The school appeals system is cementing inequalities: it’s time for the government to rethink admissions

11 Apr 2019, 10:15

The promised review of the school admissions system needs to materialise if the government wants to fulfil its social mobility ambitions, says Emily Hunt

Each year, thousands of families receive the news they hoped they would avoid: they have failed to secure their first choice of secondary school. 

While the majority of families in England – 84 per cent – successfully secure their top choice of school for their child, a significant minority will miss out. The latest available figures show that as many as 86,000 received such correspondence on school offer day.

How do these families respond to this news – and what actions do they take? Very little has been known about how parents use the second round of school offers, namely the process of using appeals and waiting lists, in order to access a more preferred school place.

That is, until now. The Education Policy Institute has today published a new report on the impact of the appeals and waiting list system – the most detailed and comprehensive to date.

Is the system actually working against some groups?

Our central concern is one of fairness – are certain groups of families more successful than others at eventually getting their preferred school through these routes? Far from being a lifeline for parents looking to secure their top choice for their child, is the system actually working against some groups?

Findings from our study indicate that this may well be the case. We find that families in the most affluent areas are twice as likely as those in the poorest to secure their top choice of school through the appeals and waiting lists system.

While, at first glance, family proximity to a school plays a role, even after controlling for location, these inequalities still persist. 

Along with those from deprived neighbourhoods, certain ethnic groups are also less successful than others at securing a place through these routes. Having missed out on their top choice at the first time of asking, just 1 in 10 Black families secured such a place through the second school offers round, compared to 1 in 5 White British families.

One explanation is that the back-up school places for Black families are more likely to be schools rated highly by Ofsted – suggesting that these families might see less need to appeal or use waiting lists in the first place. Other factors, however, are also likely to be hindering the chances of some families. One of them is simply a lack of information – meaning parents are forced to navigate what is undoubtedly a complex admissions and appeals process alone.

This information gap needs to be addressed. All families have the right to use these routes to secure their preferred school – though not all families are aware of the system or how to exercise their rights. Support should be in place to ensure a level playing field for all, perhaps considering the role and significance of the written statement required when applying, which may be a barrier to some parents.

Government, local authorities and parent groups should also encourage families to use more of their available school preferences – as this increases the chances of parents receiving an offer they are satisfied with, without a need to resort to appeals or waiting lists.

The promised review of the admissions system has failed to materialise

All these problems underscore the need for the government to undertake a thorough review of the admissions system. This was promised in 2017 alongside proposals for the introduction of new grammar schools, but has since failed to materialise. 

A review needs to consider ways to address the clear inequalities in the current system, and establish what additional guidance can be offered to parents. More data should also be published on the appeals process, so we can improve our understanding of how families respond to the system. 

In the current political climate, the government may feel that time and resources are better spent elsewhere. But the school admissions system appears to be one further mechanism by which disparities in outcomes – particularly between disadvantaged pupils and their peers – are occurring. Failing to address these issues would arguably represent a retreat from the government’s social mobility ambitions, and could prove costly for many pupils.

The many thousands of families in England that decide to appeal against their school offer in order to gain what they believe is a better education for their child, deserve a system that offers everyone a fair chance. If it wants to avoid ingraining disadvantage in the school system, the government should place school admissions firmly back on its agenda, and deliver on its promise. 

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