HC Deb 11 May 1998 vol 312 cc128-34

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

10.25 pm
Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

I have asked for this debate on behalf of the many parents and children in my constituency, and in much of Hertfordshire, who are suffering from the inadequacies of the secondary school transfer system. I shall speak for about 10 minutes, and then give my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) an opportunity to speak before my hon. Friend the Minister replies to the debate.

In Watford and its immediate districts, we are served by 12 good secondary schools—of which 10 are grant-maintained, leaving only two within the control of the local education authority, Hertfordshire county council. They include single-sex schools and what were formerly known as voluntary aided schools.

The problem is that, in the past few years, an increasing number of our children have been unable to gain admission to a school of their choice—whether it was their first, second, third or even fourth preference. Consequently, they have had to travel many miles from their friends and neighbourhood to attend another school.

Last year, for example, one young boy was not offered a place at a local grant-maintained school of his choice. His parents came to see me at my surgery, and told me that he has to travel about six miles to another school, in St. Albans. The situation has been disruptive for both him and his family, affected his social circle, and—because of the extra time that he must spend travelling to school—restricted him in the after-school activities that he can participate in. Travel to and from school has also imposed much greater costs on the boy's parents.

Unfortunately, that case is only one example of the difficulties faced by parents in Hertfordshire whose children have been refused a place at a local grant-maintained school.

Schools are unable to refuse applications from students outside my area—such as north London and other parts of Hertfordshire—because of the Greenwich judgment. Consequently, local children are unable to obtain places at schools that are often within walking distance of their home.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the problem spills over from Hertfordshire into the neighbouring authority of Barnet, where my constituency is located, or that, in the past year, 134 pupils from Hertfordshire were moved to Barnet? Specifically, a grant-maintained school in my constituency—the Mill Hill school—has selected 45 per cent. of its pupils by aptitude, and admitted another 110 pupils who are siblings of existing pupils. The net result has been that there are absolutely no places for children who live even in the same street as the school. Is my hon. Friend aware that, because of the Greenwich judgment, the problems in Hertfordshire are mirrored in my own constituency?

Ms Ward

I am aware of the situation, which has meant that local schools are unable to provide for their local community.

The causes of our problems in secondary school transfers cannot be attributed to one factor alone.

The very quality of the schools has caused some of the problems, as parents from many miles away want to send their children to single-sex grammar schools or to former voluntary-aided schools, putting immense pressure on places. Some children living nearby cannot get in.

I accept that some schools will always be more popular than others, but the problem is especially acute in Watford. For example, this year there were 859 applications for only 185 places in Parmiters school; the boys grammar school received 851 applications for 162 places; and the girls school received 812 for only 180 places. Those figures highlight the real problems that schools face in selecting children, and the significant number of parents who will ultimately be disappointed.

The system of selection causes most of our difficulties. Children of 11 or 12 are required to take an exam early on a Saturday morning in January, and are given the terrible task of meeting their parents' expectations and obtaining a place at what they consider to be the best school in the area. It is the old 11-plus by any other name.

There is no central clearing-house system, and parents have to make application to the individual school of their choice. The schools select on the basis of a number of criteria, and of course the exam results feature high on the list. As the schools consider the applications in the weeks following the exam, parents and children wait anxiously for news of offers.

As letters arrive from each of the schools, some children will be fortunate enough to receive one or more offers, while others will receive four or five rejections. Because of the absence of a co-ordinated system, some children receive up to six offers of places, at the expense of others who receive none. That is only the first round of problems for some children and their parents, and those without a place after the first round can face another three or four rounds.

That causes real heartache: children who do not gain a place feel rejected, and believe that they are failures. That may live with them for the rest of their lives. Those of us with parents or grandparents who went through the original 11-plus system will undoubtedly have such stories to tell. Sometimes a child is the only one not to have a place at a school that is due to take all his or her classmates.

In total, about 3,000 children transfer each year in Hertfordshire from primary to secondary schools. This February, 1,000 of those children had not received an offer from any school. That shows how acute the problem is. Over recent months, the local education authority has attempted to gain agreement with all the admitting authorities on a single clearing-house system to save parents from the difficulties of multiple applications and children ultimately receiving no offers.

Such a system would ensure that every child received the offer of a place on the same day, rather than having to proceed through up to four rounds, over many weeks, before possibly—only possibly—receiving a place. As no agreement has been reached between the grant-maintained schools and the local education authority, the decision has been referred to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, and we hope that he will be able to make a decision.

It is vital to have a system that recognises parental choice and, above all, is transparent, simple and effective. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to confirm that my right hon. Friend has received communications from the LEA, together with a request that he impose on the county a system that will help to alleviate at least some of the administrative problems caused by the need for multiple applications. What options is my right hon. Friend currently considering?

The system has an effect not only on children and parents but on the schools themselves. The most popular schools are in a position to offer places to the ablest and brightest children, as determined by the exams. That means that schools do not have a broad range of ability. In no sense is there a comprehensive intake of children with differing abilities: the small number of children with special needs in schools that use 11-plus selection is proof of that. Watford girls grammar school has only one child who has been statemented to receive special needs assistance; Francis Coombe, a local education authority school, has 60 statemented children.

Many parents will refer to the locally and nationally published league table results. It is not surprising that many wish their children to attend the schools with the best academic performance results. It is much more difficult for schools with such a high proportion of children who require special attention to achieve the performance in the league tables that other schools without such a varied intake can achieve, and that creates a vicious circle.

Schools with many pupils with special needs are seen as schools that parents do not consider to provide the best education. But that is not true: such schools provide a very good education, although the absence of any value added information deceives parents into thinking otherwise. It is vital for the Government to deal with the problems by amending league tables to take full account of the real value of education at such schools.

Last May, the Government were elected on a manifesto that promised no selection of children at the age of 11 on the basis of academic ability. I whole-heartedly support that policy, as, I am sure, do my hon. Friends. There can be no question of determining children's life chances at the age of 11 on the basis of a single exam held on a Saturday morning in late January. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us that the situation will improve for the parents of children in my constituency who are still caught in a selection-driven time warp.

10.36 pm
Barbara Follett (Stevenage)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Has the hon. Lady secured the permission of the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) and the Minister to speak?

Barbara Follett


I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward) on securing the debate—and on speaking on her 26th birthday.

As my hon. Friend said, the present secondary school admission system in Hertfordshire is in dire need of reform. I congratulate the education authority on all its efforts to reform the system, and particularly on its consultation exercise with parents. At present, children get into secondary schools in Hertfordshire on the basis of parental letters, which is plainly unjust. It favours not only the better off but the better educated, and, not surprisingly, has led to a record number of appeals in recent years.

Last autumn, the county council conducted a survey, that found—understandably—that most Hertfordshire families wanted their children to attend a school as near to their homes as possible. At present, a significant number of children cannot secure a place at the nearest school, while others cannot even secure a place at a school in their home village or town. As a result, one of Hertfordshire's main problems is the amount of travelling that schoolchildren must do. That is on top of all the other problems outlined by my hon. Friend.

To solve the transport problem and to try to give parents more choice, Hertfordshire local education authority decided to create a system of multiple ring fences around groups of towns and villages. Under that system, children would have been guaranteed a place within their ring-fenced areas, and parents would have been guaranteed an element of choice. Any spare places would have been allocated to children outside the ring fence.

Unfortunately, the ring fence system had to be abandoned, because of the Rotherham judgment. That judgment states that parents' first choice of school is paramount, and means that any LEA that tried to allocate second or third places at a school before giving places to first preferences from outside the ring fence would be acting unlawfully.

In the light of the Rotherham judgment, Hertfordshire has had to revise its secondary admission plans, and despite herculean efforts, the new ones do not provide a solution as good as the original ring fencing. In some areas, little or no choice is given to parents and children.

That is not the fault of the local education authority, which has done its best to consult parents and respond to children's needs. It produced a solution that would have satisfied most parents, whether they lived in the rural or the urban areas of my constituency. Unfortunately, the Rotherham judgment scuppered it. More than 100 parents have contacted me about the problems they will face as a result of the compromise criteria that the LEA has had to introduce.

Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans)

Is my hon. Friend aware that my constituency suffers the same problems? Dozens of children have been left without places. I endorse her comments, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward) on obtaining this debate.

Barbara Follett

As my hon. Friend says, this is a Hertfordshire-wide problem, but the Government must address it. There is still a pretence in some circles that the national law on school admissions provides choice for all parents. It does not: some parents get some choice in some areas. Our task is to provide a choice for the many, not the few.

10.40 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward) on securing this debate. I offer double congratulations if this is also her 26th birthday.

This issue did not come to my hon. Friend only in the past few weeks or months. I remember vividly being lobbied within a few days of taking office as Minister for School Standards about her concerns on school admissions procedures as they effected her constituents. She led a delegation to meet the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), last summer. She has tabled parliamentary questions about the issue and arranged local meetings with concerned parents and teachers to discuss the way forward. I am pleased that officials from my Department were able to attend some of those meetings.

All that activity has been for a good reason. Parents and children are not getting a fair deal. That is a real problem which must be addressed. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) about the increased difficulties caused by what is referred to as the Rotherham judgment, which places restrictions on the way in which local education authorities can administer their admissions policies. The Government are considering its legal consequences. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is considering what action the Government should take. We are discussing the way forward with the Local Government Association.

From the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard), we know that the issue affects many constituencies in Hertfordshire. I am pleased that my hon. Friends the Members for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson) and for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) joined the debate. However, it is not just a Hertfordshire issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) noted, difficulties can also be caused in neighbouring local education authorities.

We have a pressing problem which the Government must address, because we do not underestimate the upset and anxiety caused to parents by the way in which admissions arrangements apply in Hertfordshire. Parents have to make multiple applications to different schools at various times of the year. There is no single preference system covering all schools in the county. As a result, some parents receive multiple offers and others none at all. The local education authority has informed my Department that, in this year's round of applications, one in three parents in Watford were not given a place for their child. That is the scale of the problem we face.

The problem has come about for a variety of reasons, but there are two principle causes: first, the number of schools operating their own admissions arrangements and, secondly, the level of partial selection. The present situation is clearly unacceptable, and something needs to be done. In the long term, the School Standards and Framework Bill will remedy the problem; if I have time, I hope to say a little about how it will do that. However, that legislation, even though we hope it will be enacted by this summer, will cover only admissions for the school year starting in September 2000. The Government believe that we need to move more quickly than that.

Whatever action we take, we can do nothing to affect admissions to start school this September; the admissions round is already under way and we are having to operate that round under a system inherited from the previous Government. However, the Government have been giving serious thought to the steps that can be taken in respect of admissions for the school year starting in September 1999. If we move quickly, that is the soonest we can make an impact on the admissions round. As a result of representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford and other hon. Friends representing constituencies in Hertfordshire, I am able to announce this evening the action that the Government intend to take in Hertfordshire in respect of admissions for the school year starting September 1999.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Watford said, Hertfordshire local education authority has been trying to achieve local agreement on a co-ordinated secondary transfer process for the September 1999 intake. Its recent consultation exercise included all grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools. Some schools have rejected the LEA's proposals for a single preference system, which is already operated by the county's 55 county schools and some of its grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools. As a result of the failure to achieve agreement, the LEA has written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State formally requesting him to make a co-ordinated scheme for secondary school admission arrangements under section 430(4) of the Education Act 1996.

The application from the LEA is to cover the whole of Hertfordshire, and my officials met the LEA on 1 May to discuss the proposals in detail. The LEA wants a single preference system that results in all parents receiving at least one offer of a school place and all offers being made on the same day, to overcome some of the real difficulties that are apparent under the present arrangements. A unique aspect of the situation in Hertfordshire is that there is no overall shortage of places, so the objective is to make admissions arrangements more streamlined, and ensure that places are allocated fairly and without the present stress for parents and children.

Officials from my Department will now visit those grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools that have not signed up to the LEA's agreement. We shall listen to their views and try to seek agreement from those schools to the LEA's proposals. If that does not prove possible, Ministers have the power to impose a co-ordinated scheme. It is a power that we have recently exercised in Peterborough. Obviously, we would prefer there to be a voluntary agreement, but, if that cannot be achieved, we will not simply stand to one side and ignore the difficulties faced by parents. We will therefore, if necessary, impose a scheme to overcome the difficulties experienced by parents and children in Hertfordshire.

Any scheme proposed by the Secretary of State would be subject to consultation—that is only right and proper—but we intend to move with as much speed as possible to ensure that all changes will be in place to effect admissions for the school year starting September 1999. This will be an important development, which I hope reflects the urgency with which the Government intend to treat the situation.

In the longer term, the issue of admissions will be covered by the School Standards and Framework Bill, currently under consideration in another place. Provisions in that Bill will require all schools admissions authorities to operate under a code of practice on admissions. It is the Government's intention to publish, during the first part of 1999, this code of practice. It will be subject to approval by Parliament, and it will cover such vexed issues as partial selection, a school's admissions criteria and co-ordinated practical arrangements for admissions.

The application of the code will be in the hands of an adjudicator, who will arbitrate if there are disputes between the relevant admissions authorities. Adjudicators will be appointed by the Secretary of State.

This evening, it would be wrong of me to pre-empt the contents of the code before it has been agreed by Parliament; but the code will allow the adjudicator to call a halt to partial selection when it is clearly operating in a manner that is not in the best interests of children in a locality. We also need to consider, in the context of the School Standards and Framework Bill, how parents' appeals against a refusal can be judged more independently. There is genuine concern in many areas that there might be a conflict of interest among those taking part in admissions appeals. The Bill therefore provides that appeals panels will be independent of the LEA and of the governing body that has refused a parent's application. We will achieve that by ensuring that members of the authority or the relevant governing body are precluded from serving on an appeals panel.

The difficulty we face is that the School Standards and Framework Bill will not be in place until the admissions round starting in the school year 2000. As I have said, we feel that action needs to be taken before then to ensure that parents in LEA areas such as Hertfordshire no longer have to go through the grief and difficulty that they encounter now. In many parts of the country, we have inherited from the previous Administration admissions procedures that may suit certain schools but do not suit many parents. We have to overcome those difficulties in a way that is sensitive to local requirements. Above all, we must do so in a way that puts the interests of parents and their children first.

I believe that, by giving urgent attention to using our powers under section 430 of the 1996 Act, we will be able to act positively to assist parents in Hertfordshire who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Watford pointed out, all too often feel vulnerable to, and let down by, the admissions arrangements now in place. If we move with urgency, and with all due speed, I am confident that we shall be able to consult all those interested parties and to ensure that we have in place an imposed system, if that is necessary, which will put the interests of parents and of children first.

This is an important issue for parents, teachers and children in the Hertfordshire area. The attendance of so many hon. Members, and of my hon. Friends representing constituencies in Hertfordshire, shows that that is so. I hope that tonight I have been able to offer some reassurance to my hon. Friends and their constituents. The Government do take their concerns seriously and we will act to ensure a fair admissions policy, which meets the needs of parents, children and schools in Hertfordshire and throughout the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eleven o' clock.