Examination of Witnesses (Questions 63-79)|
16 JANUARY 2008
Q63 Chairman: Dr. Hunter, we are
very pleased to see you again. We were helped very much by the
evidence that you originally gave to the previous Committee in
order to write what some people said was a very good report, which
did influence the legislation, as I think you will remember, on
the code and much else. It was a pretty good partnership in those
days. I will not ask many questions, as I want to share them around
in this shortish session. I was not quite sure, reading all the
material, how soon the rules were brought in. I have all the appeals
and those that you have looked at, but are the assessments effective
now? Were you basing this on the new criteria from last September?
Dr. Hunter: My report covers a
bit of the year in which the old code applied and a bit of the
year in which the new code applies. As far as the new code is
concerned, I feel clearly that it is very good and clear, and
schools understand it. I think that they think that it is fair.
I am sure, having heard what the Minister has had to say today,
that in a year's time, you will be able to say that a vast majority
of schools are compliant with it. That is a very good basis for
moving forward. Of course, in a way it is only the start, because,
as we have heard, you can have an area in which all the schools
are compliant with the code and yet there is still an unacceptable
degree of segregation. Then you need something else. There are
two questions. First, what is an unacceptable degree of segregation?
Someone must decide that. You will never get a position in which
all schools have exactly the same proportion of free school meals
or the same proportion of ethnic minorities. So someone must make
a decision about what is an unacceptable degree of segregation,
and then decide what to do about it if there is an unacceptable
degree. That is extremely difficult, because you will always end
up with a situation in which you are saying to a bunch of parents,
"Yes, I know you are rich, articulate, well connected and
have spent £20,000 more than you otherwise would on houses
in this area in order to get your child into the local schoolI
know thatbut we are asking a proportion of you to send
your children to a less attractive school down the road".
That is the sort of decision that loses local councillors their
seats and sometimes loses MPs their seats, so it is a very difficult
thing to ask, but that is what you have got to do.
Q64 Chairman: When you originally
came before the Committee you said two things: you wanted a mandatory
codea tougher and mandatory codeand you wanted the
ability to be called in more often. Are you now happy that that
is now the situation?
Dr. Hunter: Having heard today
what the Minister is going to dowith letters to local authorities
and the rest of itI am happy that that is going to happen.
Q65 Fiona Mactaggart: I wonder whether
the way that your office operates is actually conducive to getting
better education, in that you have to have a situation of conflict
to interveneyou have to have a complaint.
Dr. Hunter: Sure.
Q66 Fiona Mactaggart: So that sets
up parents in a situation of anxiety with the admissions authority
or whatever. I accept that it is not always parents. It sets up
a conflict in the first place, and you resolve that conflict.
Dr. Hunter: That is right, but
we are not going round the country stirring up conflicts.
Fiona Mactaggart: I am not suggesting
that you are.
Dr. Hunter: We are there to resolve
disputes. We are not there as regulators or inspectorsthat
is the job of the Minister and of Bruce Liddington. It seems to
me from what we have heard that they are addressing that pretty
rigorously. We resolve disputes within the terms of the code of
practice and the regulations in force at any one time.
Q67 Fiona Mactaggart: Exactly, and
yet research by the IPPR and others shows that the biggest contribution
to the relative successthe most significant factor in explaining
the relative success of different childrenis parental involvement.
I am concerned that you do not have any mechanism whereby you
can intervene before that conflict is established between a school
Dr. Hunter: That is the job of
local authorities and Government.
Q68 Fiona Mactaggart: Is it your
view that they do it well?
Dr. Hunter: It is my view, having
heard what I have heard from the Minister today, that they are
addressing it vigorously.
Q69 Fiona Mactaggart: That is not
the same as thinking that local authorities are doing it well.
Dr. Hunter: As I said, local authorities
have got difficult jobs to do; having been a Director of Education
myself, I understand that. I think that, sometimes, we expect
too much of them. I have just said that, where you have got unacceptable
degrees of segregation, which does happen from time to time, it
is exceedingly difficult, as the people of Brighton found out
last year, to get that resolved in a way that does not lose local
councillors their seats, their jobs and sometimes MPs' jobs. These
are highly political decisionshighly political sets of
circumstances that you are putting people into.
Q70 Fiona Mactaggart: I represent
a constituency with the largest proportion, I think, probably
in the country, of unhappy parents. That is a product, to some
degree, of an 11-plus system. One primary school in my constituency
said that the adjudicator had been able to address its governors
and some other governors about their role and about being an admissions
authority. It seems to me that governors are amateurs. Is there
not a role that you can play in enabling governing bodies, where
they are admissions authorities, and others to do their job better
before they get into this situation of conflict with parents,
which is occurring so often?
Dr. Hunter: Our role is to resolve
disputes, and we only get involved once the dispute has been declared.
That having happened, of course, there are many occasions on which
we can mediate between the two parties. From time to time, we
get to a position at which the decision we takethe determination
we makeis one that both parties are happy with. That is
something that tribunals across the country do from time to time,
Q71 Fiona Mactaggart: One other point
about this is the fact that you take, on average, about six weeks,
as I understand it, to decide in an individual case. At that point,
a child is normally likelyif an individual child is involvedto
have settled in school, and the consequences of your decision
are that it is often not the appropriate thing to do for the child
to change their circumstances.
Dr. Hunter: We get involved mostly
in admissions cases well before the start of the school year,
so that, in most cases, six weeks is in good time for that. There
are some casesdirections cases, for examplewhere
the child is out of school and we try to do that as quickly as
possible. I would say that all the jobs that we do used to be
done by the Department. I used to be a civil servant in the Department
and know that cases could sometimes take two years to resolve,
when the job was done by civil servants and Ministers. At least
we only take six weeks.
Q72 Fiona Mactaggart: I have never
found it a compelling argument that a bad system is better than
an appalling system.
Dr. Hunter: I am not saying that
ours is a bad system; I am saying that it only takes six weeks.
Q73 Chairman: It was suggested that
six weeks does work generally. Six weeks is what you aim to be
the maximum. Is that right?
Dr. Hunter: Yes.
Q74 Fiona Mactaggart: But six weeks
of a seven-year-old's life is a very, very long time.
Dr. Hunter: As I say, the vast
majority of cases98%are to do with situations well
before the beginning of the school year. People are not out of
school while that is happening.
Q75 Fiona Mactaggart: One of the
things we have been talking about up until now is the fact that
certain kinds of parents are more likely than others to be adept
at making complaints and at triggering the process that engages
you. Is it your view that a system that largely depends on parental
complaintI know your engagement can be triggered by school
complaint and so onis a satisfactory system for monitoring
how the schools admission code works in practice?
Dr. Hunter: Up to now, until the
2006 Act, all of the complaints that came to usapart from
a very small number to do with partial selectioncame either
from schools or local authorities. It was only the Act that allowed
parents direct access to us. So we have had very little experience
of that so far. We have had only about 30 cases this year where
it came from parents. That is a question that my successorI
am leaving this yearwill be able to answer next year.
Q76 Fiona Mactaggart: What is your
Dr. Hunter: There is inevitably
some truth in saying that advantaged, middle-class, articulate
parents will always find ways of advancing their cases and that
that sort of thing is not accessible to poorer, more deprived
people. Something must be done about that.
Q77 Fiona Mactaggart: What sort of
Dr. Hunter: I think the emphasis
on making sure that local authorities and admission forums address
their responsibilities properlythe sort of thing that the
Minister was talking about with this letter going out this weekis
the way to make sure that all schools are compliant with the code
and that all schools take seriously their responsibilities to
make sure they have got a reasonable social and ethnic mix in
Q78 Mr. Stuart: It is just that something
must be done about that. You sound absolutely committed to social
engineering and frustrating the choices of parents.
Dr. Hunter: No, I am not.
Q79 Mr. Stuart: Surely, the only
answer would be to go to a full lottery system or effectively
to make sure that we have a social mix by asking parents to accept
that the good of all will be best served by creating a fair mix
Dr. Hunter: Absolutely not. The
first thing that I said was that somebodyI think that this
has to be somebody locally, local politicianshas got to
decide what is an acceptable or unacceptable degree of segregation.
I said and firmly believe that you will never get to a position
in which all schools have exactly the same proportion of free
school meals or ethnic minorities or what have you. What is an
unacceptable degree of segregation will vary across the country.
You will get some parts of the country where a certain set of
circumstances will be acceptable that would not be acceptable
somewhere else. It is only where there is an unacceptable degree
of segregation that somebody has to intervene. There are lots
of different ways to intervene. Sometimes, it can be done without
too much difficulty locally. In my experience, those kinds of
intervention are extremely difficult, and national Government
and you as a Committee must be aware that social engineering is
not an easy matter.