Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I am grateful for that and apologise for misinterpreting her. I think that is a special case of the more general difficulties which will face all educationists, all parents and all children.

I have a lot of sympathy with parents who want to send their children to the local school or to one with established transport links. I also appreciate the very real

8 Jun 1998 : Column 813

disappointment faced by parents who are unable to gain a place at their preferred local school and whose children can face a longer journey to a school which was not their first preference.

The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, however, swing the balance too far the other way. Whether they swing it quite so far as his description of the policies of the Further Education Funding Council I do not quite know. I have not had an opportunity to investigate that. I am behind on my reading of FE, so I will have to reserve my position on it. The present position is that admission authorities can define catchment areas within and across local education authority boundaries, and give priority to parents living within that area who express a preference. It must be wrong to require them to do so, however, and so not allow them to choose any other equally valid criteria in determining applications. Many reasonable criteria are used, including sibling links and medical or social reasons. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, would call those educational reasons. Does she also call the issues of catchment area educational reasons, which are to have priority? I should not tempt her, should I?

Many parents choose schools other than their local school. The principle of parental preference does not necessarily mean choice of a local school, but giving all parents the best chance of getting a place for their child at the school of their choice, regardless of why they made that choice.

I welcome the opportunity to explain the proposed definition of areas in the legislation. Admission authorities will be required to consult with others in the particular area. The code will say that that should happen through a forum. The Secretary of State may make regulations to prescribe the extent of those areas, whether they simply cover the area of a local education authority or are more or less extensive, and so allow consultation across local education authority boundaries. Regulations on which we will be consulting will define our approach to these areas.

The obvious examples, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will recognise, are with the growth of unitary authorities within the areas of counties and sometimes in the middle of counties, as for example with Milton Keynes or Leicester City, where it would be a nonsense, given the previous situation of a single local education authority, to have two local education authorities acting at arm's length and not co-operating.

Amendment No. 211E would mean that an admission authority would not be able to vary its admission arrangements during the course of the school year following a major change of circumstances, even if it would sensible or desirable for it to do so to help meet local parental preference. That cannot be right. But there must be safeguards where admission authorities change their criteria or procedures. That is why the subsections in the Bill require the involvement of an adjudicator.

Finally, I turn to Amendment No. 214. Clause 86 is in the Bill in order to preserve the rights of denominational schools to make special admission arrangements to

8 Jun 1998 : Column 814

maintain their character. It both carries over the similar right from the Education Act 1996 and meshes it with the new framework as a whole.

I have referred already to the effect of the amendment, which relates to references made to the adjudicator by the school's governing body when the LEA does not agree to the school's proposed special arrangements. The adjudicator may have regard to whatever matters are relevant and must have regard to the guidance in the admissions code. I hear what the noble Lord said and will take into account his remarks in considering the detail of the code.

I repeat my gratitude to the noble Lord for raising those issues. As I said before, without claiming that the Government have found the philosopher's stone which will satisfy all parental demands and all school needs, I hope the noble Lord will recognise that his amendments would give undue predominance to one particular factor, possibly at the expense of others, and will not press his amendment to a Division.

Baroness Blatch: I find it difficult to take issue with what the noble Lord has just said about parental preference. The idea that any government in office can meet that 100 per cent. is fanciful and cannot be done.

However, this Government have pledged to enhance it, to make it better; and to improve on the present level of parental preference. I wish to continue to press the Government on ways in which they intend to do that. It seems to me that there is a confusion. We have organisational committees, local education authorities, the operational duties of the adjudicator, parents making their preference and schools having a wish as to what they want to do. We have both LEAs and schools which are admission authorities. In particular, as I understand it, the foundation schools will be their own admission authorities. I do not know the extent to which they can be overruled. For example--and it is a question that I have not posed before in the context of this issue--I do not know whether an organisation committee can initiate organisational proposals which impact on admission policies. The matter would be passed on to the adjudicator only if somebody on the organisation committee did not agree. But can an organisation committee initiate proposals which would impact on admission policies and parental preference?

At the end of the day, where does power lie? Does it lie with the Secretary of State, the local education authorities or the organisation committees and the adjudicator system? It is quite difficult to know where parents stand who are making the preference, where the power lies in order to meet it and what mechanisms the Government will put in place to make sure that the level of parental preference is in fact enhanced under the new arrangements.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: It would be confusing if we returned to the school organisation committees. We are not dealing with those at the moment. We are dealing with admission procedures. Therefore, we are dealing with admission authorities, local education authorities, which are sometimes admission authorities, and admission forums which bring together those

8 Jun 1998 : Column 815

education admission authorities which need to be brought together in order to make parental choice meaningful.

The noble Baroness is quite right to say that by having foundation schools and some voluntary schools as admission authorities in their own right, whereas the local education authority is the admission authority for community schools, there is the possibility of confusion. But by bringing them together in admission forums, we provide the coherent whole which parents need in order to understand the situation in their own area. Parents are represented on the governing bodies of those schools which are themselves admission authorities and they have their say in the activities of LEAs. Therefore, at all stages, they are represented and have an influence; indeed, at any stage, they have the power to express their views to the admissions forums.

The other complication which the noble Baroness recognises is that for some parents there is not a natural area in which they find themselves. That is the problem with the phrase, "designated area", which is used in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. Under those circumstances, the admissions forums could be overlapping; in other words, a parent could be in the area of two admissions forums. I believe that it will work out all right, provided that we understand that the parents' and the child's needs are at the forefront of such considerations. The organisation will have to adapt itself to meet those needs.

Baroness Blatch: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. But my point is: where does the power lie? In the case of a foundation school which is its own admissions authority, can it be over-ruled by any other part of the process?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: In a situation of conflict which cannot be reconciled, the bulk of the reconciliation will be in adherence to the code of practice. That will be a statutory code of practice as set out under Clause 79 of the Bill. The code will make clear the relative importance of all the factors which have to be taken into consideration. When that is not possible and the conflict cannot be resolved, it will be the responsibility of an adjudicator. In the end the buck has to stop somewhere. That is where it stops.

Lord Tope: I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for raising the issue. I am not certain that the amendment is necessarily the right answer but I am equally certain that I do not have the right one. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that he believes it will all work out all right in the end. I very much hope that he is right, because this issue is extremely important in those LEA areas--and I simply use that as a geographical description--which are particularly affected by the provision.

In his response the Minister referred to the new unitary authorities which are new LEAs and which sometimes find themselves in the middle and at other times on the edge of the existing LEAs--the counties. This is not a new problem for those who have been LEAs in major conurbations, especially in London but

8 Jun 1998 : Column 816

also in some of the metropolitan areas. The effects of what is usually called the "Greenwich judgment" have been considerable. Parents do not understand why their children cannot have preference over children who live, as they would see it, in a very different area; for example, another borough in another LEA area. That is the case at present.

I have no wish whatever to exclude children from wherever they may come; indeed, they are more than welcome to any LEA school. However, what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is talking about in his amendment is: who has the "over-riding preference"? It is a difficult problem to resolve. The simple answer is to say, "Get rid of the Greenwich judgment", but I believe that the issue is more complex. Even though I and my party would support the removal of that judgment, it is a difficult and complex issue. I wait with interest to hear how the Government will solve it.

We have just been through local council elections. In my area--and my area was not alone in this--I have to say that all three political parties pledged themselves to campaign to their last breath to reverse the Greenwich judgment, such was the strength of feeling on the issue. As the Labour Party and the Conservative Party in my borough have campaigned for it, and as we, of course, said that we agreed, I wait to hear how the other parties are going to solve the problem. I am sure that we will be able to reach agreement with them on that point.

I am sorry to make this issue appear less serious than it is. I can only repeat that for many parents this is a serious concern. Speaking as the leader of a council, this is the issue on which I encounter the strongest feelings. People do not understand why their child cannot be admitted to a school a few hundred yards from their home, and yet a child from another local authority area miles away, often not in London at all is admitted. That child may live in Surrey or even Sussex. The schools in our area are so good, they even attract pupils who live in Brighton. I acknowledge that is a tribute to the schools concerned, but it is no consolation to the parent who attends my Saturday surgery and asks, "Why cannot my child be admitted to that school?" That is the issue to which this Government have to find the answer.

10.45 p.m.

Lord Lucas: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for the answers which he gave me. I am also extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for such a clear exposition of the problems which occur round the boundaries of local education authorities, particularly successful ones such as that of the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred to cross border fora. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, puts that kind of dreamy idea in context. We are not dealing with authorities which, generally, are rushing to co-operate with each other. A good deal of guidance may be required from the Government to tell them what they are supposed to do. They are not supposed to allow their citizens to get up in arms to repel boarders from Surbiton, Kingston, or wherever the neighbouring authority may be. They are supposed to co-operate to arrive at a pattern of provision which suits a larger, more coherent area than individual London boroughs.

8 Jun 1998 : Column 817

However, these problems also occur out in the provinces. I can think of corners of Dorset with a big Hampshire conurbation a mile away with a big, successful secondary school. The Dorset village just across the border may contain a thousand or two thousand people and have a decent primary school, but the Dorset secondary school is 10 miles away in the other direction. It is sensible to deal with cross border provision. But without guidance, encouragement and direction from this Government directed at solving the kind of problems which, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, correctly says, many people get worked up about, we are all at sea. If this is all in the code of practice, it merely illustrates why we need to have that in front of us before Report stage with enough definition and coherence to enable us to understand how the Government are approaching the matter to make sure that this Bill which we are being asked to pass gives the necessary powers and has the necessary characteristics to deal with this problem, which is not unsolvable but which requires a degree of effort and coherence on the part of the Government to solve.

I hope the Government will take the opportunity to read FE Now! between now and Report stage, which states,


    "A new funding condition included in the 1998/99 Funding Guidance for Colleges says that 'the Council may not wish its funds to be used by an institution ... to develop provision outside its local catchment area' ... the Council may refuse to pay the college its grant unless it agrees not to take students from outside this area".

That is a draconian and extraordinary provision. I would like to have the Government's reaction as to whether it is a direction which they approve the FEFC taking. If they do, to what extent do they propose to allow local education authorities to proceed in a similar direction as regards the schools under their charge? I do not require an answer from the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, now unless he wishes to give one.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page