HL Deb 11 March 1999 vol 598 cc434-44

8.45 p.m.

Baroness Blatch rose to move, That this House declines to approve the draft Code of Practice on School Admissions laid before the House under Sections 84 and 85 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 on 5th February 1999.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I rise to pray against the code of practice which is before the House and which is due to come into force fairly soon.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, has reminded the House on many occasions that one of the principles behind the Government's legislation is that there should be greater clarification, transparency, simplification and, in particular, a lessening of the burden on schools.

I have looked at this code of practice. Staff of schools are in despair both about its interpretation and the work which will have to be undertaken in order to comply with the code. The code of practice has to be read in conjunction with a very large number of pieces of legislation. For example, in paragraph 1.2 account has to be taken of the Code on Admission Appeals. I ask the noble Baroness when we are likely to see that. In paragraph A. 10, account must be taken of the education (relevant areas) regulations 1998. In paragraph A.11, teachers have to understand, read and take into account the Education (Determination of Admission Arrangements) Regulations 1999 and, in paragraph A. 19, they have to take into account, understand and read the Education (Objections to Admission Arrangements) Regulations 1999. In paragraph A. 42, they have equally to take into account and understand the Education (Infant Class Sizes) (Transitional Provisions) Regulations 1998. In paragraph A. 58, they have to refer to the Education (Grammar School Ballots) Regulations 1998 and in paragraph A. 70 the Education (Aptitude for Prescribed Subjects) Regulations 1998. In paragraph A. 76 reference is made to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and in paragraph A. 77 there is reference to the Education (School Information) (England) Regulations 1998.

The people who will have to interpret this code of practice are very busy head teachers. They will have to do an enormous amount of work and they almost need the qualifications of a lawyer to do all that cross-referencing, and the Government have not thought fit to produce a code which makes all that self-explanatory.

At page 4 of the code there is the heading: Applications: common forms and timetables". That paragraph begins with the sentence: The local admissions process should be as simple as possible for parents". I have said already how complex and difficult this matter is, but of course it is important that it should be simple for parents. I doubt whether parents will be able to get their minds around the list of regulations which I have read out. But it is important that it should be as simple as possible and easy to execute for schools and their staff. Therefore, my first objection is the complexity and the burden on schools which will have to make sense of the code and convey it to parents.

At paragraph 5.9, under the heading "Primary schools" it states: Academic selection should not be used to decide entry into primary education". There is at least one school in the country, the Oratory School, which takes children into its prep department at the age of seven. On the basis of the criteria used to determine whether a school is a primary school, a secondary school, a GM mixed or infant school, those children are considered to be children attending a secondary school. It is true also that those children are interviewed for entry into the prep department, and it is true also that the pupils need a particular level of ability to cope with not only the normal school curriculum but also the additional specialist school curriculum. I wonder whether the noble Baroness will say what status paragraph 5.9 has in relation to a school such as the Oratory with a prep department as part of the school.

Paragraph 5.25, which is concerned with interviews, states: Schools or admission authorities should not interview parents as any part of the application or admission process". When recruiting children for a specialist school, it is important that there is some form of interview and assessment of a child's aptitude for a particular specialist subject. It is almost impossible to make the distinction between aptitude and ability when one is talking about science and technology or the more technical subjects. It would be helpful to have some clarification as to how that will work in practice.

Paragraph A. 41 is concerned with standard numbers and flexibility. It would be helpful if the Minister were able to tell us first about the sixth forms. Many schools not only keep their own young people in a sixth form but they also take in pupils from other schools. There is at least one school—I cannot remember its name—in the Hammersmith and Fulham authority area—which has no legal basis at all. I do not know whether that has ever been resolved. It certainly had not been resolved at the point at which I left the DfE. The lawyers were still crawling over the matter. It has no legal basis. It accepts children after the age of 16 and it accepts them from beyond the local authority area. It would be helpful to know from the noble Baroness how one deals with standard numbers in that case.

As regards sixth formers, it is quite common for schools to interview students for sixth forms. They have to do that. If young people wish to take particular subjects, it is almost common practice, even within a school where a young person moves from the year below into the sixth form in the same school, for a judgment to be made by interview with the young student and often with the family, on whether the young person has the ability and the aptitude for taking particular subjects in the sixth form. I wonder what the Government say about that. The code is not very clear on that subject.

My final point is the enormous confusion, particularly in the London area and the more urban areas such as Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, where schools take from a very wide area. One has only to think of our own Prime Minister who sends his children to school across LEA boundaries, along with many other people. If the relevant area is the whole of London how much time is going to be taken up by an individual headmaster or headmistress and the staff in consulting, as they must do under the law, with the relevant area if it is as wide as Greater London? It would be helpful to have the noble Baroness's comments on each of those points. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House declines to approve the draft Code of Practice on School Admissions laid before the House under Sections 84 and 85 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 on 5th February 1999. —(Baroness Blatch.)

Earl Russell

My Lords, when I was reading the papers for this Motion I was reminded of a correspondence in the Times Educational Supplement in 1984 between Sir Alfred Sherman and Sir Keith Joseph, as he then was. They were discussing the failure to introduce a voucher system for school admission. Sir Alfred, in his usual pugnacious style, regarded that as a result of pernicious left-wing influence among the civil servants. Sir Keith, one of the most honourable men I have known, said that, first, they had convinced him by sheer rational argument that a complete market with a voucher system was incompatible with a universal service and, secondly, even if they had been wrong about that, he was responsible. He had taken the decision and Sir Alfred should have attacked him and not the civil servants. It was one of the more admirable letters that I have read.

But this potential clash between a market and a universal service is something which underlies a great deal of the debate tonight. We have on the one hand a sort of global market in schools set up by the Greenwich judgment. I have not forgotten the visit to Orpington during the last general election and listening to the problems caused by the number of Bromley children who could not attend any school to which they could travel because all the places had been taken up by people from outside the borough. How far one can have a global market without having any losers is a paradox which I do not believe market theory altogether solves.

We have a comprehensive system plus selection. That is another paradox. We have partial selection, which is a rather mulish form of paradox. It has a distinctly hybrid quality about it. For example, we have one school in the London Borough of Sutton which is partially selective. It is taking people from as far away as Brighton. That is setting up a sort of market in schools which is causing quite considerable difficulties for school admissions in Sutton. We wonder why it is insisted that interviews are still to be permissible for church schools, especially since the Church of England Board of Education, which my honourable friend has consulted, said that the Church saw no particular need for it and would be quite happy to let it go.

Again, there is a paradox as regards admissions in keeping up a combination of a universal school service plus the autonomy of each individual local school. I remember discussing these paradoxes during a number of education Bills introduced into this House by the noble Baroness. I am sure that she remembers them. We suggested then, as we do now, that moving away from a local authority responsibility for admissions was going to create a great many problems about where responsibility lay.

We could not have exactly what we wanted—one very rarely can in this world. On our Benches, we have reached a compromise with the Government that if we could not have a local authority responsibility for admissions, then local authority schools should have the same sort of autonomy as grant-maintained schools so that there should be a level playing field. We have agreed that compromise and we hold to it.

However, looking at these paradoxes I cannot help but be reminded of the description of the religious policy of Henry VIII: that he was like one who would throw a man from the top of a high tower and bid him stay where he was when halfway down. We have had all these principles of school autonomy, markets and so forth introduced into the middle of what is still a universal service. I do not believe that they mix. I do not see that anyone on any Bench is yet ready to tackle the task of bringing logic back into the system. Attempts to bring logic back into education have always tended to involve imposing one particular philosophy which has not met acceptance from the next government. It is no wonder that people in education are suffering from what the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin of Bewdley, once described as "innovation fatigue".

While we are thinking about these subjects, I also hope that thought will be given to the question of how much spare capacity we need in the school system. There is a casual reference at the beginning of the code of practice to reducing capacity in the name of efficiency. I hope that it will not be quite the same efficiency that has been applied to reducing the rolling stock on Virgin Railways, for example. There is a point beyond which efficiency is not efficient.

I also hope that some thought will be given to the implications of the Rotherham judgment, which says that a parent who has expressed a preference, even if it is the second, third, fourth or umpteenth preference, is to take priority over a parent who has not. That again is making it hard for people to gain admission to their own local schools.

I also believe that we need, and have always needed, to think about education admissions in the context of transport. That is something where joined-up government has yet to happen and I look forward to it. Effectively, the range of choices available to pupils is the range of choices between schools to which they can get transport. It is a particular problem in the: London Borough of Bromley where the effects of the Greenwich judgment have been very severe indeed.

The noble Baroness pointed out that all this is extremely complicated to administer. So it is; I agree with her. The question is: first, how did we get here? I believe that the noble Baroness made some contribution to that. The second question is: how do we get out of it? If we were to decide that the system we have is now too hybrid to be really workable, which way are we going to alter it? Are we going to continue to have a market within a universal service? If not, the Greenwich judgment will have to be repealed. If the answer is yes, then many of these problems will continue. Are we going to have selection continuing within the comprehensive system? If we are the Sutton problems will continue.

At present I do not see any general political will or any consensus emerging which will allow us to provide any workable and potentially durable solution to these problems. Until we do I am not at all certain that the mess can be made any tidier than it is now. It is difficult. It is not appropriate for teachers to have to understand all these various regulations to which the noble Baroness referred. That always was our case, as I have argued from these Benches before, in favour of local authority control of admissions rather than complete autonomy for every school.

As that does not seem to be a practical possibility, and as we do not intend to reopen a compromise that we have honourably and seriously reached, I do not want to make any further criticism but simply to suggest that we have problems and we must all think of a solution. Yes, it is difficult, but we have arrived here and we all have to take a share of the responsibility. The house is glass; the glass needs mending; but I do not think that we should be throwing stones.

9 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government plan to bring this new admissions code of practice into force on 1st April. It will apply to admission arrangements for primary and secondary schools for September 2000 and beyond. The purpose of the code is to give vital practical guidance to local education authorities and schools. I should make it clear at the beginning that that guidance is not for parents, and, in turn, local education authorities will be asked to provide adequate advice and information for parents. The code will include five sets of regulations which are required to implement the new school admissions framework.

The five sets of regulations currently before Parliament are due to come into force from 1st April 1999 and it is crucial that the admissions code comes into effect at the same time. The code will have statutory force; so local education authorities, schools which are admission authorities, the adjudicator and admission appeal panels will have to have regard to the guidelines in the new code. In addition to the requirement—in initial year regulations which have been in force since 6th January this year—for them to consult upon and determine their admission arrangements by 1st April and 1st May 1999 respectively, they also need to make other essential preparations over the coming weeks for September 2000 admissions. The code must be in place from our planned date of 1st April to give those involved in the admissions process sufficient time to ensure that all their arrangements for school admissions from September 2000 can benefit from the guidance it contains.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, have asked a number of specific questions. They have also made one or two more general points. I shall respond to the general point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that such arrangements are too complex for parents and schools to follow. Perhaps I do not need to explain this as I believe the noble Baroness is fully aware of it, but the arrangements are not for schools as a whole; they are for admission authorities; that means LEAs and a small minority of schools, those that are grant-maintained and will become foundations and voluntary-aided schools. We do not need to worry that all the different regulations that the noble Baroness read out are something that we would expect parents to try to follow.

The code sets out—fairly clearly, I think—for admission authorities what are the arrangements. Moreover, the Government have consulted on the code and have received many responses, the vast majority of which are extremely positive. The noble Baroness's suggestion that the schools are "in despair"—I believe she used those words—does not in any way bear out what the Government have found on the basis of that consultation.

The new framework should not place onerous burdens on schools. For LEA and voluntary-controlled schools where the LEA is the admissions authority, there will be no additional burdens, as consultation should already have taken place between the LEAs and their schools over proposed admission arrangements. The foundation and voluntary-aided schools will be required to consult other admission authorities in the area. I am now talking about the consultation burden on schools. Where a local admissions forum is established to form a consensus on admissions arrangements at a local level, LEAs will be responsible for ensuring that the forums receive the service support that they need.

The noble Baroness asked when the code of practice on admissions appeals will be available. A draft of the admissions appeals code of practice will be sent out for consultation after Easter. A final version of the code will be laid before Parliament in June and the code will come into effect, subject, of course, to Parliament, on 1st September 1999.

The noble Baroness also asked about the London Oratory School. Special school provision is covered by the existing partial selection regime referred to in paragraph 5.11. However, if there are objections to any of the London Oratory School's arrangements, they can be made to the adjudicator either by the local education authority in the area or by parents.

The noble Baroness also asked about the admissions authorities which admit pupils from other schools into sixth forms. Such authorities should publish an admission number for admissions from outside the school. They are required to publish an admission number at each normal year of entry.

The noble Baroness also asked about the 1998 Act permitting selection by ability to sixth forms, which is Section 92(2)(c). Again, such arrangements will be subject to statutory consultation and objection may be made to the adjudicator.

The noble Baroness mentioned possible confusion in a large area such as London. It is unlikely that any LEA will set a relevant area as wide as the whole of London—and it is the LEA, not the school, which sets the relevant area. I should have thought that in London it would be much more likely that a relevant area would comprise a London borough. In London, the boroughs are the LEAs. However, they will, of course, have to take into account the point that the noble Baroness rightly made that quite large numbers of parents in London do not send their children to school in the borough in which they live but to a neighbouring borough. That is particularly likely where they live close to a borough border. Local education authorities are well aware of the burdens on schools and would not want to set a relevant area that is much too wide.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Earl referred to partial selection. The noble Earl mentioned selection within a comprehensive system. Our policies are well known and we shall deliver our commitment on this. We want to move forward, whereas I think—and I believe that the noble Earl suggested this—that there is a sense in which the Conservative Party wants to cling to some of the existing forms of selection which we believe are inequitable. We want a system that works in the best interests of all children and parents, not one that is confusing and divisive or which in any way restricts parental choice.

The noble Baroness also asked about ability and aptitude. Again, a modern education system should deliver high standards for all children within a framework which is sufficiently diverse to meet their individual needs. That is why the new admissions framework allows schools with a specialism in one or more prescribed subjects to have admission arrangements which allow that school to give priority to up to 10 per cent. of pupils on the basis of their aptitude for that specialism.

There is a distinction between "aptitude" and "ability". Indeed, the previous administration recognised that distinction. Aptitude has nothing to do with prior or current educational attainment. The code makes it clear that children who will be able to benefit from teaching in a specific subject or who have demonstrated a particular capacity to succeed in a subject can be regarded as having an aptitude for that subject. The aim is to enable the particular skills of a child to be matched with the particular strengths of a particular school. We want children who have the capacity to succeed in a particular area to have the opportunity to benefit from the facilities which particular schools with specialisms might have.

The noble Earl asked about the Greenwich judgment. It has never been possible to guarantee every child a place at the school of their choice, as I am sure that the noble Earl understands. Popular schools will sometimes have more applicants than available places. Reversing the Greenwich judgment would not alter the fact that popular, over-subscribed schools would not be able to admit all their applicants. Many parents would find it difficult to understand the rationale behind the resurrection of an artificial barrier to their choice. They would not see the justification behind the fact that although they live next door to a school, they cannot gain admission to it for their child because they are on the wrong side of the LEA boundary. There is no general body of support—

Earl Russell

My Lords, perhaps I may make a clarification which I should have made earlier. I was not intending to refer to cases of people who live close to a borough boundary; I was more concerned with long-distance migration.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for clarifying what he meant. Our admissions framework ensures that LEAs consult with neighbouring education authorities about their admission arrangements where pupils may be travelling rather longer distances across LEA boundaries. That consultation will enable the LEAs to work together to ensure that admission arrangements work in the best interests of all parents in areas affected by substantial cross-border movement of pupils.

The noble Earl also asked about the Rotherham judgment. Paragraph A. 28 on page 18 of the draft code provides guidance on that judgment. Sixth-form admissions are covered in paragraph A. 41. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to that.

The noble Baroness and the noble Earl asked about interviews. The code makes it absolutely clear that interviews should only be conducted under limited circumstances. Church schools may carry out interviews but only in order to assess religious or denominational commitment. Boarding schools may carry out interviews to assess the suitability of a child for a boarding place. We recognise that there is a difficult balance to be struck.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way again. Can she explain what evidence the church schools can get on commitment from an interview that they could not get from a letter from the local vicar?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, church schools requested that they should continue to be able to interview parents about denominational commitment and this, after considerable thought, the Government conceded. Clearly, this is something we shall want to monitor to see how it works in practice. The Churches do not take quite the same position as the church schools and have suggested that it is perhaps possible to find other ways of determining that commitment. For the time being we have recognised that this is an issue about which church schools feel strongly and have therefore made the concession.

I have tried to answer all the questions. I may have failed to succeed, but at this late hour perhaps it makes more sense if I read what the noble Earl and the noble Baroness said, and if there is anything I have failed to pick up on, perhaps I can write to them.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I shall be grateful if the noble Baroness writes with clarification on a number of points because many of the answers leave even more questions in the air.

The code itself is very ambiguous. The noble Baroness says she has read it carefully. I have read it very carefully too. There are a number of areas where there is confusion in the way it is written between the admissions authority and the local education authority. The noble Baroness referred to LEAs being the main body. There are many schools which will be their own admissions authority and they are headed up by head teachers and their staff. They will need to understand the complexities of this code of practice and all the regulations with which it is cross-referenced, just as the LEAs will. Any school within an LEA needs to understand that too. The idea that schools remain blithely ignorant and only the LEA understands is unacceptable. It is the school that has face-to-face contact with a parent who is aggrieved for one reason or another and has to give them an explanation. So the idea that schools will not need to understand or bother their pretty little heads about the code, nor indeed the parents, I am afraid I simply do not accept.

The noble Baroness also said that the LEAs set the relevant area. I accept that too. When a school such as the Oratory and many other schools in London take from a London-wide area—from as far away as Islington as I mentioned earlier—is the noble Baroness actually saying that there is no requirement on that school, which will be its own admissions authority, to consult parents in the area from which it has traditionally taken children; that is, from places as distant as north London and the extremes of the southern London boundary? It would be helpful if the noble Baroness could deal with that matter in the letter.

The noble Baroness said that the draft paper for appeals will not be out until after Easter and will not be ready for presentation to Parliament until June. That is awfully late. It leaves a matter of a few weeks for the schools and the education authority to get to grips with a very sensitive area of activity; that is, the appeals system, which could well be a factor they will be dealing with in September.

The code of practice was meant to make things easier and clearer for parents. I am afraid that it does not. Many of the answers we have heard tonight will not help them either.

My final question concerns interviews. I return to the prep department of the Oratory. Is the noble Baroness officially saying that it is deemed to be a selective school and, under the paragraph to which the noble Baroness referred me at the end of Annex A, any degree of selection that was deemed to be in place at the time of the passing of the Act shall continue? In other words, it is selective and therefore can continue to be selective and interview for selection. It would be helpful to have clarification. I think it is deemed to be a secondary school and therefore the primary school paragraphs will not apply to it.

The noble Baroness did not refer to the necessity for all schools to interview for suitability for entering into the sixth form and taking specific courses. It has been common practice throughout the country. I suspect it will be difficult to continue without it and it will be more pertinent in the context of the code for those schools which take sixth formers from outside their own school catchment area. That applies, of course, to many sixth forms because an increasing number of schools throughout the country over recent years have opted not to have a sixth form and therefore there have grown up sixth form colleges or a school with a sixth form that draws from a wider area. It would be helpful also to have some clarification of the processes of interviewing, selection and recruitment into what are ostensibly sixth form colleges but which, for the purposes of designation, are in fact schools.

The noble Baroness did not refer to the one school in Hammersmith and Fulham which is well known to her department as having no legal basis. Perhaps she can say, first, what is the designation of that school and, secondly, how the code impacts on that school and that LEA.

I shall seek to withdraw my Motion, as is the convention, but I am extremely dissatisfied with the code. It was, I believe, dismissed lightly as not mattering to teachers and head teachers. I believe it will cause them great grief. We shall see that only when the code of practice is up and running. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.