During questions in the House of Lords this afternoon, peers from a range of parties quizzed the Government on its controversial move to ban civil society organisations from formally challenging school admission arrangements where they are not compliant with the School Admissions Code. Raising the issue, Shadow Education Spokesperson Lord Watson expressed his concern at the lack of oversight and enforcement within the admissions system, especially in light of evidence that a large number of schools are failing to comply with the law. Attention was also drawn to the findings of the report published by the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC) last year, revealing that almost all religiously selective school in England are breaking the law, with Baronesses Meacher, Barker, and Massey all commenting on the lack of transparency in the system and the seriousness of the violations that many schools have been found to commit.
In addition to the oral questions asked today, almost 60 written questions have been tabled in both Houses of Parliament opposing the Department for Education’s move, and the BHA has once again called on the Government to consider the concerns of peers, MPs, and parents alike before it goes ahead with the proposals.
The ban, which has been proposed essentially in response to the BHA’s and FAC’s report, has been roundly criticised by a range of prominent figures since it was announced last month. Just yesterday Lord Watson wrote that the move was ‘a clear case of shoot the messenger rather than address the problem’, and the Chief Executive of Mumset, Justine Roberts, said that the ban ‘is likely to add to parental dissatisfaction’. Further, Director of the Institute for Community Cohesion Foundation Ted Cantle said it would ‘reduce scrutiny’ in a system already ‘very open to manipulation and abuse’, and one education campaigner also commented in a blog for the Local Schools Network, ‘imagine a world where only the victims of a crime could complain to the police and where witnesses to a crime would be banned from reporting the incident. That’s the world Education Secretary Nicky Morgan wants to create.’
Bizarrely, and despite the continued insistence that they plan to go ahead with the ban, the Government appears to have acknowledged the important role played by organisations in improving the school admissions system for parents. Last month, in response to a parliamentary question tabled by Baroness Meacher, Lord Nash conceded that the overwhelming majority of objections submitted by the BHA and FAC had revealed illegality, and just two weeks ago the Education Secretary wrote to the BHA about the issue, saying ‘I am grateful for the work that you and your colleagues on the Fair Admissions Campaign have put into highlighting examples of non-compliance with the School Admissions Code’. She also stated that she was aware of the support the BHA has provided in the past to parents who have concerns about the admission arrangements of their local schools.
BHA Director of Public Affairs and Policy Pavan Dhaliwal commented, ‘We’re glad that this issue is getting the attention it deserves in Parliament, not just in the form of Lord Watson’s oral question, but also in the form of the 50 parliamentary questions that have been tabled in both Houses so far, by MPs and peers from a range of different parties. Like us, they recognise that an opaque and unaccountable admissions system in which schools choose pupils rather than the other way round is fundamentally a broken one, and they know, as we do, that far from redressing this imbalance, the Government’s proposal will only serve to entrench it. The level of opposition we’re seeing is therefore unsurprising, and we will continue to urge the Government to reconsider so the right of parents and children to fair access at local schools can continue to be defended.’