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Thursday, 13 September 2018 20:15

Fort Pitt, Holcombe and Rochester Grammar Schools: Schools Adjudicator Rejects Admission Criteria as Unlawful

The Schools Adjudicator, responsible for deciding on school admission policy disputes, has ruled that the determined admission arrangements for 2019 for these three schools are in breach of the Schools Admissions Code and ordered them to be changed. This will ensure that the new rules are fairer to local children or, in the case of The Rochester Grammar School, that more appropriately qualified girls are admitted.

Three other schools acknowledged the validity of my complaint at an early stage and withdrew their proposals. These were: Brompton Academy, Hundred of Hoo Academy and Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School.

Medway Council, with oversight of school admission rules published on its website, neither took action to block the unlawful proposals (if indeed they noticed them), nor bothered to express a view on their legality to the Schools Adjudicator when invited. There has been just one complaint about a Kent school's proposals since 2012 (relating to In-Year Admissions), as KCC monitors proposed changes. 

To look at the decisions in detail follow the links: Fort Pitt; Holcombe Grammar; The Rochester Grammar, with my analysis below.

I first raised these issues in an article in January, and as a result Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School withdrew its proposals, having also put them forward two years previously and been rejected by the Schools Adjudicator. I suspect they hoped there would be no challenge a second time. Brompton Academy went ahead with the proposal but then withdrew it in full before the Schools Adjudicator reached a decision. 

There are four common themes in the decisions:

  • The main issue across all three schools is that they wished to give priority to pupils who had siblings at other secondary schools in the relevant Trust. There is a specific permission given in the School Admissions Code, for example for schools on the same site or close links between two single sex schools, but the Adjudicator was satisfied this did not apply in any of these three cases.
  • In a second issue common to Fort Pitt and Holcombe, the Code allows priority for children of staff at the same school. Both schools published criteria that gave priority for children of staff at any of the their Trust schools which has been found unlawful before by the Adjudicator, including at Holcombe. At a minimum this ought to have been known by those drawing up the criteria.
  • The Code requires that feeder primary schools be named, but this is not the case in two of the three admission policies and the Schools Adjudicator required this to happen.
  • The objector argues that each year more secondary schools in the area appear to be introducing criteria that offer places to those who have attended feeder schools. The objector argues that this will lead to a growing pressure on primary schools to join multi-academy trusts so that their children can have some priority for a secondary school. It could also mean that children who do not reach the eligibility score for a selective place but who attend a feeder school for a selective school will have no priority for a place in a local school. For the reasons, I have set out above, I do not consider this concern to be well founded in relation to the existing feeder schools for the school for 2019’. This issue is covered in another previous article entitled 'The Unique Medway Secondary School Admission Lottery'. However, the Adjudicator  acknowledges that this may become an issue in the future, when a different decision could be reached!

I now look at the outcomes for each school individually below. You will find the original criteria recorded in the decisions for each school. 

Fort Pitt Grammar School
When the Adjudicator considered the school’s oversubscription he established two additional faults, the first being an incorrect definition of ‘looked after and all previously looked after children. Also, children with an EHCP were wrongly included in the oversubscription criteria whereas if Fort Pitt was identified in the EHC Plan, the child must be admitted and so the criterion should not appear. He ordered these to be changed.
 
The judgement considers a wide range of issues relating to siblings and children of staff in other Trust schools, but is clear that the school’s claims to support the priority are not valid.
 
Interestingly, the school noted that the unlawful criterion of priority for siblings in another secondary school in the Trust had been in place for a number of years without challenge. I was not clear on the position of historical criteria and so my challenge was slightly speculative. The Adjudicator's decision in removing the criterion confirms my view that the fact of rules having been in place for some time is not a defence.  
 
Holcombe Grammar School (Thinking Schools Academy Trust)
Following my January article, Holcombe Grammar attempted to put some things right. I wrote in April:  ‘Holcombe Grammar School, which has been mired in controversy through poor decision making over the past year is now run by an Executive Headteacher from Victory Academy. It tried to correct the problem and failed in what is now a published legal document….. What one can only call the slapdash approach by Holcombe Grammar, over and over again, clearly needs responsible leadership to change the school’s ethos’. Since then of course there has been the appeals debacle.

With regard to (1) above: ‘The school’s legal advisors responded that the priority is clearly set out in the criterion in compliance with the Code’….The trust’s legal advisors in setting out reasons for priority to be given based on the schools being in the same trust described the curricular and pedagogical links. I have not been provided with a reason other than that given above for why such a priority should be given for this criterion’. The school case is decisively dismissed at length.

With regard to (2): The question of the distinction between staff of the trust and staff at the school is a matter that has been raised in a previous determination for this school and the school agreed at that time to make the necessary change to its arrangements. It is disappointing to see that the school has not fully complied with the determination that upheld this point. I note that the school has accepted that an error has been made in the redrafting of its arrangements.  The Rochester Grammar School, part of  the Thinking Schools Academy Trust, had made the change following my original article. Holcombe even had the fault pointed out following a previous complaint in 2016 and was required  to make changes, but only partially complied probably because of a blunder rather than intent.  

With regard to (3): The school argues that the names of the schools are implicit in the reference to trust schools. I do not accept this argument; the unambiguous requirement in the Code is that feeder schools are to be named

The Rochester Grammar School (Thinking Schools Academy Trust)
The Rochester Grammar School has recently taken to declaring it is not a super-selective school. This is because the new admission criteria introduce new categories of priority that make irrelevant the prohibition in the Schools Admission Code forbidding: in designated grammar schools that rank all children according to a pre-determined pass mark and then allocate places to those who score highest, give priority to siblings of current or former pupils’. 

In particular, the introduction of priority for children in named feeder schools and children of members of staff at the school are both legitimate criteria, although they do not require the high level Medway Test pass of the other girls. 

The school withdrew the proposed criterion of children of members of staff at any school of the Trust, following my initial article in January. However, it still fell foul of the rules relating to siblings at other secondary schools of the Trust.

The trust’s legal advisor makes the case that the schools within the trust are linked for curriculum purposes and this provides the reason for the schools to be linked in respect of paragraph 1.12 of the Code........However, there is no curriculum continuity argument since gaining priority under this criterion is dependent only on the secondary school attended by a sibling’ and this section of my complaint was upheld.

On a separate issue, the Adjudicator ruled: 'When I viewed the website I could not, at first, find either the 2018 arrangements or the 2019 arrangements, and instead found some that related to 2016. When I looked further, I found the required documents under a separate tab. The school is displaying the documents as required by the Code but should look at its website to ensure that it removes admission arrangements that are no longer current and that it is easy to find the current admission arrangements. The determined arrangements are, however, published as required and so I do not uphold this part of the objection'. The school has moved swiftly to correct this and to change the policy as now published clearly on its website, to meet all requirements. 

Whilst not relevant to the complaint, I sense that The Rochester Grammar is seeking to change its profile. It is certainly known as a school that is highly elitist and unforgiving to those who can’t keep up academically, but highly popular for all that amongst those who fit. The changed new admissions policy will still give priority to girls from four local primary schools and siblings of girls who have sisters at the school who qualified by passing the Medway Test at any level. The large majority of pupils will still be girls who qualified with high scores in the Medway Test. It will be interesting to see how the former group fares but surely the school ethos will have to change, or those girls will have a difficult time.

Last modified on Saturday, 15 September 2018 06:12

5 comments

  • Comment Link Sunday, 23 September 2018 04:38 posted by Rachael

    It appears to me that the rules are quite straightforward, and should certainly be checked by anyone thinking of changing their admission policy. Using expensive lawyers to challenge the obvious is a waste of money, which these academies have to burn. Where is Medway Council in all this. It is yet another scandal around TSATs arrogance.

  • Comment Link Monday, 17 September 2018 21:07 posted by Reluctant Holcombe parent

    Surely the continued fantasies of the so called leadership at Holcombe grammar school have had their day. Oh no I forgot they have been given a non accountable academy as a toy to play with.

  • Comment Link Monday, 17 September 2018 10:48 posted by Gayle W

    So where is Medway Council in all this. Aren't they supposed to look out for their families? If Kent, which has six times as many schools, can deflect any applications for unlawful admissions policies, why can't Medway?

    Answer: They don't care or are not prepared to challenge their grammar schools. Actually, it appears to be both!

  • Comment Link Monday, 17 September 2018 09:52 posted by Medway Taxspayer

    I thought lawyers were supposed to know the law. Presumably TSAT have asked for their money back. These are of course the same lawyers that advised Holcombe could become co-educational. TSAT clearly has money to burn!

  • Comment Link Friday, 14 September 2018 20:38 posted by Medway Mel

    Congratulations Peter on challenging these arrogant schools who think they can do whatever they want with the spineless Medway Council turning a blind eye as usual. Holcombe Grammar appears to have no one at all competent in charge. What a disgrace

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