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13 May 2008 : Column 1245

Ed Balls: The only person who has used the words “witch hunt” about this matter is the hon. Gentleman. He should apologise to me and my Department for using such language when he knows full well that we entirely support Jewish schools and voluntary contributions for security and ethos, although we also want fair admissions for parents.

We did verify with individual schools before we went public. The hon. Gentleman should apologise to me; his use of intemperate and divisive language has brought politics into fair admissions, something that previously had cross-party support. I make no apologies to parents in this country for driving forward fair admissions. The hon. Gentleman should apologise to me.

Michael Gove: I certainly will not be responding to that intemperate and ill judged contribution from the Secretary of State.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind all hon. Members of the words of “Erskine May”: it is important that temperate language be used in debates in the House.

Michael Gove: Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Tom Peryer, the director of education at the London Diocesan Board for Schools, wrote to the Secretary of State after the various statements. Mr. Peryer said that he wished to express on behalf of faith schools his disappointment and consternation at how the exercise was conducted—the clear inaccuracies and subsequent naming and shaming of schools when some schools were not guilty as charged. He objected to the highly questionable interpretations by officials of certain aspects of the code, to the inadequate communication and to how the exercise was publicised. Speaking on behalf of faith organisations, I have consistently cited individuals who were disappointed and experienced consternation at the way the Secretary of State and his Ministers acted. I am delighted to be able to act as their advocate in this place.

Ed Balls: May I ask the hon. Gentleman to comment on the statement from the Church of England? On 11 March, the day we made the statement, it said:

The fact is that the Board of Deputies, the Catholic Education Service and the Church of England all supported our measures and drive for fair admissions. The hon. Gentleman should be supporting us and the faith groups, rather than trying to sow division. He should be on the side of parents, which is where I am.

Michael Gove: The Secretary of State was responsible for making the statement that generated the responses; I did not ask Tom Peryer, Joshua Rowe or any of the headmasters or governors who contacted me to make their statements. It was the Secretary of State who deliberately sought to politicise the issue with his statement and to publicise things in a way that caused the disappointment and consternation that I have referred to.

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Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): The shadow Secretary of State has been speaking for nearly 25 minutes about an incident that occurred four or five months ago. I am waiting to hear what he has to say about new clause 14.

Michael Gove: I have tried to allow every intervention to be made and to allow this debate to be as full as possible. We made it clear in our opposition to the programme motion that we felt there was inadequate time to debate the very serious issues surrounding admissions and to debate the other issues surrounding the raising of the participation age. Let us be clear that it is the Government who tabled the new clause and consequent amendments. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s anxiety about the lack of time to debate— [ Interruption. ] The Government Whip, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy), intervenes from a sedentary position; if he would like to make a proper intervention, I would be delighted to take it.

Ed Balls: Does the hon. Gentleman support new clause 14?

Michael Gove: I am outlining our approach, and the Secretary of State will have to wait for a Division to be called when we will give him our position on that. Following all the interventions that hon. Gentlemen have been kind and wise enough to make, I am attempting to answer their points and to ensure that we have adequate debate. That is always my aim. The hon. Gentleman from the Government Whips Office just said that we had agreed to the programme motion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton made clear, that was before the Government made a number of changes to today’s business. [ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. There is a considerable amount for discussion in the new clauses and amendments before the House. May I suggest that we now proceed down that route?

Michael Gove: Delighted, Madam Deputy Speaker.

One of the central aspects of the admissions code covered by the new clause and amendments is the priority given to children who are in care—looked-after children. We agree that it is important that those children receive absolute priority in the admissions process. [ Interruption. ] The Secretary of State says that they were not getting that. Let me refer him to evidence—something that was absent in much of his speech—from the London Diocesan Board for Schools. In his letter to the Secretary of State, Tom Peryer referred to the

covered by the new clause in a

He points out that that

made by the Secretary of State and his Department

He goes on to give examples. Four schools in the London diocese were explicitly named by the Department as schools that failed to prioritise children in care correctly. Tom Peryer says that

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believe themselves to be

and believe that they would therefore be able to go to the top of the priority list. All that those schools were seeking to do was to be true to the spirit of the admissions code and to give proper priority to looked-after children. Yet those schools, in being true to their Christian mission, were named and shamed by the Secretary of State.

I am afraid that the whole episode has been a deeply regrettable exercise on the part of the Secretary of State in seeking to put politics before policy. One of the welcome aspects of the amendments is their bolstering and strengthening of the role of the school adjudicator, given that the way in which the Secretary of State has used his powers causes Conservative Members great concern about whether he has the genuine best interests of the vulnerable most at heart.

When we have an admissions code agreed by all parties, it is absolutely vital that its implementation should be as consensual and considerate as possible. The Secretary of State’s approach to the existing admissions code earlier this year showed that it was an instrument that could not be trusted in his hands.

5.30 pm

We welcome some of the signs of contrition that the Government have shown in the way they have approached the matter. The article that the Secretary of State wrote in the Jewish Chronicle and the visit that the Minister for Schools and Learners made to the Board of Deputies are acknowledgments that the issue was mishandled and required better handling. When the Secretary of State returns to the issue, it is important that he give us a fuller and better explanation of the way in which the admissions code will be framed in the future. In the new clauses we are debating and some of the subsequent amendments, the Secretary of State and his Ministers acknowledge that it is appropriate to consult on precise implementation of aspects of that code.

One of the questions that concerns Jewish schools is that many of them have requested a ketubah, or marriage certificate, in order to ensure that those who are applying to that school are properly married in accordance with Jewish religious law. I understand why the admissions code is chary about asking for proof of marriage, for all sorts of entirely understandable reasons, which I shall not detain the House by going into now. It is important, however, that the Secretary of State makes it clear that he will be appropriately sensitive and recognise that it is legitimate for Jewish and other faith schools to ask for proof of religious
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commitment and membership of the appropriate religious community. I look forward to hearing that assurance on the Floor of the House.

One of the other questions that has been raised by certain headmasters in connection with the admissions code and the new clauses is the way in which behaviour cannot be a determining factor when it comes to guaranteeing access to the sixth form of a particular school. One of the questions we would like elucidation on—I am not making the matter party political; we are curious because we are accurately reflecting, as we have done throughout the debate, the concerns of those who run good schools—is the Government’s view on the concerns raised by headmasters, such as the headmaster of Hasmonean, and teachers about the way in which they might be compelled to accept children into sixth form whose behaviour has been less than it should be, particularly when the ethos of those schools matters so much to them. I know that the head teacher of Hasmonean has written to the Secretary of State and the Minister for Schools and Learners, so if he cannot give us detail now, perhaps it would be appropriate for him to provide elucidation at another point.

There is another question relating to ethos. In response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, I defined “ethos” in my own way, but there was a specific objection from Ministers, in the context of the admissions code, to the use of the word “ethos” because they feared it could create a barrier in certain circumstances. Schools that believe that their distinctive religious ethos is central to their education mission need elucidation as to how it can be protected in the context of the schools adjudicator’s new powers. All that would be helpful.

Those are detailed questions that go to the heart of the admissions code, but I make those points now because they are points I have been asked to raise by people who felt hurt and bruised by the process that the Secretary of State and his Department indulged in earlier. We have not had an opportunity to hold the Secretary of State to account for his behaviour during that period. Many in the communities affected have formed a judgment of his approach to their faith and their schools as a result of his actions. This debate provides the Secretary of State with an opportunity to apologise; I hope that he will have the grace to do so.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): It was as long ago as July 2004 that the previous Select Committee on Education and Skills published its report on admissions in secondary education. It has taken some time for the recommendations to work their way through to a Bill that I hope will soon become the law of the land. It has been refreshing to see just how far the Government have accepted the recommendations that we made on an all-party, non-partisan basis.

I was a little saddened by the speech of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) because it was about not whether we want to reform the admissions system to make it fair but a specific episode. He said that the Opposition were trying to reflect the views of those who run schools. We were concerned about exactly that when we took the evidence on which our admissions report was based.

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Time and again, when head teachers and others were pressed about whether they honoured the admissions code, it was obvious from their answers that they did not. They pointed out that it was an advisory code and that the advice to a head teacher or board of governors was that they should take note of it, but did not have to do anything about it. Several head teachers told me—nicely, politely and modestly—that they had no looked-after children in their school and hardly any special educational needs children. When I or my colleagues intervened to ask the reason and point out that the admissions code should be prioritised, we got a sweet smile and the reply, “We take note of the code.”

I have sometimes been accused of being anti-faith school. I am not—indeed, some hon. Members might know that I was parliamentary church warden at St. Margaret’s for seven years. I am still a Christian, however bad. The contribution of faith schools over hundreds of years to our education system is magnificent. Although many of us, if starting anew, might change some aspects of their role, they are part of a rich history, and we are where we are.

We did not take evidence from Jewish schools, but we took much from Anglican and Catholic schools, which appeared to have an unerring ability to exclude poor children—I put it as bluntly as that. By some method in their admissions code—I do not know whether it was planned or plotted; I doubt it—Christian foundations, whether Catholic or Anglican, reached a comfortable arrangement whereby desirable schools could exclude children in need. There is a rich tradition of Christians setting up some of the greatest public schools, which were originally established to look after and educate poor Christian souls. Many of those public schools do not do that much any longer. However, I was astonished, as Chairman of the Select Committee, to witness the ability to stop poor children, disadvantaged children, children with special educational needs and looked-after children from getting into Anglican and Catholic schools. I suspect that those schools slipped into that, through custom and practice, over a long time.

The Select Committee report stated that we should have an obligatory code that schools and governing bodies must obey, and that calling in a schools adjudicator should be made easy. Until now, a schools adjudicator could come in only in special circumstances, which would often embarrass a few people in the community. It would be clear that one school had complained about another, and the camaraderie among head teachers meant that one did not do that. It appeared to the Committee that the rules were stacked against fair access. Surely the new clause tackles that, and we should accept it. I have never listened only to the views of those running such schools. Indeed, many of the people who gave evidence to the Committee did not seem to be too concerned about fair access. The current, mandatory code will put that right and new clause 14 is essential in delivering that.

I do not want to make a long speech. I do not want to be too partisan, but we had reached the stage at which somebody had to make an example of some of those schools. Not only was the code and the schools adjudicator made obligatory, but when research was conducted in three local authorities we found that some
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schools were still not conforming to the new rules of the game. There comes a point at which any Secretary of State who wants to take a firm view on fair admissions has to say, “Okay, we don’t want to, but we’re going to make an example of someone. There will be bad publicity if people don’t get out of their rather comfortable habit of excluding children who have a right to be in a school.”

To conclude, new clause 14 is right. I have spent a few hours today and yesterday in various studios and elsewhere, giving the Government quite a hard time on testing and assessment. However, I am switching modes in this short speech to say that I hope that it will not take as long—nearly four years—to reform our testing and assessment practices. In this case, however, do not let the House be ungrateful for what I think has been the perfect working of educational reform. The Education and Skills Committee did not make things up; it listened to the oral evidence and read the written evidence. We picked up on the feeling that something was deeply wrong with admissions policy and that it was not fair. We made a recommendation on an all-party basis and the Government have eventually taken note. That is good parliamentary practice and now good legislation.

Mr. Laws: I shall not speculate on the timing of the announcement of Government new clause 14 or the motives that informed it. I simply say that we are happy to support it and believe it necessary to address some of the unfair practices used in admissions over the years, which have been identified in many reports, including the Education and Skills Committee report three years ago.

We have two concerns about admissions, which informed our attitude to not only new clause 14 but new clause 18, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friends. First, we want to ensure that pupils and parents can choose schools, so that schools are not choosing parents and pupils to select their way to better performance. We want to ensure that the consumer rather than the producer is in the driving seat, if I may put the matter that way without provoking any comment from those on the Benches behind me.

We also seek to challenge the extraordinarily high levels of social segregation that remain in the school system, which the Secretary of State mentioned and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) would acknowledge. Some of those elements of social segregation exist because of schools’ catchment areas and are difficult to address without using more complex admissions procedures and selective devices. However, where there are elements of unfair admissions that we can address, we surely should address them. Although I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is quite possible for schools in deprived catchment areas to perform well, even with the challenging youngsters they often have, he will know that the results in our school system are, generally speaking, driven by a school’s social composition and its admissions practices.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath recently received a very interesting parliamentary answer, which I managed to steal from under his nose to use in some of the press coverage, so good was it. He asked the Secretary of State to break down the 600 or so schools that were failing to hit the Government’s target of
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30 per cent. five A* to C GCSEs, including English and maths, and to identify how many schools in each decile, according to deprivation, were failing to hit that target. The results were pretty astonishing, and they demonstrated what I assume the hon. Gentleman wanted them to demonstrate. They showed that 54 per cent. of schools in the most deprived decile failed to achieve the Government’s target. I believe that the comparable figure in the top decile was 3 per cent., so we know that there are extraordinarily high levels of social deprivation in schools in this country, and we also know that they have a powerful impact on driving opportunities for young people.

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