HC Deb 13 December 1994 vol 251 cc753-4
1. Mr. Mackinlay

To ask the Secretary of State for Education by what methods she consults parents about their view of the level and extent of the education service.

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr. Eric Forth)

All the Department's Ministers frequently meet parents and their representatives, both in formal meetings and when visiting schools. We regularly consult parents' organisations on a range of issues.

Mr. Mackinlay

When contemplating parents' views and representations, does the Minister reflect on the fact that since 1989 there has been a doubling in the number of appeals from parents who have been refused their first choice for their children's school? On appeal, some 17,000 people have had their request for a school rejected. Does that not show a failure of the Education Reform Act 1988, and is it not time that we reviewed it to ensure that parents have true choice about school admissions?

Mr. Forth

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has quite caught up with the rest of his party, or certainly with his party leader. There is a new air blowing through certain elements of the Opposition on choice, and we welcome that. We want to give parents the maximum possible choice of schools. Happily, about four out of five parents get their first choice, but every year a certain number are inevitably disappointed and have to go through an appeals procedure. I suspect that that will always happen, because man has yet to devise a scheme under which everybody gets just what he wants all the time.

Mr. Colvin

Do Ministers' consultations with parents reveal their anxiety about the reorganisation of local government? Can my hon. Friend assure us that new unitary authorities such as that for New Forest, if they come into being, will have the resources to enable them to deliver an education service that is as good as, if not better than, the previous one?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend raises an important point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State keeps a close eye on developments in local government reorganisation. We feel that the initial onus is on parents and local people to make representations to the Local Government Commission in the first place if they are uneasy about the possible impact on education of the proposed changes. Beyond that, we think that it should be possible to make arrangements in areas where unitary authorities emerge to protect the education service and to ensure continuity and effective delivery in the newly defined areas. We shall keep a close eye on the matter.

Mr. Dafis

Local government reorganisation is already under way in Wales and will soon be under way in England. Local authorities will set up transitional committees charged with the task of describing their service delivery plans, including those that relate to education. Will it not be almost impossible to carry out that task properly if there is no certainty for local education authorities about the number of schools for which they will have to cater? In view of that, is it not totally irresponsible at this time—

Madam Speaker

Order. This is Question Time and hon. Members are drifting towards making statements and putting arguments. I am sure that the Minister has heard the question. Can he make some stab at an answer?

Mr. Forth

Intriguingly, I do not think that we got to the punchline. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman may have had in mind something to do with grant-maintained schools.

Mr. Dafis

indicated assent.

Mr. Forth

I thought that it might be that; in that case, the answer is quite clear. It is incumbent on present, future and even transitional authorities to liaise with the Funding Agency for Schools, as was always the intention in the Education Bill, now the Education Act 1994. I recall that the hon. Gentleman served with great distinction on the Committee that examined that Bill. Those bodies should work together to ensure that sufficient places are provided in each locality. I see absolutely no reason why that should not be the case.