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Orders of the Day

International Development Bill [Lords]

Bill, as amended in the Standing Committee, to be considered tomorrow.—[Angela Smith.]


Rural Petrol Stations

11.3 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I wish to present two petitions. The first is to the House of Commons from the rural residents of the United Kingdom and it declares that

To lie upon the Table.

Mrs. Browning: The second petition is to the House of Commons from the petrol retailers and motorists of the United Kingdom. It declares that

To lie upon the Table.

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Secondary Schools (Kent)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Angela Smith.]

11.4 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise an issue that is of huge concern to my—

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What about the other petition?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have a record of only two petitions on the order of business in front of me.

Mr. Clelland: Only one was presented.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Two were presented. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman may not have followed the detail. They were related, but two separate petitions were presented.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I expected to present a petition and understood that it was part of our order of business this evening.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: We appear to have no record of that fact. It was certainly not on the agenda that I saw earlier in the day. If there has been a misunderstanding, I am sure that that can be remedied at an early date, but the order of business to which I am working refers only to the two petitions that were presented by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). I apologise to the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), but I am sure that the problem can be put right very soon.

Miss Widdecombe: Before that unexpected diversion, I was saying that the issue is of massive concern to many of my constituents in Kent. It comes up every year when the time comes round for parents to indicate their order of choice for schools in Kent.

Kent is in many ways exceptionally fortunate. It has a wide variety of schools between which, theoretically, parents can choose. Kent has grammar schools, single-sex grammar schools, mixed ability schools, high schools and quite a wide range of specialist schools. On the face of it, parents have a fortunate choice, but in reality the opposite is true. Too many parents find that the system militates against being able to choose a school for their child and to have confidence that that choice will be respected.

It used to be the case that two separate lists ran for grammar schools and high schools. Parents could indicate an order of preference for grammar schools and then an order of preference for high schools. The adjudicator ruled, however, that the lists must be combined. If the children of parents who want them to take the 11-plus and who put down a grammar school first fail, those children are classified as late entrants to the high school that they have listed second and go to the bottom of the heap for

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consideration. If the high school is popular, successful and over-subscribed, they have no hope of getting in. Is that a covert way of discriminating against grammar schools?

There was a major campaign in Kent to get enough signatures to trigger a ballot. That campaign failed abjectly because most people in Kent want to keep grammar schools. It seems to me that the arrangement now in place is another way of deterring children from taking the 11-plus.

The wider issue of parents in rural areas applies to all parents, in particular to those who seek their child's admission to mixed ability schools or high schools. Every year, one or two villages are told right at the start that their children will not be admitted to big successful schools such as the Cornwallis school and Angley school, both of which are in my constituency and are heavily over-subscribed year on year. Every year, children are being told that they will not be considered simply because they live a certain distance from the school.

I want to ask the Minister very specific questions. Heads say that they more or less have to apply the criterion of distance. Although, theoretically, they can set their own criteria for foundation schools, in reality those would be capable of legal challenge because the local education authority sets in stone, for its own schools, the requirement to use distance as the criterion. That idea comes, in turn, from the Department, so there is a general view that distance is a must. If, instead of rejecting everybody outside a certain radius because there were already too many applicants from inside that radius, a school turned the situation round and simply asked whether it was the nearest school to the child—which is also about distance, but a different sort of criterion—would that practice be sustainable?

We have the ludicrous situation that there are children in outlying villages who cannot get into their nearest school because nearness is a comparative and, every time, they are discriminated against in favour of children who more or less live on top of the school. If one lives in a town, one has a choice of schools, but if one lives in an outlying area, that choice is restricted so long as distance is used as a criterion. Parents in villages in my constituency—in Staplehurst and East Farleigh in previous years and in Marden this year—have had inflicted on them the anguish of being told from the start that their children will not be able to go to the large, popular schools of their first choice.

Because the grammar schools proceed to cream off a certain percentage of the applicants, however, places become available, so parents are put through all the anguish of thinking that places will not be available, only to find that they are. Kent has put forward a solution to that, and asked that parents be allowed to indicate preferences after the 11-plus has been taken and the creaming-off has been done, when the schools know how many of the children who have applied to them will go to a different school.

Apart from those questions, there is the issue of free transport. Nonsensically, in some parts of my constituency parents will put down as first choice a school that is not their first choice. They do that so that they will qualify for free transport, because if the school rejects them, the county will supply free transport to the school of second choice, even if it is outside the distance criterion used for assessing eligibility for free transport. Parents have to play a game of bluff. They put down as first choice a school

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that they do not want so that they get their second choice, which they do want, and qualify for free transport. Ingenious as that may be to politicians who like playing such games, it seems to me a rather strange thing to ask parents to go through every year.

The solution to all those problems would be to free schools to set their own admissions criteria, and not to place artificial constraints on them. It should be made extremely clear that schools can reject children who live close to them and accept those who live further away if that leads to greater parental choice across the area as a whole.

It is not only parents and children who suffer through the present unsatisfactory arrangements: the schools themselves do too. Every year, there is the same sort of uncertainty for the schools as there is for the children. There is also public opprobrium, which stems from schools appearing to have turned their back on whole villages when, in reality, they are restricted by the criteria that they have to apply.

I therefore hope that, first, the Minister will say that schools are completely free to set their own criteria, which would do away with the argument that enables schools to say that they have no choice but to act in that way. Secondly, will she reconsider Kent's request for parents to indicate preferences after the 11-plus has been taken? Thirdly, will she reconsider making the rules on transport more flexible? I have been on about that for many years; when I was first in opposition, I introduced a ten-minute Bill which made no progress—such Bills do not—to alter those rules. When a parent indicates a first choice, it should not be part of an elaborate game of chess but a first choice that they want to prevail over all the other choices on the list.

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