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House of Commons

Thursday 24 November 2005

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Trust Schools

1. Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): What primary legislative changes will be required to create the new category of trust school and implement the other measures in the recent education White Paper. [31309]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): Annex A to the White Paper sets out the legislative changes needed to implement trust schools and the other measures in the White Paper.

Mr. Vaizey : I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Her colleague in another place said that hardly any legislative changes were needed for trust schools. Is not that because these proposals have been watered down so that, in reality, trust schools are no different from foundation schools? Can the Secretary of State give me three specific differences between trust schools and the existing arrangements?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that we are building on a model that is already out there—schools that can acquire a foundation. Voluntary-aided schools are a good example of that in practice, and there are many others. We propose to put safeguards into the Bill to ensure that external partners that want to get involved with schools are committed to raising educational standards, have charitable objectives, are able to avail themselves of the power to innovate, and have a duty to promote race relations and social cohesion.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government have been hoist on their own hyperbole by talking rather carelessly about independent trust schools? The fact is that, as it says in the White Paper, they will be part of the family of local authority schools and will not have the independence that academies have. In many ways, the local authority relationship will be just as it has been in the past.

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend, who has great knowledge of these matters, is right to say that under the
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new mechanism trust schools will be part of the local authority family of schools. They will be funded by the local authority, which will play a strategic role in improving standards and in commissioning school places in the right places to meet pupil needs and the demands of parents.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): According to newspaper reports this week, restricted policy documents circulating within the Minister's Department state that trust schools will be able to decide on the admissions criteria that are in their best interests. Will the Minister confirm that such a document exists? Does she accept that that means that schools could use academic selection as part of their criteria? Does she accept that the Prime Minister, the White Paper and education experience in Northern Ireland have proved that that is the fairest and best way of selecting youngsters for post-primary schools?

Ruth Kelly: I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's case. I have been clear about this, and the White Paper is clear about it. Trust schools have to operate with regard to the code of admissions, within the law, which means that there will be no return to selection and the divisive 11-plus. If any unfair criteria are used, they can be overturned by the adjudicator, which acts on a statutory basis in the public interest.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Speaker: I call Kerry McCarthy.

Natascha Engel: I have obviously made a great impression!

What obligation will trust schools have to looked-after children, who are among the most vulnerable children in society? We talk about children who leave with five good GCSEs, but what are we doing about those who leave with no qualifications at all?

Ruth Kelly: I assure my hon. Friend that she has made a great impression on me in the months that she has been in this House, and I am sure that she will continue to do so in years to come.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to looked-after children. They are a group of children very close to my own heart, and in the months to come I would like   my Department to produce quality proposals specifically dealing with their educational attainment. We need to make regulations to give looked-after children priority in admissions not only to community schools but to trust schools. I am committed to doing that.

Mr. Speaker: I hope that I am right this time. I call Patrick McLoughlin.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I am pleased to say that you are, Mr. Speaker, as always.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the great difference between trust schools and grant-maintained schools is that the latter were established only after parents had a ballot? What right will parents have as to whether schools are trust schools?
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Ruth Kelly: It will be up to the school's governing body to decide whether it wants to bring in an external partner, following consultation with parents. As a last resort, the local authority will have the ability to decide whether the trust is in the best interests of the pupils in that area, whether educational standards would rise and whether the majority of parents would feel happy with adopting a trust.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Teachers in Stafford are much more interested in behavioural measures in school and individual learning plans tailored to students' needs. Will such measures be introduced without the need for lengthy legislation?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is right that we need a clear right to discipline. We are committed to introducing that in the legislation. However, trust schools will make it easier to replicate success. For example, when they tailor education specifically to the needs of pupils in their area or link up with a local business on a charitable basis that can provide work placements and use the flexibility to tailor the curriculum to meet the needs of pupils in the area, it will be much easier via the trust school mechanism to replicate that model. All the trust model is trying to do is encourage collaboration throughout an area where a trust has a specific plan to encourage that sort of education.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Will the Secretary of State publish before the recess all the research that she has on the impact on social segregation of allowing schools to set their admissions policy? Does she regret the fact that a few schools already discourage from attending and weed out local disadvantaged children? How would allowing thousands more schools, including primary schools, to set their admissions policies stop those unfair practices?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman and I had a good discussion about that yesterday. I drew to his attention the fact that the Department is working on drawing up a measure on social segregation. We do not believe that existing measures in the public domain do justice to the issue. In comparing local authorities and considering the impact of own-admission policies on social segregation, the preliminary conclusions of our research show that there is no correlation between the number of own-admission authorities and social segregation. Indeed, they show that, in some areas where the vast majority of schools are community schools, social segregation has been much higher. When we have finished the research we will be in a position to publish it.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that there is concern about the exact status of the code of practice on school admissions. Does she think that it is worth considering the argument for including the code of practice as a schedule in the forthcoming Bill?

Ruth Kelly: If my hon. Friend is asking whether we are prepared to make the code of practice statutory, I do not believe that that is necessary to achieve the objectives that he sets for the policy and the Department. The code
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is established on a statutory basis, but there is discretion and flexibility in it to adapt admissions to meet the specific ends of a school and the pupils in the area. For example, if a school wanted to develop a specialism, the code provides that it could choose 10 per cent. by aptitude. The adjudicator operates on a statutory basis and can make binding decisions for all non-religious schools. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the code's importance in ensuring that all schools in the maintained sector operate on the basis of fair admissions.

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. David Cameron.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Thank you for recognising me, Mr. Speaker.

The White Paper states that the Government's aim is

We support that principle. Part of it is giving the new trust schools, such as the academies and the foundation schools, control over their admissions. Instead of endlessly reassuring her Back Benchers, will the Secretary of State explain what benefits she thinks the new freedom will bring?

Ruth Kelly: It can be important for a school in certain circumstances to have control over the criteria that it sets for its admissions. For example, if a school operates in an area where specific ethnic groups are highly concentrated, it might be appropriate for it to move away from a catchment-area system towards one that promotes a mixed-ability intake from a much broader area. On the other hand, it may be appropriate, as I explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), for a music college to be able to select 10 per cent. by aptitude to build up an orchestra in the school. It could then share best practice on music with other schools in the area. That is the sort of freedom that I want. I do not want the sort of freedom that the hon. Gentleman talks about when he says that his only objection to the city academy programme is that it cannot select on ability.

Mr. Cameron: Three weeks ago, the Secretary of State said that the code of practice on admissions would not be made a statutory code. Today, she said that she did not think that that was necessary. Can I ask her to go a bit further and rule out that change?

Ruth Kelly: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the code achieves its ends of ruling out selection by ability on its current statutory basis. He is confused—the code already operates on a statutory basis. Schools take it into account, and then the adjudicator, which is also statutory, can use its discretion to say whether the school has interpreted it correctly. Interpretation of the code, however, is very important for schools that want to create their own distinctive ethos.

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