Time to look again at admissions

March 8th, 2011 by Clive Sheldon QC

In today’s Times newspaper, it is reported that the Department for Education is planning to look again at the Admissions Code: see “Schools admission rules to be rewritten”. Many of those involved in admissions will say, about time to.

According to the Times, a source at the DfE was reported to have said that

“We want to make it clearer, fairer and more transparent so that it’s easier to use so people don’t feel that things are going on that aren’t fair or right. It can’t be right that on national offer day there are parents who feel that they’ve been badly done by and we are trying to solve this by making the code easier to use.”

This makes sense to me.

I recently carried out a review of determinations made by the Schools Adjudicator over the past year. There were some baffling decisions made on a number of occasions, based on the Adjudicator’s reading of the Code.

In one case — London Borough of Croydon: ADA/1746 — a parent whose child had not got into the first of his three preferred primary schools, but had got into a school which was fifty minutes walking distance away, objected to the distance criteria used by the local authority admissions authority. The Adjudicator noted that distance as a criterion was expressly approved by the Code. The Adjudicator considered whether the distance criteria used by LB Croydon were fair by asking whether the journey to the alternative school was “disproportionately long”. The Adjudicator considered that a journey of 50 minutes for a primary school child was not ‘unreasonable or disproportionate, such as to be unfair, when considered alongside distances which children and families in other parts of the country are required to make.’

This seemed to me an odd decision: a fifty minute walk to a primary school in London seems grossly unfair. The fact that children in rural areas may have to do similar, or longer walks, to (presumably) the nearest school is beside the point. Such children are in vastly different circumstances, where expectations of distance and travel times to school are very different. The comparison was, in my view, inapt.

In another case — St. Marylebone C of E School, Westminster: ADA/001769 — the Adjudicator considered the process adopted by the school, a specialist arts college, for admission to the small number of places for children with ‘aptitude’ for performing arts. The Code seeks to draw a distinction between ‘ability’ (which cannot be tested for as part of the admissions arrangements) and ‘aptitude’ (which can). When looking at the school’s approach to testing aptitude for choral music, the Adjudicator stated that hearing a child singing was not allowed. It might, however, be permissible for candidates to be requested to “hum”.

This decision made me laugh. Others will  no doubt have their own favourites. 

We will have wait and see what changes to the Code will be proposed by the DfE.

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