by the code and do not try to use unacceptable practices to skew the intake for unacceptable reasons.
This whole issue is of course set against a background which has seen more and more schools taking responsibility for their own admissions arrangements, as academies can now do by law. For example, here in London the number of schools that are responsible for their own admissions arrangements has increased from 40% to 80% in just four years. So there are potentially 20,000 different sets of admissions arrangements.
Schools, as we know, have to deal with SATs and other examination results, their position in league tables and how their results play out with Ofsted inspections. This can lead to enormous pressures on schools and to wholly unacceptable situations where they might be tempted to engineer the intake, with the temptation to admit the easiest and reject the hardest to teach being unparalleled.
Against that background, the Fair Admissions Campaign, supported by a number of organisations including the British Humanist Association, has been shining a light on these unfair practices, particularly in relation to faith schools. As we have heard, the association’s report for the campaign, An Unholy Mess, shows that virtually all religiously selective schools are breaking the law. The report says that almost one in five schools was found to require practical or financial support linked to admission, and that over a quarter of schools were found to be religiously selective in ways not deemed acceptable, even by their religious authorities. It found that a number of schools have broken the Equality Act 2010 in directly discriminating on the basis of race or gender. A majority of schools were found not to sufficiently prioritise looked-after and previously looked-after children. A quarter of schools were found not to make clear how many children with statements of special educational needs were admitted. And, shockingly, almost 90% of schools were found to be unlawfully asking parents for information that they did not need.
The Fair Admissions Campaign and the British Humanist Association have taken up complaints with the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, and that is surely to be welcomed. If they right one wrong, that is to be applauded. I shall give some examples of things that they have highlighted. There was a recent case where a mother from Barnet, despite being a secular Turkish Cypriot, was allocated a Greek Orthodox school for her son after he did not get a place at any of his chosen schools. This is a woman who has lost members of her family in the civil conflict in Cyprus. This decision, while completely legal, was spectacularly offensive and should not have happened.
Another example of the wrongs fought against by the British Humanist Association is the predicament of one family, the mother of which says, “My faith is Church of England and my husband is Hindu. We decided that it would be confusing for our children to take them either to just the church or just the temple, and equally confusing to take them to both. As a result, it is unlikely that we will get into our local faith primary school, as we do not attend a place of worship. How can this be fair?”.
Then along comes our Secretary of State for Education, who has set out proposals to limit objections to admissions arrangements to only local parents and councils. She has said that this is in response to vexatious complaints against faith schools by secularist campaign groups. Of course, it is thanks to these campaigns groups that many wrongs have been righted. In many cases, individual parents are rightly nervous or feel too intimidated to complain. Parents who do not have English as their second language do not feel confident enough to work their way round the system. You would not expect government to ban consumer rights organisations from championing individual cases and then accuse them of being “vexatious”. You would not ban environmental organisations from taking individual cases against companies acting against environmental protection codes and then accuse them of being “vexatious”. Rather than clamping down on complaints to the adjudicator, we should be giving schools incentives to behave differently.
Each school’s admissions criteria should, by law, be simple and easy to understand. The local authority should be empowered to work with schools to maximise fair access. I therefore ask the Minister whether she would agree that guidance should be published for schools on complying with the admissions code, in the form of a comprehensive guidance document clarifying those areas of the code that are most frequently breached. That would be an efficient and inexpensive way of ensuring greater compliance and cutting out many of the issues that have been highlighted. Would the Minister also consider introducing a requirement that schools follow a standard template in their admissions policy, with this template allowing for a variety of code-permitted factors, including religious selection, to be taken into account in oversubscription criteria? In the case of faith schools, I would also suggest that a variety of standard supplementary information forms could be drawn up with input from the various religious authorities.
I now turn to the admission arrangements for summer-born children. We know that, on average, summer-born children perform poorly in most tests when compared to those born earlier in the school year. This is most noticeable in primary school children, but the learning gap is still statistically significant right up until school-leaving age. This is demonstrated by the fact that summer-born children are 5% less likely to get A to C grades at GCSE than their autumn-born friends. Also pertinent is the fact that summer-born children in large urban schools tend to do significantly worse than those in small rural schools. This obviously puts schoolchildren born later in the year, especially those who live in cities, at a considerable educational disadvantage when compared to their peers born earlier in the year. I welcome the fact that the Government have recognised this as a problem, not only in school admissions but also in the child’s academic career. The Minister has been reported as saying that the rules will be changed so that children born between 1 April and 31 August will be allowed to go into reception class a year later if their parents feel that they are not ready for school. Can the Minister tell us when the consultation on summer-born children will be completed?
I end by saying that each school’s admission criteria should, by law, be simple and easy to understand. The local authority should be empowered to work with schools to maximise fair access and the Secretary of State, rather than banning organisations that are helping parents, should be supporting their work.
My Lords, I am pleased to answer this Question for Short Debate and thank all noble Lords who have contributed. When I answered a recent Question, the noble Lord, Lord Watson, expressed his disappointment in my response, so I will try to do better today. I start by making it very clear that our priority is to create a system that will fully support parents. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, rightly said, choosing a school for their child is one of the most important decisions any parent makes, and we want to ensure that they can easily understand how to get a good school place. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, rightly said that the process is too complex. That is exactly why our changes are intended to make the admissions system simpler, clearer and easier for parents to navigate.
It would be helpful to remember that, last year, the Schools Adjudicator received a total of 218 objections about school admissions arrangements. That equates to only 1.1% of schools. Of course any breaches are unacceptable, but it is important to put the situation into a broader context. Currently, any person or body considering that a school’s admission arrangements may be unlawful can refer an objection to the Schools Adjudicator.
However, in her annual report to the Secretary of State last year, the adjudicator raised concerns that, in some instances, campaign groups and individuals were referring objections in an attempt to influence government policy. It was never our intention that the adjudication process should be used in this way.
The number of objections has doubled over the past two years. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, talked about the length of time it takes for parents to get decisions. Unfortunately, the workload of the adjudicator has increased, meaning that it now takes an average of 49 days for an objector to hear the outcome of their objection rather than 26 days, which it did previously. We do not believe that this is fair for parents who have genuine concerns about the admissions arrangements of their local school.
We have also heard from schools that are concerned about the bureaucratic burden placed on them when an objection is referred to the adjudicator about their admissions arrangements.
What we also want to do is free schools from bureaucracy where possible, while of course making sure that they abide by the rules and are able to focus on delivering high-quality education. We want the adjudicator to be able to focus on the concerns that local parents might have about the admissions arrangements of a school they may genuinely wish their child to attend. That is why we have announced our intention that local parents and local authorities should be able to refer objections about a school’s admissions arrangements.
Let me be clear: this change does not mean that we will ignore concerns raised by campaign groups. These groups can, and do, raise their concerns directly with government and we will continue to encourage that. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that it is helpful to have others’ views on how schools’ admissions systems are working. I assure noble Lords that officials from the department meet organisations such as the BHA regularly. We welcome the constructive relationship that we have and want it to continue.
We do not believe this change will have a negative impact on compliance with the School Admissions Code. In spite of the large number of objections referred by campaign groups over the past two years, it remains the case that most objections are referred by parents and local authorities. I am aware that concerns have been raised that parents do not have the expertise necessary to refer objections to the adjudicator—but, as I have said, given that a significant proportion of objections that are received now are from parents, this does not seem to be the case in reality.
We want parents be able to refer an objection where the admissions arrangements of their local school feel unfair or wrong to them: for example, if the boundary of a catchment area seems to be have been drawn in such a way as to leave out a particular street, or if admissions arrangements lack key information parents need to be able to understand how they will affect them, such as how “home address” will be defined.
Parents do not need a detailed knowledge of the admissions code to be able to spot such flaws—but, of course, if they felt they wanted to seek the advice of a group or organisation in referring an objection, they would not be prevented from doing so. Again, this change is about supporting parents.
Admissions teams in local authorities, who we intend will still be able to refer objections, have a detailed understanding of admissions law, and they have a legal duty to refer an objection to the adjudicator if they believe that a school’s admission arrangements are unlawful. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, said that the onus would be just on parents. No, local authorities will also have a role. They may be more likely than parents to spot some of the more technical issues which the noble Lord raised, such as failing to include an effective tie-break.
I know that there is also a concern about widespread non-compliance among faith schools—a number of noble Lords mentioned the report, An Unholy Mess. That report was based on a small-scale sample confined to just 43 schools, so it is misleading to say that it is representative of the faith sector as a whole, which comprises some 6,800 faith schools. Of the 43 sets of arrangements that were reviewed, the Office of the Schools Adjudicator found that most of the issues were not related to faith. There was also an issue with the methodology, which did not examine non-faith schools as a comparator.
The Minister said that it was not a representative sample, but we are all well aware of opinion polls of 1,000 people which are said to reflect the views of 60 million of us. Every school mentioned by the British Humanist Association was found to have something wrong—something against the rules. That surely is the issue. What has the Department for Education done in respect of those schools and others like them to ensure that those breaches are no longer in place?
Obviously where the adjudicator found against a school it would have to ensure that it was complying with the code. I shall talk about a couple more things we are doing to ensure that schools abide by the code.
We are reviewing the school admissions code and, as part of this, we are considering whether it would be appropriate to make any other changes to ensure that the admissions process is as transparent as possible for parents and admissions authorities, and whether more needs to be done to ensure compliance. That is part of our ongoing review. We will conduct a full public consultation on a revised admissions code in due course.
I should also highlight a change that we have already announced. We propose that admissions authorities should be required to consult on their admission arrangements every four years, rather than every seven as at present. This will give parents and communities a greater voice and help them ensure that school admissions arrangements are responsive to local needs.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, asked about parent governors. We are not suggesting, and never have, that parents should no longer sit on governing bodies. We want parents to be more involved in their children’s education, not less, as the White Paper made clear, and we will consult on how to do this. To achieve this for the first time, we plan to create a requirement that every academy puts in place arrangements for meaningful engagement with all parents and that they listen to their views and feedback. We will create a new parent portal to give parents key information about their children’s education, and introduce regular published surveys of parental satisfaction.
The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked about comprehensive guidance. As I said, we are reviewing the admissions code to ensure that all arrangements are clear and as fair as possible. We are considering a range of options as part of this. We will conduct a public review and I am sure that the suggestions that the noble Lord has made will be a part of what we consider.
Again I thank everyone who has contributed to this important debate. We are looking at this area. As I have said, although the problem overall is relatively small, breaches are not acceptable. We believe and understand that this decision for parents is key—it is one of the most important they will make. That is why we are committed to ensuring that all schools operate a fair, open admissions policy, which will make the process of applying for a school place as straightforward as possible.
The Minister said that she and the Government are committed to ensuring that there is a fair admissions policy. However, both my noble friend Lord Desai and I asked her if she would say what alternative the Government had for enforcing the admissions code, and so far we have not heard anything along those lines.
I said that as part of our review of the code we are looking at whether we need to do more around compliance. That is part of the ongoing work we are doing and we will be thinking about it. I have no doubt that we will discuss it further with noble Lords as the consultation develops.