School admission complaints increase

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The Independent Online

Complaints over the awarding of school places have rocketed in the last year, official figures showed today.

There have been 369 objections to admissions rules referred to the schools adjudicator this year, more than double the 173 referred in the previous academic year.

The watchdog has settled 289 of these - again more than double the 117 dealt with in 2007/08.

The figures were revealed in Sir Philip Hunter, the chief adjudicator's annual report.

The report showed that a large proportion of complaints, which were against proposed admissions arrangements for 2009, came from parents - 108 out of the 289 dealt with.

In addition, 142 complaints were from local authorities.

Sir Philip's report also included the findings of a study ordered by schools secretary Ed Balls into compliance with the admissions code.

The study found that around half of schools have breached the admissions rules in some way - mainly on technicalities, with faith schools among the worst offenders.

Sir Philip's study of all 150 local authorities in England and more than 3,000 voluntary aided and foundation schools, found almost 4,000 breaches of the code.

This included:

* More than 2,000 schools which were not properly defining terms such as "place of residence", or "distance from home to school."

* More than 800 schools which were asking illegal questions such as parents' occupation on supplementary admissions forms.

* More than 800 "substantial" breaches, such as failing to give priority to siblings.

The report concluded there was "evidence of widespread and serious departures from the Code."

Today's figures will add to growing concerns that schools are failing to properly implement the government's new statutory admissions code, which came into force last year.

It is thought that failure to adhere to the admissions arrangements has led to potentially thousands of families being wrongly refused places at their chosen schools and have little hope of having the decision reversed.

Under the code all children must have a fair and equal chance of getting into the preferred school of their choice.

It aimed to outlaw a range of unfair admission practices in all state schools, such as interviewing prospective pupils, or asking about parents' jobs or income.

Sir Philip said it had become apparent that many schools were finding it "difficult" to compile their admission arrangements in a way that met the precise requirements of the Code.

But he insisted that school admissions are better organised now than they were six years ago.

He said: "No admission system is ever going to give all parents their first choice of school.

"But we now have a system that gives parents clear admission criteria, an efficient means of expressing their preferences and an objective means of administering the allocation process. Parents also have means for objecting to admission arrangements they think unfair."

In a written ministerial statement this morning Mr Balls said Sir Philip had worked with local authorities and faith schools to ensure all breaches were corrected in time for admissions next year.

He said he would consider recommendations made by Sir Philip to improve the code and respond "in due course."

Revd Janina Ainsworth, chief education officer for the Church of England said: "The Church of England welcomes the opportunity that this exercise has given local authorities and governing bodies to revisit their admissions policies to ensure that they are fair, simple and transparent.

"Sir Philip has made clear his appreciation of steps the Church has taken to ensure all our schools are aware of their obligations under the Admissions Code; we in turn are grateful for the work that has taken place at a local level to correct any previous technical errors and to clarify any unclear aspects within admissions policies.

"We will continue to work with dioceses to support Church of England schools across the country in complying with all the requirements of the Admissions Code."

Sir Philip said it was not "too late" for parents who could have been affected by schools breaching the code to appeal.

But he said this would apply to only "a handful" of children.

He said the purpose of his compliance study was to "protect schools from challenges from parents and others, many of which now involve the use of lawyers".

He added: "What we're saying is if you get your admissions arrangements in place and make them lawyer-proof then it will help you in the long run."

He admitted that it was "inevitable" that faith schools would show up as breaching the code as they set their own admissions arrangements.

He said diocese were now setting their own supplementary forms and faith schools should be encouraged to use them.

He said the adjudicator was not aiming to remove independence from faith schools.

He said: "Why should any faith school object to a form designed by their own diocese when it knows using that form will protect it from unnecessary challenges from parents and others."

Sir Philip said he believed objections from parents had increased due to rising expectations.

He said: "Parents are now saying more and more they want the school of their choice. There's no possibility ever of all parents getting their first choice, even if every school everywhere in the world was absolutely perfect, even if every school had 100% exam results and test results and good Ofsted reports and was in beautiful buildings, some schools would still be more popular than others."

He added when dealing with objections "you will always end up with one disgruntled party. It's a fact of life, you have to make a decision about which party is right and which should get priority."