“It helps you get a school place” is the often first answer many Service families give when they are asked what they know about the Armed Forces Covenant.
For any parent securing the ‘right’ school place for your child is an anxiety-provoking, emotional time. As we approach the summer holidays many parents are starting to investigate new school places as they prepare to move to new postings. Set against the background of the ever-changing landscape of education in the UK, the complexities of differing admission processes dependent upon country, local authority and type of school and a well-publicised shortage of school places in some areas, the answer to “Can the Covenant help?” is a less-than straightforward “Yes, No and Maybe”.
Under section 2.18 of the Schools Admissions Code all admissions authorities in England must accept an application for children of Armed Forces personnel on proof of assignment and in advance of moving to the area. Parents do not need to have an allocated address and applications can be processed on the basis of the unit address or general quartering address. Of course, “yes” turns to “maybe” for areas where a family could be housed in a number of different areas, some of which may be in different local authorities. However, this provision arising from the Covenant has required admission authorities to recognise the unique nature of mobility in the Armed Forces. By comparison non-Service families cannot apply for a school place until they have moved into the area or have proof that they will move imminently, usually within 2 weeks. This applies to all types of admissions.
One of the most common misconceptions of the Covenant is that it will automatically help parents to get the school of their choice. This is where the answer to whether the Covenant will help is “no”. Applications under the ‘normal admissions’ process for entry to Reception year or year 7 the following September, where Service families are already in residence in the area and will remain in situ, are treated the same as any other application by any other parent. The core principles of the Covenant are that Service families should suffer no disadvantage as a result of Service. These families have equal access to school places alongside any other family in the local area and there are no special provisions under the Covenant. Unfortunately, the statutory timetable for normal admissions often results in Service parents making ‘late applications’ as they have been posted after statutory deadlines. Admission authorities cannot refuse applications because they are late and cannot give priority based on the date upon which applications were received. However, in practice most school places will already been allocated, offered and accepted by other families. Local authorities are not permitted to reserve blocks of school places for Service pupils even where there are likely to be significant numbers. In recognition of the Covenant, local authorities must find a school place for Service children who move into the area as a result of their parent’s posting but if no places are available at the parents’ preferred school, there is no duty to comply with parental preference. However, dependent upon a number of factors the answer could become “maybe”.
The Covenant has encouraged the Schools Admission Code to create several powers which may support Armed Forces families seeking school places. However, the answer to whether the Covenant can help individual families is usually a less than satisfactory “maybe” as powers are only exercised at the discretion of the admissions authorities, hence their use in practice will vary from one area to another and usually depends upon many factors.
The most well-known power is the exception to Infant Class Size limits. By law classes for children in Key stage 1 cannot exceed 30 pupils per teacher. Under the Schools Admissions Code in England children of service personnel who move outside of the normal round of admissions may be admitted as excepted pupils. It is important to note that this only applies to ‘In year’ admissions for children already at school elsewhere and will not assist Service parents who are applying for the Reception year under the normal admissions process. It is also important to know that many local authorities are reluctant to exercise this power as standard practice. In these circumstances we would always advise parents to seek specialist advice from CEAS (see below) as appeals against Infant Class Size limits are notoriously difficult to win.
If there are no places available at their chosen school, pupils may be put onto waiting lists for places as well as being offered a place at another school. Waiting lists are determined by the Oversubscriptions Criteria for each school. By law looked after children must be the first priority for all oversubscriptions criteria as these are deemed to be the children most in need. Under section 1.39A of the Schools Admissions Code Service children may be given priority in oversubscriptions criteria. In practice many oversubscriptions criteria do not mention service pupils or these may come low down the list behind criteria such as distance from school or siblings in the school.
As Covenant Managers and within the wider work of the RAF Families Federation we are working closely with the Department for Education in England, the devolved administrations, the Ministry of Defence and others to continually review the implementation of the Covenant and highlight ongoing issues for Service parents. If you would like to know more about our specific work in this area please get in touch.
And not to forget Service Pupil premium…
Of course, once parents have navigated the complexities of school admissions and their child has a school place focus switches to Service Pupil Premium (SPP). SPP was introduced in England under the Covenant to mitigate the impact of Service life on children’s education. Our Covenant Managers are working with all of the partners above to look at SPP, how it’s spent and how it could be used more effectively. For more information please feel free to contact us.
For information about school admissions in your local area parents are advised to check the website of their local authority which will have information about who to contact about which type of admission for each school in its area.
All schools admissions in England are governed by the Schools Admissions Code.
For any specialist advice on school admissions anywhere in the UK we would advise parent to contact the MOD Children’s Education Advisory Service (CEAS).
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 01980 618244
By Jo Wilkinson, RAF Regional Covenant Manager.
Contact: 07538 936882 or email@example.com
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This news story is one of the many articles that originate from the RAF FF's Envoy magazine. You can read stories like this first from your own copy by subscribing free of charge online and have your copy delivered home four times a year. All Service personnel and any familiy members are welcome to subscribe.
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