Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)


16 JANUARY 2008

  Q100  Chairman: But do they? Is the process really happening?

  Dr. Hunter: You will get the answer to that after this year's experience. I am pretty confident that, after this year's experience, you will be able to look at it and say that that part of it is working.

  Q101  Chairman: You are a very experienced person in the education world. You have worked in so many areas and have an overview. Do you think that what has happened—the change in the legislation, the change in your role and the change in the nature of the code—will address the fact that there is such a distortion in terms of the intake in many of the schools that have been able to exclude? Can you see a real qualitative change?

  Dr. Hunter: The answer is that I can see a real step change, which will produce a very good basis for further work later on, but it will not answer all your problems. If every school in the country is compliant with the code, you will still have areas in which there is a degree of social and racial segregation, which some of you, the Government and some people locally will feel uncomfortable about. At what point does that degree become unacceptable? That is the first question. The second question is, what do you do about it? The answer to the first question will be different in different parts of the country. You will have different answers in Ealing, Bradford, Bury, Huddersfield and everywhere else. In my view, it has to be a local political decision. The question of what to do about it is extremely difficult.

  Q102  Mr. Stuart: Do you feel that the change from education departments to children's services departments has affected the ability to deal with major reorganisation?

  Dr. Hunter: There are two things. First, they did go through a blip when they lost a lot of good officers—hoary old education officers who knew how to shut schools. I was a Director of Education at the time of the last cuts in numbers. We closed 133 schools in Staffordshire in the 1980s, and every one of them was difficult. They did lose a lot of those officers; they are picking them up again. Secondly, are there now some authorities that are just too small to cope with these things? My answer is yes.

  Q103  Mr. Stuart: Do we need to give additional support to help?

  Dr. Hunter: Either additional support, or you start amalgamating authorities—or you stop setting up new tiddlers.

  Q104  Mr. Stuart: Moving on to Academies, is it appropriate for the Secretary of State to be involved in approving Academies' admission arrangements as well adjudicating?

  Dr. Hunter: I do not think that it will make a lot of difference in practice, because Academies are tied in to the same code. I think that it is a perception problem, and the way to get out of it is to give it to somebody independent, like the adjudicators.

  Q105  Mr. Stuart: If I may go back to some of the earlier evidence, representing a rural area, as I do, and seeing the difficulty of choice, with its not being delivered, would you like to see choice emphasised less and to focus more on the Minister's talk of raising standards in all schools, as well as recognising the need for a proper social mix in schools?

  Dr. Hunter: There is a job for Ministers, local authorities and everybody else, which is to fix expectations at a realistic level. That is difficult.

  Q106  Chairman: Do you have a suggestion about who that independent body should be, if the job is taken away from the Government?

  Dr. Hunter: Sorry?

  Chairman: You suggested that you would like to see—

  Dr. Hunter: No, I meant the adjudicators. Give it to us.

  Chairman: Oh, give it to you. Right, okay. Good. Excellent.

  Q107  Mr. Chaytor: Your annual report last year described the ending of the first preference first provision as a good thing, because it was unnecessarily complicated. How was it complex? Was it more complex than any other criteria?

  Dr. Hunter: Yes, it was. First preference first meant that schools were giving priority to families who put that school down as their first preference, which inevitably meant that, where you had some first preference first schools and some equal preference schools, parents started playing the system. They just stuck that school down as their first preference, even if it was not, in order to improve their chances of getting into that school.

  Q108  Mr. Chaytor: But in the wholly or even partly selective areas, would you not accept that ending first preference first has worked against the Government's objective of creating greater community cohesion, because it reduces the capacity of the non-selective schools to strengthen their intake?

  Dr. Hunter: I see no evidence of that. Basically, what those schools were doing—I understand why they were doing it—was sort of blackmailing parents, saying, "If you don't put us down first, you'll lose your place in the queue." I do not think that that is fair.

  Q109  Mr. Chaytor: If there were evidence of that, would you reconsider your view?

  Dr. Hunter: Yes, of course I would. Certainly, the first preference first system and what was called conditionality were giving a lot of people a lot of problems. You would need some pretty strong evidence to go back to it.

  Q110  Mr. Chaytor: Could I ask about fair banding? It is not necessarily fair, is it? The issue is that fair banding is banding on the nature of the applications to a school, not the nature of the wider catchment area of the school. What are the merits of banding according to applications, as against banding according to the wider catchment area?

  Dr. Hunter: It depends where you are and how many schools are into the banding business. If all schools in an area are operating in a banding system, I do not think that it makes a lot of difference which direction you are going in. I have noticed some of the Academies getting into banding. This is precisely what Bruce Liddington was talking about. If a school is serving a difficult area and all the kids and only the kids from that area are going into the school, you have to try to widen it in some way. Some of them are into banding, and I think some of that is probably justifiable. It depends where you are.

  Q111  Mr. Chaytor: There was reference earlier to lotteries. Is there evidence that people are starting to use the lottery provision?

  Dr. Hunter: Some of them are. Some of them are using it in different ways. In Brighton, for example, they were not really using a lottery, except as a tiebreaker. As tiebreakers, they are coming in more, and probably very sensibly, too. They have a place. They are one of the devices that can be used if it is necessary to get into dealing with unacceptable segregation.

  Q112  Mr. Chaytor: But are there circumstances in which a lottery would be a useful or valid method of allocation other than as a tiebreaker—as the basic method of allocation to the school?

  Dr. Hunter: Yes, I can imagine that. I think at Haberdashers' Aske's, which Bruce was talking about, that is the case. You can come across circumstances where that is possible.

  Q113  Mr. Chaytor: According to the annual report, there seems to be one local authority that disproportionately takes up the time of your colleagues, which is Hertfordshire. How can it be that one out of 150 local authorities is responsible for about 20% of the total references on admissions? What can be done about that? Is it not the case that you should not just be waiting for those to come from Hertfordshire but should be intervening more actively with Hertfordshire to prevent it?

  Dr. Hunter: We have been having discussions with Hertfordshire about the way things worked out last year. What happened was that the code came in fairly late in the sequence this time. Hertfordshire decided to have a go at it, after most of the schools had made up their minds about their admission arrangements. Having decided to do that, they stuck in a whole lot of objections, many of which they withdrew as they went through the system. That was a particular set of circumstances, and we will have that from time to time.

  Q114  Chairman: We have talked before about pan-London co-operation on admissions. How is that going? It was very important. When I listen to you, there is a subtext that London is a bit of a mess. I do not know if that is true. Is it a bit of a mess?

  Dr. Hunter: I am the wrong person to ask. I used to work for the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), and I used to think it was wonderful.

  Mr. Stuart: A minority view.

  Dr. Hunter: Probably.

  Chairman: Well, we do not know whether it was a minority view. There has been no polling on that.

  Dr. Hunter: We need more collaboration and co-operation between London authorities. How you achieve that—whether you give some powers to the Mayor or what have you—I do not know, but something has to happen in London.

  Q115  Chairman: But how is the pan-London co-operation working?

  Dr. Hunter: That is working reasonably well. I was, if you remember, reasonably sceptical about that at one time. I said it was necessary, but I am always sceptical about big computer schemes.

  Q116  Chairman: You thought it was going to break down, did you not?

  Dr. Hunter: I said it would break down sometime. It has not broken down yet.

  Chairman: Touch wood it has not.

  Dr. Hunter: I think that it has a reasonable chance of working.

  Q117  Chairman: Would you like to get rid of what people call the Greenwich agreement? I am not talking just about London. Do you think people should go to community schools? We have taken evidence from heads here who have said, "Look, if I have a fair number of people in my community coming to my school, I can do wonderful things, but if a very significant percentage of my community leave the area, it is much more difficult."

  Dr. Hunter: It depends where you are. Last year, I was in Southall in Ealing, where 95 or 98% of the children are Asian. Up the road, there are schools where 70% of the children are white. Those are local schools serving their local community, and people were happy with that. Now, somebody, somewhere has got to say that that is either acceptable, because it is working, or that it is not acceptable, because of the implications that it has for racial integration and all the rest of it. That is a matter that ends up with local politicians; it is a proper political decision. That is the local authority, local councillors and the local MP reaching a view about what is acceptable and what is not.

  Q118  Chairman: So it is almost like the visioning process that Building Schools for the Future entails. Should the question of what is the vision of educational provision in this area for the next 50 years be a very important part of that process?

  Dr. Hunter: Yes, of course. I am quite keen on politicians, and this is what they are for. They are there for making decisions and reaching views of that kind. They are elected to do that job, and it is a very difficult job.

  Q119  Mr. Stuart: Chairman, you are talking about segregated societies, but I would suggest that the evidence is that local politicians are not normally best placed to challenge the existing situation. That would certainly seem to be the evidence from the United States. If, for broader social reasons, segregation has gone too far, are the local politicians not more likely to be supportive of the existing arrangements, reflecting, as they do, the existing forces that have led to that situation arising in the first place?

  Dr. Hunter: National Government has to have a view as well, but in the end, it is the local politicians—and the local MPs—who are going to lose their seats if they get it wrong.

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