‘(1A) In section 84 (Code of practice) after subsection (2) insert—
(2A) In framing the code, the Secretary of State must require each admission authority in agreeing admission arrangements to ensure fair access to educational opportunity.”.’.
I say at the outset that we do not agree with the Government about the clause, because we have deep concerns about what they are doing on school admissions. We hear a lot about that subject. Recently, the press reported that the school adjudicator is going to stand down. Mysteriously, he will leave his post early, I suspect because of the Government’s work in that area. Frankly, we are concerned that the clause is all about giving schools more wriggle room—the phrase has been used outside the Committee—on admissions. That will be the practical effect of the provision, even if the Minister shakes his head. I hope that the Lib Dems are listening, because they should pay close attention to what the Government are doing.
Well, I mean the Liberal Democrat Back Benchers in Committee. They should pay close attention and discuss this issue at one of their group meetings, because the provision is about creating more wriggle room for schools to get out of fair admissions. That is what we are extremely concerned about and why we have tabled amendments.
Amendment 147 relates to a policy that we tried to introduce in government, which was to put fairness and access to schools firmly at the centre of the school system. That is what parents, schools and nearly all teachers want, and I hope that it is what we all want in Committee. I know we will hear many professions of a desire to achieve that from members of the Committee. If possible, we want all children to be able to attend schools, and we want all those schools to be good schools. We worked very hard in government to try to realise that ambition, and I think that the Government sincerely want to improve schools and to have good schools for children to attend. However, it is still the case that some schools are oversubscribed. I suspect that, however long the coalition Government last, some schools will still be oversubscribed at the end of their period in office. That is why it is so important to ensure fairness in the allocation of state school places. Some schools are grammar schools and can select on ability, but we are talking here about schools that are not supposed to select on ability or any other criteria, but to accept pupils on a fair basis. In this amendment and those in the three groups to come, we want to show what can be done to improve the Bill and why changes are needed if we are to guarantee fair access for all children.
The Government say they want to simplify and improve the schools admission code. That is fine. I have a copy of it here. It has a nice cartoon on the front which the Department abolished when the Minister came into office. Our concern, and I will put it frankly to the Committee, is that rather than simplifying it, they may want to dilute its impact on fair admissions. We must therefore scrutinise very closely what the Government are doing in this clause. Paragraph 1.9 of the code states that the Education Inspection Act 2006
“requires local authorities to promote fair access to educational opportunity, promote high standards and the fulfilment by every child of his educational potential, secure choice and diversity and respond to parental representations. These duties, together with this Code, underpin a modernised role for local authorities as the commissioners of school education, ensuring the quality of provision for all in a system that is responsive to the needs of parents and children.”
The Government claim to recognise the importance of fair access to schools. The White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching” states that
“local authorities have a critical role in securing fair access to schools.”
But can a local authority do that all by itself? How important is the admissions forum? How important is the schools adjudicator? How important is the schools admission code? How important is the local authority’s annual review of admission arrangements? The Government’s changes to the legislative framework since the 2010 election require a revisiting of the local authority role to secure fair access to schools, particularly with the significant increase in the number of academies that the Government envisage. I know the Government have something to say about that later in the Bill.
I hope that the Committee will not mind if I quote Councillor Nickie Aikin one more time. She writes:
“As the admissions forum is also to be abolished, it is unclear whether or not the local authority will have sufficient levers over academy admissions to ensure fair access to school places and will be able to place children within a suitable time frame.”
That is another serious point that she makes there. In contrast, the local authority will have to set the admissions arrangements for community and voluntary-controlled schools with a view to ensuring fair access to educational opportunity. Amendment 147 will require all admission authorities, be they foundation, voluntary-aided or academy, to set their admission arrangements on the same basis as local authorities.
Hon. Members will know from their constituency casework of the deep disappointment felt by parents and children on not getting into the school of their choice. Although it affects some areas more than others, we have all probably heard parents saying that admissions arrangements are not fair. Local newspapers are often full of stories of disappointed parents. Even with the changes to the code following the 2006 Act, admissions can still be complicated, time-consuming and stressful for parents. Admissions arrangements will almost certainly become even more complicated as more and more schools become their own admission authorities under this Government’s education plans.
There are 152 local authorities acting as the admission authority for their community and voluntary-controlled schools, but there are thousands of voluntary-aided, trust and foundation schools, and academies—a growing number under the Government’s plans—all acting as their own admission authority. As a result, large numbers of governing bodies go through the process of setting and consulting on admission criteria, organising appeals and responding, if necessary, to the adjudicator.
The fear is that, with this large number of admission authorities, covert selection and complexity will be given a stimulus. There is evidence that when schools become their own admission authority, it gives them the opportunity to exercise covert selection and unfair admissions practices. Although it has not been featured in a letter to any member of the Committee from the Minister, or in a departmental statement, press reports at the weekend suggest that the Government intend to limit the use of lotteries for admission to individual schools, rather than to allow local authorities to conduct them. I do not know whether the Minister can confirm whether the report in the weekend edition of The Telegraph is true.
In his research in 2008, Professor John Coldron of Sheffield Hallam university—
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley says, it is a wonderful university.
In his research for the Department in 2008, Professor Coldron found that schools that were their own admission authority were more likely to select covertly, leading to more socially segregated schools and a greater number of parental appeals. In her research in 2009 into secondary schools’ admissions criteria across the country, entitled “Secondary Schools Admissions in England: policy and practice”, produced for the charity, Research and Information on State Education Trust, Professor Anne West, from the London School of Economics, said:
“Despite improvements, our research suggests that the system is still too complex, particularly for parents and carers who are not highly educated or proficient in English, and especially where there are schools responsible for their own admissions. The complexity is exacerbated by some schools seeking additional information from parents, often of a personal nature and unrelated to the admissions criteria.”
A report for the Sutton Trust in 2010 by Smithers A and Robinson P, entitled “Worlds Apart—Social Variation Among Schools,” found that the most socially selective schools were those that controlled their own admissions.
What can be done to reduce the difficulties of introducing more own-admission-authority schools? Part of the answer must lie in requiring a specific objective to be included in the schools admission code for those schools when they set their admission arrangements. Namely, the admission arrangements should ensure fair access to educational opportunity. That would mean that all admission authorities have the same objective. Amendment 147 is designed to achieve that, and I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that suggestion.
Anyone who has ever had anything to do with school admissions will know that it is an aspect of education that greatly exercises parents. The three largest areas of complaint to the local government ombudsman are, and have been for many years, planning, special educational needs and admissions, and that was when the local government ombudsman only had powers to investigate admissions in relation to local authorities, and not in relation to schools.
As we know, the position differs across the country, and there truly is a postcode lottery. The establishment of local admissions forums was an attempt to combat that. Fair access is very important to parents, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West has said, every year at the same time, television programmes on BBC and ITV and the press are full of stories of parents who are extremely angry that they have not got their first, second or sometimes even third choice of school for their child. I have to say that, in the main, parents understand fairness, and will accept arrangements, as long as they feel that they are fair or, as one parent said to me, equally unfair to everyone.
I have worked in several parts of the country. In the north-east, where I worked for many years, up to 98% of parents get their first choice of school for their children because their first choice is the local school, which is often a good school. That is what parents want. They are not looking for something special or different; they are looking for a good school for their children. I have also worked in parts of the country where 50% or less of parents get their first choice of school, and many do not even get their third or fourth choice. Understandably, that makes them angry and frustrated. The local admissions forum was a way of giving parents the opportunity to become involved in admissions locally, and they will be angry at its abolition.
Changes to school admissions under the legislation, and the proposed simplification of the code of practice on school admissions have worried many parents. Those who live in areas where there is a shortage of schools, or where parents perceive, rightly or wrongly, that there is a shortage of good places, and parents of children with special educational needs are extremely worried that simplification will mean “more opaque,” and that it will be easier for schools that want to keep their children out if they want to.
I have seen press speculation that lotteries will be banned, and that preference will be given to those who live nearest to a school—in other words, those who can afford to live nearest to a school, or to move into a catchment area. That is all extremely worrying for parents. I said in the Education Committee, and I am happy to say here, that as a practising Catholic, when I was working in London and saw some of the practices that went on with admissions and exclusions among London Catholic schools, I was frankly ashamed.
I have been contacted by the Special Education Consortium, which told me that it often hears from parents when schools are reluctant to admit their children. The local admissions forum provided an opportunity for parents to be involved in the scrutiny and challenge of admissions arrangements in their areas. The Special Education Consortium told me that it is worried that the schools adjudicator will no longer be able directly to change admissions policy, even when it is judged to be unlawful. It cannot understand that and, frankly, I cannot understand it. The Education Committee recently interviewed the schools adjudicator, and it was clear that he was particularly unhappy about that proposal. I understand that he will leave his post early, which says clearly what he thinks about the Government’s proposals.
I do not understand the proposal that local authorities will no longer be required to submit their annual review of local admission arrangements to the schools adjudicator. That will not save bureaucracy or money, because my understanding is that local authorities will still have to carry out their annual reviews; they just will not have to send them on to the schools adjudicator. The purpose cannot be to save the cost of a stamp, because e-mail can be used. If the Government are serious about openness, transparency and fairness in admissions, why on earth would they not want to gather such information together, publish it, and look at the good and the bad—there is good and bad out there. That seems to go against the Government’s avowed policy of openness and transparency.
I welcome the proposal to bring academies’ admissions arrangements into the remit of the schools adjudicator, but other parts of clause 34 will weaken accountability in schools admissions, make it easier for schools that are reluctant to admit pupils with additional needs to keep them out, and severely weaken parents’ position.
First, let me say that I agree with the sentiments behind amendment 147. Since coming into office, his Government have tackled the growing inequality in our education system through the introduction of the pupil premium, the SEN Green Paper “Support and Aspiration” and, crucially, freeing schools from the weight of regulation, bureaucracy and centralised control that prevents them from focusing on one thing, namely raising educational standards for all children, especially the most disadvantaged. Choosing the right school for their child is one of the most important things parents can do, and I agree with the hon. Member for North West Durham that going through that process is hugely stressful for some parents. It is right that admissions authorities should be mindful of their communities when setting admissions arrangements.
Let me respond to the comment made by the hon. Member for Cardiff West about whether there is a hidden agenda to introduce covert selection through revisions to the admissions code. Absolutely not. There are more than 660 mandatory requirements in the current code—too many to follow—and the chief adjudicator says that the code needs to be more accessible, That is what we seek to achieve with the revisions. We require admissions authorities to consult their communities, because we want to ensure that access to schools is fair and helps to achieve our agenda of closing the attainment gap. When they amend or set regulations, we will continue to require admissions authorities to consult their local communities.
The school admissions code contains a clear framework for schools and local authorities to set clear, fair and lawful admissions policies. The code ensures that admissions arrangements do not discriminate on the basis of race, sex or disability. It also prevents admissions authorities from asking for information that might lead to children being discriminated against based on their background, and through fair access protocols it ensures that the most vulnerable children are given extra help in securing a school place.
The independent schools adjudicator is available for parents who are concerned about the admissions policies of their local schools and it can decide on the lawfulness and overall fairness of those policies. As hon. Members will know, local authorities are already under a duty to exercise their education functions with a view to as far as possible ensuring fair access to opportunity for education and increasing opportunities for parental choice. All members of the Committee share a commitment to fair access, and successive codes have built on that, so the effect the amendment would have is already in place. I am confident that the codes in force that govern school admissions and admissions appeals already set out the parameters of a system that ensures fairness and that priority and support are given to those who need it most, including looked-after children and those with statements of special educational needs.
The Secretary of State announced a review of the admissions process and I assure hon. Members that the draft codes on which we will soon consult will continue to have fairness and equality as their guiding principles. As I said in the policy statement that we circulated to the Committee, we shall require the local authority to report on the effectiveness of fair access protocols.
We have sent round a detailed policy statement on the code. It is difficult to time these things precisely to coincide with the Committee stage of the Bill. However, it is certainly imminent and will certainly be available before many of the future stages of the passage of this Bill for the hon. Gentleman to scrutinise. However, that is a separate process from many of the measures in the Bill.
The policy statement given to the Committee says that we shall require the local authority to report on the effectiveness of fair access protocols for children with special needs and children in care. We will retain prioritisation for SEN and looked-after children. Although I agree with the aims and sentiments behind the amendment, as I do with those of a number of the amendments on admissions, I hope that I have demonstrated that the codes, rather than legislation, are best placed to give effect to the aim expressed in the amendment. I hope that with that reassurance and the fact that the revised draft codes are imminently available, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
Welcome back to the twilight zone, Mr Williams. I hope that you enjoyed your egg and chips over the way—I enjoyed mine.
I think I know now what the Minister means when he says that something is imminent, but it is not good enough that we have not had sight of the code, not least because the White Paper said that it would be consulted on early in the new year. However, as we have quite a few amendments to get through, I will not prattle about that now.
All that the amendment asks the Secretary of State to do is to require admissions authorities to ensure fair access in agreeing admissions arrangements. I should have thought it would be the easiest of amendments to assent to. I will not press it to a vote, as the Minister has put on record that he believes that that is what should happen, but I reserve the right to return to the issues relevant to the clause and the amendments to it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
The amendment is about admissions forums, which we have discussed under a previous amendment. Their abolition will remove a level of local scrutiny working to ensure fair admissions, in which representatives of schools, including heads, governors, parents and diocesan authorities, are involved. They are a good example of localism—even, I dare say, the big society. Such a move is unwise at a time when the number of schools that set their own admissions criteria is increasing. In a few years’ time, we could have more than 20,000 schools setting their own admissions criteria. Now is not the time to remove an effective local mechanism working in favour of fair admissions.
As has been mentioned, the Sutton Trust study found that the most socially selective schools were those that are their own admission authority. There is well-researched evidence for that. In “Unlocking the Gates: Giving disadvantaged children a fairer deal in school admissions”, Barnardo's drew on its experience of working with poor families and called for greater scrutiny of school admissions, also drawing attention to the increasing number of schools which are their own admission authorities.
The Government have provided no evidence of the need to make the proposed change. The White Paper supports the local authority role to ensure fair access, but then demolishes the support that helps authorities to do that work. Establishing and working with an admissions forum is dismissed by the Government as a bureaucratic requirement, yet the Department for Education’s impact assessment states sets out only a tiny cost saving from the abolition of admissions forums. That shows that they are not much of a bureaucratic burden, especially when balanced against the loss of scrutiny to ensure that admissions are fair.
Perhaps the Government think that the combination of the local authority scrutinising local admissions, along with the powers of some parents, schools and the local authority to complain to the adjudicator at national level, is sufficient, but that is to neglect the importance of those local groups working out fair arrangements, often dealing collaboratively with sensitive issues, such as in-year admissions and the fair access protocol, which are of great importance to parents and schools. It needs to be borne in mind that it is far more efficient to deal with issues locally, involving local stakeholders, than to refer every contentious case to the schools adjudicator. Although important, the latter should be the last resort, used efficiently as the final arbiter when a local agreement cannot be reached.
A key theme of the Bill, as stated in the impact assessment, is to
“give parents a greater role in the system.”
In fact, abolishing admissions forums will reduce the role of parents in admissions, because parents are part of the required membership of the forums. Furthermore, forums can and do invite parent groups to come to their meetings to make representations. Parents, regardless of where they live, are entitled to have an effective, independent monitoring body in each local authority to ensure fair admissions criteria and processes, as laid down in the school admissions code, and to ensure they are operated by all admission authorities. Voluntary forums would not have the same powers, for example, to refer objections to the adjudicator. Voluntary forums were introduced in 1998, but they were soon made mandatory under the Education Act 2002, to ensure that good practice where there was active leadership could be spread throughout all local authorities. Later departmental consultation in 2008 included a proposal to make admissions forums voluntary, but that was rejected by respondents.
The adjudicator, Ian Craig, supports the retention of admissions forums—perhaps that is why he has to go. In his latest report, for 2010, he recommends changes to the content of the local authority annual report and that, before sending, it should be
“discussed, reviewed or possibly approved”
by the admissions forum, allowing the forum to continue to produce its own report or make supplementary comments. He reported that some local authorities had found the restriction to 20 members difficult and that that may need attention. He was disappointed that very few forum reports had been sent, but said that some of those that had been sent represented best practice as a strategic document. He repeated that view in his evidence to the Select Committee on Education, saying:
“As you can see from the recommendations in my annual report last year, I believe, and I committed myself to believing, that admissions forums are good things. It commits all admissions authorities in an area—however we define the area, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a local authority area—to sit around a table and talk over their problems.”
Sound, good work is being done by local people across the country and that should be supported, not abolished. Instead, the Government should be giving those bodies more support, consulting them on their work and finding out how good practice can be spread. The Oxfordshire Governors’ Association has informed the Committee, in associate memorandum 52, that,
“Admissions forums provide a vehicle for local admission authorities and other key interested parties to discuss the effectiveness of local admission arrangements, consider how to deal with difficult admission issues and to advise admission authorities on ways in which the arrangements can be improved. All parents are entitled to know that the local admissions forum is open to them to make representations, as many have.”
The association goes on to note that clause 34, if enacted, will make it more likely that breaches of the admissions code will be missed. It concludes
“that reducing accountability in the way that clause 34 suggests risk adding to the social segregation and stratification of schools, it will erode the principle of fair admissions to schools and reduce the accountability of schools to parents and communities.”
Many organisations have expressed concern about what the Government are doing on admissions. The Minister will have read Comprehensive Future’s press release, embargoed for one minute past midnight this morning, on its survey of admissions forum chairs. Their comments on the proposed changes to admissions arrangements included:
“Admission processes will become more school-centric rather than parent-centric”.
There will be a
“free for all on admissions”,
and abolition will lead to
“less transparency in the admissions system”
“Schools will select by ability, the weak and disadvantaged will lose out.”
Abolition will cause
“chaos and unfairness and go against the concept of the Big Society”.
“result in a more piecemeal approach losing an independent and representative body. This could conceivably impact on fairness and equity of access.”
“lead to inequitable, opaque admission arrangements that would in turn produce poor outcomes for many children and parents”.
There is powerful evidence of the usefulness of local admissions forums. No doubt the Government will say that they just want to get rid of any bodies that they regard as bureaucratic, but if they are serious about equality of opportunity and fairness in admissions, they should not sweep away important bodies in the name of removing bureaucracy when there is not a great deal there. The forums help to achieve at local level the very fairness that the Government profess to support. I would like to hear from the Minister the rationale for the changes to admissions forums, and how the Government expect the new system to be fairer than the current one, or rather, how they will stop the system becoming less fair.
I have only a few brief points to make. First, how on earth are we having this debate without having seen the draft admissions code? It is outrageous that we are looking to make wholesale change to legislation without seeing what will replace it.
The debate is about the admissions forum; it has nothing to do with the admissions code. We tried to get the codes ready for this debate, but they are not actually connected. All the proposals are set out in the White Paper, and the Bill implements those aspects of the White Paper that need legislation. There will be plenty of time to consult on the draft codes when they are published, and publication is imminent.
The problem for me is the Government’s direction of travel. Where do they intend to go? This part of the Bill takes away what I consider to be safeguards for parents and children. We know how easy it is to have covert selection. We have to ask why, nationally, faith schools have fewer pupils on free school meals than non-faith schools. One faith school that I know of told parents that if their child had an SEN statement, which would of course attract money for the school, or was really bright academically, their school was a really good to choose; but if the child was just in the middle or less academically bright, it was not the school for them to choose.
Like all hon. Members here I have people who come to my surgery because they did not get their children into the school that they wanted. The closest school to me, which is just outside my constituency, has been closed those living in to one part of it. The next nearest school, just down the road, is talking about becoming an academy because the local authority is trying to rejig the school’s boundaries, which the school does not want, because it does not want to have to take children from the council estate. That high-flying school is now saying that it will become an academy, so that it can have its own admissions criteria and set its own boundary.
In memorandum E 95 submitted to the Committee, Richard Harris says:
“If it is accepted that fair admissions means children choose schools rather than schools choose children why should any school wish, or need to be, its own admission authority?”
If our diverse system of schools is to maintain a broad and balanced intake of young people, there should be only one admissions policy, common to all the schools in a local authority area, and there should be an admissions forum to monitor it.
Before I address the amendment, it is worth clarifying precisely what clause 34 does in relation to admissions forums. It removes the duty on local authorities in England to establish admissions forums, but does not ban or abolish them. We are advocating not their abolition, but their adoption only if that is the right local solution. Local authorities and the communities they serve must be allowed to make their own decisions on what systems will work for them. It is disproportionate and bureaucratic that legislation should set out such requirements.
Admission forums have no substantive powers; they are advisory groups made up of voluntary members. It is true that they have the power to request information to help them compile a report to the schools adjudicator, should they choose to write one, as well as the power to object to admission arrangements. Such reports contain a forum’s analysis of the extent to which admission arrangements in its area ensure fair access to educational opportunity, as well as any recommendations the forum wishes to make. Despite all that, last year only 14 out of 152 forums actually wrote a report; of those 14, seven were late and missed the deadline, meaning that no action could be taken on the issues highlighted. The role of forums’ reports is better filled by local authority reports that are required annually. As we will discuss later, local authority reports will now be published locally, so that the local community can see and make use of the information provided by the local authority.
Later this year, we shall change the regulations on powers to object, so that anyone with an interest or issue can object to admission arrangements in their area. That gives the public and parents greater powers than those in current legislation. That is far more powerful than a limited and prescriptive list of possible objectors and further reduces the need to mandate such forums. Admissions forums are therefore a duplication of effort and expense, which is not a good use of taxpayers’ money.
In some areas, forums work well, and partners want to work together. We support that voluntary approach, but some local authorities have told us that the arrangements cost them £10,000 a year. If we scale that up across 152 local authorities, we find that £1.5 million a year is wasted. On top of that, ensuring that forums are quorate is often challenging, with poor attendance from the local authority and partners, and those who do attend are often not representative of the local community; in particular, forums have had problems getting parental representation. Other local authorities have told us that their forum is useful in helping to ensure that admission arrangements are fair and non-discriminatory. We therefore have a rather mixed bag. Arrangements should be made locally that work for that locality.
Admissions forums can refer an objection to the adjudicator, but having the forum as a check on arrangements is not reliable. Last year, only five objections of the 151 made to the schools adjudicator were made by a forum, and four of those were made by the same forum, Northamptonshire—three cheers for Northamptonshire on getting its reports in and having its objections taken seriously. However, that raises the question of why only one other forum—Bromley—made any objections. Where forums are effective, they will be continued, but where they are disbanded, local people will still be able to contribute to admissions consultations and to make objections to the schools adjudicator if they feel arrangements are unfair.
As hon. Members will know, clause 60 extends the remit of the schools adjudicator so that he can consider and adjudicate on the admission arrangements that academies adopt. That ensures that parents will need to approach only a single body when they have concerns about the arrangements of any state-funded school. With those fairly killer arguments, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
We will be the judge of whether they are killer arguments. I have detected no sign that Government Members will ever disagree with anything that the Minister says.
In the interests of making progress, I will not press the amendment to a vote. I will reflect on what the Minister has said about his plans to change the regulation on objections to include the possibility of objecting to admissions arrangements in certain areas. I will look closely at his statement about that on the record, and we may return to the matter on Report. For the time being, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘(3A) Notwithstanding subsection (3), in the case of a school which is its own admission authority, whether maintained or an Academy, the local authority of the area in which the school is situated may direct the school to amend any aspect of the admission arrangements consistent with a binding judgement of the Adjudicator made under section 88E (Variation of admission arrangements).’.
We now get on to the school adjudicator, and some of the associated perils. As I have said, a deep suspicion exists that the Government are trying to create more wriggle room around admissions to allow schools to get out of their responsibilities on fair access. The saga of the adjudicator suggests that there may be something to that concern. As we have heard, we have had no opportunity to look at the draft admissions code, which—whatever the Minister says—would have informed our debate about whether the Government intend to simplify or dilute the admissions code, and whether they intend to dilute the adjudicator’s ability to do his job.
Clause 34(3) removes the adjudicator’s most important powers over school admissions. At a stroke, it seriously undermines the ability of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator to fulfil its primary purpose as expressed through the schools admissions code. That power originally appeared in section 90(6) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which provided for the adjudicator, where he upholds an objection, to
“specify the modifications that are to be made to the admission arrangements in question.”
Early experience showed that that power was a bit more limited than was originally intended. Following judicial reviews, it became clear that the power of the adjudicator to review and change admission arrangements was restricted by the terms of the original objection. It transpired that objectors frequently and understandably focused on a single aspect of the arrangements that particularly affected them and their families, but adjudicators inevitably read the arrangements as a whole and began to notice other matters that were inconsistent with the code, which really needed to be rectified. A number of schools that did not want to comply with the code managed to avoid doing so, however, because of the unduly narrow drafting of that power.
It was further discovered that because admission arrangements are re-determined every year, any changes that were made following a successful objection remained in place only for the year in question. Schools who wanted to subvert the will of Parliament were able to revert to another version of their previous non-compliant arrangements the following year. It became necessary for the original objector or some other eligible person to re-object, and for the adjudicator to consider the matter again, forcing all parties to go through the whole process all over again.
That led to a number of what might be called wars of attrition about admissions—perhaps we should call them wars of admission—between schools and objectors. It was a total waste of time and money and it was clearly not in the public interest, because it was completely against what Parliament had intended. In the light of that experience, the 1998 Act was amended—first by the Education and Inspections Act 2006, and subsequently by the Education and Skills Act 2008—to produce section 88J as it now stands. That section sets out clear powers for the adjudicator whenever admissions arrangements are under consideration to specify any appropriate modifications to the admissions arrangements—whether they arise from an objection or otherwise—and to protect the modifications from being changed back for up to three years. The section also obliges the admissions authority to comply with those decisions forthwith—not to drag its heals, but to get on and change the admissions arrangements. The present arrangements include powers for the adjudicator to specify any appropriate modifications and protect them from being changed back.
The amendment seeks to keep the adjudicator’s powers to make modifications. Analysis of the cases that have been determined on the Office of the Schools Adjudicator website shows that the adjudicator’s available powers have been used sparingly, sensitively and appropriately. Adjudicators have invariably consulted admission authorities on the substance of necessary modifications. In many cases where schools have indicated their willingness to comply with the code, they have been given the opportunity to make the necessary improvements, and it has not been deemed necessary to use the three-year power of protection. However—and this goes to the root of the Minister’s argument that always and everywhere things are perfect in the world of school management—in a small number of cases it has been necessary to use the powers to enforce specific wording and to protect changes. The adjudicator has, quite rightly, been prepared to do so.
The Minister might suggest that if the powers are rarely used, they will not be missed. He might choose to deploy such an argument. There are two key reasons why it is important that the powers be retained. First, the cases in which it has been necessary for the adjudicator to use the full enforcement powers have invariably been made against schools that have deliberately sought to manipulate their intake in the schools’ interests, whatever those might have been. Such schools subvert the rights of parents and children to secure fair access to their preferred school.
Secondly, and more significantly, the existence of suitably strong enforcement powers bolsters respect for the code and the willing compliance of the majority. Such powers help the majority to comply fairly. Repeal of the provisions will make it difficult to compel an unwilling admissions authority—and there will be many more of those as a result of the Government’s policies—to comply fully with the code. It may take two or more objections spread over different admission rounds to make an appropriate change. Such a change would be in place only for one year before the admissions authority could revert to its previous arrangements in the hope that potential objectors would not notice, or would lack the stomach or resources for a further battle—another war of attrition on admissions.
Again, there would be an unnecessary proliferation of bureaucracy, which I know the Minister is allergic to. A determined school would be well placed to win any war of attrition that might develop between it and objectors. The work of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator would simultaneously be multiplied and made less effective. At a time when all public offices are seeking to work more efficiently, the Bill, in effect, will impose not an efficiency gain but an inefficiency loss in relation to the work of the adjudicator.
It is difficult to see what the Government expect to achieve by the repeal. The Minister has said that the new, streamlined code, as he calls it, is imminent, which will be easier to understand and to apply. We have not seen that yet, so we cannot judge whether his words are true. The point is that if the Minister wants to see a revised code implemented, he needs a schools adjudicator with the existing powers to assist in the effective implementation of any new code. I ask the Minister, therefore, to think again about diluting the powers of the schools adjudicator. Accepting amendment 149 will ensure not only that the measures are efficient, but that the revised schools admissions code in its imminent, but as yet unseen, form is implemented in the way that the Government claim they want it to be.
May I explain to the Committee again what this part of clause 34 does? It removes the adjudicator’s power to directly modify admission arrangements as part of his decision in relation to objections received from parents and other persons. We believe that that is the right step. It should be for schools to implement such decisions, giving them the freedom to decide how and what to change to comply with the adjudicator’s binding decision. We should trust schools to set their admission arrangements and to respond appropriately to any decision made by the adjudicator. Admission authorities and schools will be held accountable for changes to their admission arrangements. They will no longer be reliant on the adjudicator to modify their arrangements, nor should they be reliant on the local authority to check that they have done so. We must allow schools and others to get on with such changes.
Clause 34 does not affect the adjudicator’s scope to receive objections and consider admission arrangements. For example, it leaves in place section 88I(5) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which allows the adjudicator to consider and determine any admission arrangements that he suspects do not, or may not, conform with the requirements of admissions law. Such decisions, like those made in response to objections from parents, remain binding for admission authorities. I do not accept, therefore, the idea that the clause constitutes a weakening of the admissions system.
The adjudicator’s decision is binding, so schools have to do so. They have to correct their arrangements in the way that they see fit, and not in a prescribed way by the schools adjudicator. The remedy is in place, even if the clause amends the relevant provisions of the 1998 Act.
Although such decisions would be binding for an admission authority, under clause 34, the adjudicator could no longer specify the changes, as I have said, that an admission authority has to make its arrangements. That is as it should be, and the removal of section 88J means that it is for the admission authority to decide what action is necessary to give effect to the adjudicator’s decision to uphold a complaint, as I have just explained to the hon. Lady.
Where an objection falls within the schools adjudicator’s remit, it is of course right that the adjudicator should consider and decide on that matter. He may also consider other matters in respect of complying with requirements, and he may make binding decisions on such matters where he considers that there is an additional, legitimate concern. Again, admission authorities must comply and implement such decisions as they would with the primary decision. It is for schools to make any necessary changes as a result, and they will have the freedom to decide how and what to change, knowing that the Government trust them to get it right. The adjudicator can still comment on or recommend changes to the admissions policy, which admission authorities are expected to consider carefully in line with a shorter, simpler admissions code, which will ensure that action is prompt.
I therefore consider amendment 151 to be disproportionate, because it would give local authorities the powers to direct schools to comply with a decision made by the schools adjudicator. The amendment refers to decisions of the adjudicator made under section 88E of the 1998 Act. The section applies where admission authorities of maintained schools propose to change their determined admission arrangements after they have been determined for a school year, but before that school year ends. Those are commonly referred to as in-year variations. Such changes are likely to be infrequent, as the hon. Member for Cardiff West said, but where they are made, a school has to refer the proposed changes to the adjudicator, who will determine whether they should have effect until the end of the school year and whether any modifications are required.
On academies, in-year variations to their admission arrangements are made in accordance with their funding agreements and subject to agreement with the Secretary of State. In each of those situations, there is simply no need for the local authority to have an additional power to enforce. I think I have covered all the points made by the hon. Gentleman and therefore I ask him to withdraw his amendment.
What the Minister has said relates to the concerns of many people in Committee and outside because he says that he is happy just to let schools get on with admissions themselves. He wants to take away any ability for the adjudicator to direct schools to comply with any amendment that is required in relation to a breach of the code.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the removal of section 88J—the power to modify admission arrangements—makes no difference to the legal obligation of the admissions authorities. If no timely action is taken in response to an adjudicator’s decision to uphold a complaint, legal consequences could swiftly follow.
If it makes no difference, why remove it? That is the point. Of course, it makes a difference because there are going to be many more admissions authorities in place and there is no ability for the schools adjudicator to step in and forthwith make sure that schools are complying and that their admissions code is rewritten to be compliant. I accept that, in most cases, there is some wriggle room to try to avoid that. That is what currently happens. The bit of grit that is in the system means that, in most cases, schools will probably comply and will probably comply in full. The Minister is putting some more wriggle room back into a system that there has been abuse of in the past. He is multiplying the opportunities for that abuse to occur in the future because there are going to be many more admissions authorities and he is weakening and diluting the role of the adjudicator.
May I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not the case? Schools are legally obliged to implement the binding decision of the adjudicator. The question is about who makes the change. Under these arrangements, the school makes a change rather than the adjudicator spoon-feeding and dictating precisely what the change should be. Fear not, they are required to make a change to ensure that the admissions arrangements comply with the code. If they do not, legal consequences follow.
The use of the indefinite article is very telling: the Minister said that schools are required to make “a” change. The point is that, in most cases, “a” change or “the” change required will be made because schools know that if they do not do so, the admissions adjudicator can compel that change or put it in themselves. The point of having that stick in the system is to ensure that the schools do what they are supposed to do, rather than making a change that might go some way towards moving the admissions code in the right direction without meeting all the needs required. I am afraid that the measure is a dilution because, in practice, it will mean that schools are more able to avoid the full implementation of their obligations forthwith, when they are found to be operating an admissions code in an unfair fashion.
For that reason, we are very concerned about what the Government are doing in the clause. I respect the Minister’s sincerity, and I understand his desire to reduce bureaucracy, but he has to accept—this has been a real problem in the past—that the system must include the ability for swift action to be taken forthwith to ensure that schools are being fair to all children and parents. He will know that there have been many instances in recent years where that has not been the case and where it has been difficult to get that turned around.
The system has been reformed to get rid of some of the loopholes and wriggle room that schools have had. The Minister is effectively turning the clock back on that. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. We do not believe that what the Government intend to do can be achieved. If they were serious about this, they would not be changing and weakening the role of the adjudicator.
‘which must require the local authority to issue a report once every school year on the effectiveness of in-year coordination of admissions and the willingness of each admission authority to report to the local authority the availability of places’.
Amendment 153, in clause 34, page 33, line 8, after ‘admissions’, insert
‘which must require the local authority to issue a report once every school year on the effectiveness of the Fair Access Protocol arrangements in the local authority area’.
Amendment 154, in clause 34, page 33, line 8, after ‘admissions’, insert
‘which must require the local authority to publish its response to any proposal by an admission authority in its admissions area to change the school’s admissions arrangements including whether the proposal complies with the School Admissions Code and the Equality Act 2010’.
Amendment 150, which seeks to keep the system of reports from local authorities to the adjudicator, attempts to correct another provision in the Bill that tinkers unnecessarily with an existing law that is working well. Subsection (4) changes the requirement that local authorities report annually to the schools adjudicator about compliance with the school admissions code in their area. The reporting duty is not removed altogether, but existing arrangements are removed and a new duty to report as
“required by the code for school admissions”
is created. Will the Minister clarify what his intentions are? It would perhaps be easier to understand what is intended here if, again, we had sight of the imminent new draft school admissions code. Be that as it may, if the Bill becomes law, we will certainly see an extension of the Secretary of State’s power to determine whether and, if so, to whom any report should be made. If the Government are concerned that the existing duty, as prescribed in regulations, is too onerous, the regulations could be simplified without the need to amend primary legislation.
Subsection (4) removes the current certainty of a clear duty in primary legislation for local authorities to report to the independent adjudicator and replaces it with, as in so many parts of the Bill, an extension of ministerial power. Once again, the role of the independent adjudicator is undermined, and one mechanism whereby the school admissions code can be implemented and enforced is removed. It is difficult to see what the Government expect to achieve through a change to a system that is understood and is beginning to work well in many areas. I am sure that the Minister will try to explain what he is trying to achieve. There is no doubt that many changes could be made to streamline and improve the working of the system. However, if he does not wish to see it implemented, why has the Minister gone to the trouble of reforming the code? Without the reports, that objective will be weakened.
Amendments 152 and 153 seek to ensure that the admissions code requires reporting of in-year admissions arrangements and on the operation of the fair access protocol. The explanatory notes to the Bill indicate that the school admissions code will contain the requirements for local authority reports on admissions. Again, without sight of the code, it is difficult to judge its contents and likely effect. That is why the Committee should have seen a draft code before this debate. It is a failure on the Government’s part that they have not managed to give us one, not least because they said in the White Paper that they would.
The amendments would ensure that local authority reports provide information about children who are in need of a school place either because their parents are newly moved to the area or because they have been excluded from a school due to challenging behaviour. Requiring such reports specifically to include reporting of in-year admissions arrangements and the fair access protocol will mean that that information is collected and a check made on children who might be out of school. Does the Minister intend the admissions code to contain the reporting requirements that I have outlined? I was going to ask him when he will publish the consultation on the admissions code, but I think that he will just say “imminently” again. I take it that that means tomorrow.
Mr Gibb indicated dissent.
The Minister shakes his head; it does not mean tomorrow. The definition of “imminent” has changed. It meant within 24 hours the last time. Perhaps he means soon rather than imminently. I am not sure that he is not nodding, anyway.
Where an admission authority decides to make changes, at least eight weeks’ public consultation must be held before formal determination of its admission arrangements, which must happen no later than 15 April in respect of admissions for September the following year. Under current legislation, the local authority, along with its admissions forum, is a statutory consultee for all such arrangements in its area. The Bill removes the statutory requirement to have a forum, which will leave only the local authority in a position to take an overview of what is happening across all admission authorities in the locality. It is vitally important that somebody takes such an overview, as individual schools’ decisions, although reasonable in themselves, can interact so as to produce a situation highly detrimental to some parents or groups of parents and children.
The current schools admissions code—I have it here, although not the one that the Government promised us—makes it clear in paragraphs 4.7 to 4.9 that local authorities are expected to take steps, either by negotiation or by using their powers of reference to the adjudicator, to ensure that all admission authorities in the area comply. The removal of the local authority duty to report to the adjudicator and the removal of the admission forum to provide expert local accountability on the report mean that that important aspect of securing compliance with the admissions code will effectively go by default. Of course, it is possible for the requirement to report on in-year admissions and for the fair access protocol to be written into the revised school admissions code, but it is difficult to comment further until we have seen what was the imminent but is now becoming the soon-to-be-released draft of the code.
Amendment 154 is an attempt to ensure that the standards set for reporting continue. The amendment would require the local authority to ensure that its analysis of and response to the admission arrangements for individual schools is published. That would be of great assistance to parents, as it would prove a ready source of practical advice to help them confirm whether the arrangements for any particular school comply with relevant equality legislation and the code.
Adding the new requirement would have a dual purpose. As well as making it possible to check whether local authorities are properly discharging their primary duty to act as commissioners of high-quality school services on behalf of the local population, it would also provide a ready source of information and practical help to parents, therefore helping create a system in which parents are the main drivers of improvement because they are better informed as consumers.
We have been wading through 138 pages of guidance that affect millions of children. Simplifying the appeal code and the admission code is a large task. We want it to be right, which is why we have not rushed the work. It will be available for consultation imminently.
The hon. Gentleman has his own interpretation of “imminent” based on one precedent, but there are many precedents for the word “imminent”. However, may I give him one assurance? We shall ensure that the Committee has sight of the document before the launch of the consultation, which is the right thing to do.
I agree entirely with the spirit and principles that amendment 150 seeks to address. Local authorities should be reporting to their communities and constituents about admissions arrangements in their area. Under amendment 150, the current reporting arrangements are retained so that local authorities report annually to the schools adjudicator on school admissions.
Let me refer the hon. Gentleman to the policy statement that was circulated to the Committee on 25 March because it answers some of his questions. Paragraph 5 states:
“The intention behind this change is that this reporting requirement on local authorities remains in place, but is focused on key issues for the locality rather than imposing uniformity of reporting to the centre. Local authorities are accountable to local people, and we believe communities should be the primary audience for such reports. In accordance with the Bill provision, the revised draft Code will therefore require local authorities to publish their report locally, rather than to the Adjudicator. The Code also sets out the minimum requirements for the report.”
Section 88Q of the 1998 Act will remain, so admissions authorities of maintained schools and academies continue to be required to provide relevant information requested by local authorities.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s question about what will be required in the report, paragraph 10 of the policy document sets it out:
“Local Authorities must produce an annual report on admissions for all the schools in their area for which they coordinate admissions, to be published locally by 30 June following the admissions round. The report must cover as a minimum;
(a) information about how admission arrangements in the area of the local authority serve the interests of looked after children, children with disabilities and children with special educational needs and details of where problems have arisen;
(b) their assessment of the effectiveness of fair access protocols and coordination in their area, including how many children were admitted to each school under them;
(c) the number and percentage of lodged and upheld parental appeals; and
(d), any arising issues - such as objections to the Schools Adjudicator - affecting admissions for the newly-determined year.”
I think that I have fully answered the hon. Gentleman’s question. As a Government we have been clear—we were clear even before the election—that our schools and local authorities were simply too burdened with forms, paperwork and targets. Their focus was distracted away from their core purpose of educating young people.
We agreed with Opposition Members that having local authorities produce a report on admissions arrangements in their areas, especially on how it supports our most vulnerable groups, is important local information for local people. Where we disagree, and this amendment highlights that, is that we believe we should continue to force every local authority to report centrally—in this case to the office of the schools adjudicator. The report will be much more effective as a local accountability tool, enabling parents to see and comment on the service that they are being given.
Amendments 152 to 154 would place great detail in primary legislation. They would require every local authority to report on the effectiveness of fair access protocols and the in-year co-ordination of admissions in their area, and to publish their response to any proposed change of admissions arrangements for a school in their area, including whether it complies with the school admissions code and the Equality Act 2010.
We made the commitment in the White Paper to simplify the school admissions code. We will shortly be consulting on the revised code and making it available to the Committee. Clause 34 provides that the requirements in relation to local authority reports will be set out in the code.
Given that I have circulated the quality statement and quoted from it in the Committee, and have answered the hon. Gentleman’s questions, I would ask him to withdraw the amendment.
I sympathise with the Minister. I understand that if one is doing a piece of work on revising a code, it should be done properly, but that was not what he said in the White Paper. The point I am making is that he said in the White Paper that he would produce the draft code well before now. Even by the normal standards of vague language, I think that “early in the year” would require it to be produced in at least January or February. There would have been plenty of time for the Committee to consider it, had the Government stuck to their timetable. I shall say no more about that, but I look for its imminent arrival—I hope it is sooner rather than later.
I shall not press the amendment to a vote, but I will want to say something on clause stand part, if the opportunity arises, Mr Williams. I believe that by resisting amendment 150, accountability will be reduced and an opportunity to monitor admissions in the system properly will be lost. However, at this point, given the need for us to make progress, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
The Opposition are extremely concerned about this clause. I have tried to make that as obvious as possible to the Committee, and I believe that Members have got the message. Perhaps the Government do not realise the potential damage that the clause will do to fair admissions. That is the charitable position for the Opposition to take, and, as a charitable person, that is the position that I am taking. I believe that Ministers are sincere in what they say about fair admissions, but perhaps they cannot see that the outcome of what they propose could, at the very least, result in a dilution of fair admissions across the country.
If someone were being uncharitable, they would say that the Government deliberately wanted to give schools more wriggle room to be able to avoid carrying out fair admissions. I genuinely do not think that that is their intention, but somewhere along the line, some of the Government’s colleagues, Back Benchers, peers or whoever have to wake up to the potential damage that will be done by clause 34 and start scrutinising their Government’s proposals a bit, rather than just nodding them through.
I have appealed previously to Liberal Democrat colleagues, and I praise Back-Bench Conservative Members who have participated in the Bill, some more than others. They have made an attempt to participate and ask appropriate questions from time to time. Whatever happens to the vote on clause stand part, I would urge them to look at the clause again thoroughly and consider its implications, because problems will develop in their areas, too. The admissions system will be diluted in schools in every constituency that is affected by the Bill, but it will be too late. It will be impossible to help parents and constituents who come along to our surgeries because the power will no longer be there to compel schools effectively to adhere to the code.
We are reading a great deal about admissions and the promised code of practice in the press. We read in one press story that free schools will be able to admit the children of those involved in their establishment, which is an interesting back-door way of gaining admission to a school: one just has to join the committee that sets it up and be guaranteed a place for their child. Another story at the weekend detailed the proposal to reduce the use of a lottery to allocate school places. I ask the Minister again to tell the Committee, which should have first sight of such proposals, whether that is the Government’s policy. Is that a bit of the code they have leaked to The Daily Telegraph but which we have not seen yet in Committee, saying that lotteries may be used only by individual schools while local authorities will be banned from using them? I am interested in the Minister’s response.
I am not sure that the Government have come fully clean on the implications of their proposals for school admissions. Everything we hear of through the press—second-hand information, admittedly—seems designed to undermine fair admissions. The Government say that their aim will be to maintain fairness as the code’s guiding principle, but the clause puts that aim to the test.
I want to hear the Minister’s response and what assurances he can give about the concerns expressed by people such as the those at the Sutton Trust and experts such as Chris Waterman, who has published a series of pamphlets on the dodgy practices that primary schools, in particular those that are their own admission authorities, have employed to ensure that their intake gives them a high place in the performance tables. The opportunity for such practices to continue or to be brought back ought not to be increased by the provisions of the clause.
The clause makes three important changes in respect of admissions. First, it removes the ability of the adjudicator to modify any arrangements he finds to be in breach of the law by repealing section 88J of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. It does not, as some have tried to claim through the press, weaken admission arrangements. The adjudicator may still make decisions binding on all parties and exercise his discretion where he finds issues other than the specific objection to be unlawful.
Our only major change is to place the responsibility to make admission arrangements compliant with the code back with the admission authorities. Admission authorities must act on the adjudicator’s decision to uphold a complaint, but it is up to them to decide how they should change the arrangements to make them lawful. We are committed to strengthening the powers of parents and communities and to reforming how admissions work so that more children, especially those from low-income families, can have more opportunities and not fewer.
Secondly, we are removing the requirement on local authorities to report to the school’s adjudicator on admissions in their area. They will still be required to produce and publish a report, but to their local communities instead, ensuring that those who manage and deliver local services report to those who should benefit from the services.
As the Committee will have seen from the policy statement, the revised code will specify some important elements of those reports, as we believe it right that special educational needs and looked-after children should form at least part of every local authority report. Beyond that, however, it will be for each local authority to decide what it should report. The adjudicator may, if he so wishes, do what everyone else does and download the reports from the internet.
Thirdly, the clause removes the duty on local authorities in England to establish admission forums. I do not advocate their abolition but, rather, their adoption only if that is the right local solution. Local authorities and the communities they serve must be allowed to make their own decisions on what systems will work for them. It is disproportionate and bureaucratic for the legislation to set out such requirements.
Removing forums does not mean a bad deal for vulnerable children. We shall still require, through the code, all local authorities to create a fair-access protocol, and we will require all schools, including academies under the Bill, to participate. The clause is a small but important addition to our changes, which reduce bureaucracy, increase accountability and ensure that parents can have increasing confidence in the system.
As I have said, we will be publishing the draft admissions code and the revised draft appeals code soon, and we will send those codes to members of the Committee before they go out for consultation. With those assurances, I support the clause to stand part of the Bill.
It is pretty deplorable that we have to rely on reports from The Daily Telegraph to know what is in the draft admissions code. I am afraid that is typical of the Government and their news management strategy, despite protestations that they are not interested in spin. It is an absolute disgrace that although we do not get sight of the draft admissions code, the Government use the pages of The Daily Telegraph to run those stories.
As the Minister confirmed, the clause weakens the role of the school adjudicator in two important ways, but particularly in the way outlined earlier during discussions on amendment 149. I therefore ask my hon. Friends to oppose the clause.