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Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I appear to have been implicated in the amendments by their presentation as though I might support everything that is proposed. There appears to be some confusion about people's intentions. I would not want to see children being interviewed for a school before it has been decided that they have a right to attend the school. It is a case of it being the choice of the parent, the area in which they live, there being a place at the school and so the child will go there.

In most school communities the head teachers set up a system which enables the parents to visit them and the teachers to discuss many of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington. We are concerned that if it is set up in a certain way children or parents who seem less desirable might be excluded from the school. If we are providing state education for all our children we cannot allow that to happen. Therefore, I have a difference of opinion.

In many schools, head teachers and teachers try to build the best relationships they can with the parents. I am now moving into the area that the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, said people were fed up with, but at least we bring our experience to it. I was chair of the governors of a first school and I know that the head mistress used to visit the homes of the children who it was known would attend the school. She tried to build up a rapport in order to ensure that the children knew her and were not afraid of going into school.

One of the big problems with parents building a relationship with the school is that for many people school is not a happy place. They feel intimidated and threatened the moment they walk through the door of a school. It is important that we recognise that and do everything that we can to enable parents to feel comfortable and feel that they have a right to talk to the teachers and get to know them. I do not believe that any of us would think that that was the wrong thing to do. However, many of us would be really concerned if we thought that because we did not like something about someone whom we were interviewing, that meant that

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the child would not be able to attend that school. That would be quite wrong and I should not support anything which did that.

Baroness Young: My Lords, is it or is it not a fact that city technology colleges interview parents before admitting pupils? If it is, as I believe to be the case, will the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, tell the House whether that interview is conducted along lines similar to those proposed in Amendment No. 161A, moved by my noble friend Lord Pilkington?

My second point is in relation to interviews with parents. As the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said, it is invaluable for a school to talk to the parents of the child. If we are really seeking to find a way to deal with truancy and parents who are not as supportive of their children at school as they might be, it is absolutely essential that the school should talk to the parents of the children; otherwise, it is extremely difficult to build a good relationship. One needs the parents to support the school and the teacher in what the school is trying to achieve.

I believe that it is far more valuable to interview parents before the children come to the school. I entirely take my noble friend's point. After all, the school may not be the first choice of the parents and they may not like the prospect before them. Therefore, it is even more important that they should have the opportunity to discuss those matters. That is absolutely essential if we are genuinely trying to achieve something to which, as I understand it, the Government are deeply committed; that is, a good relationship between teachers and parents.

9.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the interim guidance on admissions has some paragraphs which are dedicated to some of the subjects under discussion on these amendments. I am thinking in particular of paragraph 33 which deals with challenging behaviour. It says that:

    "Some schools with spare capacity may find that they are required to admit an undue proportion of pupils whose behaviour can be challenging".
Other schools may be unable to take a share of such pupils as they are over-subscribed. It states:

    "It is highly desirable that schools and the LEA should together agree strategies about how local admission arrangements might work to allow all schools to admit a more even share of such children".

Where that can be agreed between admissions authorities, that is extremely good. Certainly, the local education authority, as the major admissions authority, should work together with the smaller admissions authorities. That will be extremely valuable. I am reminded of many of the fears that people had when we first created grant-maintained schools. It was feared that they would not take their share of such children. I am pleased to say that grant-maintained schools more than rose to the challenge. I was particularly interested in schools in cities in, for example, Liverpool and Birmingham which made a real contribution to meeting the needs of children with challenging behaviour.

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However, I am disquieted that there is to be a requirement, because that word "requirement" means rigidity and inflexibility, for schools that are over-subscribed--we are talking about very popular schools--quite deliberately to keep places vacant for such children should they come along. It will be very difficult if in one document the Government are saying that parental preference should be enhanced and that popular schools should be expanded while on the other hand in this document, which will become policy in due course, those schools are required quite specifically to hold vacancies on the off-chance that a child or children with challenging behaviour may come along.

Paragraph 34 goes on to state:

    "Admissions authorities can decide that they should refuse to admit a child where there are places available"--
therefore, we are talking about a school which has places available and is probably a school which is not very popular--

    "unless it is to the normal year of entry, where to do so would prejudice the provisions of efficient education or the efficient use of resources".

I am not absolutely certain what that means unless it means that in the course of a year, the burden on the school would be so great that it did not have the money to pay for an extra teacher. In that case, it is understandable.

It goes on to state:

    "We envisage that this will only be used in circumstances where a school has a particularly high concentration of pupils with challenging behaviour".

Therefore, we have a situation where the family comes along mid-year with a child who apparently has challenging behaviour--and I shall come to that particular point in a moment--who has specifically chosen to go to that school but is to be turned away because a view is taken either by the local education authority and/or the school that the burden on the school is sufficiently great that that child should not be given a place. Again, parental preference is being reduced, not enhanced. Therefore, there is another problem in that respect.

I have in mind a child with challenging behaviour who has never been to a school and who has perhaps just moved into an area, having previously been in an inner-city area where the secondary schools, for example, do not have a great deal of knowledge about individual children from primary schools. It is not always the case that primary schools readily admit that child A or child B is particularly challenging. Indeed, it can sometimes be said that children do not become challenging until they move into secondary schools. So how are schools to know? If they are not allowed to interview and are not allowed to meet the parents and the family, in what circumstances can a subjective judgment be made? It seems to me that any such judgments must be objective and can only be so if the school has evidence; and it can only have evidence if it has received very clear reports from the feeder schools, social services or some referral agency. But, in the main, it is important to interview the children.

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There are some very disquieting aspects of the document; indeed, in places it is conflicting. My last question on admissions encompasses all the amendments and deals with the status of the forums. There is nothing in the document other than paragraphs headed "Forums" to show that they will exist. There is no reference to what their status will be and no reference as to who will resolve problems. After using the forums, together with all the consultation that takes place, who will resolve the disputes at the end of the day if the admissions authorities are unable to agree between themselves and with the forums? When referring to other aspects of the document it is clear that the adjudicator would resolve such disputes. However, it is disquieting to note that it is the adjudicator without any reference to the school organisation committees. It is important for me at least to know the status of the forums and who, at the end of the day, will resolve the disputes which cannot be settled between the admission authorities and the forums.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, has not learnt very much about me if he thinks that I am embarrassed by an ideological conflict. I have no hesitation in agreeing with him that there is an ideological divide, as he put it, between us. We are opposed and have always been opposed--David Blunkett said this before the election and, indeed, since--to selection by ability or by interview. The whole issue of interviews is being presented as if the only community of any significance was the school. Of course, the school is a community and an important one. However, it is also part of the wider community and we have to maintain a balance between the proper autonomy of the individual admission authorities, whether they be schools, groups of schools or LEAs, and the interests of the local community as a whole.

In our view we have been perfectly consistent on interviews as part of the admissions process; indeed, as I said, that consistency dates back to before the election. We set out the position in the White Paper Excellence in Schools and repeated it in our consultation document on admissions from which the noble Baroness quoted. In order to protect their particular character, Church schools may have reason to interview pupils or parents in order to assess denominational or religious commitment. However, we believe that interviews with parents for wider purposes as part of the admission process run the risk of being over-subjective and that the results of such interviews risk being misinterpreted.

The whole point about our approach--and we would not have published such a long consultation document if this were not so--is that, as far as possible, admissions should be decided against published objective criteria rather than subjective judgments. The admissions process that the noble Lord and the official Opposition--the Conservative Party--support is one that would discriminate against less articulate parents. That is the fact of the matter. That would be selection under another name, selection in disguise. If the noble Lord thinks that he can get away with presenting the provision to this House as being an issue of the school

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community, he is either being naive or he is being disingenuous because that is not the way in which the world works.

What has been our approach to this difficult problem? David Blunkett in his introduction to the consultation document states,

    "There can be nothing more difficult for a Secretary of State for Education and Employment than the balance to be achieved in providing guidance on admissions".
We decided that the most effective way to tackle specific admissions issues was to draw up a statutory code of practice which sets out practical guidelines on admissions issues and to which all admissions authorities and others must have regard. It does not constitute a blueprint for admissions. These must be a matter for local determination in the light of local circumstances. In cases of dispute, however the adjudicator must have regard to the advice in the code.

The Bill's purpose is to provide a clear, underpinning structure for school admissions based on local consultation, determination and adjudication. There are a host of detailed, complex and interrelated issues that will need to be built into that structure locally, but it would simply not be sensible to address these on the face of the Bill. As noble Lords know, we are consulting widely on these issues with our draft interim guidance on admissions. We shall wait to see the result of that consultation before determining what guidance we shall finally give. This consultation will inform our way forward on the code of practice.

I ought not to leave the issue of interviews without responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Young. She asked me about city technology colleges. City technology colleges can indeed interview parents but they have in general agreed to modify their practices to have structured discussions with pupils to assess their subject aptitude. That is clearly what city technology colleges are about. New admissions legislation does not apply to city technology colleges, although they may be part of forums for the determination of local policies.

I turn now to the issue which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, addressed of difficult children. Of course this is a sensitive area. Our intention is not to reduce the opportunities for parental preferences to be met by requiring schools to keep places open for any reason. But there are undersubscribed schools which have a high proportion of difficult children, or which are striving to drive up their standards from a relatively low base, where admitting some pupils with challenging behaviour can be particularly detrimental to the school achieving its targets. It is with that in mind that we have proposed that such schools could refuse a child admission if they can demonstrate that to admit him or her would prejudice efficient education or the efficient use of resources at the school. But these children must find a suitable school place. We expect that this issue will be raised in the admissions forums. Surely the best way forward is for all schools and admissions authorities to work together with everyone seeking to play their full part.

I turn to Amendment No. 161C. As the House will know, the Bill already includes a provision which will require all maintained schools to have a written

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home-school agreement, drawn up in consultation with parents. The agreement will explain the respective responsibilities of the school and of parents, and what the school expects of its pupils. Parents will be asked to sign a declaration in support of the agreement. That will include expectations about the standards of education the school will provide, the ethos of the school, regular and punctual attendance, discipline, homework and the information schools and parents will give to each other. Schools will be required to have regard to guidance from the Secretary of State in drawing up their home-school agreements. We shall, as always, be consulting on the draft guidance.

However, we do not believe it is right to allow admission authorities to base their decisions on whether a parent has signed or is willing to sign. We uphold the principle that an admission authority should not be able to attach conditions when making the offer of a place: Clause 109(4) does not allow that to happen. The provision reflects the consultation that the department carried out last year which showed that 86 per cent. of respondents who commented on the use of the home-school agreements in the admission process were not in favour of using them in this way. It is therefore not appropriate for the admissions code of practice to include a provision of the kind suggested in the amendment.

Amendment No. 163A is very interesting. The wording is similar to the wording that existed in the articles of government for grant-maintained schools. I see the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, smiling. Those articles are holy writ so far as she is concerned. However, what she has forgotten is that the previous government removed it by order, with effect from September 1996. Why did they do that? There is an interesting silence. They did it because it was not appropriate. They were wise to do that. To put it on the face of the Bill would be a retrograde step even by the standards of the previous government. I am astonished that the noble Baroness should think it appropriate to revive a provision that was rejected by her own government when she was in office.

The amendment would disapply the duty on admission authorities for voluntary aided and foundation schools to meet expressed parental preferences where to do so would be incompatible with the school's own admission arrangements. It waters down the duty to meet parental preferences. We have heard a lot of talk from noble Lords on the Official Opposition Benches about parental preference within the past few minutes. Yet this amendment would actually weaken it. We want as many parents as possible to have their preferences met, recognising that there will inevitably be disappointed parents where schools are over-subscribed.

The effect of this amendment would be to allow all foundation and voluntary schools to override parental preference, even where they have enough places to meet all the preferences. That would throw parental preference out of the window. The legislation already allows denominational and grammar schools to do so in order to preserve their character. It is right that the exceptions should be strictly limited to those cases.

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I am afraid the truth is that the ideology in these matters is entirely on the Benches of the Official Opposition. They are determined by one means or another, by hook or by crook, to reintroduce selection, and to introduce it where they failed to introduce it over a period of 18 years. We are determined not to let them.

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