HC Deb 20 May 1998 vol 312 cc921-8 12.59 pm
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this debate. Its subject is very familiar to the Minister. I do not want to repeat the mantras about the Greenwich judgment; I want to try to update the problem in the light of new developments, particularly the effect of the School Standards and Framework Bill and the requirements for smaller primary classes, which materially affect the issue. I want also to make practical proposals as to how we can make headway on the matter, which I know the Minister has discussed.

I come here in the hopeful expectation that the Minister of State is in a listening mode. I am encouraged by the fact that I wrote to him a few weeks ago on the more specialised subject of the lighting deficiencies of one of my local secondary schools and I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from him informing me that the money would be available in the capital budget for the following year. I realise that this is a much wider issue, but none the less, that suggested that I should have some hope and faith in ministerial attention.

The starting point for my remarks is parochial because I want to make initial references to my borough, Richmond. I do not do so in a narrowly parochial way because my points relate to a substantial number of boroughs. Around nine boroughs in London, which is roughly 20 constituencies, and about six in other parts of the country—probably more now that we are changing from county councils to unitary authorities—face the same problem in different ways. Richmond's experience is instructive and, I hope, from the Government's standpoint, positive in several ways.

First, Richmond, perhaps more than any other council, has taken seriously the Government's edict of regarding education, education, education as the main priority in expenditure, so much so that the borough has made painful decisions to give overriding priority to schools. It has taken standards extremely seriously to the extent that in the primary sector, and to a lesser degree in the secondary sector, it is probably pre-eminent in the country. Perhaps most important, the borough ignored all the blandishments of the Conservative era and not a single school opted out of local authority control and became grant-maintained. Parents, teachers and the council maintained faith in the local authority principle, so the authority has many positive features that the Government would find attractive.

The Greenwich judgment problem has affected Richmond in several key respects. We have roughly 10 per cent. of the primary intake from other boroughs and almost 45 per cent. of the secondary intake. That is partly a function of geography. Richmond is a small, elongated borough, and there are probably several natural neighbourhood movements across the border, but the school intake is far in excess of what would be achieved simply as a result of neighbourhood concentration.

What causes strong feeling in the area is the process of migration from low council tax, low service standard boroughs such as Wandsworth into my borough, where council taxes are relatively high, partly as a result of very high expenditure on education. If that were happening in international trade, it would be called an unfair trading practice, but it is a practice that we must accommodate as a result of the way in which the legislation gives the authority no discretion to favour local residents.

That practice is causing specific problems, of which I know the Minister of State is well aware. First, there is a great deal of parental frustration. During the past couple of years, more than 100 parents in the primary sector, which is the least affected, were unable to get their first choice, and most of them appealed. There were many more such cases in the secondary sector.

There is a problem of physical overcrowding. The projections undertaken as part of the council's forward planning exercise show that about seven and a half additional classes at first-form entry will be required to meet additional demand, much of which comes from outside the borough. That figure will increase as a result of the class size reduction planned by the Government.

Apart from those purely statistical problems, there is a deeper political problem that I have sensed during the year in which I have been a Member of Parliament. I have tried to justify to electors on the doorstep an overriding priority for education as an expenditure and a social objective. I often get from residents, particularly older ones with grown-up children, the riposte, "Why are we in this borough spending so much on education? What benefit do we receive from that? We pay high council tax for our schools, but so much of the capacity is used up by people from outside the borough. Why do we bother?" Our commitment to education is being eroded because under the current law, the council is not allowed to give its own residents and council tax payers preference in the allocation of school places.

That is the problem, but there are two new considerations, which I hope will advance the debate a little. The first is the passage of the School Standards and Framework Bill. One of its key features—of which the Minister, as the Bill's architect, is well aware—is that it gives local education authorities responsibilities for school standards and enhances their role. However, it gives them the end without giving them the means to achieve it. A local education authority's additional responsibility should be reflected in greater authority and discretion in admissions policy.

The other development, which quantification suggests will have a significant impact, is the decrease in class sizes as a result of the maximum of 30 in a class that the Government want to introduce. In broad terms, that aim is absolutely right and we have fought and argued for it. It represents considerable progress. Research shows that class sizes, particularly in the primary sector, should be as small as possible, probably much smaller than 30. Therefore, the Government's aim is an admirable advance, and we fully support it. However, it presents practical problems because it will require a considerable increase in the number of classes that have to be accommodated. The early calculations in Richmond suggest that the shortage of classes in 2000 will increase from the present seven and a half to 10. Those classes must be accommodated.

The spirit in which the Government propose to approach that problem is reflected in the draft regulations, which have been put out to consultation. A key phrase in the draft regulations says that where extra places are needed, they should be created in popular, over-subscribed schools with high standards". Those are exactly the schools that Richmond has and where the additional pressure will be felt. In our borough, we are extremely conscious that the Government's requirements, which I stress we strongly favour in principle, and the methods to fulfil them suggested in the draft consultation document will greatly accentuate the practical problems of dealing with cross-border migration.

I have a few suggestions as to how we might find a solution. I am well aware that the Minister of State has taken part in several debates with my colleagues on this matter. He has been approached by national associations, the subject has been raised at teachers union conferences and there has been extensive correspondence. I have recently been shown a helpful letter on the subject from the Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge).

I stress that when we speak of abolishing the Greenwich judgment or changing the law, we are making a modest suggestion. No one who is concerned with the problem seriously expects the Government to introduce primary legislation. Indeed, in the letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park, the Minister of State specifically rules out legislative change, and we understand that.

There are probably two ways in which secondary legislation and regulations could be used to deal with many of our problems. First, written into the admission regulations issued after the passage of the new legislation could be the right of local education authorities to consider an authority's boundaries as a legitimate criterion in admissions policy. I imagine that the Government might well respond to that proposal by saying that allowing such a criterion could be open to abuse, and by saying, "We might have a leafy shire borough trying to exclude all the yobs from across the boundary. We must not allow that to happen." I envisage that such abuse could be avoided by building into the legislation a proviso that the local education authority's policy must in the final analysis provide for an appeal to the Secretary of State, who would have overriding powers to ensure that the more flexible admissions approach was not abused. However, with that proviso, the local education authority should be recognised as having a status in consideration of preference—so that, when pupils are competing for a place, a pupil's origination in the tax-paying authority should be regarded as a legitimate basis of preference.

We are therefore talking about overturning the Greenwich judgment not in any very grand way, but simply by allowing authorities where the judgment is a problem to take local residents into consideration in their admissions policy. That would be one way of dealing with the problem.

Another way of dealing with the problem, within broadly the same framework, would be the independent appeals system, admirably introduced by the new legislation, with a higher authority to that appeals system. If the appeals system had incorporated within it the provision that appropriate weight should be given to someone's residence in the tax-paying authority in considering an appeal against rejection of an application for a school place, it would go some of the way in meeting our concerns.

Therefore, many of the concerns of my borough and of boroughs like it could be met appropriately through admissions regulations, appeal regulations or a combination of the two.

I suspect that the other way of dealing with the problem—through financial flows—is probably less palatable to the Government, although it certainly follows from the logic of a free-for-all, if that is what the Government wish to allow to continue. In the past few years, under the standard spending assessment system, money has effectively followed pupils, as the Minister knows. However, the system does not take into account capital costs.

One of the mounting problems that I have already described—overcrowding of schools, aggravated by the Greenwich judgment, and combined with the smaller class requirement—will create major demands for capital funding for our local authority. If the Government cannot find any way of changing the regulations, they will have to make available substantial additional capital funding to enable all those children to be adequately provided for within the framework of local authorities' obligations. I appeal to them to do so, although I suspect that that option would be more expensive and perhaps less efficient for the Government. Nevertheless, it is the other way of dealing with the matter.

I ask the Minister to try to help us to move the debate forward, because we have a genuine problem. Although we realise that the problem does not affect the whole country, it affects authorities that attach a high value to education and—in the case of Richmond—a very high value to staying within the maintained sector. Although my constituents wish to comply with the Government's expectations of higher standards, they strongly believe that—ultimately, as a matter of principle—if one pays one's council tax to the local council to improve education services, one should have preferential access to its schools. It is a simple principle, and I hope that we shall be able to find a way of recognising it.

1.13 pm
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and the Minister of State for allowing me to put in my five penn'orth. As my hon. Friend knows, we share the borough of Richmond upon Thames, and my constituency also spans the borough of Kingston upon Thames, which has a similar problem with the Greenwich judgment.

The problem in Richmond upon Thames is—judging by my postbag—mainly in the secondary sector, as all but one of our secondary schools are on the borough's borders. Consequently, 45 per cent. of children in secondary schools in Richmond upon Thames are not Richmond children but from other boroughs, which, as my hon. Friend explained, has caused much ill-feeling among the borough's residents.

If the borough had the money or could find a site to do so, we could move all those schools and plonk them in the centre of the borough. Although doing so would solve the problem, it is not possible.

We could expand our schools, although doing so would be against the wishes of parents and governors, who think that the schools are already large enough. Moreover, if we expanded the schools, more children from out of the borough would come in, as they would still be on the borders, and we would still run the schools nearest to many children in other boroughs.

I have sympathy for parents who are near the borders of a borough with excellent schools. It must be very difficult to live a mile away from a suburban school run by the borough of Richmond upon Thames, and to be struggling to ensure that one's child receives a good education, when one's own borough is not providing the same education. Nevertheless, we shall have to deal with the problem in the ways suggested by my hon. Friend.

The Greenwich judgment has created an acute problem for some London boroughs, particularly Richmond, and I urge the Minister to consider possible solutions. Within the borough, we have tried everything that we can possibly do. I myself have been a councillor in the borough and have struggled with the problem. Although we have tried, we simply do not know what to do, to be fair to our own children.

I wonder whether the Minister—who very kindly and courteously replied to correspondence from me—or his civil servants could come to the borough to hold discussions with our officers and staff, to try to reach some sort of solution to a terrible problem.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing this debate on the consequences of the Greenwich judgment, and particularly on the reasonable way in which he addressed the issues. We are always pleased to have solutions proposed to problems as they arise, and I hope that we are a Government who are prepared to consider sensible propositions, from whichever political party they may originate. We want to put children's interests first.

I am pleased also that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) has been able to speak in the debate. We have corresponded on the issue, and—both since she was elected to the House, and for a few years before that, as a locally elected council member—she has shown concern for her constituents, and about the way in which they are affected by the Greenwich judgment.

It might be worth outlining the exact consequences of the Greenwich judgment, as there has been a good deal of confusion about the judgment's meaning in practice. Sometimes, there is a tendency to blame all the difficulties of an admissions procedure on the Greenwich judgment and its consequences.

The judgment was largely a result of the abolition of the Inner London education authority. Many London boroughs were within the ILEA, but they did not have responsibility for education. On the ILEA's abolition, the individual boroughs themselves became local education authorities, which caused some difficulty.

The abolition certainly caused problems in Greenwich and Lewisham. As the two boroughs were within the ILEA, over the years, many children residing in Lewisham went to schools in Greenwich, and many children in Greenwich went to schools in Lewisham. There was much free trade, as there was no local education authority.

On abolition of the ILEA, with education responsibilities being passed down to individual inner London boroughs, the two boroughs themselves became local education authorities. Greenwich decided that it wanted to give overriding priority to children whose parents resided within the Greenwich area, and to establish a boundary based on local authority areas.

In 1989, the Court of Appeal had to decide whether Greenwich's decision should be binding. The decision was that priority should not be given to an applicant solely because he or she resided in a local education authority area. However, the judgment does not mean that schools have to expand to admit out-of-LEA-area applicants. They can simply admit up to their published admissions limit and then refuse applications. Therefore, an admissions authority has the power to cap the number of pupils who may come to a school.

When a school is over-subscribed, the duty to comply with a parent's choice is disapplied and is no longer a priority. Instead, admissions authorities have to use any reasonable criteria to allocate places among applicants. If an admissions authority so wishes, it can give priority to those living closest to a school. That is clearly the case.

There is some confusion on the matter. The Greenwich judgment does not deny local parents a choice of school. It lays down that an admissions authority cannot give priority simply because an applicant resides within an LEA area. It is a question not of locality or proximity, but of an administrative area—the local education authority—which cannot be regarded as giving priority to a particular applicant.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Do not the Minister's comments fly in the face of the Rotherham judgment—the other judgment that must be considered—which gave a different primacy in admissions policy?

Mr. Byers

I am not sure that the Rotherham judgment does that. It concerns the expression of an order of preference by individual parents and is not related to where the parent may reside, so the two issues are quite different. The Rotherham judgment will cause a number of problems in certain local education authorities because of the way in which they have traditionally operated their admissions arrangements, but it is sensible to consider that judgment as a separate set of problems, to which we look forward to solutions being offered, as opposed to the problems created by the Greenwich judgment, which are different. The Greenwich judgment still allows proximity to be an issue—a reasonable criterion to be applied—but does not restrict it to residents within a particular LEA area.

We have been considering the implications of the Greenwich judgment in the light of the School Standards and Framework Bill and, in particular, the code of practice on admissions that we shall have to publish as a result of the provisions in the Bill. I am sure that we shall reflect upon some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Twickenham when we draw up the code of practice, which we expect to be able to publish some time early next year. There will be a full debate in the House on the details of the code, because it is subject to agreement by both this House and the House of Lords.

In the interim, guidance will be issued on admissions for September 1999. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hopes to issue that guidance within the next four to six weeks. Once again, it will be for consultation and will provide another opportunity for hon. Members who are concerned about the impact of the Greenwich judgment to make representations.

The Government's priority on school admissions, which will be reflected in the interim guidance, is to enable local education authorities and schools to meet the preferences of as many parents as is realistically possible, regardless of where the parents happen to live. We have listened carefully to representations on what we can put in the Bill, but we are not convinced of the need to reverse the Greenwich judgment. Indeed, the White Paper, "Excellence in Schools", which we issued last July, referred explicitly to admissions and did not reveal a national ground swell of opinion for changing the impact of that judgment. In many areas, it has opened up opportunities for many parents.

Local education authority planning should support parental preference. Patterns of cross-border movement have become well established, some even predating the Greenwich judgment itself. LEAs should be able to plan school places around those admissions patterns. That does not mean that there should not be proper cross-border co-operation. Our proposed new framework for school admissions will require consultation and the agreement of admissions authorities throughout LEA areas.

I recognise that some parents feel strongly about the effect of the judgment. We heard this morning from the hon. Members for Twickenham and for Richmond Park, who represent Richmond, about the problems and the way in which parents feel the Greenwich judgment is affecting their choice. However, many parents have welcomed the removal of what they saw as an artificial restriction on their choice. On balance, it is preferable to have an open system in which all school applications are considered on an equal basis, rather than one that depends critically on residence within a particular local authority area. To put it bluntly, local authority boundaries should not be given preference over the interests of parents and their children. Under our proposals, those interests will be put first.

By removing a purely administrative criterion, the Greenwich judgment has opened up opportunities for parents and children. For example, it removes a barrier to children going to more distant schools that perhaps have a specialism and could best meet the educational needs of that youngster. Most significantly, in some cases it means that children can go to more local schools, which just happen to be over the road in another LEA area. We must recognise that many schools are situated close to LEA borders. In such situations, it cannot be right for children to be refused a place at their local school simply because they live on the wrong side of a line drawn for purely administrative purposes.

Cross-border movement works both ways. Local education authorities import and export. Bringing down an iron curtain, as a return to the situation before Greenwich would do, would disfranchise hundreds of parents in many local authority areas. However, the status quo is not good enough. There has to be change because of the flaws in the present system, which have been identified and about which we heard most recently from the hon. Members for Twickenham and for Richmond Park.

The School Standards and Framework Bill provides the opportunity to overcome many of the difficulties at present being experienced. We shall give an additional responsibility to individual LEAs to plan the places in their locality, devolving power to local levels so that they can more readily respond to the needs of local people, and parents in particular. The proposals in the Bill will overcome many of the difficulties that exist at present.

The hon. Member for Twickenham referred to funding. Many of us have real concerns—we can hear parents or perhaps grandparents on the doorstep, asking, "Why am I paying more in my council tax bills when we are providing education for children across the border in authorities with lower bills?" That is an important point and one that we should not ignore. It would not be right to go back to the days of mandatory recoupment, when there was a paperchase and local authorities invested literally thousands of pounds to chase up and identify where a child had gone for his or her education. That would not be an efficient use of public money.

It is best to deal with the problem through the standard spending assessment system. We are in the middle of a wide-ranging review of education SSAs. Most of us recognise that the present system is flawed and needs to change generally. If LEAs feel that particular difficulties are being caused by the Greenwich judgment and have specific proposals for changing the education SSA formula in some way, I should be happy to consider such suggestions alongside the other options for change that we are considering.

The Government are acutely aware of the concerns of hon. Members, parents and LEAs about the Greenwich judgment. It is important that the judgment is not used as a ready-made excuse for all the difficulties that may be thrown up during an admissions round. The challenge that the Government face is to provide for parental preference with a fair, open and transparent admissions framework. In our view, the School Standards and Framework Bill will do that. Perhaps most important, it will allow us to raise standards in schools across the country, so that all parents will have access to a school that meets their needs for a high-quality education, thereby offering their children the best possible start in life.