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House of Commons
Session 2006 - 07
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft School Admissions Code



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Mike Weir
Borrow, Mr. David S. (South Ribble) (Lab)
Carswell, Mr. Douglas (Harwich) (Con)
Cawsey, Mr. Ian (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
Cryer, Mrs. Ann (Keighley) (Lab)
Davidson, Mr. Ian (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op)
Gibb, Mr. Nick (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)
Gilroy, Linda (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op)
Knight, Jim (Minister for Schools)
Main, Anne (St. Albans) (Con)
Malik, Mr. Shahid (Dewsbury) (Lab)
Morley, Mr. Elliot (Scunthorpe) (Lab)
Mulholland, Greg (Leeds, North-West) (LD)
Teather, Sarah (Brent, East) (LD)
Trickett, Jon (Hemsworth) (Lab)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Jyoti Chandola and Emily Commander, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6):
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Penning, Mike (Hemel Hempstead) (Con)
Ward, Claire (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 6 February 2007

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Draft School Admissions Code

10.30 am
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft School Admissions Code.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir. It is the first time that I have had the pleasure of doing so.
I start by making it clear that the Opposition support the concept of an admissions code. A national code will help to ensure that admissions arrangements in the 24,000 state schools conform to minimum standards and, as the code says, that we have
“a system where all parents feel they have the same opportunities to apply for the schools that they want for their child.”
That must, and should, be the objective of any admissions code.
Ideology has been the curse of education policy in the past 40 to 50 years, and it lies at the root of almost everything that has gone wrong in education. I believe strongly that what matters in education is what works, not the ideological passions of politicians or educationists of the right or the left. The original admissions code published by the Government in January 2003 was, I am afraid, subject to just such ideological traits. For example, the code said that
“the LEA may suggest adopting parents’ order of ranking as the key criterion for allocation, such that all first preferences are considered against the school’s oversubscription criteria before any second or lower preferences.”
Despite permitting that first preference first system, the code went on to state that
“this variant could lead to less parental satisfaction where parents cannot be sure at the time of expressing preferences whether their children will meet the admissions criteria for schools they might wish to put as first preference. An example would be a selective area, where parents do not know whether their own children will pass the 11-plus.”
That arrangement appeared designed to undermine grammar schools by discouraging parents from entering their children for a local grammar school in case they failed and, as a consequence of putting the grammar school first, failed to get their child into the best local comprehensive, which would already have been filled with the first preference applications of more cautious parents.
As the Department for Education and Skills press release for the new code says, the first preference first system
“forces parents to play an ‘admissions game’ with their children’s future.”
Similarly, the previous code said that the results of 11-plus tests should not be made available prior to applications to other schools being submitted. Paragraph 7.3 of the code stated:
“In considering objections, Schools Adjudicators have ruled that grammar schools should comply with the principle of ‘preference before test’ to avoid unfairness to parents who genuinely prefer comprehensive...schools. Admission authorities for grammar schools should bring the timing of their testing procedures into line with the co-ordinated LEA scheme on the basis that preferences must be expressed before test results are known.”
That anti-grammar school, ideologically-driven provision will have discouraged some parents of academically able children from submitting applications to grammar schools, given the uncertainty involved. It is welcome that paragraph 2.92 of the new code says that schools that select
“should ensure that parents are informed of the outcome of entry tests before they make their applications for other schools.”
It is right that when parents wish to enter children for a grammar school they have the opportunity to discover whether they would be admitted.
The context of the revised code was the successful challenge to the previous code of practice by the London Oratory school and the Government’s subsequent decision to strengthen the code as a concession to their Back Benchers during the debate on the White Paper early in 2006. In the case of the London Oratory school in 2004, Mr. Justice Jackson ruled:
“The phrase ‘to have regard to’ means to take into account. It does not connote slavish obedience or deference on every occasion. It is perfectly possible to have regard to a provision but not to follow that provision in a particular situation”.
The Government had more than a year to announce plans to strengthen the code. The code that they published and then withdrew in 2005 would have had the same strength as the original code. It was not until the middle of the furore caused by the education White Paper last year that they decided to offer the concession. In a letter to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, the then Secretary of State wrote that
“we are concerned that recent legal judgments may have weakened the perceived force of the Code, so we will close the legal loophole so that admission authorities must ‘act in accordance’ with it, rather than having to have ‘regard’ to it”.
Since then we have debated the code during the passage of the Education and Inspections Bill in 2006, and we have seen the skeleton code, a draft code for consultation and the final draft code published this month, plus the correction notice that came out a week ago. It is important that we debate this code today, given its importance to parents.
The Secretary of State says in his foreword to the code:
“Parents want their children to be able to attend a good school where they will be happy and secure and able to learn and thrive. As it’s one of the most important decisions a parent will make, it is no surprise that school admissions arouse strong feelings.”
Which, of course, they do. In fact, very often they arouse more than strong feelings. Heartache and agitation are aroused as parents pray that their children are accepted at their first preference school rather than the other schools in the area.
The principal cause of this anguish, however, is that there are simply not enough good schools. Fifty-one per cent. of secondary schools and 41 per cent. of primary schools are officially regarded by Ofsted as not good enough. The focus of our attention, our energy, our resources and our political will must therefore be on raising the standards of the schools that are not good enough.
The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): Is not the hon. Gentleman falling into the same trap as some of the media in that he has looked at the various Ofsted grades and said, “Something that is satisfactory is not good, so if it is not good it must be unsatisfactory”? He is therefore saying that something that is satisfactory is unsatisfactory, and that is nonsense.
Mr. Gibb: The phrase “not good enough” comes from the Government’s own press release, which said that they no longer regard satisfactory as good enough. I am therefore citing the Minister’s own words or those of his predecessor when I say that 51 per cent. of schools are not good enough.
Devoting huge resources to changing the intakes of schools assumes that this whole business is a zero sum game where there will always be a fixed number of good schools that need to be redistributed. All that does is replace one set of unhappy parents with a different set of unhappy parents with no actual net gain in educational standards. The focus of us all must be on raising standards across the board so that every local school is a good school. We need to spread best practice and eliminate poor practice that leads to low academic attainment.
There is also the view that some schools are not good enough simply because of their intake: if we can just adjust their intake then standards will rise. That is based on the fallacy that the quality of the school is determined by the intake rather than the quality of the teaching and the leadership. I have been to schoolsin the most deprived parts of Britain that have very high standards. Yesterday, I went to Mossbourne community academy in Hackney where 50 per cent. of the intake are eligible for free school meals. It has been open for only three years, but I suggest that it is one of the best comprehensives in the country. It is judged by Ofsted to be outstanding in every single category. Ithas the ethos of a grammar school. It has veryhigh standards, immaculate behaviour and a calm atmosphere where academic achievement is regarded as the norm. The school expects 85 per cent. of its year9 cohort to achieve level 5 or above in its first set of SATs in key stage 3 this spring.
Yesterday, I also went to Millfield community primary school in Hackney. That school, too, has50 per cent. eligibility for free school meals, and 72 per cent. of the pupils have English as a second language. Some 77 per cent. reach level 4 in English, and the school expects that percentage to rise to the mid-80s by 2008. By contrast, I know of schools in very leafy suburbs with intakes that have a very low percentage of children entitled to free school meals where the results are appalling and behaviour is, to say the least, challenging.
The truth is that the vast majority of comprehensive schools have a mixed intake with an average free school meal eligibility of about 14 per cent. The spread is pretty even. Ninety per cent. of schools have an intake where the proportion eligible for free school meals is one third or less. There are just 94 secondary schools where more than 50 per cent. of the pupils are eligible for free school meals. It is likely that some of those schools face a level of challenge that may not be sustainable, although I have just cited examples where it is. Very often, the reason that those schools have such a high proportion of children entitled to free school meals is that the school is underperforming and anyone who has the resources or the wherewithal to travel to other schools does so. Often when such a school is replaced by an academy the proportion of children entitled to free school meals drops as the local children return.
It is a fallacy that simply altering the intake of a school to some pre-ordained proportion of ability range or socio-economic grouping will somehow turn a poor school into an effective one. It is Roy Hattersley and those who follow his strand of opinion who take the view that the intake determines the quality of a school. He has long advocated banding in the determination of the intake of comprehensive schools. He wrote in The Guardian on 10 October 2005:
“The idea of ‘banding’ was pioneered by the ILEA”.
That should be a warning. He went on to say:
“At the time it was derided as a futile socialist attempt to make non-selective secondary schools work. The new scheme goes far further than anything that the London Labour party ever dared to suggest.”
Under the code as drafted, schools may use banding to produce an intake that is representative of either the full range of ability of applicants, the range of ability of children in the local area, or the national ability range. There have to be explicit statutory exemptions for such admission criteria as banding involves a form of selection on the basis of ability, which is expressly prohibited by the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. The Education and Inspections Act 2006, which introduced that exemption for two of the three categories of banding, also insisted that such an admissions arrangement could not be introduced without the consent of the governing body of a school. In other words, banding could not be forced on a school by a local authority.
The Government accepted an amendment from the Opposition extending that requirement to the third existing form of banding arrangements—that of applications. It was clear from the Committee stage of the Education and Inspections Bill that neither the Government nor the Opposition wanted a local authority to be able to impose banding arrangements across all schools in its area. That was for obvious reasons. Such an approach would be deeply unpopular as children found themselves being bussed all over town because their local school or schools had filled their quota of their particular ability range. But the requirement that school governing bodies must consent to banding arrangements does not apply to admission arrangements involving a lottery. That is because lotteries do not involve selection by ability, so there is no need for a statutory exemption and thus no opportunity to put in those safeguards.
A lottery is a form of banding and on average it should result in the intake of an over-subscribed school reflecting the array of abilities in its applications. Will the Minister confirm that it is not his intention that local authorities should be able to impose that form of admissions arrangement on a school or schools in their area and that what is intended by the code is that a lottery system should have the consent of the governing body of a school, and of each school in an area, before it is introduced?
There is much in this code that we support. We welcome paragraph 1.6, which reinforces the provisions in section 42 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 relating to choice advisers, and paragraph 1.11, which reinforces the provisions on consideration of parental representations.
The section of the code relating to looked-after children is particularly important. As the code states:
“Looked after children are among the most vulnerable children in society.”
Around 60,000 children are looked after by local authorities at any one time. This is a group with very low levels of achievement. In 2005-06, 57 per cent. of the 8,100 children who left care aged 16 or over had not achieved a single GCSE or GNVQ, and only 7 per cent. had left care with at least 5 GCSEs at grades A* to C. Part of the problem has been a lack of stability. Looked-after children have generally moved schoolsor placements regularly. There has also been a lack of positive parenting, with no person able to act consistently as a parent. We therefore welcome measures to ensure that schools give those children priority in admissions arrangements. We agree with the Government’s “Care Matters” Green Paper, published last year, that
“we must ensure that children in care are able to get into the right school, make sure they stay there once they are in, and help them get the best out of their time there.”
We welcome the unequivocal statement in paragraph 1.80 of the code:
“School uniform plays a valuable role in contributing to the ethos and setting the tone of a school, and the Government strongly encourages schools to consider the introduction of uniforms where they do not already have them.”
We agree that it is important that schools do not use uniforms to price people out of the school. The Office of Fair Trading found that parents forced to buy secondary school uniforms from exclusive suppliers are worse off by a total of about £32 million a year, and a recent study by Which? found that uniforms from high street stores were at least as well made as those from specialist retailers. I have visited schools, such as the Manchester United Learning Trust academy, that have introduced washable blazers that cost in the region of just £35. That is the type of good practice that I hope can be shared throughout the system.
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I am concerned that although the emphasis of the “musts” and “shoulds” has shifted slightly, the code states only that parents
“should have all relevant information to hand before they apply.”
They obviously will not have to have it. It states that a local authority
“must publish, in hard copy, a composite prospectus”.
It does not say how many copies should be available, only that the information must be online. That presumes that parents have access to the internet. I am concerned that there is no emphasis that hard copies should be available to parents or guidance on where they should be placed so that the information is available to people without access to IT. The code states that they should have it, but there does not seem to be a way to ensure that it is available to them.
Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Given the emphasis on choice advisers in the code, we want to ensure that the most vulnerable parents have maximum access to information and advice on choosing the right secondary or primary school for their children. I hope that the Minister will address the matter.
It is clear that when a requirement in the code is mandatory, deviation from it will not be permitted. The status of the guidelines—the “shoulds”—is less clear. Paragraph 9 states:
“Failure to follow the guidelines in this Code may lead to a challenge and admission authorities will have to be able to demonstrate that they were justified in departing from those guidelines. If they cannot do so an objection may be upheld by the Schools Adjudicator.”
It seems that the status of guidelines will rest entirely on the judgment of the adjudicator. The code largely remains silent on the grounds on which the adjudicator would uphold or reject an admission authority’s justification for departing from guidelines. If the adjudicator were to adopt strict criteria, the distinction between requirements and guidelines could become meaningless. The strengthening of the code and the provisions giving the adjudicator greater power to enforce his decisions will make it considerably more difficult to challenge them. There is of course no right of appeal against them. Will the Minister assure the Committee that the distinction between mandatory requirements and non-mandatory guidance will be meaningful in practice?
The section of the code on home-school contracts reflects statute, but we believe that it should be possible for schools to require parents to sign such a contract before they can accept a place at a school. It seems inconsistent that the Government regularly talk about the importance of home-school agreements in the ethos of a school, but are unwilling to consider making acceptance of that ethos a condition of entry.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the major contributory factors to the success of a child’s education is not the parents’ financial circumstances but the level of interest that they take in their child’s education? A home-school contract would ensure that the parents followed through on the pledges and took a close interest in what their child was doing in school.
Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I do not understand the Government’s reluctance to make home-school contracts a condition. They were certainly a condition of the university that I went to, and it is a condition that parents sign them when they enter the independent sector. Most parents would be happy to sign such home-school contracts. At Mossbourne academy yesterday, behaviour was immaculate. Parents are involved, even those parents who we are told at other schools simply do not co-operate. At Mossbourne academy, they all do. Parents want to know that the school that their children go to will give them a good education. All parents want that. I do not accept that there are any parents who do not take an interest in the education of their children. If a school is providing what they regard as a good education, parents will be involved and happy in such circumstances to sign a home-school contract before their children enter the school.
Another matter raised with me relates to co-ordinated admissions schemes. Paragraph 2 of schedule 1 of the Education (Co-ordination of Admission Arrangements) (Secondary Schools) (England) Regulations 2002 provides that such a scheme requires an authority
“in the case of any application made under the common application form for a secondary school in their area for which the governing body”—
of the school—
“are the admission authority, to forward details of the application, together with any supporting information provided by the parent, to the governing body”.
The ranking of children against the admission criteria is supposed to be conducted by the school, which then passes the information back to the local authority to be compared against preferences. However, that point does not appear to be explicit in the code. Some schools that I have spoken to feel that co-ordinated admissions schemes are removing their autonomy to decide, or at least check, which pupils match their criteria. The code could have been more explicit.
Another major issue that has arisen out of the code is the use of sibling criteria at schools that select more than 10 per cent. of their intake by ability or aptitude. The original draft of the code stated that schools “should not” give priority to siblings where they operated a system of pre-existing partial selection. The new code allows such schools to operate a sibling priority, but there is a vagueness about when such a priority would be justified. Although it permits the use of a sibling priority, the code makes it clear at paragraph 2.21 that those schools
“should ensure that their admission arrangements as a whole do not exclude families living nearer the school.”
It would be very helpful if the Minister would clarify the actual effects of the paragraph. I know of one school that wants to guarantee 10 per cent. of its places to pupils from the local area, as that reflects the number of children living within reasonable walking distance of the school. Such a criterion would ensure that pupils from the local area who were not otherwise admitted because of sibling connection or ability would have a fair opportunity to attend the school. Would that be a permissible way to demonstrate that a school was including local parents?
Another issue is raised by the case of Dame Alice Owen’s school in Potters Bar. The school admits 10 per cent. of its pupils on the basis of proximity to Finsbury Park tube station in Islington, which is an oddity but is because the school was originally based in Islington and moved out to Potters Bar. Will the Minister assure us that the phrasing of the paragraph will not sever such historic connections between schools and the communities that they have traditionally served?
Paragraph 2.20 refers to schools that select “substantially more” than 10 per cent. of their intake by ability or aptitude. What would the Minister regard as being “substantially more” than 10 per cent.? The paragraph goes on to refer to
“the school’s intake including a disproportionately high number of children who would have passed the selection test, as some younger siblings would be likely to have passed the selection test if they had taken it.”
What does the Minister mean by “disproportionately high”? What evidence has he collected on the abilities and aptitudes of the younger siblings of academically able children? Is there a correlation between the abilities of an elder brother or sister and their younger sibling? What evidence is there on that?
Paragraph 2.71 of the code refers to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which changed the law so that schools could not increase the proportion of selective admissions above
“the lowest proportion at any time since the beginning of the 1997/98 school year”.
I am aware of one school that was required by the adjudicator to lower the proportion of children admitted through partial selection, but that determination was later overturned by the courts. In the meantime, however, the school had had to lower its entry requirement for one year. The following year, it reverted to its original criteria with their higher level of selection. Will the code require that school to use the year of the lower entry requirement as a reference, or could it ignore that year for the purposes of the code? Any clarification from the Minister on that issue will be helpful for that school.
I have spoken for long enough. I look forward to the Minister’s response to my points.
10.57 am
The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir.
Some have told me that they find the Opposition support for the code surprising. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton says that he supports the code, yet the Opposition have prayed against it and required us to have this debate, which, however, I welcome. The new school admissions code is an important part of our education—
Mr. Gibb: We prayed against the code so that we could have this debate. The code is important and the Minister should be held to account for its content. However, we do not, of course, intend to oppose the motion at the end of the sitting.
Jim Knight: As I was saying, I welcome the chance to discuss the code and Opposition Front-Bench spokesman’s support for it. I look forward to that support being reinforced from the Opposition Back Benches.
Today we are debating whether the new code should set the framework for school admissions in future. We are not debating whether schools are good enough, but obviously I have a whole string of statistics on improvements. In 1997, for example, pupils in 45 per cent. of schools were achieving five A* to C passes at GCSE; now the figure is 59 per cent. Only a third were getting five A* to C passes including English and maths in 1997, but now 45 per cent. do. We need to do better, but there has been a substantial improvement in the number of good schools. We inherited more than 600 failing schools, but there are now only 49. Again, that is a really good improvement in the past 10 years, and we seek to sustain it.
We can discuss the issues in the code, but we cannot amend the draft code laid before the House. It is important that the Committee understands that. We either agree to the full code or lose it completely; in this case, there is no third way. If hon. Members resolve not to approve the draft in its current form, the existing code of practice, which came into force in 2003—the hon. Gentleman gave us an admirable history lesson—would continue to apply. We would miss an important opportunity to rule out once and for all the unfair practices and criteria, used by a minority of schools, that make the system so complex and hard to navigate for parents.
Anne Main: I want to touch on the statementing of children with special needs. I particularly noticed two references in the code and should like to hear the Minister’s views on them. Many parents tell me that schools are reluctant to statement, and under paragraph 3.17, which concerns the in-year fair access protocols, if children have recognised special educational needs but do not have statements they will have no special treatment whatsoever. My concern is that, given the reluctance of local authorities to statement for cost reasons, that might well mean that children in primary school will have to fight even harder to get statements if they are trying to go through the access process for secondary school.
Jim Knight: We seek to improve specialist teaching to meet the individual needs of children who have special educational needs but have not been statemented. At the heart of our response to the Select Committee report on special educational needs is the commitment to improve the continual professional development and the initial teacher training of staff in that area. Indeed, last week we announced 15 new specialist special schools, and we announced, too, that we will encourage those schools to act as the heart of a network to improve the level of specialist teaching so that regardless whether children without a statement find their way into a special school—if they do not have a statement, they will not be allowed to go to a special school—they will still get specialist teaching that responds to their individual need.
Angela Watkinson: I have an excellent special school in my constituency called Corbets Tey. It had a wonderful Ofsted report recently, and has just been rejected for specialist status for special needs children. That is exactly what is does, and it does it well, and the people involved are perplexed about why it was rejected.
Jim Knight: I would hope that the school has had feedback on its application and that it will receive it shortly if it has not. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me, I am happy to look into the matter and correspond with her.
I remind hon. Members that the code has been widely welcomed by the vast majority of schools and local authorities for its clarity and its rejection of unfair practice. First, let me set out why the new code is so important and why we need it now. We want parents to have a genuine choice between schools and to ensure that all parents are fully informed about their options in an increasingly diverse school system. In creating a more diverse system, we will allow many more schools to be free to decide their own admissions arrangements. In some ways, that answers the question about the lottery asked by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. As we have more schools with self-governing status—that is the clear trend—each will be their own admission authority. That is where the lottery may come into play, if schools choose to use the lottery system rather than having local authorities imposing it across the whole authority area.
Mr. Gibb: Is it the Minister’s intention that when schools are not their own admission authority, in practice the governing body ought really to give consent to such an admissions arrangement, as it would have to for banding arrangements?
Jim Knight: Clearly, the legislation sets out that a local authority could require a community or voluntarily controlled school to use a lottery, as the hon. Gentleman has described, but, as I said, Government policy is that we will move towards more self-governing schools and overcome the problem that he is concerned about. We would look to local authorities to implement that particular aspect sensitively and not to create the sort of problem that he talked about, with a mass of transport going up and down a huge shire county. I do not think that any of us would regard that as common sense or good practice.
Greater flexibility and freedom for schools must be balanced by a robust framework that prevents unfairness, promotes good practice and provides for independent means to challenge the decisions taken by authorities. That is what the new code delivers. It ends the ridiculous and unfair practices that give some children higher priority because their parents are wealthier or because their parents are married. It bans criteria that require parents to play games with their children’s future and which make the system far more complex than necessary, often disadvantaging children already in challenging circumstances. Instead, the new code promotes good practice so that we can secure equity and fairness for all. I do not think it unfair or unreasonable to ask schools to ensure that their policies and practices are fair.
The hon. Gentleman asked a number of interesting questions. I have an array of answers in front of me and will work through some of them. If I do not get to them all, I will certainly follow them up in writing, and no doubt if he is desperately impatient for an answer on a particular point today, he will intervene on me.
In respect of the code saying “must” in red and “should” in blue, the distinction is as the hon. Gentleman described it: one is mandatory and the other is good practice. In many ways, it is worth thinking about the “shoulds” as having similar force to the old code, including the point made by the court in the London Oratory case—that the adjudicator should not follow it slavishly. I hope that that is a helpful clarification as to how it might work in practice. Indeed, as far as I am aware, the increase in the number of “musts” between the code that was consulted on and the one that we are discussing today is principally to do with completely ruling out the use of first preference first, a change that the hon. Gentleman welcomed.
On home-school contracts, we ruled out requiring parents to sign them in primary legislation, in section 111 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. The Government do not believe that parents should be required to sign such a contract as a matter of principle. Although I agree that the vast majority of parents want to support their child’s learning and work with the school on their behaviour and learning, and that parental background and support is, as the hon. Member for Upminster said, the biggest determinant of their success, there are one or two cases where parents may not provide that support, and I do not want to disadvantage those children because of the irresponsibility of their parents. Rather, I would like schools to use the powers in the Education and Inspections Act 2006 to issue parent contracts and, ultimately, parenting orders, to force parents to fulfil their responsibilities where they choose to be irresponsible.
Angela Watkinson: May I return to remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton made about looked-after children? They clearly do not have the same sort of parental support as a child living in a nuclear family. Where looked-after children are in children’s homes, would it not be advantageous to designate one person—a house parent—as somebody in that extended family and home to have specific responsibility for the education of each individual child?
Jim Knight: In the looked-after children Green Paper, we make a very similar proposal in which the state would effectively provide a parent, and in the 2006 Act we made the primary legislative change to require looked-after children to have admissions priority. We will be developing our response to the consultation on the Green Paper over time.
The penultimate point that I would make in response to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton concerns cases where the adjudicator reduces the percentage of selection and the school then increases it the following year. He asked which percentage would apply for the purposes of the new code and law. We think that the relevant percentage would be the reduced percentage, in accordance with a change that we made at the end of the proceedings on the Education and Inspections Bill—the Battersea amendment, as I called it when my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) moved it on Report.
I think that I have responded to all the hon. Gentleman’s points. However, I should comment on the significant change between the original draft code and the one before us. In consultation, some parents expressed concern about the proposed treatment of siblings. The hon. Gentleman made a number of points about that, especially regarding children in partially selective schools. I am delighted to see the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), in her place. She was particularly instructive in raising that issue during consultation, and at the very end, I was pleased to meet some of her constituents, who informed me of their concerns. That was very helpful in guiding me in how to respond to the overwhelming number of responses to consultation which objected to our initial position on the treatment of siblings in partially selective schools.
Let me first say that the new code goes much further in promoting the best interest of siblings than was the case with the previous code. That is especially the case when it comes to enabling siblings to attend the same primary school. To respond to the particular concerns of the relevant parents, we will protect the position of siblings of children already at such schools—another protection unavailable under current arrangements. We accept that parents have a reasonable expectation that their children will follow each other.
I want to make it clear that such schools should be working with other schools in their area to ensure that all local children find a school place. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton read out the part of the code that sets that out. Schools could achieve that in many ways and one example is given in the code, which will provide them with the freedom and flexibility to use a variety of approaches. We want that flexibility to continue. For example, they could give priority for their selective places to children who live within a given distance from the school and who pass the entry tests and, at the same time, allocate non-selected places to children who live nearby. In the end, however, it is for the admission authority to set its arrangements and then to justify them if an objection is made to the adjudicator. That matter dominated the consultation and I hope that we have responded sensitively.
The code is essential to ensure that every child can benefit from the diverse and modern school system that we are creating, and I hope that hon. Members will support it.
11.12 am
Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Members will be grateful to hear that I shall be extremely brief because I am not sure whether my voice will hold out for more than about four minutes. I hope that the Committee can hear me—hon. Members might have to be extremely quiet. I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir. It is a great pleasure to serve under you. I have not had the honour before.
I must confess that I was a little mystified about why Conservative Members prayed against the code. I am grateful for the clarification that they gave: they simply wished to debate it. That is very important. I have great sympathy with many of the comments made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton about the need to get away from the belief that over-subscription is driven by the flight from schools that are perceived to be failing. It is vital that we raise standards and the perception of standards in all schools to avoid the clamour during the admissions period every year.
Nevertheless, I welcome the code strongly. I feel much as I did during the Committee proceedings on the Education and Inspections Bill. In particular, I welcome the fact that the code will for the first time outlaw interviewing processes and that it attempts to reduce the influence of individuals over decisions about a child’s admission. Paragraph 2.13 is very helpful because it prohibits over-subscription criteria. In particular, I would like to draw to the Committee’s attention the parts that prohibit schools from giving
“priority to children according to the occupational, financial or marital status of parents”,
or to
“the educational achievement or background of their parents”,
or from taking
“account of the behaviour of other members of a child’s family”.
That is very welcome and I was pleased to see it written clearly into the code.
I was pleased also that some of the softer aspects—concerns that many of us have been raising for some time—have also been listed in the code, such as the impact of expensive uniforms or of prospectuses designed to intimidate parents into believing that they cannot apply to a particular school. I think that that is very helpfully laid out in the code. However, I am concerned about how aspects listed as “shoulds” rather than “musts” will be enforced. Although the code is very clear that it disapproves of such behaviour, I am not clear how we would ensure that it does not take place. It would appear to place an enormous burden on adjudicators who might find themselves overburdened by the large number of decisions and challenges that could result from those aspects of the code.
We broadly welcome the proposal, but we have some concerns about how it will be enforced.
11.17 am
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I am grateful to you, Mr. Weir, for giving me the opportunity to speak, as I am not a member of the Committee. The issue is very important in Hertfordshire. I am slightly disappointed that the Minister has selectively forgotten that other hon. Members who represent Hertfordshire constituencies, not just the hon. Member for Watford, have been very concerned about selective admissions. The hon. Gentleman met a delegation of other Hertfordshire Members last night, and I hope that he will acknowledge that fact when he replies to the debate.
I raised some issues with the Minister last night that I want to bring into the open in public. Although I welcome the Minister’s move backwards, or his common-sense approach to partially selective schools, I am still worried, as are many teachers and parents who have contacted me, about what happens on the matter of the sibling rule post-2008. It is right that the Minister listened to the many requests for him to reconsider that rule in partially selective schools, but after 2008 it is open to challenge. One of the most important questions that we asked the Minister at our meeting last night was whether he thinks that any school that is partially selective now will not be challenged after 2008 on the sibling admission rule.
As I understand it, all those schools, especially the ones in Hertfordshire, are very over-subscribed, while other schools, especially in the Watford area, are often under-subscribed. There will clearly be challenges and the adjudicator will have to decide whether it is fair to break up siblings who want to go to the same school. I praise the Government because the criteria of the school admissions code state clearly that schools try very hard to make sure that families stick together, and it is right and proper that they should do so. However, post-2008 there will be an adverse effect on the plans that schools make, and on the decisions that parents make about whether their child should undertake the entry requirement selection process to go to the school, based on what will happen to their younger children. It is a major issue that has not been addressed. The Minister has put off making the decision and passed it on to the adjudicator.
I welcome the decision to look at the matter but I am very worried about what will happen post-2008.
Anne Main: My hon. Friend has been careful not to imply that what parents are concerned about is that the decision will be passed to the adjudicator, all the bad press will fall on him and as long as parents register by 2008 the original rules will be followed, which puts the issue conveniently post-election. We do not want it to turn into a political football; we want to ensure that what is done is in the best interests of current and future parents.
Mike Penning: I could not agree with my hon. Friend more; the issue affects not only parents but children, too, as it is about their education. That is why I was so interested when the Minister praised one particular hon. Member for her work rather than the cross-party delegation. There has been no party politics in any of the meetings.
My hon. Friend raised a very important point about the adjudicator, who is not responsible to anyone apart from the Minister. The adjudicator will make the decision and take all the flak in public for it, but there is no appeals procedure against him. As long as he does the Minister’s work, everybody will be happy. That is the way the code reads. I see the Minister nodding; he is probably right.
Will the Minister clarify whether, in his opinion or that of his officials, partially selective schools will not be challenged over the sibling rule post-2008? Many families with children coming towards the end of their primary education will be interested in that. The schools have to plan in advance. The children are the most important issue here—and keeping families together.
11.21 am
Angela Watkinson: I want to speak briefly on the additional guidelines for faith schools. I welcome the faith-based over-subscription criteria. There are four faith-based schools in my constituency and I am a governor of one, the Sacred Heart of Mary girls school, the name of which will be familiar to the Minister because it is always at the top of the league tables, despite having a genuinely comprehensive intake. There was some disquiet, before the code was published, about how faith schools would be affected. All the schools that I am speaking about are consistently over-subscribed, so the guidelines in the code are extremely welcome to them.
There have been times in the past when those schools were not over-subscribed and, at those times, they welcomed children from other faiths and none. The four schools that I am talking about are all Roman Catholic. The Sacred Heart, for example, gets many applications from Muslim families, who are attracted by the general ethos of the school and the level of discipline, apart from the academic achievement. I am sure that those schools would accept children from other faiths and none in future. The guidelines for over-subscription for faith schools are welcome and will put at rest the minds of their head teachers and governing bodies.
11.23 am
Jim Knight: I shall respond quickly to the points that hon. Members have raised. The hon. Member for Brent, East asked an important question about whether the burden on adjudicators is being unduly increased. The adjudicators will no longer have to spend as much time on objections in relation to looked-after children or interviews, or on other practices that have been ruled out. We are confident that the office of the schools adjudicator will cope. However, I have agreed to some extra resourcing to recruit one or two extra adjudicators to help him with his task. Clearly, we have to see how many objections follow the publication of the code and its use.
The hon. Lady asked about admissions administration. As she said, I committed myself, during the debate on the Education and Inspections Bill, to seeking volunteers to pilot the admissions administration approach. We have since sought expressions of interest and we ran a workshop for a number of respondents to that. We are waiting for final confirmation from two areas that have said that they are considering running pilots and are putting those questions to members of the relevant authorities.
The hon. Member for Upminster talked about faith schools. Over-subscribed faith schools may give priority to children who practise, or are members of, their faith, but, as she suggested, if they are under-subscribed they must admit all children who apply. Religious authorities are encouraged to provide guidance for their schools, as the Church of England has recently done, and the new code says that faith schools should follow that guidance in setting faith-based over-subscription criteria. Objections can be made and the adjudicator can decide whether the criteria adopted are fair.
The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) asked a number of questions about the sibling criteria post-2008. I enjoyed a useful meeting with him and some of his colleagues, the hon. Members for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke), for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), for St. Albans, for Broxbourne and for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). I think that that constituted last night’s attendance. A useful discussion was had and I am pleased that they were able to find the time to talk to me about the issue.
The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead asked what evidence we have about schools and challenges post-2008. We do not know who will challenge. We are not going to stimulate challenges by asking people whether they are going to challenge. It is up to local authorities and local schools to decide whether to object once they have seen the arrangements. Those arrangements will not be published until after 16 April. Equally, it is up to admission authorities to publish arrangements that are acceptable to them within the code and that stand a minimal chance of having objections made to them.
Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): The Minister was gracious enough to meet us yesterday. He clarified something then and I shall give him the chance to do so again in Committee, although I know that it is too late to amend the wording of the statutory instrument. Paragraph 2.22 of the code states:
“Where an admission authority for a school that selects more than 10 per cent. of its intake by ability and/or aptitude gives priority in its admission arrangements to the siblings of children still at the school they may continue to give priority on the same basis to the younger siblings of pupils who will be on roll at the school before the beginning of the 2008 school year.”
Perhaps that could be redrafted. Parents might find it clearer if it talked about pupils who are on the roll at the school “at the beginning” of the school year as opposed to “before the beginning” of it. The use of the words
“before the beginning of the 2008 school year”
might suggest that the pupils involved would have to be on the roll at the end of the 2007 academic year. The Minister told us yesterday that the sibling policy would cover the younger brothers and sisters of children who had been enrolled to start at the beginning of the 2008 school year. I hope that that made sense.
Jim Knight: Clearly, this is fairly complicated. I shall reflect on whether I can come up with a clearer form of words than that in paragraph 2.22. If I successfully do so while responding to the points raised by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, I shall relate that to the Committee. If not, I shall write to Committee members detailing a clearer form of words. I hope that that will prove helpful to hon. Members when they are talking to their constituents.
Anne Main: I seek clarification in Committee of what we were told last night about who can challenge. Will the Minister confirm that parents are not allowed to challenge and that it is only the schools or other interested bodies that can do so?
Jim Knight: It is open to individual parents to launch a challenge on the basis that the admission authority is not fulfilling the mandatory requirements—the “musts”—of the code. Where we are talking about the guidance—the “shoulds”—it is up to the local authority or the schools, rather than the parents, to object to the arrangements.
The hon. Lady raised the bizarre notion that this is politically motivated around elections. That is the first time that such a thing has been pointed out to me. We have simply sought a date that takes into account the parents and the siblings who are currently in the system and those who are applying to go into the system. Applications in respect of younger siblings have been made in good faith on the basis of the current arrangements, and we want to be able to protect people and offer them a transitional arrangement. I do not think about the dates of general elections when I consider these things; I just try to implement them in a fair and reasonable way.
It is important that the hon. Members for Hemel Hempstead, for St. Albans and for Broxbourne, who are particularly concerned about this, are aware that we have improved sibling protection in this code. Given that under the previous code there was little mention of sibling criteria and that admission authorities could change their arrangements from year to year and consult on them in the normal way, we have improved arrangements, including those for parents and siblings in partially selective schools. I hope that that response helps the Committee, and that on that basis we can approve the code.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee has considered the draft School Admissions Code.
Committee rose at half-past Eleven o’clock.
 
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