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11.16 pm

The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on securing the debate. I am grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to outline what the Government propose to do in the Education Bill and how that will affect parents and children in Kent. We are committed to maximising parental preference while raising standards of education for all children, which will make parents' preferences more meaningful.

As the right hon. Lady knows, the supply of school places is a necessary element in parental choice. Each local education authority must ensure that there are sufficient school places for children of compulsory school age in its area through its school organisation plan. LEAs are required to review the position annually, and take steps to ensure that they provide sufficient school places to meet demand. The plan must be made available for local consultation and show the projected demand for places and the LEA's proposals for meeting that demand, for example, by expanding existing schools or opening new schools. She will know that in her constituency in Maidstone, the LEA plans to meet the projected increase in demand by adding 680 secondary school places by 2005-06.

As hon. Members know, legislation gives parents the right to express a preference for the school at which they wish their children to be educated. There is a duty on LEAs and school governing bodies to comply with that

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parental preference except in specified circumstances. The most common reason why parents cannot get a place at their preferred school is over-subscription. Schools must publish details in their prospectus of how the available places will be allocated if there is too much demand. The LEA must publish a composite prospectus giving a summary of admission policies for all maintained schools in its area. In large areas such as Kent, there may be more than one composite prospectus. Admission arrangements are set following an annual statutory consultation involving the LEA and schools. Any admission authority consulted may object to the schools adjudicator if it has concerns about any aspect of the determined admission arrangements.

In the case of some partially selective admission arrangements, local parents can also object. The adjudicator who takes the decisions when there is an objection is, of course, independent of the Government; we have no input to his decisions, which can be overturned only by the courts. If we followed the right hon. Lady's suggestion that schools set their own admissions criteria, it would add to the problems that I know that her constituents and families in Kent face. It would add to the chaos, produce greater differences, and there would be even less uniformity and more distress to parents and families, which I accept is what has given rise to this debate.

This year, the adjudicator in Kent made decisions which, judging by representations to the Department, seem to have resulted in much misunderstanding and confusion among parents and schools alike. It may be helpful if I clarify their main effects. This year, Kent LEA decided to introduce county-wide secondary transfer arrangements whereby children sat the grammar school selection tests before parents stated their preferences for schools, an arrangement that had previously operated only in one area of Kent. As the right hon. Lady knows, opinion is split among Kent schools and parents over whether it is fairer to test children before or after preferences are made. She came down on one side of that argument.

The argument has been the subject of much heated debate in the county, and some of Kent's own-admission authority schools objected to the adjudicator about the change. That was why the adjudicator became involved. In July, the adjudicator considered the objections and a counter-objection from the LEA to the arrangements of some own-admission authority schools.

The most significant of the adjudicator's determinations on the objections were that parents must now be asked to express their school preference before entering their child for the grammar school selective test, and that all schools must adhere to the admissions timetable set by the LEA. The adjudicator took the view that, in effect, testing before preferences gave some parents two first preferences, putting them at an advantage over parents who wanted a place only at a non-selective school. I hope that the right hon. Lady will accept the validity of that argument.

The LEA then made a number of changes to its admission arrangements to implement the adjudicator's decision, but that resulted in complaints from selective schools, which considered that the LEA was introducing more changes than were necessary. The most controversial was the LEA's decision that only those children whose parents had named a grammar school as

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their first preference school should be permitted to sit the selective test. As a result of those complaints, the LEA referred details of its proposed changes back to the schools adjudicator for consideration. I sympathise with the confusion that that must have caused to parents in the area that the right hon. Lady represents.

In October, the adjudicator made a decision on Kent's proposed changes, ruling that any child whose parent had named a grammar school as one of their preferred schools should be allowed to sit the 11-plus, regardless of whether a selective school was their first preference. A closing date of 30 November was set for the expression of preferences, as was a common date—20 December—for notification of allocation of places at non-selective schools.

Although this decision seems to have recognised the concerns of most parents and the selective schools that complained about the original decision, many non-selective schools are now unhappy. My officials have had complaints from parents of schools choosing to interpret the adjudicator's decision in their own way, or simply ignoring it. We are investigating the complaints on a case-by-case basis and, even at this late stage, the adjudicator has considered an application from an own-admission authority school to vary its admission arrangements to take account of the October determination.

In the Education Bill, we are proposing changes to legislation that I hope will be helpful. LEAs will be required to co-ordinate the admissions process for their areas. That does not prevent aided and foundation schools from applying their own admission policies; it recognises the need to simplify the process for parents. That was highlighted by the research that we commissioned jointly from Sheffield Hallam university and the Office for National Statistics, which was published in June. We consulted on our proposals for changes to the admissions framework, and had substantial agreement to that recommendation—88 per cent. of respondents were in favour of an LEA co-ordinated approach.

What we have proposed allows a scheme for co-ordinating the allocation of school places to be agreed locally. I hope that the right hon. Lady will accept that agreeing these matters locally is the best way to proceed. Parents will complete a single, common application form naming their preferred school or schools and return it initially to a central point. On a locally agreed date, LEAs will make one offer of a school place to the parents of each child living in their area. That has the advantage of dispensing with the unfair situation that we have often seen in which some parents hold multiple offers of school places and other parents have none.

The system will also require greater sharing of information between admission authorities and their LEAs and between neighbouring local education authorities. That will give LEAs the information that they need to identify children who have not been placed and enable them to intervene at an earlier stage where it is necessary to do so. The new system that will be introduced if the Education Bill is enacted by the House will not deal with all the issues that the right hon. Lady raised unless the schools in the area that she represents are willing to co-operate in the best interests of parents and children, so that the confusion that they are currently experiencing in

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respect of the fact that there are different admission arrangements in the different schools can be lessened. Parental preference can work well only if parents have a choice between equally good schools, as I hope she will accept. That is why we have put raising standards in all schools for all children at the forefront of our agenda.

Although GCSE results have improved and the number of children leaving school without qualifications has fallen, there is still a great deal to be done on that agenda. Part of our solution is to extend diversity in secondary schools—I hope that the right hon. Lady welcomes this also—so that every secondary school can develop its own unique ethos. We are expanding the successful specialist schools programme, with every school ready for specialist status being encouraged to seek it and support being given to those who are working towards that status. By 2005, we would expect to see at least 1,500 specialist schools. We are giving successful schools greater freedom, which I also hope that she welcomes, to take full responsibility for their mission to raise standards. They will be encouraged to excel and innovate, with the best schools gaining greater freedom, for example, to take new approaches to staffing or accelerated learning.

We want to spread good practice and are establishing a schools innovation unit that will work with teachers and heads to help to stimulate and disseminate new ideas, especially in relation to catering better for pupils' different requirements and aspirations. Governing bodies will also be able to work together to create families of local schools, sharing problems and pooling resources in everyone's best interests.

We are already encouraging selective and non-selective schools to work together by inviting partnerships of such schools to apply for new funding of up to £20,000 per partnership to develop collaborative projects. We hope that that will help to break down the perceived barriers between the two sectors and raise standards in teaching and learning. I am sure that the right hon. Lady will welcome, as I do, the fact that, of the 28 partnerships that have been approved so far, six are within Kent. The type of project in which they are engaged ranges from collaboration on post-16 courses to staff exchanges. I have some hope that, by establishing these new partnerships, there will be greater collaboration on admission arrangements, so that life can be made easier for parents when they come to choose a secondary school for their children.

We also support greater innovation and excellence in creating new schools. If a new maintained school is required, the local education authority will advertise so that an interested party can put forward proposals and have them considered on their merits by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Any proposed new school will have to be covered by one of the existing categories, or be an academy, and will have to meet the usual statutory requirements concerning, for example, the national curriculum and teacher employment.

We are responding to the wishes of many parents in trying to ensure that successful and popular schools can expand more easily. Perhaps that will also help the right hon. Lady. The governing bodies of successful schools will be able to appeal to the adjudicator if their proposals for expansion are turned down by the school organisation committee.

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We recognise the need to tackle low standards in schools, and we have therefore introduced new measures. Some schools that face challenging circumstances will receive a programme of support with the aim of ensuring that at least 25 per cent. of pupils at every school obtain five GCSEs at grade A to C by 2006. Kent has 28 schools where 25 per cent. or fewer pupils attained five or more GCSEs at A to C grade in 2001.

If we can improve the achievement in those schools, we will provide diversity and better choice for parents who live in the area. All those schools received targeted school improvement grant of up to £70,000 per annum to support them in raising attainment. As the right hon. Lady knows, the schools are subject to monitoring visits from Ofsted to ensure that they focus on agreed action, which will have a sustainable effect on pupils' attainment. Local education authorities will invite, or if necessary, be instructed to invite, external partners to help turn around failing schools.

All those plans to improve standards can come to fruition only if we have sufficient well-trained and well-motivated teachers. Therefore, our policies on teacher recruitment and retention are vital. In the lifetime of this Parliament, we will recruit 10,000 more teachers, 20,000 more support staff and 1,000 more trained bursars.

We are also reviewing teachers' work loads so that we can find ways to ensure proper time for preparation, development and management. That work is being overseen by a group that includes representatives of teaching and head teacher associations.

Tackling disruptive behaviour is another important factor in ensuring equality of standards. An additional 40 pupil referral units will be opened, more learning support units and learning mentors will be introduced, and parenting orders will be extended to ensure that parents take responsibility for their child's behaviour. Admission forums will be made mandatory; one of their tasks will be to consider schemes for sharing challenging pupils fairly among all schools.

Ensuring that all parents get their preferred choice of school depends on local institutions co-operating and working together. I hope that the right hon. Lady will

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work in her locality to ensure that we can achieve that. The effect of our initiatives will be to raise standards. That will make parental preference more meaningful to more parents.

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