Admissions watchdog: Top school risks ‘cherry picking’ accusations

Holland Park told to overhaul admissions policy after breaching seven admission rules for sixth formers

Holland Park told to overhaul admissions policy after breaching seven admission rules for sixth formers

A school must overhaul its “unfair” policy of admitting pupils based on their “suitability”, with students asked for teacher references and a 600-word personal statement listing their hobbies, the admissions watchdog has ruled.

Holland Park School, in west London, was found to have breached seven admission rules for sixth formers. The “unclear” and “unfair” policies put it at risk of accusations of “cherry-picking” pupils, an investigation by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) found.

The heavily oversubscribed school gave priority to students based on their “suitability”, but did not explain how this was determined.

Admission requirements for prospective pupils included submitting a personal statement detailing what they “intend to contribute to the school” and “other interests”.

Applicants were also asked for details of their current school and a teacher who could be approached for a reference.

Admission rules state that schools “must not take into account” any previous schools attended or reports about children’s past behaviour, attitude, or achievement.

Schools are also prohibited from prioritising children based on their “past or current hobbies or activities”.

‘Misleading and unnecessary’

Holland Park School, which is also facing investigations over a “toxic” working environment, denied using statements and references for admissions, but said that they gave the school a “richer appreciation” of a pupils’ background after accepting a place.

Dr Marisa Vallely, the OSA adjudicator, said it was “misleading and unnecessary” to ask for information that was not used to allocate places. 

She said that a lack of transparency around the admission procedure put the school “at risk of complaints about subjectivity and cherrypicking”.

The school told the OSA that “suitability” was based on a candidate’s academic profile, with GCSE results the “primary driver”. 

Students must achieve a minimum of eight grades of 6 or above, with minimum grade 7 in the subjects chosen for A-level, although admission documents stated that students were “considered on an individual basis”.

Vallely warned that the arrangements “give the appearance” that suitability was determined partly on GCSE grades and partly on the other personal information requested. 

She ruled: “The arrangements do not explain how ‘suitability’ for admission is determined, rendering the procedures for allocating places unclear, unfair and not objective.”

Vallely was also unhappy with the school’s initial response to change the term to “academic suitability”. She said the school should state explicitly that places were allocated based on GCSE results.

School reviewing policy for fairness

The school has until next week to make revisions. 

A Holland Park spokesperson said that due to new trustees joining since the autumn, it could not comment on prior practice. 

However, it accepted the judgment and said it was “currently revisiting both its policy and, crucially, its practice to ensure its processes are fair going forward”.

Two investigations by the local authority and by the school into complaints by former staff and students of a “toxic” culture continue. New trustees have been parachuted in by government.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea said last month that the “complexity” and “various sources of information and evidence gathering” had delayed the original three-month timescale. A report is expected next month.

The school’s long-serving headteacher, Colin Hall, was due to retire in August but left this month. The school did not say why.

He has been replaced by Arwel Jones, the former headteacher of Brentside High School in London. 

The accusations of selective sixth form come as the government promises more of the institutions as part of its levelling up agenda.

Ministers said that new “elite” sixth forms would be established in areas with “weak” school outcomes.

However, a Schools Week investigation found that such schools were likely to have fewer poor pupils and recruit heavily from neighbouring areas.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is essential that the admissions policies … are open and transparent and that every young person interested in attending them has a fair chance to do so.” 

The adjudicator also suggested that Holland Park School may have overplayed the number of applications it received. 

It boasts of being “hugely oversubscribed” with more than 600 applications for 120 places. The adjudicator said this was “not quite true”. The trust declined to comment.

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