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Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 30 agreed to.

Clause 31 agreed to.

Clause 32 [Placing requests]:

Lord Ewing of Kirkford moved Amendment No. 37:

Page 18, leave out lines 30 to 36.

The noble Lord said: It may be for the convenience of your Lordships' Committee if I also refer my remarks to Amendments Nos. 38 and 39. These are probing amendments. The first two amendments deal with the question of the reservation of places in schools within a certain travelling distance. They deal with the problem where these travelling distances inhibit the schools in urban areas from reserving places because of the 3.2 kilometres distance in the case of primary schools and the 4.8 kilometres distance in the case of any other designated school. Some of our urban schools are quite badly overcrowded because of those travelling distances. It may well be that the urban schools are disadvantaged in respect of the proposals contained in the legislation. I hope that the Minister will have a look at this point.

The final amendment deals with the proposal in the Bill that the Government themselves would prescribe maxima. In other words, the Government themselves would say what is the maximum number of places that may be reserved. The point I want to make is that the local education authorities will know the number of children who are likely to go to a particular school and will therefore know the number of places that are likely to be required to be reserved. In our view there is no need to prescribe a maximum number of places. It should be left to the discretion of the local authorities.

We on this side of the Committee support the proposal contained in the Bill to reserve these places. It comes back to an exchange between the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, and myself yesterday when we were discussing the whole question of the placements legislation and the right of parents to choose the school to which they want their child to go. Of course, the amendment arises very much from a situation that arose in the Secretary of State's own constituency when, at Balfron High School, children who were living in the catchment area could not be admitted to the school because the school was overcrowded. We have no criticism of the proposal to reserve places. It is right and proper. Indeed, in the area where both the noble Earl,

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the Minister and myself have our homes there are primary schools which are really bursting at the seams. Methilhill Primary School is possibly the best example of primary schools in Fife which are bursting at the seams but which could fall outside the criteria prescribed in the legislation.

It is in a probing sense that I propose these amendments. I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten the Committee as to the possibility of the Government having a second look at these proposals and, if necessary, coming back at Report stage with the required amendments. I beg to move.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: It is refreshing to know that the noble Lord's party is enthusiastic about choice of schools. That has helped the support of parents for the schools which they choose to be greatly enhanced.

The problem is that where schools are close together in an urban area--and they may be very close together--it will be possible to refuse to admit people who want to choose a certain school by claiming that people are likely to come and live in that area and that places must be kept. Those same claims may be made for a second school which is quite close by. I am not sure that this whole arrangement really fits into the urban area scene. It is intended for places where there is but the one school in the catchment area. I wonder whether that can be explained to us.

Lord Sewel: I wish to speak very briefly in support of the amendment. The great benefit of the amendment is that it helps communities become established and helps children become integrated into the community. Those of us who from time to time have moved home with young children realise the difficulties encountered by those children in becoming part of the community into which they are moving. One of the greatest helps in assuring that integration is attending the local school and building up a whole network of relationships with school mates and friends that starts at the school and flows over into the wider community. If, because of the pressure on places, people moving into an area cannot have their children attend the local school, there will be quite significant social consequences and I would hope that we could avoid them.

4.15 p.m.

The Earl of Lindsay: I say immediately to the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, that it is for that very reason that the Government want to enable places to be reserved for children moving in as a family into the catchment area of a certain school.

The noble Lord, Lord Ewing, has raised some interesting issues. As the Committee knows, Clause 32 amends Section 28A of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 to enable education authorities to retain places at certain schools for pupils moving into an area. Amendment No. 37 would have the effect of allowing the education authority to hold back unfilled reserved places for incoming children even if there is an equivalent school within reasonable walking distance.

I would first make the general point that we consider it very important that parents should have the right to choose which school they want their children to attend.

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For that reason the proposals in the Bill on placing requests have been tightly drawn. We should always remember that a place retained is a place denied to a pupil seeking admission by placing request. Therefore places should be retained only where the case for giving the place to a pupil likely to move into an area is stronger than that for a pupil applying by placing request.

Where there is no other equivalent school within a reasonable walking distance, the case for retaining places for incomers is very strong. Otherwise, such pupils could be faced with travelling some distance out of the local area to school. Where there is another equivalent school reasonably near, the need to retain places is patently less as the inconvenience and travel is likely to be reduced.

Using our common sense we realise that on the whole there is likely to be greater flexibility in terms of the provision of school places where there is more than just one school within a certain radius, and we therefore defined the manner in which places can be reserved and focused it on those areas where there is no equivalent school within a certain distance. There is no specific prejudice against schools in urban areas. The rules under the formula apply to all schools, whether they be urban, semi-rural or indeed rural.

The Bill seeks to strike an equitable balance between the interests of children outwith the catchment area and the interests of children moving into that area. We take the view that this amendment could reduce parental choice unduly and therefore we are not attracted to it.

Amendment No. 39 links directly to Amendment No. 38 as it would remove the definition of equivalent school necessary for the purposes of Section 28A(3B). The definition of "equivalent school" in new 28A(3E) ensures that the alternative school under consideration in any given case is a similar type of school.

Amendment No. 38 would remove that part of new Section 28A(3C) which would give the Secretary of State power to prescribe by regulations the maximum numbers of places that an education authority could reserve for children who may move into a school's catchment area. I recognise that the new section elsewhere requires education authorities to reserve only the number of places that are regarded by the authority as reasonably required for incomers. There are therefore checks and balances to help ensure that an authority does not reserve so many places that the interests of pupils seeking a place by placing request are unreasonably compromised.

Nevertheless, I hope Members of the Committee will appreciate that we regard the right of parents to choose the school which they wish their children to attend as most important, both as a basic right and as a means to improve standards. That is why we consider it important that a power should be taken to enable regulations to be made to limit the number of places being reserved if that proves necessary. I say "proves necessary" because the reservation of a number of places by regulation would only be an option for the Secretary of State.

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As the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, said, local authorities are often best placed to estimate the likely number of incoming parents with children within a certain year and therefore, in general, we would expect the local authorities to be able to determine that number of places which should be reserved. The Secretary of State does, however, retain this option to set numbers by regulation in case he feels that the numbers of places being reserved are unreasonable.

Whether that option of the Secretary of State were adopted would depend on circumstances and regulations would not be enacted without close consultation with those involved in operating them. If such an option were to be adopted, it is clear that different numbers would very likely have to be prescribed for different categories of schools, given the diverse sizes of both schools and catchment areas.

The power to prescribe limits to the number of places which may be retained is part of the overall pattern of checks and balances to secure maximum freedom of action for the authorities to decide on local arrangements and also to provide necessary safeguards for parents and pupils.

In the light of the explanation and assurance that I have been able to give on this area, I hope the noble Lord may feel able to withdraw his amendment.

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