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Madam Speaker: I will look at the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. I gave the page references, but if I can be more helpful, I will certainly do so.

Mr. Michael J. Martin: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The Administration Committee gets the blame for moving Annie's Bar, and when some drunken journalists were a bit worried about that, they maligned hon. Members of the House. I would like to place it on record, as in a previous point of order, that that had nothing to do with the Admin Committee. I understand that the Arts Committee is an advisory committee.

Madam Speaker: That was not a genuine point of order. Of course the Administration Committee has nothing to do with it. I gave my word to the House that I am always finally responsible, and I will deal with the matter.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It is a different point of order. It concerns the principle behind decisions such as that to put up what I think is a very good plaque--and it must be put somewhere. How is the House to be consulted about such decisions? I do not think that the House was aware that it was going to happen.

Madam Speaker: The House should have been aware that it was going to happen, because various hon. Members on both sides of the House sit on the Committees of the House. That is how the responsibility filters through.

5 Jun 1996 : Column 612

Choice of Schools

3.39 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey): I beg to move,

I hope that this is a slightly less controversial matter. My Bill would establish in England a system of dealing with school admissions which, put simply, would be similar to that currently used for university admissions. It would relate to applications for nursery, primary and secondary schools. It would also deal with one point relating to appeals against refusal of admission.

So that nobody thinks that this Bill has other matters hidden behind it, I can tell the House that it would not create more selective schools or fewer selective schools, and it would not abolish existing selective schools or change the status of grant-maintained schools or city technology colleges. The Bill would not reduce or increase choice, and would not reverse the Greenwich judgments. It would not even ensure that hon. Members followed party policy when choosing schools for their families. Those are all perfectly proper matters for consideration, and I have strong views about all of them, but they are matters for another occasion.

The Bill also would not take away the greatly valued power that each school has within the law of establishing the criteria for its own admissions. It also would deal with a severe problem that arises under the current system. I hope that it would produce a system that worked better and which would be more honest, as well as producing fairer, better and speedier results.

There are four interrelated problems. First, many parents and children often fix their sights on one school and believe that by applying, pushing, hoping and praying, they will get in. Sometimes, too late, they realise that they cannot gain admission to that school, and that any other school they might have wanted has filled its roll.

Secondly, the administration for dealing with school applications is something that many parents find difficult because it is so inconsistent. For example, when parents in my borough make an application to a school--it may be the school of which I am the chair of governors--they will be advised by the head teacher to make applications to other schools. They might not do so, or they might do so later. There will be different dates for applications to different schools, and there will be different forms in the different schools. There will be different criteria, and some may interview. It is a nightmare for parents to get round the circuit, even if they want to go round the circuit at all.

Thirdly--this is perhaps the most serious issue--many parents, head teachers and staff arrive at the end of the summer term with several children having nowhere to go. I have been to many school-leaving events at which the head teacher has said in formal remarks, "Mr. Hughes, please help us, because we still have three 11-year-olds without a place." Nothing is more depressing for those children or their parents as they are leaving their primary school than to be surrounded by others who all have somewhere to go. That is in addition to children who have had an offer with which they are not happy. I will also deal with that.

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Fourthly, in some schools there is no guaranteed independent appeals system. I see the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on the Treasury Bench, and I am grateful to her for attending. In answer to a written question about the proportion of primary and secondary school children in England who gained admission to their school of first choice in 1994-95, she said--I accept the theory--

I am not in a position to quibble with those figures, but if that is right, then 10 per cent. are unhappy and, if that is the national average, then in some parts of the country, the number of those who do not gain admission to their first choice school will be much greater.

From my experience--I have spoken to colleagues on both sides of the House--in London and other urban areas where people may live near local authority boundaries and where many cross-boundary issues may arise, considerably more than 10 per cent. do not get into the school of their first choice. That does not mean, of course, that that 10 per cent. obtain a place at the school of their second choice. They may not obtain a place at the school of their second, third or fourth choice, and that problem raises big questions.

At this time of the year, this issue is probably the second most common problem raised at my surgeries. This morning, I signed 10 letters to schools on behalf of parents in my constituency. Heads have raised the issue with me every year since I was elected. I checked last might with the head teacher of the school for which I am chair of the governors--St. James's Church of England primary school in Bermondsey. Mrs. Robinson, the head, said--I am using her words--that the current system is awful, far worse at the secondary stage, a nightmare and a system gone potty. That is the opinion of a senior primary school head who knows the system well.

Our school has a good system, and we interview all the parents, and also explain that they should apply to other schools. Even so, at the end of the final year in primary school, many children do not have a place. I accept that part of the problem may arise because parents fail to understand that they have to exercise a choice, but it is untrue to say--and we should be honest with people--that there is a freedom of choice of school. That is not true in this country. There is only a freedom of choice of a school if supply is greater than demand at that school, and the children meet its criteria. Parents can choose a school, but they may not get the school of their choice. We should be honest, as we are with people who apply to universities. Applicants make a list, and they may get their first, second or third choice, or they may not.

The present system does not serve children, parents or schools well. In collaboration with colleagues on both sides of the House, we should consider a system for all publicly funded nursery, primary and secondary schools, whatever their status and whether they are local authority schools or church schools, grant-maintained schools or CTCs. The system should have a standard form, with, say,

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five choices, which parents must submit by a certain date, fixed in advance. The scheme would be administered centrally, or locally by local authorities--the location is not important--and parents would be allowed to hold only one place. Some children are not offered places because other parents hold places that they never intend their children to take.

The criteria for admission would be given to parents from the start, as for university admission, and a clearing system would operate at the end. That would allow the system to work across local authorities, because parents might want to apply to three schools in their borough and two in other boroughs, or to some local authority schools and some Church schools.

The system would establish a common starting time, and each of the choices could be dealt with in turn, so that the clearing system could start in July. Parents would also be offered counselling and support. We must deal with the differing standard of application forms, because some have adequate information and some do not--I have checked with heads and staff that that is so--and we must try for the best practice.

I stand to be corrected, but I believe that only city technology colleges have no independent right of appeal on admission decisions. I am trying to persuade the city technology college in my constituency--Bacon's Church of England CTC--to introduce an independent right of appeal. One of the Minister's predecessors nearly conceded that such a right should be enshrined in legislation. It is important for parents who do not get a place for their children at the school of their choice to know that somebody entirely independent adjudicates on the decision. One secondary school in my constituency has a waiting list of 180, and the competition for places in some schools is very fierce.

Little can be more sad, more unfair or more undermining for 11-year-old youngsters, their parents and the parents of five-year-olds than not to obtain a place at the school of their choice, to which their mates and their peer group are going. It is most oppressive if, at the end of the last year before school admission, children do not have a place at any school at all. I hope that the House finds the Bill acceptable, and that I may be given leave to introduce it.

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