Seventeenth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 27 March 2003
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
The Education Act 2002 (Modification of Provisions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2002
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Education Act 2002 (Modification of Provisions) (No.2) (England) Regulations 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 2953).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient the Education (Objection to Admission Arrangements) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2002.
Mr. Brady: We are happy to take the regulations together, but I fear that our debate could be rent asunder by events elsewhere. We might be interrupted shortly.
I will speak first about the Education (Modifications of Provisions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2002. Regulation 2 amends schedule 1 to the Education Act 1996, which should be welcomed in at least one respect. It enshrines in law one of the memorable moments from the passage of the Education Act 2002, which should be known in the annals of parliamentary history as the Turner amendment. Ministers accepted the powerful argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) during the Standing Committee stage that it was absurd for the Government to require nursery schools to prepare the children in their care for ''adult'' life. The Government commendably responded by accepting our proposed wording that they should prepare children for ''later'' life, which is a far more sensible formulation. It was one relatively minor way in which Standing Committee consideration can improve legislation when Government are prepared to be open to arguments.
The fact that the requirement is now to prepare children for later life raises some questions. How can the requirement be fulfilled given the sparsity of resources available for guidance in schools? Does the Minister accept that each pupil should have at least one session of careers guidance before reaching the compulsory school-leaving age? If not, how can we accept that the requirement to prepare children for later life is being adequately fulfilled? Will he also tell us when the proposed statutory requirement for every pupil to have entitlement to workplace experience or training will be implemented? Does he see the statutory requirement as a necessary part of preparation for later life in the context of both the regulations and the 2002 Act?
Column Number: 4
Regulation 5 deals with a temporary modification of section 52 of the 2002 Act. Will the Minister explain why the temporary modification is necessary? When will section 52(11) come into force and why is it not possible to bring it into force immediately?
In relation to the first set of regulations, during the temporary period when regulation 5 applies, will there be any material difference between regulation 5 and those provisions which would be in place had section 52(11) been implemented with immediate effect?
It is regrettable that such regulations impose on schools yet more interference in the appeals and admissions process. The regulations, and the Government's approach, show a persistence in second guessing and undermining the role of the head teacher in dealing with matters, especially exclusions. It would be preferable for appeals to be limited to those circumstances in which procedural problems have arisen and for heads to have full control over discipline in their schools.
In relation to the second set of regulations, I thank the Minister for School Standards who kindly undertook at a previous sitting on admissions policy to send me the splendid document assessing the net capacity of schools, which I have enjoyed studying. It is a tribute to the skills of officials in the Department who have drafted a document that is eminently readable and even understandable and which has assisted me in preparing for this sitting.
Regulation 2 of the objection to admission arrangements appears further to undermine the freedoms and rights of foundation and voluntary-aided schools, which are their own admissions authorities. Further bureaucracy is proposed via the requirement to consult community and voluntary-controlled schools. The orders also allow those schools in their admission arrangements to enter objections against foundation or voluntary-aided schools but not objections against other community or voluntary-controlled schools. There seems to be an asymmetry in the Government's proposed arrangements, which will limit the freedoms of foundation and voluntary-aided schools.
Regulations 2(4) and (5) give parents the right to object to the adjudicator when the admissions authority has determined an admissions number lower than that indicated by the net capacity assessment, the splendid arrangements to which I referred a moment ago. In that context, although in most respects the document is clear, it appears to contain no provision for the indication of a school's net capacity to take account of a move to specialist status in sport, technology, computing, music or other specialism beyond that which is contained in the division of categories of space that can be utilised into light practical, heavy practical, large performance and so on. Does the Minister believe that sub-division of categories of space is adequate to meet the needs of a school that is changing its status and developing a specialism? The curriculum requirements and the requirement for a school to work with other schools in developing its specialism and to open up facilities to the local community have implications for the use of space. They may be different from the normal
Column Number: 5
assessment of capacity in any other secondary school, and they all imply a different degree of intensiveness in the use of space.
Furthermore, if the Committee approves the regulations, what flexibility will there be to accommodate the changes envisaged under the proposals for 14 to 19-year-olds? It is not difficult to envisage some pupils spending a significant part of the week in a local college of further education, a place of work outside the school or in another school with a different specialism. That flow could operate in both directions; neighbouring schools could also send pupils to the school in question for part of the week. Does the Minister believe that the regulations and the means of assessing the net capacity of schools are sufficiently flexible and have a sufficiently broad scope to accommodate all those issues? In the context of the proposals for 14 to 19-year-olds, far greater emphasis may be placed on vocational or technical education in schools and elsewhere.
Regulation 2(6) replaces the requirement to publish a decision with a requirement to write to all the bodies that the admissions authority was required to consult when formulating its admissions policy. Again, there is a danger that even more paperwork will be created as a result. A large number of statutory consultees would have to be written to about every objection made and every decision taken by the adjudicator. What protection is there against vexatious objections and what are the implications for the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy that will be inflicted on schools?
As I understand it, the requirement to publish remains where the objection relates to one of two different categories: first, where concerns arise over existing selection arrangements; and secondly, where the admission number is reduced below the indicated admission number according to the assessment made. Will the Minister say why the requirement to publish has been limited to those two categories and whether it would be more helpful and appropriate to expect publication in all categories, which I suggest probably carries a far lower administrative burden than writing to all the statutory consultees?
Committee suspended for a Division in the House.
Mr. Brady: On that specific point, I would welcome the Minister's full response.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): I shall be very brief. The regulations are typical of their kind, but I had great difficulty in reading and making sense of them. They are completely lacking in coherence and transparency. I do not hold the Minister or his officials responsible for that. It is how Government lawyers write legislation. However, in terms of transparency, it is the very antithesis of what this and other Governments have claimed.
Column Number: 6
I would dearly like the Minister to explain paragraph (2)(ii) of new regulation 2 in order No. 2901. I should like him to explain something else. Sub-paragraph (a) of new regulation 4 refers to footnote (c), which states that a definition of ''parents'' can be found section 576 of the Education Act 1996. Ironically, I was speaking for the Opposition on education at the time. My memory fails me: I cannot remember section 576 of the 1996 Act. My question is simple. Does the word ''parent'' mean any legal guardian of a child? I should be grateful if the Minister could give us an idea of the definition, and I would love it if he could explain paragraph (2)(ii).
Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as we have something in common. Does he share my view, having had to study such documents when in Opposition, that parliamentary scrutiny would be greatly aided by the provision of official support for Opposition Front Bench spokesmen to help them arrive at a detailed assessment of what the documents mean? [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman who speaks for the Liberal Democrats mentions state funding of political parties. I would never want to be associated with that, but proper, official back-up for parliamentary scrutiny would be very welcome.
Mr. Kilfoyle: The hon. Gentleman said that we had something in common. I hoped, Mr. Benton, that he was going to say that he was an old Evertonian, like you and me. I believe that it would enhance parliamentary scrutiny if we could let the Plain English Campaign loose on this sort of document. It is only a few paragraphs long, but it is as transparent as mud.