Challenge local authorities

On this page we offer advice about how campaigners might influence local admissions arrangements through their local authority – namely by seeking to change the admissions arrangements at Voluntary Controlled (VC) faith schools (whose admissions are controlled by the local authority), and also through a council’s School Admissions Forum, Overview and Scrutiny Committee and petitions facilities.

Voluntary Controlled faith schools, which have their admissions set by local councils

A large fraction of state funded faith schools are VC schools, which have their admissions arrangements determined by their local authority with responsibility for education. In 2012 VC faith schools comprised 12.5% of state funded schools in England and 5.6% of state schools in Wales.

The number of VC schools (and hence influence of councils over local admissions arrangements) is declining due to the expansion of the Academies programme in England – all Academy schools determine their own admissions arrangements. However, Councils still have a lot of power in this area: in 2012 there were over 2500 VC schools in England out of a total of 22,000 schools. In Wales the figures were around 90 out of 1600. Most VC schools are Church of England primaries.

Research by the Accord Coalition (one of Fair Admissions Campaign’s supporter groups) in 2011 showed that 137 of the 174 local authorities responsible for education in England and Wales had one or more VC faith schools in their jurisdiction, and that 43 of these authorities (listed in the table below) permitted some kind of religious discrimination in some or all of these schools’ oversubscription criteria. A unique opportunity still exists for local campaigners in these 43 areas to petition and lobby their council to stop the policy of these schools from operating in this way.

East Anglia East Midlands Greater London North East
Suffolk Derby Bexley Gateshead
Hertfordshire Derbyshire Croydon
Leicester City
North West South East
Bolton Bracknell Forest West Sussex Milton Keynes
Cumbria Hampshire Southampton Slough
Rochdale Isle Of Wight West Berkshire Portsmouth
Kent Windsor & Maidenhead Wokingham
  Medway Buckinghamshire
Yorks And Humber Wales South West West Midlands
Bradford Denbighshire Bournemouth Birmingham
Newport Cornwall Sandwell
Cardiff Dorset Wolverhampton
Gloucestershire Worcestershire
Plymouth Walsall
Poole Staffordshire

Local school admissions consultations

If a council wishes to change or formally review existing admissions arrangements at schools that it controls it must follow a statutory consultation process, which is set out in sections 1.42 to 1.50 of the English School Admissions Code and Chapter 2 of the Welsh School Admissions Code.

As the codes state, councils in England are required to consult on their admissions arrangements at least every seven years, although they can review and change admissions arrangements every year if they so wish. Councils in Wales must consult on their admissions arrangements every year. The English code also states that a consultation period must last for a minimum of eight weeks and take place between 1 November and 1 March, and that the council must consult with a wide range of parties, as set out in section 1.44. The Welsh code states that consultations must take place between 1 September and 1 March, and sets out who must/should be consulted in sections 2.5-2.6.

The first task of any campaign to change local admission policies is therefore to find out when the local authority intends to hold its next consultation, and if one is not planned, to urge that one is undertaken. You may be able to find out when the last consultation took place and if another is planned by merely looking at the council’s website. However, if not, you should contact the council’s education department to ask for further details.

Lobbying your council to undertake a consultation

The Council’s constitution will set out who holds the power to determine the admissions arrangements of local community and voluntary controlled faith schools. Normally this power will rest with the council’s Executive Committee, which is sometimes referred to as a council’s Cabinet.

However, in some cases the power may be devolved to the authority’s education portfolio holder (the senior councillor responsible for education) and the website of a council responsible for education should reveal which one of their Councillors is responsible for schools. Alternatively, if your council has a directly elected Mayor then this power may rest with this individual. If in doubt your council’s education department will be able to clarify with whom the power to determine admissions lays. Please note that Parish, Town and District Councils do not provide or maintain schools.

The responsibility for choosing when to hold a consultation also ultimately rests with elected officials, and if your council does not intend to undertake a consultation soon then we advise that you lobby the education portfolio holder. You may wish to direct correspondence about holding a consultation to the council’s Director of Education (i.e. senior staff member responsible for education).

Just as with education portfolio holders, the Director of Education may go by a differently worded job title, and you may be able to find their contact details on your council’s website. If not you can ask your council for them, or look at the website of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services website, which lists the details of most Directors of Education in England, or the Association of Directors of Education in Wales website, which lists this information for Welsh councils. You could also carbon copy in the Council Leader in your correspondence.

Your campaign group may wish to organise a petition urging the council to implement inclusive admissions. Your council may be able to help facilitate this; some have an online petition system that residents can use, while some may also hold a debate on the topic of a petition if enough signatures (typically over 1,000) are obtained. However, we would only recommend this for better established groups as we would not want petitions flopping and getting no support. In addition, if a local Diocese is against you they might use their power and resources to support a counter-petition and get attendees to their churches to sign it, potentially getting more support than yours, even if you carry much greater local support.

Responding to the consultation

Having contacted your local council, you should learn in advance about when it intends to hold its next consultation, how long it will last for and how and where responses should be sent.

Consultation documents vary, and you will want to provide guidance to supporters about how and where they should enter comments about inclusive pupil admissions in local schools. The consultation will probably ask a variety of other questions unrelated to religious selection in admissions, which you will want to remain neutral about.

Key arguments that you can draw upon can be found on this site’s page giving ‘Ten reasons why we should object to religious selection by schools’. The Fair Admissions Campaign embraces ecumenical working in the broadest sense, bringing together those of differing religious beliefs, as well as the non-religious. Any campaign should emphasis this breath of support and its shared notions of fairness, while championing inclusivity should be a core and reoccurring message.

Summary of key steps

Each campaign will be different and much will depend upon your local circumstances and the particular input and contribution that any activists can make. Your campaign might be smaller in scale than envisaged here, or more ambitious and come up with its own ideas. However, below is a list of key tasks that we suggest you could undertake.

  1. Look at your council’s admissions policies to get an understanding of the extent of the religious discrimination it allows in local Voluntary Controlled schools. Try and find out how many schools are affected.
  2. Find out from your local authority when the next consultation on school admissions is being held.
  3. If an admissions consultation is not being held, write to council officials to meet with them and urge that one is undertaken. Depending on the outcome, you might urge your supporters to contact them too, or start a petition.
  4. Be prepared in advance for the consultation, and then campaign, campaign and campaign:
    • Contact your local media and try and get coverage for the campaign.
    • Think of imaginative ways of getting further coverage, getting your message out and encouraging as many people as possible to respond to the consultation, such as through petitions, leaflets, stunts and debates.
    • Use your supporters and keep them informed and involved; ask them for ideas and urge them to take action, such as writing to the letters page of local papers and encouraging their own friends and family to respond to the consultation.
    • Urge people to lobby their local councillors, as well as those councillors who will take the decision over the admissions arrangements of local schools.
  1. Await the outcome of the consultation. Should things go against you then remember that you may have another opportunity to campaign on this issue in the not too distant future. Welsh local authorities have to consult on admissions arrangements every year. English local authorities have to consult on admissions arrangements at least every seven years, but may review much more frequently.
  2. In a future campaign you should have a pool of contacts to draw upon from the earlier one.
  3. Finally, please contact the Fair Admissions Campaign for help and advice with queries, and keep us informed of how you get on.

School Admission Forums

The previous edition of the English School Admissions Code (published in 2009) described the role of School Admission Forums as ‘to provide a vehicle for admission authorities and other key interested parties to discuss the effectiveness of local admission arrangements, consider how to deal with difficult admission issues and to advise admissions authorities on ways in which their arrangements can be improved. Their main focus is to consider the fairness of arrangements in their local context. Admission authorities of all maintained schools and Academies, when exercising their functions, must have regard to any advice offered by the Forum’.

Although it is no longer compulsory for local authorities responsible for education in England to organise School Admission Forums, many councils in England still organise them, while the legal requirement remains for councils in Wales. Forums bring together school governors, Churches, parents and representatives from local authorities to scrutinize admissions in their area, and so offer an opportunity for campaigners who are able to join them to push for inclusive admissions. Members of the public may also be able to attend these meetings, and depending on the discretion of the Forum or its Chair, also speak at them.

Education Overview & Scrutiny Committees

A local council responsible for education, in which key decisions are made by a Council Cabinet/Executive Committee and education portfolio holder, will have an overview or scrutiny committee that looks at and reviews activities and decisions in this area of the authority’s work.  Scrutiny committees comprise of a cross section of Councillors, with each political grouping allocated as many places as is proportionate to their size of the Full Council. Councillors who are a member of the Council’s Executive Committee/ Cabinet cannot be selected.

The education scrutiny committee is required to have at least one voting representative from both of the local Anglican and Roman Catholic Diocese. A Council may also choose to appoint other representatives, either as full voting or non-voting members. Commonly a Council will include at least one representative of the parent governors at schools in the local authority area, who may be co-opted by the scrutiny committee or directly elected from within their own number. Councils sometimes include other representatives, such as from the senior management of schools, teachers or trade unions representing staff at local schools.

Not only may there be Councillors on the scrutiny committee open to and supportive of your arguments and goals, but the appointment of members who are not Councillors may provide another route for your supporters join it.

The committee’s Chair or its rules may also provide the opportunity for members of the public to make short statements to the committee relating to specific items on their agenda. The council’s democratic services officer will be able to give advice on how this works.