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Baroness Blatch: The noble Baroness has given a rather long and complicated answer, for which I am grateful. I shall reflect upon it. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 111 agreed to.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 241BB:

After Clause 111, insert the following new clause--

Maintained and voluntary aided schools: admissions policy

(" . A local education authority shall--
(a) ensure that no maintained school or voluntary aided school within its area requires children to enter school under compulsory school age as a condition, or implied condition, of admission to the said school at the age of five; and
(b) ensure that, with respect to the admissions policy of any maintained school or voluntary aided school in its area, entry into the said school's reception class or classes in the term following a child's fourth birthday shall not confer any preference or advantage over other children in the same or neighbouring local authority area who may seek entry into that school at the age of five.").

The noble Baroness said: This particular amendment is designed to deal with a very real concern on the part of providers; namely, a school may make it a condition of admission that unless parents send their child to the nursery school that child will not get a place in the junior or upper part of the school. Parents who want to do what is best for their child and exercise their preference, in most cases to leave their children in the settled, secure environment of a specialist nursery class, are being told that if they do not send their children to a reception class in their preferred primary school they may not get a place at five; or, alternatively, that if they move their four year-old they will be guaranteed a place in the primary school.

Such undertakings are rarely, if ever, committed to paper. Sadly, it is all done by a nudge or wink, but to secure the resources or the child many local authority-maintained schools up and down the land are doing this. In a way, it is grossly anti-competitive and educationally damaging for many children. Their education is interrupted at this crucial development stage and they are sometimes put into a less satisfactory

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environment. If the choice is a good quality nursery class with a good pupil:teacher ratio and the alternative is a crowded reception class, the parent finds it difficult to exercise a preference.

I am aware that the Minister has professed concern about this in the past and I understand that the matter is being looked into. However, currently parents have no clear power in law to resist this insidious form of blackmail. The amendment would declare with utter clarity that such practices were wrong. It might also give parents grounds to pursue in the courts schools or councils that behaved in this way. I am open to advice from the department on better wording to achieve this aim. I am sure that my attempts are rather clumsy. I hope that the noble Baroness will have some sympathy for this amendment to deal with concerns that have arisen. I beg to move.

Baroness Blackstone: I have some sympathy with the concern that lies behind this amendment. The guidance and evaluation criteria for this year's early years development plans made it clear that information provided to parents must be without bias to any one sector and should also make it clear that children are not legally required to attend primary school until they are of compulsory school age. This message will be strengthened in next year's guidance.

I turn to paragraph (a) of the amendment. No admission authority for a maintained school can require parents to send their child to a school before the child has become of compulsory school age. Even where a school does admit before compulsory school age parents may apply for a place starting from when their child reaches compulsory school age. But where a school is popular and oversubscribed a place may no longer be available. Where schools are very popular and competition for places is high I am sure that no one will deny--least of all the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch--that a very popular school that operates an early admission policy should inform interested parents of the popularity of the school. Parents should know that places might not be available at the school of their choice if they choose not to apply for a place until their child is of compulsory school age. Not to do this would deny parents the opportunity to make informed decisions. But there is a key difference between informing parents and "blackmailing" or "threatening" them. The latter are clearly unacceptable.

However, some authorities have adopted a practice of agreeing parental requests to defer entry to a primary reception class until a child reaches compulsory school age. My department will be drawing the attention of school admission authorities to this in the interim guidance on arrangements for school admissions which will be issued for consultation shortly. Where this practice is adopted, parents apply for a place at the normal time of admission but in effect the place would be held for the child until he or she is older, up to compulsory school age.

But we have no plans to require admission authorities to allow deferred entry. It is right that the decision to adopt this policy should be made at local level where

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an assessment can be made of any financial implications for schools and LEAs as well as the extent of disruption both for children and schools. For example, the financial implications of deferred entry could threaten the viability of small rural primary schools.

Paragraph (b) of the amendment would have the effect of severing the link between early admission to reception class and admission to the primary school proper. I sympathise with the reasons behind this part of the amendment, but its introduction would not be practical. I think that the noble Baroness was aware that this might be the case. Let me illustrate this with an example. We already have separate admission arrangements for securing a place in a primary school's nursery class and for securing a place in the same school's reception class. To then suggest that there should be another admission process to secure a primary school place at five would for some parents mean making three separate applications for a place at the same school within a period of two years. That is not a sensible position for parents.

I sympathise with what the noble Baroness seeks to achieve but I believe that severing the link between early admission to primary schools' reception classes and admission to the school proper is not the answer. The right approach is to have guidance on good practice. That is much more likely to be effective and we shall consider providing guidance on good practice in the admissions code of practice.

I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Blatch: I shall reflect on what has been said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 112 [Early years development partnerships]:

[Amendment No. 241C not moved.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 241CA:

Page 84, line 23, at end insert--
("( ) Every partnership shall establish a committee (the "partnership committee") which shall include broad representation of all parties concerned with early years education in the local authority's area.").

The noble Baroness said: This group of amendments dovetails in well with the earlier amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on the importance of partnership. They may seem technical but they have a serious practical purpose.

The early years development partnerships are intended to involve the broader spectrum of parties in the area concerned with nursery education. In most cases it seems that they do, but the nature of these bodies is unwieldy. In terms of running the partnerships and advancing local nursery plans there will need to be an executive body. The Bill envisages in effect that this will be the local authority. It will have power to make arrangements for meetings, establish committees, and so on. But the local authority is, through its maintained schools, a provider of nursery education. In a direct sense it is a competitor as well as a partner. We discussed on Amendment No. 241BB ways in which

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this competition emerges. An LEA cannot be a fully impartial representative of the nursery interest in its locality.

Amendment No. 241CA seeks to ensure that the local authority should establish, as the executive body for the partnership, a committee that contains a broad representation of all the interests, all the types of providers, and professionals. I believe that it is this committee, not the local authority alone, which should organise the activities of the partnership. After all, what is the meaning of partnership if it is not that?

Amendments Nos. 241CB and 241CD ensure that the local authority should act with the agreement of the partnership as it is constituted. That is an important safeguard. I beg to move.

11 p.m.

Lord Whitty: I have some sympathy with what lies behind the amendment. It is absolutely right that early years development partnerships should include representatives of the non-maintained sector and indeed a wide range of early years interests, including the local authority. But we do not intend to allow LEAs to dominate partnerships and use them to their own ends. The guidance we issued last year makes that clear. The guidance goes further. It places responsibility on LEAs for convening a partnership which includes representatives from private, independent and voluntary providers, childminders and parents as well as LEA and GM schools, the social services department, the health authority, diocesan authorities, local business and SEN groups. That is quite a list, but it enables partnerships to ensure that the full range of issues relevant to young children are taken into account in drawing up plans.

It is only now that partnerships are beginning to consider how they operate under the guidance. I do not believe that the aim of ensuring that all voices are equally heard would be achieved by establishing a partnership committee which is somehow separate from the main partnership. Indeed, I cannot see what establishing such a committee would achieve. Furthermore, the need for some representatives to attend two sets of meetings might well reduce their ability and willingness to be actively involved in the business of partnerships.

I hope that that explains our reaction to the proposal and that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment.

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