Page last updated at 17:20 GMT, Friday, 13 February 2009

School admissions changed again

By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

walking to school
Increasingly lotteries are being used to decide who gets a school place

The school admissions process is changing again in England with a new code of practice aimed at bolstering families' rights.

Government research shows applications involve "significant stress and anxiety" and misunderstanding - and that mothers do most of the work.

The changes include having one local application form for all preferred schools, even in neighbouring areas.

There will be national closing dates for all primary and secondary schools.

The government had proposed to allow schools to publish an ethos statement and prioritise applications on the basis of parents' support.

But in its consultation, concerns were raised that parents might simply lie to get a place.

So the new code says schools can include "a factual ethos statement" in their admissions arrangements. The government promises to make examples available.

But schools cannot give priority to children according to their parents' willingness to give practical support, such as committing to activities outside normal school hours or providing money.

The Office of the Schools Adjudicator has said it is confident this rules out prioritising applications on the basis of asking parents to sign something saying they support the school's ethos.

"If a school were to give priority on this basis it is likely that their admissions process would be referred to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator for a determination on their adherence to the code," a spokesman said.

Unreliable information

As well as inviting public responses to its plans the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) commissioned focus group research to explore parents' views.

Many parents who were approaching the process were expecting it to be a daunting and challenging experience
Focus group research
There were four groups, in Lincoln, north London, Sussex and rural Hampshire.

"Applying for a school place heralds a time of significant stress and anxiety for parents," says the report on these sessions.

"Mums largely take responsibility for the applications process. Dads do get involved with significant decisions but rely on their partners to do the ground work."

It notes: "Currently word of mouth is the most readily available source of information regarding school admissions.

"However, it is often the least reliable source for establishing correct procedures, which can lead to hearsay and anxiety."

Parents who had been through the process recently had often found it complicated, time consuming and stressful.

"Major criticisms centred on a lack of communication, complex application forms, a lack of official support and a lack of support for those with specific needs including children with special educational needs.

"Many parents who were approaching the process were expecting it to be a daunting and challenging experience."

They all called for it to be simplified.

Faith schools

The focus groups strongly rejected the proposal that admissions authorities should be able to prioritise applications on the basis that parents had signed the school's ethos statement.

"Ethos was a distant and formal sounding word for most and they could not comprehend the rationale for introducing this system, unless it was linked to proving faith," the report said.

Among other things parents were concerned that it could increase schools' power - which could be abused.

Faith schools could sound "extreme and intimidating", with parents "fearful that their child would have religion forced upon them".

This is an issue taxing parents in the Parliamentary constituency of the Schools Minister, Jim Knight.

Mr Knight opposes Dorset council's decision to reorganise its education service in such a way that there would be no non-faith schools in Swanage.

But in the wider public consultation about the revised code, half of the respondents - including parents, head teachers/teachers and governors - agreed or strongly agreed with the ethos proposal.

Those who opposed it however felt most parents would indicate support purely to gain a place.

"Such a declaration would therefore either disadvantage parents that did not indicate their support (because they did not agree or failed to understand), or be ineffective as an oversubscription criterion where all parents had indicated their support," said the government's response.

So officials say the new code makes clear that support for an ethos statement must not be used as a way of deciding who gets a place in an oversubscribed school.


In broad terms, the admissions code was tightened a few years ago so that schools had to "act in accordance" with it, not merely "have regard" to it.

This seemed to close a notorious loophole which let governing bodies do what they wished.

However, the latest code still contains different sorts of statements: things which admissions authorities "must/must not" do, and those they "should/should not" do.

The Cost of Schooling Report 2007, published last week by the DCSF, found that half of all parents felt pressured into contributing towards voluntary school trips, for example.

School Secretary Ed Balls warned schools that it was "unacceptable and unlawful" to ask for compulsory contributions to school trips which are part of the curriculum.

But this misses the point. Schools know that full well and they do not do it.

Instead they say something like: "We are going to run a museum trip. It will cost 10 per pupil. Contributions are voluntary but if not enough parents pay we will not be able to run the trip."

Supplementary government guidance on the issue stresses that contributions must be "genuinely voluntary" - then reinforces the pressure:

"Where there are not enough voluntary contributions to make the activity possible, and there is no way to make up the shortfall, then it must be cancelled."

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