HC Deb 27 February 1980 vol 979 cc1528-38

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Boscawen.]

11.27 pm
Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, West)

I welcome the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the disturbing nature of some features of the education policy of the Bedfordshire county council over the past few months, and to seek the guidance of my hon. Friend the Minister.

Before I begin to heave too many bricks through the double-glazed windows of the authority—it seems deaf to most noise outside—I must congratulate it on having just announced the second lowest rate rise in the shire counties of England, about 15.5 per cent., and at the same time leaving £8 million in the balance. Great credit is due to Philip Hendry, the leader of the council, and his colleagues, and I express to them the great appreciation of the people of Bedfordshire for what has just been announced.

My duties in respect of the education department are not quite so pleasant. I wish to draw attention to the great concern that has arisen over problems in my constituency. One problem that we have suffered greatly since May concerns the change of catchment areas. Many parents now find themselves outside the area of the school of their original choice. Many of them bought houses in particular areas, but with the stroke of a pen in county hall the areas have been changed with very little notice and without consultation with the parents. Quite rightly there have been many protests from my constituents. It seems that in many cases the authority has refused to listen to the protests. Soon after the general election several meetings were held. Appeals were made for councillors and the chairman to attend those meetings to hear some of the parents' anxieties over the change in the catchment areas, but they fell on deaf ears.

The authority seems determined to follow its education policy through on a basis of pure numbers. Choice seems to play very little part in what it is doing. That is particularly disturbing for me, given the spirit of the excellent Education (No. 2) Bill, which is now in the other place. The Government were right to place before the people the criteria of choice, but the authority in Bedfordshire seems to be disregarding the Bill. The economists in the authority have juggled their figures with complete disregard for the merits of particular schools. There are several rules of selection in the authority. Brothers and sisters are given preference, as are medical cases.

I am particularly concerned about the Challney boys' school, for which there were more applicants than places. The school has an excellent academic record. At the start of the school year about 20 children were on the waiting list. I take issue with the council over the fact that the list was apparently kept secret from the parents and many councillors who wished to examine the chances of children to go to the school. Great anxiety was caused to the parents of children on the list.

I question the policy by which that list was compiled by a form of lottery, with the chairman of the authority pulling numbers out of a hat to determine which children should go to the school of their parents' choice. The school is a fine school, as is the Challney girls' school. They are unique in the town in that they are the only single-sex schools there. They have a fine academic record and they attract fairly high numbers of applicants. But I fail to see how, by topping up the numbers in other schools, to the detriment of those other schools, the council can implement any policy of parental choice. I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to see that his Department issues a recommendation to the authority about the way in which it draws up its list.

I also complain that there has been a direct lack, or breakdown, of communication between the authority and the chairman, and my constituents and myself. Letters have gone unanswered and many telephone calls have been ignored. The Minister will know that one reply from the department took about 36 days to reach me. If there is little co-operation between the chairman and his Member of Parliament, what chance have constituents further down the line? This has, unfortunately, created a rather bad feeling among some of the parents and a suspicion that all is not well with the authority.

I bring the attention of the House to one child in particular, an 11-year-old boy called Clive Ramscar, who, until a few days ago, had been kept away from school since last September simply because the authority persistently refused to listen to the request of his parents that he should attend a certain school. He was caught up in this secretive waiting list to which I have referred. Not many days ago a visit was made to his home by a local official, with the purpose of serving an attendance order.

A meeting of the schools and special services sub-committee—which I understand is the only committee which can enforce such an order—was held a week after the official visit. The chairman refused to have this matter brought before that committee, knowing full well that the committee would not meet again until April. I am suspicious about this because, if the order had been implemented, the Secretary of State would have had to decide the matter, and it may be that the authority was frightened of the eventual result. It is surprising, considering the enormous amount of excellent publicity that some of the local papers have given to this case, that it should be shelved in this way.

Looking ahead to the next school year, I am concerned because it appears that we shall be in for the same sort of trouble. Rumours begin to abound that catchment areas are about to be changed. Obviously parents are worried. In a letter from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on 30 November he said: it is the authority's intention to retain the intake level at the Challney boys' school at 210". In times of falling rolls, I hope that the authority will keep to its word.

I am wary of some of the changes which the authority might bring in. These practices of changing areas, refusing parents the right to choose a school, of operating a lottery, and the whole atmosphere of secrecy that has surrounded some of the authority's policy, are completely contrary to the spirit of the Education (No. 2) Bill which has now passed through this House. I look forward to the institution of the appeals system, which is a reasonable way of dealing with the matter. The authority has probably kept to the proper procedures, but the spirit in which it has carried out its policies has left much to be desired.

It is probably unusual for a Member of Parliament to call upon the chairman of the local education authority to resign when the chairman belongs to the same political party, but I did this some days ago, and I do not regret doing so because the patience of my constituents is beginning to run out. The facts in the case that I have mentioned, and in other cases, highlighting as they do the policy of the council, speak for themselves. Parent reaction has been fairly violent. I wait to hear what the Minister will say about it.

We want to restore freedom of choice the the parents in my constituency. I believe that the Government were elected, among other things, on two counts. The first that of restoring freedom of choice, political and financial, and the second was that of cutting expenditure. Those two factors are compatible. To ignore parents' wishes, as the council has throughout the last few months, is con- trary to Conservative policy. Where places are available at good schools it is not unreasonable that parents should want their chilren to fill those places. The policy of taking pupils from good schools to fill places elsewhere is a bad one, which I abhor. To take from mediocre schools and keep up numbers in good schools must be the policy of the council in future. Schools stand on their own merits. They stand on pupil behaviour, on the quality of the teachers, and on their academic reputation. It must be wrong to take from the good to fill up the bad.

I ask the Minister to take note that education in Bedfordshire has, to a certain extent, been by lottery over the last few months. I think that this easy allocation of numbers and the policy which the authority has followed should cease. I look forward to a new policy next year and possibly this debate and the remarks of the Minister will go some way to explain why that is needed.

11.40 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

I am sure that we are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West (Mr. Carlisle), who has given us the opportunity not necessarily to resign but to discuss the question of parental choice, which is important not only in the Luton area but throughout the country.

I am grateful for the infomation given to us by my hon. Friend that the rates in his area—presumably under a good Conservative-controlled authority—will increase by only 15.5 per cent.

I welcome this debate because I know that my hon. Friend has been closely involved with the issue of parental choice in schools in Luton. I do not wish in any way to detract from my welcome to his vigorous assertion of the right of parents to have a real say and a real choice in the education of their children.

As my hon. Friend has reminded the House, that is a cardinal feature of Conservative policy for education, and it is at the heart of the Education (No. 2) Bill, which, having been considered at great length over the past few months in this House—it seems years to me—received a Second Reading in the other place this week.

It is important to understand that though the Education Act 1944 stated in section 76—a section often referred to—that children should be educated according to their parents' wishes, it contained no provisions whereby those wishes could be carried out. It is widely and incorrectly assumed that a Secretary of State has powers under the present law to step in at will and settle disputes between parents and local authorities on school allocations. That is not the case.

If, as things stand, a parent wants to complain to the Secretary of State about the decision of an authority, he must show that the authority's action is unreasonable under section 68 of the 1944 Act. Hon. Members will recall the Tameside case, on which the previous Government—if one may say so—blunted their horns. Since then, Governments and the Department have been very careful of the use of that section.

The test of unreasonable behaviour is extremely stringent, and this provision affords little effective control or support to the aggrieved parent. The Bill that is now in the other place provides, for the first time, a statutory right for parents to express a preference and places a statutory duty upon local authorities to comply with that parental preference, subject to specified limitations.

I am sure that we would all agree that there can be no absolute freedom of choice. We do not live in a world where complete freedom of action is always possible. We have to accept that physical, financial and geographical constraints preclude absolute freedom of choice. We accept that a balance must be struck between the wishes of parents and the need for local education authorities to husband their educational resources in a satisfactory way for the benefit of all the children in their area. The absence of absolute freedom of choice does not mean that we should not have the maximum freedom of choice attainable, and it is the policy of the Government to give that maximum choice wherever possible.

I should not like to give the impression that the principles of parental choice and the efficient provision of education are not always practised by certain local authorities. The Bill will apply a consistent and structured system as widely as possible. What we have tried to do in the Bill is to develop the practice where it has been used and to structure it so that all authorities will follow similar good practice.

It is not a matter of sowing seeds on previously barren ground. In general, most local authorities do their best to be fair to parents and to achieve a high level of "first preference satisfied" year after year. But this has never been an easy task and it is not getting any easier with falling school rolls. I am sure that the Bedfordshire education authority would concur in that view.

In formulating our legislative proposals we have endeavoured to strike a more equitable balance between the legitimate wishes of parents and the need for LEAs to use precious educational resources in a satisfactory way for the benefit of all children in their area.

Before I turn to particular points made by my hon. Friend about arrangements in Luton—an area whose best interests I know my hon. Friend has been pursuing assiduously since his election last year—I should like to say a few words about two other provisions of our proposals for promoting parental choice. I am sure that they will be of interest not just in the Luton area, but throughout the country.

The first is that authorities and, where appropriate, school governors will be required to publish for each school year the arrangements for school admissions, appeals against admission decisions and the arrangements for enabling parents to express preferences. The published details must give particulars of the number of pupils to be admitted in the year and of arrangements that the authority has for filling places at non-maintained schools and at schools maintained by other authorities. The Secretary of State may make regulations about the manner of publication of this information, and prescribe in regulations other information about schools, such as examination results.

My hon. Friend referred to two schools and stated how excellent they are. If parents are to exercise real choice, it is important that they are given maximum information, particularly in city areas, where there is often a wide variety of schools, over no great distance, so that they know the emphasis, achievements, values, discipline and approach of the schools.

Secondly, when parents are dissatisfied with the school allocated to their child, they may have recourse to an appeal committee, which will be constituted of persons other than those who took the original decision and the appeal committee's decision will be binding on the authority. If parents in Luton did not get the school of their choice, they can appeal to the committee.

I do not expect my hon. Friend to be convinced by every detail of our proposals—I have looked up in Hansard his characteristically frank contribution to the Second Reading debate on the Education (No. 2) Bill—but I am sure that he will agree that our proposals provide a much-needed framework for giving greater parental choice.

If I have taken a little time to get to the questions that my hon. Friend raised it is only because I believe, and I hope that he accepts, that our policy in this area is of the greatest relevance to the wishes and anxieties, not only of his constituents, but of parents throughout the country. I am conscious, too, that the case to which he referred is concluded, in the sense that the boy concerned is now attending school, having been kept at home by his parents for several months. My hon. Friend has properly pointed out, however, that the issues will not disappear with the settling of a particular case. We are now nearly at the time of applications for the coming September in local education authority areas throughout the country.

I turn to the Luton case to which my hon. Friend referred. He came to see me about Clive Ramscar and has been in correspondence with my noble Friend the Minister of State. I already know quite a lot about the background of the case. The school preferred by the parents—Challney school for boys—was not the school serving the area in which the family lived, according to the catchment area policy which the Bedfordshire authority considered it necessary to operate. I understand that it is a popular school and is regularly the subject of more applications for places than the authority considers that it can accom- modate, having regard not only to the accommodation available in these schools, but to the efficient use of other school accommodation in the area.

The authority is prepared to consider applications from outside the catchment area if there are places available after catchment area demand has been satisfied. Such applications are considered according to prescribed criteria, which I understand are well known and of long standing. These are, in order of priority, medical grounds, whether brothers or sisters currently attend the school, whether brothers or sisters have recently attended the school, by drawing lots, to which my hon. Friend referred, among those who have not fulfilled the three previous qualifications. but wish to attend that school. It is only fair to the authority to make clear that that last criterion, the drawing of lots, is used only when the other criteria have been applied.

Any spare places are allocated to the pupils in the order of priority established by those criteria, until the planned intake figure for the year is reached. It seems to me that my hon. Friend may have a strong point in suggesting that proximity or accessibility to the school of the parents' choice would be a useful additional criterion—it is a criterion which is used in many other authorities—perhaps supplementing or taking the place of the lottery, which might be considered by some to be rather arbitrary. We are a great gambling nation, but I do not think that parents would welcome the idea that they will be allocated a school by a lottery or raffle draw. It is entirely a matter for the local education authority to consider, and I do not want to appear to be intruding on its responsibility.

These arrangements are made known to the parents concerned in good time each year and are properly followed. As the law stands they cannot be considered unreasonable, and the Minister of State, having examined the material submitted by my hon. Friend on behalf of Mr. and Mrs. Ramscar, made this known in her letter to him of 30 November.

I wish to refer to the school attendance orders. My hon. Friend and I have had a previous discussion about the matter. My hon. Friend has said that the LEA was reluctant to take this action in the case which concerns him of serving school attendance orders. I cannot comment on that, for I am not privy to the authority's inner deliberations. We all have our views, but without some form of X-ray we cannot see what is in the mind of a local authority. It is its responsibility to decide what action, if any, to take in such cases.

The House will be aware that it is one of the purposes of the Education (No. 2) Bill to amend the provisions relating to school attendance orders—section 37 of the 1944 Act—to correspond with the new provisions on school admissions. This is not closing our opportunity to exercise choice. Section 37 was never designed as a means of securing parental choice, but as a procedure for ensuring school attendance. Because of the way in which it is operated, parents have begun to use it as a means of exercising choice. That is why, under the Education (No. 2) Bill, we have included the question of parental choice, information for parents on the way in which the allocation is to be made, and the right of appeal for parents. The parents can then use the proper procedure instead of removing their children from school over a long period as the only means, as they sec it, of exercising choice.

We cannot continue to condone the practice whereby parents who keep their children out of school for two or three terms are at an advantage compared with law-abiding parents who ensure the attendance of their children at school. Our proposals will ensure that all parents are on an equal footing in future, by building into the initial provisions of section 37 of the 1944 Act a new duty on authorities to comply with expressed preferences, and the appeal provisions for cases where authorities consider that there are good reasons why they should not comply.

I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about parental choice, as I do, and as do all Conservative Members. In the case that he has mentioned, I ask him to accept that there are no grounds on which we could determine that the LEA had acted unreasonably by using section 68. That procedure was used in the Tameside case. He and his constituents can, however, take comfort from our proposals for school admissions, which will, I hope, allow such questions to be settled quickly and fairly at local level, without the strains which were evident in the Ramscar case, and from which no one benefits.

These new arrangements cannot operate for the coming school year but will, I hope, be in operation the following year. It is our intention to put into being this part of the Education (No. 2) Bill when it passes into law, for the entries in September 1981.

I thank my hon. Friend for this useful reminder of the great relevance of the Government's measures to large numbers of families. I commend to the House what he has said. We have established the Education (No. 2) Bill to develop the practice whereby there is more parental choice, to follow the best practices of local authorities and to make them more widespread. All local authorities know that the new procedures will not apply until September 1981, and that the way in which they deal with their allocations and parental preferences this year is entirely within their control. However, I should be very surprised if local authorities have not read the Education (No. 2) Bill. I should also be surprised if indications were not made by those authorities that they wish to move as soon as possible to the procedure that will become mandatory from September 1981.

I am sure that my hon. Friend, as well as all hon. Members, will be pleased to know that, as a result of that Bill, I trust that the sorts of cases that have been brought to light tonight will become rarer and that parental choice of school will become paramount throughout the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Twelve o'clock.