School entry rules 'too complex'
Too many schools have "unnecessarily complex" admissions rules that appear to allow them to choose which pupils they want, an official report warns.
Often, schools which decide on their own arrangements - such as many academies and faith schools - rely on long, complicated rules to prioritise youngsters when places are over-subscribed, it suggests.
And despite a clear statutory code, parents still often have to "hunt very carefully" on a school's website to find their guidelines on how they decide which pupils to admit, according to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA)
In her third annual report, chief schools adjudicator Dr Elizabeth Passmore also says that half of local councils have concerns that families are submitting fraudulent applications to win a place at a favoured school.
Schools that run their own admissions often have rules that include requesting banned information - such as details of parents' income or child's hobbies - on supplementary application forms, the report says.
It adds: "Admission arrangements for too many schools that are their own admission authority are unnecessarily complex. The arrangements appear to be more likely to enable the school to choose which children to admit rather than simply having over-subscription criteria that are reasonable, clear, objective and procedurally fair."
Each school that is responsible for its own admissions arrangements must have on its website all the information that a family needs to understand the school's rules for admitting pupils, Dr Passmore insists.
This includes details and maps of catchment areas and how to meet any faith-based requirements.
"Despite the clear requirements set out in the Code it remains the situation that anyone looking for admission arrangements on a school's website may have to hunt very carefully to find where the arrangements may be located," the report says.
It goes on to warn that schools which run their own admissions can have complex rules.
"Arrangements set by some own admission authority schools are complicated and often it is unclear how the arrangements are actually applied," the report says.
This includes "numerous" over-subscription criteria to decide which pupils to give places to, including different categories of places, more than one catchment area, feeder schools, points-based systems to gain priority, aptitude tests and faith-based measures.
For popular schools with complicated arrangements, including aptitude assessments or tests to put pupils into ability bands, the first hurdle for pupils to gain a place is taking the test in the first place, Dr Passmore says.
"This may mean taking different tests on more than one Saturday if the schools being considered as preferences each set their own tests unlike those local authorities where one test is used by all the selective schools."
Other concerns raised by Dr Passmore include school sixth-forms breaking the admissions code by having difficult to find information, failing to state over-subscription criteria and requesting banned information.
Some primary schools are also giving priority to children who have attended certain nurseries, a practice that has been found to be unfair.
As part of her report, Dr Passmore asked local councils for their views on fraudulent applications - families submitting false information to win a place at a certain school.
Around 51% were not concerned about the practice while 49% were, it found.
In total, 186 offers of places had been withdrawn, the bulk of them (136) in primary schools, across 66 local authorities.
More than a third of the withdrawn offers were in just eight areas, and four of these were London boroughs.