In this article we explain new government guidance for selection testing and the procedures that may apply where admission authorities consider it is now appropriate to vary faith-based admission arrangements to take account of these challenges.
Readers will know that there are a range of tests that are used by some schools as part of their admission arrangements. Testing arrangements provide for testing for aptitude and/or ability of pupils, whole or partial selection and are used by schools that admit a proportion of pupils by aptitude for a particular subject. Some non-selective schools also use banding to ensure a comprehensive non-selective banding to ensure a comprehensive intake of all abilities, and the tests for this are also regarded as a form of selection test.
Selection tests and the arrangements for them form part of schools' admission arrangements which, for the September 2021 intake, must have been formally determined on or before 28 February 2020.
Faith schools are permitted to give priority to children of their designated faith, and often use criteria such as minimum levels of attendance at their place of worship in their oversubscription criteria, to determine the order in which places are allocated.
Oversubscription criteria are set out in a school's Admission Policy which forms part of a school's admission arrangements. The admission arrangements for the September 2020 and 2021 intakes must have been formally determined on or before 28 February 2019 and 2020 respectively.
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will clearly have impacted in respect of both of these forms of criteria. Schools are urged to carefully review their admission arrangements for both intakes to establish whether a request for consent to vary determined admission arrangements is necessary due to a 'major change in circumstances' caused by the pandemic, in accordance with Paragraphs 3.6 and 3.7 of the School Admissions Code (Code).
Most selection tests take place in September or early October, so that parents are given results before choosing preferred schools by the closing date for secondary applications on 31 October. Paragraph 1.31 of the Code requires schools to "take all reasonable steps to inform parents of the outcome of selection tests before the closing date on 31 October".
In July 2020, the DfE published new guidance called Coronavirus (COVID-19): assessment processes for selective school admissions which stated:
"No child is likely to perform to their utmost ability in a test at the beginning of September and all are likely to benefit from as much time back in education as possible before being assessed. The attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is likely to be magnified by their absence from school during the coronavirus outbreak."
The guidance suggests that tests should be moved back to late October or November, and gives advice on how this should be communicated to parents, and to local authorities on options for increasing parental choice. It acknowledges that tests may need to be taken over a longer period of time to comply with social distancing requirements, and includes advice on ensuring the integrity and security of tests, and protective measures that need to be taken by test centres.
A variation is only likely to be necessary as a result of the pandemic if the school uses criteria which parents and/or pupils have been prevented from fulfilling due to the lockdown and social distancing requirements. One example is where their place of worship has closed and they have been unable to attend, and attendance would have given them higher priority or made them eligible for a particular oversubscription category.
As well as setting out this criteria in their Admission Policies, faith schools will often use supplementary information forms (SIFs) and/or priest/minister reference forms which must be submitted in support of applications for admission. These also form part of the school's determined admission arrangements and cannot be varied without consent. It is therefore very important that all admission-related documents are reviewed with the aim of assessment whether variations are necessary.
The guidance acknowledges that there is no requirement to formally consult on a proposed variation for which consent is to be sought, however admission authorities should ensure that "bodies which will need to play a part in varied arrangements" are content with the proposed variation. Essentially, this means schools should contact local authorities, other schools and their religious body, as appropriate, and obtain their views so that these can be referenced in the request.
Maintained schools are required to apply for consent from the Schools Adjudicator, with a specific form having been published for this purpose.
Academies are required to apply for consent from the Regional Schools Commissioner on behalf of the Secretary of State, with requests being submitted via email, with the use of the form used by maintained schools being actively encouraged.