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Lord Brennan: Perhaps I may ask the Committee's forgiveness for joining the debate 46 minutes after it started in order to make three short points. First, the debate has illustrated the sensitivity of the faith school issue. It requires any legislative clause or amendment which seeks to affect such institutions to be phrased with absolute clarity; to be produced in a way that provides for open debate about the fundamental issues; and not to be achieved, albeit with a notable
Secondly, this vehicle for seeking to assimilate, in so far as it can be assimilated, the faith school system into the national schools system is simply not successful. As an advocate of faith schools, I find it unacceptable that an advisory body which is the product of secondary legislation should be the vehicle by which the community determines how faith schools should best function in terms of admissions. That is a very poor route in the objective of the noble cause of the best education for the many.
Lastly, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will forgive me if I utter a note of incredulity; we have served on several committees together. The idea that faith schools should adopt the role of soaking up the unsatisfied educational needs of a nation by ever increasing their size and numbers because people want to send their children to them is a marvellous compliment to those schools; but the ingenuity of the idea should not relieve us of our common sense. There is a limit to what religions can provide and what faith schools can sustain. The primary obligation for education in this country was, is, and will be, with the state, either directly or by subventions to faith schools.
I admire the diplomacy and energy of the noble Baronesses, Lady Sharp and Lady Walmsley, but I regret that this particular amendment is not the right vehicle for the occasion which surely will come when we properly debate the role of faith schools in our education system.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I shall declare briefly my ecumenical interests. My great-grandfather was an Irish-Anglican cleric who became a Unitarian minister. My maternal grandfather was a canon in the Church of Wales. His son, my uncle, was a dean in the Church of England. His sister, my aunt, began as a Protestant missionary in Uganda, but ended up as a Carmelite nun in a closed order in Birkenhead via being Mother Superior of an order in Dundalk. My late noble kinsman was much involved in the Church of England preparations for the 1944 Act. Those are modest qualifications, but they are at least ecumenical.
I hesitate to be a squeaking wheel in terms of reference to a debate which occurred earlier in the other place, but it is quite useful as a text in following the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, with whose fundamental sentiments I agree profoundly.
In another place Clause 44 was discussed, but Mr Phil Willis, the spokesman for the Liberal Democrat Partywhom I greatly likeappeared to the rest of the Committee to be speaking to an amendment on Clause 45. He said: "Yes, I agree with that, but I wanted to make sure that the Government were going to raise this issue". The chairman said that the Committee would discuss the amendment concerned, Amendment No. 233, and asked the Minister, Mr Timms, whether he agreed.
It will come as no surprise to noble Lords to learn that Clause 45 was never reached in the Commons and so the anticipation of the Liberal Democrat spokesman was wholly foiled, despite the very long speech which he made in Committee on Clause 44. Therefore, it seems of extreme importance that the Committee reaches sensible, broadly based and wise conclusions because what we discuss will matter to many people across the country hereafter, as I implied in an earlier remark.
I shall not make a long speech. As a loyal son of the established Church, I shall repeat the speech made in the 18th century by a man who, after Edmund Burke sat down, rose briefly and said, "Ditto to Mr Burke" and sat down. My Mr Burke is my noble friend Lord Pilkington and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn. I subscribe to the general sentiments they expressed.
I follow the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, in saying that because this issue is of such importance we have to reach wise and sensible conclusions in the same way as conclusions were reached in 1944. If we do not do so, we shall be in trouble. I am certain that we shall return to this subject.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I should like to make two points. First, as drafted the clause emphasises that the admissions forums cover all maintained schools. Although they are their own admissions authority, in the primary legislation the admission forum is required to give advice to the voluntary aided schools which can then decide whether they wish to take the advice. In putting forward the amendment, we were well aware of that. The idea was that the admissions forum could be in a position to offer advice.
Secondly, the city technology colleges and academies are not part of the maintained sector in that sense. Therefore, they are not included on the face of the Bill within the remit of the admissions forum. Amendment No. 176 proposed that the city colleges be included within that remit. For the same reasons that I believe that there is a case for the Church schools to be included within the remit, there is a strong reason for including the city technology colleges.
Let me outline the important role that these forums will have. They will advise all admission authorities in their area, including the LEA, on admission issues as well as considering how well existing and proposed admission arrangements serve the interest of local parents and children. They will reach local agreement on new or controversial issues and broker arrangements for ensuring that vulnerable and challenging children and those who arrive in an area outside the normal admission round have fair access to local schools. We expect the core membership of admission forums to include representatives from headteachers and governors of foundation, community and voluntary maintained schools in the local education authority area.
We believe that these mandatory forums will improve the admissions process by ensuring that there is real discussion and consensus between the key admission partners in an LEA area. Our view is that this is a matter of real importance and should no longer be voluntary.
I turn to Amendment No. 176. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, pointed out that the provisions in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 relating to school admissions apply only in relation to a "maintained school". As defined by Section 86(4) of that Act, that means a community, a foundation or a voluntary school. City technology colleges, city academies, and academies are independent schools.
We recognise that certain schools that are not maintained by the local education authority, such as academies, do have a contribution to make to admission forum discussions. Again, our recent consultation showed that 81 per cent of those who responded agreedat least to some extentthat the proposed membership of admission forums should include any local city technology colleges, and city academies, in the area in question where there are issues regarding secondary schools. We believe that the involvement of CTCs, city academies, and academies in forums will also encourage them to consider the advice given by the forums.
Through their funding agreements, all academies will be obliged to comply with the requirements of admissions law as it applies to maintained schools. Academies will be required, therefore, through their funding agreements, to take part in statutory admission forums. More generally, we shall expect academies to use the same timetable for admissions as the LEAs in which they are situated, and to take part in co-ordinated schemes, in order to make the applications process as straightforward as possible.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, pointed out, CTCs are not maintained schools, and, therefore, not subject to the admissions provisions. However, we want to encourage CTCs to participate in forum discussions. We shall, by way of regulations, require forums to invite CTCs to attend meetings. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel that she has enough information to enable her to withdraw the amendment.
As for Amendment No. 177, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked about the membership in terms of "neighbouring" education authorities. Through this clause we intend to make regulations on the constitution of admission forums. It is our intention to specify core membership. We have also suggested that any other group representing an important section of the local community should be represented. As the noble Lord outlined, certain LEAs, especially those with a high proportion of cross-border traffic, may well wish to include representatives from neighbouring local authority areas.
However, some LEAs have several neighbours, and it would be an unnecessary burden on them if they were required to attend all their neighbours' admission forums, as well as organising their own, especially if discussions did not include cross-border issues. Each LEA has different needs and circumstances. Our desire is to be as flexible as possible, so that we can respond to such needs. Therefore, although we would encourage neighbouring LEAs to take part in admission forum discussions, we believe that it would be inappropriate to require them to do soin other words, they "may" do so, but we do not wish to require them to do so on the face of the Bill. I hope that my response meets the noble Lord's point, and that he will see fit not to press his amendment.
As I said earlier, noble Lords have spoken with great passion on Amendment No. 178A, which is tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. I was extremely impressed with the pedigree of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, in this instance. I was also much taken with the desire for people to recognise that schools cannot be held responsible for what has happened in some of our communities. However, we must recognise the importance of the school as part of the sustainable development of our communities, and the need to build on that process.
The role of admission forums is to take an overview of how well existing and proposed admission arrangements work within the area represented by the forum. We want them to be platforms for discussion to facilitate a joint approach to problem solving and local agreement. However, the forum is not intended to replace the statutory admissions consultation process. We do not believe it is right that authorities should have an additional requirement to consult forums on an issue that is already part of a statutory local consultation and determination process.
It will not be the purpose of admission forums to change the fundamental character of schools. If an admission authority considers that the advice given by a forum would have that effect, it could reasonably
It is already possible for the admission authority of a faith school to give priority on the basis of faith adherence for such numbers of available places that it may decide upon. If there are sufficient applications, some state in their admission arrangements that a specified number will be allocated to a particular faith. Our code of practice on school admissions makes it clear that parents applying for a school place both need and deserve local admission arrangements that are clear and objective, as well as giving every child a fair chance to secure a satisfactory school place.
The existing admissions framework enables admission authorities, including local education authorities, to object to the independent schools adjudicator if they disagree with any aspect of a school's admission arrangements for any reason. In the case of objections to religious criteria, these are passed on to the Secretary of State for her consideration. As part of their individual considerations of an objection, either the adjudicator or the Secretary of State may, of course, take account of any advice given by an admissions forum. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.