Mr. Brady: It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Hurst, to discuss the third in a small group of statutory instruments that we have been scrutinising. The Minister has made a tantalising offer to send me a rare copy of an exciting publication that assesses the net capacity of schools. I am so looking forward to getting my hands on a copy that I have undertaken to be brief in our discussion.
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): I shall send two copies.
Mr. Brady: That is a generous offer and I shall do my best to reciprocate.
We have an overriding concern about the approach being taken in the orders and the transfer of the freedom of schools, particularly those that are their own admissions authority, to run their own admission arrangements. Again, there is more centralisation but, in the details, there is also an attempt to lessen the burden of bureaucracy imposed by the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998 in terms of releasing governing bodies from the obligation to consult in certain circumstances when consultation on admissions arrangements has already taken place in a previous year and no objections were received. That is welcome.
I shall be interested—as, I am sure, will all members of the Committee—to hear the Minister's broader exposition on the details of why the amendments have been introduced as a result of the Education Act 2002. I want to focus my comments on one aspect of the orders, particularly in the light of the further information that the Minister has kindly agreed to send to me pursuant to our meeting a week ago.
When considering how the co-ordination of admission arrangements might operate and in particular how federations of schools may co-ordinate their admissions arrangements, we are now making progress. I am grateful to the Minister for his prompt response to my queries in the letter that I received this morning.
First, the Minister made it clear that the Government believe that it is not possible for a co-ordinated scheme to apply to a subdivision of a local
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education authority area and I am grateful for that clarification, particularly as it runs precisely contrary to the view of the legislation that was given in another place by Lord Davies of Oldham. I do not know what the implications are in the light of Pepper v. Hart and the possibility that, in future, a court may find itself looking at the various assurances that were given by Government spokesmen either here or in another place. It may be that they concluded that there was no clear view, or that the Minister's view in his letter to me is more persuasive than the evidence from another place.
The Minister's letter said that
''the 2002 Education Act excluded admissions from the legislation relating to federations. Even if schools within a federation have a single governing body, each school within a federation must decide and publish its own admission arrangements. Admission arrangements may be different for each school within a federation, and are likely to be if the federation includes schools of different categories, with different admission authorities. If the parent applies for a place at School A within a federation, the duty to comply with parental preference for that school could not be met by offering them a place at federation School B instead.''
He went on to explain the interpretation of the prejudice exclusion, which we discussed last Wednesday.
On these orders, I should like to press the Minister on the particular power to determine an admissions number that may be greater than the standard number. Unless he can correct me, I think that that arises initially from section 93 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which says that
''the admission authority may fix as the admission number for any relevant age group and any school year a number which exceeds the relevant standard number.''
That is highly significant in the context of federations, or local education authorities, choosing to manipulate and co-ordinate their admissions policies.
My question, which the Minister can perhaps answer simply today, or on which he will perhaps reflect and write to me, concerns a precise circumstance in which a parent—in his words—
''applies for a place at School A within a federation''
but finds that the school has already admitted a number of children equal to the standard number or to the higher number that has been fixed, so no place is available. Notwithstanding the Minister's comments about the definition of
''prejudice to efficient education or the efficient use of resources'',
where the presumption that a school will offer a place in accordance with the parental preference cannot be achieved because school A is full, would it be possible for the co-ordinated arrangements in either a federation or a whole LEA area to make direct provision for a place in school B to be offered to that parent?
I should be grateful if the Minister answered that. I suspect that, lying behind the regulations that we have already debated, is the possibility that co-ordinated arrangements could be used to restrict real choice for a number of parents by making use of situations in which the school of first choice is full to divert applications to another school in the federation or local authority area.
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I am also concerned that there could be some duplication here. Although the requirements to consult are somewhat lessened in certain circumstances, is it not the case that the requirements to consult and to publish information here could duplicate the requirements under co-ordinated schemes of admissions or the work and activities of the admissions forums, which can also consult on such matters? Does the Minister envisage a regime in which all the requirements to consult and publish information are simplified and taken together, to benefit schools and parents?
Dr. John Pugh (Southport): I made the mistake of reading the explanatory note first, which states that the regulations
''are entirely consequential on amendments to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 . . . made by the Education Act 2002.''
I do not know the precise parliamentary meaning of ''consequential'', but I understand that the regulations are, in a sense, legislative housekeeping. One piece of legislation is being tidied up in the light of another, and I therefore have few objections to the regulations. I understand that when the regulations were referred to the unions, nobody commented on them. Because the primary legislation has been amply commented on, I shall say no more.
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): I am very sorry to disappoint my hon. Friends, who were looking forward to the interstices of admissions procedures being debated at great length.
Mr. Brady rose—
Mr. Miliband: I thought that our discussion was going to finish extremely quickly.
Mr. Brady: I just wanted to reassure Government Members that there will be two more opportunities next week.
Mr. Miliband: Indeed. They have missed the first two statutory instruments in this series, but there are more. The fifth statutory instrument has an added attraction because my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be making a star appearance.
Until the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) asked his questions—which I can answer briefly—I thought that I understood the regulations. The regulations are substantial and are not merely housekeeping for the Government's benefit. First, they will benefit schools, which will no
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longer have to publish their admissions policies every year if they do not change them. Secondly, there will be more information for parents, who will be notified in a local newspaper if a school is offering a smaller number of places.
The hon. Gentleman asked what will happen to a parent or pupil whose choice of school is turned down. At the moment, parents can apply to a school on behalf of their children. If the pupil concerned fails to get in, it is incumbent on the LEA to make sure that they are offered a place at a school, and the situation remains the same under the co-ordinated admissions arrangements.
Mr. Brady: That is, of course, currently the case, but there will be a significant difference. A parent may apply for places at a number of different schools, which will consider the applications. The regulations introduce the possibility that a single application may take the whole process out of the hands of the parent and, where a first choice is not achieved, the child in question may be diverted according to the rubric set out in the co-ordinated admissions scheme.
Mr. Miliband: With respect, that has nothing to do with the regulations. The opposite situation is being put in place because, under the new scheme, parents will be able to express all three preferences on a single form. They will be offered three choices of school, so to fall into the circumstance about which the hon. Gentleman is worried, their children would have to be denied a place at three schools. On his fear that a phantom federation will deny parental choice, I hope that I have reassured him that the co-ordinated scheme is designed to expand parental choice. His fears have not been realised in those parts of the country already running the scheme. On this occasion, I can close without having to promise to write him another letter.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the Education (Determination of Admission Arrangements) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2002 (S.I., 2002, No. 2896)
Education (School Information) (England)
Regulations (S.I., 2002, No. 2897)
That the Committee has considered the Education (School Information) (England) Regulations (S.I., 2002, No. 2897)—[Mr. Graham Brady.]
Committee rose at fifteen minutes to Three o'clock.
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The following Members attended the Committee:
Hurst, Mr. Alan (Chairman)
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Robertson, Mr. Laurence