Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

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 school—I know that—but 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 code—a tougher and mandatory code—and 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 do—with letters to local authorities and the rest of it—I 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 intervene—you 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 inspectors—that 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 success—the most significant factor in explaining the relative success of different children—is parental involvement. I am concerned that you do not have any mechanism whereby you can intervene before that conflict is established between a school and parents.

  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 decisions—highly 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 take—the determination we make—is one that both parties are happy with. That is something that tribunals across the country do from time to time, including us.

  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 likely—if an individual child is involved—to 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 cases—directions cases, for example—where 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 cases—98%—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 complaint—I know your engagement can be triggered by school complaint and so on—is 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 us—apart from a very small number to do with partial selection—came 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 successor—I am leaving this year—will be able to answer next year.

  Q76  Fiona Mactaggart: What is your prediction?

  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 thing?

  Dr. Hunter: I think the emphasis on making sure that local authorities and admission forums address their responsibilities properly—the sort of thing that the Minister was talking about with this letter going out this week—is 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 their intake.

  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 of schools?

  Dr. Hunter: Absolutely not. The first thing that I said was that somebody—I think that this has to be somebody locally, local politicians—has 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.

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