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28 Oct 2008 : Column 869

Schools Adjudicator

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Claire Ward.]

11.39 pm

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the schools adjudicator and partially selective schools. Let me begin by giving a little of the background. Approximately 40 secondary state schools in the country admit a proportion of pupils—between 10 and 35 per cent.—on the basis of examination results. There are two in my constituency—St. Clement Danes and Rickmansworth schools—and there are other such schools nearby that also serve pupils from my constituency, in particular Parmiter’s, Watford Grammar School for Boys and Watford Grammar School for Girls, all three of which are in the constituency of the hon. Member for Watford (Claire Ward). There are also two other partially selective schools in the south Hertfordshire area: Queens’ in Bushey and Dame Alice Owen’s in Potters Bar. All are excellent schools that achieve ratings of “outstanding” from Ofsted and some of the best examination results of any state schools in the country, and all are heavily over-subscribed.

That brings me to the second element of the debate: the schools adjudicator and its relationship with the school admissions code. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 had some excellent motives and was about giving schools greater freedom and independence, but there was strong opposition from Labour Back Benchers, and in particular from the Labour left. They insisted on a number of concessions, including the creation of a statutory admissions code.

The original draft code stated that partially selective schools would not be able to give priority in their admissions policy to the siblings of existing pupils. The code argued that such a priority disadvantaged local pupils and that the practice must come to an immediate end. Schools would either have to drop sibling priority or cease to be partially selective.

The proposal was greeted with outrage by many of the affected families. The prospect of families having to cope with different children at different schools many miles apart, the unfairness of the goalposts being moved—particularly for those families already with children at a partially selective school—and the perceived attack on popular and excellent schools provoked a strong display of opposition.

I and a number of fellow Conservative Members met the Minister for Schools and Learners to express our concerns. However, this is a cross-party issue. Parliamentary convention prevents the hon. Member for Watford from taking part in this debate, but she expressed her strong opposition to these proposals and had several meetings with Ministers and with parents from her constituency. Given the marginal nature of the Watford constituency, her meeting with Ministers may have been more persuasive than the meeting the Minister for Schools and Learners had with my colleagues and me. As a consequence of that and of other pressures brought to bear, the Government made two concessions by changing the original draft.

First, the Government brought in transitional rules with the intention of protecting those families already in the system so that the goalposts were not moved for
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them. Secondly, they did not impose a ban on sibling priority for partially selective schools within the schools admissions code; instead, they empowered the schools adjudicator to prohibit sibling priority unless the school could demonstrate that its admission arrangements as a whole did not exclude families living nearer the school.

That issue has once again come to light because of an adjudication by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator of 24 September ruling that it was no longer permissible for the Watford grammar schools to include in their admissions criteria “cross-sibling priority”. This is a unique circumstance that does not apply to the other partially selective schools. Both Watford grammar schools are single sex schools and until now it has been the policy of both to give priority to the siblings of pupils attending the other school. For example, if a boy in year 9 has a younger sister in year 6, the girl’s school would give priority to the girl in year 6. There is much that I could criticise about that adjudication: the lack of opportunity for parents adversely affected to make their case to the schools adjudicator; the inconsistency with other school adjudications; the removal of effective checking of locality claims by the school, which is a separate but important issue; and the lack of importance given to the historic links between the two Watford grammar schools.

I do not support the dropping of the cross-sibling priority and I understand that that is not the position of the hon. Member for Watford either. However, it is particularly important that the schools adjudication of 24 September will essentially come into effect in the coming school year, beginning in September 2009. That means that in the example that I gave—a boy in year 9 at the boys’ grammar school and a girl in year 6—the parents would have believed that the girl would get priority at the girls’ school, but that is no longer the case. That is notwithstanding the transitional rules that were included in the Government’s concession on the original code.

On that point, the adjudicator was correct at least according to the letter of the code, if not its spirit. In the transitional provision, it states that the adjudicator must not uphold an objection that would prevent sibling priority for applicants who have siblings on the school roll before the beginning of the 2008 school year. The Watford grammar schools are different schools, so they do not have the same school roll. Consequently, the protection provided in the school admissions code does not apply. However, the Government went further than the mere contents of the code.

I mentioned a meeting involving the hon. Member for Watford, the Minister for Schools and Learners and parents from the Watford area. The notes from that meeting were produced by the office of the hon. Member for Watford and, I believe, cleared by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. They stated that the Minister for Schools and Learners had said that

I have spoken to a number of parents who attended that meeting, and they confirm that that is their recollection of what was promised. In other words, a promise was made that would apply not just to parents at Parmiter’s
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or those who would benefit from their children attending the same school, but to those in cross-sibling circumstances. That is not being delivered.

I have spoken to a number of parents who are deeply upset about that development and I shall give a couple of examples that have been raised with me in the past few days by constituents. On Friday, I met a father of two children, who told me that his family used to live very close to the girls’ school—close enough to be sure of place for his daughter on the ground of locality. His eldest child, his son, obtained a place at the boys’ school. The family assumed that they had a place at the girls’ school assured for their daughter, and in February 2007 they moved a few miles away to Croxley Green, in my constituency. They are very happy in their new home, but had they known then what they know now, they would not have jeopardised their daughter’s place at the school by moving.

Another parent told me that when her son won a place at the boys’ school, they chose that school over another, co-educational school at which their daughter would have been guaranteed a place, because they understood that there would later be a place available for their daughter at the girls’ school. I was informed of another case only today in which the son is at the boys’ school and is feeling terribly guilty that his sisters are no longer in a strong position to obtain a place at the girls’ school. This situation involves a great unfairness that goes against what Ministers had previously stated. I know that the hon. Member for Watford recognises the unfairness and is doing what she can to raise the matter. What do the Government say about it?

The Government say that this is all about the schools adjudicator, who is independent, and that it is nothing to do with them. Parents have been told that Ministers did not expect this judgment, but the message being given is that there is nothing that the Government can do, even though they say that the goalposts should not be moved. People have made decisions about their choice of school or about moving house on the basis of these governmental promises, yet the Government are not prepared to stand by them.

The schools adjudicator is acting on the basis of a code that was drafted by the Government. Why cannot they amend the code to bring it into line with the stated objective of protecting families already in the system? I am sure that such an approach would have cross-party support. I am sure that it would be supported by Members of Parliament whose constituencies are in the Watford area. It would solve this problem, so I urge the Minister to adopt it. She may say that the schools adjudicator is independent, but that has not prevented the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families from writing to, and putting pressure on, the schools adjudicator, insisting on the strict adherence to the school admissions code. I urge the Minister to show some flexibility on this point.

A wider point relates to the way in which the Government are working in this area. It was clear from the original school admissions code that the Government wished to undermine the ability of partially selective schools to give priority to the siblings of existing pupils. The Government wanted to make those schools more like standard comprehensives and serve a smaller locality,
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and this was their way of doing it, but they found that the policy was immensely unpopular. In such circumstances, the Government could have stood their ground and argued that they were doing the right thing. Alternatively, they could have conceded the point and stopped trying to interfere in the admissions policies of those schools. Instead the Government found a third way, which involved dealing with the opposition that had built up by providing transitional provisions, albeit ineffectively, and giving the job of banning sibling priority to the supposedly independent schools adjudicator. In that way, the policy objective would be achieved but the Government would be able to distance themselves from it.

As another schools adjudicator has said, in a separate judgment that interpreted the code,

I think that that is correct and that it shows what the Government wanted to do. At least the adjudicator in that case argued, again rightly, that the Government’s intention was transitional provisions to protect families currently at the school. However, it is clear that the ultimate destination is that partially selective schools will no longer be able to give priority to siblings. As the school admissions code stands, it is clear that the Government’s original intention of stopping sibling priority for partially selective schools will be achieved—it is only a matter of time.

This situation was entirely predictable. I wrote an article in January 2007 stating that the Government’s partial climbdown on this issue would prove to be a short-term one. I do not normally quote myself in this House, but I stated that

the Government—

The future for these partially selective schools is that objections to their admissions policies will be made year after year. Eventually, a schools adjudicator will determine adversely against a school and, over time, not just cross-sibling priority for the Watford grammar schools but any sibling priority for any of the partially selective schools will be banned. We can argue over the rights and wrongs of sibling priority for those schools—I happen to believe that it is right—but the Government’s approach of pursuing this objective while denying responsibility is somewhat cynical.

For the sake of my constituents and these excellent schools, I genuinely hope that the Government will reconsider their approach, especially with regard to the transitional provisions for the Watford grammar schools and the cross-sibling issue, but let me be blunt: if the Government do not change course, it will be made abundantly clear that the responsibility for the attack on those schools, and the problems caused for many families in the Watford and surrounding areas, will lie at their feet.

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11.55 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) on securing this debate, although he probably did not envisage that it would occur quite so late at night. I appreciate that he is a strong advocate of his constituents’ interests, and works hard to ensure that their views are heard. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward) is also in her place at this late hour. As a Whip, she is precluded from speaking about these issues in the House, but I know that she has had discussions and been in correspondence with Ministers in the Department for Children, Schools and Families on this issue.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the importance of fair access to the school system, and the key role that the school admissions code, and associated regulations, play in achieving that. The schools adjudicators have a crucial responsibility towards the ultimate aim of fair access for all children. Their role, in the admissions context, is both to enforce the mandatory provisions of the code and to consider objections from those, including parents, who consider that the arrangements might be disadvantaging particular groups in the community. It is therefore necessary and, indeed, right that they are truly independent. As the hon. Gentleman said, their rulings are final and cannot be overturned by political whim or public pressure. In order for them to act as the enforcers of the code, which was put in place by Parliament, that is how it must be.

To give a flavour of their work, in 2007-08, 108 objections were received by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator from parents about admission arrangements. Of these, 90 were upheld or partially upheld. Nineteen were received from schools, of which nine were fully upheld or partially upheld. There are proposals to extend the role of the schools adjudicators in the Education and Skills Bill, so that they can consider arrangements that they think may be unlawful, however they come to their attention, rather than through a specific referral. In that way, we will be able to drive out poor practice in admissions arrangements, and ensure that every school place is awarded based on lawful criteria.

We will also place a duty on local authorities to report annually to the chief schools adjudicator on the fairness, legality and effectiveness of the admission arrangements in their area. In that way, the admissions system will be more closely monitored to ensure that it moves closer to our goal of fair access. We are also clear that we should continue improving the system to be as fair and transparent as possible.

We acknowledge that not every parent receives their first preference of school. However, in the 2008 secondary admissions round, 82 per cent. of parents received their first preference school and 94 per cent. received their first, second or third preference. According to the 2008 survey of parents in England, conducted by GFK Social Research, 78 per cent. of parents felt that the school place their child received was ideal, rather than the best school available under the circumstances. We have recently completed a public consultation on improvements to the school admissions code, and are currently analysing responses. I am pleased to note that many parents have taken part in this consultation. Some 29 per cent. of
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respondents were parents, and they formed the biggest group of respondents. We will respond publicly to the consultation in due course.

On the issue of partial selection, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the law permits any school with a specialism in one of the prescribed subjects to give priority to a maximum of 10 per cent. of pupils on the basis of their aptitude for that subject. Schools that had arrangements in place in 1997 for the selection of some of their pupils by aptitude can keep those arrangements in place, provided they do not increase the proportion of pupils selected under those arrangements. No other new forms of selection by aptitude can now be introduced. As the hon. Gentleman is also aware, we strongly oppose any new selection by academic ability. There are 164 grammar schools still in existence, for which different arrangements apply. Only a small number of schools operated a partial selection system at the start of the 1997-98 academic year. They may continue to select a proportion of their pupils on the basis of high academic ability.

Let me turn to the sibling rule. Where there is a high proportion of selection by ability or aptitude, the number of non-selective places is limited. Where such a school also gives priority for its non-selective places to children on the basis that they have an older sibling at the school, the number of non-selective places available to other children is reduced even further. Assuming that the younger siblings of children who passed a test of ability or aptitude would also be likely to pass such a test, we believe that the use of the sibling criterion in these schools can lead to a disproportionately high number of children being admitted who would have passed the selection test. The result is that a much reduced number of non-selective places are available for children from other families who would not have passed the selection test.

That is why the school admissions code advises partially selective schools proposing to give priority to siblings that they should ensure that their admission arrangements as a whole do not exclude other families living nearer the school. However, the code does not prevent schools from giving priority to siblings of children at the school, but simply advises of the possible effects of doing so. It is for the independent schools adjudicator to decide on receipt of an objection whether the use of the criterion is fair in the local context.

In 2007-08, the Office of the Schools Adjudicator received 40 objections about the use of the sibling rule, of which 38 were upheld or partially upheld. Twelve were from parents with a child already in the relevant school, 18 were from parents whose children were not yet in the school and 10 were from local authorities. However, we recognised in the code that some parents would have a reasonable expectation that their younger children could attend the same school as their older child. That is why we included the transitional arrangement to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which effectively prevents the adjudicator from upholding an objection to the sibling criterion at one of those schools as long as the older child was on roll at the school before the beginning of the 2008 school year.

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