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School Selection

Oral Answers to Questions — Education and Skills – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 9th February 2006.

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Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle 10:30 am, 9th February 2006

How many schools interview parents as part of the selection process for pupils.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State (Schools and 14-19 Learners), Department for Education and Skills

We do not survey school admission arrangements nationally. However, from a recent London survey we know that three schools have interviewing as part of their admission arrangements—the London Oratory school in Hammersmith and Fulham, and St. Joseph's college and St. Coloma convent school in Croydon. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we will legislate to end that practice.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

It only took my question to force that change in Government policy, so I shall try again. My friend Jeff Ennis has raised the issue of admissions forums. If, for example, a school has a disproportionate number of children on free school meals, how would the admissions forum decide whether to refer the matter to the adjudicator?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State (Schools and 14-19 Learners), Department for Education and Skills

My hon. Friend is in good company in pushing for the end of interviewing. In 2003, the Church of England and the Catholic Church supported our guidance in the code of practice to end interviewing, and they have pushed us to take legislative action—I know that he likes to associate himself with such allies. We will enable admissions forums, which involve schools, local authorities and significant parts of the community, to determine whether schools are behaving in line with the new code of practice by, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, welcoming all pupils and delivering fair access. Where they determine that that is not the case, they will have a new power to report schools to the adjudicator, which will considerably strengthen the current position.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I happen to know the London Oratory quite well. It has always interviewed parents, it is a beacon school, and it involves a genuine social and academic mix of pupils. Why should that school, which has fought a successful court case to protect its ethos, be told by Government diktat that it should no longer interview parents? Is it fair that people who have enjoyed the services of an excellent school are pulling up the ladder behind them?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State (Schools and 14-19 Learners), Department for Education and Skills

I repeat that the good practice has not been determined by this Government alone. The Catholic Church and the Church of England asked us to act, because, like us, they recognise that we need fair, objective and transparent admissions arrangements. There is considerable doubt whether interviewing fulfils those criteria so, along with the Churches, we believe that the time is right to move away from that practice and to make the situation clear in legislation.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

On the question of interviews, and whether cost is a barrier to take-up, will my right hon. Friend examine admissions policies in relation to informal methods of selection—for example, when schools insist on a particular type of uniform, which must be purchased from a particular expensive outlet—which have been highlighted in recent reports? The media recently highlighted a case in which a headmaster insisted on children wearing a particular sports outfit manufactured by Nike, which is the most expensive in the range.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State (Schools and 14-19 Learners), Department for Education and Skills

I agree with my hon. Friend that such restrictions on uniform are unacceptable. I am a strong proponent of school uniform, which benefits schools, but we have made it clear—we will reinforce this point in guidance—that uniform should not be disproportionately expensive and that it should not be confined to certain suppliers. School uniform is useful in developing the right attitudes within a school, but it should not be used to discriminate in deciding who gets into a school.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

The real issue is not a school's intake, but what happens within a school. Does the Minister agree that setting children in ability groups—selection within a school—enables the curriculum to be tailored to each child's ability and aptitude, with resulting higher standards? If she agrees, why is it that 60 per cent. of lessons still take place in mixed-ability classes, the proportion of mixed-ability teaching is rising not falling, and half of all English lessons are still taught in mixed-ability classes?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State (Schools and 14-19 Learners), Department for Education and Skills

I do accept the significance of setting—that is why I am pleased that following the action that we have taken over the past eight years, more children are taught in set classes than previously. There are two challenges for the approach that the hon. Gentleman takes. First, he has to begin to square his supposed commitment to trusting the professionalism—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. It is not for the Minister to talk about the commitment of a political party. Will she please take her seat? I have told her before—this is becoming quite a regular thing with the Minister. It is the Minister's duty to tell us about her stewardship of her portfolio.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State (Schools and 14-19 Learners), Department for Education and Skills

I apologise, Mr. Speaker.

I believe that our approach to setting should not suggest that Whitehall writes the timetables of schools across the country, but trust in the professional judgment of head teachers, alongside the guidance that it is possible for us as a Government to provide, as we have done and will continue to do. I also believe that the time is right, as we spelled out in the White Paper, to move beyond simply saying that there is benefit in setting pupils within groups, and reach a position whereby we are more able to identify the individual needs of pupils, provide catch-ups where they are falling behind and stretch them more effectively where they have particular gifts and talents. That is why we have accentuated, and will invest in, further personalised learning in our schools.