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20 May 2009 : Column 430WH—continued

I experience a similar problem in Harpenden, particularly with secondary education. Year after year, initial applications exceed the places available in the three excellent and popular schools. The outcome is invariably, after the continuing interest arrangements have come into force or additional places have been made available, that every parent and pupil does get a place at the school of their choice, but they go through a long period of uncertainty. I have obtained an assurance from the county councillor, Keith Emsell, who has been extremely helpful, that he will, if insufficient places are
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available through the continuing interest process, negotiate with local schools to expand capacity so that extra places can be created. He cannot, however, give an absolute guarantee.

I want the Minister to address whether there is some way to avoid putting parents and pupils through this harrowing process when, at the end of the day, we have always been able to accommodate them. Why cannot we offer a guarantee at the beginning, rather than the end? If, as I believe, national rules are to some extent hampering the ability of the county to offer such a guarantee, will she consider altering those rules? It seems that, in the first place, the county has to negotiate with schools. Secondly, if they negotiate before the process starts and expand capacity, that cannot be done on a provisional basis. That expanded capacity, if it is too great, results in places being made available for people out of the area and then, in subsequent years, their siblings can take places, thus making the situation more acute. Will the Minister address those problems—perhaps she can write to me—so that we can see whether we can avoid giving families and children that harrowing experience and causing them unnecessary distress summer after summer?

11.19 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook.

Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. She is a good advocate for the parents and pupils in her constituency. I cannot promise to come and visit, but I am happy to have a meeting with her and council officials about the issue.

Anne Main: Will the Minister extend that invitation to parents in groups such as SABLE, who would very much welcome being able to have a representative at the meeting?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Later in my speech, I will explain that it is the local authority that is responsible for allocating places, so parents’ first recourse should be to the local authority. However, I am happy to meet the hon. Lady and representatives of the county council and St. Albans city and district council.

I am sure that we would all agree that every child needs to have access to the opportunities and benefits that education brings. That means that we have to have two things: first, we need a fair and open admissions process that is responsive to the needs of parents, families and communities, workable for schools and clearly accountable for local authorities and schools when problems occur; and, secondly, we need to raise standards across the board—in all schools up and down the country—so that parents can have confidence in the professionals in schools and the quality of education.

We have strengthened our admissions process to ensure that it is as fair as possible, that it takes into account the views and opinions of parents and others, and that it has clear lines of accountability when things go wrong. The revised school admissions code, which came into
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force in February, places children and families at the heart of a fairer system. Unfair or covert admissions practices, which penalise low-income families and increase social segregation, have been outlawed. Local authorities must now set admissions arrangements for their local area, following consultation with the parents and communities they serve, and they must publish their school allocation plans.

I come now to the sibling rule. The guidance on page 36 of the new code says:

The hon. Lady will note that it does not say “must”. It is not a hard and fast rule; it is good practice. However, a local authority could use special circumstances, as she described, as long as it went out to consultation with all the parents in the area. This is not a “must”, but any changes would have to be agreed by all parents in the area—the consultation is the basis on which any changes would go forward. Wherever changes to admissions criteria are necessary, they must be published for public consultation.

When families do not get their first choice of school, the council will offer a place at the nearest school with an available place. Children who live further away than the statutory distance will be entitled to free home-to-school transport.

As a result of a stronger admissions code, we now have the fairest admissions system that we have ever had. A rise in school standards has meant that there is more choice than ever before. Nationally, 93 per cent. of families got one of their top three secondary school preferences this year, and the figure was the same in Hertfordshire. In St, Albans, only 1 per cent. of parents did not get one of their top three choices in the secondary sector, which means that 99 per cent. did.

Anne Main: Will the Minister address the inability to place a four-year-old on public or other transport to go to a primary school that is ranked 15th in terms of distance and parental choice? I completely understand the Minister’s views about accessing transport for secondary schools, but 80 of my parents have acute problems with primary schools.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Following the final run of the continuing interest process, the information that I have is that 58 children resident in St. Albans parish have been allocated a non-ranked primary school. Some 50 per cent. of those 58 children have been allocated a school that is nearer to their home than at least one of the schools that they listed as a preference, and 21 per cent. of the 58 have been allocated their nearest school according to Hertfordshire county council’s definition, although they did not rank that school as a preference. As at allocation day, all children resident in St. Albans parish who applied but were not offered one of their preferences were allocated a non-ranked school within the statutory walking distance. If that information is not correct, I am sure that the hon. Lady will write to me.

I want to be absolutely clear: the allocation of school places is a judgment to be made by local authorities, not central Government. Local authorities are responsible for planning school places and ensuring that there are
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enough places available to meet local need, and it is absolutely right that they are. Local authorities and schools know best the unique opportunities, challenges and needs in their local area, and they are in the best position to deploy their resources.

Local authorities are under a statutory duty to provide every child of compulsory school age with a school place, but they are not obliged to provide a place at a particular school. It is therefore important that authorities have robust planning processes in place to rationalise school places and to make accurate projections of future demand for places to secure sufficient funding.

As I stated at the outset, the provision of school places is for the local authority to determine. A decision has been taken to expand certain primary schools in the suburbs of St. Albans, rather than in the centre, and that has been unpopular with parents. However, in this case, the local authority felt that the expansion of those central schools was not feasible and decided to allocate places elsewhere.

On funding, it is crucial that local authorities make a full assessment of future demand for school places in their areas. My Department relies on those forecasts when allocating capital funding. Local authorities prepare their pupil forecasts on the basis of local circumstances, taking account of births, new housing, population migration and other factors. There should be no unexpected demand for reception places because of a rise in the birth rate, but I accept that other factors may be at play in this case.

Some £1.2 billion was allocated to authorities at the beginning of the current spending round—2008-09 to 2010-11—to provide for a growth in pupil numbers. The decision was made in that round that all the basic-need funding would be allocated up front to give local authorities a three-year planning window. That means that nothing is held back to help in the future. Funding is fixed for three years at the beginning of the spending review period.

In the current spending review period, £21.5 million of basic-need funding was allocated to Hertfordshire to enable the authority to provide additional places to meet increased pupil numbers. We operate a safety-valve mechanism for new pupil places funding. That delivers additional funding, but it is not offered every year. The safety-valve funding was allocated in 2008-09. Eight authorities applied for such funding for 2008-09 to 2010-11, but Hertfordshire was not one of them.

In 2008, Hertfordshire county council had more than 500 fewer primary pupils and more than 300 fewer secondary pupils to accommodate than it had projected the year before. Authorities also have the flexibility to use their overall resources to address changes to their priorities, and that includes providing new pupil places.

Eighteen primary schools in St. Albans have a more than 10 per cent. surplus of places, while eight are oversubscribed. Of nine secondary schools, one has a
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39 per cent. surplus of places, while three are oversubscribed. The county council assures me that there are sufficient school places to accommodate local children, but the local authority must look carefully at its distribution and allocation of places to ensure that it is best meeting the needs of local pupils and families. Although there are enough places in the hon. Lady’s local area, I acknowledge her concerns and, once again, I offer her the opportunity to come with representatives from the local authorities to discuss the issue further.

As a parent myself, I understand that a parent’s decision about which school to send their child to is one of the most important that they can make. I therefore understand the disappointment and uncertainty that parents feel when they do not get their first choice. However, I want to be clear: a second-choice school does not mean a second-class education.

Anne Main: I have met parents at secondary and primary school level who did not get any of their choices. Will the Minister touch on the fact that places at some schools in the three top choices were totally taken up by siblings? As a result, some parents could not have their choice, but they did not know that.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Under our new system, we are trying to get much better information to parents at the beginning. I absolutely agree that parents cannot rank schools and give an informed preference if they are not aware of that information. We want to make much more use of parents’ forums to ensure that parents are at the heart of the system and that information is with them at the beginning, when they have to make their decisions.

We have placed a real focus on raising standards in all schools right across the board. The national challenge programme is ensuring that every school sees at least 30 per cent. of its pupils achieve five higher-level GCSEs, including in English and maths.

When making choices about which school to send their children to, parents need easy access to information about how a school is doing. We are currently reporting on the school report card, which we hope will give much broader information about schools, covering not just the narrow issue of attainment, but how schools address wider issues, such as the well-being of their pupils. We are also looking to include parents’ views about the school in the process, and we are consulting on whether such views should be on the report card.

In conclusion, local authorities need to use every resource at their disposal. They need to combine strategic direction with careful planning and to think creatively to ensure that every child benefits from the opportunities offered by education. We will continue to work with and support authorities to make that a reality.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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London Metropolitan University

2.30 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the London Metropolitan university. It is with great pride that I speak in support of the university and its students and staff, but I am greatly concerned about what is happening and the institution’s future.

The London Metropolitan is a new university, in the sense that it is a conglomeration of former universities—London Guildhall university and the university of North London—and former polytechnics. Most of its buildings are in my constituency, in Holloway road in north London, and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). However, a considerable number of buildings are to be found in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway). Unfortunately, he cannot be here today, but he has done a great deal of work to support the students and staff in his constituency.

London Metropolitan university is unusual in that it has a large student body, most of whom are not traditional university students—that is school leavers or post-gap year students. Its students tend to be much older, their backgrounds tend to be much poorer and their previous educational achievements tend to be considerably less than those in other universities.

The university is a model of access to higher education for people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds, so it is exactly the kind of institution that the Government, in their many statements on widening access to higher education, have strongly promoted and supported. We should recognise that fact when considering the crisis through which the university is going and, above all, how we are to get out of that crisis. I hope the Minister will give me some good news about the likelihood of Government intervention to assist us out of this crisis.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has secured this debate, and I entirely agree with him. He will be aware that some of my constituents are involved in the university, either as students or as staff. I see no reason why they should suffer because a number of administrators have made errors over the years, and I hope that the Government will ensure that they do not.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree with thrust of what he says, and I shall return to that subject in a moment.

I shall put things in context by citing figures on widening participation. The latest figures show that 97.3 per cent. of LMU students come from state schools or colleges and that 42.9 per cent. come from lower socio-economic groups. Across the UK, 21.5 per cent. of students in higher education institutions are mature students, but at the LMU the figure is 51.9 per cent. Of the 4,050 full-time undergraduate entrants to the LMU in 2006-07, 52.6 per cent.—more than 2,000—were mature students. In addition, there are 3,565 part-time students—the LMU ranks 18th in the UK on that statistic. In 2009-10, the LMU will receive £5.5 million for its widening participation activities, the funding being based on the number of students deemed to be
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the widening participation category, for which the LMU ranks 19th in the UK. The university also helps students with particular problems. We should recognise all those facts in our debate.

I shall come to the background to the problem in a moment, but first I want hon. Members to understand the context in which students study at London Metropolitan. My constituency has a combination of housing types. Some 31 per cent. is owner-occupied housing, while 70 per cent. is council or private rented accommodation. Many people earn well below the average income, but they do their best to struggle by. I have met many who have had the opportunity to study at the London Met, including single parents with large families living in difficult housing and experiencing all that goes with that. They found the university helpful and supportive, and it was able to assist them to get through their courses.

Post-school students living in nice halls of residence in Oxford have their own rooms, their own support system and enough money. I do not begrudge that, but those students are doing pretty well. By and large, London Met students live at home and do not have such facilities or support—for them, studying is much harder. The students’ completion rate, and the possibility of them dropping out or wanting longer to complete their courses, is a matter that comes up all the time. I want the Minister and hon. Members fully to understand London Met’s accounting procedure.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I appreciate the background of students at London Metropolitan university—many come from my constituency. However, I suspect that the reason for the drop-out rates does not lie entirely with the students’ social background. We must also consider what the university offers.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend is right. I am not trying to apportion everything, but I want hon. Members to understand the context in which many students are studying. I shall deal with the accounting procedure in a moment.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case about the benefits given to disadvantaged youngsters by the London Metropolitan university. Perhaps one should recognise that dropping out is not necessarily a huge negative; reaching a certain stage of education is a great advance on not having started.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): They can go back.

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) pointed out, there is also the possibility of going back at a later stage or even going on to another institution. Such matters should be taken on board by the Higher Education Funding Council and as part of the Government’s assessment of the performance of education establishments.

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I shall give an example of the way in which many students value the institution. I quote from a letter, although I shall not name the individual as it would be invidious. It states:

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