School Admissions Code

Part of Committee of Public Accounts – in the House of Commons at 10:04 pm on 10th October 2016.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (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.