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Education Bill

– in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 14th May 2002.

Alert me about debates like this

House again in Committee.

Photo of Baroness David Baroness David Labour

moved Amendment No. 174:

Before Clause 44, insert the following new clause—

"INTERPRETATION OF CHAPTER 3

"Admission" in this Chapter refers to the admission by any potential pupil applying to enter any school in the area of the local education authority, especially those living in the area."

Photo of Baroness David Baroness David Labour

The purpose of this amendment is to confirm that the LEA is responsible for providing a place for every child in its area. One of the most important functions of the LEA is to secure sufficient schools to provide appropriate education to meet the age, aptitude, ability and special educational needs of pupils of the area. The purpose of this amendment is to ask the Government to confirm that the Bill does not threaten that historic responsibility. If children are not in school, their education and development will be affected and they will be at risk of getting a criminal record.

There are two areas of concern: children out of school through exclusion, and children of asylum seekers. First, I shall speak to the subject of children out of school. LEAs have a duty, from September 2002, to provide full-time education for children out of school. Pupil referral units are classified as schools. There is therefore a fear that there will be increased pressure on LEAs to provide for children at PRUs rather than to find the resources to fund education for these children at mainstream schools. Will the Government give an assurance that they are committed to maximising the number of children who are educated in mainstream schools?

Secondly, as the Government have today apparently announced the location of a number of accommodation centres, this seems a particularly appropriate time to talk about the children of asylum seekers. The Government are proposing as part of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill to exclude and segregate asylum seekers and their dependants from the community. Indeed, Clause 30(1) of that Bill states that asylum seekers and their children who are resident in accommodation centres,

"shall not be treated as part of the population".

The NUT has stated that it,

"believes that segregating asylum-seeking children from children in mainstream schools contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Asylum-seeking children are children first and asylum seekers second. Their educational rights should be vigorously protected irrespective of immigration status. Education within the confines of an accommodation centre cannot equal the range of provision within a school or education authority".

The Government's education proposals seriously undermine asylum-seeking children's right to a decent education by segregating them from other children in mainstream schools. Children in mainstream schools are the key to the rapid rehabilitation of asylum-seeking children, many of whom will be traumatised by their experience of feeling persecuted or suffering torture. Although issues in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill will clearly have to wait until the Bill reaches your Lordships' House, the Government may wish to feel the current strength of feeling about the proposals. I am very interested to discover the attitude of the rather few noble Lords in the Chamber at the moment to the status of asylum-seeking children. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat

We would like the concept of admission in the amendment to be further explained. As for the specific issue of asylum seekers, although the issue is certainly raised in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, it is not, as I understand it, raised in this Bill. However, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady David, that it is quite shocking that we are not seeking to integrate these people into our school system. Their appeals may be pending, but many of them will be staying on in this country. It is vital that, for the time that they are in this country, we make them welcome and treat them in exactly the same way as we treat our own citizens. We should do our best to integrate them happily into our society. I thoroughly agree with the remarks made by the noble Baroness.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

I am grateful to my noble friend Lady David for referring to locality issues. We recognise the need for children to be educated in a locality that suits them. However, we also recognise that that is not necessarily within the local education authority area. Parents often live in one local education authority area but have a preference for a school in another area, and sometimes even for the nearest school which may be in a neighbouring authority's area. Therefore, applications to a local education authority's schools from parents living outside that area must be considered alongside those of parents living within that area. As the Committee will be aware, that is particularly the case in areas such as London.

I accept what my noble friend is saying about the need to ensure that children can be educated in mainstream education and to make sure that children who are excluded from school, for example, continue to be educated properly. We are pleased to have a commitment to ensure that from September 2002 all children excluded from school permanently will receive full-time education. That will either be in pupil referral units or in other schools.

The issue of asylum children is not included in the Bill but is an area that we have to examine carefully. As that is not an area of legislation with which I am dealing, I am reluctant to go into the detail of that. However, I shall make a couple of general remarks. We need to ensure that children receive education within a system that makes sense. We shall seek to ensure that children who arrive in this country are able to receive education, bearing in mind the circumstances in which they arrive and their own particular needs. Within the Department for Education and Skills we are looking closely at how we take that forward. However, as I say, I do not wish to discuss the detail of the relevant legislation as I cannot give the Committee an accurate picture.

Photo of Lord Jones Lord Jones Labour

May I tempt my noble friend the Minister to consider giving a little more detail in order that we may consider the legislation which she proposes?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

The amendment we are discussing refers to,

"the admission by any potential pupil applying to enter any school in the area of the local education authority, especially those living in the area".

I believe that I have responded to the amendment. We have a long history of parents choosing schools across local education authority boundaries, not least in our cities, as they often live close to a school which is in a neighbouring authority's area. The admissions framework which is already in place, which will be strengthened by the measures in the Bill, is designed to ensure that parental preference is met to the maximum possible extent. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative 8:45 pm, 14th May 2002

I ask a question following on from the noble Lord, Lord Jones. I am not sure whether it is necessary to have legislation for the Government to educate asylum seekers' children in four separate establishments. Is it possible for the Secretary of State to do that without legislation? If it requires legislation, it seems to me that there is a vehicle before the Chamber—this Bill—that could deal with that provision. From what the noble Baronesses, Lady David and Lady Sharp, said, I suspect that the Committee would like to debate the policy and the intention of corralling asylum seekers' children in four areas and not allowing them—I shall not use the word "swamp"—to overwhelm LEA schools in other areas where they may initially reside.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

If the noble Baroness would like to table an appropriate amendment to the Bill, I should be happy to debate those issues. My purpose this evening is to debate the issues that are laid before me. My understanding of the amendment we are discussing is that it concerns children who are being educated in our mainstream schools. I am therefore not able to give the detail that I should be happy to give on the asylum issue. I should be reluctant to mislead the Committee by referring to a matter on which I do not have appropriate information. However, I should be more than happy to debate that matter at an appropriate moment. I hope that that reassurance will satisfy the noble Baroness.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

I believe that the noble Baroness misunderstands me. I am not advocating an amendment to the Bill; nor am I advocating necessarily that the Bill should refer to the matter we are discussing. I simply asked whether legislation was needed in order for the Secretary of State to do what we understand the Secretary of State wants to do; that is, to have concentrated areas—so far, four areas have been designated—where these young people will be educated. I am not sure whether that can be done without legislation. If so, it is not appropriate for me to proceed further. If it requires legislation, it seems to me that there is a Bill before the Chamber which could cope with that.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

I do not know the answer to that matter, but I am happy to find it out for the noble Baroness. However, I am sure that she appreciates that I am reluctant to speculate on that matter for all the right reasons.

Photo of Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Conservative

I have entered the debate late. However, I wish to ask a question of the Minister. My daughter has been teaching in a school with a large ethnic mix in east London and has faced considerable problems, the largest of which is that there are no referral units for disturbed children. She has two problems: first, a large number of children in her class who speak different languages; and, secondly, there is no way to refer disturbed children to a special unit that could help with their problems. Will the Minister assure me that she is giving that problem attention?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

I am pleased to reassure the noble Lord on that matter. Later we shall discuss the whole question of children who are excluded from school. We have two measures to tackle the matter: first, the learning support units which are being provided in schools are specifically designed to support children within schools before they reach the point where they might be excluded; and, secondly, pupil referral units. Further, some of our special schools are able to work with these children. It is a continuum of education. We are trying to find ways to support our children at every stage so that they remain within the education system but receive the right kind of care and support appropriate to their needs.

Photo of Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Conservative

I am sorry to press the noble Baroness, but the problem in Tower Hamlets is that referral units do not exist. Many teachers are experiencing problems and are abandoning the teaching profession. The noble Baroness made an agreeable statement and I agree with her sentiments, but can she assure me in stronger terms that teachers in east London are getting support where they are dealing with Somalis and Bengalis, for example, and are under enormous pressure? Teachers are suffering.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

I am sorry if I am not telling the noble Lord precisely what he wants to hear. I am well aware that behavioural issues are of great concern to teachers. Additional burdens are created for teachers who deal with children who have differing needs. I was merely trying to illustrate the kind of measures that we are taking to help that situation. Some of the schools in Tower Hamlets have a remarkable record of working with children of all backgrounds and achieving a great deal. My hope is that the school to which the noble Lord referred will benefit from that experience. As I said, we shall require local education authorities by September to provide full-time education in pupil referral units. We are moving towards putting learning support units in as many places as we possibly can, as speedily as we can. I appreciate that the problem is not solved. However, we are tackling it. I hope that that gives the noble Lord some comfort. We want our teachers to realise that we are working closely with them.

Before the noble Lord speaks again, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that to achieve what is included in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill we certainly do need primary legislation.

Photo of Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Conservative

I acknowledge and accept what the Minister said. However, things are not as good as she thinks. I hope that she and her department will devote attention to Tower Hamlets as regards the matter I am discussing. Bland statements do not affect the situation of a teacher who is doing his or her best with children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds but has no referral unit to which to refer pupils. It is interesting that the Minister does not tell us how many referral units Tower Hamlets has.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

I did not tell the noble Lord how many referral units Tower Hamlets has because I do not have that information to hand. He will forgive me; there are so many pieces of information that I could carry around with me. I shall write to him with those details, as I always do.

I am not trying to make bland statements. I recognise how difficult the matter is. I spend my time, as do the noble Baronesses, Lady Blatch, Lady Sharp and Lady Walmsley, and other Members of the Committee, visiting and working with schools to identify ways in which we can support them. I am simply saying, "Yes, we recognise that there is a problem but we have some of the answers". We are working closely with schools and education authorities to provide them.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat

The Minister said that it is clear that we need primary legislation in order to carry through the requirements of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. Does that mean that it would be sensible for us to amend the Bill? The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill is primary legislation. Does it contain primary legislation relating to education?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

I can answer that question with certainty. That Bill contains appropriate provisions dealing with education. I am sure that Members of the Committee will want to participate in the relevant debates.

Photo of Baroness David Baroness David Labour

I knew that this would be an interesting and difficult debate. I am grateful for the support that I have received, particularly from the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. I am relieved to hear from the Minister that the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill contains provisions that are devoted to education. When it comes to this House, we can explore this matter more thoroughly—it certainly needs exploring. People feel very strongly about it. I understand the associated difficulties. Difficult problems would arise if a large number of children arrived in a small area, such as a rural area. One does not want to make things difficult for the teachers in the school where the children might go but, on the other hand, it would be a very great mistake to segregate them. They need to get to know the language if they are going to stay here for any length of time and they need to be educated in the ways of the country.

We shall doubtless return to this matter later in this Bill and in relation to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 44 [Admission forums]:

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

moved Amendment No. 175:

Page 29, line 33, after "shall" insert "if requested by a majority of governing bodies of maintained schools in its area"

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

The amendment is grouped with Amendments Nos. 176, 177 and 178A, which will be spoken to by other Members of the Committee.

This amendment is very similar to that on schools forums and it applies the same principle. I know that this is a vexed issue and I suspect that I shall not receive too much support from around the Committee. It would allow local schools and governing bodies to choose whether they want an admission forum to be set up in their area. It is important to give them a view on whether they want one or not; the choice should not be automatic.

In some parts of the country, admissions is not a big issue for local areas. The schools work well together and with the local authorities, and the parents are satisfied. The issues involved in this regard are similar to those raised in our debate on schools forums in that what is right for one area does not necessarily apply to all local authorities. My point is not that it is me, LEAs or the Government who say that there should not be admissions forums automatically, although I believe that. The amendment would allow a majority of the governing bodies of maintained schools in an area to decide that they want an admissions forum. In that case, one would be set up, and that would be right.

If there is a problem with admissions in an area, the schools will be the first to know about that. It is for schools to realise that the problem is sufficient to warrant the setting up of an admission forum. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat

I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 176 and 178A, which are in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley.

Amendment No. 176 would insert into the provisions on admission forums the phrase,

"and city technology colleges, city colleges for the technology of the arts, city academies and academies".

It is needed because the admissions forum, unlike the schools forum, does not echo the boundaries of the LEA; it is a sub-area of most LEA areas. In my own town of Guildford, we already have an informal grouping of schools—they get together and to some extent discuss admissions. Those informal groupings already exist. The amendment would make those informal groupings into more formal groupings—that is what an admission forum will be. That makes sense because genuine problems arise sorting out admissions between secondary schools of different types—for example, with regard to foundation schools and maintained schools. It makes sense for people to get together and to sort out admissions. I have no time for schools forums but admissions forums have a valid function.

When looking at the overall area, it is important for all schools in the area to be included. At the moment, city technology colleges and city academies are not included although they play an important part in some towns. The admission arrangements in Southwark, for example, will be considerably affected by two new academies, one of which is in place and one of which will be set up very shortly. They are being set up deliberately to serve their local communities and are not to be exclusive in any way. We strongly feel that it is important for such technology colleges and academies to be included in the admissions procedures.

I shall also speak to Amendment No. 178A. We touched on it in our debate on the amendment that was moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on faith schools with a religious bias. The amendment emerged from discussions about what, if anything, we should table in Committee on the issue of faith schools. As I said earlier, we should recognise that the concept of a quota is not the right way forward. Nevertheless, we feel that it is right for those schools—which are maintained schools in that they are 100 per cent funded in terms of revenue costs from the public purse—to recognise that questions arise about the community that they serve. We should consider whether it is possible for them to balance the needs of the community with the need to serve the faith community that they represent and which helps to support those schools through capital funds. Within the framework of admission forums, the amendment seeks to balance the requirements of the faith community and suggests that the school should advance proposals on the number of places to be taken up by members of a faith. But, equally, the amendment seeks to ask the admission forum, which must give advice to the local authority on these issues, to take into account not only that but also the need for places in the area and the demand for places in faith-based schools.

Therefore, the amendment is a deliberate attempt to reach what we consider to be a reasonably acceptable compromise. In putting it forward, we held discussions with members of all faiths, including the Muslim faith, and found that it was largely acceptable to them. We hope that it might also find favour with the Committee.

Photo of Lord Jones Lord Jones Labour 9:00 pm, 14th May 2002

I am pleased to follow the reasonable line of questioning in relation to these amendments. My noble friend the Minister will know that this Bill is 214 pages long and that today Her Majesty's Government have proposed two forums. Are any more forums proposed in the Bill?

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

I support the arguments which were first put to the Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in Amendment No. 175. In that amendment, the noble Baroness argued that whether or not an admission forum is established should be a matter for local discretion. That is logical and consistent and coherent with the arguments that she advanced earlier in our proceedings in the context of schools forums being a matter for local decision-making.

I believe that, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, we should trust schools to work these matters out for themselves. I agree with the noble Baroness. I can recollect instances where admissions policies became very hot political questions in a locality and in other parts—indeed, in the very same city—they had never been an issue at all. Whether or not they were hot political questions depended very much on where one lived and what the catchment areas were. If there were local demand for such a forum, it could be innovative and helpful. Therefore, I believe that the Government are on to a point here and one which, if there is local demand for it, should be met.

I believe that that approach is wholly in contradiction with that being adopted by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, in Amendment No. 178A. That amendment seeks to impose from outside the requirement on faith schools to observe certain procedures so far as concerns admissions. We should be very clear about this. It is an insidious attack on the independence and integrity of Church schools, whose governing bodies at present determine these matters for themselves in accordance with the ethos of their schools and in accordance with the policies of their diocese and the authorities that administer those schools.

I believe that this is part of a drip, drip, drip approach. It is an approach which has been brought forward instead of that originally adopted—I shall return to this point in a moment—which tried to impose rigid quotas, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned. Although I am grateful that the noble Baroness has moved back to my original proposition, I believe that this comes from the same philosophical approach and should therefore be opposed. When one is run over by a tank, it is fairly self-evident that sometimes the devil arrives in carpet slippers. Therefore, one should be very much more suspicious of him on those occasions.

The first part of Amendment No. 178A seems to be fairly benign. It proposes that a voluntary-aided school may propose to the admission forum that a certain proportion of places within the school should be offered, as a priority, to members of the faith promoted by the school. If admission forums are to be established, as the Government have proposed in Clause 44, this part of the amendment can help to ensure that they respect the religious character of voluntary-aided schools within their area. I do not believe that any of us has any great problem with that.

However, any potential benefit of such faith-based input to the admission forum is fatally compromised by the second part of the amendment. When the admission forum, after receiving a proposal from a voluntary-aided school, offers its advice to the local education authority on admission arrangements, it must consider the need for places in the area and the demand for places in faith-based schools. In effect, therefore, it can completely disregard the proposal from the faith-based school and offer advice that could seriously dilute the ethos and character of the school.

The amendment fails to recognise that the admission authorities of voluntary-aided schools already take into account factors such as the need for places in their area and the demand for places in faith-based schools. The Catholic Church, in particular, which was referred to in our earlier debate, has demonstrated its willingness to relinquish schools where demographic trends and the needs of the local community indicate that alternative provision is needed. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, when she said that the Government are already in discussion with the diocesan authorities and that a constructive and positive approach is being taken to deal with the tiny number of cases where such a situation arises.

In many areas where it has been the wish of the school trustees, the governing bodies and the local community, and where space has been available, Catholic schools have welcomed pupils from beyond the Catholic community. In our earlier debate I cited the figures. Nationally the figure is approximately 20 per cent, and in some diocese more than one in three pupils are not Catholic but are in Catholic schools. I believe that that mirrors the situation in Church of England and other schools, too. It shows that the populations in those schools are diverse and that they represent the communities that they serve.

During our Second Reading debate, I believe that an erroneous impression was given of some of those schools when it was suggested that only children from very privileged backgrounds would be admitted to them. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, said that children from rough backgrounds or, indeed, those of a particular colour would be refused admission. I have spoken to teachers who work in those schools and who have read those remarks. I know that they found them very offensive and considered them to be a considerable attack on their morale and on what goes on in those schools. I believe that anyone who looks at such schools will realise that it is a very unfair picture.

Therefore, schools should remain free to decide these questions for themselves. The amendment before the Committee tonight seeks to achieve the exact opposite by vesting authority in the proposed new admission forums. Too often in the debate thus far subterfuge has characterised the tactics of those who are fundamentally opposed to faith-based schools. There is an echo here of what the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said to the Committee earlier on the issue of grammar schools. I believe that it is more straightforward if we say exactly where we stand in relation to these matters.

In the other place the idea of quotas was put forward and that faith-based schools should be obliged to admit a minimum of 25 per cent of their pupils from other faiths, notwithstanding that the vast majority of schools already do that. In the Second Reading debate in your Lordships' House the idea of catchment areas was put forward. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, warned that,

"The Liberal Democrats will propose an amendment to the Bill that makes it unlawful for any school in receipt of state funding to deny access to a child from its local community on the grounds of faith or lack of faith".—[Official Report, 11/3/02; col. 631.]

As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has said, that idea appears to have been quietly shelved, perhaps out of recognition that it would encourage the creation of religious ghettos around certain faith-based schools, the very thing that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, warned about in his remarks earlier. That would be the effect of the proposal mooted at Second Reading and it would achieve quite the opposite of what the proposer seeks to achieve.

Notwithstanding those points, Amendment No. 178A has now been laid before the Committee. We can see from where the idea of admission forums has come and the effect of those forums if they have the power to advise local education authorities on the admission arrangements of faith-based schools. Much would depend on who are the members of the forums, what particular ideologies and issues they pursue and what axes they want to grind, which sadly often is the case. One cannot help but wonder why, instead of the subtle variations on a theme, we do not simply hear a straightforward declaration of fundamental opposition to the existence of faith-based schools.

Of course, clarity is not at all popular with the electorate, many of whom send their children to faith schools. Not surprisingly they are aghast when they discover that some politicians would like to shut down their children's schools. That is an issue in areas such as Richmond upon Thames and in my own city of Liverpool. Accusations that such schools encourage divisiveness and social fragmentation causes widespread dismay within the teaching profession in those schools and it damages morale.

This amendment has been justified by the argument that Church schools are non-integrated. That simply is not true. Many faith-based schools are already beacons of social integration. It is a misconception that faith-based schools are like little educational islands that do not mix with others in the educational or wider community. Many of our teachers and pupils play a full and active role within their local education authorities. Catholic schools in particular have been enthusiastic participants in initiatives such as the setting up of specialist schools and sharing expertise under the beacon school arrangement.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat

I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, says, but I believe that he is maligning what I said in the earlier debate and in this debate. I have not suggested that Roman Catholic schools are not inclusive. In the earlier debate on the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, I said that there were few schools—I believe the problems apply to only a very few schools—where there is a problem of excluding those from the immediate local neighbourhood in which there is some demand. That applies to an extremely small number of schools and to imply that there is a plot on our part, rather than a genuine attempt to try to arrive at some kind of compromise is totally unfair.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, is upset by what I said. One can refer only to the record and in our earlier debate I quoted the former Liberal Democrat spokesman on education in another place, Mr Don Foster, who said that in an ideal world there would be no faith schools. He said that he would be in favour of, for example, the abolition of the daily act of worship. We know that a proposal was put forward by the party of the noble Baroness in another place which sought to impose rigid quotas—a 25 per cent quota. We have heard what the noble Baroness has said this evening and I have already paid tribute to her for pulling back from that position. I reiterate that comment.

However, in her remarks a moment ago she indicated that there are some schools where she believes that those children who come from a faith background should not be given a place in a school in preference to people who live closest to the school. That would be a discriminatory measure against the children of that faith who live in that area. That is an issue of concern to parents who have children in such schools. I believe it would be wrong of the noble Baroness not to appreciate, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said in his intervention, that there will not be widespread interest in these debates outside the Committee as there has been during the course of the recent local elections.

My point is that we should look to those schools to see what a fantastic contribution they make and praise them accordingly. In Ofsted's annual report, for example, HMCI's list of "particularly successful schools"—Ofsted's phrase—included a high number of Catholic schools. Ninety secondary schools were listed and of those 15 were Catholic; 206 primary schools were listed and of those 42 were Catholic. When one considers that Catholic schools provide 10 per cent of schools nationally, it is clear that Catholic schools are included to a higher proportion than their overall share of the maintained sector.

Earlier in our debate, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, as have others in a previous debate, that if we go down the route of supporting such schools the result could be the kind of situation that persists in Northern Ireland. The examples of Burnley and Oldham have also been cited. I want to refer to them briefly.

Over the years I have been involved with interdenominational Christian groups in Northern Ireland who have sought to establish integrated Christian schools. I supported those initiatives because I believe that, where there is sectarianism, that becomes the priority. That is not the case in England and Wales and we need to be clear about that.

But even in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Centre for Integrated Education—an organisation which works to promote Catholic and Protestant co-operation—says,

"Our segregated education system has not delivered our troubles—that's rubbish. Sectarianism is the lava below the surface, and whether we had an integrated school system or not, that lava would erupt".

We also heard reference made earlier today to the situation in Oldham and Burnley. I took the trouble a few months ago to visit Oldham. I was telling the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, about that visit during the break. I met some of the teachers in the schools there. I listened carefully to what Lorna Fitzsimons, the Member of Parliament for Rochdale, said when she went to review the situation there. She said that the problems did not arise from Church schools; they arose from children coming from state schools who had not been integrated into the community to learn about co-existence with children from minorities.

I have seen the evidence of the teaching of civic values, of integration, of diversity in schools in places like Oldham. And we have to face the serious issue of how we promote shared civic values. All Members of the Committee should concentrate on that question rather than trying to impose rigid quotas or admissions systems which are an attack on the independence of Church schools and are seen that way.

The Secretary of State for Education, Estelle Morris, put it well when she said,

"the strength of faith schools for those who have a faith is a shared value base—a sense of purpose, mission and being".

I believe that that is the principal reason why Church and faith schools remain so popular in our country today.

In summary, Amendment No. 178A is unnecessary. It is indicative of the various attempts that have been made to date to disparage faith-based education. I hope that the Government oppose the amendment.

Photo of Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Conservative 9:15 pm, 14th May 2002

I support the noble Lord, Lord Alton. There is a long history in English education that we allow the Churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church but also my own Church, to support faith schools. They have put enormous amounts of money into doing just that. And traditionally they have been allowed to decide their own admissions policies.

I can only speak for my own Church; I cannot speak for the Roman Catholic Church which has invested more money than my Church. But many faith schools admit enormous numbers of people from other faiths. An amendment which, for the first time in 140 years, allows the Government to impose on Church schools their own admissions procedures is quite a revolutionary proposal. I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment. It interferes with a right that the Church schools have always had and one which is highly regarded throughout the whole of Europe. I hope therefore that Church schools will be allowed to retain their integrity.

Photo of The Bishop of Blackburn The Bishop of Blackburn Bishop

I rise to take a middle way on this matter, as one would expect from these Benches. It is possible to see a Trojan horse here. But I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for the consultations she had with a number of us in seeking to frame this amendment.

The noble Baroness will not be surprised to hear that I am not 100 per cent in favour of her proposal. But if we are to have admissions forums—that is yet to be decided—and they are to do their work, then they have to take cognisance of the existence of Church or faith schools. It would be irresponsible of them to behave as though they were sharing out children among community schools rather than dealing with the whole of the maintained sector.

I take issue with the use of the word "propose" in the first part of Amendment No. 178A. I prefer to use "inform". I want to see the voluntary-aided schools participating in the education of children. As Members of the Committee have said, many of them carry out all the requirements asked for in terms of inclusiveness and taking children who have parents of other faiths or of no faith. That is certainly the case in my diocese, particularly at the primary level.

We are dealing with that area of life where real choices have to be made. We are dealing with success. When we are at the bottom of a pile, then few choices lie before us. But when something is popular or successful, then those who are in charge of it, be they the governors or those who dispose of education in various ways, have to make real choices as to how they proceed. I am delighted to be standing in your Lordships' Chamber tonight espousing what is a popular cause with parents the length and breadth of the country, which is why we in the Anglican Church have such great difficulty in accommodating at secondary level those who would like to attend them. In saying that, we remain faithful to our trust deeds—to be distinctive but inclusive. As the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, has just said, we have educated millions of children whose parents have not espoused our faith.

As to the second part of the amendment—and we were not able to discuss this beforehand because it has only just occurred to me—what happens if the forum says, "No way, oh brothers and sisters in the faith schools and the Church schools", and takes a draconian line in its attitude to those schools before the local education authority?

I am relatively content even with that if the forum is purely advisory and if there is some appeal system, which I think there is. Therefore, I am looking for some way to share in the issue of how pupils are educated which meets parental choice whether or not they belong to the Churches or to the faith communities; which meets the desire of people who realise that they want this kind of education for their children; and which meets the needs of the local community. The amendment goes some way to engage that issue. However, I should like to see the governing bodies of voluntary aided schools informing the forum of their policy. Then, if appropriate, listening to what the forum might want to say. Ultimately, however, the governors of those schools have responsibility for the faith quotient over the local aspect, which most of them exercise extremely well at the present time.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat

Perhaps I may reply to the right reverend Prelate. The admissions forums are purely advisory. They cover all maintained schools. The definition of "maintained schools" includes both voluntary controlled and voluntary aided schools, but of course voluntary aided schools are their own admissions authorities. New Section 85A(1)(b) says,

"advising the admission authorities for maintained schools".

Therefore, the whole idea of the amendment is to advise the governors of the voluntary aided schools where they feel there is a conflict between, say, the needs of the community and the needs of the faith and ask them to consider it. Obviously it is only advice, and ultimately those who decide, as I understand it, on the admissions to such schools are the schools themselves.

Photo of The Bishop of Blackburn The Bishop of Blackburn Bishop

The noble Baroness takes my point exactly. I wanted to have on the record that we are talking about advice and that the governors of a voluntarily aided school would not necessarily be bound by that advice, although I would hope that they would listen carefully to what people were trying to say.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Amendment No. 177 is in this group. Perhaps I may first say that I do not want to abolish faith schools. My position is very much the reverse. I want more of them. I want sufficient numbers of them so that those parents who do not spend every Sunday going to a church of a particular denomination can nonetheless find places in church schools if that is what they want for their children.

The fact that only 20 or 30 per cent of places in Catholic schools are given to non-Catholics says to me that there are not enough Catholic schools and that we should have a few more. To that extent, I very much support what was proposed earlier—I forget how many months ago now—that we should have an ability to create more Church schools. Later, I suspect, we shall turn to that matter, but I should like to see that process happening. What I do not like is parents who want a Church education for their child being excluded merely because they are, in a way, "sinners" or incapable of beliefs themselves.

That is my position on the matter. I do not understand how admissions forums are meant to affect this. They are just advisory bodies. They are a place where schools can get together and talk. If other schools find a problem with a faith-based school admitting only those of its faith, I am sure that they will discuss that without the need for Amendment No. 178A.

I would certainly not like the idea that a body such as this could start messing with the admissions powers of voluntary aided schools—they are for the Churches. My aim is to influence the Government to create a mechanism for more Church schools and to influence the Churches by saying, "Come on. Part of the 1944 settlement is that you should provide education for children who want such education, not just for children of people who are already adherents of your faith". That is part of the deal. The kind of education that they provide should be available to those who want it rather than just those who qualify for it. That is the difference between being a private and a state school.

I tabled Amendment No. 177 to ask how, under the admissions forum arrangements, we will deal with the situation in which the natural school for people is not within the LEA but in the neighbouring LEA. Obviously, that happens a lot in London, but it also happens in the country. For example, I can think of Dorset primary schools that are half a mile from a secondary school in Hampshire, which is where people would naturally go, rather than 15 miles the other away to the nearest Dorset secondary school. How will we deal with such cross-border questions? I merely ask the question.

Photo of Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Conservative

I apologise for rising again. I speak as the governor of Downside, which admits non-Catholic pupils. Why should not faith schools admit people of their own faith? We all concede that they admit people of variety of faiths, but my noble friend Lord Lucas seems to think—I may be misjudging him—that it is wrong to favour people of their own faith. Of course they admit other people—that is a fact. But there seems to be an argument in this Chamber that it is wrong for people who believe in a faith to go to a school of their own faith. What is wrong with that? It should be allowed.

The schools have shown themselves generous. Downside admits Anglicans. Anglican schools admit Muslims and, indeed, everyone. They do an amazing job in their communities. Why should we introduce admissions procedures when the schools themselves are doing the job all right? The myth that spreads that faith schools are little ghettos is quite wrong in relation to my faith—I cannot speak about other faiths, but I can speak about Roman Catholics and Anglicans. It is irrelevant for us to have provisions imposed on us.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

I had better pick up on my noble friend's comments. Obviously, it is right that one cannot really have a Catholic school unless it admits Catholics preferentially. The same applies to an Anglican school—it must be there for its community. The difficulty arises when there are insufficient schools of a particular denomination to satisfy demand, which means that they become purely one-religion schools and exclude those who would like that kind of education but do not happen to be sufficiently committed—some parents must produce a five-year history of having attended church every Sunday, which can be difficult. I want that log jam to be broken and there to be more schools of whichever kind of religion is wanted.

I refer to something else that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said. I do not mean to characterise Oldham in any particular way but choose it as an example merely because it has been in the news. In Oldham an Anglican school exists as a refuge for people who can exit from the areas in which they would naturally go to school by saying, "I am an Anglican", leaving behind a school that becomes, in effect, a Muslim school. That is a destructive process.

If 100 per cent of the pupils admitted by a school are of the same religion, the school will be a force for social and racial division. Church schools should not do that; it is not part of the deal with the state. There is a responsibility to the community, and the school should recognise it. I am merely going by newspaper reports of what the head teachers of those schools in Oldham said. I find that difficult to reconcile with my view of the educational contract between state and Church.

Photo of The Bishop of Blackburn The Bishop of Blackburn Bishop 9:30 pm, 14th May 2002

I did not wish to intervene again, but I get excited when we come to matters affecting Lancashire. It is grossly unfair to put Oldham's problems down to what is said to have happened in two Anglican high schools. If we considered schooling in Oldham across the piece, we would find problems. We must bear in mind what the governors of those schools face.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, cannot have it both ways, in one sense. If, as he wants, the schools were open to a wider community, the chances are that they would not be attended just by people of a particular faith who were prepared to go to church for five years. I must say that I have never heard of anyone having to go for five years, but, if there are such cases, I say, "Good luck to them". I have a lot of sympathy with that idea, but that is another story. If the noble Lord wishes to take that line, he must also consider the logic the other way. Burnley is the one town in the diocese of Blackburn that has no Anglican high school. I could turn the noble Lord's logic on its head and say that, if there had been such a school, we might not have had riots in Burnley.

If we start into such a debate, we will get into dangerous water. It worries me that we do not apply the same kind of criteria to the community schools, even though we know that the wealthy will buy houses in an area so that their children will be admitted. At one stage, my wife was head teacher of a wholly Muslim school. I should say "Asian heritage", but all the pupils were Muslim. It was a county school, not a Church school. Not a single member of the indigenous Dewsbury community applied for a place in that school. Earlier in her career, she worked in a prestigious school in Sunderland. People would ring up from Australia and goodness-knows-where to ask whether there was a place at the school, so that they would know where to buy their house.

We must be careful about arguments about social exclusion. Sometimes, Church schools are made to bear more of the blame for the disturbances, which we all regret, than they should. One of the problems in east Lancashire is that race and religion go together; that is the way it is. In the metropolitan areas, where there are black Christians, there are Church schools—some not five miles from here—that are well racially integrated. In most schools, especially the primary schools, there is the kind of religious mix that the noble Lord seeks.

I discovered today that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is probably a friend, but I get tired of the constant repetition and refrain about schools in east Lancashire and, indeed, in Bradford, where there have been Anglican high schools only for the past year. Those schools can hardly be held responsible for creating the segregation in that community.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

I shall speak briefly to the other amendments in the group. I agree wholeheartedly with what the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, said about faith schools. As long as we have faith schools, their primary objective will be to give a place to anybody of the faith who wishes to have it and is committed to that kind of education. The Minister has already said that.

I agree with the constructive point made by my noble friend Lord Lucas. Where there is demand for a certain kind of ethos and education—something that we should welcome—we should try to expand the number of such schools available. It would be possible to be really innovative and set up a school run by Christians, Jews or Muslims and take all comers, if the original faith community is satisfied with the number of places at the school.

I have no problem with a school becoming all-Anglican, all-Catholic or all-Muslim if that is the demand. However, I have real problems about the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and the point made by my noble friend Lord Lucas. The moment one goes down the road of social engineering one finds all kinds of difficulties. I accept the right reverend Prelate's comment that those schools are not responsible for the troubles we have seen either in Ireland, which is an extreme example of community problems, or in Oldham or Burnley. In fact, those schools are probably havens in areas where young people are learning fundamentally how to live with one another and respect cultural differences.

However, a point that has not been made in the course of this relatively long debate relates to safeguards for city technology colleges, the city colleges of technology and the arts and the city academies. I have a close knowledge of city technology colleges and I know that city colleges of technology and the arts and the city academies, which have emulated the way in which CTCs were set up, have a detailed legislative underpinning of their admissions procedures. They are wholly subscribed in great detail and are probably the most scientific comprehensive schools in the country. They have to take from across the ability range in certain percentages. They have to interview and have a sophisticated system in order to create the spread. The idea of putting those schools into the melting pot with all other schools appears to be a contradiction. There would have to be a substantial reordering of the legislative statutes in order to accommodate that. I can see no point in them being part of the melting-pot approach to finding places in schools.

I return to an earlier debate about our faith schools. I believe that the Minister admitted that there is only a relatively small problem in that some schools deliberately keep places vacant in the hope that a number of children of the faith will come along and fill them. She hinted that it was mainly in Catholic schools. Current negotiations are amicable and a solution appears to be forthcoming. That is to be welcomed.

All I know of Church of England Schools and of King David and other Jewish schools is that when there are vacancies they are open and welcoming to children from the local area. I do not see that as being a problem and I would prefer to leave the matter there. I believe that the faith community should be wholly satisfied and that the local community should have open access to any vacancies which arise. However, where the demand is greater than that, we should go down the road suggested by my noble friend Lord Lucas and consider the possibility of setting up yet more faith schools to satisfy the need.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

I want to speak briefly to Amendment No. 175 under which admission forums would be established only,

"if requested by a majority of governing bodies of maintained schools in its area".

I recognise the truth of the words spoken by my noble friend Lord Alton about subsidiarity and the importance of self-determination for schools. Perhaps that point is answered by the fact that the admissions forums will have only an advisory role. I am concerned about the situation in which there appears a pocket of deprivation within an area. The majority of schools might be happy with the admission arrangements and only one or two schools might feel unhappy with them. I would like to seek clarity about that matter. Is it a reason why there should be an obligation on forming school forums?

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

Perhaps I may briefly reply to the right reverend Prelate. No, Church schools are not the problem but they could be an important part of the solution.

Photo of Lord Brennan Lord Brennan Labour

Perhaps I may ask the Committee's forgiveness for joining the debate 46 minutes after it started in order to make three short points. First, the debate has illustrated the sensitivity of the faith school issue. It requires any legislative clause or amendment which seeks to affect such institutions to be phrased with absolute clarity; to be produced in a way that provides for open debate about the fundamental issues; and not to be achieved, albeit with a notable objective of compromise, by an amendment such as this. I think that our debate has illustrated that fact. When this question comes up, the best debate will be the product of the intellectual rigour with which we look to the question of faith schools.

Secondly, this vehicle for seeking to assimilate, in so far as it can be assimilated, the faith school system into the national schools system is simply not successful. As an advocate of faith schools, I find it unacceptable that an advisory body which is the product of secondary legislation should be the vehicle by which the community determines how faith schools should best function in terms of admissions. That is a very poor route in the objective of the noble cause of the best education for the many.

Lastly, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will forgive me if I utter a note of incredulity; we have served on several committees together. The idea that faith schools should adopt the role of soaking up the unsatisfied educational needs of a nation by ever increasing their size and numbers because people want to send their children to them is a marvellous compliment to those schools; but the ingenuity of the idea should not relieve us of our common sense. There is a limit to what religions can provide and what faith schools can sustain. The primary obligation for education in this country was, is, and will be, with the state, either directly or by subventions to faith schools.

I admire the diplomacy and energy of the noble Baronesses, Lady Sharp and Lady Walmsley, but I regret that this particular amendment is not the right vehicle for the occasion which surely will come when we properly debate the role of faith schools in our education system.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

I shall declare briefly my ecumenical interests. My great-grandfather was an Irish-Anglican cleric who became a Unitarian minister. My maternal grandfather was a canon in the Church of Wales. His son, my uncle, was a dean in the Church of England. His sister, my aunt, began as a Protestant missionary in Uganda, but ended up as a Carmelite nun in a closed order in Birkenhead via being Mother Superior of an order in Dundalk. My late noble kinsman was much involved in the Church of England preparations for the 1944 Act. Those are modest qualifications, but they are at least ecumenical.

I hesitate to be a squeaking wheel in terms of reference to a debate which occurred earlier in the other place, but it is quite useful as a text in following the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, with whose fundamental sentiments I agree profoundly.

In another place Clause 44 was discussed, but Mr Phil Willis, the spokesman for the Liberal Democrat Party—whom I greatly like—appeared to the rest of the Committee to be speaking to an amendment on Clause 45. He said: "Yes, I agree with that, but I wanted to make sure that the Government were going to raise this issue". The chairman said that the Committee would discuss the amendment concerned, Amendment No. 233, and asked the Minister, Mr Timms, whether he agreed.

The following sentence is difficult to parse. Mr Timms said:

"Yes, I cannot assure the hon. Gentleman that the issue will be addressed in Government amendments, and it will be debated".—[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee G, 10.1.02; col. 333.]

I have difficulty in following that particular sentence, but it gave the impression that the matter was going to be settled on Clause 45 and in Amendment No. 233.

It will come as no surprise to noble Lords to learn that Clause 45 was never reached in the Commons and so the anticipation of the Liberal Democrat spokesman was wholly foiled, despite the very long speech which he made in Committee on Clause 44. Therefore, it seems of extreme importance that the Committee reaches sensible, broadly based and wise conclusions because what we discuss will matter to many people across the country hereafter, as I implied in an earlier remark.

I shall not make a long speech. As a loyal son of the established Church, I shall repeat the speech made in the 18th century by a man who, after Edmund Burke sat down, rose briefly and said, "Ditto to Mr Burke" and sat down. My Mr Burke is my noble friend Lord Pilkington and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn. I subscribe to the general sentiments they expressed.

I follow the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, in saying that because this issue is of such importance we have to reach wise and sensible conclusions in the same way as conclusions were reached in 1944. If we do not do so, we shall be in trouble. I am certain that we shall return to this subject.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat 9:45 pm, 14th May 2002

I should like to make two points. First, as drafted the clause emphasises that the admissions forums cover all maintained schools. Although they are their own admissions authority, in the primary legislation the admission forum is required to give advice to the voluntary aided schools which can then decide whether they wish to take the advice. In putting forward the amendment, we were well aware of that. The idea was that the admissions forum could be in a position to offer advice.

Secondly, the city technology colleges and academies are not part of the maintained sector in that sense. Therefore, they are not included on the face of the Bill within the remit of the admissions forum. Amendment No. 176 proposed that the city colleges be included within that remit. For the same reasons that I believe that there is a case for the Church schools to be included within the remit, there is a strong reason for including the city technology colleges.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

I promised that I would not say this tonight because I have said it endlessly but it has been an interesting debate. Noble Lords have spoken with great passion.

On Amendment No. 175, our proposal for mandatory admission forums is in the Bill in order to make the school admissions process better for even more parents and children. We believe that every area will benefit from having a forum. We have seen from our consultation in England that 78 per cent of respondents agreed to some extent with our suggestions for mandatory forums. Many people have told us that forums would have a greater impact if every area had to have one and admission authorities were required to have regard to their advice.

Let me outline the important role that these forums will have. They will advise all admission authorities in their area, including the LEA, on admission issues as well as considering how well existing and proposed admission arrangements serve the interest of local parents and children. They will reach local agreement on new or controversial issues and broker arrangements for ensuring that vulnerable and challenging children and those who arrive in an area outside the normal admission round have fair access to local schools. We expect the core membership of admission forums to include representatives from headteachers and governors of foundation, community and voluntary maintained schools in the local education authority area.

We believe that these mandatory forums will improve the admissions process by ensuring that there is real discussion and consensus between the key admission partners in an LEA area. Our view is that this is a matter of real importance and should no longer be voluntary.

I turn to Amendment No. 176. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, pointed out that the provisions in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 relating to school admissions apply only in relation to a "maintained school". As defined by Section 86(4) of that Act, that means a community, a foundation or a voluntary school. City technology colleges, city academies, and academies are independent schools.

We recognise that certain schools that are not maintained by the local education authority, such as academies, do have a contribution to make to admission forum discussions. Again, our recent consultation showed that 81 per cent of those who responded agreed—at least to some extent—that the proposed membership of admission forums should include any local city technology colleges, and city academies, in the area in question where there are issues regarding secondary schools. We believe that the involvement of CTCs, city academies, and academies in forums will also encourage them to consider the advice given by the forums.

Through their funding agreements, all academies will be obliged to comply with the requirements of admissions law as it applies to maintained schools. Academies will be required, therefore, through their funding agreements, to take part in statutory admission forums. More generally, we shall expect academies to use the same timetable for admissions as the LEAs in which they are situated, and to take part in co-ordinated schemes, in order to make the applications process as straightforward as possible.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, pointed out, CTCs are not maintained schools, and, therefore, not subject to the admissions provisions. However, we want to encourage CTCs to participate in forum discussions. We shall, by way of regulations, require forums to invite CTCs to attend meetings. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel that she has enough information to enable her to withdraw the amendment.

As for Amendment No. 177, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked about the membership in terms of "neighbouring" education authorities. Through this clause we intend to make regulations on the constitution of admission forums. It is our intention to specify core membership. We have also suggested that any other group representing an important section of the local community should be represented. As the noble Lord outlined, certain LEAs, especially those with a high proportion of cross-border traffic, may well wish to include representatives from neighbouring local authority areas.

However, some LEAs have several neighbours, and it would be an unnecessary burden on them if they were required to attend all their neighbours' admission forums, as well as organising their own, especially if discussions did not include cross-border issues. Each LEA has different needs and circumstances. Our desire is to be as flexible as possible, so that we can respond to such needs. Therefore, although we would encourage neighbouring LEAs to take part in admission forum discussions, we believe that it would be inappropriate to require them to do so—in other words, they "may" do so, but we do not wish to require them to do so on the face of the Bill. I hope that my response meets the noble Lord's point, and that he will see fit not to press his amendment.

As I said earlier, noble Lords have spoken with great passion on Amendment No. 178A, which is tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. I was extremely impressed with the pedigree of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, in this instance. I was also much taken with the desire for people to recognise that schools cannot be held responsible for what has happened in some of our communities. However, we must recognise the importance of the school as part of the sustainable development of our communities, and the need to build on that process.

The role of admission forums is to take an overview of how well existing and proposed admission arrangements work within the area represented by the forum. We want them to be platforms for discussion to facilitate a joint approach to problem solving and local agreement. However, the forum is not intended to replace the statutory admissions consultation process. We do not believe it is right that authorities should have an additional requirement to consult forums on an issue that is already part of a statutory local consultation and determination process.

It will not be the purpose of admission forums to change the fundamental character of schools. If an admission authority considers that the advice given by a forum would have that effect, it could reasonably reject that advice. It is for admission authorities to consult on, and determine, their own admission arrangements; and, if they are objected to, to justify them to the Schools Adjudicator.

It is already possible for the admission authority of a faith school to give priority on the basis of faith adherence for such numbers of available places that it may decide upon. If there are sufficient applications, some state in their admission arrangements that a specified number will be allocated to a particular faith. Our code of practice on school admissions makes it clear that parents applying for a school place both need and deserve local admission arrangements that are clear and objective, as well as giving every child a fair chance to secure a satisfactory school place.

The existing admissions framework enables admission authorities, including local education authorities, to object to the independent schools adjudicator if they disagree with any aspect of a school's admission arrangements for any reason. In the case of objections to religious criteria, these are passed on to the Secretary of State for her consideration. As part of their individual considerations of an objection, either the adjudicator or the Secretary of State may, of course, take account of any advice given by an admissions forum. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

My final comment is to my noble friend Lord Jones: there are no other new forums within this Bill.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

I am grateful to the Minister. We have had a long and fairly exhaustive debate. I am happy to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 176 not moved.]

Photo of Lord Rix Lord Rix Crossbench

moved Amendment No. 176A:

Page 30, leave out line 6 and insert—

"( ) The authority shall make available to the forum information about the views on and experience of admissions policies and practices of disabled children and children with special educational needs and their parents.

( ) The authority may establish sub-committees of the forum to assist the forum in preparing advice on inclusive admissions policies, or for other purposes."

Photo of Lord Rix Lord Rix Crossbench

Even though we are now approaching the Ten O'clock News, before I speak to the amendments standing in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, I should like to thank the Committee for the generous way in which it accepted my enforced absence last Thursday. I should especially like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, for moving the amendments in my name and the Government for their generally helpful response.

In speaking to Amendment No. 176A, which stands in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 182 and Amendment No. 198A, which I have had decoupled from its grouping with Amendments Nos. 199 and 200 because the earlier amendments deal with admission arrangements and Amendments Nos. 199 and 200 deal with admission appeals. I should also like to point out that Clause 47 stand part should follow Amendment No. 200, not precede it.

Collective responsibility for regulating the admissions process makes sense and I do not disagree with the principle behind this innovation. However, we need to clarify the relationship between the new forums and the existing requirement to monitor admissions of pupils with special educational needs and disabled children. It is essential that when schools are working corporately, as well as when they are working separately, they should be helping to develop policies which ensure the best possible appropriate education for these children.

Admissions forums should support a fair selection process which does not unfairly discriminate against pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. I also expect such a scheme to ensure that one mainstream school in a group—perhaps the school with the less favourable local reputation—does not become the special needs school.

Amendment No. 176A would guarantee that forums are proactive in ensuring a fair admissions process for these children. It would also allow the authority to form a sub-committee to advise the main forum on special educational needs policies. I am aware that Clause 44(2) of the Bill enables authorities to establish a sub-committee. However, my amendment goes further and suggests a specific use of a sub-committee. I am putting this forward as another option and I look forward to the Minister's response.

Amendment No. 182 would require local education authorities to publish information from the monitoring of admissions of children with special educational needs. This information should be used to inform the work of admissions forums and the development of any local education authority admissions schemes.

In speaking to Amendment No. 198A, I am aware that the Special Educational Consortium is concerned that any scheme to co-ordinate admissions in local education authorities might impact disproportionately on disabled children and children with special educational needs. The consortium would therefore want to make sure that parents of pupils with special educational needs and disabled children are consulted about any scheme to co-ordinate admissions. Amendment No. 198A seeks to achieve this and ensures that the voice of the child is also heard, even though it is not possible for the voice of the child to prevail. I would add on the basis of quite a lot of experience that having a learning disability, even a severe learning disability, does not stop a child having views about his or her schooling.

The Government's thinking behind these innovations is that the forums will make the admissions process work better for vulnerable children, including those with special educational needs. However, there is nothing in the Bill or in the draft policy document which states that. We have heard a number of references to a portmanteau clause to cover this gap in regard to SEN and disability. I am happy to say that today Mencap has submitted a suggested draft clause to fit into the general interpretation of the Bill, the draft going to the department and to the SEC for further comments and advice. Let us hope that it, or something of a like nature, will eventually meet with general approval and appear on the face of the Bill.

In the meantime, I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify what will be the impact of regulations on forum responsibilities for special educational needs policies. As the evening wears on, I shall be more than happy at this stage to accept assurances. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat 10:00 pm, 14th May 2002

I add my support to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, on this issue. Last year, we spent a good deal of time debating the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill. The issue of inclusion is very important. We were all agreed at that time on the procedures that should be followed.

For many children, the process of selecting and attending a new school is a very important one—the more so for those with special educational needs or disabilities. I entirely endorse all three amendments proposed by the noble Lord.

Photo of Lord Jones Lord Jones Labour

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Rix, are persuasive. I hope that they will have satisfaction. They certainly have a great deal of experience.

Perhaps I may briefly raise the question: do the Government have confidence in the local education authorities? In one day, Ministers have proposed two forums. Are the LEAs, therefore, falling down in their tasks? Are the LEAs hostile to consultation? Are they deaf to representations from parents and from head teachers? Is it the case that the Government have little regard today for the local education authorities? Do Ministers seek to trim the powers of the LEAs? Are the proposed forums government devices to make good the defects of LEAs? I hope that is not the Government's approach. However, given that two forums have been proposed, and given the topicality of the future of LEAs, the Minister may be able to set out the Government's thinking.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

I am in no way qualified to follow the wise counsel of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, whose experience in these matters is well known throughout this place. However, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs in the other place produced a report on children with special educational needs in the context of the Province. On the strength of that experience, I have particular sympathy for Amendment No. 182 spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Rix.

The Minister may tell us that the amendment is not necessary and that such an obligation already exists. But if he does not, I am strongly in support of the noble Lord in making sure that we get that particular detail on the record.

Photo of Lord Brennan Lord Brennan Labour

The purpose of Amendment No. 176A is to assist admission forums to ensure that disabled children and those with special educational needs are properly catered for. On a careful reading of Clause 44, I advise the noble Lord, Lord Rix, that the amendment is not necessary, because the Government, local education authorities and admission forums should take those matters into account in any event.

Be that as it may, whether the amendment is needed or not, local communities will regard admission forums as having a special advisory responsibility in what one might call an emotional and sensitive area. I have two matters to raise. The first is the public perception of admission forums. If the idea goes about that this is the system by which the community can express its desires on admission policies in local schools, the community will expect results. If the idea is that disabled children and those with special educational needs will be carefully considered within such a system, their parents and families will expect the forum to be their advocate. It is therefore essential that the forums have credibility and that advice in this very important area is not ignored or swept aside by a local education authority simply on economic resources arguments. That would destroy the beneficial objective of the forums.

Secondly, and equally importantly, my noble friend the Minister must make it abundantly clear to the Committee that the system of admission forums is not intended to detract from or to replace the statutory responsibilities of local education authorities to cater for these children in need. It is their responsibility. It is not the responsibility of an advisory body, whose function is to bring local needs in that area to the attention of the local education authority.

Why is that important? It is not only for humanitarian reasons, but also for legal reasons. It would be a shocking result if the local community got the idea that if an admission forum had agreed with a proposal then it was going to happen, and then it did not. The community would wonder what was the function of the forum, what was the division of responsibility between it and the local education authority and how they could remedy what they thought to be a wrong.

I want to reassure the Committee that there is a small group solicitors and barristers who concentrate on educational cases purely out of dedication and at little or no profit to themselves. In the past 10 or 15 years, they have ensured two things legally. First, local education authorities are required to be consistent in the way they apply the law for the general benefit of children. Secondly, by bringing test cases they can achieve results that apply to the many. I do not want a state of affairs in which families and the lawyers who help them have no idea whether they should be seeking recourse from the admission forum, the local education authority or both—or what? That would be a very unhappy result. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will ensure, as I think she said a moment ago, that LEAs are still required to observe statutory admission criteria and cannot foist their responsibilities on to the forums.

I adopt the sentiment of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, whether necessary or not, but bearing in mind the cautions that I have just expressed.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

I strongly support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. I entirely agree with what my noble friend Lord Rix said in moving his amendment about the requirement that should be placed on schools and local education authorities to meet the needs of parents who have children with special needs. I worked in that sector for five years some years ago and I share my noble friend's concerns. As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, no one in the House has more experience in these matters. We are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for raising the issue.

I have considerable concerns, however, about the possibility of creating talking shops. I do not believe that the forums will be able to deliver the objectives that my noble friend Lord Rix has described so eloquently. The real danger is that we shall only raise people's aspirations and hopes. They will go to a forum thinking that it can deliver their requirements, but will be disappointed when they find that that is not true. That will bring local democracy into further disrepute. Some local education authorities have education committees which address issues such as special needs education. Like me, other noble Lords may have served on such committees. The committees have proper appeals mechanisms that allow parents to make their representations, and include real local councillors with real local political clout who can put right some of these problems.

As we discussed in an earlier group of amendments, it is possible that the forums could be used for mischief making if someone has a particular axe to grind. As I said, I fear that they could simply become talking shops. The more we discuss the issue, the more I am taken by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, about the lack of debate about these issues in another place. I suspect that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, had that in mind when she spoke earlier. We have not yet really answered the questions of principle about whether these forums are necessary. That issue should have been debated extensively in another place. I hope that, between now and Report, we shall reflect on whether they are needed at all.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

One of the issues raised by the amendments in this group is the degree to which parents of children with special educational needs are properly satisfied by admission arrangements and appropriate provision. This is "Autism Awareness Year", and only yesterday evening, as noble Lords may have seen, the "Newsnight" programme had a report that included the views of an organisation representing children with autism. The organisation emphasised the number of children who are not diagnosed sufficiently early or have missing diagnoses, so that provision for them is made too late in their educational career or, more sadly, not at all.

I share the concerns just expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, about the important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. There is a danger that the creation of forums will simply raise expectations. The forums have no clout; they have no more than advisory powers. Consequently they could be no more than talking shops. The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, is right that the local education authority has the legal obligation to make provision for school access for young people. We should not support or underwrite anything that would inhibit the local authority from meeting its legal obligation.

From his record in the House, I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is territorial about the way in which this end is achieved. The important thing is that it is achieved. We want to ensure, first, that nothing in this Bill will inhibit proper provision for children with special educational needs. Secondly, we want to ensure that, as far as possible, provision for children with special needs is appropriate to their educational needs.

I believe that there was a body called—I cannot recall its precise name; perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, can remind me—the informal resolution procedure procedural body. It addressed issues such as appropriate admissions for children with special educational needs and resolved disputes before they became candidates for the tribunal system, thereby keeping them out of court. It would be very helpful, not for education forums but for local authorities, to have an annual appraisal within local education areas to detail where gaps exist, the degree to which proper provision is being made for children with special educational needs, and the degree to which those gaps are not being filled. I do not mind how that is achieved. However, there needs to be a body to submit a systematic annual report to the body that has legal responsibility—that is, the local authority—and to codify the degree to which special educational needs have been met. It could also report the extent to which that is due to wrongful admissions. I support what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, wants to achieve, but I am not absolutely certain that it is achieved by the amendment.

Photo of Lord Rix Lord Rix Crossbench 10:15 pm, 14th May 2002

I fully understand that admission forums could well become talking shops; all I am interested to ensure is that if they do become talking shops, they talk sense.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

I am grateful to all Members of the Committee who have participated in this truly enlightening debate. I wish to begin by emphasising one or two cardinal principles behind our thinking. There is nothing in the proposals with regard to the forum that in any way, shape or form detracts from the provisions which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, reminded us, we worked upon during the passage of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill which became an Act last year. I give the fundamental reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, that there is no proposal with regard to the forum which in any way invalidates or reduces the significance and salience of that legislation in terms of advancing the needs of children with special educational needs.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lord Brennan expressed anxieties about whether representations to the forum on individual cases would be met with the same effective response as that given by the relevant legal authority which, as my noble friend Lord Brennan reminded us, is the local authority. I emphasise that the forums are not the places to discuss individual grievances. It is not expected that parents will lobby forums on behalf of individual grievances. Forums are not extensions of the appeal machinery; they are areas in which policies with regard to admissions in general are discussed and evaluated. Forums are consultative bodies. I hope that I have reassured my noble friend Lord Jones that it is not a question of the Government losing confidence in local authorities but rather of enhancing the services that local authorities offer by creating a consultative framework within which these matters can be discussed. Local authorities will thus be able to reach more intelligent, effective and better informed judgments on the basis of the work that the forums do.

Against that general background I assure the noble Lord, Lord Rix, that we would expect admission authorities to make available relevant information to the forum for all groups of children and parents, not just those of disabled children and children with special educational needs. I repeat my assurance that there is no way in which parents of children with special educational needs will be disadvantaged by the proposals.

Children who have statements of special educational needs naming a particular school have their interests fully protected already and we have made it clear in statutory guidance that admission authorities must treat children with special educational needs who do not have statements and disabled children as fairly as others and may not refuse admission because they consider that they are unable to cater for special needs.

Admission forums will consider how well existing and proposed admission arrangements serve the interests of all local parents and children. They will broker arrangements for ensuring that vulnerable children, including children with special educational needs who do not have statements and disabled children, have fair access to local schools. All admission authorities in an LEA's area will be required to have regard to any advice given by the forum when determining their admission arrangements.

We intend to make clear in regulations that the core membership of admission forums should include the parent representatives elected by all the parent governors of the LEA in question. Parents of disabled and SEN children, like other parents, will be able to channel views through them to the admission forum.

I remind Members of the Committee that from September of this year—this consolidates the point that I made earlier—admission authorities will have to comply with Sections 28A, 28B and 28C of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, as amended by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. They clearly place legal duties on admission authorities not to treat disabled pupils less favourably than their non-disabled peers without justification and to take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled pupils are not placed at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with non-disabled pupils.

I can also give a clear assurance that admission authorities will be able to establish sub-committees of the forum, should they wish to do so. That would not be appropriate for all areas—smaller authorities may not find it necessary. We therefore considered that the decision to establish a sub-committee, and for what purpose, should be wholly at the discretion of the authority. If LEAs consider it appropriate to establish a sub-committee to assist the forum in preparing advice, they already have the discretion to do that.

I turn to Amendment No. 182, which is not appropriately placed in relation to this clause, which deals with admission forums. I reassure Members of the Committee that the admissions framework that we have put in place ensures that all admission authorities in an area do not place prospective pupils who are disabled or have SEN at any disadvantage. I reiterate the fact that nothing in the Bill changes that. As I have already said, the Disability Discrimination Act and the special educational needs legislation will apply to access to education for the first time.

On Amendment No. 198A, the aim of co-ordinating admissions is simply to avoid the situation in which multiple applications by parents can lead to some parents receiving more than one offer of a school place for their children while others get none. Co-ordinated schemes will not change schools admissions criteria; they will simply provide general ground-rules for deciding which place an LEA should offer to any given parent if their child is potentially eligible for more than one school. A typical ground-rule, but not the only possible one, would be that the parents should be offered the place at whichever school they ranked the higher. Co-ordinated arrangements will not in any way change the position for children who have statements of SEN naming a particular school. Those children must be admitted to the named school, regardless of the school's general admission arrangements or criteria. Indeed, from 2003, when a child with a statement transfers between phases of schooling—for example, from primary to secondary—the Education (Special Education Needs) (England) (Consolidation) Regulations require the LEA to amend the statement and to name the school that the child will be attending by 15th February in the year of transfer. LEAs will have to take those allocations as a fait accompli when allocating the remaining places under any co-ordinated admissions schemes for their area.

I recognise the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and her constructive idea about how to refine the way in which we deal with some of the problems associated with children with SEN and how a local authority can handle that with the greatest sensitivity and effectiveness. I shall take that issue away, consider it further and come back with further responses. I do not have the capacity to respond to it in detail at this point. It is an extremely useful suggestion, which I know is prompted by the noble Baroness's concern about those children, which I share.

I hope that I have assured noble Lords that all of the issues that have been raised—they are tremendously important issues—indicate that the Government are avoiding the division between the talking shop, which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, worried about, and the committee that wiped out the significance of local authorities in Britain to which my noble friend Lord Jones referred. All that I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, is that he will recall that one of the founding fathers of conservatism said that our constitution is balanced upon a nice equipoise; so is the concept of the forum.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

Perhaps the Minister will allow a comment on what he has said. He did not treat Amendment No. 182, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, on its merits; he simply told us that it was not the right amendment for this particular part of the Bill. He provided reassurance about other aspects of the law, and that of course was comforting. But can he tell the Committee whether he believes that Amendment No. 182 could sensibly be moved to another part of the Bill?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

It is for the noble Lord to see whether he can find another part of the Bill where the amendment would be more appropriately placed. Clearly it does not fit into this framework. I am conscious that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is always motivated by the concerns of the group of children and their parents on behalf of whom he speaks. We shall of course consider an amendment in detail when it is placed more appropriately in the Bill.

Photo of Lord Rix Lord Rix Crossbench

I thank all Members of the Committee who have spoken so cogently and splendidly in support of, or at least have commented upon, the amendment which I have just moved. I am most grateful to them all. I am grateful, in particular, to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for bringing up the question of my Amendment No. 182. I shall, of course, go away and seek advice from Mencap and the Special Educational Consortium as to a more suitable place for the amendment to be placed in the Bill. I am sorry that the Minister could not find the necessary place in his brief. But no doubt he will write to me on the matter, if he is so minded, in the next day or two.

I am also extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for her suggestion, which has been taken up by the Minister. I am sure that it will prove very fruitful in future discussions on special educational needs and disability.

I am delighted to have received so many assurances. Again, in consultation with Mencap and the Special Educational Consortium, I shall see whether I need to return to these amendments in some form or another at the next stage of the Bill. However, in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 177 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

moved Amendment No. 178:

Page 30, line 15, at end insert "but need not accept that advice".

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

I hope that I can be brief in speaking to this amendment. It refers to LEA and admission authorities which, I understand, under the law will have to have regard to any relevant advice given to them by the admission forum. My understanding of the phrase "having regard to" is that it gives statutory underpinning to any advice that is given by the admission forum to the LEA and the admission authorities. In principle, I have no argument with that. My amendment states,

"but need not accept that advice".

I am almost certain that, if I were in the Minister's shoes, I would say, "No, this is not going on the face of the Bill". I shall understand if that is the answer.

However, I believe that it is important to have on the record that all that is being proffered is advice. Of course, such advice could be challenged in any tribunal and it would be important for the admission authority and/or the LEA to prove in a court of law that, in coming to whatever decision or conclusion it reached, en passant it had had proper regard to the advice that it was given. But it would not necessarily in law bind the LEA or the admission authority to accept that advice. I should be grateful to have confirmation of that on the record. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

I rise briefly to support what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has just said. I am reminded of the debate about community health councils and the reasons that Parliament decided that community health councils had outlived their usefulness. One reason that the Government decided that they could do without CHCs was that they had become talking shops. They said that they were ineffective in championing the cause of patients and users of the health service. It seems strange to me that in the context of this other legislation we are setting up something that is not dissimilar. I have a fear that they will have a limited life expectancy. When people discover that the real decisions are still to be made by local councillors, they will properly go to their local councillors who will represent their interests to the local education authority.

Although I am all in favour of people being involved wherever possible on the ground—participation and involvement is crucially important—I return to the point about the devaluation of that process if we simply create talking shops. On the wall of my study at home I have a poster that says, "God so loved the world that he did not send a committee". Although I realise that committees are an essential part of our civic life and of our political existence, nevertheless we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in committees. Sometimes we know that they can be extremely futile.

I hope that further consideration will be given to this matter before Report stage. If all that is to be given on many of these issues is advice, and if people know that the real power and the real decisions will be taken elsewhere in local authorities, they will be reluctant to serve on such bodies. It is already difficult to find people to serve as school governors and in local authorities where they feel that their powers have been emasculated, so why on earth should anyone want to serve on one of these advisory forums?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

On Amendment No. 178, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, was correct in her assumption that had she been standing here she would not want to put that particular phrase on the face of the Bill. The Bill does not require admission authorities to accept any advice that the admission forums may agree to give. Quite deliberately, the clause says that such bodies should have regard to the advice, as the noble Baroness has pointed out. Those words are carefully chosen so as to leave those who receive advice some discretion. They do not have to follow the advice without question, but we would normally expect them to do so unless there were a good reason not to do so.

Perhaps I can give an example. If an admission forum made a recommendation at odds with the fundamental character of a school, such as that a single sex school should become co-educational or that a grammar school should cease to be selective, the admission authority could reasonably reject that advice after giving it due consideration. In that sense, the current drafting already provides that an admissions authority need not accept advice. I am happy to make that clear. I hope that that satisfies the noble Baroness.

On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I hesitate to sound excited about admission forums because I remember what happened when I said that I was excited about schools forums, but I genuinely am excited about them. That is partly because as a parent I have been on the receiving end of one that has worked well. They are not meant to be part of a large bureaucracy and I take the noble Lord's point about committees.

We are thinking about the meetings taking place twice a year. They will consider how the arrangements are working; the impact on children, on parents, on vulnerable children, on children with special educational needs and on those who arrive from outside the area; and how best our most vulnerable and challenging children can be shared, in the best sense of that word, between the different schools so that they come together. The task will not be onerous but the forums are meant to do a real job. The experience of parents on the receiving end of those that are already in place and working well is a happy and positive one. On that basis I hope that the noble Baroness is reassured and able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

Of course, I shall withdraw the amendment. I take with a slight pinch of salt what the noble Baroness has said about this being a committee that will have a light touch and meet only occasionally. Subsection (3) states:

"Regulations may make provision—

(a) as to the constitution, meetings and proceedings of an admission forum and of any such sub-committee,

(b) as to the manner in which advice is to be given by a forum, and

(c) as to the establishment by local education authorities of joint admission forums".

Of course, it will have sub-committees. So I am not absolutely certain that they will be anything like that. I believe that we shall see here the establishment of something that will be a talking shop. No doubt, two or three years down the line we shall see the monster that has been created. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 178A not moved.]

[Amendment No. 179 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

moved Amendment No. 180:

Page 30, line 19, at end insert—

"( ) Admission Forums shall seek the views of carers of children in public care and make these known to the admission authorities."

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

In moving Amendment No. 180, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 181. The purpose of these two probing amendments is to ensure that children in public care are gaining fair access to the better performing schools. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, referred to two similar amendments. Without wishing to make a case of special pleading, I ask the Committee to bear in mind that these children do not have parents to act as advocates for them. In that sense they are unique.

Currently those children are not gaining fair access to the better performing schools. Schools preoccupied with league table performance are averse to accepting needy children. There is a concern that many schools are prejudiced against children in public care. Such children are often still perceived as "bad", when in fact they are "needy".

Children are taken into public care throughout the school year. The better performing schools are unlikely to have places available mid-year. Better performing schools are of particular benefit to looked-after children. An ordered school environment helps to remedy the experience many of these children have had of a chaotic family environment and often an unsettled experience in public care. Good schools can help remedy the lack of clear boundaries the child has experienced, as well as put right the child's interrupted schooling.

I thank the Minister for the draft regulations. I welcome the inclusion, among the topics for forum deliberations, of arrangements for ensuring that vulnerable and challenging children are fairly shared. I ask for clarification: does the reference to "parents" also apply to carers of looked-after children?

Can the Minister assure the Committee that her measures are sufficiently robust? There has been a problem in engaging the interest of carers of looked-after children in the education of their charges. Can the Minister assure the Committee that forums will seek out, welcome and encourage the views of such carers? Can she assure the Committee that forums will give active consideration to the inclusion of carers or care agencies among their membership? What safeguards are there to ensure that admissions forums seek the views of carers of children in public care and reflect the needs of those children in any decisions they make on admissions?

Given the impact of admission arrangements on school improvements and school performance, what role does Ofsted play in reporting on the fair distribution of vulnerable and/or challenging children between local schools? I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I rise briefly to support the amendments in principle and also to elaborate a little on why the views of carers in particular need to be given more prominence.

If we look at the performance of children in care, we see huge disparities in terms of their achievements. It is critical that we are more pro-active, both in involving carers themselves, who are notoriously reluctant to take part in the formal arrangements that are often made for parents, but also to make it as easy as possible for their views and experiences to be collected.

In the joint guidance for children in public care published 18 months ago, which followed the QPO initiative, 15 different reasons were identified as to why children were failing to thrive in schools. They included a lack of information being available—there is obviously a crucial problem here—as well as a low value being put on education traditionally within the care services. Things have improved a great deal.

I welcome the admission forums as a positive step and as a way of introducing transparency and confidence to parents. I do not share the fears of Members opposite that they will simply be a talking shop. We have had nothing which can inform parents as to why admissions are determined the way they are and what arrangements there are for fairness and equality. They are absolutely justifiable.

Four years ago hardly any local authority in the country knew where its children in public care were. I was astonished by that. Two years ago only half of all local authorities knew what those children were achieving in schools. There is a "Bermuda Triangle" regarding information about children in public care. If the admission forums have the power to invite information and potential representation—I do not know whether they would have that power—it could be positive. We should take the opportunity that the Bill presents to encourage carers to be involved and schools and public authorities to know what is happening to children in public care.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

I entirely support the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in his intention to protect the interests of children in public care. I agree with him that these are some of our most vulnerable children. Members of the Committee will be aware that most children are in care because they have been subjected to neglect or abuse. Therefore, they are extremely vulnerable and need to be protected.

As my noble friend Lady Andrews has said, it is only in recent times that we have enabled ourselves to get to grips with the issues facing these children. We are beginning to target them as a group to ensure that they achieve an education and that they are able to take their place in society with the best possible support.

Therefore, we consider it right that responsibility for ensuring that admission arrangements work for all children should rest with the admission forums for that particular area. One of their responsibilities will be to broker arrangements for ensuring that vulnerable children, including those in public care, have fair access to local schools. All admission authorities will be required to have regard to any advice given by the forum.

One of the key functions of the admission forums will be to advise on local protocols to aid the swift placement of vulnerable children. We shall shortly be consulting on proposed regulations that will give admission forums responsibility to consider the issues relating to the issue of children in public care, and how to ensure that such children are placed in schools that meet their social, pastoral and academic needs. Subject to parliamentary approval we also propose to give extra guidance on suitable protocols in the admissions code.

In addition, we propose through regulations to introduce a requirement that social services are included as a member of admissions forums and to explain in the admission code that they should be in attendance for consideration of all aspects relating to vulnerable children and in-year admissions.

Finally, we also propose to consult on the possibility of recommending as good practice that all admission authorities give top priority on their over-subscription criteria and on any waiting lists to children in public care.

I am well aware of the issues surrounding the way that we want Ofsted to be involved in this matter. It is looking at the role of local education authorities which have the remit to ensure that these children are cared for in terms of education. The good news is that the picture is beginning to look more positive. We have a long way to go, but it is looking increasingly positive. I am a member of a group chaired by my honourable friend Jacqui Smith from the Department of Health. That group is specifically looking at support for children in care. I shall be very pleased to pass on the noble Earl's comments about the role of Ofsted and his general views, if that would help. With those assurances, I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

I thank the Minister for her very helpful and full reply to my concerns. In particular, I thank her for the welcome news about the inclusion of social services on the admission forums and about the top priority which is to be given to children in public care. I shall reflect on what she has said and consider what further steps need to be taken at the next stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 181 and 182 not moved.]

Clause 44 agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

moved Amendment No. 183:

After Clause 44, insert the following new clause—

"PARENTAL PREFERENCES

(1) Section 86 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (c. 31) (parental preference) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (3) after paragraph (c) there is inserted "; or

(d) if compliance with the preference would result in an unsustainable balance between boarding places and day places at a maintained boarding school.""

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

Amendment No. 183 addresses a small but significant issue, particularly for those who represent service interests. State boarding schools cater for some 700 families of servicemen and women. Essentially, the difficulty they face is an inability to ring-fence a certain number of places for boarders. That places the financial viability of the schools at risk. If during the course of a year a number of pupils decide to switch from boarding to day places, the boarding house can become uneconomic to maintain.

Perhaps I may set out the problem. Let us take a school with an admission number of, say, 120. Over the five years—years seven to 11—the school may therefore expect to have five times 120, that is 600, pupils. Let us suppose that 300 boarders and 300 day pupils were the optimum balance based on classroom and boarding accommodation. That would appear to imply 60 day pupils and 60 boarders per year, but that is incorrect. The pattern for demand for boarding places differs from that for day places. Schools often want to take in a smaller total number in year seven and subsequently grow by taking boarders into later years, following the actual numbers that apply. They may want to take in only, say, 40 boarders in year seven, but to take in extra boarders in subsequent years in response to demand—with often particularly strong demand in years nine and 10.

Furthermore, boarders often apply much later in the academic year than do day students, as the need for a boarding place is not always predictable well in advance because of an unexpected posting overseas, a change of job or even a change in family circumstances. Under current legislation, an appeals panel may allow appeals from unsuccessful day applicants and force the school to take in 80 day pupils and 40 boarders. That may prevent or limit the ability of the school subsequently to take in further boarders to fill its boarding capacity, because its classroom capacity is fully taken up. That is to say that, even though pupils could be accommodated for boarding, they could not be taught in the classroom.

The solution favoured by the Minister—this has been elicited from correspondence—is to have different admission numbers for each year. For example, in year seven, there could be 60 day pupils and 40 boarders, equalling 100 children; in year eight, no extra day pupils and 10 extra boarders; in year nine, no extra day pupils and 12 extra boarders; in year 10, no extra day pupils and 12 extra boarders; and in year 11, no extra children at all. That totals 600 in all.

There are two real problems with such a solution. The pattern of demand is not sufficiently predictable, and if it varies from the above numbers of boarders, places could still be given to day applicants, as occurs at present. Secondly, there would be nothing to prevent any or all boarders unilaterally switching from boarding to day status. Thus, such a solution can never adequately safeguard a school's ability to provide boarding. The only solution that will adequately protect state boarding schools is for them to be able to ring-fence a certain number of places as boarding only.

I cannot understand the department's reluctance to do something practical on those lines. I know that it is sympathetic, but it needs to do something to resolve the problem and prevent the possibility of some of those schools going out of business altogether. That would affect only the small number of schools with boarding places and would not create an issue for other schools.

I understand that this was another clause that was not discussed at all in another place, which is unfortunate. Nevertheless, I also understand that the Liberal Democrats were sympathetic to the case made and I look forward to their support for the amendment tonight. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat 10:45 pm, 14th May 2002

I rise to say briefly that yes, we entirely support the amendment. In fact, we tabled an alternative amendment to achieve the same thing. It is an important issue for that small number of schools that are state boarding schools as well as day schools. The problem is that because they cannot ring-fence boarding places under existing legislation, there is nothing to prevent parents from accepting a boarding place and then unilaterally declaring that they want it to be taken up as a day place.

For example, in one school last year, an admissions appeals panel allowed 13 successful appeals from day applicants to fill up the boarding places. That is not a major problem, but it is a problem. A small number of schools offer boarding places as well. They provide a useful service to service families, families of people who go abroad unexpectedly, families that have suffered bereavements and families in which there have been separations and divorces. There are all kinds of issues. A boarding place can be a useful thing, and those schools serve a useful purpose. We hope that the Government can come up with a solution to that little problem.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, my honourable friend the Minister of State has met representatives of the state boarding schools. We understand their difficulties and sympathise with them.

I shall give the short answer this evening, not the long answer. I hope that it will be of some help to noble Lords. An amendment similar to Amendment No. 185 holds out some promise of a solution because it would make things clear for parents. That approach may not commend itself to all maintained boarding schools because it is not particularly flexible. They would need to publish separate admissions numbers for boarding and day pupils for every year group in which they normally admit pupils and stick to those numbers. I can see the potential value for some schools.

I hope that, on the basis that we will come back on Report with our own proposals to address the problem, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

I understand that the hour dictated that we should have a short answer, but it was unsatisfactory.

The Minister knows that the people who represent boarding schools have been offered the proposition that they publish admissions numbers for each year. However, running the schools is an unpredictable business. Economic viability is important to them. I would like to think that the Minister could persuade the department to accept—even on a pilot scheme basis—that the schools should be run in the way that they themselves propose. If that caused any unfairness or disruption elsewhere in the system, it could be reversed.

The proposition offered to the Boarding Schools' Association by the Minister's colleagues in another place is not satisfactory. No doubt, we will return to the matter. I hope that, in the meantime, the Minister will reflect on the case that has been put. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 45 [Admission numbers]:

[Amendments Nos. 184 and 185 not moved.]

[Amendments Nos. 186 to 189 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

On Question, Whether Clause 45 shall stand part of the Bill?

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

I would appreciate a short discussion of what Clause 45 is intended to change about the current arrangements. I have found it reasonably impenetrable and would be grateful if the Minister could enlighten me.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

I shall certainly try. Essentially, we want to streamline the local decision-making process and reduce the burden on governors, education authorities and others involved.

The problem that standard numbers were introduced in the 1980s to deal with—schools refusing children places by saying that they were full when they were not—is no longer current. The changes that we introduced in 1998 have made standard number controls redundant. Admission authorities must now consult each other annually on their proposed admission arrangements, including admission numbers. Other admission authorities may object to the schools adjudicator about any aspect of admission arrangements, and admission authorities must follow their published admission arrangements.

There is significant support for a change. In our recent consultation, 81 per cent of respondents agreed to some extent with our proposals to abolish standard numbers and introduce a new capacity assessment formula. Under the old system, the standard number was the highest number when one considered the school capacity and two numbers based on the numbers in the school on two particular dates of overcrowding. The admission numbers were then set at or above that standard number. Any changes to those numbers required statutory proposals decided by the school organisation committee. It was a lengthy process. Under the new system, schools will simply publish admission numbers, and that will be it. Any other admission authority can object, as can any group of 10 parents. However, the process is straightforward and more effective.

I hope that that reassures the noble Lord that the measure is about reducing the administrative burden on admission authorities and school organisation committees which currently find the process of setting and changing standard numbers onerous and not worth while. Taken together with the provision relating to the publishing of admission numbers, we believe that abolishing standard numbers will reduce that burden while still underpinning the protection for parental preference. I hope that on that basis the noble Lord is able to withdraw his objection.

Clause 45 agreed to.

Clause 46 [Co-ordination of admission arrangements]:

[Amendment No. 190 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

moved Amendment No. 191:

Page 31, line 8, leave out "arrangements" and insert "dates"

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

The arrangements for admission and the actual admission of pupils are one of the most important functions which any school carries out. Schools which are their own admissions authority should be left as free as possible to make arrangements according to their own admissions criteria—which in any case have to be within the law. As far as possible, the criteria should be educational or academic in line with the major purpose of education.

The major exception to that concerns dates, because it is not helpful to parents or to schools if there is a range of dates by which parents will know whether or not their child has been accepted. Other aspects of admission should be the domain of the individual admissions authorities. If not, what would be the point of holding admissions authority status? If any school or local education authority makes that particularly onerous, it is likely to suffer by losing pupils and in the event losing popularity.

Most current admissions criteria are not educational at all; for instance, distance from school, sibling family connections, connection with staff, parental preference and so forth. But academic criteria are more and more ruled out; for example, ability, aptitude, subject preference, interviews and assessment of parental support. Increasingly, that creates problems for far too many schools. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

I am sure that, like me, the noble Baroness will have seen the distress caused to parents and children as the start of secondary schooling approaches and they have still not received an offer of a place. Other parents meanwhile have received multiple offers and sometimes hold on to them while deciding in their own time which to accept.

The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness would destroy the whole point of Clause 46, which is designed to ensure that admission arrangements in a local education authority area leading to the single offer of a school place are co-ordinated. Merely co-ordinating the dates on which children are admitted to a school would not achieve that.

We know that there are a few foundation and voluntary-aided schools which were concerned that co-ordinated admission arrangements would in some way reduce their right to decide and apply their own admissions policy and criteria. I can safely say "minority" because in response to our consultation only 22 per cent of voluntary-aided schools disagreed with our proposal.

I hope that I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that any such fears on their part are groundless. Foundation and voluntary-aided schools will continue to receive all applications from parents who wish their children to attend them. They will also continue to apply their own admissions and oversubscription criteria in order to identify which applicants meet their admissions criteria and in what order.

The main difference a co-ordinated scheme will make to foundation and voluntary-aided schools is that, rather than put forward the offer themselves, they will notify the relevant education authority as to which schools are eligible. Each local education authority will then check in relation to all pupils resident in its area the potential offers to be made. Applying the rules applicable to the co-ordinated scheme in question, the education authority will then decide what offer will be made to those who would otherwise receive multiple offers, or none, and then the local education authority will transmit the single offer of a school place to residents in their area. But where any such offer is for a foundation or a voluntary-aided school place, the education authority will be making that offer on behalf of the school concerned.

The measure is not only about dates; it is about making sure that when children are applying to schools they receive an appropriate offer. However, that will not interfere with the admission arrangements of any of the schools which control their own admission arrangements. I hope that on that basis the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative 11:00 pm, 14th May 2002

I shall need to read more carefully the noble Baroness's response. However, I think that my amendment would resolve some of those problems. If the dates by which parents are informed are set by the authority; that is, people are not allowed to stagger information with a whole range of dates in operation—that leads to one school waiting on other schools and parents waiting on offers of places from different schools—and if no decision is made by that date then the offer would go by the board, I think that would be helpful. That would leave the arrangements up to the individual admissions authorities, whether they are the LEA or the individual schools.

As I have said, I shall read with care the response of the noble Baroness. In the meantime, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 192 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

[Amendment No. 193 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

moved Amendment No. 194:

Page 31, line 12, at end insert—

"( ) Powers under these regulations shall not be used in such a way as to interfere with the admissions procedures of schools that select pupils by ability or aptitude."

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

This amendment specifies that any admissions arrangements shall not,

"interfere with the admissions procedures of schools that select pupils by ability or aptitude".

I know that there are philosophical objections to the idea of any selection on the basis of ability, but there are schools that, under the current system, are allowed bona fide to select pupils by ability. Of course other schools have now been added to the system that are allowed to select by aptitude.

The purpose of my amendment is to ensure that the powers under these regulations are not used in such a way that they would interfere with the admissions procedures of schools selecting by ability and/or aptitude. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

I am happy to give that assurance to the noble Baroness. Co-ordinated admission arrangements will not affect the current rights of schools which are their own admission authorities to decide their own admission policies, apply them to applicants, identify those who meet their admissions criteria, and in what order. I am happy to make the position clear.

However, the amendment as drafted would go further than that since it rules out any changes in admissions procedures. We believe that admissions "procedures" are not confined to schools' admission policies, but include all aspects of the processing of admission applications, such as timetables, where application forms are to be sent, how any potential multiple offers are dealt with, transmitting offers and so forth. Inevitably, co-ordinating admission arrangements will mean changes in such processing aspects. The amendment would undermine our objective of assuring that each child is offered a single place.

I hope, therefore, that with the clear assurance that nothing here would disturb admission policies, the noble Baroness will recognise that her amendment would raise some difficulties and that she will feel able to withdraw it.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

I think I take the point made by the noble Lord about admission procedures in his response. I think that the noble Lord knows what I am asking for by way of this amendment and I think that he has given me the assurance that I seek. I am not quite sure whether the admissions procedures of schools that do select by ability and/or aptitude could be affected by the regulations.

However, I take on trust what the noble Lord has said and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 195 to 197 not moved.]

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

moved Amendment No. 198:

Page 31, line 43, at end insert ", or

"(c) that in considering admissions to a particular school, no admission authority shall be permitted to take into consideration information relating to parental preferences other than the fact that a parent has expressed a preference for that school, and that no local education authority shall supply an admissions authority with information relating to parental preferences other than that which they are entitled to take into consideration"

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

I beg to move Amendment No. 198. I am concerned that the admissions arrangements should be managed in as parent-friendly a way as possible. At last, for the coming year, we have a situation with UCAS applications whereby universities will not know to which other universities people have applied. There had been a growing practice for some universities automatically to refuse admission to candidates who had applied for Oxford or Cambridge because they wished to see only those candidates who had placed themselves first. I do not think that that was constructive so far as the students were concerned. The process became a competitive system for universities seeking to admit the best candidates and thus was antipathetic to the best interests of students.

In the private sector, that process is a common means of competition between schools. If the school is in the second rank, an early admissions date is set, scholarships are offered to anyone one considers will get into the schools of the first rank, and the cut-off date for acceptance is set before parents can know whether they have a place at the school they would prefer their child to attend.

The private sector is the private sector. It will have many ways of making parents' lives difficult under those circumstances. I suppose that all is fair in commercial competition. Life should not be like that in the state sector, but in some places it is. For example, in Kent—I understand why the schools do so—if one wants to get into one of the better non-selective schools, one must put that school first. If one puts a grammar school first, one never gets a chance.

I hope that under the arrangements described today by the Minister we shall have a system whereby a school which receives an application from a pupil will not know to which other schools that pupil has applied. The school does not need to know. It simply needs to know that the pupil has applied to that school. The school matches the pupil against its admission criteria and decides whether the pupil should be accepted. It is then up to the LEA, or whichever body is co-ordinating the admission arrangements, to say, "Yes, this pupil has received two offers under the scheme. The offer he or she ends up receiving is A or B". That means that everything is as good as it could be for the pupils. There is no prejudice. For a parent who wants to put a non-standard school first, there is none of the terrible competition and difficulties attached, with the possibility of losing any chance of a place in their neighbourhood school.

Parents who are Catholic may want a chance of a place at a Catholic school 20 miles away which is heavily over-subscribed. If they did not manage to achieve that, they would be content for the child to go to the neighbourhood school. However, because that school is over-subscribed and they put it second, they are off the list. I do not think that that is the way things should be in the state system. The state system should look at an application on its merits as though it were the only application for that child. All the school should know is that a child with these qualifications wants to go to that school; and the school should decide on that basis. The "unders" and "overs" and double offers should be dealt with by the LEA on the basis of its published scheme. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will agree that my amendment is unnecessary. I beg to move.

Photo of The Bishop of Blackburn The Bishop of Blackburn Bishop

I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me, but I am not sure that I understand. If I do understand, I am not sure how the system will work. How will the Catholic school 20 miles away know why that parent wishes to have a Catholic education for the child? In the case of specialist or faith schools, or schools of a religious character, the admission authority will need to know slightly more than that the parents had a preference for that school.

The Churches went quickly for the comprehensive principle. I do not think that there is a single voluntary-aided, Church-sponsored grammar school left. I do not comment on whether that is good or bad. If a parent from a deprived area, who was a practising member of whichever Church or faith it happened to be, wanted his child to go to a school in the leafy suburbs which was seen by some to be élitist, how could the governors of that school know that the parents were members of that faith community, or wanted the specialism that might be required, if this amendment is agreed to as worded? I pose that as a question because I may not quite understand what the noble Lord has in mind.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

I did not intend the words of the amendment to be capable of the construction the right reverend Prelate gives them. A parent expresses a choice by saying, "This first, that second, and that third". A school should not know that it is the third choice. It should be able to have information necessary to satisfy its other criteria: where the parent lives; their religious background; special educational needs; and anything else that is important in deciding to admit the child. The school should not know whether it has been the first, second or third choice, merely that a preference has been expressed for the school.

Photo of The Bishop of Blackburn The Bishop of Blackburn Bishop

I really do not believe that the amendment before the Committee actually says that; it just refers to "parental preferences". It could limit the social mix that I know the noble Lord is very keen to see evolve. I hope, therefore, that he will withdraw the amendment, and perhaps return later with another composed of different wording.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate. Indeed, he has presented rather more effectively the case that I intended to make. Perhaps I may begin by expressing a segment of agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I believe that LEAs should only share information about the order of preference if it is relevant to the admission arrangements of a school. Regulations and guidance will ensure that that is the case.

My reservations about the amendment follow directly on the argument advanced by the right reverend Prelate; namely, that schools will need to know more than just the preference. Indeed, they will need to know why a parent has chosen that school in the context, for example, of denominational choice. In passing, I should point out to the noble Lord that I do not believe that school admissions are quite comparable to those that apply to UCCA. However, I accept his arguments about the previous practices that obtained with regard to university entrance. Like the noble Lord, I welcome the changes.

Once again in this House, when we are discussing admissions to secondary schools, I regret the fact that higher education has been brought into the argument. All too often, our education debates are suffused with information about higher education so as to detract from the point at hand. I shall not, therefore, follow the noble Lord too far down that road. However, I wish to emphasise exactly what the right reverend Prelate indicated.

I share the objectives of the noble Lord, and recognise exactly what he is trying to achieve. But, unfortunately, the amendment would leave us in a position where appropriate information would not be available to the school authorities seeking to make the decision. That would occur especially where the parent was seeking admission for a child to another smaller school outside the immediate local authority. In such a situation, the sharing of such information would be directly in the interests both of the parent and of the child.

I hope that the noble Lord will recognise that he has at least had the opportunity to express a sentiment which I significantly share. However, he must realise that the present amendment has certain defects. On that basis, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

I agree that the amendment is badly drafted. As I understand it, the Minister has said that the point that I am trying to make will be covered in guidance. Under those circumstances, I am happy to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 198A not moved.]

Clause 46 agreed to.

Clause 47 [Admission appeals]:

Photo of Baroness Darcy de Knayth Baroness Darcy de Knayth Crossbench

moved Amendment No. 199:

Page 32, line 41, at end insert—

"( ) Regulations shall make provision for a legally qualified person, trained in an understanding of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (c. 50), as amended by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (c. 10), to chair any appeal panel where a claim of disability discrimination is being heard as part of an admissions appeal."

Photo of Baroness Darcy de Knayth Baroness Darcy de Knayth Crossbench

This amendment would ensure that a "legally qualified person" chairs any appeal panel where a claim of disability discrimination is being heard as part of an admission appeal. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 amended the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (the DDA) to cover education in all aspects of school life—admissions, exclusion, education and associated services. The provision comes into effect this September.

The DDA duties are new. Whereas duties under the special educational needs legislation were about provision meeting needs, the DDA requires schools: first, not to treat disabled pupils less favourably; and, secondly, to make "reasonable adjustments". Those duties have been widely welcomed, because they bring reasonable protection from unlawful discrimination. The National Autistic Society says that children on the autistic spectrum without a statement are frequently turned away from the school of their choice, especially those with Asperger's syndrome who are above average academically but need support and social interaction, as well as communication.

The SEC argues that determining whether or not unlawful discrimination has taken place—the questions of less favourable treatment, reasonable adjustments and, perhaps hardest of all, an adequate understanding of the definition of "disability"—is a complex matter. That is why it feels the amendment is necessary.

Other claims of unlawful discrimination will be heard by SENDIST, which has legally qualified chairs and members who will be specially trained over a number of days and develop expertise in hearing cases. This level of knowledge and expertise must be available locally if we are to avoid errors being made.

I hope that the Minister can give an encouraging reply. At any rate, can she say how much training members will have in the DDA? Will the clerk have legal training in the DDA specifically? How will panel members access specialist advice on the DDA? Could a parent feel confident that every panel member will be properly equipped to hear claims of disability discrimination? I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Rix Lord Rix Crossbench

I wish to speak to Amendment No. 200, which stands in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford.

There will be some children for whom some schools at particular times can provide an appropriate education without risk of prejudice to the education of other children. However, it is easy for an admissions authority to use this escape clause to deny admission to children who are simply difficult in as much as they require extra effort, extra resources or extra skills because of their special educational needs.

Amendment No. 200 would increase parents' confidence that SENDA tribunals will not conspire with schools in turning special needs into unnecessary barriers. It will do so by ensuring that effective ways of meeting special needs have been fully considered before a decision to deny admission is confirmed, thus avoiding any possible prejudices to the interests of other children. I look forward to a favourable reply.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

So far as concerns the clause stand part, I merely hope that the noble Baroness will cover a little of what the new clause changes.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

I shall begin by doing precisely what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has asked me to do. Very briefly, this clause amends Section 94 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. We intend to prescribe in regulation the arrangements for parents whose child is not offered a place at their preferred school to be able to appeal to an independent appeal panel. Those regulations will simply replicate the existing provisions in Schedule 24 to the 1998 Act.

Apart from replicating Schedule 24 in regulations, we do not intend to make any changes to the arrangements for admission appeal panels at the moment. However, we are monitoring how admission appeal panels work and, if any changes become necessary, we will be able to make them more quickly than at present by amending the regulations.

We believe that the current arrangements are sensible and workable. Indeed, recent research by Sheffield Hallam University agrees with this conclusion. Changes are therefore unnecessary. But, as I said, we would like to have the flexibility to respond and make changes if and when they are needed. I hope therefore that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will agree that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

As to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, in regard to the training for chairs of appeal panels, from this September the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, as amended by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, will apply to access to education for the first time. Schools and local education authorities will be subject to new legal duties not to treat disabled pupils or prospective pupils less favourably than their non-disabled peers without justification and to take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled pupils are not placed at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to non-disabled pupils.

In regard to Amendment No. 199, I suggest that legal qualification is not necessary. By way of comparison, magistrates routinely administer the criminal law without being legally qualified persons but they do of course have access to legal advice from their clerk. Similarly, an appeal panel needs good sense and access to a clerk having legal knowledge and training. We have made it clear in statutory guidance that the clerk to the appeal panel should have legal training and be familiar with admissions and equal opportunities legislation. In addition, specific, targeted training is being developed for chairs of appeal panels that will include training on disability discrimination cases. We also intend to provide additional training material for other panel members.

We are confident, therefore, in relation to Amendment No. 199 that admission appeals panels will be well prepared for their new responsibilities and will be an effective forum for redress in disability discrimination cases in relation to admission to education authority maintained schools. I also make the point that we ought perhaps to wait to see the provisions of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act in operation before we consider further change.

In addition, Amendment No. 199 presupposes that it will always be possible to identify beforehand those cases in which a claim of disability discrimination is involved. However, this may sometimes not be apparent until an admission appeal is actually being heard. In such cases, if the chair of the panel in question were not legally qualified, the amendment would require the hearing to be discontinued and a new panel convened with a legally qualified chair. This again could be unsatisfactory for the parents and child concerned.

Finally, I would argue that Amendment No. 199 would also be impractical, simply because of the number of appeals that take place each year. Perhaps I may remind Members of the Committee that these are locally arranged by individual local education authorities and governing bodies of schools that are their own admission authority, such as foundation and voluntary-aided schools. Appeals panel members are unpaid volunteers. Requiring the panels to include a legally qualified volunteer chair would inevitably mean delays in the appeals process, leaving parents and children with uncertainty for even longer, while a suitable person is found and the panel is arranged.

I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, will find these views persuasive.

I turn finally to the amendment standing in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford. We believe that the amendment is unnecessary. Current legislation already provides children with special educational needs with the protection that the amendment seems to be seeking.

Section 86 of the School Standards and Framework Act places a duty on education authorities and governing bodies of maintained schools to comply with any parental preference, expressed in accordance with local arrangements, as to the school at which they want their child to be educated. However, this duty does not apply in relation to any child where compliance with the duty would prejudice efficient education or would be incompatible with wholly selective admission arrangements. These admission provisions apply to the majority of children with special educational needs, since the majority do not have special educational needs statements.

The school admissions code of practice advises that, so far as possible, any arrangements for testing ability or aptitude should be accessible to children with special educational needs, and gives examples of how this might be achieved. The code also makes clear that children with special educational needs but no statement should be treated as fairly under a school's admission criteria, including its over-subscription criteria, as other applicants.

Where children with special educational needs, but for whom statements are not maintained, fulfil the criteria to be admitted to a selective maintained school, the school is under a duty to use its best endeavours to make the provision which their learning difficulties call for. This might include support for any particular aptitudes and abilities which such children may have.

The admissions provisions in the School Standards and Framework Act, including those relating to appeals, generally do not apply to children with statements of special educational needs. Under the 1996 Act, the admission route for such children is through a school being named in a statement; parental appeals against the content of the statement (including the school named) are considered by the Special Educational Needs Tribunal rather than by local admission appeals panels. Where parents express a preference for a school, it must be one that is suitable for the child, bearing in mind his or her age, aptitude and ability, if it is to be named in the statement.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, will agree, therefore, that the proposed amendment is unnecessary and will not press it.

Photo of Baroness Darcy de Knayth Baroness Darcy de Knayth Crossbench

Before I decide what to do with my amendment, I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Rix wishes to comment.

Photo of Lord Rix Lord Rix Crossbench

No. I shall obviously have to read the Minister's words tomorrow morning, when my mind is a little clearer.

Photo of Baroness Darcy de Knayth Baroness Darcy de Knayth Crossbench

I thank the Minister for her reply. Obviously, I should have liked her to accept the amendment. I am grateful for what she has said. I am very pleased that the clerk will have legal training. I think that she referred to fair admissions and equal opportunities, but I am not sure that she said anything about DDA training for the clerk. It is very important that he is familiar with the DDA. She also mentioned DDA training for chairmen. That is important not only for chairmen; all members of the panel should have training on the DDA and access to advice. I see the Minister nodding again. Good. I am ticking off my shopping list.

That is reasonably satisfactory. I shall read carefully what the Minister has said and go back to see what the SEC says. If necessary, perhaps we could discuss these points further outwith the Chamber, but meanwhile I am grateful to the Minister for her careful answer and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 200 not moved.]

Clause 47 agreed to.

Clause 48 agreed to.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at twenty-six minutes past eleven o'clock.