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School Admissions Code 2021

Volume 815: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2021

School Information (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That the Grand Committee takes note of the draft School Admissions Code 2021 and the School Information (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/570).

Relevant document: 3rd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I am not so much concerned with these regulations, which seem to me to be a good thing, but I really want to encourage the Government to go further because the school admissions system needs some attention. If it were a set of teeth, it would not need a trip to the dentist, but it would certainly need the attentions of a hygienist. It has accumulated a lot of tartar, is not working well and needs improving.

Admissions regulations perform a set of very important functions in the education system. They are there to give everybody a chance of getting to a decent school and of knowing how to get there. Parents need to be able to tell what the chances of getting into an individual school are and what they have to do to establish their rights to do that. They also have a strong role as a driver for school improvement. Parental choice works well only if parents are actively choosing.

As things are, this does not work. If you look at an ordinary local authority publication on school admissions, you will find that most of the data is not there. So many schools are now their own admissions authorities that all the central source of information says is that information is available from the school. You cannot look at one document, in one place, and begin to have an idea of which schools you might actually get into.

You have to go round each individual school and ask it for the information—it is often not easy to find. You have to compare this year’s admissions policies with last year’s, to guess at how these are working. This is hard work for someone who is time-rich and capable and absolutely impossible for someone whose life is at all stressful or who does not have the necessary resources to do it. They are thrown back on going to the local school, because that is the only thing they can be sure of in the time they have. The whole business of school choice ceases to operate.

This is really just a matter of getting schools to do as they should and provide their local authority with the data on how their admissions structure works, so that the local authority can put it in its brochures. It is a matter of enforcement. Parents need this and it should not be hard to do. I really hope that the Department for Education will take that step.

The second set of problems comes from a lack of consistency between local authorities. Each local authority displays its information in its own way and with its own structure. There is no common format. If you live close to the border of a local authority, you are faced with learning two different ways of interpreting schools data and looking at what is going on. This also prevents anybody producing a coherent, consolidated app or website which could really inform a parent as to which schools they might have a chance of getting into and how to go about applying to them.

One company tried to gather this data once and it cost it £250,000. That was in the days when there were not a lot of individual schools that you had to “FoI” to get the data out of them. It is now completely impossible for anybody to gather this data and look at ways of making life easier for parents, which is why nobody does it. However, it would not be difficult or costly. All that has to be done is to require local authorities to make this data available in a standard format. They all have this data in an electronic form and converting data from one electronic format to another is not an expensive thing. All you have to do is produce a database that they can dump the stuff into and there it would be.

The immediate consequence of that is that there would be a scramble by commercial companies—I rather suspect that my own Good Schools Guide would be one of them—to pick up this data, make useful tools for parents with it and allow them free access to them. The department would not have to spend anything on using the data. This would happen because it is such an obviously wonderful thing for parents to have and quite a lot of organisations want parents to look at their websites.

Without doing anything that requires investment—and it does not require much effort—the Government could make huge improvements to the effectiveness of the school admissions information system and make it work much better for parents individually, in terms of finding the best school for their child and really knowing what schools are available, and for the operation of parental choice as a mechanism for improving what is going on in schools.

I hope that the Government will also take the chance to study how the current system works. There is a great deal of data out there. We have had several years’ experience of a very diverse system of school admissions; it should be possible to use that data to find out what is working well and what is not. To my mind, one key objective in school admissions is to give as many people as possible a chance of getting to a good school. Where is that working? What forms of school admissions actually achieve that and what forms achieve the opposite? That ought to be something that the department wants to know, and I very much hope that it is something that the department will set out to find out. I beg to move.

My Lords, I want to make a number of comments about school admissions, and follow up on some of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made. On the statutory instrument, I do not have any particular issues, although maybe there are a couple of questions. On the issue about catch-up and the code, that will help parents, particularly those of disadvantaged pupils.

The whole business of school admissions is fraught with all sorts of problems. You cannot just wave a magic wand, even with increased data, and expect that everybody will get the school that they want. That just does not happen. What is true is that parents who can afford it will often move house to get into the catchment area of a local school so they can get their child or children into that school, whereas disadvantaged parents and pupils obviously cannot do that.

I remember from my experiences in Liverpool before the advent of academies that it was an absolute nightmare. Often, decisions were made not on what a school was achieving or not achieving; it was often the case that inner-city schools with very successful examination results were disregarded by parents, who wanted to go to the leafy suburbs. So you had the leafy suburbs and aided schools with huge waiting lists, while inner-city schools such as Paddington Comprehensive, which was built in the early 1970s, a 10-form entry school with state-of-the-art equipment, ended up with one and a half forms of entry. As an aside, I remember trying to persuade Shirley Williams, who at the time was Secretary of State for Education, to turn it into a tertiary college—but she was having none of that.

I make these comments just to show how difficult the whole situation is. Yes, it is important to have all the data, and the composite way in which the data is portrayed will help parents. But when the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, talks about local authority schools he is, presumably, talking about academies as well. Academies choose their own admission requirements so, if we are going to have a standardised approach, it should be for all schools. He made the point, which I do not disagree with, that from looking at the various websites you realise that the workload of the staff means that it is something that they have not given their full attention to. Equally, when looking at the websites of academies, one might say the same as well.

The school admissions process, especially where it helps disadvantaged children or children in care, is hugely important. It is one way in which we can change life chances. We want to ensure that every child is treated in a fair and accountable manner, with local schools and local authorities working together to make sure that the needs of young people in that community are met. Sadly, we often see that that is not the case where schools almost jealously guard their independence from a local authority, and both sides do not want to collaborate in the way they should. Local authorities should have responsibility for place planning to ensure that academies co-operate in providing places. While it is slightly beyond this SI, we think that schools should be able to set aspects of their own admissions policy in compliance with the national code that allow them to specialise in, for example, music or business if they so wish. However, the local admissions process to administer the policy and allocate individual children to schools should be carried out by the local authority rather than by individual schools.

Where the code refers to the oversubscription criteria, are we talking about the waiting list? Is that what we mean? When I have had parents contact me and say, “Oh, I didn’t get a place, but the school’s put me on the waiting list”, is that what we mean by the oversubscription criteria? Would looked-after children be top of that list of criteria, irrespective of the type of school it is? If not, why not?

We talk about admission for disadvantaged children, but we do not define what we mean by disadvantaged children. Perhaps we ought to. It is a very general term. I presume that we are talking about looked-after children, or are we talking about children with special needs? Can they be in separate categories? The explanatory note just talks about disadvantaged children. Maybe I have missed something.

I welcome the fact that mid-term admissions are more codified—that absolutely makes sense, so I do not have any problem with this SI.

I did not realise that the year 7 catch-up premium had been discontinued, for the reasons stated. I presume that there was an SI to establish it. When we have the arts premium, will there be an SI for that?

My Lords, may I start by saying how grand it is to be back in the Grand Committee Room after pretty close to two years? I always enjoy debates in this particular Room.

I should declare an interest of sorts, in that I have a son, aged 10, and we have just made an application for his senior school through the admissions policy applying in our London borough. I have no reason to believe that we will not be successful, but it has sharpened my preparations for this debate.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for tabling this take-note Motion allowing noble Lords to debate these regulations and the wider issues around school admissions that he outlined, with which I would agree. I found the Explanatory Memorandum to the school information regulations very helpful in providing clarity on links with the new admissions code.

I shall not say much today about the removal of the year 7 catch-up premium grant. I challenged the Minister’s predecessor on this on more than one occasion last year, principally concerning fears that the overall amount allocated from the national funding formula would not meet the level of support provided by the year 7 grant. However, I noted that, in July this year, the Government announced that the amount allocated through the secondary low prior attainment factor for the 2020-21 academic year would increase from £924 million to £973 million, so it is only fair that we give the benefit of the doubt and reassess that position in a year’s time.

I think it is fair to say that there have long been concerns about the fairness of in-year admissions. The DfE’s own Review of Children in Need, published in June 2019, found that such children

“were more likely to seek a school place outside the normal admissions round and that delays in securing a school place in-year could lead to children missing education.”

Children in care are among the most vulnerable in society, of course. Surely it is of paramount importance that a school place that is in the child’s best interests is found as quickly as possible. We therefore welcome the DfE’s decision to reform the admissions code to give priority to children in care, or those who have previously been in care, in its oversubscription criteria. It is hoped that this will improve the clarity, timeliness and transparency of the in-year admissions process to ensure that all vulnerable children can access a school place without delay.

We also welcome the additions to the fair access protocol outlined in chapter 3 of the code. There are, it is fair to say, more serious deficiencies in the admissions code, which raise questions about social inequality. That is why Labour believes that local authorities should have responsibility for school places, with oversight and control of all admissions within their boundaries. I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Storey, support that change. Surely it is nonsense that, at present, councils have legal responsibility for finding a school place for any child arriving in their area, yet they cannot force an academy to accept a child even if the academy is not at capacity. Surely that is not an efficient way to operate school admissions.

All too often, the current system results in school segregation by family income, which has implications for social mobility—or social justice, as I prefer to call it. The point here is the extent to which a child’s family background determines their success. If a child’s chance of attending a high-performing school is effectively determined by their family income, that will clearly act as a major brake on social improvement. There is also a further issue around the social and political implications of young people from different socioeconomic backgrounds being educated separately. That hardly seems likely to assist in building a fair and cohesive society—something that, it might be assumed, is a key component of the Government’s much-vaunted levelling-up agenda.

The Minister will know that many education specialists, commentators and school leaders have called on the department to make further changes to the admission code to close the disadvantage gap, which has spiralled due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The leaked presentation on the needs of schools and pupils following the pandemic from the Government’s sadly short-lived recovery tsar, Sir Kevan Collins, revealed:

“Children from poorer households, who have often struggled most to learn from home, have lost most learning with the attainment gap expected to widen by 10-24%”.

Labour has committed to an education recovery premium, which would support every child to reach their potential by investing in the children who faced the greatest disruption during the pandemic, from early years to further education. We also advocate doubling the pupil premium for children in key transition years, delivering additional support for the children who need it most.

The former Chief Schools Adjudicator, Sir Philip Hunter, has warned that, although the admissions code requires schools

“to adopt, publish and administer admission criteria which are objective and reasonable”,

the very criteria that allow schools to

“give priority to children who live closest to the school, live in a defined catchment area, have siblings already at the school or, in the case of aided schools, are members of a particular church or religion … will, if unregulated over time, result in priority being given to children from privileged backgrounds”

at the expense of their disadvantaged counterparts,

“so the criteria will need to be even more rigorously applied”

as this will lead to schools becoming “yet more selective” and “more elitist”.

On disadvantage, the Minister may have had drawn to her attention by her officials what I regard as a worrying report, published three months ago by Humanists UK. Entitled Careless or Uncaring? How Faith Schools Turn Away Children Who Are or Were in Care, the report found that, in their admissions policies,

“41% of all state secondary schools of a religious character discriminate against children who are or were in care not of their faith … In Kensington and Chelsea, 50% of all state secondaries (religious or otherwise) discriminate against children who are or were in care not of their faith.”

As others have highlighted, the school a child attends makes a difference to their academic success. Estimates vary, but about 10% to 20% of the difference in pupils’ academic outcomes is down to the school they went to. As academic achievement, in turn, strongly influences life chances, particularly earnings, the effectiveness of the school a student attends potentially has life-long implications, so it would be unwise to assume that the current system is fair.

There are many excellent schools in disadvantaged areas, but the economics of property ownership mean that disadvantaged families lack the ability to afford homes in areas near popular schools that are rated as good or outstanding. In Great Education for Every Child – The ASCL Blueprint for a Fairer Education System, published last month, the Association of School and College Leaders demonstrated that this injustice is entrenched and reinforces an unhealthy division between affluent and disadvantaged areas and their children.

In some areas, high-performing schools are located close to schools that have been struggling to produce good results for years. Sometimes, an underperforming school can take action to improve results and thereby attract more pupils, but many cannot overcome the disadvantage of reputation or of serving areas where families have low expectations for their children. This can also impact on school funding, with fewer pupils remaining in school or being put on a pathway to higher education. What consideration have the Government given to contextualising school admissions, perhaps by increasing the number of pupils prioritised for school places based on their home circumstances or extending priority rights to children eligible for the pupil premium to all those living in persistent poverty?

In conclusion, on their own, the changes to the admissions code in these regulations are minor, and we are perfectly happy with them, although they are not unimportant, but for reasons including those that I have enunciated, the code itself is in need of a wider overhaul. Although I am an optimist, that is not a development I expect to see from a Conservative Government.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for the welcome he gave at the beginning of this debate and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its consideration of the new school admission code and the School Information (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, which came into force this September, without objections from either House. I depart from my noble friend on his dentist analogy but, apart from that, we are in agreement on the new code.

Our priority as a Government is to ensure that the admissions system fully supports parents to secure a suitable school place for their child. It is important, as the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Storey, emphasised, that the admissions process works effectively for all children, particularly the most vulnerable, so that children can secure places in a timely way.

In contrast to the description given by my noble friend, we believe that, on the whole, the normal admissions round and the overall admissions process work well. However, there have been delays to in-year admissions, which can have a particular impact on vulnerable children, who we know are more likely to move school in year. That is why our recent changes focused on improving in-year admissions.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, talked about the importance of co-operation and stressed the role of the local authority on admissions in an area. The anecdotal feedback I received is that, particularly during the pandemic, there was much closer co-operation between local authorities and multi-academy trusts, which all would like to see continue.

The changes that we have made involve setting a clear process for in-year admissions, including clear deadlines for processing applications and strengthening requirements to make better information available, which I know my noble friend will be particularly pleased to know. This will enable parents to navigate the system more easily and to secure places more quickly. We have also made changes to improve the fair access protocols, which are of course the safety net used for the most vulnerable children.

The noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Watson, asked about where the focus has been in ensuring that the most vulnerable children get school places quickly. The top of the list in this regard are looked-after children and previously looked-after children, including those who have been adopted from state care outside England. For other children, priority was increased or the mandatory category was extended to include them: children on a child-in-need or child-protection plan, children in refuge, children in formal kinship care arrangements and children who have been out of education for four or more weeks. There are other categories, which the noble Lord, Lord Watson, is aware of, I am sure, including homeless children, which go some way to addressing the points about disadvantage that he rightly raised.

As I mentioned, overwhelming support has been shown for these changes, and we now know that schools and local authorities are taking the necessary steps to ensure that they are being implemented. We have had a bit of anecdotal feedback about how that early implementation is going. Inevitably, there are some teething issues in some areas, but I was very encouraged to hear that we have had direct feedback saying that local authorities felt that they had been supported to get really quick decisions for these children in a matter of days, where previously they dragged on for much longer, quickly placing children in a school, which we all know to be critically important.

I now turn to the specific points raised by my noble friend. I start by saying that, clearly, we share his ambition of having a simple admissions process and ensuring that parents have the information that they need to make the best choices for their child. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, articulated so well, choosing a school for a child is one of the most important decisions that a parent makes. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Watson, gets the school of his choice for his child.

A variety of information is available to support parents in making that decision. Local authorities are required to publish annually, and then keep up to date, a composite admissions prospectus that needs to be published online, with hard copies available, bringing together all the information on school admissions within their areas. I know that my noble friend suggested that this does not always happen. I agree with him that they vary in the approach that they take, and some perhaps appear more accessible than others, but I ask my noble friend perhaps to write to me with examples of where he thinks it is not happening so that we can follow that up, because I am not aware of that.

Individual admissions authorities are also required to publish a range of information on their websites, all of which is designed to support parents in making good choices. My noble friend also talked about the need for information about the likelihood of getting into a particular school. That is one of the things that is stipulated: the number of preferences expressed for places at each school for the previous admissions year is one of the elements that it is stipulated that local authorities must publish, so that, as my noble friend said, parents can judge how popular a school is.

There are also websites, such as Get Information about Schools, and the department’s performance tables, which provide links to Ofsted reports. They give easily searchable databases for parents to compare local schools, including information on performances. Finally, school open days are a key opportunity to hear directly from school leaders and teachers about local schools.

We believe that requiring the admission arrangements to be published in a machine-readable format would be another pressure on schools and local authorities and would duplicate information they already provide in formats that, we believe, are already accessible and friendly to parents.

My noble friend questioned the effectiveness of the system more broadly. As I am sure he is aware, in the past year 93.4% of secondary applicants and 98% of primary applicants received offers from one of their top three school choices. We look at appeals from parents and, on average, about 20% are upheld in favour of parents and about 2.7% of admissions are heard at an appeals panel. If we look at the role of the schools adjudicator in assessing the fairness of admissions policy, to which the noble Lord, Lord Watson, referred, 123 cases were referred last year. The other critical point in all this is that if a school has availability, it must take all the children who apply. We will continue to keep the system under review to ensure that it works effectively for parents and that they are able to navigate it and secure a good place for their child in a timely manner.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked what we mean by oversubscription. Oversubscription criteria are used to judge all applicants, not those on a waiting list. We do not have an oversubscription code, but both looked-after and previously looked-after children are at the top of the oversubscription criteria. The noble Lord also asked what we mean by disadvantage; we are referring to children in receipt of the pupil premium.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, challenged the role of faith schools. They play a very important part in our education system and have done for centuries. Faith schools remain popular with parents and are more likely than other schools to be rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding. As the noble Lord knows, schools that are designated as having a religious character are allowed to prioritise children for admission based on their membership or practice of the faith when a school is oversubscribed but, if places are available, all schools with a religious designation must admit children of other faiths or of no faith.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, rightly challenged what the Government are doing to make sure that particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged children have access to a good school. He will be aware that the proportion of good and outstanding schools has risen over the past few years from 68% to 86%, so the best thing we can do for all children, particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged children, is to make sure that they go to a good or outstanding school.

I close by thanking all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate today. I hope I have gone some way to reassuring your Lordships that the support we have in place for parents to make informed school choices is effective and enables them to obtain a good school place for their child. We believe that the new code will greatly improve access to schools for all children, especially the most vulnerable.

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for her careful explanation of the regulations and her replies to our various comments. I will certainly take her up on the offer of writing to her with examples of information not being provided well. If she will allow me, I will also pick up again the argument about a machine-readable format. If somebody is telling my noble friend that this is difficult, what she is being told is not right.

This information is in a machine-readable format in local authority systems, so it is merely a question of flicking a switch and dropping this out into a common system. That should not take a local authority more than five minutes and, as there are only 100 of them, nationally this will take a few hours’ effort. It would do enormous good because parents need to know which schools their children might get into. If they have to research each school individually, they will never see the ones that are a little further away or a little more obscure that happen, for one reason or another, to be available to them because of their particular characteristics and admissions criteria.

You can get into some very good schools on some very odd criteria. If you are disadvantaged and not well-informed, and you have to research everything individually, you will never get there. This becomes a privilege for the middle classes. Making things available automatically means that all those who are setting out to help the disadvantaged suddenly have all the information at their fingertips; it is as easily available to them as it is to everybody else. If I may, I will put that to my noble friend.

These regulations make some decent improvements to the way that looked-after children and similar children are treated. I very much hope that my noble friend will gather information over time as to how they are working. From what hints I have been able to gather, I suspect that the previous facilities were not as well used as they should have been and that many looked-after children were not helped to take advantage of the privileges they had to get into really good schools. We should know that the advantages being given to them are being well used, or else understand why they are not. That said, I am immensely grateful to my noble friend and I thank her for the attention she has given to this Motion.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 6.33 pm.