Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I shall speak briefly on a particular point arising from an observation in the letter of the angry head teacher quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. Before I do so, I thank her for the opportunity to consider this important matter again.

I spoke to the head teacher of the Star Primary School in Newham near Canning Town this morning. She had taught for 30 years and been a head teacher for 18 years. From what she said, my clear impression was that she felt that head teachers were more in control now than they had been in the past. If I understood her correctly, she put that down to their having more control over the spending of the money that they received.

That may have been peculiar to that head teacher's position, because she was in an education action zone and various other zones. It is a deprived area—it has a high level of free school meals—so it is a beneficiary of many additional funding streams. Perhaps there is another issue about increased regulation if head teachers are more in control of funding. I look forward to hearing in the debate some more clarification on that subject.

Lord Brennan: My Lords, the small group of my Labour colleagues who will speak tonight will enjoy two distinctions in the parliamentary history of this House. The first will be our unique numerical presence—small but powerful—and the second will be the fact that each of us, at different lengths, has something important to say.

I speak as a volunteer, not a conscript, to make three points. Access to education is the objective of all decent families for the benefit of their children, but that access needs to be achieved in a way that balances the autonomy of schools and the ability of people to exercise a choice to try to get into good schools.

First, I am dismayed by some of the comments made about the faith background to the regulations and how they may affect faith schools. I attended the debate on the Bill on admission forums, and I do not recall anyone suggesting that the relevant part of the Bill or

27 Jan 2003 : Column 986

the regulations would act as a vehicle to undermine, in broad terms, the ability of faith schools to regulate the number of pupils from their own faiths.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, that is why the schools are also very cross. I too was present at those debates, and I think that I supported the noble Lord in what he said then. However, I can tell him that nothing in those debates indicated that interviews as part of the process of faith schools were to be abolished. One of my questions is to ask where in the legislation is the basis for banning interviewing as part of the process, rather than it simply being in the code of practice.

Lord Brennan: My Lords, to return to the point that I was making, I do not regard the regulations as some back-door opportunity to subvert the right of faith schools to regulate in decent proportion those numbers of children in their schools from their own faiths. If I am wrong, I invite the Minister so to state. If I am right in thinking that the regulations are not such a back door, I am sure that he will make that abundantly clear.

My second point goes to the issue of interviews. I understand from my own experience that, in times past, admission to faith schools has not been solely determined by interview. Therefore, we do not have a state of affairs in which an existing system of admission by interview is being abolished, to repeat the phrase used by the noble Baroness.

I wish to make a practical point as a lawyer. It seems to me an illusion to think that faith schools throughout this country can manage entry by interview alone. The numbers will be enormous, and the practicality of it fraught with difficulty for the schools and the teachers. As a lawyer, I am afraid to say that the interviews, especially for those who were disappointed, would become the vehicle for appeals and, perhaps even worse, judicial review.

It is an ideal that children and their families should be interviewed, of course, but it is hopelessly impractical. I simply do not recognise the validity of any suggestion that the bishops in my Church, the Catholic Church, have deserted their faith schools or been hustled into something that they do not approve. That is simply not the case as I understand it.

On my third proposition, I invite the Minister to give his express views. Autonomy for schools and choice for parents need to balance, in terms of regulation. The one must be fairly set against the other. I must confess that having nine sets of regulations seems a volumetrically excessive attempt to achieve that balance. They are so complex in their detail as to suggest that there may be trouble with them. I invite him to confirm that, in view of the comments made by the Opposition, in the course of the coming year the implementation of the regulations will be reviewed, and that changes will be made if necessary. In introducing such a new system of debate about admissions, it would be wrong to give the impression to people that the system was fixed and irrevocable.

27 Jan 2003 : Column 987

Those are my three points. First, will the Minister confirm that the standards of faith schools will not be subverted by the regulations? Secondly, interviews are not the only route. Thirdly, in due course the effect of the regulations should be reviewed. The objective that I first described should be the objective at the end of such a review. Is the system working fairly, so that people are being given a choice—so that parents who want their children to go to faith schools know that they will go to such schools? I would not dream of voting for any regulations that subverted that democratic principle.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I share the noble Lord's view. I do not think that anyone said what he suggested they had done of Roman Catholic bishops; it was that they did not have much time. I am sure that he will support me when I say that Roman Catholic parents who cannot afford independent schools should have the same rights as parents who can afford independent schools to send their children to the faith school of their choice.

Lord Brennan: My Lords, I heard the intervention, but I must confess that I did not entirely follow it. I understand that the present set of regulations seeks to allow a reasonable opportunity for parents to make application to the school of their choice. Irrelevant to that is the ability to pay or not, which I am afraid reflects the economic facts of life.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I do not want to help the people in Downing Street any more; many others have done that for them. My point was that a person who could afford independent Catholic education could send their child to Downside, Ampleforth or wherever. However, if the child's education were dependent on a chit from the parish priest, very devout Catholics could fail to get into the state school of their choice. That is where I support the noble Lord on review.

Lord Brennan: My Lords, I confess that I still do not understand the comparison between a rich person who can pay for their child to get into a school and those who are not rich and need to approach a priest for a chit, as the noble Lord called it. The fact is that in times past entry to Catholic schools and other faith schools has worked with reasonable efficiency. I do not accept that the regulations are cloaked with the dire effects that Opposition Members have suggested.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I have listened to this debate with great interest. Everyone seems to agree for different reasons that this is an important issue. It is therefore difficult to understand—this is the point that still worries me—why there was not time for consultation, particularly of the people who would have to operate the

27 Jan 2003 : Column 988

arrangement and those who will have to suffer from it or—this may be so—benefit from it. If this is worth doing, it is surely worth proper consultation.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who participated in this debate. It is far better to be here than at some rumoured party at No. 10. I have enjoyed every moment of the debate.

I hope to respond adequately to the wide range of points. I shall begin with consultation, which was raised last—it was also raised first, by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I shall endeavour to answer the wide range of questions raised by the noble Baroness. Should I fail in any respect, I assure her that I shall write to her with the answers to any questions that I may have omitted to answer. At the start of this debate, I was in the blissful state of hoping that we were engaging in a limited debate to which I could give extensive time and consideration to the noble Baroness's every question. However, she will recognise that I should need to speak for three-quarters of an hour to respond adequately—I must respond to a number of other contributions—which would bring considerable criticism on me.

I shall deal first with consultation. We sought to ensure that admissions for 2004 should work on the basis of the new arrangements. Working back from 2004, we are fiercely constrained by parliamentary procedures and time limits in terms of the stage at which we must table the code. Our difficulty involved the 40 days of parliamentary time available for praying against the code. I give a straightforward apology to the noble Baroness, who should have been informed that the code was to be laid. I gather that such an undertaking had been given but it was not fulfilled. That is a straightforward apology.

It was necessary to lay the code on 15th November in order to meet the parliamentary timetable, and it was up to the Opposition in this place and another place to pray against the code if they wanted to do so. Laying the code at that date in order to get the principles in place for January and therefore the implementation of the new arrangements meant that the timetable for consultation was more limited than we should have wished. We recognise that that placed considerable pressure on people who wanted to respond.

We set out so far as we could to meet the needs of those who deserved to have been, and should have been, consulted. We were aware of those who have a direct interest in the matter. We targeted admission authorities because they would have the most direct interest in the changes to the regulations, and we consulted LEAs as the admission authorities of community and voluntary controlled schools. We consulted a representative sample of foundation and voluntary-aided schools that were responsible for admission to their schools, and a smaller sample of other non-admission-authority schools. We are open to the criticism that we did not have a consultation process that meant that every school in the country was consulted directly. That would have been a gargantuan task. Our process of consultation involved

27 Jan 2003 : Column 989

all those most directly affected as admission authorities. We did the best for them in our time frame to ensure that the consultation was carried out.

We acknowledge all of that. The Act was passed, as noble Lords will recall, in July last year. The time frame in which to implement the regulations has been more limited, which imposes constraints. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, suggested, the regulations and the code fulfil the concepts, ideas and themes of the Bill that was before the House last summer and which passed into law at the end of the summer. She said that within the framework there now appeared to be only a reference to local education authorities, rather than to sub-divisions of such authorities, which would be more appropriate in terms of admission arrangements. I give her that assurance. We recognise her example from the Guildford area and that, more widely across the country, it might be appropriate if the admission authorities were a sub-division of the local forum and not the local authority in total.

We are dealing with a code, the regulations prior to the code and a framework that was embodied in the Act, which was duly passed by both Houses. We are committed to ensuring that the admission arrangements work to the best possible extent for all parents and children in an area. That is our objective.

Inevitably, the moment at which one uses the word "admission"—to say nothing of "selection", which was raised earlier in our debate—the House responds with considerable passion; those are fundamental issues in education. That is perhaps why we had a larger number of participants in this debate than would normally be expected for such orders. Views have been expressed with considerable passion. I respect those views entirely; I entirely respect the views of my noble friends Lord Graham and Lord Desai, who emphasised why we regard certain processes of selection as unacceptable. However, that does not apply simply to us; I need not reiterate the old and obvious fact that it was Conservative administrations who ended selection in more authorities than Labour governments have done. There is consistent emphasis from the Conservative side on choice, but they also know that parental choice does not hold sway in relation to selection but the decision of the school about whether the student should be accepted by the school authority.

There was a word from the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, about headmasters and headmistresses not being involved in the selection process. That is merely because the regulation refers to the legal concept of the governing body being responsible as a legal entity for admission. The headmaster and headmistress play their part within the framework of the governing body and under the arrangements that the governing body makes.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page