Sixteenth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 26 March 2003
[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]
Education (Variation of Admission Arrangements) (England) Regulations 2002
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Education (Variation of Admission Arrangements) (England) Regulations 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 2898).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the Education (Admissions Appeals Arrangements) (England) Regulations 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 2899).
Mr. Brady: We are nearing the end of our short debates on admission matters. The regulations before us are brief, but raise some significant questions.
On the variation of admission regulations, will the Minister elucidate the circumstances in which he envisages the powers being used? Regulation 3(2) suggests that there may be a change to admission numbers either in relation to a particular school year or to all admissions to a school. Can he tell us what else may be covered by variations to the admission arrangements?
Regulation 4 provides for referral of variations to the adjudicator. Can the Minister confirm that the effect of regulation 4(2)(a) is that a change in the number of admissions cannot be referred to the adjudicator when the school organisation committee has approved it? What right of appeal does the admission authority have against the adjudicator? We come across that problem all too often in the House when discussing admission matters because the adjudicator's powers seem to be somewhat open-ended and without an appropriate mechanism for appeal other than the extreme step of judicial review. Is there, in this instance, a mechanism to appeal against a judgment arrived at by the adjudicator? Can the Minister confirm that the adjudicator may approve a variation even if the school organisation committee does not agree?
The regulations contain a combination of interrelationships between the school organisation committee, the admission authority—it may be the local authority or the school if it is a foundation or voluntary aided school—and the adjudicator. We need to know more about how the three will interrelate.
Turning to the regulations on the admissions appeals arrangements, regulation 3(c) makes provision for appeals panels to be constituted when joint admission arrangements are in place. In the context of earlier discussions and correspondence, will the Minister put on the record the circumstances in which the joint arrangements might be in place and the scope and extent of the powers of a joint appeals committee? We have explored the circumstances in
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which schools may work together. Their admissions policies may be co-ordinated and they may join together in a federation. It is important to see how the appeals process works when it is part of a wider, co-ordinated process.
The whole issue is fraught with difficulty, as most hon. Members in the Committee will have experienced in their constituencies. The question lying behind the regulations is whether admissions are best tackled by centralisation—by this rather legalistic, bureaucratic approach—and statutory control, or by allowing more freedom in the system to satisfy local demand; allowing the removal of the surplus places rule and allowing parents and other groups to set up new schools. That approach would lead to more parents being satisfied, less bureaucracy and less bureaucratic waste. I fear that these regulations are once again taking us again in the opposite direction and that they would not achieve any of the aims that we wish to see.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): It is the first time that I have worked under your chairmanship, Mr. Hurst, and I am sure that the experience will be as good as people tell me it is. Hon. Members will be delighted to hear that I wish to be as brief as I normally am on these occasions.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) on the over-complication of the arrangements. The Minister will know that our party would have liked local education authorities to deal with these matters at a local level. There is no need for the very elongated and protracted arrangements that are set out in all these statutory instruments. However, we have to deal with what is in front of us.
I want to ask the Minister some brief questions. Regarding statutory instrument No. 2898, is there any role for the admission forums that were set up under the Education Act 2002 in the variation to admission arrangements? As an admission forum is central to deciding those arrangements, it should also have a central position here. We also need a response regarding appeals against the adjudicator, who now seems to be the most powerful person, but is appointed rather than democratically elected at a central or local level. Apart from foundation or voluntary aided schools—which are in charge of their own admissions—would a school, such as a maintained community school, that wanted to change its admission arrangements mid-year have to go through the local education authority? Finally, how can there be any appeals against the admission arrangements to academies? They will be part of the state education system, but as independent state schools. Will people have any redress against them?
We support the arrangements that the Minister has proposed in statutory instrument No. 2899. They are clear and get rid of some of the ambiguities—particularly over students who have been excluded permanently from at least two schools.
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Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): It is an ideal time to have this debate. It is the right time—or perhaps the wrong time from the Minister's point of view—because in my constituency, letters, e-mails and messages on a website are informing parents of their children's future school. There has been a great deal of unhappiness for four years.
These regulations are a bit like the curate's egg: I welcome parts of them. They will be helpful in certain instances. I welcome the ability to vary the number of admissions to schools. That will help to accommodate a bulge going through the system, and that is good. However, there is a structural problem. The Government's housing policies constitute a determined attempt to cover my constituency with more and more houses and tarmac and, consequently, with people and children. In that context, the existing arrangements—even with the variation of the numbers for which I note with happiness the regulations provide—will not be satisfactory.
We have all experienced such problems in our constituencies. A parent will say to us, ''I cannot explain to my child why they have been rejected by such and such a school. Little Willy down the road and all his mates are going there. Why has my son—or daughter—not got a place?'' It is exceedingly difficult to say, ''Oh well, it's the system and how it works.'' Obviously, I welcome every move to make the system more transparent and fairer. I am therefore particularly glad that there are moves to create a timing relationship between counties. Collaboration among counties on the various admission arrangements is helpful. My constituency and county have done very well. They have an overall agreement whereby all the schools in the county reach a decision at the same time. That is great.
I shall explain where we run into problems. In my constituency, which is on the edge of a county, I may suddenly discover, if the other counties are not in line, that some parents have applied to two schools. They hold one place until they know the result of the other application, which causes various time troubles, extra appeals and more uncertainty. That is exceedingly worrying. I shall not go down the route of explaining which of the various methods would be better than the current system. It is tempting to debate the whole basis of these admission regulations but, if I did so, you might rule me out of order, Mr. Hurst. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West that more responsibility should be placed on schools, but that is a debate for another day.
I understand the need to fill school slots. However, if there is a group of children and the schools are equidistant, one school will be more popular than another. I also understand that we must have this type of admission measure and appeal systems to ensure that the children go where they should go. Nothing brings home the value of statutory instruments and orders more than real life and what is happening in our constituencies.
My constituency has two popular schools and no unpopular schools. That is due to my skill, charm and
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ability in running my association and constituency in such a way that everyone wants to go to the schools there. Unfortunately, on the edge of my constituency and a little beyond the edge, there are schools that may be not quite as attractive. Every year, I deal with about 80 children who cannot go to local schools because there are more children than places.
As I said, I welcome the variation arrangements, which may take some of the pressure off, but when parents ask me why their child has to make a bus journey of three quarters of an hour to an hour every day and has to change buses, I have no answer. I could say, ''Come on, it's only an hour and a half a day'', but they would reply, ''Well, that's fine, Mr. Page. Would you like your 12-year-old daughter to hang around at a bus stop on a winter's evening, waiting to catch a bus?'' I have no answer, so I simply say that the way out is to allow popular schools to expand. The Liberal Democrats and the Labour party will remember that, just before the 1997 election, when the Conservative party proposed to allow popular schools to expand, they combined to reject that idea. However, it seems that it is now acceptable. After four years, my constituency has not yet received the financing to expand its two popular schools. I ask the Minister whether I could, under the statutory instruments—