Education (Admission Forums) (England) Regulations 2002

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Dr. John Pugh (Southport): I apologise to the Minister if I have missed a lengthy and sound defence of the legislation—[Interruption.] I am relieved to hear that I did not.

The regulations are unnecessary because they set up an unnecessary body. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) pointed that out to me prior to the Committee. Local authorities have historically taken on board most of the objectives that the forum is meant to have, or they ought to have done so. The forum is supposed to have an extensive programme of work. It must

    ''consider how well existing and proposed admission arrangements serve the interests of children'',

which is a job that directors of education in local authorities have historically done reasonably well. The forum is to

    ''promote agreement on admission issues'',

which, again, is a fairly important job for a local authority. The forum must

    ''consider the comprehensiveness and accessibility of the admission literature''.

Any decent director of education or diocesan director of education in the voluntary-aided sector would have that in mind. The forum is to

    ''consider the effectiveness of the authority's proposed co-ordinated admission arrangements''.

If the local authority does not do that well, I should have thought that Ofsted, Her Majesty's inspectors or

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whatever could equally well comment on it. The forum must

    ''consider the means by which admissions procedures might be improved''.

I cannot help thinking that directors of education spend time thinking about that anyway. The forum is to

    ''monitor the admission of children who arrive in the authority's area''.

De facto, the director of education will do that. Where will the information come from, if not from him? The forum must

    ''promote the arrangements for children with special educational needs''.

I understand that a number of bodies in the education spectrum in any local authority area have that function. When we read through the menu of the various things that the forums do, we find that some other body either already does, or ought to do, most of them. What does the forum contribute and is it worth having one?

I do not know whether the Minister has any experience on local authorities, but a familiar routine in any local authority is for a policy and resource committee—I dare say that it is now called a cabinet—to be convened at the beginning of the year to look through a survey of an enormous number of external appointments that must be made. There will normally be mystification about what all those appointments mean or require.

I dare say that Councillor Buggins on each local authority will be shunted off to the forum and that the authority will scrap round to find other people to put on it. That is the reality. The sub-committees, joint forums and all the other complex machinery that is set up under the regulations are, I am afraid, a recipe for increased bureaucracy, an enormous amount of paperwork, a lot of unnecessary clerking and constant mystification, whereby people will wonder what they are doing there in the first place. When they meet on the forums, people will find that they have few hard-edged decisions to make. They will have to sit around doing a lot of considering and promoting: the forums will have four considering roles, three promoting roles and one monitoring role. When people have done all that considering, promoting and monitoring, they will ask themselves about the forum's raison d'être. More importantly, parents, who want a sensible, intelligent and comprehensible system, will wonder why they have to go through or refer to so many ports of call.

The forums add nothing to the procedure. They are unnecessary and laborious. Local authorities have had wide powers to co-opt various people from the voluntary-aided sector, and the distinctive legal status of local education authorities will be further eroded by the regulations.

I dare say that the Minister will make a manful attempt to defend the changes, but he must deal with what they will boil down to in practice. I can tell him with absolute certainty that one local authority after

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another will be scraping round and that people will continually resign and others will continually need to be reappointed to those various bodies. They will not work awfully well, but it will not matter because they will not perform any function. At the end of the day, we will simply have a more complex and bureaucratic but fundamentally less helpful system.

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Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am pleased to have the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh). He gave us an example, which I shall treasure, of the Liberal Democrats' approach to education policy. They seem to think that it is fine for the local education authority to follow its bureaucratic processes and that representatives of schools should have no role—that, surely, would be a travesty.

I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats pour scorn on the prospect of forums to consider, promote and monitor admissions, as the only local authorities that I know to be influenced by Liberal Democrats do nothing but set up bodies to consider, promote, monitor, discuss and endlessly debate matters—they rarely come to a decision.

Dr. Pugh: School governors assiduously monitor their schools' admissions arrangements and the arrangements of the local authorities and frequently make representations to them. Schools already find it difficult to maintain the full complement of members of governing bodies. They do not want school governors to have to concentrate on general cross-authority areas that do not immediately affect them.

Mr. Lansley: I do not agree. My wife was a chairman of a board of school governors and I know that they care about the environment within which the school has to work. Admissions policies are an instrumental part of that environment and it seems to me that boards of governors would want to influence the wider admissions process for their schools.

I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). He did an excellent job and said much more simply anything that I might have said. I shall endeavour not to repeat what he said, although I shall return to one question that he mentioned.

I come to the subject with a little history. The Minister may not recall it, because it happened during the previous Parliament and he was not an Education Minister at the time, but I had some fruitful correspondence with his predecessors on a previous revision of admissions policies—primarily, admissions appeals. I realise, Mr. Chidgey, that that is not the subject before us, but it affords me the opportunity to put on record my appreciation to the then Minister and especially to officials at the Department. They seemed to pay substantial regard to what I had to say—perhaps they were being polite—but I can see that some significant improvements have been made to that code of practice.

My personal experience of the code of practice was of having to fight an admissions appeal that consumed

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literally hundreds of hours of my time. That process—it was not entirely to do with the code of practice—allowed a lack of integrity and transparency. It was a poor process and if I had not succeeded in my appeal I would have sought judicial review, which I would have won. It is a serious worry that the admissions process was capable of being captured by a small group, who were effectively appointing themselves to related bodies to scrutinise each others' decisions in a way that was not accessible to parents—for that purpose, I was a parent.

I shall not go into further detail on that subject as it has no bearing on the admission forums except in one respect. The independence of the admissions appeals process is, or ought to be, an integral part of its structure, and it is intended to be so in the code of practice. It may simply be an omission, but although there are certain prohibitions as to the membership of appeals panels, there is no prohibition on those who are also members of admission forums sitting on the panels. As I understand it, it ought to be clear that those who are part of the process of establishing admission policies, or implementing them in the first place, should not be members of appeals panels that must implement the subsequent processes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West asked many important questions on forums to which the Minister will want to reply. I shall add four of my own. The first is not so much a question as a problem. I acknowledge that it will not arise in South Cambridgeshire because there are no grammar schools there. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West and other hon. Members may be familiar with the presumption, which is reflected in the code of practice and to which the admission forums would presumably have to respond, that where grammar schools form part of the admissions process the exercise of preference should precede the test for selection by aptitude by the grammar school.

The code of practice includes variants as to how the admissions authorities can work out admissions arrangements. One variant, which is not the lead variant expressed in the appendix to the code of practice, is that the cycle of allocation of places should be based on the order of ranking of precedence of parents. Where I used to live, it was true not only in theory but in practice that that meant that parents who sought a place at a grammar school for their child were effectively denied the opportunity to be considered for their second preference because they had to give a school the first preference in their order of ranking. By putting a school second, they lowered or removed their chance of being considered for that school on a first-preference basis because some admissions arrangements and authorities use the expression of a first preference as a criterion for selection. That places parents in an invidious position. Do they seek the opportunity for their child to go to a grammar school, subject of course to the testing process, which in instances such as the one that I am thinking of means that about one in 15 or one in 20 pupils can be selected for a school based on selection tests, or do they leave that to one side and pursue the order of ranking? The code of practice should be much

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clearer about the preference, or the criteria should be geared more towards preferences being treated equally rather than based on an order of ranking to begin with. The model variant in the code of practice allows that to happen and I hope that the admission forums will be able to express that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West briefly referred to my second point on the chairman and vice-chairman. It is perplexing that the code of practice and the structure of the statutory instrument point towards the chairman and vice-chairman not having to be members of the forum. It makes one wonder how they can operate in practice if they do not have any basis from which to come. It would be more explicable if they were not members of the forum but there were some other guidance as to the nature of the persons to be selected. They could be anybody. It is additionally worrisome that they could be members or officials of the authority—I can see nothing that says that they could not be. That is inherently undesirable.

The bodies from which members of the forum are drawn might, by their nature, not wish to elevate any one of their number to the position of chairman—they might want someone who is disinterested in any of the admissions authorities—and might want all members of the forum to be able play a representative role. There should be more guidance about who the chairman and the vice-chairman should be. It should be specified that they should not be members or employees of the authority.

I shall confine myself to one more question. It is interesting how the joint forums are to work. Two of the categories of members of admission forums are to be drawn from nominations from diocesan boards of education or from Roman Catholic Church dioceses. The diocesan board or boards for a particular authority area are required either to agree or, if they do not agree, to have the appointments divided between them by a process set out in regulation 5(4). That says that ''the relevant number'' from each diocese

    ''is 3 divided by the number of dioceses of the Church of England in which the area of the local education authority is comprised rounded down to the nearest whole number.''

That would be fine if there were two—there would be one representative each. I can see why it has been structured in that way. If there were three, that too would be fine—there could be three members. However, if there were four dioceses, there would be a problem because three divided by four gives three quarters and rounding that down to the nearest whole number gives none. Clearly, that is not intended.

Perhaps it is assumed that there are no local education authorities that include four dioceses—I cannot think of any—but then joint forums have a different character. For the sake of argument, let us imagine that Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Peterborough and Norfolk come together in the fenland area to structure their admissions arrangements. They could easily find that four dioceses—Peterborough, Ely, Norwich and Lincoln—are represented. In the unlikely event that

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that happened and they did not agree, the regulation would not work.

We are here not only to be ingenious in foreseeing problems, but to examine the statutory instrument from the point of view of what might happen should unlikely circumstances and disagreements occur. As I pointed out to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, it is all very well assuming that admission forums will work well and that they will reach consensus. In practice, any admissions authority that does not like what happens can go to the adjudicator. That will frustrate the whole purpose of the arrangements and—the hon. Member for Southport was right—will consume time and effort, so it has to be to a good purpose. It could all be frustrated if, in practice, increasing numbers of decisions were taken not by the admissions authorities working through the forums, but by the adjudicator in a way that was more distant from those authorities and tended to override the sort of control of schools that we want to promote.

9.29 am

 
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