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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, my honourable friend the Minister of State has met representatives of the state boarding schools. We understand their difficulties and sympathise with them.
I shall give the short answer this evening, not the long answer. I hope that it will be of some help to noble Lords. An amendment similar to Amendment No. 185 holds out some promise of a solution because it would make things clear for parents. That approach may not commend itself to all maintained boarding schools because it is not particularly flexible. They would need to publish separate admissions numbers for boarding and day pupils for every year group in which they normally admit pupils and stick to those numbers. I can see the potential value for some schools.
The Minister knows that the people who represent boarding schools have been offered the proposition that they publish admissions numbers for each year. However, running the schools is an unpredictable business. Economic viability is important to them. I would like to think that the Minister could persuade the department to accepteven on a pilot scheme basisthat the schools should be run in the way that they themselves propose. If that caused any unfairness or disruption elsewhere in the system, it could be reversed.
The proposition offered to the Boarding Schools' Association by the Minister's colleagues in another place is not satisfactory. No doubt, we will return to the matter. I hope that, in the meantime, the Minister will reflect on the case that has been put. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Lucas: I would appreciate a short discussion of what Clause 45 is intended to change about the current arrangements. I have found it reasonably impenetrable and would be grateful if the Minister could enlighten me.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I shall certainly try. Essentially, we want to streamline the local decision-making process and reduce the burden on governors, education authorities and others involved.
The problem that standard numbers were introduced in the 1980s to deal withschools refusing children places by saying that they were full when they were notis no longer current. The changes that we introduced in 1998 have made standard number controls redundant. Admission authorities must now consult each other annually on their proposed admission arrangements, including admission numbers. Other admission authorities may object to the schools adjudicator about any aspect of admission arrangements, and admission authorities must follow their published admission arrangements.
There is significant support for a change. In our recent consultation, 81 per cent of respondents agreed to some extent with our proposals to abolish standard numbers and introduce a new capacity assessment formula. Under the old system, the standard number was the highest number when one considered the school capacity and two numbers based on the numbers in the school on two particular dates of overcrowding. The admission numbers were then set at or above that standard number. Any changes to those numbers required statutory proposals decided by the school organisation committee. It was a lengthy process. Under the new system, schools will simply publish admission numbers, and that will be it. Any other admission authority can object, as can any group of 10 parents. However, the process is straightforward and more effective.
I hope that that reassures the noble Lord that the measure is about reducing the administrative burden on admission authorities and school organisation committees which currently find the process of setting and changing standard numbers onerous and not worth while. Taken together with the provision relating to the publishing of admission numbers, we believe that abolishing standard numbers will reduce that burden while still underpinning the protection for parental preference. I hope that on that basis the noble Lord is able to withdraw his objection.
The noble Baroness said: The arrangements for admission and the actual admission of pupils are one of the most important functions which any school carries out. Schools which are their own admissions authority should be left as free as possible to make arrangements according to their own admissions criteriawhich in any case have to be within the law. As far as possible, the criteria should be educational or academic in line with the major purpose of education.
The major exception to that concerns dates, because it is not helpful to parents or to schools if there is a range of dates by which parents will know whether or not their child has been accepted. Other aspects of admission should be the domain of the individual admissions authorities. If not, what would be the point of holding admissions authority status? If any school or local education authority makes that particularly onerous, it is likely to suffer by losing pupils and in the event losing popularity.
Most current admissions criteria are not educational at all; for instance, distance from school, sibling family connections, connection with staff, parental preference and so forth. But academic criteria are more and more ruled out; for example, ability, aptitude, subject preference, interviews and assessment of parental support. Increasingly, that creates problems for far too many schools. I beg to move.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I am sure that, like me, the noble Baroness will have seen the distress caused to parents and children as the start of secondary schooling approaches and they have still not received an offer of a place. Other parents meanwhile have received multiple offers and sometimes hold on to them while deciding in their own time which to accept.
The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness would destroy the whole point of Clause 46, which is designed to ensure that admission arrangements in a local education authority area leading to the single offer of a school place are co-ordinated. Merely co-ordinating the dates on which children are admitted to a school would not achieve that.
We know that there are a few foundation and voluntary-aided schools which were concerned that co-ordinated admission arrangements would in some way reduce their right to decide and apply their own admissions policy and criteria. I can safely say "minority" because in response to our consultation only 22 per cent of voluntary-aided schools disagreed with our proposal.
I hope that I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that any such fears on their part are groundless. Foundation and voluntary-aided schools will continue to receive all applications from parents who wish their children to attend them. They will also continue to apply their own admissions and oversubscription criteria in order to identify which applicants meet their admissions criteria and in what order.
The main difference a co-ordinated scheme will make to foundation and voluntary-aided schools is that, rather than put forward the offer themselves, they will notify the relevant education authority as to which schools are eligible. Each local education authority will then check in relation to all pupils resident in its area the potential offers to be made. Applying the rules applicable to the co-ordinated scheme in question, the education authority will then
The measure is not only about dates; it is about making sure that when children are applying to schools they receive an appropriate offer. However, that will not interfere with the admission arrangements of any of the schools which control their own admission arrangements. I hope that on that basis the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Blatch: I shall need to read more carefully the noble Baroness's response. However, I think that my amendment would resolve some of those problems. If the dates by which parents are informed are set by the authority; that is, people are not allowed to stagger information with a whole range of dates in operationthat leads to one school waiting on other schools and parents waiting on offers of places from different schoolsand if no decision is made by that date then the offer would go by the board, I think that would be helpful. That would leave the arrangements up to the individual admissions authorities, whether they are the LEA or the individual schools.