Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)


16 JANUARY 2008

  Q80  Mr. Stuart: It is especially difficult if there is incoherence in the messages that parents receive. On the one hand, they are to exercise choice, and when they exercise it, they then face criticism. The Minister said that we need greater enforcement of the legal obligation. He did not feel there was enough cracking down yet. He doubtless meant that you should be cracking down harder on enforcing the obligations under the admissions code, and it is creating a real tension, which is why, in my area and across the country, there is a massive increase in the number of appeals. People are more and more dissatisfied with the system, because expectations are created which, as you said, are not met for broader social reasons.

  Chairman: Graham, stick to questions, please.

  Dr. Hunter: Unfettered parental choice and the market lead inevitably to social segregation. The only answer to that is regulation. Unfettered choice and the market lead to unacceptable segregation, so somebody has to make a judgment about when to start to regulate in order to avoid the undesirable consequences of unfettered choice and the market.

  Q81  Ms Butler: Dr. Hunter, you said earlier that it will probably take a while for schools to comply completely with the code. How long? How many years do you think it will take for schools to comply?

  Dr. Hunter: I would guess another year.

  Q82  Ms Butler: Just another year?

  Dr. Hunter: I am expecting a splurge of references to us this year, and I would have thought that by the end of that, most schools will have got the message. The code is very clear; it does not take a genius to be able to read the code and understand when a school is complying with it and when it is not.

  Q83  Ms Butler: Has it been made clearer now that the loopholes have been closed?

  Dr. Hunter: Absolutely. I think that it is a very good code.

  Q84  Ms Butler: What progress has been made over the last few years to make sure all local authorities reviewed their admission arrangements? In my constituency of Brent South, there are more than 250 children without school places, and it seems to be getting worse. What progress has been made?

  Dr. Hunter: It varies in different parts of the country, but I am clear from what I have heard this morning that the Government are determined to make sure that every local authority and every admissions forum is addressing those problems. The capacity to deal with them does vary, and I worry about some of the smaller authorities having the officer support and the political clout to deal with the problems that they face.

  Q85  Ms Butler: As for the local authorities that are not complying, for whatever reason, how can that situation be resolved?

  Dr. Hunter: It can only be dealt with through pressure of one kind or another from Government and by making sure that support from central government to those authorities is sufficient to allow them to deal with their problems. Some of the problems, particularly in London, are difficult. I was working in an authority last year where I think only 35% of the 11 to 16-year-olds living in that authority go to schools in that borough.

  Q86  Chairman: What was that percentage?

  Dr. Hunter: Only 35% go to schools in that borough and over 50% of the children in schools in that borough come from somewhere else. Now I frankly fail to see how a local authority like that can plan for the future. This has been established by setting up all these local authorities in London, and in my view anyway, there has got to be some mechanism somewhere to make sure that that situation is improved.

  Q87  Chairman: Which borough were you talking about?

  Dr. Hunter: Hammersmith and Fulham.

  Q88  Fiona Mactaggart: I want to know this: is there any research about the impact on a child's achievement of them going through the appeal process at the beginning of their secondary school career, which is where it usually occurs?

  Dr. Hunter: No; not that I know of.

  Q89  Fiona Mactaggart: If there is not, is it not up to you to try and ensure that there is? It is clear that it must have some impact. I do not believe that it has none.

  Dr. Hunter: You mean going through the appeals process?

  Q90  Fiona Mactaggart: Yes. When a child is not admitted or goes through an appeal for admission and is then not admitted, what is the impact either on their future education in the school where they end up or on their education in the school that they are admitted into following an appeal? I think both of those may have an impact on the child's future education. I watch those children arriving in my constituency surgery. They did not get the bicycle because they did not pass the 11-plus—and then they are hauled into see me, with mum complaining. And they hear all of this talked about, and they are very unhappy children. I want to know who looks at what the impact of going through all that at the beginning of their school career is on that child's learning while they are there. Nobody has that job—the schools are not going to do it.

  Dr. Hunter: Well, we as adjudicators do not deal with the appeals process. We are engaged in some activity this year monitoring some of what is going on there, but we do not have any statutory responsibility for that. And that is something that, no doubt, the Department and Ministers and so on are thinking about now. Part of what you are talking about is to do with selection, the 11-plus and all that. We have a position where there is selection, and I am not saying anymore about that.

  Q91  Mr. Chaytor: Why not?

  Dr. Hunter: Because I am an adjudicator and I am very keen—may I say?—not to get involved in policy areas of that kind.

  Q92  Fiona Mactaggart: But there are areas, which are not selective, where the same experience occurs for an individual child, and I think that unless the Department is poked, they might not do this research—they have not so far. It has been going on for a long time. Do you not think that it might be a role for your unit?

  Dr. Hunter: There was some research about five years ago—from Sheffield Hallam, again—about the appeals process that covered what parents thought of it.

  Q93  Fiona Mactaggart: Did it cover children's achievement?

  Dr. Hunter: No, it did not do that. They did not follow it up in that regard.

  Chairman: I think that this is a suggestion for research for someone else; we recognise that it is not your job to do research, Dr. Hunter.

  Q94  Stephen Williams: Just a question for the Adjudicator—I was looking through the tables at the back of your most recent report. I noticed there were 10 adjudicators around the country and you head up the team. Is that enough to cope with the work load? You said you were expecting a splurge of referrals this year. Are you confident that you have enough people in your team?

  Dr. Hunter: It has been so far. There were 16 when I came and I got them down to eight because they were not busy enough, and we added two more last year because we thought the work would rise. I think that is probably enough.

  Q95  Stephen Williams: And do you operate as a national team, or is there geographical professionalism?

  Dr. Hunter: Yes, it is national.

  Q96  Stephen Williams: So you get sent wherever there is demand. I just wondered, looking through the table, whether some authorities seem to have lots of complaints and some do not appear at all. Hertfordshire seems to appear in great numbers in every single category of complaint. Is there any sort of pattern that we should be worried about?

  Dr. Hunter: No, we often get the position where a local authority—I think that it was Kent last year and Hertfordshire this year—decides to have a go at looking at all the admissions criteria for every school in the area, which is what all authorities should be doing. Having done that, they send a lot through to us. If all authorities do that, as a result of what Mr. Knight was talking about earlier today, we are going to have a busy year and we may have to bring in more, but I think that we have probably got enough at the moment.

  Q97  Stephen Williams: Right, just a quick final question: when the Education Inspections Bill was going through in 2006, an amendment that my colleagues proposed at the time but that was withdrawn because the Minister made a concession included a suggestion that local authorities should be able to look at the admissions policies of individual schools, and it was conceded by the Minister that some pilots would be implemented. Have you seen any evidence of these pilots taking place, which effectively would be working alongside your team?

  Dr. Hunter: I am not sure of the context of that, but all local authorities now have a duty to look at all the admissions criteria for all the schools in their area. You question whether they are doing that, and I suspect that, as I say, after this year, we will begin to assist in the way they are doing that. If they have got problems with that, they refer them to us.

  Q98  Chairman: But if you come back to the nub of this, when we had earlier discussions with you, it was very clear that you were discontent with the system. That is why you wanted a different code and why you wanted to be able to come in more often. It tends to happen—does it not?—that although the articulate middle-classes catch on to a new set of rules that they can use, it does cascade and filter down. So is it a splurge in that other people from less affluent backgrounds will learn to use the system?

  Dr. Hunter: The splurge will arise because local authorities have got a letter from the Minister—this week, presumably—saying that we have got to do it. My experience is that they tend to do what they are told to do in this regard. Some of them will do it better than others, but I would guess that, this year, all local authorities will get down on to looking at all the admission criteria of all schools. You will find in a year's time that schools are pretty compliant with a very good code. As I say, that is only the start.

  Q99  Chairman: But the irritating thing when we took evidence for that previous Committee was that we would have a head from central casting—I always say—and I would say, "But you have no looked-after children; you have hardly any special educational needs children; and you have almost no one on free school meals. What about the code?" I remember a particular female head smiled sweetly and said, "We take note of the code."

  Dr. Hunter: Well, they cannot "take note" now; they have got to comply. It is the law.

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