Baroness Ashton of Upholland (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills; Labour)
This is another debate which I sense heralds other debates to come. I shall try to address my remarks to the amendment in order to keep my powder dry for later. Again, we are considering how best to respond to the needs of all children. That is something which unites this Chamber and is something which makes me proud to be a Member of it.
In addressing the amendment let me begin again by saying that the purpose of this power is to respond to proposals which will raise standards. If a proposal comes forward that would not raise standards, it could not be approved.
As noble Lords will know, the admission arrangements for maintained schools are determined locally following a statutory consultation process. Admission authorities for schools must ensure that those arrangements comply with legislation and have regard to my department's code of practice on school admissions. Statutory parties to the consultation may object to the independent schools adjudicator if they are unhappy with any aspect of a school's determined admission arrangements. I cannot envisage a way in which a change to those arrangements could be argued to improve educational standards of children.
The amendment refers to three types of selection—by aptitude, by social class and by religious affiliation. We legislated in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 to rule out any new selection by academic ability except for "fair banding" and sixth forms. I have set out the position on aptitude several times. I shall respect the tiredness of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, at this point in the day, but no doubt we shall return to the matter. I can be clear that we would not use the power to change that position. We are clear that any selection on the basis of social class is unacceptable and the code of practice on school admissions makes it clear that admissions authorities for schools should not set admissions criteria which have the effect of disadvantaging certain social groups in the local community. For example, we would not expect to see criteria that give priority for admission on the basis of a parent's occupation or income. I assure the Committee that any request to the Secretary of State for an order which would disadvantage a particular social class would have no chance of success.
As the Committee will be aware, many schools of a religious character give priority for admission to adherents of a particular faith or denomination. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn mentioned that. That criterion forms part of a school's published admission arrangements and as such must be consulted on, as I described earlier, and may be the subject of objection to the schools adjudicator. As I said earlier, we could not envisage a use of the power to innovate to bypass that process.
In conclusion, I do not believe that the noble Lord's amendment is necessary to achieve the protections he seeks. I hope that, given my assurances, he will agree to withdraw it.