HC Deb 18 December 2001 vol 377 cc263-70

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

11.4 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise an issue that is of huge concern to my—

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What about the other petition?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

I have a record of only two petitions on the order of business in front of me.

Mr. Clelland

Only one was presented.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Two were presented. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman may not have followed the detail. They were related, but two separate petitions were presented.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I expected to present a petition and understood that it was part of our order of business this evening.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We appear to have no record of that fact. It was certainly not on the agenda that I saw earlier in the day. If there has been a misunderstanding, I am sure that that can be remedied at an early date, but the order of business to which I am working refers only to the two petitions that were presented by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). I apologise to the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), but I am sure that the problem can be put right very soon.

Miss Widdecombe

Before that unexpected diversion, I was saying that the issue is of massive concern to many of my constituents in Kent. It comes up every year when the time comes round for parents to indicate their order of choice for schools in Kent.

Kent is in many ways exceptionally fortunate. It has a wide variety of schools between which, theoretically, parents can choose. Kent has grammar schools, single-sex grammar schools, mixed ability schools, high schools and quite a wide range of specialist schools. On the face of it, parents have a fortunate choice, but in reality the opposite is true. Too many parents find that the system militates against being able to choose a school for their child and to have confidence that that choice will be respected.

It used to be the case that two separate lists ran for grammar schools and high schools. Parents could indicate an order of preference for grammar schools and then an order of preference for high schools. The adjudicator ruled, however, that the lists must be combined. If the children of parents who want them to take the 11-plus and who put down a grammar school first fail, those children are classified as late entrants to the high school that they have listed second and go to the bottom of the heap for consideration. If the high school is popular, successful and over-subscribed, they have no hope of getting in. Is that a covert way of discriminating against grammar schools?

There was a major campaign in Kent to get enough signatures to trigger a ballot. That campaign failed abjectly because most people in Kent want to keep grammar schools. It seems to me that the arrangement now in place is another way of deterring children from taking the 11-plus.

The wider issue of parents in rural areas applies to all parents, in particular to those who seek their child's admission to mixed ability schools or high schools. Every year, one or two villages are told right at the start that their children will not be admitted to big successful schools such as the Cornwallis school and Angley school, both of which are in my constituency and are heavily over-subscribed year on year. Every year, children are being told that they will not be considered simply because they live a certain distance from the school.

I want to ask the Minister very specific questions. Heads say that they more or less have to apply the criterion of distance. Although, theoretically, they can set their own criteria for foundation schools, in reality those would be capable of legal challenge because the local education authority sets in stone, for its own schools, the requirement to use distance as the criterion. That idea comes, in turn, from the Department, so there is a general view that distance is a must. If, instead of rejecting everybody outside a certain radius because there were already too many applicants from inside that radius, a school turned the situation round and simply asked whether it was the nearest school to the child—which is also about distance, but a different sort of criterion—would that practice be sustainable?

We have the ludicrous situation that there are children in outlying villages who cannot get into their nearest school because nearness is a comparative and, every time, they are discriminated against in favour of children who more or less live on top of the school. If one lives in a town, one has a choice of schools, but if one lives in an outlying area, that choice is restricted so long as distance is used as a criterion. Parents in villages in my constituency—in Staplehurst and East Farleigh in previous years and in Marden this year—have had inflicted on them the anguish of being told from the start that their children will not be able to go to the large, popular schools of their first choice.

Because the grammar schools proceed to cream off a certain percentage of the applicants, however, places become available, so parents are put through all the anguish of thinking that places will not be available, only to find that they are. Kent has put forward a solution to that, and asked that parents be allowed to indicate preferences after the 11-plus has been taken and the creaming-off has been done, when the schools know how many of the children who have applied to them will go to a different school.

Apart from those questions, there is the issue of free transport. Nonsensically, in some parts of my constituency parents will put down as first choice a school that is not their first choice. They do that so that they will qualify for free transport, because if the school rejects them, the county will supply free transport to the school of second choice, even if it is outside the distance criterion used for assessing eligibility for free transport. Parents have to play a game of bluff. They put down as first choice a school that they do not want so that they get their second choice, which they do want, and qualify for free transport. Ingenious as that may be to politicians who like playing such games, it seems to me a rather strange thing to ask parents to go through every year.

The solution to all those problems would be to free schools to set their own admissions criteria, and not to place artificial constraints on them. It should be made extremely clear that schools can reject children who live close to them and accept those who live further away if that leads to greater parental choice across the area as a whole.

It is not only parents and children who suffer through the present unsatisfactory arrangements: the schools themselves do too. Every year, there is the same sort of uncertainty for the schools as there is for the children. There is also public opprobrium, which stems from schools appearing to have turned their back on whole villages when, in reality, they are restricted by the criteria that they have to apply.

I therefore hope that, first, the Minister will say that schools are completely free to set their own criteria, which would do away with the argument that enables schools to say that they have no choice but to act in that way. Secondly, will she reconsider Kent's request for parents to indicate preferences after the 11-plus has been taken? Thirdly, will she reconsider making the rules on transport more flexible? I have been on about that for many years; when I was first in opposition, I introduced a ten-minute Bill which made no progress—such Bills do not—to alter those rules. When a parent indicates a first choice, it should not be part of an elaborate game of chess but a first choice that they want to prevail over all the other choices on the list.

11.16 pm
The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on securing the debate. I am grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to outline what the Government propose to do in the Education Bill and how that will affect parents and children in Kent. We are committed to maximising parental preference while raising standards of education for all children, which will make parents' preferences more meaningful.

As the right hon. Lady knows, the supply of school places is a necessary element in parental choice. Each local education authority must ensure that there are sufficient school places for children of compulsory school age in its area through its school organisation plan. LEAs are required to review the position annually, and take steps to ensure that they provide sufficient school places to meet demand. The plan must be made available for local consultation and show the projected demand for places and the LEA' s proposals for meeting that demand, for example, by expanding existing schools or opening new schools. She will know that in her constituency in Maidstone, the LEA plans to meet the projected increase in demand by adding 680 secondary school places by 2005–06

As hon. Members know, legislation gives parents the right to express a preference for the school at which they wish their children to be educated. There is a duty on LEAs and school governing bodies to comply with that parental preference except in specified circumstances. The most common reason why parents cannot get a place at their preferred school is over-subscription. Schools must publish details in their prospectus of how the available places will be allocated if there is too much demand. The LEA must publish a composite prospectus giving a summary of admission policies for all maintained schools in its area. In large areas such as Kent, there may be more than one composite prospectus. Admission arrangements are set following an annual statutory consultation involving the LEA and schools. Any admission authority consulted may object to the schools adjudicator if it has concerns about any aspect of the determined admission arrangements.

In the case of some partially selective admission arrangements, local parents can also object. The adjudicator who takes the decisions when there is an objection is, of course, independent of the Government; we have no input to his decisions, which can be overturned only by the courts. If we followed the right hon. Lady's suggestion that schools set their own admissions criteria, it would add to the problems that I know that her constituents and families in Kent face. It would add to the chaos, produce greater differences, and there would be even less uniformity and more distress to parents and families, which I accept is what has given rise to this debate.

This year, the adjudicator in Kent made decisions which, judging by representations to the Department, seem to have resulted in much misunderstanding and confusion among parents and schools alike. It may be helpful if I clarify their main effects. This year, Kent LEA decided to introduce county-wide secondary transfer arrangements whereby children sat the grammar school selection tests before parents stated their preferences for schools, an arrangement that had previously operated only in one area of Kent. As the right hon. Lady knows, opinion is split among Kent schools and parents over whether it is fairer to test children before or after preferences are made. She came down on one side of that argument.

The argument has been the subject of much heated debate in the county, and some of Kent's own-admission authority schools objected to the adjudicator about the change. That was why the adjudicator became involved. In July, the adjudicator considered the objections and a counter-objection from the LEA to the arrangements of some own-admission authority schools.

The most significant of the adjudicator's determinations on the objections were that parents must now be asked to express their school preference before entering their child for the grammar school selective test, and that all schools must adhere to the admissions timetable set by the LEA. The adjudicator took the view that, in effect, testing before preferences gave some parents two first preferences, putting them at an advantage over parents who wanted a place only at a non-selective school. I hope that the right hon. Lady will accept the validity of that argument.

The LEA then made a number of changes to its admission arrangements to implement the adjudicator's decision, but that resulted in complaints from selective schools, which considered that the LEA was introducing more changes than were necessary. The most controversial was the LEA's decision that only those children whose parents had named a grammar school as their first preference school should be permitted to sit the selective test. As a result of those complaints, the LEA referred details of its proposed changes back to the schools adjudicator for consideration. I sympathise with the confusion that that must have caused to parents in the area that the right hon. Lady represents.

In October, the adjudicator made a decision on Kent's proposed changes, ruling that any child whose parent had named a grammar school as one of their preferred schools should be allowed to sit the 11-plus, regardless of whether a selective school was their first preference. A closing date of 30 November was set for the expression of preferences, as was a common date—20 December—for notification of allocation of places at non-selective schools.

Although this decision seems to have recognised the concerns of most parents and the selective schools that complained about the original decision, many non-selective schools are now unhappy. My officials have had complaints from parents of schools choosing to interpret the adjudicator's decision in their own way, or simply ignoring it. We are investigating the complaints on a case-by-case basis and, even at this late stage, the adjudicator has considered an application from an own-admission authority school to vary its admission arrangements to take account of the October determination.

In the Education Bill, we are proposing changes to legislation that I hope will be helpful. LEAs will be required to co-ordinate the admissions process for their areas. That does not prevent aided and foundation schools from applying their own admission policies; it recognises the need to simplify the process for parents. That was highlighted by the research that we commissioned jointly from Sheffield Hallam university and the Office for National Statistics, which was published in June. We consulted on our proposals for changes to the admissions framework, and had substantial agreement to that recommendation—88 per cent. of respondents were in favour of an LEA co-ordinated approach.

What we have proposed allows a scheme for co-ordinating the allocation of school places to be agreed locally. I hope that the right hon. Lady will accept that agreeing these matters locally is the best way to proceed. Parents will complete a single, common application form naming their preferred school or schools and return it initially to a central point. On a locally agreed date, LEAs will make one offer of a school place to the parents of each child living in their area. That has the advantage of dispensing with the unfair situation that we have often seen in which some parents hold multiple offers of school places and other parents have none.

The system will also require greater sharing of information between admission authorities and their LEAs and between neighbouring local education authorities. That will give LEAs the information that they need to identify children who have not been placed and enable them to intervene at an earlier stage where it is necessary to do so. The new system that will be introduced if the Education Bill is enacted by the House will not deal with all the issues that the right hon. Lady raised unless the schools in the area that she represents are willing to co-operate in the best interests of parents and children, so that the confusion that they are currently experiencing in respect of the fact that there are different admission arrangements in the different schools can be lessened. Parental preference can work well only if parents have a choice between equally good schools, as I hope she will accept. That is why we have put raising standards in all schools for all children at the forefront of our agenda.

Although GCSE results have improved and the number of children leaving school without qualifications has fallen, there is still a great deal to be done on that agenda. Part of our solution is to extend diversity in secondary schools—I hope that the right hon. Lady welcomes this also—so that every secondary school can develop its own unique ethos. We are expanding the successful specialist schools programme, with every school ready for specialist status being encouraged to seek it and support being given to those who are working towards that status. By 2005, we would expect to see at least 1,500 specialist schools. We are giving successful schools greater freedom, which I also hope that she welcomes, to take full responsibility for their mission to raise standards. They will be encouraged to excel and innovate, with the best schools gaining greater freedom, for example, to take new approaches to staffing or accelerated learning.

We want to spread good practice and are establishing a schools innovation unit that will work with teachers and heads to help to stimulate and disseminate new ideas, especially in relation to catering better for pupils' different requirements and aspirations. Governing bodies will also be able to work together to create families of local schools, sharing problems and pooling resources in everyone's best interests.

We are already encouraging selective and non-selective schools to work together by inviting partnerships of such schools to apply for new funding of up to £20,000 per partnership to develop collaborative projects. We hope that that will help to break down the perceived barriers between the two sectors and raise standards in teaching and learning. I am sure that the right hon. Lady will welcome, as I do, the fact that, of the 28 partnerships that have been approved so far, six are within Kent. The type of project in which they are engaged ranges from collaboration on post-16 courses to staff exchanges. I have some hope that, by establishing these new partnerships, there will be greater collaboration on admission arrangements, so that life can be made easier for parents when they come to choose a secondary school for their children.

We also support greater innovation and excellence in creating new schools. If a new maintained school is required, the local education authority will advertise so that an interested party can put forward proposals and have them considered on their merits by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Any proposed new school will have to be covered by one of the existing categories, or be an academy, and will have to meet the usual statutory requirements concerning, for example, the national curriculum and teacher employment.

We are responding to the wishes of many parents in trying to ensure that successful and popular schools can expand more easily. Perhaps that will also help the right hon. Lady. The governing bodies of successful schools will be able to appeal to the adjudicator if their proposals for expansion are turned down by the school organisation committee.

We recognise the need to tackle low standards in schools, and we have therefore introduced new measures. Some schools that face challenging circumstances will receive a programme of support with the aim of ensuring that at least 25 per cent. of pupils at every school obtain five GCSEs at grade A to C by 2006. Kent has 28 schools where 25 per cent. or fewer pupils attained five or more GCSEs at A to C grade in 2001.

If we can improve the achievement in those schools, we will provide diversity and better choice for parents who live in the area. All those schools received targeted school improvement grant of up to £70,000 per annum to support them in raising attainment. As the right hon. Lady knows, the schools are subject to monitoring visits from Ofsted to ensure that they focus on agreed action, which will have a sustainable effect on pupils' attainment. Local education authorities will invite, or if necessary, be instructed to invite, external partners to help turn around failing schools.

All those plans to improve standards can come to fruition only if we have sufficient well-trained and well-motivated teachers. Therefore, our policies on teacher recruitment and retention are vital. In the lifetime of this Parliament, we will recruit 10,000 more teachers, 20,000 more support staff and 1,000 more trained bursars.

We are also reviewing teachers' work loads so that we can find ways to ensure proper time for preparation, development and management. That work is being overseen by a group that includes representatives of teaching and head teacher associations.

Tackling disruptive behaviour is another important factor in ensuring equality of standards. An additional 40 pupil referral units will be opened, more learning support units and learning mentors will be introduced, and parenting orders will be extended to ensure that parents take responsibility for their child's behaviour. Admission forums will be made mandatory; one of their tasks will be to consider schemes for sharing challenging pupils fairly among all schools.

Ensuring that all parents get their preferred choice of school depends on local institutions co-operating and working together. I hope that the right hon. Lady will work in her locality to ensure that we can achieve that. The effect of our initiatives will be to raise standards. That will make parental preference more meaningful to more parents.

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