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17 Nov 2008 : Column 72

Secondly, in abolishing the category of schools approved under section 347 of the Education Act 1996, we are clear that we do not want to introduce extra bureaucracy as a result of a deregulatory measure. We are therefore committed to publishing a central list of all independent schools that are registered as being specially organised to provide for children with special educational needs, as the Independent Schools Council has requested. In doing that, we look to the possibility of enhancing the information available to parents and local authorities that is contained on the list.

Thirdly, to discourage local authorities from additional red tape for schools, we will publish strengthened and clear guidance, on which we will consult. We will certainly consult bodies that represent independent schools. Indeed, throughout the implementation of the changes, the Department will continue to work closely with the sector and the schools affected by the repeal of section 347.

I hope that we have had sufficient discussion for the House to approve the amendments.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 42 to 166 agreed to [some with Special Entry] .

Clause 137

Meaning of “sixth form education” etc

Lords amendment: No. 167.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 180, 185, 186, 188, 190, 207 and 213.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The amendment is about school admissions. Whenever a new code on school admissions is issued, it must be consulted on first. The amendment confirms, for the avoidance of doubt, that the requirement to consult will be satisfied by consulting about a draft code that refers to provisions in the measure that are not yet law. That will allow the codes to remain current and relevant, and reduce the overall burden of consultation on audiences such as schools and local authorities.

The remainder of the amendments in the group are technical or consequential. Amendments Nos. 185, 186 and 188 relate to the commencement of the school admissions provisions by the Welsh Ministers. The amendments make a slight change to the power of the Welsh Ministers to commence paragraph 58 of schedule 1, so that it is in line with the remainder of their commencement powers.

Amendment No. 180 makes the meaning of “prescribed” and “regulations” clearer throughout the measure. For the avoidance of doubt, it is better for those terms to be set out in the Bill. Amendment No. 190 will make it clearer in drafting that, apart from subsections (1) to (3) of clause 154, the Secretary of State will bring the remaining provisions into force by order.

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Amendments Nos. 207 and 213 provide consequential amendments to the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999. They ensure that social security information may be shared between the Department for Work and Pensions and a county council, when that county council exercises social security functions for a young person for whom it is also required to provide support via the Connexions services. Regulations made under that social security legislation define a “local authority” by reference to the Social Security Administration Act 1992. That definition of “local authority” does not include a county council of England. Therefore, but for the amendments, the current data sharing could not continue when a county council exercised Connexions functions.

The amendments are purely technical, resulting from the transfer of the Connexions services to the local authority. They enable current practices to continue, and I therefore commend them to hon. Members.

Mr. Gibb: I welcome the Under-Secretary to her new position and to the Dispatch Box to discuss the final stages of the Bill. She missed many months of interesting debate—

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I served on the Committee.

Mr. Gibb: I do not remember that. It was many months ago and I have forgotten.

The amendment typifies the Labour Government’s obsession with admissions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said on Report:

Conservative Members believe in a fair and clear admissions system and we therefore support the concept of an admissions code.

However, our priority is to increase the number of good schools by making it easier for new providers to establish new schools, thereby giving parents a genuine choice of school for their children, focusing on raising academic and behavioural standards, and ensuring that the teaching of reading in reception class is effective. By contrast, the Government have devoted huge amounts of effort to continual changes to the admissions code and pillorying faith schools.

In the final stages of the Bill’s passage, the Government tabled two dozen new clauses and amendments to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 about admissions. It was all very last minute and rushed, without the usual Committee stage scrutiny and consultation. Now the Government seek approval of an amendment passed in another place to allow the public consultation, which closed in October, on the new draft admissions code to be valid, notwithstanding the fact that the draft code is based on the new clauses, which have not yet received Royal Assent. That is all indicative of an over-ideological obsession with admissions, which is so characteristic of the Government in general and the Minister’s boss, the Secretary of State, in particular.

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The truth is that what determines a good school is not its intake, but its leadership and the quality of teaching. I can take hon. Members to schools in the most deprived parts of our inner cities and with every possible disadvantage that are safe, secure and highly successful and which have high levels of academic achievement. By contrast, there are many schools in leafy suburbs where the take-up of free school meals is well below the national average and where behaviour is out of control and academic standards are poor.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Name them.

Mr. Gibb: I could give the hon. Gentleman a list if he wishes. I recommend that he go to Mossbourne academy in Hackney, for example, where 50 per cent. of the children qualify for free school meals and 40 per cent. speak English as a second language, and where he will see exemplary behaviour.

John Mann: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the leafy suburbs, so could he please give me a list for Nottinghamshire?

Mr. Gibb: I am not going to start criticising schools in leafy suburbs, but there are many schools across the country which have few indicators of deprivation, but which are not achieving as well as Mossbourne academy in Hackney. The vast majority of comprehensive schools have between 10 and 21 per cent. of pupils on free school meals. Simply moving children around so that every school has the national average of 14 per cent. of pupils qualifying for free school meals would not make the slightest difference to the quality of education in those schools. As I have said, one of the best comprehensives in the country has half its children qualifying for free school meals. The objective of a Conservative Government would be to concentrate on standards of behaviour, assessing and streaming, school uniform and high academic achievement.

Mr. Laws: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he would remove or amend any part of the existing code of admissions?

Mr. Gibb: The existing code does need amending and simplifying. Although we certainly agree with the principle of having an admissions code, we believe that it should be much simpler and clearer and that it should not be revised every year. That just confuses schools and parents.

Finally, I want to say a few words about Lords amendments Nos. 207 and 213. They have amended the information-sharing provisions in the Bill, so that county councils can be included in the list of public bodies that can share confidential information about a young person, in order to assist those public bodies in enforcing or implementing the duty to participate. I do not want to reprise the extensive debate that we had in Committee about the rights and wrongs of information concerning a young person’s health, police record, academic achievement or social security being distributed among a range of public bodies, from local authorities to Connexions. However, I still believe that there are some confidentiality issues at stake, as well as some important human rights implications, which will undoubtedly surface when those provisions begin to bite.

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The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who chairs the Joint Committee on Human Rights, has raised his Committee’s concerns about those provisions. He says:

and asks what

with article 8 of the European convention on human rights. The Children’s Rights Alliance for England has also raised its concerns. It conducted a survey of young people, who expressed the view that if children think that adults are going to share information about them with other people, they will stop confiding in adults altogether.

The Minister for Schools and Learners said in Committee that the Government would set out in guidance how the measure would be used. Could the Minister replying to this debate tell the House the current status of that guidance? Is it drafted yet? If so, can we see it? If not, when does she expect to be able to publish it in draft form?

Kelvin Hopkins: I want to speak briefly about admissions, which concern me and, I am sure, many other hon. Members. I agree with the Opposition spokesman about the importance of leadership and a school’s ethos. He is absolutely correct. In my constituency, we have some first-rate schools and some first-rate head teachers doing a wonderful job, often with children who have some disadvantages, such as speaking English as a second language and other factors.

I would argue, however, that the problem arose because of the Conservatives, who introduced the idea of parental choice. That led to hierarchies of schools, from schools with a concentration of the less able, as it were, from poorer backgrounds to schools with the most able, from middle-class, academic backgrounds. That has happened in my constituency, as it has surely happened elsewhere too, and it has not helped. It has been socially divisive and has also meant that schools with a high proportion of those from disadvantaged backgrounds can easily say, “It’s not the teaching or the leadership; it’s just the children in our schools.”

I do not accept that argument for a moment, but if schools had balanced populations within them, we could draw genuine comparisons between them. If every school had the same range of pupils and if one school was doing well and another badly, we would know that that was to do with what was being done in those schools. The problem arose from the idea of parental choice and the hierarchy of secondary schools in particular, which has arisen in my constituency and many others throughout the country.

There are other issues to do with admissions that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will consider. I am sure she is aware not only that people want to be admitted to what are seen as the target schools, but that sometimes schools are over-subscribed. For instance, there is a shortage of sixth-form places in my constituency. Some youngsters, particularly those who arrive late, over the summer, find it almost impossible to find a sixth-form place, because there are not enough.

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I hope that my hon. Friend is looking into how we can ensure that that lack of provision does not arise, so that every child, at whatever level, but particularly at sixth form, can study the subjects they choose and with good-quality teaching in a nearby establishment. That concern has arisen in my constituency and I am sure that there are other hon. Members in a similar situation. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will look into those problems, too.

Rob Marris: I agree with the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) that we want every school to be a good school and that leadership is important. There is still some way to go, but the Government have already gone a long way on that. One of the ways that we have done so is by providing leadership training and by funding schools better, because pupils will generally study a bit better in better buildings—the important thing is staff and ethos, but buildings help, too. However, I live in a deprived part of the country, and if the hon. Gentleman thinks that input into a school does not affect output, which seemed to be the import of his remarks, he is living in a very different world from me.

The hon. Gentleman decried the need to change the admissions code so frequently and I entirely agree with him. It is most unfortunate that we have a complex admissions code and that it keeps being revised. However, the driver for those changes is that some schools—a minority, but a significant minority—keep trying to get round the admissions code. That point is not based on anecdotal evidence, such as that which he produced about how good one academy in London is; it is based on a survey that the Government conducted to find out whether schools were complying with the admissions code. Surprise, surprise, that survey sadly found that too many schools, albeit a minority, were not complying with the code. The Government are therefore unfortunately in the position of either letting schools ignore the admissions code or enforcing it and closing the loopholes that a minority of schools seek to find within it—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could relate his remarks to the group of amendments that we are currently discussing, which begins with Lords amendment No. 167.

Rob Marris: I am obliged to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Perhaps I will leave my remarks at that for the moment.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We have had an interesting and wide-ranging debate, which you acknowledged in your remark, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would like to place it on record that we certainly want all schools to be good schools. That is the aim of the Government. However, we also want a fair admissions code. Indeed, we are amending the admissions code in the Bill to protect looked-after children. I would hope that the objections to revising the admissions code, which the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) raised, do not extend to not helping looked-after children. We all acknowledge that they have a tough time and that we should do all we can to ensure that they have decent school provision.

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We have been consulting on our draft admissions code, and it is our ambition to be able to put it into practice from September 2010 to ensure at the earliest possible opportunity that the revisions to ensure a fair code come into place. If we did not agree to the amendment, the admissions code would not come into being until September 2011.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton referred to the exchange of information and his concerns about safeguarding. We believe that there are sufficient safeguards in the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998. I am sure he will remember that that was set out in a letter from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners to the Committee in January this year. If we did not agree to the amendment, the current data sharing would not be able to continue. I am sure that we all value the service that Connexions provides on behalf of young people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) does not accept, as I do not, that we should be able to excuse ourselves by saying that the type of intake determines the outcome of a school. We certainly recognised that in our London Challenge programme, in which we put together families of schools with similar intakes, levels of ethnic variation, attainments and free school meals provision. We measure those against each other so that, to use a phrase that I have probably overused today, we can share examples of best practice—a phrase to which the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) objected.

I repeat that we want fair access, which is why our admissions code often relates to over-subscription, and I certainly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) on that point. I said right at the beginning that this Government want all schools to be good schools. With that, I hope that the amendments will be agreed to.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 180, 185,186, 188, 190, 207 and 213 agreed to.

Clause 138

Power of governing body: educational provision for improving behaviour

Lords amendment: No. 168.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 169.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: A school governing body already has the power under section 29(3) of the Education Act 2002 to direct a pupil off site to receive instruction or training. The clause provides that the governing body can also require registered pupils to attend off-site educational provision that is intended to improve their behaviour, such as anger management classes.

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