School Admissions Code

Committee of Public Accounts – in the House of Commons at 9:36 pm on 10th October 2016.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Heather Wheeler.)

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Conservative, Wimbledon 9:49 pm, 10th October 2016

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for selecting me to speak on this matter this evening, some 13 months after I first raised it. Although the issues I intend to raise affect only a relatively small number of children, if they were resolved positively or we heard a positive response from the Minister tonight, it would undoubtedly improve the life chances of thousands of children in this country every year.

The definition of a summer-born child is one who is born between 1 April and 31 August. The key point at issue is that children must enter education on the September after their fifth birthday. Although many children are ready to do so, some are not. While no two summer-born or premature children have exactly the same needs, they face many common challenges: shortened attention span, delayed motor development, underdeveloped emotional maturity, smaller physical stature and ongoing medical issues. A wealth of academic research shows that summer-born children as a group lag significantly behind their older peers. Empirically and instinctively, it is easy to see why that is the case. With a gap of almost a year between the youngest and the oldest in a school year, it is unsurprising that the development of the youngest can be held back significantly.

The Minister will know that in 2014, his Department produced a study that showed that at the end of the first year in school, two thirds of summer-born children failed to meet the minimum standards in reading, writing, speaking, maths and other developmental skills. That compares with less than a third of those born between September and December.

Children who are the youngest in the year are disproportionately likely to report bullying and lower levels of self-confidence, and their overall satisfaction at school is significantly reduced. There has also been a higher incidence of diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism among summer-born children. Most of the experts I have met believe that most of those diagnoses are the result of the child struggling from being placed in school too soon, being comparatively immature and struggling developmentally, rather than their suffering from the condition.

Almost exactly a year ago, but somewhat later at night, I was lucky enough to hold a debate on exactly the same subject, which I know the Minister will remember. I made three requests of him with regard to the admissions code. First, although I accept that there is no statutory barrier to a child being admitted outside their normal cohort, there is, as he knows, no right for the parents to insist or appeal. Secondly, several local authorities were insisting that although a child’s entry could be delayed, they would have to join year 1 and miss reception. Equally, some authorities said that although a child could delay entry by a year throughout their primary education, at secondary school level they would force the child to join their non-delayed cohort. The child would therefore start secondary education having missed a year of education. Finally, he will remember that I brought up the issue of prematurity in the context of summer-born children.

Most local authorities now allow summer-born children to start school a year later. However, many still demand a very high level of expert evidence for doing so. That is a barrier that many parents simply cannot pass. Most summer-born children are three and a half when their parents have to start applying for schools and decide when they should enter. That does not give much time for the experts, however skilled, to gauge a child’s strengths and needs. At that stage, the parents, who have assessed the child from birth, are probably in a better position to assess and make a decision about what is best for their child. At that early stage of a child’s life, parents have a real understanding of the abilities of their child and can judge whether they need extra time to develop.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

My hon. Friend is making a strong case, which I firmly support. The Minister announced last year his intention to amend the school admissions code. Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that nothing has happened since? I have had various constituents chasing me, and I chased the Minister by writing to him on 6 July. Only last week I received a reply from Lord Nash, stating that the Department is giving the matter careful consideration and will announce its plans shortly. Is it not just taking too long? Another year of children starting school in September has been missed.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Conservative, Wimbledon

I had hoped that progress might have been better, but it would be unfair on my hon. Friend the Minister to say that nothing has happened. He has met me on several occasions and pushed the case.

My hon. Friend could almost have been reading my speech, because I was about to remind the Minister of the issues that I raised last year, which I wish to raise with him again this evening. First, following that debate, he wrote a helpful letter to local authorities. The only problem is that a postcode lottery has developed. Some local authorities have been receptive to his letter, have taken the point that there is going to be a consultation, and have therefore looked to apply flexibility to when a child should enter school. That has been very good news for a number of parents. Unfortunately, many other authorities have said, “Well, that is just a letter from the Minister, and a consultation may happen at some stage in the future,” but have taken absolutely no notice. In the past two days I have had emails flooding in from people across the country sharing radically different experiences.

Secondly, as my hon. Friend Tim Loughton said, we need the timetable for the changes to the code. That would lead to the end of the postcode lottery, but more importantly it would allow parents some certainty in planning their child’s future.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

The hon. Gentleman brought this subject to Westminster Hall a short time ago, and I supported him then and do so again tonight. We are all concerned about the angst of parents and pupils, and the educationalists—the teachers themselves—want to do away with the rigidity in the system and bring flexibility. Is that not what the Minister should do after tonight—bring about flexibility for everyone?

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Conservative, Wimbledon

I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking part in the debate this time last year, and I am grateful to him for being here again this evening. What he describes is indeed what I want, and I think it is what the Minister wants. We are here to gently push the Minister slightly further in the right direction, slightly faster.

My third point is that, as the Minister will know, one real problem is that when local authorities agree to a child’s entry being delayed, they do not all allow that child to remain with the same cohort through their whole educational life.

Finally, I want to make the case once more that in the consultation the Minister should consider using a premature child’s due date for admissions rather than the date on which they were born. That would be a simple change but would change many children’s lives.

Following last year’s debate, the Minister helpfully wrote to local authorities up and down the country setting out the Government’s intention to amend the school admissions code to provide some more flexibility, which we would all like to see. Following that letter, a number of authorities, including Wandsworth, Cumbria, Liverpool, Yorkshire, Devon and even my own local authority of Merton, have been much more generous in allowing parents to choose when their child should start school. That has been a huge relief for parents and made a difference to a number of children, and I thank the Minister on their behalf. A parent from Hertfordshire wrote to me explaining that their local authority had made some quick and simple changes to admissions, which had allowed their premature child to start a year later.

I know from emails sent to me over the past month, however, that parents up and down the country are still experiencing a problem, as many local authorities are reluctant to change their policy until they are forced to do so by the Minister and the Department, and we see the change to the code. That is leading to the postcode lottery I described earlier, whereby whether someone’s child has the opportunity to reach their full potential depends on where someone lives—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—(Heather Wheeler.)

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Conservative, Wimbledon 10:00 pm, 10th October 2016

I have heard examples of councils refusing to change their policy, or of children being allowed to start a year later but then being forced to skip year 7 in secondary school. I have seen local authorities still continue to place a huge burden of proof on parents in order to authorise their child starting a year later. As the Minister will know, academies operate their own admissions policy; although many have bought into the spirit of his letter, many also operate a policy that contributes to that postcode lottery.

Inevitably, the choice of school and of whether to delay entry are stressful for parents, especially those who see the problem of developmental delay for their children and wish to do the best for them. I urge the Minister to act as quickly as possible to provide some certainty to parents of summer-born children, particularly as many people will be about to make applications for next year. Those parents are weighing up whether to enter their children for reception now or to wait. That is a very difficult decision for parents, so I ask the Government to look at bringing forward the consultation rather more quickly.

The Minister will know that many local authorities will not give certainty to a child’s education even if they agree to a delay. It is absolutely key that he provides that certainty, particularly as some local authorities grant a delay but then force a child to enter year 1 rather than reception, or to go to year 8 at the end of year 6, rather than year 7. Again, if he could indicate that he intends to bring forward consultation on the code, that would be very helpful.

Finally, it is clear to me—I have made this case before—that a premature child’s due date should be used for admissions, rather than their birth date. Since my last Adjournment debate on this topic, a team at the University of Bristol has published research that looked at school exam and test results for children born prematurely, from key stage 1 all the way through to GCSEs. The team found that prematurity impacts on educational performance, and the effect is most dramatic in the early years. For those who are born extremely prematurely and fall into the wrong year group the gaps in attainment are even more pronounced.

Many premature children and their parents face challenges and difficulties throughout their lives. The simple change I am asking for could make a massive difference to those children’s educational attainment. The Minister will know that that change is fully supported by Bliss, a fantastic charity that has been working on this issue for a while. I thank Bliss for its campaign, and I hope the Minister will listen to Bliss tonight.

This is the second time that I have been grateful for the opportunity to raise these matters in the House. I think the problems are similar to those I raised last year. I am grateful for the letter the Minister wrote, but am hopeful that he will be able now to confirm the timetable, and say that the consultation will start soon and that he is prepared to accept these changes to the admissions code. I urge him to spell out how, in the interim, he intends to make sure that the postcode lottery resulting from his first letter can be done away with, so that parents making decisions now will have some certainty.

If we are successful tonight and these changes go ahead, we will improve the lives of thousands of children. They will be happier, more confident, more academically successful and more likely to reach their full potential.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Department for Education) 10:04 pm, 10th October 2016

Thank you, Mr Bercow—Mr Speaker, rather; I beg your pardon. I am still recovering from Question Time earlier today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Stephen Hammond on securing this debate on the admission of summer-born children, and pay tribute to him for leading the campaign to ensure that summer-born children and those born prematurely have the best and most appropriate start to their education. Yet again, he made a compelling case. I welcome this opportunity to explain the Government’s position, and to provide an update on next steps. I share his concerns about this issue, and would like to reassure him that we have been considering how we can take forward the changes announced last year to summer-born children’s entry to school.

As my hon. Friend is aware, admission authorities must provide for the admission of all children in the September following their fourth birthday. We know that most parents are happy for their children to go to school at this point, confident that they are ready for the classroom. Parents are, however, not obliged to send their child to school until they reach compulsory school age, which is the start of the term after their fifth birthday or, to be precise, the prescribed day after they turn five. Where parents feel their child is not ready to start school before compulsory school age, there are flexibilities in the system that enable them to defer the date on which their child is admitted to school until later in the reception year, or to arrange for them to attend on a part-time basis until they reach compulsory school age.

Where parents of a summer-born child want their child to start school at the age of five, as the law enables them to, their child will start school at the point when other children in their age group are moving up from the reception class to year 1. Like my hon. Friend, many parents have concerns, which I share, that starting formal schooling in year 1 and missing the essential teaching that takes place in the reception class may not be right for their child. Where parents would like their child to start school in the reception class at the age of five, they must currently make a request for them to be admitted out of their normal year group. The admissions code requires the admission authority to make decisions on such requests based on the circumstances of the case.

We have already made improvements to support summer-born children. In December 2014, the Government strengthened the code to make it clear that all decisions must be made in the child’s best interests. In making that decision, the admission authority is required to take into account the views of the headteacher of the school concerned, as they are best placed to advise on which age group at their school the child is best suited to. The code also makes it clear that admission authorities must take into account the wishes of parents, alongside other information relating to the child’s development—any relevant medical history and, in the case of premature children, whether they would have fallen into the lower age group if born at the expected time.

The Government amended the code and revised the non-statutory guidance on the admission of summer-born children to ensure transparency for parents and the best outcomes for children. The new code and guidance provide more information for both admission authorities and parents on how the process should work, emphasising that decisions should be made in the best interests of the child.

Unfortunately, in spite of that change to the code, parents and admission authorities still occasionally fail to agree on what is in the best interest of the child. I have been concerned for some time about the number of cases in which it appears that children are still being admitted to year 1 against the wishes of their parents. As a consequence, these pupils are missing out on the essential early teaching of reading and arithmetic that takes place in the reception class. There are also concerns that some children who are admitted outside their normal year group are later expected to miss a year and move up, against their parents’ wishes, to join the other children of the same age range, as my hon. Friend pointed out.

Another issue, which my hon. Friend raised this time last year, is the admission of children who were born prematurely in the summer term. I agree that the potential problems that may be experienced by some summer-born children would probably be more likely for a premature child, born in the summer, whose expected date of birth was September or later. As my hon. Friend is aware, last September we announced our intention of making a further amendment to the admissions code to ensure that summer-born children could be admitted to reception at the age of five, if that was what their parents wished, and to ensure that those children were able to remain with that cohort as they progressed through school.

We made this announcement last year so that schools and local authorities were aware of the policy direction when making decisions on the cases before them. It is very welcome that some local authorities have now changed their policies on deferring entry to school and have become more flexible in agreeing to parental requests, in line with the policy intention explicitly set out in my open letter of 8 September last year to parents and local authorities. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the admission of summer-born children continues to be a problem in some parts of the country. We need to do more to help parents, particularly those with genuine concerns about their child’s readiness for school.

Since our announcement last year, I know many parents throughout the country have been waiting for the change to come into force. I understand that it is frustrating, but it is important that we take the time to consider carefully how best to implement the change, and how the new arrangements will be put in place. We will support summer children in the best way we can, but it is important that we also consider the wider impact of any policy changes. It would clearly not be right for every summer-born child to delay starting school until they are five, as many will be ready to take on the challenges of formal schooling earlier. In developing this policy, we want to make sure that parents have the information that they need to make informed decisions about their child’s education. We also need to ensure that parents do not use the flexibilities as a mechanism by which to gain an unfair advantage in the admissions system by applying for a place in the reception class of their preferred school for when their child is four, and again for when their child is five. Furthermore, while we want to provide admissions flexibility where it is most needed, we also want to ensure that we do not create unintended consequences for the early years sector.

We have been considering all these issues carefully as we develop the policy. In particular, we have carried out work on the likely cost of full implementation. First indications show that the costs are high. These are, however, based on a limited amount of information on why parents might choose to defer their summer-born child’s admission to school. This is why we are starting to collect more information and data before making a decision on how to roll out any changes. I know my hon. Friend has a particular concern about the problems faced by some premature children and their readiness for school. I hope I can provide some reassurance that we will also be considering how best to support those children in any future changes.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue today. I hope he is reassured to know that we have been driving this policy forward and ensuring the detailed work is being carried out on the arrangements we might put in place to support parents of summer-born children.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Conservative, Wimbledon

Much of what the Minister has said is very helpful in adding detail. I am particularly interested in the cost analysis. My understanding is that headteachers think that while there would be a cost for movement between years, the overall cost would not be particularly excessive. I shall look at the analysis with interest. He says he is driving the policy forward. Can he give some indication of when he expects to either have the consultation or change the code?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Department for Education)

We want to make sure that we have done all the research necessary to determine the extent to which parents will take advantage of new flexibilities. Some local authorities have looked seriously at the letter I sent them and are being very flexible in their approach to the parents of summer-born children. We will look to see what comes out of that experience in determining the likely take-up of those flexibilities by parents of summer-born children, which will then drive the analysis of the costs. The costs may well be neutral to a school, but may not necessarily be neutral to the system as a whole, if children stay in early years provision for longer than they would otherwise have done and therefore spend an extra year in the education system.

We are carefully considering the issues and collecting data on them, which will drive how we determine this policy. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that we are driving policy forward and ensuring that the detailed work is being carried out on the arrangements that we might put in place to support parents of summer-born children and to ensure that they do not feel pressured to send their children to school before they are ready.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.