Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Charles Clarke): I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) on securing the debate. I thank him for writing to me earlier this week setting out the substance of what he would say. I hope that that will result in a constructive exchange. I also thank Mr. Faruqi, the director of education for Plymouth, who has taken the trouble to write to me fully setting out the situation.

There is common ground between us on many of the points made by the hon. Gentleman. There are two secondary schools in Plympton: Hele's and Ridgeway. Places are allocated in accordance with clear criteria set out by the Plymouth education authority: first, children living in the school's designated area with an elder brother or sister who will be attending the school at the time of admission; secondly, children living in the school's designated area who attend a feeder primary school; thirdly, other children living in the school's designated area; fourthly, children living outside the school's designated area with an older brother or sister who will be attending the school at the time of admission; fifthly, children living outside the school's designated area who attend a feeder primary school; and, finally, other children living outside the school's designated area.

Next year, on the basis of those criteria, Hele's school will admit children in the first five of those six categories--a total of 211 children. Ridgeway will admit children from all six categories--a total of 190. When the hon. Member for South-West Devon referred to the building work at Ridgeway, I gave a wry smile because I think I am correct in saying that, under the Labour Government, £1.1 million of new deal money has been allocated to the school. The work may have been planned many years ago and the desire for improvement might have existed under the previous Government, but the fact is that this Government have allocated the resources to improve the school.

The allocation of places to those schools was in accordance with the admissions policy of the local education authority, as I understand it. That policy,

31 Mar 1999 : Column 1053

which I set out, is the subject of annual consultation. I am advised by the LEA that there were no objections from the hon. Gentleman or from anyone else during that period of consultation. It was determined following an agreed consultation process. That policy was publicised in the booklet "Next Step" to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his speech. The booklet sets out the details of the policy and warns parents of the tangible risk that they might not be awarded their first choice. In his speech, the hon. Gentleman suggested that the document implied that children from feeder primary schools would get into the secondary school--I think that he used the phrase "as surely as night follows day"--but I do not think that the document substantiates that. The document makes it clear that there are risks in the process--that is true for all parental choices throughout the country--and that parents must take those matters fully into account before making their decision.

In accordance with that policy and following advice, places were allocated--211 at Hele's and 190 at Ridgeway--leaving 53 children with a preference for those schools. Thirty of those children, to whom the hon. Gentleman referred, live in the Plympton area. I am advised by the LEA that there are two reasons for the over-subscription to those two schools: first, the larger sibling cohort of that age range this year, making this year atypical both by comparison with past years and with expected numbers in future years; secondly, the "local pecking order"--to use the director of education's phrase in his letter to me--of parental preference in Plympton. He tells me that the preference is for Hele's school rather than Ridgeway. I think that the hon. Member for South-West Devon confirmed that in his speech and also in his letter to me. He seemed to suggest that he has advised parents to get their children into Hele's, in so far as he could.

Mr. Streeter indicated dissent.

Mr. Clarke: If I have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, I should be happy for the point to be clarified. In his letter, he stated:

Mr. Streeter: I should like to clarify that point. I have never advised anyone that Hele's is a better school than Ridgeway; they are both excellent schools. However, if a constituent comes to me and says, "I want my child to go to Hele's", I do my best to help.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful for that clarification but, with all respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman has slightly missed the point. The pecking order to which the director of education referred is about the preferences, views and attitudes of people towards the two schools and that affects their choice. My interpretation was that the hon. Gentleman was acknowledging that pecking order in the advice that he was giving to the parents in his constituency. Perhaps that interpretation was wrong, but I do not think so.

It is important that Members of Parliament should advise constituents to study carefully the local documents and the way in which the system operates, because of the

31 Mar 1999 : Column 1054

problems that the hon. Gentleman so eloquently described. I am glad that he said clearly that Hele's and Ridgeway were good schools because it is clear from what the director of education has written that everyone makes that point widely in the community. However, the two reasons that I have set out--the larger sibling cohort and the pecking order--are the principal reasons for the shortfall in places at the two schools.

The reason that the hon. Gentleman gave in his speech and in his letter to me--that a "badly failing" secondary school in north Plymouth is the cause of the problems--is simply not correct. In Plymouth, one primary school, but no secondary school, is on special measures; nor are any of the secondary schools in Plymouth judged by the Government to be failing, badly failing, failing schools in need of remedial action, and so on. Moreover, it is important to emphasise that the evidence that I have seen on the numbers admitted to Hele's and Ridgeway schools does not suggest that the principal reason for the excess number of applicants to those two schools is that people are coming from the catchment area of any "failing" schools the hon. Gentleman might be thinking of in the LEA area.

Therefore, the reason on which the hon. Gentleman rests much of his argument--that there is a badly failing school elsewhere in Plymouth which people are attempting to avoid by applying to Hele's and Ridgeway school--is not valid; that is not the cause of the problem. The cause of the problem was set out by the director of education: the larger sibling cohort and the pecking order. It is important that we all examine our own attitude toward such pecking orders and how they operate.

Mr. Streeter: With the greatest respect, I think that the Minister has missed the point. He must answer the question, how many children from outside the Plympton area have been accepted into Ridgeway school this year?

Mr. Clarke: I understand that it is a very small number--certainly not a number remotely near to the 53 children who have not got places at Hele's or Ridgeway school, or the 30 from the hon. Gentleman's constituency who comprise part of that 53.

Several measures have been suggested. I understand that some of the Plympton parents have suggested that offers to parents who do not come from the Plympton area be withdrawn. The hon. Gentleman did not make that suggestion and I do not suggest that that is his view, but I must make it clear to anyone who does believe that it would be right for the LEA to withdraw offers on the basis of geographical access that the LEA could not, and, in my opinion, should not do so.

The second suggestion, which the hon. Gentleman did make, is that an extra class should be created, either at Hele's or at Ridgeway school, to meet the increased number of pupils moving up from primary schools. I am advised by the LEA that it has consulted the heads of both Hele's and Ridgeway school on that proposal, but that both heads have made it clear that they do not want the overcrowding or the risk of educational standards falling in their schools that would be consequent on the extra class being established. The LEA has considered the proposal, consulted the schools and, based on the advice received from the schools, come to a view on the practicality of that proposed solution. During that process, both schools made it clear that they support the LEA's admissions policy.

31 Mar 1999 : Column 1055

I am told that the LEA has offered an interview with one of its officers to every pupil who has not got a place, so that they can discuss the situation in detail. As with all schools in the country, it is obvious that, as time passes, some places will become available as people do nottake up places for various reasons. However, I fully acknowledge that only a small number of such places can be expected, so that process cannot meet the scale of the problem that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

I am sure that people will turn to the appeals process, and I know that the LEA will ensure that everyone has the full facts on which to base their decisions in that process. The hon. Gentleman will understand that it is not for me or the Government to second-guess the outcome of that process; the appeals committee will make its decisions based on the criteria set down in law. Those are the facts of the case and the history to the present day, and I believe that, with the important exception of the existence or otherwise of the "badly failing" school to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his letter, they are common ground between us.

As to the options available to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Department for Education and Employment, and to the hon. Gentleman's specific request, there are two areas in which the Secretary of State potentially has power. The first is the power to direct a school to admit a child. The position is as follows: the Secretary of State can exercise his general powers of intervention under sections 496 and 497 of the Education Act 1996 where he is satisfied that an LEA or governing body has failed to perform a duty imposed on it by, or for the purposes of, the Act, or has acted unreasonably in the performance of such duties.

Before the Secretary of State could intervene in the case that we are discussing, he would have to be satisfied that Plymouth LEA had acted unreasonably in the strict sense in which that word has been interpreted by the courts. The courts have ruled that, in this context, acting unreasonably means acting in a way in which no other authority having due regard to its legal responsibilities would have acted. In determining fair admissions arrangements, publishing them and then applying them fairly, it cannot, in our view, be said that the LEA has acted unreasonably within that tight definition. Therefore, it is not possible for the Secretary of State to direct a school to admit a child using his powers under sections 496 or 497.

Secondly, there is the question of providing extra places. In respect of the adequacy of school places, LEAs have a duty under section 14 of the Education Act 1996 to secure the provision of sufficient schools in their area. The Secretary of State could intervene only where it was clear that the LEA was failing in that duty. We sympathise with the Plympton parents and I emphasise that I fully

31 Mar 1999 : Column 1056

understand their despair and the reasons why the hon. Gentleman has felt this Adjournment debate is necessary. However, we have no evidence that there is any deficit in secondary places in the area as a whole--on the contrary. Nor is there evidence that the LEA has acted unreasonably in not being prepared to add a classroom at Ridgeway school--again, on the contrary; the LEA has consultedon that option, considered it and has not behaved unreasonably in deciding that is not a course of action that can be pursued. I believe that there are no grounds on which the Secretary of State could legally direct the LEA to add extra places in the area. Therefore, I regret that I am unable to accede to the hon. Gentleman's request to act in that respect; there is no legal basis for so doing.

To reinforce my earlier remarks, let me say that the Government strongly support the development of community schools and the rights of parental choice in education matters. We have immense sympathy for the Plympton parents who are experiencing those problems, but we do not believe that there is any way in which the Secretary of State can intervene with the LEA to change the situation. The matter is one for the LEA, which is taking steps to arrange transport. I am sorry to be unable to accede to the hon. Gentleman's request.

Next Section

IndexHome Page