VA schools find government survey ‘unhelpful’

by
12 March 2008

by Margaret Holness, Education Correspondent

"Misleading"?: Ed Balls in Downing Street on Tuesday PA

"Misleading"?: Ed Balls in Downing Street on Tuesday PA

A SURVEY by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) of schools’ admissions codes in three local authorities has been criticised by the diocesan education officers concerned as “misleading” and “unhelpful”.

Announcing his intention to strengthen the code that came into force in February 2007, the Secretary of State, Ed Balls, said that a significant minority of schools were breaking the code by asking parents about their marital and financial status.

On the BBC radio programme The World at One on Tuesday, Mr Balls alleged that some schools were

seeking cash contributions before places were allocated. Many of those transgressing the code were voluntary aided (VA) or foundation schools that drew up their own admissions criteria, he said.

The majority of schools of this type are C of E or Roman Catholic, but Mr Balls acknowledged that the code had been supported by the education authorities of the different Churches.

The Church of England issued its own advice on admissions in January 2007, when dioceses were granted the legal power to advise church schools on their admissions criteria. This power is now to be strengthened, Mr Balls announced this week.

The acting chairman of the Board of Education, the Rt Revd Stephen Venner, Bishop of Dover, told the BBC that the Church supported the Secretary of State’s challenge on compliance. “Our guidance is crystal clear. . . There is no excuse for schools not complying with the law in this area.” The majority of church schools kept to the rules, Bishop Venner said later.

The Church would support the DCSF in more widespread research, he said, but he warned against drawing conclusions from the small sample of schools surveyed so far.

The three authorities involved in the survey — Northamptonshire, Barnet, and Manchester — have between them 84 secondary and 486 primary schools. Of these, 119 were VA or foundation schools.

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Dr Stephen Partridge, the director of education for the diocese of Peterborough, which includes Northamptonshire, said that just 37 of the 100-plus C of E schools in the county were voluntary aided. He said this week that it had taken time to get the admissions criteria right, but all the faults noted in the survey had been corrected months ago.

“I wonder why the Secretary of State went public in this way rather than drawing the attention of the dioceses and the local authority to any continuing problems. The suspicion is that it was done to distract attention from the announcement that many parents fail to get the school of their choice.”

In Barnet, an under-subscribed church comprehensive was criticised for suggesting that it would expect applicants to attend RE lessons and worship, although parents were not asked to waive their right to remove children from these activities.

The director of education in London diocese, Tom Peryer, said that the DCSF had told several C of E schools in the Barnet area to word their policies correctly. “We expect our schools fully to comply with the code of practice on admissions, and our own guidance makes this clear. I do not believe any of the C of E schools are using their admissions arrangements to ‘cherry-pick’ pupils, and we would not support them if they did.

“The Government should now turn its attention to the hidden, and not so hidden, selection which occurs for the majority of schools and authorities which prioritise distance as the main admissions criteria. The result of this is that children in poorer areas have no chance of getting into the more popular and successful schools.”

The director of education for Manchester diocese, Maurice Smith, said: “I do not believe the survey raises issues for any of our primary schools.”

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