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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

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Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Mr. Christopher Chope

†Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
†Berry, Roger (Kingswood) (Lab)
†Cawsey, Mr. Ian (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
†Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
†Davey, Mr. Edward (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
†Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
†Eagle, Maria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills)
Greening, Justine (Putney) (Con)
†Hepburn, Mr. Stephen (Jarrow) (Lab)
†Hoban, Mr. Mark (Fareham) (Con)
†James, Mrs. Siân C. (Swansea, East) (Lab)
†McIsaac, Shona (Cleethorpes) (Lab)
†Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) (Lab)
†Russell, Christine (City of Chester) (Lab)
†Taylor, Mr. Ian (Esher and Walton) (Con)
†Williams, Mark (Ceredigion) (LD)
Sîan Jones, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

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Wednesday 26 October 2005

[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Education (School Organisation Proposals) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2005

2.30 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Education (School Organisation Proposals) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2005 (S.I., 2005, No. 1801).

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope? We are discussing a statutory instrument that is designed to accelerate the opening and expansion of secondary and primary schools. It may help the Committee if I provide some background to the statutory instrument.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Chope. I am sorry to raise a point of order so early in the discussion, but I want to seek your guidance. The Government announced yesterday that they wanted to abolish school organisation committees. Should this Committee be considering these regulations given that the committees are about to be abolished?

The Chairman: I think that that is a point of debate.

Mr. Hoban: I shall address in a moment the hon. Gentleman’s comment, and why it is important that we continue to address this statutory instrument. Given yesterday’s announcement, it had crossed my mind to withdraw our prayer, but there are relevant matters in this statutory instrument that should flow through any legislation brought forward to abolish school organisation committees.

The school organisation committees were set up under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 to take decisions about school organisation out of the hands of elected politicians, to devolve them to local people and to set up committees composed of representatives of the local education authority, the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Learning and Skills Council and schools. It is ironic that having set up school organisation committees in 1998 to take decisions away from elected politicians, the Government yesterday announced that they were to abolish the committees and return their powers to the hands of elected politicians, albeit at a local level.

One proposal that a school organisation committee must consider is whether to increase the admission numbers at a primary or secondary school. When a school proposes to increase its admission numbers by 27 or more, or to increase its capacity by 25 per cent. or 200, whichever is the lesser, the committee must consider those applications and decide whether to accept them. Any school looking to the regulations
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and the guidance to help it navigate through the system will recognise that working out whether a proposal must be brought forward is not straightforward.

It is important to have this debate and to consider whether this statutory instrument is still relevant and whether it achieves the ends set out for it, because despite the abolition of the committees, they will be replaced by an organisation that controls the expansion of schools. I understand from yesterday’s White Paper that local authorities will take on those powers. It is important that we understand what lessons can be learned from the school organisation committee regime to make it easier for schools to expand.

We recognise, as the Government do, that we need more places at good schools and more good schools. The increase in capacity is the prime means of increasing parental choice. Without capacity there is often, as the Prime Minister said, no choice.

We recognise also that selection by postcode is a consequence of a shortage of places in good schools and a shortage of good schools. If there were more places in good schools and more good schools, there would be less need for rationing school places. Those on both Front Benches share the view that we must have more places in good schools. We support in principle any measures that will accelerate the provision of more places in good schools. The statutory instrument before us is designed to accelerate that.

The first question I have for the Minister is why it has taken so long for the statutory instrument to be laid before Parliament. It was laid in July, and the former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, now the Home Secretary, promised it back in July 2004. For a scheme that is about fast-tracking school expansion, the statutory instrument does not seem to have been fast-tracked. Will the Minister explain why it has taken so long to come forward, and will she provide any reasons for the delay?

The second point on which I want to draw is that yet again the instrument carves out grammar schools from the plans to fast-track the expansion of schools. Regulation 4 makes explicit reference to the fact that the instrument excludes grammar schools. That is surprising, because although the Government have ideological objections to the expansion of grammar schools, why cannot a grammar school, if it is successful and popular, have the same opportunities to expand as other schools?

The Government will allow specialist schools that select by aptitude in modern language, sport or art to expand under this process, yet a grammar school is excluded from taking advantage of the fast-track proposals before us. Who misses out? It is the children on the borderline; the people whom the National Audit Office argued in its report would do better in a grammar school than in a comprehensive. By restricting the opportunities to expand through this statutory instrument and earlier secondary legislation, we are denying the chance for more young people to enjoy the opportunities that those schools offer.

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I am surprised that the Department has continued with its rigid line against the expansion of grammar schools. Lord Adonis, who is now the Under-Secretary in the House of Lords, once said:

    “In education alone, Labour must come to terms with selection, standards and the private sector . . . each of them offending against old or new taboos.”

One would have thought that there would have been a softening in approach by the Government, given Lord Adonis’s role in the Department. Perhaps the Minister will explain why the Government continue to resist the plans to allow grammar schools to go through that fast-track approach.

It appears from the Government’s new proposal outlined yesterday that if a foundation or trust school decided in line with the wishes of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to group and stream pupils more by ability through a grammar school stream or a secondary modern stream, and that school proved to be effective, popular and successful, it would be allowed to continue to expand; whereas a grammar school that selects pupils before they are admitted will be refused the opportunity to expand.

That is not the only weakness of this statutory instrument. This is the second time that the Government have attempted to make it easier for popular and successful schools to expand. In 2003, statutory instrument No. 1229 helped to create the fast-track route that will be modified by the instrument before us.

Will the Minister explain what difference she thinks the instrument before us will make? Does she believe that many schools are put off by the speed of the process, and that the fast-track route will encourage more schools to apply, or does she believe that the process of applying for approval puts off schools applying to expand to meet the demands of parents and pupils who want to join? Why, in considering how to expand popular and successful schools, did the Minister not take the opportunity to simplify the process by which schools can expand? It would have been an ideal opportunity, given the Government’s commitment to expanding popular and successful schools.

If a school were unpopular or unsuccessful, parents would not want their children to go there. If one allowed schools to choose for themselves whether to expand, those schools to which no parent would want to send their children would not be able to expand, and those schools that were popular, effective and in demand could expand under their own volition beyond their existing admission numbers by more than 27 pupils per year. They would not have to go through the complicated and lengthy process of applying to a school’s organisation committee.

To demonstrate how difficult it is for schools to go through that process, the Minister for Schools said in a parliamentary answer to me in today’s Hansard that only 10 schools had applied to increase their numbers in the past year. It was interesting to note that of those 10 schools, three are still awaiting a decision. Of the remaining seven, two were fortunate that their local education authorities were keen for them to expand, and they had determined to implement the
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application. Of the remaining five, three were approved by the school’s organisation committee, but two were rejected. If two out of five schools are rejected, it is not a good hit rate for a scheme that is meant to encourage schools to expand and to favour expansion.

I want to mention a particular school, which I believe happens to be in your constituency, Mr. Chope: Highcliffe school in Dorset. The proposal to increase pupil numbers at that school was rejected by the adjudicator despite the support of local councillors, parents and perhaps even you, Mr. Chope. Schools that seek to be popular and to expand have their applications rejected by the school organisation committee and even by the adjudicator, despite previous statutory instruments that created a presumption in favour of expansion.

I looked at the school adjudicator’s report for last year to understand some of the reasons why those applications were rejected. Was it to do with the timing of the process? Was it too long and had it put schools off? Did it act as a huge disincentive or a barrier to schools that wanted to expand? No, it appears not. The adjudicator stated in his report:

    “The 13 cases where proposals were not approved were mostly where proposers have been caught between the pressures to reduce surplus places and conserve valuable resources; and other pressures, reflected in the statutory guidance, to pay more attention to educational standards and choice.”

It would appear, based on the adjudicator’s remarks, that we should be considering in the statutory instrument not a fast-track procedure but a further entrenchment of the presumption in favour of good and popular schools expanding.

It is disappointing that we have not seen that commitment from a Government who talk so much about choice and increasing capacity. The whole House would welcome what the Secretary of State said yesterday, and perhaps the Government will have another opportunity to reflect on the regulations when they abolish school organisation committees, to see what further steps can be taken to encourage and ensure that choice is up there as a main priority for expanding schools.

This is not unalloyed bad news. The regulations contain some positive aspects that will improve the process. First, schools can send representatives to meetings to argue their case as to why expansion is positive, a right that schools appear not to have had before and that addresses a long-standing grievance against the process.

Secondly, the regulations start to make it easier for schools that have had their application rejected by the school organisation committee to have their application referred to the school adjudicator. The Minister has kindly supplied a vast array of statutory instruments. Statutory instrument No. 1229 from 2003 states that a school can have its rejected application referred to the adjudicator if

    “a school is a ‘popular school’ if the number of unsuccessful appeals against a decision refusing an applicable child admission to the school for the school year in which the proposals are rejected by the committee exceeds 10 per cent. of the total of the admission
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    numbers for the compulsory school age relevant age groups for that school year, where the school is a secondary school, or 5 per cent. of that total, where the school is a primary school.”

That seems, again, to be rather complicated and to restrict the flow of failed applications from the school organisation committee to the adjudicator.

Thankfully, the statutory instrument before us today makes that easier because it deletes all the references to the definition of a popular secondary school. We should be grateful for that. I am sure that it makes life easier for those working their way through the system. However, I am afraid that it still leaves a hurdle for primary schools. It still defines a popular primary school, and I will give the Committee the benefit of that definition. It says that

    “a primary school is a ‘popular primary school’ if the number of first preferences of parents for places at the school exceeds the admission number for the relevant age group in the current school year by more than 10 per cent.”.

It is slightly odd that that is for proposals where admission numbers are to be increased by 27 or more. It would sound to me as though a primary school would be looking for another form’s worth of entry. A one-form primary school with only 30 children that wants to double its size needs only 3 children to be knocked back—not to get their first preference—for the proposal to be triggered. Why on earth have a de minimus criteria in a statutory instrument such as this when it would be far easier for schools, parents and local authorities if primary schools were given the same freedom as secondary schools to have unsuccessful applications referred to a school adjudicator?

There are some positive aspects to the measure. We think it right that the process should be accelerated. Given the consensus between those on the two Front Benches on the importance of improving choice and capacity in the system, the Government are not, perhaps, as wholehearted in implementing their commitment to expanding schools as they gave the impression that they would be last July. We hope that yesterday’s statement by the Secretary of State will give them a new spur to improving school choice and capacity. Above all, I hope that the Secretary of State will take my criticisms into account in the legislation that will implement the White Paper, and make it easier for popular and successful schools of all types to expand.

2.46 pm

Mr. Davey: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. It is the first time I have had that pleasure. The Committee is grateful to the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) for his detailed explanation of some of the technicalities. Like him, I find nothing objectionable about the regulations when they are considered in a narrow sense. They seem to be designed to speed up an existing process, and one would have to have a good argument for saying that the process, if it is a good one, should be slow.

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There may, however, be a need for proper consultation. I am sure that the Minister can assure us that the speeding-up will be minimal and will not make a huge change to time scales, and therefore will not massively reduce consultation. One is then left to ask why the Government are introducing the measure. If the change is relatively small and if, more significantly, the Government are about to abolish the schools organisation committees to which the measure refers, why introduce the measure? Obviously, that legislation has not yet been presented to Parliament, but Ministers—including, presumably, this Minister, as she is from the same Department—were not terribly complimentary about the committees in yesterday’s White Paper. On page 107, it says of the committees’ structure:

    “This adds to bureaucracy and gives a bias in favour of the status quo.”

We are told that that is why the Government want to get rid of the committees.

The Government want to fast-track the decision-making process of the committees, but think that they are bureaucratic and biased towards the status quo, which the Government want to change. We are left with a degree of puzzlement. I hope that the Minister can enlighten us as to why the Government, given the important policies that they announced yesterday, want to continue with old, bureaucratic policies, while the new policies are being developed.

The hon. Member for Fareham was right to say that it is reasonable for people to try to help with the expansion of successful schools, but the issue is rather more complicated than he put it. Sometimes, schools are good and popular because they are small. Some parents want the ethos that one finds in a small school; rapid expansion may change the very ethos that makes the school successful.

Mr. Hoban: The hon. Gentleman makes a familiar point, but I have an example that disproves the generality of his comments. A school in my constituency has grown significantly in the past five or six years, and now has 1,700 pupils. While it has expanded its results have got better and better, and it is still over-subscribed.

Mr. Davey: I do not want to dispute the hon. Gentleman’s point, but every community and school is different. I take issue with the idea that, as his remarks seemed to imply, the right approach is to expand all the good and successful schools.

Mr. Hoban: To clarify matters for the record, as I expect the debates will be repeated in the House and in Committee when we consider the education Bill, we want individual schools to make the choice to expand, but we want the expansion process to be easier for them.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful for that clarification and I expect interesting debates about the relative powers of parents, schools and local education authorities in such decisions. No doubt the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make the ultimate decision, but I will come to him in a moment.

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I am interested in how the regulations, and the overall thrust of policy behind them—whether or not we are to retain school organisation committees—fit with what we know will happen in the next few years. We know that in secondary schools in all regions—and to an extent in primary schools in some regions—pupil numbers will significantly decline. The rolls will decline rapidly in some areas. In London—including my constituency, where parents have had many problems finding schools for their children and have not obtained their first preference—the number of secondary school pupils will decline by 40,000 over the next 10 years. That is equivalent, taking the average size of a secondary school as about 1,000, to 40 secondary schools becoming empty.

Successful schools that want to expand may not all be where population growth, or, to be precise, secondary school population growth, is happening, but the fact of falling rolls prompts serious questions. It does not mean that we should not expand successful schools if the schools and parents want that and the local education authority thinks it a good idea. Every case should be judged on its merits. However, I wonder whether in engaging in the present debate we have taken full account of the fact that, throughout the regions, we are about to lose nearly half a million from secondary school numbers in the coming 10 years. That is significant.

That background may not go against the thrust of the regulation. Speeding up may get rid of some of the bureaucracy affecting the school organisation committees that the White Paper identifies, and perhaps there is a need for speeding up the closing of schools as well as their expansion, but what is the Government’s thinking about the fairly historical issue of falling school rolls? It does not seem to be playing a very big part in their ideas.

I am slightly concerned because the thrust of the policies that we are being told about is largely based on London problems. In the north of my constituency, and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), there is huge parental pressure for another school. Seven years ago I was concerned about it and got the local authority to set up an ad hoc committee to consider school numbers, projections of future numbers in north Kingston and existing places. I also got the parents involved. I was, so to speak, a catalyst for Kingston parent power.

We and the local authority considered all the numbers, which, using the Department for Education and Skills guidelines, did not amount to a very good case for another school, but that was not true if local councillors or schools were asked—and certainly not if parents were asked. Central Government’s guidelines were getting in the way of what local people wanted.

Quite a lot of the nonsense that has been talked in recent weeks has suggested that it is always local authorities and sometimes schools that get in the way of changes—in this case expansion of schools or provision of new schools. In my experience that is not the case. I am sure that the Minister can quote examples that go the other way; perhaps they are
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already going through her mind. However, in my constituency experience it has been national problems, not local people, schools or councillors, that have been responsible.

Interestingly, the pressures and parental concern in north Kingston still exist, and there is a strong case for re-examining the issue. The rules have not changed. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park asked the Leader of the House at Question Time today whether he believed that the White Paper would change that, but I am afraid that he could not answer her question. Will the Minister, who perhaps has been reflecting on the issue since then, answer my hon. Friend’s question through me? Will the White Paper really help those parents in north Kingston?

What concerns me is that many promises are being made and many nice messages sent out, but the White Paper does not seem to deliver. It is not even clear how it relates to the statutory instrument. Parental power is supposed to be driving the changes. The White Paper says, for example, that parents will be given extra powers such as access to consultancy services. The north Kingston parents whom I met had access to those services because the local authority willingly gave it to them. I must say that they were so bright they did not need much consultancy, which was also the case with other parents whom I met in Lambeth. These parents are really on the ball. It would be nice if they had access to consultancy services, but that is not the barrier. The only other extra parental power that the White Paper offers is the right for parents to appeal to the adjudicator if a decision goes against them. Perhaps that is the beginning and end of the extra parental power.

Mr. Hoban: I am not usually in a rush to defend the Government or their White Paper, but the White Paper did propose capital funds to help schools to expand and to help new schools to be set up. That might address the issue. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is all very well to have consultants and advisers, but parents groups, voluntary groups and faith groups in particular need capital if new schools are to be set up and existing schools expanded. The Government have hinted that that capital may be provided, but I would like to see the colour of their money first.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point that probably anticipates the Minister’s remarks, but the only extra power that parents receive is the appeal to the adjudicator.

On the role of local authorities, too, there are concerns about how the White Paper relates to the statutory instrument. The White Paper does not make it clear, but local authorities were given new duties to oversee what schools are needed in their area, what types of schools are needed, what schools need to be expanded, and so on. It is not clear whether a local authority will be allowed to set up a community school. It seems as though that is the one type of school that a local authority might well be prevented from setting up. Will parents, the local authority and other
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schools be allowed a new community school if they want one? I should be very interested to hear the Minister’s answer.

2.58 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I wanted to take part in the debate because unfortunately earlier this year I became intimately aware of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 when North East Lincolnshire council, which covers the constituencies of Cleethorpes and Great Grimsby, decided that it wanted to close some primary schools, mainly in the Cleethorpes constituency. The primary schools were oversubscribed and there were hardly any surplus places, yet the council was still using the argument that there were surplus places as an excuse to try to close them. That is why I became quite au fait with the Act.

As it turned out, parents, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and I worked together and managed to show that the figures that the local authority had advanced to justify the closures of the schools were totally wrong and completely under-predicted what the primary school population was going to be in those areas in the next 10 years. In fact, the local authority has just had to admit that people in Grimsby and Cleethorpes appear to be having more sex and more children than they thought. [Interruption.] Yes, there is a slogan in there somewhere. Anyway, we won that case, but given all the trauma and turmoil that we went through, and the fact that parents were very upset with the local authority for suggesting that it would close those schools, I seek reassurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that the regulations will in no way speed up applications to close schools.

Having gone through that review of school places earlier this year, parents think that the current consultation period is quite short, particularly if it coincides with school holidays, which is a trick that the council also tried to play. I therefore seek an assurance from my hon. Friend that none of the consultation proposals will clash with school holidays. I hope that we shall not speed up closures, particularly if, as in my constituency, they are controversial and totally and utterly wrong.

3.1 pm

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