Schools Adjudicator

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:55 pm on 28th October 2008.

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Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, PPS (Rt Hon Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State), Department for Transport 11:55 pm, 28th October 2008

I congratulate Mr. Gauke on securing this debate, although he probably did not envisage that it would occur quite so late at night. I appreciate that he is a strong advocate of his constituents' interests, and works hard to ensure that their views are heard. I note that my hon. Friend Claire Ward is also in her place at this late hour. As a Whip, she is precluded from speaking about these issues in the House, but I know that she has had discussions and been in correspondence with Ministers in the Department for Children, Schools and Families on this issue.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the importance of fair access to the school system, and the key role that the school admissions code, and associated regulations, play in achieving that. The schools adjudicators have a crucial responsibility towards the ultimate aim of fair access for all children. Their role, in the admissions context, is both to enforce the mandatory provisions of the code and to consider objections from those, including parents, who consider that the arrangements might be disadvantaging particular groups in the community. It is therefore necessary and, indeed, right that they are truly independent. As the hon. Gentleman said, their rulings are final and cannot be overturned by political whim or public pressure. In order for them to act as the enforcers of the code, which was put in place by Parliament, that is how it must be.

To give a flavour of their work, in 2007-08, 108 objections were received by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator from parents about admission arrangements. Of these, 90 were upheld or partially upheld. Nineteen were received from schools, of which nine were fully upheld or partially upheld. There are proposals to extend the role of the schools adjudicators in the Education and Skills Bill, so that they can consider arrangements that they think may be unlawful, however they come to their attention, rather than through a specific referral. In that way, we will be able to drive out poor practice in admissions arrangements, and ensure that every school place is awarded based on lawful criteria.

We will also place a duty on local authorities to report annually to the chief schools adjudicator on the fairness, legality and effectiveness of the admission arrangements in their area. In that way, the admissions system will be more closely monitored to ensure that it moves closer to our goal of fair access. We are also clear that we should continue improving the system to be as fair and transparent as possible.

We acknowledge that not every parent receives their first preference of school. However, in the 2008 secondary admissions round, 82 per cent. of parents received their first preference school and 94 per cent. received their first, second or third preference. According to the 2008 survey of parents in England, conducted by GFK Social Research, 78 per cent. of parents felt that the school place their child received was ideal, rather than the best school available under the circumstances. We have recently completed a public consultation on improvements to the school admissions code, and are currently analysing responses. I am pleased to note that many parents have taken part in this consultation. Some 29 per cent. of respondents were parents, and they formed the biggest group of respondents. We will respond publicly to the consultation in due course.

On the issue of partial selection, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the law permits any school with a specialism in one of the prescribed subjects to give priority to a maximum of 10 per cent. of pupils on the basis of their aptitude for that subject. Schools that had arrangements in place in 1997 for the selection of some of their pupils by aptitude can keep those arrangements in place, provided they do not increase the proportion of pupils selected under those arrangements. No other new forms of selection by aptitude can now be introduced. As the hon. Gentleman is also aware, we strongly oppose any new selection by academic ability. There are 164 grammar schools still in existence, for which different arrangements apply. Only a small number of schools operated a partial selection system at the start of the 1997-98 academic year. They may continue to select a proportion of their pupils on the basis of high academic ability.

Let me turn to the sibling rule. Where there is a high proportion of selection by ability or aptitude, the number of non-selective places is limited. Where such a school also gives priority for its non-selective places to children on the basis that they have an older sibling at the school, the number of non-selective places available to other children is reduced even further. Assuming that the younger siblings of children who passed a test of ability or aptitude would also be likely to pass such a test, we believe that the use of the sibling criterion in these schools can lead to a disproportionately high number of children being admitted who would have passed the selection test. The result is that a much reduced number of non-selective places are available for children from other families who would not have passed the selection test.

That is why the school admissions code advises partially selective schools proposing to give priority to siblings that they should ensure that their admission arrangements as a whole do not exclude other families living nearer the school. However, the code does not prevent schools from giving priority to siblings of children at the school, but simply advises of the possible effects of doing so. It is for the independent schools adjudicator to decide on receipt of an objection whether the use of the criterion is fair in the local context.

In 2007-08, the Office of the Schools Adjudicator received 40 objections about the use of the sibling rule, of which 38 were upheld or partially upheld. Twelve were from parents with a child already in the relevant school, 18 were from parents whose children were not yet in the school and 10 were from local authorities. However, we recognised in the code that some parents would have a reasonable expectation that their younger children could attend the same school as their older child. That is why we included the transitional arrangement to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which effectively prevents the adjudicator from upholding an objection to the sibling criterion at one of those schools as long as the older child was on roll at the school before the beginning of the 2008 school year.

Let me move on to the situation in Watford. It would not be right for me to discuss that individual case in great detail, and I do not think that it is appropriate for me to comment on the adjudicator's judgment. My understanding from what the hon. Gentleman has said and from other discussions that I have had is that parents feel aggrieved because my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners agreed at a public meeting in 2006 that parents' reasonable expectations about admission arrangements should not be changed midway through the process.

As far as I am aware, my hon. Friend made no mention of the rather unusual arrangement for the cross-sibling rule at the meeting simply because he was not aware of it. I understand that he gave an undertaking, in all good faith, that parents who had children already at the school and therefore had a reasonable expectation that their younger children would follow should not be disadvantaged. He delivered on that commitment in the transitional arrangement to which I referred earlier.

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