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Schools (Berkshire)

Volume 201: debated on Friday 20 December 1991

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1.30 pm

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this matter. It has come about because one of my colleagues cancelled his debate. That gave me the opportunity to introduce this subject. I came in, as it were, at a rather late stage.

The two schools that are mentioned on the Order Paper are of the highest standard in Berkshire. Little Heath school, in my constituency, is one of the two. Ryeish Green school is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan). I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will allow my hon. Friend to intervene briefly as we proceed.

Incidentally, the headmaster of Little Heath school taught my daughter in another school in Berkshire. I have, therefore, a close interest in the school.

The history is that four parents with four children applied for entry into Little Heath school in the normal way. Their children were due to start at the school in September 1991. They were refused entry on the ground that the school was full. The parents went through the appeals procedure and were refused again. The appeal committee upheld the decision of the local education authority. The four parents were not satisfied with the decision. They refused to send their children to any other school. I should say that one parent sent his child to Meadway school but still wishes to transfer to Little Heath.

The parents wrote to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science and he replied to the effect that he could not intervene because the LEA had not acted unreasonably. I feel strongly that the Government's policy of open enrolment is being flouted. The LEA continues to say that the school is full.

Little Heath school was first measured in 1979. It was decided then that the maximum intake was 239. The actual intake between 1983 and 1989 was 210. The school was remeasured in 1990, and the intake that year was 253. In 1991, the year in question, the intake was 239. There were six successful appeals, so 245 became the final figure. In August 1991, three children withdrew, which meant that 242 became the final figure. Three places became available. The number of admissions the previous year was 11 more than the total number of entrants in 1991.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science has to decide whether the LEA has acted unreasonably. I believe that there are grounds for intervention. During the appeals the parents were not given full information. For example, the catchment map was not produced. There are arguments in the county about whether there is a catchment map. In some letters it is referred to as being in existence and in others it is not. The parents' representations were not circulated to the appeals committee and only one parent's preference was allowed by the local education authority, which is contrary to the Department of Education and Science circular 11/88 and contrary to the Act.

Two stages of the appeal do not appear to have been followed. The first part of an appeal is to consider whether the entry will cause the school to suffer because of having too many children. The appeals committee then has to decide whether, if it supports the local education authority, the children's needs and the parents' preference ought to override that decision. There may be extenuating circumstances, in the case of the parents and the children, that ought to override the earlier decision. That process was not followed.

The Government's policy of encouraging open enrolment is right. I support it. I believe that as many parents as possible should have the opportunity to send their children to the school that they want them to attend. I urge the Minister, therefore, to intervene in this case on grounds of space. According to the figures, it appears that the school took in 11 additional children during the previous year. The argument being used is that because of the national curriculum requirements the school is more crowded and that four additional children cannot be accommodated. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East will deal with the problem that has arisen at Ryeish Green where there are similar problems about numbers.

As the procedures laid down by statute have not been properly followed, I appeal to the Minister to look into the matter. It will not go away. The parents are very determined. Unless the Minister intervenes, I have no doubt that this issue will end up in the courts. I ask him, therefore, to consider seriously the points that I have made, to look again, with his colleagues, at what has happened and to provide the opportunity for these four children to go to the school that they wish to attend. It is a fine school. The parents are very determined that their children should go to it and feel very aggrieved that that opportunity has been denied to them.

1.36 pm

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) for enabling me to join in the debate. I strongly support the points that he has made. The position is highly unsatisfactory. My hon. Friend referred to the problems at Little Heath school. I intend to speak about similar problems at Ryeish Green school.

Ryeish Green is an extremely popular school, despite the fact that many of its facilities are less good than those provided by other schools in the neighbourhood. That says a great deal for the way in which Ryeish Green is run and managed. Its allocation for this year is 186 places. I ask the Minister to consider whether it is right that the local education authority should be able to allocate the number of school places in that way when—this is very misleading for parents—the actual entry number is different. Physically handicapped children are added to Ryeish Green's allocation of 186 places. In addition, there are children whom the appeal panel regard as worthy of a place. The word "worthy" is slightly invidious, but that is the wording that the appeal panel uses.

This year's allocation of 186 places was, therefore, increased to 199. The school agreed that it could take that number of children. Just before the September term started, a few children dropped out. The number of allocated places was then reduced from 199 to 196. However, parents who were anxious to send their children to Ryeish Green—whose names, presumably, were on the waiting list—were not allowed to do so. They resented that deeply.

Moreover, the headmaster offered an additional entrance form this year, but the local education authority has refused to transfer any funds for that purpose. Presumably funds will have been made available for those children at another school. The greatest injustice felt by the parents is that they have been told that there is a catchment area and that preference is given to children from the primary school catchment area. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West said, there is considerable confusion and misunderstanding about whether there is a catchment area. Parents feel a double injustice because, having failed to get their children into Ryeish Green, they are compelled to send them to other schools in the area, regardless of whether they want to do so. Having failed to get their children into Ryeish Green, a number of parents are keeping their children at home, which is very unsatisfactory.

I asked locally for the names of the people who are on the appeal panel, how they were appointed and selected and what criteria they applied in making their judgment. I was told that that was confidential and could not be passed to me, which again is unsatisfactory.

In October, the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon), was good enough to reply to my letter. He pointed out that the Secretary of State's scope to intervene in school admissions is "extremely limited". He said that
"The authority's general duty to admit children to the school chosen by their parents does not apply in certain circumstances".
Again, I found that unsatisfactory, because it is not clear to parents what circumstances prevent their children from being admitted. He further said:
"Admission authorities can have any reasonable criteria they like."
That is not satisfactory. He continues:
"Catchment areas are not illegal or unreasonable in themselves but they may be vulnerable to legal challenge if they are drawn to co-incide with the county boundary and thus give priority to the LEA's own residents."
We have recently had the court adjudication, which is under appeal, on the Greenwich area. It appears to be totally contrary to what the courts have decided for another part of the country.

Finally—this is a glimmer of light—my hon. Friend the Minister says:
"If the governors wish to do so, they can ask the LEA to increase the school's admission limit for next year and if the LEA were to refuse, the governors could apply to the Secretary of State for an increased standard number"
of admissions.

I am glad to have been able to participate in this short debate. I hope that I have said enough to show the strong feelings about the system in our area. Contrary to what we had hoped from increased parental choice, the system seems to have become more bureaucratic and less flexible.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of what the hon. Members for Reading, East and Reading, West have said and will agree to reconsider the position.

1.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Alan Howarth)

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) and for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan) on their persistence in pursuing the concerns of their constituents. They have written several times to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science and have pursued the interests of their constituents with determination. Persistence is one of the hallmarks of an effective Member of Parliament and I pay full tribute to my hon. Friends for all the work that they have done on behalf of their constituents.

My hon. Friends raised the issue of parental choice and the admission of children to school. This is a matter of close interest to all our constituents—and rightly so—as is borne out by the correspondence that my ministerial colleagues and I receive from right hon. and hon. Members.

I share my hon. Friend's strong belief in parental choice in education. Our reforms are designed to enhance parental choice and to improve the information available to parents, to allow a more informed exercise of that choice. That is what more open enrolment, to use the jargon phrase, is all about. The Education Reform Act 1988 extends parental choice by providing increased opportunity for parents to send their children to the schools of their choice.

My hon. Friends have clearly conveyed in their letters to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State the disappointment of parents who were unsuccessful in gaining a place for their children at Little Heath and Ryeish Green.

That is entirely understandable. However, I emphasise that the improvements that we have introduced enhance parental choice but do not guarantee that parents will, in all cases, be able to gain a place for their child at the school of their choice. It is, I fear, unavoidable that some parents will be disappointed.

The number of places for admission to a school each year must necessarily be related to the capacity of the school. To do otherwise would cause overcrowded conditions, would affect teaching and the children's ability to learn and would benefit no one.

I have listened carefully to what the Minister said, but how does he explain that the numbers can go up and down from one week to another? Either the school is full or it is not; either there are places or there are not.

If my hon. Friend will allow me to continue I may be able to deal with that issue in the context of the circumstances in Reading and in the particular schools.

The key point about more open enrolment is that there is now a minimum number of admissions to a school—known as the standard number—which is related to the physical capacity of the school. The admissions authority for a school—the local education authority in the case of county schools which we are debating today—must admit children up to at least its standard number. It cannot set lower admissions numbers for administrative convenience.

Our reforms are designed to maximise parental choice but no matter how much my hon. Friends and I would like all parents to obtain their choice of school for their children, the number of pupils admitted to a school must be limited, not least in the educational interests of the children already admitted.

What concerns me about the particular school in which I am interested is that there are fewer children this year than the previous year. I cannot understand how that happens. We accept that there must be figures on which decisions are based, but there has been a sudden variation in the figures for entries into that school.

If my hon. Friend will allow me to develop the case a little further I shall try to set his particular concern in the context of the general policy appertaining to these issues. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we must do all that we can to ensure that the options available are the best possible.

The introduction of standard numbers under more open enrolment means that admissions authorities can no longer set arbitrary restrictions on admission to popular schools. Of course, if an authority wishes to admit above the standard number, it can do so.

I understand that the standard number for Ryeish Green school is 186. Berkshire local education authority, after consultation with the head and the governors, agreed to increase the intake to 191 in the interests of meeting parental choice in the area. I understand that the authority has said that it proposes to keep admissions at the higher level.

In the case of Little Heath school there have been changes in the numbers of admissions in the past couple of years and they have, I think, caused some confusion among parents who have appealed to the Secretary of State about their child's non-admission. I shall explain briefly what I understand to have happened.

Little Heath school has a standard number of 239. That was the admissions number published for the school for 1990. Subsequently, the local education authority carried out a reassessment of the school's capacity and the admissions number was raised following consultation with the school governors to 253 for 1991. The school's accommodation was then again reassessed—

The school's intake was 253 in 1990. In 1991 it was 239. The Minister's figures are right, but his years are wrong.

It is extremely important that we understand each other correctly and that we are discussing the same facts. I shall continue with my exposition and if it proves to be the case that there has been a misunderstanding between my hon. Friends and the Department, we shall of course pursue it as constructively and helpfully as we can. However, I am not sure that my hon. Friend is entirely right in his apprehension.

The school's accommodation was again reassessed by the local education authority to take account of the requirements of the national curriculum, in consultation with the head and school governors. As a result, the local education authority assessed the school's capacity as indicating an admission limit below 239. It is perhaps regrettable that the authority and governors felt it necessary to reduce the admissions number for the school, having increased it the previous year. They did not seek to reduce the admissions below the standard number of 239; if they had wished to do so, they would have required the approval of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State.

The authority has said that it regrets the situation that has arisen in those cases, but that, having regard for the pupils already at the school, it could not justify an increase in the admission levels at the schools. If the governing body of the school is unhappy with the currently agreed level of admissions and wishes to increase the school's admission limits for next year it can of course approach the local education authority. That is not all that it can do. If the local education authority is unwilling to grant an increase in admissions, the governors can apply to the Secretary of State for an increase in the school's standard number.

As the schools were oversubscribed for this year, places at the schools were allocated in accordance with the authority's published criteria. On the basis of those criteria, the children of constituents about whom my hon. Friends have written did not gain places at the school. Once places had been allocated, parents who did not obtain a place for their child were given the opportunity of presenting their appeals to the independent appeals committee. The authority's decisions were considered and upheld by the appeals committee.

My right hon. and learned Friend has considered, at my hon. Friends' request, the concerns of their constituents regarding the non-admission of their children and whether to intervene in the matter. I gladly pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Reading, West and for Reading, East for their hard work on behalf of their constituents, but I must remind them of the limits on the powers of my right hon. and learned Friend in such matters. Before he could intervene, my right hon. and learned Friend would need to be satisfied either that the authority was acting "unreasonably" or that it was failing in its duty under section 6 of the Education Act 1980 to observe parental preferences. To fall within the term "unreasonable", as interpreted by the courts, an authority's conduct must be conduct that no sensible authority, acting with due appreciation of its responsibilities, would have decided to adopt. Those are strict criteria and understandably so. My right hon. and learned Friend's powers do not allow him to act as a court of appeal, reviewing the decisions of local appeal committees; and it is not enough that he should simply disagree with the local education authority's decision. He cannot substitute his own judgment for that of the admissions authority.

After careful consideration of the points raised by my hon. Friends on their constituents' behalf, my right hon. and learned Friend concluded that the Berkshire local education authority did not appear to have acted "unreasonably"—in this strict sense—in changing the admissions number to Little Heath back to the standard number; and that there were therefore no grounds on which he could intervene in those cases.

Provided an appeal committee is constituted in accordance with the provisions of schedule 2 to the Education Act 1980, the Secretary of State cannot intervene in respect of its findings, although it is open to the local ombudsman to investigate its decisions and procedure.

My hon. Friends the Members for Reading, West and for Reading, East have served splendidly the interests of their constituents, who are understandably disappointed and distressed about the non-admission of their children to the school of their choice. I hope that my hon. Friends accept that we have looked closely at the points that they have raised; it is unfortunate that expectations of higher admissions to Little Heath were not maintained, but the local education authority is meeting the legal requirements by continuing to admit up to the school's standard number and, on the evidence that we have, I do not think that we can describe the action of the local education authority in reducing admissions in 1991–92 as "unreasonable" in the strict legal sense, however much we may regret it.

May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to think a little further? The points that we have raised refer to two particular schools but also to a system, which we think is unsatisfactory and which he may also feel, following the Greenwich court case, needs re-examination. We do not think that the rigid application of catchment areas is fulfilling the Government's intentions in respect of increased parental choice and we should be grateful if the Minister would have another look at the position not just of our schools but generally.

I think that my hon. Friend accepts that, in the case affecting the school in his constituency, full evidence has been put before us and that we have considered it with the utmost care. Of course, if any new evidence were presented, we would look at the circumstances again. On the wider issue of principle and policy, we are most anxious to make the enhancement of parental choice and the policy of more open enrolment a most effective reality. I hope that my hon. Friends will recognise, however, that it is a time-honoured and integral part of our education system that there should be local education authorities which have discretion to manage affairs within their own areas, and we have to consider carefully what balance we should strike between the pursuit of the Government's strategy of enhancing parental choice—something to which the overwhelming majority of local education authorities are committed—and the preservation of proper authority for LEAs in their own areas.

What concerns me in the case of Little Heath is that the national curriculum is the ground being cited for the reduction in numbers. Are the Government pleased at the prospect of schools shrinking as a result of the national curriculum when what we are supposed to be doing is extending the education service?

It is certainly not generally the case that schools are reducing the number of pupils because of the national curriculum. My hon. Friend represents the interests of parents and of children who attend Little Heath school and he will not want those interests to be neglected. It seems to all of us to be extremely important that physical circumstances should be provided to enable teachers to teach the national curriculum and children to learn it in conditions that are satisfactory.

As I said earlier, I perfectly understand the frustration of parents whose hopes that their children would obtain a place were disappointed, but, on the face of it, it does not appear to me that the local education authority has done the wrong thing in addressing itself to the issue of how the national curriculum can best be delivered in the particular circumstances of the school.

I hope that my hon. Friends the Members for Reading, East and for Reading, West will find my comments as constructive as they were intended to be and that I have reassured them that we have examined carefully the points that they have raised.