Admissions and the Supply of School Places

Why Admissions and School Place Planning is Important

‘School Led’ has become an article of faith over the last 10 years for Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative politicians. But it is not delivering consistently in a number of ways, which everyone would accept as important features of a high performing system.

Creating new schools places – and indeed reducing over-supply – is a complex, expensive and time consuming business.  Matching children to schools is a major logistical operation that has to be completed every year within a tightly defined timeframe.  But most of the necessary technical work to get both things right, like the proverbial iceberg, is invisible to the casual observer.    However these policies and processes matter, not only because of the trouble and distress caused if they go wrong; but because they are crucially linked to many more high profile aspects of the education system.   They make a difference to the options available to individual children and their parents; either compounding, or ameliorating,  disadvantage,  quality and equality.  The overall pattern of school intakes and the distribution of a cohort between schools in an area have an impact, both on the success of individual schools and aggregate achievement.   Socio-spatial distribution,  i.e. social and ethnic segregation in communities,  can be significantly affected through the links between  residential patterns  and school admissions policies.  Addressing the social impact of these matters can be tackled only by intelligent intervention at local level legitimated by democratic oversight.

The idea of the ‘Free School Movement’ replacing local authority planning as the mechanism for created new school places has been promoted as part of the ‘school / parent led’ philosophy.   However new school provision is effectively government-led.   The character, location and admissions policies of new (free / academy) schools all have to be approved by central government.

Where we are now

Since the turn of the 21stcentury the rules governing school admissions have been enshrined in a Code [of Practice] backed by primary legislation and regulations. The fundamental principles have remained constant.

Meeting these universally accepted requirements is essential for success; and failing to deliver them will tend to impact disproportionally upon more disadvantaged pupils.   There is mounting evidence that inherent contradictions in the muddled DFE ‘School Led’ strategy is increasingly undermining delivery of these important fundamental preconditions which could, in time, lead to systemic degradation.

  • Proliferation of separate ‘Admissions Authorities’, many of which make decisions in respect of a single school, shifts the policy focus towards what benefits individual institutions and away from the interests of parents, children and local communities.
  • Relocating the responsibility for institutional governance to Multi-Academy Trusts , many of which cover a scattered group of schools, reduces local parental and community participation; again shifting the policy focus towards what benefits the group whose line of accountability runs directly to central government.
  • Undermining arrangements for systemic management is characterised by:
    • weaker accountability of schools to their immediate local community;
    • reduced ability to secure compliance with the School Admissions Code following limiting OSA powers and patchy and declining capacity of LAs to police more autonomous schools in their locality;
    • the increasing number of Multi-Academy Trusts holding ‘admissions authority powers’ across a group of schools in more than one LA area.
    • deliberately down-grading the former LA active duty to manage the supply of school places in favour of a school-led free market, with only residual powers to step in where there is ‘market-failure.’

No other leading education system, out of the 65 Countries monitored by OECD, has adopted such a fragmented, and market driven, ‘School Led’ approach.

Fairness in School Admissions

There is a strong popular view that allocating publicly funded school places should be ‘fair’ and there is a degree of political consensus as to what this means in practical terms.  There is some emphasis on mechanisms to promote equal access and mitigate obstacles to participation e.g. in special educational needs and disability provision and via free or subsidised home to school transport.   More recently policies have been developed to take account of the impact on access of poverty and social disadvantage. These policy aims are unexceptionable; but there is room for debate about the extent to which policies will actually secure intended outcomes.

A key difficulty arises from the concept of ‘Choice’.   The colloquial ‘right’ for parents to ‘choose’ a school for their children is expressed in legislation as the parent’s right to ‘express a preference’.  The extent to which preferences can be met is necessarily limited by the capacity of oversubscribed institutions; but is also undercut by the ability of schools to select their intake according to academic or religious criteria.  In the case of special educational needs and disability (SEND), parental preference can be trumped by professional assessment of the needs and best interests of the child as well as the efficient use of public funds.

The School Admissions Code is the key document for articulating both the objectives and the rules designed to achieve them.   In the current version the ‘purpose’ of the Code is defined, concisely,  as:  “. . .to ensure that all school places are allocated and offered in an open and fair way.”   Earlier versions spelled out the implications of this in more detail saying in terms that admissions authorities should ensure:

  • Parental preferences are “met to the maximum extent possible.”
  • Oversubscription criteria are “clear, fair and objective.”
  • “Local admission arrangements contribute to improving standards for all pupils.”
  • Collaboration on meeting the needs of ‘hard to place’ pupils.
  • Parents have easy access to helpful information.

Formally the Code bears equally on all admissions authorities and as was made clear in earlier versions of the Code, the legally enshrined parental ‘right to express a preference’ necessarily creates a concomitant duty on the system as a whole to optimize the satisfaction of those preferences.   Key additional duties are explicitly imposed on local authorities at a system level.

  • to operate a coordinated admissions system in their area (always at ‘normal points of transfer’ and from time to time including ‘casual’ or mid-year admissions);
  • to negotiate and manage a Fair Access Protocol; and,
  • to scrutinise the arrangements set by any other admission authorities in their area to secure compliance with the Admissions Code.

However, local authorities’ capacity to discharge these duties is being diminished by several factors.

  • Overall resource constraint is reducing the number, seniority and ultimately the expertise, of staff that can be deployed to this function.
  • Reducing the proportion of schools for which the LA is the admissions authority reduces funding and capacity for that direct function;
  • Expanding the proportion of own-admissions authority schools increases the volume and complexity of LAs’ system wide responsibilities.
  • The increasing number of Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) that operate groups of schools across LA boundaries is making it more difficult to achieve local coherence across school level admissions arrangements in any given area.
  • diminished funding (and anticipated reduced responsibilities) for school improvement means LAs are increasingly reliant on voluntary cooperation from schools/academies The need to secure voluntary assistance in this area is in direct conflict with the duty to enforce the admissions Code when schools perceive their control over admissions as a key factor in their continued success.

It is clear from successive annual reports from the Chief Schools Adjudicator that these factors are beginning to have an adverse impact.  The findings of “The Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) Annual Report: September 2015 to August-2016“(Published January 2017) indicate that:

  • the previous steady improvement in the levels of Code compliance and streamlined administration, both in-year and at the normal age of transfer, has stopped and is going into reverse;
  • there is a technical flaw at the last Code revision leading to challenges that threaten to undermine one aspect of coordinated admissions;
  • confusion as to whether the admissions Code duties in respect to academies are discharged at the MAT or individual school level is causing difficulties both in clarity and compliance;
  • the increasing tendency for MATs to adopt similar arrangements for all their schools is problematic.

The OSA is rightly concerned about the ability of a MAT to decide whether it will dictate policy for all its academies or delegate the task wholly or partly to a local ‘governing body. ’  Not only is this a source of confusion but can lead to material non-compliance.

The desire of some MATs to implement policies and practices across all their schools for reasons of brand identity or corporate advantage is identified as a worrying development working against the interests of the communities (or segments of them) that the individual schools are intended to serve.

However it takes time, energy and capacity to challenge breaches of the Code and all of these are diminishing resources.  There is a growing predisposition to bend or break the rules but LAs are losing capacity to hold MATs to account and it is now more difficult, as a result of a legal change in 2011, even for the OSA to enforce its judgements.  The OSA has no duty to monitor compliance with its rulings and no direct enforcement powers.  Similarly there is no specific mechanism prescribed for LAs to adopt this role.  If exhortation fails the LA (or potentially a private individual) must seek a remedy via the courts or by requesting the Secretary of State to use her executive powers.  All these routes are slow, and court action is costly.   A school that is minded to manipulate its intake via non-compliant arrangements now has greater opportunity and is less likely to be challenged.  A school or MAT that is determined to flout the system could potentially find ways to do so almost indefinitely.

A further level of difficulty is the opportunity to subvert the formal requirements of a written policy by failing properly to implement it.  LA run coordinated admissions provide some check on such activities but many decisions on whether an applicant meets certain oversubscription criteria are actually taken at school level – where, again, there is neither mechanism nor capacity for external checks.

All this shows that presenting control of admissions as a proper component of a ‘school led’ system, is to invite institutions to flout the Code’s fundamental requirement that there should be a coherent system operated in the interests of parents and children.

Planning for Sufficient School Places

The other, and frequently neglected, half of the equation on delivering ‘parental choice’ is managing the supply of places from which they can choose.   This is not merely a numbers game.  School places must be of the right type and in the right geographical location.  Self-evidently there must be enough to meet demand; but it is less well understood that having too many can also cause problems.

The planning  time frame has to extend from the birth of each annual cohort to their reaching adulthood taking account of inward and outward migration from the area served by schools.  Deep local knowledge is crucial and must include detailed projections of population growth and decline, projected housing and transport developments, land values, local economic development  and more.

For most of the 20th century local authorities, in one form or another, had the duty of managing the overall system to match supply and demand  but, during the last quarter century we have seen the advent of a complex range of different types of school creating all kinds of problems.  However, from a planning  point of view,  all of them fall into one two distinct categories:

  • Local Authority “Maintained“ (Community, Foundation and Voluntary) which are public institutions – where processes for opening, closing and alteration are managed by the local authority (sometimes with other partners) and governed by statutory regulation;  and,
  • Academies (all other variants) which are “private” undertakings of one form or another – where processes for opening, closing and alteration is subject to the executive powers of the Secretary of State.

This distinction was part of the ‘quasi-market’ approaches that have been a feature the system since the 1980s. Until 2010, the underlying position, whereby local authorities, remained responsible for overall place planning, remained relatively stable. However in 2010 Michael Gove set about turning the pre-existing quasi-market into a real one.  Local Authorities were stripped of the school place management role and reduced to being provider of last resort if markets failed. Quality was to be driven up by creating Free Schools whether or not additional places were needed.  Oversupply would lead to failed schools going to the wall rather than closures following managed capacity reduction.

The shine is beginning to come off the earlier perceived success of this project. Expensive free school projects have failed through mismanagement or attracting too few pupils.  There have been regular examples of financial irregularity, examination fraud and accusations of inappropriate or abusive behaviour by proprietors or staff.

Now experience and international evidence [see OECD Education Working paper 52: Markets in Education] has proved the point.  Parents, for good reason, do not move their children around lightly. Creating new schools from scratch is slow, complex and difficult. Failure is expensive in both cash and credibility.  The collateral damage sustained by children in shrinking schools as they limp towards closure, and distortion of the geographical distribution of school places are identified as politically unacceptable outcomes.

There has been active intervention from the centre to address these problems but this intervention has not been equal to the task.  The remoteness of the Education Funding Agency, as well as its stretched resources, has led to early warnings being missed, followed by a belated, and often heavy-handed, reaction once problems emerge.  The doctrine that academy conversion is the only route to success is also now seen to limit options when schools already have that status.

What Should Happen Next – Coherent Management of the allocation of School places

A turning point, of sorts,  was reached between the publication of the White Paper “Education Excellence Everywhere” (Cm 9230) in March 2016 and the new “May” administration ushered in by the unexpected referendum result shortly afterwards.    Controversial plans to force all schools to become academies were dropped – but were replaced by the idea expanding existing, and creating new, grammar schools.  But though the May government is apparently more dirigiste in pursuit of social outcomes (whether cogent or not, the argument is that more grammar schools will aid social mobility), there has been no stepping back from the ‘Gove’ market based reforms.  Neither has there been any move to rebuild LA capacity in coordinating admissions and securing Code compliance.

There is, however, a strong case based on what government says it wishes to achieve, for doing just this.   The 2016 White Paper articulated a ‘new role’ for local authorities  “. . . focussed on three areas:

a          Ensuring every child has a school place

b          Ensuring the needs of vulnerable pupils are met; and

c          Acting as champions for all parents and families.”

This part of the White paper was not repudiated by the new government and should mean providing LAs would with appropriate ‘systems management’ powers and allowing them to build capacity to deliver the desired outcomes.

A precondition for the smooth operation of a coordinated admissions process is the appropriate geographical disposition of sufficient school places to meet the needs of every locality.   Most parents want a good school nearby, where their children will be happy and succeed.  They do not like feeling obliged to fight for a place in a remote school because the local one is not good enough.   Only a coherently planned system can get close to satisfying everybody at reasonable cost.  Structures are important because they are essential to creating circumstances in which all schools can succeed.  Having a consistent structure does not mean an oppressive centralised bureaucracy; but it is necessary to avoid the corruption, confusion and inefficiency of a market.

What is required is a simple and intelligible framework including ‘middle tier’ bodies with the powers and capacity to manage the overall supply of school places;  oversee the negotiation of consistent and coherent admissions policies across neighbouring schools; and, to ensure Code compliance both in determined arrangements and their operation.    Achieving a properly fair and effective place planning and admissions systems is impossible without such authorities.

The delays and mistakes that have been made by the creation of a central government monopsony ( i.e. a ‘market’ with many suppliers but only one customer) can be cured by reintroducing active local planning  and devolving  decision making to the local level.  The power of initial decision making should be devolved to the local level either as a function of the new middle tier or via a dedicated process requiring  a degree of consensus amongst local stakeholders.  Final appeals against middle tier decisions should be referred to the OSA and judged on the basis of statutory guidance  –  similar to the highly successful ‘local school organisation committee’ system operated between 1999 and 2012.

The extent to which admissions arrangements are controlled and operated at school level should be rationalised.  The argument that ‘institutional selection’ is in direct conflict with ‘parental choice’ is logically irrefutable.  The admissions Code, and the mechanisms for its enforcement, therefore need to be strengthened to ensure this conflict is resolved in favour of parents with consistency in school-level admissions functions.

An easy way to achieve this would be to migrate all schools to a legal status of being governed by a “Trust” similar to that used for voluntary aided or foundation schools.    A good number of schools already fall into one or other of these categories and MATs and the schools they cover already approximate to this model. Free-standing Academies and Foundation Schools could also acquire a relationship with a suitable supporting foundation.    The admissions Code would apply to all in exactly the same way with equivalent enforcement roles exercised by the Schools Adjudicator and the ‘middle tier’.

Under such an arrangement all governing bodies will remain free to determine their own admissions policy within the statutory Code but the Code itself would be both strengthened and more rigorously enforced.   This new approach, whilst allowing schools to reflect their individuality through legitimate choices of admissions policy, should place the operation and administration of admissions processes in the hands of the middle tier bodies.

The role of the Adjudicator would remain fundamentally the same – i.e. a fully independent tribunal charged with determining the correct interpretation and application of the Code.  However with the first-line responsibility of deciding and publishing all the arrangements for its area in the hands of the middle tier the ‘direction of flow’ of objections would be reversed.  Instead of LAs scrutinising many separate sets of own-admission authority school arrangements; all schools would scrutinise the middle tier admissions authority (MTAA)  and be in a position to challenge it if they considered their legitimate policy decisions were not properly reflected in the area wide admissions document.  There would be many benefits, and no disadvantages, in such a system.

  • The annual process of consultation and drafting, managed by the MTAA, would be streamlined, saving time and public money;
  • School governors would be absolved of the burden of ensuring their preferred policy is Code compliant and meeting the legal requirements of formal determination and publication.
  • The resulting document informing those seeking school places would become more coherent, consistent and easier to understand – a considerable benefit for parents.
  • The workload and task of the OSA would be much simplified because the possible number of separate cases in any one year would be limited by the number of MTAAs (approximately 150) rather than of schools (24,000).
  • Although it would be possible for there to be multiple objections about each MTAA they could be looked at together taking into account the interaction between different school policies in the same area.

Alan Parker May 2017