The number 1 message the Summer Born Campaign has sought to communicate over the past two years is how the 2012 & 2014 School Admissions Codes (plus DfE ‘Advice’) have DIRECTLY resulted in an unfair postcode lottery and missed years of education.
Other key messages have included the inconsistent (see summary and Appendix here) and questionable communication from DfE officials and Ministers since 2012, and stressing (both to the DfE and MPs) that a right of appeal is not the answer and is not what parents want – it simply adds one more painful layer of unpredictable and stressful bureaucracy at a point when all Reception class places have been allocated (with a potential impact on Infant Class Size Regulations).
Today, the Education Committee published details of a letter sent by its Chair, Graham Stuart, to Nick Gibb, Minister for School Reform, asking for government action following its one-off Evidence Check, the Committee appears to have missed the fundamental point of who and what is at fault here:
- “Consider what further steps could be taken to communicate Government guidance on summer born admissions to admissions authorities;“
Communicating Government guidance to admissions authorities (AAs) is NOT the issue. What’s the point in communicating something that is evidently so ineffectual, unclear and unfair (even AAs themselves criticised the Code’s ambiguity last year)?
- “Undertake an analysis of which admissions authorities fail to provide the flexibilities described in the guidance;“
We’ve been here before. When this campaign started, many AAs had unlawful blanket policies in place that said all SB CSAge children must enter Year 1 instead of Reception. It became a ‘tidy up’ job for DfE officials to ensure that all AAs were operating ‘within the law‘ and that these clauses were removed from any admissions policies. But of course it is the DfE that has created the law (the 2014 Code) that allows AAs to say ‘no‘ to any parental request for flexibility – as long as they’re ‘seen to be‘ considering individual circumstances. The DfE has even reminded schools that regardless of any ‘flexibilities’ parents may think they have, it’s schools that have the final say.
Why is the Committee focusing on AAs’ failure to provide flexibilities? At least disagreeable AAs are honest about their position – it’s the DfE that has been promising parents flexibility for years and has failed to provide them in any consistent sense. Where is the recommendation to analyse the DfE’s failure to provide the flexibilities Ministers have promised?
- “Monitor the effectiveness of the Government’s guidance in altering admission authorities’ behaviour;“
The DfE has been monitoring its flexibility effectiveness since the first Summer Born Advice was published in July 2013. How much more time do MPs and officials need? How many more horrendous cases and personal stories will it take to convince law-makers that AAs’ behaviour won’t change until the Code does? Too many parents have sought the DfE’s help in the past few years only to be told ‘we don’t intervene in local decisions‘. It’s not the AA’s behaviour that should be under the spotlight at this point – it’s the DfE’s.
- “Publish the available data on the number of complaints received regarding admissions into year 1 rather than reception;“
Excellent recommendation, though would have included asking for complaints regarding a threatened (or actual forced) missed year of education later on too.
- “Consider whether to produce guidance for parents on how to request admission for a premature or summer-born child into reception class, rather than year 1, at compulsory school age;“
We’ve had three rounds of Summer Born Advice already, all of which was meant to achieve something close to this – the latest suggesting that parents apply for an age 4 place ‘just in case’. Yet this has led to educational psychologists being involved in the assessment of 3 year-olds to decide whether it’s really necessary for them to ‘wait‘ until CSAge before starting school – all with the DfE’s full support. The simplest guidance of all would honour a parent’s legal right to commence their child’s education at CSAge, and for that child not to be penalised (via loss of school preferences and/or loss of a year’s education) as a result. It would also save tax payers a considerable amount of money.
- “Consider the merits of using a child’s due date rather than birthdate in the definition or interpretation of the compulsory school age, and more generally in admissions policies;“
Sound recommendation; certainly something worth exploring further.
- “Assess how a right to appeal a decision regarding a child’s year of entry to school might be introduced;“
Graham Stuart signs off his letter to Nick Gibb saying, “We agree with your statements during the session that “the desire for bureaucratic neatness” should not be the overriding concern for admissions authorities, and that this is “a mindset we have to change“. But a right of appeal would only add another, entirely unnecessary, layer of bureaucracy to the summer born admissions process.
What ‘new‘ evidence would a parent be expected to present during an appeals process that wasn’t already presented with their initial ‘request‘? Who would they be appealing to? Panels with the same views as the schools and councils that concluded their child should miss Reception class and go straight into Year 1?
Currently in appeals, “The appeals panel must decide if the school’s admission criteria were properly followed and are legal according to the school admissions appeals code. If the criteria are legal and were properly followed, the panel must decide if they were followed fairly and thoroughly.” DfE officials have effectively been acting as an appeals panel for the past two years – and look at all the cases where they’ve told parents their cases doesn’t warrant intervention, and said the AA’s ‘no‘ decision was completely within the law (and this was still when parents could officially request intervention by the Education Secretary – this option was removed in the May 2014 SB Advice).
Furthermore, adding a Right of Appeal process gives credibility to an admissions system where a child missing their foundation year of school can be considered ‘in their best interests‘. Yet during the Evidence Check on March 4th, where was the evidence that it can ever be in a child’s best interests to miss a year of school (this evidence shows it’s not)? Why is the Committee not questioning the DfE’s policy of allowing AAs to make the decision in the first place – instead of recommending a bolt-on ‘maybe‘ fix when children are being forced into Year 1 instead of Reception class? Why was the Committee not convinced that the most straightforward thing of all would be to simplify the admissions process and let parents choose which year of entry to apply for?
The SBC also submitted evidence related to Alberta in Canada (2.1 here), where admissions flexibility for youngest year is allowed and no right of appeal is necessary; why was this overlooked or not considered worthy of further investigation for implementation in England?
- “Undertake an analysis of the additional cost of summer born children being misdiagnosed as having Special Educational Needs which might be avoided if there were more uptake of admissions flexibilities for children who are not ready to start school; and“
- “Investigate with Bliss whether an issue exists relating to continuity of pre-school provision for children born prematurely.“
The issue with pre-school provision is not exclusive to children born prematurely but in fact all summer born children. Work needs to be done to ensure that all early years providers understand the rules on provision for all children prior to CSAge.
- “We look forward to seeing the government’s guidance on summer born admissions being taken up by admissions authorities, and admissions decisions being made in the interests of the individual child concerned.“
The government’s guidance IS THE PROBLEM.
The government’s guidance IS WHAT NEEDS TO BE CHANGED.
The absence of an automatic parental right to enrol a CSAge child in Reception class (with an unchallenged full 12 year education following this) assumes that there is evidence to support the current DfE policy of children arbitrarily missing one year of their education.
I am unaware of any such evidence and I don’t recall the Committee being provided with an such evidence. As such, I feel the Committee’s recommendations fall short of what they could have been, and while I am very grateful to Graham Stuart for raising the important issue of summer born admissions in Parliament, I am, on the whole, disappointed with the content of the letter above.