Draft Code of Practice on School Admissions

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Ms Ward: Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a difference between a child's aptitude for sports, music or a language, and what is, in effect, an 11-plus system, where a child sits an exam on a Saturday morning in a whole range of subjects? The results of that exam will be the admissions criteria on which it is decided whether the child can attend school A or school B.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): We are not getting rid of that. We are keeping it.

Mrs. May: Exactly. I suggest that the hon. Lady reads what is set out in the admissions code and in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. Decisions on whether a child goes to school A or school B will be taken according to whether they happen to be good at a particular subject. Children are not supposed to be able across a range of subjects—they can be good at maths and go to a specialist maths school, but they are not supposed to be good at maths and a foreign language together.

The real issue is how to test for aptitude and not ability. Paragraph 5.16 shows that the Government do not know how to do that. It is as clear as mud about what a test for aptitude is: effectively it states that a test for aptitude is a test for aptitude.

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): That is true.

Mrs. May: It is indeed true, but it is so self-evident that we are surprised that the Government felt the need to put it in the code. Paragraph 5.16 does not explain anything to parents and others about what the test for aptitude will be about, and how it will be put in place.

In the debate on early-years education in the Chamber this morning, a point was raised about the reference in paragraph 5.10 of the code to the ability of a school to keep open a place for a child whose parents wished to defer entry to the school until the child came of school age. For example, a child might be offered a place in reception class but the parents might want the child to continue in nursery or pre-school provision, so the school would hold the place open.

To the extent that that will provide greater choice, put parents under less pressure to get children into reception classes and help to counter the current problem of children being encouraged to go into reception classes, and the consequent number of pre-schools that will have to close—there have been 1,500 in the past two years and there may be 1,700 this year—it will be welcome if it happens. However, schools have raised important questions with me relating to how they will operate that policy and how they can retain places when they are not receiving funding for children who otherwise would have been in them. I should be grateful if the Minister would address that when she winds up the debate.

My final point relates to the cross-border use of parental preferences, an issue that I often hear about in my constituency. I suspect that the Minister will reply that admissions forums should help. However, concern has been voiced in areas where there are parents who wish to apply to a school within their local education authority and to another school in another LEA. Application for both schools will be made on a different form and although parents will name a school as their first preference, it will appear to be a first preference for both local authority's schools. Put another way, a school in authority A will be the parents' first preference; if they are not successful there, they will want to go to a school in authority B, but when they submit authority B's form it appears that authority B's school is their first preference, so a child living in authority B may not get the place. Issues arise there which can be discussed between LEAs, and solutions arrived at across border, and it is important that solutions be found. Where good schools are close to LEA borders—nothwithstanding the Greenwich judgment, which gives parents choice—parents should be able to choose, but it should be choice on a level playing field, so that LEAs are clear about whether an application is genuinely a first preference, or is a second choice.

I recognise that this is a difficult matter which causes much heartache for parents whose children are unable to attend the school of their choice. It is important that we scrutinise the admissions code of practice policy most carefully to ensure that it operates in the fairest and best possible way. I repeat that Opposition Members share a number of concerns about the code as it stands.

4.53 pm

Mr. Don Foster: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson.

Some members of the Committee have often heard me speak about the code of practice, so they know that I am extremely unhappy about a number of aspects of it. I do not intend to go into the detail of each issue because we did that when we discussed the orders, but if my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Atkinson, he might pick up on some of them anyway.

On a more general note, after looking at the code of practice overall and at the way in which it is packaged, one wonders whether the Government have not gone out of their way to try to produce a policy deliberately designed to maintain the English class structure and to protect the interests of upwardly mobile white middle-class parents.

I can see that that rankles with the Minister. However, were she and her Government to produce such a code of practice, it would have a number of pretty obvious characteristics, such as protecting the class system and supporting the upwardly mobile. Such a code of practice would enable parents with cars and money to get their children to what they believed to be the best state school within reach, irrespective of the local education authority. That is exactly what the code of practice on admissions does as a result of the continuing adherence to the Greenwich judgment.

A code of practice that promoted such aims would also support parents who were smart enough to play the system by indicating several preferences. Those parents would have an advantage over less articulate parents who found it difficult to cope with forms. The code of practice on admissions does that by supporting the Rotherham judgment.

The hypothetical code of practice that I am describing would also enable oversubscribed popular schools—to which ambitious middle-class parents send their children—to say no to excluded pupils with challenging behaviour. The unpopular schools—sadly called sink schools by some—would be forced to take such children, making their position even more difficult. That is what the code of practice on admissions does.

The hypothetical code of practice that I am describing would enable schools to select some pupils by aptitude, preferably in the subjects that white middle-class children are likely to do well in. However, selection by aptitude for other subjects, such as sport, would not take place. Such a code would go even further and would state that once a child was in, his or her brothers and sisters must be allowed in, whether or not they have the aptitude. That is what the code of practice on admissions does.

The hypothetical code of practice would allow Church schools to interview potential pupils and their parents, who would have a right of appeal to the Secretary of State, should admission be refused. However, black and Asian pupils who were refused admission would not be given the right of appeal because of their race. That is what the code of practice on admissions does.

The code of practice is badly flawed because it contains those fundamental problems. It does not provide a fair deal for the less articulate, the poorly educated, the socially excluded and low-achieving families and their children.

I will explain why that is so by developing a few points that I have made. The Labour Government are signing up to a Conservative inheritance in a number of areas. The response that the Minister gave in a debate on the Education (Relevant Areas for Consultation on Admission Arrangements) Regulations 1999 on 18 March 1999 was revealing. Speaking about aptitude and selection, she said:

    ``The subjects that one can select on by aptitude and the word itself are all rolled over from legislation which we inherited from the Conservatives''.—[Official Report, Standing Committee 6DL, 18 March 1999; c. 21.]

Of course, that Conservative legislation was opposed by the Labour party when it was in opposition. However, that was the best response that the Minister could give.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was right to pick up paragraph 5.16 in the code. That paragraph gives a definition of aptitude, and is probably one of the most brilliantly worded sentences that I have seen in a Government document for a long time. Let me remind the Committee of what it states:

    ``A test for aptitude must test for the subject aptitude concerned and not test for ability or any other aptitude.''

As the hon. Member for Maidenhead rightly said, that is the best that the Government can do. However, the Minister has not replied to some fundamental questions. Why, for example, is there a particular list of subjects? Why is science—surely one of the most important subjects in the national curriculum—not included in the list? Why is aptitude for some subjects to be tested, but not aptitude for others—and certainly not aptitude for science?

I mentioned selection and interviews for admission to Church schools and a debate took place here and in another place. My noble Friend Lord Tope raised the issue with Baroness Blackstone, who explained on 11 March why the Government distinguished between comments made by Church schools and Churches over admissions:

    ``church schools requested that they should continue to be able to interview parents about denominational commitment and this . . . the Government conceded.''

The churches, she admitted,

    ``do not take quite the same position as the church schools''.

I asked in our Committee why the Government chose to accept the vested interest views of the Church schools rather than the more reasonable and dispassionate views of the Churches. I concede that Baroness Blackstone went on:

    ``Clearly, this is something we shall want to monitor to see how it works in practice.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 March 1999; Vol. 598, c. 442.]

I hope that that monitoring will take place and that we will receive the results quickly.

I should like to make two or three other brief points. First, although I have raised the matter before, I am going to raise it with the Minister again because I fail to understand, particularly in the light of the Stephen Lawrence report, why black or Asian parents who wish to appeal admissions decisions on grounds of ethnicity have no right of appeal to the Secretary of State when an appeal can be mounted on grounds of religion.

On 18 March the Minister said in response to my question:

    ``We did not under pressure retain similar powers on gender and ethnicity for the Secretary of State.''—[Official Report, 6DL, 18 March 1999; c. 20.]

That is no answer whatever. Why should one group have the right of appeal to the Secretary of State when other groups do not?

We have still not had an answer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Maidenhead about adjudicators. We know that several adjudicators have been appointed but we have yet to see a copy of the job description. I hope that one will be made available at least to members of the Committee, and preferably to the whole House.

Finally, is the Minister satisfied that within the code of practice the regulations are now clear? I suggest that they are extremely confused and confusing. People were told during the passage of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 that they would be allowed in principle to complain to the adjudicator about selection, yet the code of practice specifically denies them that opportunity. A clear promise made by the Labour Government has now been broken.

I have raised some issues and would like to raise others. I am unhappy with the code of practice and I hope that we will receive some clear answers that will help those who have to interpret and use the code to have a better understanding of how it will work in practice.

5.3 pm

 
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