New rules bring consistency and clarity to fair access routes

24 Jul 2020, 5:00

Exclusion rates fell during Covid.

Changes to the admissions code make everyone’s roles and responsibilities clearer and give every child a real opporutnity for a fresh start, writes one contributor to the consultation

The new Admissions Code changes, covered by Schools Week recently, should be welcomed as the product of a great deal of thoughtful scrutiny and deliberation by colleagues in the Department for Education and local authorities, in particular.  True, they will not satisfy everyone – for example, this is a missed opportunity to bring greater clarity over the rights of summer-born children – but they do focus on the children in greatest need of procedural reform.

The main thrust of the proposed changes is to bring greater equity to in-year applications and Fair Access Protocols.  At present – and despite the sincerity and good motivation of everyone concerned – ambiguity and competing interpretations can lead to frustrations and a lack of trust between the various actors, as well as a loss of confidence from parents.

Whilst there are many excellent examples of collaboration in Fair Access routes, there are too many in which the lack of consistent practice and representation undermines trust.  In some cases, headteachers have not even been invited to the very meetings that deem their school the best place for a child to be – that is no way to give that child a fresh start.

This should enable parents to navigate the system more easily

If you’re a child who has just been re-housed as your mum leaves an abusive relationship, you need a school place within days, not months; you need everyone to come together to get you that place, not to spend weeks arguing over procedures.  And you need your mum to have access to a clear process.  If there are no places nearby or your behaviour suffered in your previous school, you need the Fair Access procedures to enable collaboration, not to encourage tribalism.

The proposed Code looks to ensure this in a few key ways:

For in-year admissions, Local Authorities will be asked to provide clear information about each school’s processes.  This should enable parents to navigate the system more easily.

Decisions will have to be communicated within ten school days and there is renewed impetus to ensure that any subsequent admission is made as soon as possible.  This could be strengthened further by giving advice on what would ordinarily seem reasonable between offer and admission – this author suggests that a week is usually ample.

For vulnerable children, the extension of the Fair Access Protocol to Child in Need, those with a Child Protection Plan and to those in refuges and safe houses is an especially important step, supported by the introduction of deadlines.  It is also right to improve the opportunity of children with previous challenging behaviour to have a genuine fresh start and the eventual Code should ensure that decision-makers have time to gather the necessary evidence.

The provision made for children who were in care outside England puts this small number of children on the same footing as other (Previously) Looked After Children.  The revised Code proposes to leave it to admission authorities to determine eligibility for this.  On balance, this is a good thing: no clause or footnote could adequately address all of the different structures around the world – one only has to look at the reams of guidance on overseas criminal records checks to understand why.

Crucially, the changes re-emphasise the balance of responsibilities between the different actors in the system.  Academy trusts retain their freedoms over processing in-year admissions, but must now give local partners greater certainty in advance.  Local Authorities will continue to play a vital role as steward of the Fair Access Protocol, but must now ensure a proper opportunity for schools to have the local Protocol reviewed and for school leaders to participate in the decisions – heads, in turn, have a responsibility to take it up.

Structurally, this clearer set of common rules is more likely to build trust between admission authorities.  Rightly, the system will continue to provide flexibility; everyone with a role to play in the system should use the opportunity of these changes to ensure we use that flexibility to create genuine collaboration and trust in the interest of those children who need it most.


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