Eighth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 12 March 2003
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Education (Co-ordination of Admission Arrangements) (Primary Schools)
(England) Regulations 2002
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Education (Co-ordination of Admission Arrangements) (Primary Schools) (England) Regulations 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 2903).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the Education (Co-ordination of Admission Arrangements) (Secondary Schools) (England) Regulations 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 2904).
Mr. Brady: As a gesture of good will, I am happy for the two orders to be taken together. However, we are worried about the regulations, and I look forward to the Minister's response in due course. I am sure that, as always, he will do his best to respond to our concerns. It is a pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton.
Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): On a point of order, Mr. Benton. I am cannot hear the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] A member of a Committee should be able to sit where he chooses. I am sure that our friends from the outer world would like to hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say, too.
The Chairman: That is a fair point. It is not the first time that we have experienced such difficulty in this Room. I hope that I can prevail on members of the Committee to speak up. The hon. Gentleman certainly made a proper point about members of the public also wanting to hear what is going on.
Mr. Brady: It may not be the first time that you have heard such criticism in this Room, Mr. Benton, but I assure you that it is the first time that I have ever had such a complaint made about me. I apologise to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) and others who did not hear my opening remarks. [Interruption.] The Minister asks me not to repeat them. As I was concentrating on the opening courtesies of the debate, there is no need for me to repeat them.
During the next couple of weeks we shall deal with important changes to the admissions procedures for schools in a series of Committees, of which this is the first, and several common themes relating to the regulations and the codes of practice that accompany them may crop up during our deliberations. We are in the fortunate position that the regulations have already been subject to debate in another place and it will not be necessary for me to repeat at length matters that have been dealt with elsewhere. I also have the advantage of knowing that questions were asked and ambiguities thrown up in the discussions in
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the other place, which I am sure that the Minister will be eminently well prepared to lay to rest.
I shall turn briefly to the disappointment felt by the Opposition, schools and others who are interested in education throughout the country at the inadequate consultation process. I accept that the Department for Education and Skills has apologised for some of the errors and difficulties that have arisen, but it is difficult to understand why it was in such a hurry. In response to my recent written question confirming the timetable for implementation of the regulations and the codes, the Minister said:
''Most aspects of the Regulations and Codes are intended to apply to admission arrangements affecting intakes from September 2004, which means, for example, that each LEA must have an admission forum in place by 20 March 2003. The obligation to co-ordinate admission arrangements applies to intakes from 2005 but LEAs are encouraged to co-ordinate secondary intakes earlier.''—[Official Report, 9 January 2003; Vol. 397, c. 336W.]
Much, if not all, of what is before us today—at least that which relates to secondary admissions—is required by statute to be in place for the 2005 intakes. The provision of a mere 25 days for consultation on such important measures, especially during the busy time of the beginning of a school year and a new term, is not acceptable, and nor is the spread of consultation that went ahead. I do not want to rehearse points that were made in another place, but it was said that the Secondary Heads Association was consulted whereas the National Association of Head Teachers was not, and that only 500 schools were consulted and others were left to discover documents on the website. Furthermore, at one point the codes of practice disappeared from the Department's website, and I know that the Minister will agree that that is not acceptable. I should be interested to know why they disappeared, for how long, and what steps have been taken to ensure that that does not happen again.
The regulations represent a further significant shift of power from schools to local education authorities and, in the final resort, to Ministers. When the House of Lords discussed the regulations, my noble Friend Lord Lucas, who is, as well as an assiduous attendee in another place, the editor of the ''Good Schools Guide'', said of the regulations:
''They make life more difficult for parents. They reduce choice in a practical sense''.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 January 2003; Vol. 643, c. 978.]
We are seeing the replacement of voluntary arrangements, which have by and large been working well, with a statutory system that is less flexible and more bureaucratic. Already, the new arrangements have delayed and disturbed the settled admissions process in Birmingham and elsewhere, and no wonder when so many neighbouring authorities have different systems and circumstances to co-ordinate. In a letter in response to the consultation process a headmaster commented:
''The proposal introduces another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy, which will cost schools dearly in terms of time, cash and efficiency, and make the system more complex and confusing for everyone concerned.''
That is not what the Department should be aiming for; particularly as Ministers have reached the point of accepting that during the past several years there has
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been too much bureaucracy, and that too many regulations and additional burdens have been placed on schools and parents.
Section 2 of the Education Act 2002—the Minister and I sat on the Bill's Committee, albeit in slightly different capacities—gives the power to suspend statutory requirements. It became clear in Committee that the power to suspend the requirements of education legislation was self-embracing—it even applied to the provisions of the 2002 Act. In that context, I shall ask the Minister a number of specific questions. What are the implications of the regulations for schools seeking exemption for reasons related to innovation? I do not believe that schools that earn autonomy—as it is known in the jargon—would be affected. However, would it not be possible for a school to seek an exemption from admission arrangements for innovation? If that were possible—I believe that it would be—in what circumstances might it happen and what view might the Secretary of State take on such a proposal?
Sections 496 and 497 of the Education Act 1996 are still in force and they give the Secretary of State powers to intervene and impose a scheme. In this massive tangle of bureaucracy and new legislation before us and given that there appears to be a drive towards local arrangements, at least at the level of the local education authority if not at the level of individual schools or groups of schools, in what circumstances would the power to intervene be used by Ministers? What are the implications for the implementation of the regulations?
There has been a shift of power and control from schools to LEAs and Ministers. In that context, what is the status of the codes of practice attached to the regulations? Are they advisory or mandatory? Is it possible, as Lord Davies of Oldham, speaking for the Government in another place said, for the admission authority to be
''a sub-division of the local authority and not the local authority in total.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 January 2003; Vol. 643, c. 989.]
and, if so, in what circumstances? If there is to be a sub-division of the local authority, who decides? Would the LEA arrive at the conclusion, or could schools or groups of schools decide that a sub-division would be a more appropriate or practical area for the co-ordination of admission arrangements?
I also raise concerns on behalf of faith schools. There is a real loss of independence for foundation schools, which are currently their own admissions authorities and for voluntary aided schools, which, similarly, control their own admission arrangements. In the debate in the other place, Lord Davies said that the codes are ''implied'' by the 1996 Act and therefore have statutory force. He said that provisions seeking to prevent faith schools, especially Catholic schools, from interviewing the parents of prospective pupils to establish their faith and commitment are not compulsory.
Will the Minister be explicit—do faith schools remain free to interview to determine the faith of applicants or not? The Minister in the other place
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implied that they did. In fact, he stated quite clearly that it was a matter of guidance, not a matter of law. Faith schools throughout the country need a clear explanation from the Minister.
When a faith school believes that it needs information beyond that contained in a common entry form in the progress of its admissions system, will that form simply be an additional one for parents? That might have an unintended consequence. The Minister envisages a simplification of the process—parents have only one application form to fill in whereas before they had several. However, in practice, if a faith school feels that the common form does not provide sufficient depth of information to arrive at an adequate judgment, is it not possible that parents would face a more complex situation and more bureaucracy with which to deal?