Education (Admission Forums) (England) Regulations 2002

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The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): I thank all hon. Members who have spoken for their relative brevity and congratulate the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and for Southport on their mastery of a complicated issue. This Committee is the forum for considering the subject in detail, but I am glad to hear that it is not some sort of mastermind competition for Ministers. I am unsure which Opposition Members would play Chris Tarrant or Bamber Gascoigne.

I am sorry that none of the hon. Members who have spoken mentioned the fact that the idea of admissions forums is drawn from good practice, notably in Birmingham and Hampshire where they have helped all parties involved to deal with some difficult issues. There has been a widespread welcome for the forums from the Local Government Association, the Foundation and Voluntary Aided Schools Association, national governors councils and parent associations. That should give us confidence that we are moving in the right direction. I can also reassure hon. Members that we worked out the detail of the proposals with a group comprised of representatives of all interests in the education system. Let me run through the points that have been raised.

First, if everything is working well, will admissions forums seek to change policies? No, of course not. Their role is not to cause trouble. Secondly, will all interests on any forum carry equal weight? Yes, but I do not want to give the impression that members of forums will have votes. We have made no provision for that, so that all the interests represented on forums will have an equal voice and will work by consensus. There is no possibility, therefore, of a majority opinion being imposed on a minority. Thirdly, we want every forum to think about local issues, a point raised by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. As he said, the forums' tasks are laid down. Their purpose is not to act as a talking shop, but to help admissions authorities to come to terms with difficult issues.

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I was taken with the comments of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire about the importance of working through difficult issues in a serious way, and I am pleased to hear him report good co-operation in that respect at official, and possibly ministerial, level. I do not think that anyone would claim to have a monopoly on wisdom on this issue, but I am reassured to hear him say that the appeals process has been improved. Several questions were raised about the membership of forums.

Mr. Brady: Before the Minister moves on to membership, will he deal with a different question? Given that he has confirmed that a forum can seek to preserve the unique local situation if that works, what would happen if the forum were to disagree with the provisions of the code of practice? Would he expect the forum's view to be persuasive in any appeal to an adjudicator against the arrangements?

Mr. Miliband: It will be clear to the adjudicator that the forum must have regard to the code of practice. That gives a clear indication of the relationship between the two. Forums will not dictate the code of practice, but they must have regard to it.

Mr. Brady: Will there be a reciprocal expectation, such that the adjudicator must have regard to the views of the forum?

Mr. Miliband: That depends on the issue. The adjudicator will deal with a range of questions, most of them relating to individual schools. Of course, it is not for a forum to dictate or pass judgment on the admissions policy of an individual school. That will remain a matter for the admissions authority. It would not be for a forum to appeal to the adjudicator against the admissions authority's policy, because that is a matter for the admissions authority.

Dr. Pugh: The Minister said that it is not for the forums to pass judgment but, if we look through the regulations, we can clearly see that it is not for the forums to make a decision either. They do not seem to have the capacity to make a decision about anything other than their own membership. Is that not a perfect definition of a talking shop? I know that there are problems with committees making decisions, but we can be very relaxed about the membership and other details of the forums because it seems that they will neither pass judgment nor make decisions.

Mr. Miliband: Perhaps there is a third way between being a talking shop and being a decision-making body that informs local practice and promotes good practice. That is not unreasonable.

I said that I would address the issues of membership. In the first half of his contribution, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West asked whether academies and city technology colleges would be represented. I later got the feeling that he understood that academies and CTCs would be guaranteed representation.

Mr. Brady: My first question was not whether academies and CTCs would be represented but about the category into which they would be placed given that it is a requirement that all members should fall into one of the three categories of schools. They do not

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immediately appear to fall into the categories of foundation, community or voluntary aided schools.

Mr. Miliband: There is a reserved place for a representative of academies and CTCs.

A number of questions were raised about the representatives of a particular section of the local community. I can confirm that they will not be members of a local authority. There were also questions about the chairmanship and vice-chairmanship. We have made provision for a neutral chairman to be appointed by the core members of the forum. Again, I can confirm that that will not be done by majority voting. There will be no question of shoehorning in a chairman against the will of some core members of the forum. If there is a consensus for a neutral chairman, it is sensible to allow the forum to have one. Interestingly enough, that provision was widely supported by the focus group that we brought together to consider the issue.

The hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire and for Altrincham and Sale, West asked about joint forums. Two or more LEAs may set up a joint forum if they wish. Regulation 12(3) means that everything about a forum for a single authority applies to a joint forum. There will be no compulsion on an authority that joins a joint forum to remain on it for ever more. I will not venture into metaphors about parallel arguments. This is a simple power.

Mr. Brady: This may be obvious, but I cannot see in the regulations any power that would allow an admissions forum to dissolve itself. My specific question is about the statutory mechanism. Where does the power lie in the statute for a joint forum to dissolve itself, given that it does not appear that a single forum can dissolve itself?

Mr. Miliband: Regulation 12(2) states:

    ''Where an authority, having established a forum, subsequently decides to establish a joint forum in accordance with paragraph (1), the existing forum must be dissolved before a joint forum is constituted.''

Because the same rules apply to a joint forum as to a single forum, I am assured that there is the capacity for the interests of individual authorities to be secured.

Mr. Brady: I shall not labour the point any further, but I simply do not accept that the Minister's advice is correct given that the power to which he has referred is specific to circumstances in which the forum wishes to establish a joint forum. There is no parallel situation enshrined in the regulations that provides for the

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dissolution of that joint forum. I flag up what appears to be an oversight, and the Minister may wish to consider this point at his leisure.

Mr. Miliband: It might help if I wrote to the hon. Gentleman and gave him the full details of our legal advice on this issue.

Mr. Lansley: The Minister referred to the question of a neutral chairman and vice-chairman. As I said, I can see the point of having a disinterested chairman. That is fine. However, the Minister did not say whether the chairman, like the other nominations from sections of the community, should not be member of the local authority. Can he assure us that he would not be a member of the authority?

Mr. Miliband: I cannot, but I shall find out. I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman, so I shall write to him as soon as possible to explain the position and to reassure him on that point.

Mr. Brady: The Minister has commendably been trying to deal seriously with the points that the Committee has raised. However, a couple of points that I raised earlier have not been dealt with. First, I asked about LEA appointments and whether the Nolan rules and proportionality arise.

I might be doing the Minister an injustice in that I might not have made my second point, although I wonder whether he could deal with it in writing. Picking up on a discussion from last week about whether co-ordinated admission arrangements might apply to a subdivision of an LEA, I would like to know whether an admissions forum could apply to that same subdivision in certain circumstances. I do not expect an answer now, but I should be grateful to learn his views when he puts pen to paper.

Mr. Miliband: The hon. Gentleman will be reassured that I wrote to him yesterday about the outstanding issue that he has raised, but I shall certainly write to him again with due speed. The third and fourth instalment of this five-part saga takes place tomorrow—keen viewers can tune in again twice. I shall try to get back to the hon. Gentleman as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the Education (Admission Forums) (England) Regulations 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 2900).

Committee rose at nineteen minutes to Ten o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Chidgey, Mr. David (Chairman)
Brady, Mr.
Buck, Ms
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
Cawsey, Mr.
Dobbin, Jim
Lansley, Mr.
Miliband, Mr.
Pugh, Dr.
Quin, Joyce
Rendel, Mr.
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Twigg, Derek

 
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