Dr Passmore bows out with prescriptions for us all

Posted by Simon Goulden on 31 Dec 2015

Over the past few years, Dr Elizabeth Passmore has led the Office of School Adjudicator with care and scrupulous fairness. I have had the opportunity to see her and her dedicated team of part timers at work and no one can say that they have been anything but superb examples of professionalism. Dr Passmore’s annual reports are always awaited with interest as we, in our little corner of the school world, can only ever hope to see a small part of the ‘big picture’. Her final report, as she is retiring shortly, is as ever, well worth a thorough read.

However, for those of you without the time to work through the 71 pages, complete with statistical tables and graphs, here are some of the main highlights, as they affect our schools.

She feels that some progress has been made in complying with the School Admission Code on consultation about, and determination and publication of, admission arrangements, but too many schools that are their own admission authority  (that’s ours) do not comply fully with what are, in her view, relatively modest requirements. In order to improve the situation, she suggests that communications from the DfE to schools, local authorities, academy trusts and religious bodies could usefully include reminders about the dates by which consultation, determination and publication of admission arrangements must be completed. She writes that schools which convert to become academies and new schools need to have their attention drawn to their responsibilities as an admission authority.  You have been warned!

She notes that the admission arrangements for many schools that aretheir own admission authority, and ours are, are unnecessarily complex and lacktransparency, especially those with numerous subcategories within individual

oversubscription criteria. Such arrangements, she feels, are difficult to understand and limit parents’ ability to assess the chance of their child being offered a place. Objectors have found that arrangements do not include all the information specified in the Code and there are too many supplementary information forms for schools with a religious character that do not comply with the Code, in particular because they ask for information that is prohibited as it is not required to apply the oversubscription criteria.  This is an area which the OSA seems particularly keen on: please note!

I quote from her report: ‘The arrangements for a school with a religious character must comply with the Code on general matters and if they include faith-based oversubscription criteria they must comply with paragraphs 1.36 to 1.38. The Code at paragraph 1.38 says, “Admission authorities for schools designated as having a religious character must have regard to any guidance from the body or person representing the religion or religious denomination when constructing faith-based admission arrangements, to the extent that the guidance complies with the mandatory provisions and guidelines of this Code.”

As we all know, there is an exemption to the prohibition in paragraph 1.9i), which says, “Admission authorities must not prioritise children on the basis of their own or their parents’ past or current hobbies or activities (schools which have been designated as having a religious character may take account of religious activities, as laid out by the body or person representing the religion or religious denomination).” In order for a school to be able to take account of any faith-based activity, the activity must be as laid out by the relevant religious body. ‘

However, she goes on to note that the availability and quality of the guidance from the ‘relevant faith body’ is very variable and occasionally adjudicators have had difficulty in ascertaining the identity of who could act for the faith body or even the identity of the faith body itself! The best guidance, she says, is clear, precise and takes full account of the requirements in the Code. Such guidance often includes a specimen supplementary information form that relates to a limited, clear and reasonable faith requirement that is not open to any query about what it means.

Taking together all that the Code says about faith-based oversubscription criteria it is clear that a religious activity cannot be included unless the faith body sets it out, that it is “as laid out …” but even if an activity is laid out as permissible, some schools then add requirements of time or duration that the faith body has neither specified nor proscribed. She feels that there is scope for greater clarity about what is expected from the designated religious body by way of guidance and what is and is not acceptable in relation to giving some children priority over others for admission to a state-funded school, as well as greater clarity for schools about how they must act with respect to that guidance.

The current Certificate of Religious Practice form, approved by former Chief Rabbi Sacks for all schools under the religious authority of the Chief Rabbi, has been held to be a model of clarity. Of course, it may have its detractors and improvements are always being sought, but it is a start and a good model to follow.

Nevertheless, we should be taking careful note of her views, as she suggests that the DfE should consider providing guidance about or specifying what is expected in guidance from the relevant person or body for schools that can give priority for admission on grounds of faith.

Dr Passmore laments that, whilst more good guidance has been seen than in previous years, other guidance is out of date and does not assist schools in determining Code compliant arrangements. There were some matters concerning faith that adjudicators found too complex and seemed to go far beyond what is appropriate for admission arrangements. Although some, we hope all of our, faith based schools have clear and easy to understand criteria, others have oversubscription criteria that are extensive and set many levels of practice linked with catchment and/or sibling or other criteria, even though, she notes, there are only enough places to allocate the children meeting the fourth or fifth level of priority!

Schools which give priority for attending a place of worship, as ours do, need to make clear the frequency and length of time for which attendance is necessary to be given the priority. She notes that in some cases the practice as set out in the oversubscription criterion and the information requested in the supplementary information form are not consistent. In such cases applicants cannot know whether they meet the criterion or not. Schools know that such lack of clarity means that the arrangements fall foul of paragraph 1.37 which says, “Admission authorities must ensure that parents can easily understand how any faith-based criteria will be reasonably satisfied.”  There really cannot be any excuse for this situation now, although sadly cases still seem to arise.

Dr Passmore also noted that far fewer objections were received this year about priority for attending named nursery provision. Whilst we are still unhappy with the current requirements, especially as the DfE seems to have broken its own rules by allowing priority for children with Pupil Premium or children of service personnel, the community has come to terms with the ‘new reality’.

I will write further about her views on siblings and distance criteria next time. They make for interesting reading.

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