Academies Bill [HL] — Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 7th July 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords 4:30 pm, 7th July 2010

My Lords, in moving Amendment 8, I shall speak also to Amendments 17B, 32A and 33A. I am grateful for the discussions that we have had with the noble Lord and the Bill team on these issues.

Amendment 8 relates to the admissions code. We believe firmly that the duty to comply with the code should be in the Bill. The Minister gave us his assurance in Committee that all new academies will have to comply with the admissions code, and I am grateful for that, but there is a question of confidence, clarity and the empowerment of parents. We have all had representations expressing concern about the admissions code for academies and there can be no better way to inspire confidence than by a clear statement in the Bill.

As we know, the code of practice seeks to establish terms within which fair admissions criteria operate, including those applied in cases in which schools are oversubscribed. This latter consideration is particularly important in relation to academies, where evidence suggests that they are more likely than other schools to be oversubscribed.

While the code of practice seeks to establish practices that ensure fairness in cases of oversubscription, examples exist of school-level approaches that undermine that aim. For example, residency criteria have been misused in order to skew intakes to particular schools, and it is apparent that a number of admissions authorities have failed to put transparent arrangements in place in this respect. Concern also exists that interviews or some other form of pre-admissions contact between schools, pupils and their families are still used in some cases to resolve oversubscription issues, notwithstanding their express prohibition by the code.

These practices can result in discriminatory outcomes for pupils and their families, compounded by the fact that the results of interviews can be difficult to justify objectively and transparently. Although parental interviews were outlawed by the previous Government, evidence has emerged of some schools using a series of meetings in the run-up to applications for admission that are designed to deter certain parents from applying through small group discussions with parents and senior members of staff. They are not interviews but they have the same effect.

I understand that all noble Lords would be against such practices, and that they would not be condoned by either the Government or the Opposition. It is important, however, that all concerned, especially parents, are aware of the applicability of the code. Its incorporation into the terms of the Academies Bill would assist with the establishment of greater clarity within the system, and it would inspire confidence by lessening the scope for ambiguity about the terms of the code or its applicability to academies. I therefore urge the Minister to accept this amendment.

Paragraph 122 of the admissions code relates to expansion and grammar schools and brings me to my other amendments in this group. My reading of the code is that if a grammar school wished to expand, there would have to be consultation. We deal with this issue in Amendment 32A. If there are to be selective academies, we believe that it is important that they should not be able to expand without consultation; to do so could lead to an imbalance in the provision of educational opportunities in a community. I know that the Minister has written to my noble friend Lady Morgan of Drefelin on this issue, and I would be grateful if he would confirm for the record that the Government will allow selective academies to expand where a strong business case has been made and where there has been local consultation.

On Amendments 17B and 33A, the House will be well aware that the previous Government introduced academies for the primary purpose of lifting standards in disadvantaged schools in disadvantaged areas, and we are proud of that achievement. While the extension of academy status to schools of excellence is one step, we believe that the extension of schools that are selective is a step too far. We are against selection in principle, and to allow grammar schools to become academies would represent a significant and concerning departure from the programme of the previous Government, where academies were prevented from admitting pupils on the basis of ability.