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Page 86, line 14, leave out ("a maintained") and insert ("such a").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 113 [Extension of LEA functions concerning school lunches, etc.]:

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 191:

Page 86, line 37, at end insert (", or
(b) where the pupil in question has not attained compulsory school age and is being provided with part-time education.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 116 [Duty of local education authority as respects availability of nursery education]:

[Amendment No. 192 not moved.]

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 192A:

After Clause 116, 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: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 192A, which is concerned with the admission to school of children aged four and five. This matter was debated in Committee. Perhaps the Minister hoped that I would not return to it. However, great concern has been expressed about the provision for

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1196

under school age children of three to five years of age and the necessity to provide a varied tapestry of such provision. I refer to the reply given by the Minister:

    "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".--[Official Report; 10/6/98; col. 1135.]
Later on, in response to my noble friend Lady Blatch, who moved the amendments in Committee, the Minister said (at col. 1136):

    "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 shall return to that in a moment.

One of the matters of great concern to those on these Benches was the implication that to get a child into the school of choice at five meant that there was greater pressure on children going to reception classes at the age of four because they would then have preference over other children. Out in the community, we still enjoy, and I hope will continue to enjoy, a tremendous range of private nursery school and playschool provision. That gives parents the right to choose the kinds of schools that they believe suit their children. Those of us who have children or grandchildren of that age know very well that the ability of three or four year-olds varies very much. We on these Benches believe that there must be a means of protecting such schools; otherwise, they will be continually squeezed and will cease to be providers of such facilities.

We would all agree that the Bill is all about raising standards. It includes diversity and choice. It goes from playgroups for small numbers of children, involving families, to the more formal reception classes which cater for larger numbers and are styled more along the lines of school classes. The ethos is surely to provide choice so that parents can find a school to suit their needs. Parents might choose a playgroup for their three year-old child and then discover--as the Bill suggests--that they need to move the child into a reception class at the age of four. The child is then being moved twice before reaching the age of five. In some cases it may be when the child is aged just four and is vulnerable.

We are concerned to retain wide choice so that parents can choose a smaller school--it may be a playgroup--rather than feel that they are forced to put their child into a reception class. We shall try to ensure that that is a possibility for them.

Private schools and the more informal playgroups have an important role to play. If their expertise is to be ensured and encouraged, we must make sure that parents do not feel that they are under any obligation to forgo a place at such a school in order to secure a place at their chosen primary school. It has a knock-on effect on other schools providing nursery care. I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that we want a flexible approach to provision.

The amendment is designed to ensure that no maintained school or voluntary-aided school within an LEA's area shall require a child to enter the school

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under compulsory age as a condition. Paragraph (b) of the new clause provides that,

    "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 keep entry into that school at the age of five".

We debated this issue in Committee but there is still great concern in the community, which is why I have brought the matter back. I hope the Minister will reassure me about the guidance on good practice that will be put into effect.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, we have a certain amount of sympathy with the mover of the amendment because there is concern that parents might be "blackmailed" into putting their child early into school when a more appropriate placement for that child would be a nursery class. On the other hand, we have no particular wish to defend private nursery schools, or any wish to attack them for that matter. We are concerned that there should be appropriate placements for children under school age, in whose education we have a great interest. At no point should parents be obliged to put their children at an early age into a crowded class for under school age children to secure their position at that primary school.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I do not know whether I shall be able to be sufficiently reassuring, but I shall try, because I have some sympathy with what I think underlies the concerns behind the amendment. As I explained when we discussed this issue in Committee, no admission authority for a maintained school can require a parent to send his or her child to a school before the child has become of compulsory school age. Even where a school admits before compulsory school age, parents may apply for a place starting from when their child reaches compulsory school age. But it is true that where a school is popular and oversubscribed a place may no longer be available.

I can assure the noble Baroness that we take this issue most seriously. The fundamental aim of our policy on early years education is to ensure that parents have a diverse range of good quality early years provision from which to choose. Like the noble Baroness, we do not want to see parents pressurised into making a choice which they do not believe is right for their child. Nor do we want to see private and voluntary providers become unviable because parents feel compelled to move children out of those settings.

Early years development partnerships include representatives of both parents and private providers. We have made it clear that we shall expect future changes to admissions arrangements to be discussed with early years development partnerships. We shall also expect LEAs to listen to advice from early years development partnerships about how well existing policies are working and whether individual schools are following policy set by the LEA where it is the admission authority. A number of partnerships said in this year's plan that they would be reviewing current admissions arrangements. We expect partnerships to consult widely when preparing early years development plans, and in particular to consult parents.

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1198

The noble Baroness quoted from Hansard what I said in Committee on the guidance and evaluation criteria for this year's early years development plans. I can only say again that the criteria make 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. I wish to provide the reassurance that we are making that clear.

Admissions arrangements should not be used to stifle parental choice. The message will be strengthened in next year's guidance which will have statutory force. We shall look particularly closely at admissions issues such as these when evaluating next year's plans.

It is open to authorities to adopt a practice of agreeing parental requests to defer entry to a primary reception class until a child reaches compulsory school age later in the school year. A number of authorities already follow that practice. The Secretary of State has referred to it in the draft interim guidance on school admissions which he issued for consultation last month. Where this policy 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.

We shall look carefully at how advice on this policy and the general issue of parental choice prior to compulsory school age can be addressed in the admissions code of practice.

When we debated the issue in Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, expressed concern that parents felt they were being "blackmailed" into transferring their child earlier to a maintained school. It was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. She felt that they were being pushed to transfer their child earlier than they wished. She believed that they should be able to make a complaint and should have something to back them up when making that complaint. I can assure noble Lords that the early years development partnership arrangements and the strong messages we shall be giving in this year's guidance will achieve that.

I hope that I have reassured the noble Baroness that we take these concerns seriously. We shall be working proactively to resolve them. But I do not believe that this amendment is the best way forward.

The admissions issues we have been discussing today are part of the whole package of partnership working and should not be addressed in isolation. We have already made crucial steps towards moving from the competitive ethos of the voucher scheme to a more partnership-based approach. We deferred approval of one authority's plan partly because of concerns about admissions. The partnership worked together extremely effectively to resolve those concerns and is now consulting on introducing a deferred entry policy along the lines that I have outlined. The plan has been approved. Therefore, those arrangements are already having some effect.

We must allow such decisions on admissions to be made at local level and with appropriate guidance at national level. I have said already that we shall encourage admissions authorities to consider deferred

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1199

entry but we do not propose to require them to adopt such a practice. In some cases, if more than a certain number of children want to defer entry, the financial implications might lead to the loss of an additional member of staff to the detriment of all the children who remain in that class. It is right that the decision to adopt that policy should be made at local level where an assessment can be made of the financial implications.

It is clear that there may be benefits in severing the link between pre-compulsory education and compulsory education if parents want their children to attend different institutions, although if I were a parent with a young child, I should prefer continuity. Therefore, those different sets of needs need to be balanced. I do not believe that that is best achieved at national level and through a rather inflexible amendment of this kind. However, as I have said, I sympathise with the noble Baroness's aim, if not with the amendment as an attempt to achieve it. In the light of what I just said, I hope that the noble Baroness will agree to withdraw her amendment.

9.45 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for her response, which I shall read with great care tomorrow. There is one point on which I seek clarification from the noble Baroness. I understand that as from next year, some statutory force will be brought into being as opposed to guidance which we have this year. The noble Baroness nods her head. Under those circumstances, I am more relieved although we do not know the form of that statutory force.

However, I am grateful to the Minister for her comments. As I said, there has been great concern among the other providers out there in the community. I shall read again what the Minister said and at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 118 [Early years development plans]:

[Amendment No. 193 not moved.]

[Amendment No. 194 not moved.]

[Amendment No. 195 not moved.]

Clause 125 [Code of practice for securing effective relationships between LEAs and maintained schools]:

[Amendment No. 196 not moved.]

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