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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 11 March 2008

Children, Schools and Families

School Admissions and Parental Preferences for 2008

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): The Information as to Provision of Education (England) Regulations 2008, which were laid before Parliament on 15 January, committed the Government for the first time to publishing local authority by local authority data on how many families received an offer of a place at one of their preferred schools. This statement fulfils that commitment. On Monday 3 March, which was national offer day, nearly 570,000 families found out where their children will start secondary school this September.

Today we are publishing data, showing that across the country 81.6 per cent. of families received an offer at their first preference school, 8.9 per cent. were offered a place at their second preference school and 93.9 per cent. were offered a place at one of their three preferred schools. These figures are based on returns from 138 out of 149 local authorities. In addition we are publishing unverified data from a further 11 local authorities and once verified we will publish further updates to Parliament.

The new school admissions code prohibits the over-subscription criterion known as “first preference first”, where schools gave higher priority to those who put them down as their first preference. For many parents this effectively meant that only their first preference mattered, and if they did not gain a place at their first preference school they risked wasting their other preferences.

Now this practice is no longer part of the admissions process, and parents are no longer deterred from expressing their true preferences we might have expected the proportion of first preferences offered to reduce. However, comparing data collected this year with the results of a survey conducted last year, the proportion of families gaining a place at their first preference school has remained broadly the same, and furthermore there has been an improvement in the numbers of families obtaining an offer at one of their preferred schools.

There is considerable variation nationally. In the majority of local authority areas, more than 80 per cent. of parents have been offered a place in their first preference school. By way of contrast 64 per cent. of parents in Greater London have been offered a place at their first preference school.

Where parents do not receive an offer of a place at their first preference school, this does not necessarily mean that they are dissatisfied with their second or third preference. Recent research by Sheffield Hallam university revealed that where a child secured a place at their first preference school, 95 per cent. of parents were satisfied and where they did not, 82 per cent. were satisfied.

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We are concerned about the small percentage of parents without an offer corresponding to any preference. We expect local authorities to analyse the reasons for this and to work with families, schools and, where appropriate, their neighbouring authorities to ensure that all parents are able to express meaningful preferences.

We cannot guarantee that every parent will be offered a place in their first preference school. Nevertheless, because of the huge strides we have taken in improving secondary schools, many more families find themselves in the position of being able to choose from a number of good schools for their children. Our first priority is to ensure that all schools are good schools.

Making a reality of choice for all families means creating more good schools and refusing to accept low standards. Today, there are far more good schools than in 1997 and standards have gone up across the board. There are now 891 secondary schools where 70 per cent. or more children gain 5 A*-C GCSEs, compared to 83 in 1997. We are enabling the best schools to export their formula for success and support their local communities by partnering other schools in their area, sponsoring academies, or forming trusts. Our aim is to ensure that there are good school places across the country and in the right places for parents to choose from.

Ten years ago, a child had a 50-50 chance of going to a low-performing secondary school which was unacceptable. Since then the number of schools with under 25 per cent. of pupils with five good GCSEs has dropped from 616 to 17. Furthermore, we have announced the national challenge to lift all 638 schools not achieving 30 per cent. 5 A*-Cs at GCSE including English and Maths above that threshold by 2012. Options for schools include becoming an academy, joining a trust, federating with a high-performing school or receiving intensive support from experienced headteachers.

Parents have the right of appeal against any application that has been turned down; and over the summer, local authorities and schools will be re-allocating places that become available where others have moved address or chosen a different education for their children. We are also working to ensure that the admission process is fair and transparent for all parents and children.

School Admissions (Strengthening the System)

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): Today the Schools Minister has made a statement on parental preferences and school admissions for 2008, and published for the first time local authority by local authority data on the allocation of school places by parental preference.

This is the first year that places have been allocated under the new school admissions code that was introduced by the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and came into force in February 2007.

The new school admissions code prohibits those criteria and practices that could be used by schools to unfairly select children. The new code has been widely welcomed across the education sector and by faith groups.

All admission authorities, which comprise local authorities and the governing bodies of schools which are their own admission authority, are required to act in accordance with the code. This means they must comply
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with its mandatory provisions and take account of its guidelines when setting their arrangements. Admission authorities must also comply with other aspects of the law, such as the prohibition on interviews and the requirement to give highest priority to children in care.

Under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, schools have a duty to publish their admissions arrangements for consultation, and under the code, local authorities have duties to refer arrangements they believe to be unlawful or unfair to the schools adjudicator. He then has the power to change unfair and unlawful arrangements.

Admission authorities were required to consult on their proposed arrangements for 2008 by 1 March 2007. After this the arrangements had to be determined by 15 April and then published within two weeks to allow any objections to be lodged with the schools adjudicator. The period for objections was six weeks long and expired in June 2007. The schools adjudicator, in his annual report, published on 1 November 2007, revealed that he had received 79 objections about admission arrangements that did not comply with the code or the law.

Under the legislation, the responsibility for ensuring schools comply with the code rests with local authorities and the governing bodies of own admission authority schools. However, in December 2007 we said in our children’s plan that we would monitor the impact of the code. In January the Schools Minister Jim Knight wrote to all admission authorities and local authorities reminding them that they must comply fully with their statutory requirements.

In January I also asked officials to undertake, for the first time and for internal purposes, an analysis of the published admission arrangements for 2008 in three local authority areas in order to sample the level of compliance. Having considered the evidence gathered from this sample I believe it is right that it should be made public and acted upon now.

We examined the published admission arrangements for three areas—Northamptonshire, Manchester and Barnet—on the basis that these represented a London borough, a shire county and a metropolitan authority for which no objections had been referred to the schools adjudicator.

Initial evidence across these three local authorities suggests that the large majority of schools appear to be complying with the code, including an overwhelming majority of academies and schools where local authorities are the admission authority. However, a significant minority of schools in our sample appear not to be compliant with the code, of which a disproportionate number are voluntary aided or foundation schools.

Practices revealed in our survey which are non-compliant with the code include: schools asking parents to commit to making financial contributions as a condition of admission; not giving looked-after children the priority required by law; asking about the marital status, occupational or financial status of parents; giving priority on the basis of family members who are not siblings attending the school; and interviewing children.

The Department has now written to each of the three local authorities covered by this initial work, and to the governing bodies of all voluntary aided and foundation schools in these areas who appear not to have complied
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with the code or the law, asking them to verify what we have found. Once verified, we will present the detailed information to Parliament.

However, it is right, based on this initial evidence that we take immediate steps now to ensure that all schools across the country that are not currently complying with the law are fully compliant for their 2009 admissions; in addition, and based upon advice from leading counsel, there are steps I can take now affecting the 2008 admissions procedures to ensure greater compliance with the code but without disrupting and delaying the current process of admissions in a way that would be unfair and disproportionate, adversely affecting parents, children and schools across the country.

Strengthening the Admissions System for 2009

1: Strengthening the role of local authorities

2: Improving Admission Forums

3: Consulting and engaging communities and parents more effectively

4: Properly informing parents

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5: Extending the role of the Schools Adjudicator

Immediate steps for 2008 admissions

The evidence we have collected and are now verifying suggests that the large majority of schools are complying with the code this year. I want to ensure that every school complies with the code in 2009. The measures I have announced today will help ensure that every parent has a fair chance of getting their child a place at a school of their choice, and that no parent or child will be disadvantaged by unfair admission arrangements.

Culture, Media and Sport

Playing Field Statistics

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I have today deposited in the House Libraries a press release detailing the latest position in relation to school and community playing fields. The position remains a very positive one with 97 per cent. of concluded planning applications for 2005-06 representing a net benefit or no change to sporting provision. These figures confirm that the Government are meeting their commitment to protect playing fields. I also want to draw attention to a revision of one aspect of the data from previous years due to the discovery of a technical error which I set out in the press notice (also available online at: http://www.culture.gov.uk).

Government’s policy is clear—no sports playing field needed by the community should be lost. And the figures collated by Sport England and released today show that our tough protections are working. They reveal that there were no complete losses of playing fields in 2005-06 without replacement provision or net benefit to sporting provision where Sport England have objected to a planning application and where planning permission has been granted against their advice.

The figures do not include information on new playing fields created outside of Sport England’s statutory role, for example through new housing development in growth areas (which is often built on brownfield or previously arable land), but where we know from anecdotal evidence that there are positive gains.

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EU Defence Ministers Informal Meeting (Brdo)

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I represented the UK at an informal meeting of the EU Defence Ministers held on 21 and 22 February 2008 in Brdo, Slovenia. It provided an important opportunity for discussions on EU operations, capabilities and co-operation between the EU, NATO and the UN.

Ministers underlined their support to the upcoming ESDP mission to Kosovo, including the importance of the EU delivering results on the ground and liaising closely with NATO and the UN. Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR), General Sir John McColl, briefed Ministers on Operation ALTHEA in Bosnia-Herzegovina, noting that the security situation remained good and that there was continued progress in implementing the remaining military tasks under the Dayton agreement. The EU Force (EUFOR) Chad Operational Commander, Lt. General Pat Nash briefed Ministers on the security situation in Chad, noting that deployment of EUFOR had resumed following a temporary suspension due to rebel activity. Ministers discussed the continuing force generation for the mission and the need for the mission to remain impartial and co-operate closely with the UN.

Ministers also discussed the EU’s military capabilities, including the use of EU Battlegroups and the need to tackle capability gaps, in particular helicopters. I emphasised that addressing capability shortfalls required political will and effective investment from nations, and that the European Defence Agency had a role to play if it worked effectively with NATO.

In the final session, Ministers discussed EU-NATO and EU-UN co-operation, with particular focus on the importance of effective co-operation in Afghanistan where EU Police Mission (EUPOL) personnel were being deployed alongside NATO forces in provincial reconstruction teams. I emphasised that it was imperative to ensure clear understandings between the EU and NATO where they were operating alongside each other in operational theatres like Afghanistan.

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