Thursday 3 April 2008

A primary concern?

It is, of course, wrong for any state school to imply that a termly donation is expected from parents as a condition of admission. It is also right that children in care should have first call on places in good schools. And the Schools Adjudicator should clamp down where this is not happening. But I am a bit worried about the manner in which the government has chosen to highlight breaches of the admissions code in a host of primary (and some secondary) schools. (Observers will, incidentally, have spotted the absence of academies, which take a genuinely comprehensive intake, in the government's name-and-shame lists). Aside from the handful of Jewish schools asking for donations, the main problem seems to be that the schools have not made clear in their documentation that children in care take precedence over others (something they have been legally required to do since 2005), and there are some failures to comply with special needs legislation. But since local authorities act in loco parentis for children in care, and there is a legal requirement to give them first preference, won't the authority ensure compliance where it needs to, whatever it says in a school's written policy? And wouldn't a better way to deal with such breaches - some of which may result from a misunderstanding of the numerous changes that have been made in recent years - be to send a short simple letter to voluntary-aided and foundation school heads and governors reminding them of their legal responsibilities in such matters - and to provide some model admissions codes for non-local authority schools on the DCSF website? Then ask the adjudicator to check schools have complied for the next admissions round. Appropriate legal action should be taken then if changes are not made.

The problem with turning the issue into a cause celebre is that it alienates many of the good school leaders that this government needs if it is to tackle failing schools and pioneer personalisation. After all, the reason why we established the Office of Schools Adjudicator was to take the heat out of admissions disputes (which were often a proxy in those days for local authority distaste for independent-minded heads), while providing a legally enforceable remedy for breaches of the rules (and it is a myth that legal enforceability only came with the new Code; have a look at the Adjudicator's many rulings on his website if you doubt this). With further proactive powers now being given to the Adjudicator, the schools secretary and his ministers would be wise to let him and his team get on with their job, and then to show the same zeal for improving the 638 low-attaining secondaries highlighted by Gordon Brown last year.

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