Fifth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 18 March 2003
[Mr. David Chidgey in the Chair]
Education (Admission Forums) (England)
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Education (Admission Forums) (England) Regulations 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 2900).
It is a pleasure, Mr. Chidgey, to see you in the Chair. It is a great pleasure also to see that the Minister for School Standards is still in his post at a time of such momentous change. I know that we are under pressure of time because of other events taking place in the House today, so I shall move on fairly swiftly.
The Opposition have significant concerns about the changes to admission arrangements made by the regulations. The Liberal Democrats clearly do not share our interest in such matters, but it is none the less interesting to see that some of us, in our timekeeping and in putting schools and hospitals first, still hold true to our convictions.
In the Education Act 2002 and in the regulations, the Government are replacing voluntary and informal arrangements, which by and large work well, with formal arrangements. They are replacing free co-operation with intervention. They are creating a type of bureaucracy that will go far beyond the direct impact of the regulations. Not only shall we see the creation of a statutory admissions forum in each local authority area, but the bureaucratic ramifications of that will be felt by Churches, schools and groups of schools. They will all be forced to look for people to nominate, sometimes having to set up procedures for the nomination and election of those whom they wish to put forward for membership of admissions forums.
The regulations deal first with the role of the admissions forums. Their role comes under a number of headings. They should consider the existing arrangements, including co-ordinated arrangements; they should promote agreement on admission; they should consider the admission literature produced by each admissions authority; they should monitor the admission of excluded children, looked-after children, children with special educational needs and children seeking admission outside the normal admissions round; and they should also consider any other admissions issues arising from the above.
The admissions forums have a broad remit. Each of those headings gives rise to a number of questions. If the existing arrangements were deemed by the admissions forums to be satisfactory and working well, will the Minister confirm that it would be perfectly appropriate for the forums simply to indicate that that was the case and leave them unchanged?
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Under the heading of promoting agreement, will equal weight be given to different types of schools if there is disagreement? The Minister will clearly know of admissions forum areas where a minority of schools are of a different nature or structure—for instance, specialist schools, sports or music colleges, schools with partial selection and grammar schools operating total selection, or an academy or Church school. The valid interests of such schools should be represented, even though they are different from those of the majority of the schools represented on the forum. In those circumstances, is it the expectation that the will and the interests of the majority will always prevail, or can we take it that promoting agreement means seeking consensus? Is there an expectation that the forum will try to accommodate all those different interests as well as it can?
Can an agreement reached by an admission forum be unique? Can it reflect local circumstances that do not arise elsewhere or the views of local people that might cause the agreement to be different from those reached on admission forums elsewhere? If the whole or part of such an agreement were to be at variance with the code of practice for admissions, would the will of the forum or the code of practice prevail? The Minister stated last week that, although the code of practice might contain a requirement or an expectation that Church schools would not interview parents to establish their faith, it would still be open to them to do so provided that they had had regard to the code of practice. Is it similarly possible for an admission forum to have regard to what is said in the code of practice but then to come to conclusions—although explaining its reasoning—that lead it to proceed in a different direction?
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): My hon. Friend refers to the relationship between the admission forum and the code of practice when there is no agreement. Does he share my concern that, although the admission forum is clearly intended to proceed by way of consensus, there is nothing in practice to prevent any authority represented on the forum from treating a failure to agree with its point of view as the basis for an objection to the adjudicator? Therefore, in an increasing number of cases, arrangements could be determined by the adjudicator rather than by the admission forum.
Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend's important point is made all the more significant by the odd structure of the office of the adjudicator and by the absence of an appeals mechanism; any appeal against the findings of the adjudicator could end up requiring judicial review. We could be witnessing the replacement of workable voluntary arrangements with not just a statutory mechanism, but one that is so dependent on legal routes that, although it allows schools and interest groups within a forum to move in other directions, it obliges them to face enforcement procedures via the adjudicator's office. It is difficult to tell where that will lead, and there is a significant danger not merely of confusion but of legal action in many cases.
It would be welcome if the Minister could deal in a single word with the question of school groups. The regulations stipulate that schools should be grouped
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into three categories: community and voluntary controlled, voluntary aided, and foundation schools. That prompts one to ask into which category an academy or a technology college should go, and where an institution that is both a faith school and an academy might belong.
I turn to the matter of membership. The regulations contain an elaborate set of rules for membership of admission forums, dividing people into core members and other members and specifying the minimum and maximum numbers of core members of each type. It is made clear, for instance, that there should be at least one member and not more than five members from the local authority; at least one member and not more than three nominated by the Church of England; at least one member and not more than three nominated by the Roman Catholic diocese and at least one member and not more than three from each of the school groups. That implies that there would be at least three such members on each forum, although I assume that that would not be the case if a forum had no members from one of the school groups in its region. It is also made clear that there should be at least one member and not more than three from the parent governors.
If all those people are nominated in a given area, there is potentially provision for five members to come from the local education authority, five to come from the local authority in question and for six others. So far, so good. It appears that the Government are seeking to set out a framework in which the local authority cannot automatically dominate the membership of the admissions forum and exercise control at the expense of possibly competing interest groups, such as particular categories of school.
However, there is also provision for up to three members outside the other categories that I have already mentioned to be chosen by the authority. That could lead to a situation in which, at a minimum, eight members could be from the authority or be appointed by the authority according to criteria to be chosen by that authority. That clearly gives the local authority the ability to control the admissions forum in exactly the way that it appears Ministers were initially trying to avoid. I would be grateful for an insight into the Minister's thinking on that point. The issue is particularly important if there is no academy or city technology college in a given area, as LEA appointees could form a majority there.
What rules should be followed by the local authority in making appointments? Can the Minister tell the Committee whether the Nolan rules apply? If the appointees are members of the local authority, can we assume that they would be appointed proportionate to the strength of political parties on a local council or can they all be from the ruling group?
Core members can recommend other members to the LEA for appointment. That gives rise to two questions. First, are there specific guidelines that the local authority would be expected to follow in accepting or rejecting those people put forward for appointment to the admissions forum? Secondly, does that not yet again add to the danger that schools, and
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those directly representing them, could find themselves in a fairly small minority on the admissions forum?
I have a specific technical point relating to election to office. I would be interested to know the Minister's views as to why it would be possible for the chairman and the vice-chairman of the admissions forum not to be members of the forum. Did he have any particular circumstances in mind in making provision for that?
I have at least two concerns about joint forums. The first is that the schedule relating to the formation of joint forums does not break down the distribution of membership in the same way and detail as the provisions in the regulations for single forums. It would be helpful to have further clarification from the Minister as to what protection there is to ensure equal representation for members from different authority areas. What balance will there be to ensure, for instance, that academies or CTCs in one part of a joint area continue to have membership of the joint forum?
My second concern in relation to joint forums is technical, but the Minister might be able to give a simple answer. My reading of regulation 12(2) is that it provides for the dissolution of an existing forum before a joint forum is established, but not for the dissolution of a joint forum. Having entered into a joint arrangement, the parties to that arrangement might come to the view that it has not worked and would perhaps like to dissolve it so as to return to single admissions forum arrangements. I trust that that is possible under the regulations, but would be grateful if the Minister could point to the provisions that will allow that to happen.