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Schools: Admissions Code — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 9th March 2016.

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Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 3:15 pm, 9th March 2016

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they are proposing to prevent some parents and organisations from objecting to violations of the School Admissions Code.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we want the schools adjudicator to focus on concerns that parents might have about the admission arrangements of their local school. We also want to free schools from bureaucracy so that they can focus on delivering excellent education. We propose that only local parents and local authorities be able to refer objections about a school’s admissions arrangements. That change will be subject to full public consultation and parliamentary approval.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Given that the schools adjudicator’s most recent report highlighted that violations of the school admissions code were widespread, noble Lords may not regard it as a coincidence that there is currently no body charged with enforcing and monitoring that code. Does the noble Baroness agree that the establishment of an independent body with responsibility for enforcement of the code is overdue? If that were done, there might be less concern about the banning of organisations that can raise questions.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

We want to put parental concerns at the heart of the system, which is why we want the adjudicator to focus on those concerns. It is not great for parents that it now takes 49 days for them to hear the result of their objection; that has risen from 26 days. We want the schools adjudicator—she herself has suggested it—to limit those who can make an objection, to put parents at the centre.

Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Conservative

My Lords, will the Government consider advising Front-Benchers that Question Time is for Back-Benchers, not Front-Benchers?

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister for saying in response to the earlier question that parents will be at the heart of school admissions policy because, in her latest report, the Chief Schools Adjudicator states that:

“Admission arrangements for too many schools that are their own admission authority”— that is, academies—

“are unnecessarily complex. The arrangements appear to be more likely to enable the school to choose which children to admit”.

What action is the Minister proposing to ensure fair access for all children?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The schools admission system is working well. Last year, the adjudicator received 218 objections, but they related to just 1.1% of schools. Of course it is right that parents can raise their objections when they need to, which is why we also propose to give them a greater voice by requiring admissions authorities to consult on their arrangements every four years rather than every seven years as currently.

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour

My Lords, I understand that there is to be a consultation on a package of changes to the schools admissions code and that there will be measures on fairness and transparency. Will the Minister define what the Government actually mean about fairness and transparency?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Schools obviously have to publish their admissions codes. It is most important that parents understand what they are and what they mean so that, if they want to send their child to a school, they understand the criteria on which it will judge. We want to put parents at the heart of this, which is why we propose to make sure that their concerns are raised by the adjudicator and can be looked at in a timely fashion. We also want to make sure that schools explain their admissions policies clearly so that parents can try to get their children to the schools they want.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

My Lords, we now have reliable information that virtually all religiously selective schools breach the schools admissions code, some in a very serious way. Does the Minister agree that serious breaches of the code are thoroughly unacceptable? Will Ministers agree to meet the British Humanist Association and the Fair Admissions Campaign to discuss the importance of having some informed organisation, whatever that might be, to make sure that the authorities are aware when breaches occur?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

It is certainly true that, if any school is breaching the admissions code, that cannot be acceptable. The noble Baroness refers to faith schools in particular, but actually a lot of the issues raised in the report An Unholy Mess, which I think she is referring to, were related not to faith but to other issues such as banding, sixth-form admissions arrangements and the use of incorrect definitions. Still, schools of course have to get their admissions codes right, which is why we want to put parents’ concerns at the heart of the process and ensure that admissions codes are clear for all parents.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

My Lords, we know that some campaign groups are actually targeting faith-based schools as part of a broader agenda. How many of the upheld objections were unrelated to religious selection criteria, and how many were upheld on minor administrative infringements? Are the significant time and resources used to respond to such objections justified in the light of those numbers?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

As I said in my previous answer, many of the faults that were found related not to faith but to other issues. Church and faith schools make a significant contribution to our education system: 87% of faith schools are good or outstanding, compared with 82% of non-faith schools. Of course schools have to abide by the correct codes, but it is important to recognise the value that these schools add to our education system.

Noble Lords:

O’Shaughnessy!

Photo of Lord O'Shaughnessy Lord O'Shaughnessy Conservative

Your Lordships are very generous to a newcomer; thank you. As we have heard, church schools have been the subject of many vexatious attempts to take them to the admissions adjudicator. I ask the Minister to condemn those who abuse the school admissions code to make political and ideological points. I declare an interest as a parent with a son at a Catholic school. I also invite the Minister to pay tribute to the many excellent church schools, which not only are more ethnically diverse than average schools but are more likely to have a good or outstanding judgment from Ofsted.

Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour

My Lords, following the noble Lord—

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Baroness can answer the question for me if she likes. As I said, we want to ensure that parents are at the heart of this process, which is why we want to ensure that adjudications are not held up by the need to consider large numbers of objections referred by interest groups. Unfortunately, because of some campaigns, parents now have to wait longer for the outcome of their appeals, and that cannot be right.