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School Places

Volume 492: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2009

It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. This debate is important for my constituents. I am here to plead with the Minister, because the allocation of school places is hugely controversial in St. Albans, as is the lack of school places. I want to deal with the issue at both primary and secondary school levels. I am putting myself in the Minister’s hands in the hope that she will consider coming to St. Albans and taking a personal interest in the matter.

On allocation day in the St. Albans district area, 128 pupils were allocated places at non-ranked primary schools, and 80 of those places were in St. Albans parish. The number was reduced to 80 by the time of the fifth round of the continuing interest process, but a significant number of primary school pupils were left in limbo.

I have been contacted by about 50 angry parents, and at the latest of a series of meetings last week, I met many parents from St. Albans who are united in their disappointment about the failure of allocation of school places in our area. My constituents who are dissatisfied with the situation have formed St. Albans Battle for Local Education—SABLE—to press for solutions. The problem is partly the number of people who choose to live in and around St. Albans and partly the inability correctly to predict the required number of places. The problem arises every year, but this year it has become a crisis. The east of England plan proposes an extra 83,000 homes in Hertfordshire by 2021, which will undoubtedly place huge pressure on local schools.

The local authority admits that despite forecasts being produced annually for up to seven years ahead, using live GP birth data, planned housing information and trends in pupil movement between areas, the data for 2007 did not indicate that there would be a shortage of places for that year. An update forecast produced in April 2006 suggested that places might be tight, but that the situation would be manageable within existing provision. Only when the application data were analysed in November 2006 did the shortfall of places in the city centre became apparent, which is when additional provision was made centrally to accommodate that unexpected and unpredicted rise in demand.

Parents were left reeling in shock as they were told that there was nowhere for their children to go. In March, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) raised the problem of the global shortfall of predicted places at primary entry due to the inadequate forecasting system. According to the national press, some 2,250 children in the UK will not have a place in September, and that will rise to 5,000 next year. I have been led to believe that 300 more children may come into St. Albans district attachment area in September. The problem is increasing year on year.

What do we need? Parents in my constituency believe that we need a new school. St. Albans is a small, tight city district, and many parents who have moved into the city centre have expressed the desire for their children to go to local schools. In April, the possibility that a new school could be built in the city centre to solve the deficit of school places in central St. Albans was considered, but it soon emerged that there is no budget in the current climate to press ahead with such a major project. Nevertheless, some children in my constituency are still facing an uncertain future, and there is little to suggest that anything major is being done to address that.

In April, Hertfordshire county council's senior planning officer wrote to St. Albans district council stating:

“In connection with the issue of primary schools, it was explained that analysis of births and children's home addresses has identified a need for extra primary school place capacity in the area west of the city centre. At the meeting, a number of sites which could meet the need to provide additional primary capacity to the west of the town centre were discussed.

In 2007, a need was identified for at least 4 form entry capacity in the long term. Temporary capacity”

in the light of the under-forecast for the necessary provision

“was provided in 2007 through provision of temporary buildings at Maple, St. Peters and Aboyne Lodge Schools. However, that was for one year group only.”

Unfortunately, the provision to expand capacity temporarily has caused a huge knock-on effect. The planning officer continued:

“Herts Property met with representatives of the City and District Council in June 2008 to explain the difficulties and begin to explore possibilities. Since that time, 1 form entry of additional capacity has been provided at Bernard’s Heath Infant School”—

but not at the schools required—

“A further 1 form entry of permanent provision will be required at Bernard's Heath Junior School in due course to complete that provision.”

One issue on which Hertfordshire Property is awaiting feedback relates to the possible use of council-owned land and assets. It believes that the need to provide a permanent solution to the issue of primary school place provision to the west of the city has become urgent. The keen interest of the local community is reflected in the interest of its own members, who are becoming closely involved in the need to identify a solution. Three schools in my constituency, Mandeville school, Bernards Heath infant school and Bernards Heath junior school, have agreed to take the additional pupils in September, but that solves the problem for only a small number of additional pupils. Some parents, even now, are uncertain about where their children will go to school.

Those in St. Albans parish were allocated a non-ranked place with an average home-to-school distance of just more than a mile—1629.43 m—compared with a national figure for all children starting primary school in 2009-10 of 1397.11 m. Parents in my constituency believe that it is not reasonable to expect a four-year-old to travel that distance. On top of that, because the additional places are temporary and the three nearest schools that many parents in my constituency were advised by the local authority to put down as their top three choices were already over-subscribed by siblings from that bulge year, those parents who chose their local schools were in the invidious position of being told that there was no availability, and they were put at the bottom of the list.

My constituent, Mrs. Anne Martin, has been allocated a place for her four-year-old son that is 4 km from her home at the 10th-nearest primary school. Since appealing against that decision, she has perversely been allocated the 15th-nearest primary school. I fully support the right and desire for her and other parents in the same position to access local schools. Mrs. Martin wants her child to walk to school rather than being ferried by car. An additional problem is that many child minders and carers will not go several kilometres to a school outside their own areas, which leaves parents in my constituency totally in the lurch. St. Albans has followed the Government’s desire to utilise brownfield sites, but that has led to overdevelopment in the city centre and to a crisis for school places.

Many four to five-year-olds in my constituency have been placed in schools that can realistically be accessed only by private or public transport. It has been suggested that parents should place children on the walking bus that operates in six local schools, but many of them believe—I agree—that it is unreasonable for a four-year-old child and a mum, perhaps pushing a buggy with one or two siblings, to walk a mile and a half in each direction to school every day.

Many parents have reported that the sibling rule sometimes has perverse consequences, because it often favours children who live further away from a school when it comes to allocating places. I have been contacted by parents complaining that it allows families to move into the community, gain a place for their first child at a local schools, and then move out of the community. Some children come in from up to 16.8 miles away. That means that local children who cannot follow through may be allocated places at schools that are between ninth and 15th furthest from their home. That discriminates year on year against first-born children and only children.

The schools admissions code of the Department for Children, Schools and Families supports giving priority to siblings of children who are still at the school, but I am sure that the Minister agrees that in areas such as mine, which have suddenly and unexpectedly had to accommodate a bulge year, that causes a huge set of problems. Parents are rightly quoting the admissions code, which refers to giving “priority to siblings” and supporting

“families with young children of primary school age who may not be able to travel independently.”

But families such as those in my constituency who are members of SABLE find themselves having to trawl more than 3 km with small children to get to school, and the problem is perpetuated to their other children.

At secondary school level, things are little better. Our problem, I am sorry to say, is a school that parents are deeply unhappy with and has been in special measures. The villages experience particular problems. A number of families who live in Colney Heath in my constituency have been allocated a place at Onslow St. Audrey’s school in Hatfield. Potentially, that part of my constituency will soon, as a result of the Government’s wish for more houses in the area, almost be joined to Hatfield. The parents in my area feel that they belong to St. Albans. They would like to have schools that are easily accessed. They have been allocated a place at Onslow despite the fact that a previous independent appeals panel upheld the appeal on the basis that the route to school was illogical. The route involves using an underpass that many residents regard as unsafe, intimidating and isolated. It was deemed unacceptable for a previous constituent, yet now the council, having made some small improvements, is, because of our crisis in school places and the failing school that other parents choose not to access, causing my constituents to have to make unreasonable journeys in a way that many of the parents regard as unsafe.

Many parents were deeply unhappy at being allocated places at Francis Bacon school. They expressed concerns not only about educational achievement, but about the whole brand surrounding the school. I would welcome the Minister looking into that and seeing whether any support can be given to a school that is now trying very hard to pull itself up by its bootstraps, although the local perception of the school means that parents are actively choosing not to engage with it.

One parent, who lives exactly 1 mile from Beaumont, their first-ranked school, which is in the Fleetville area, said that their child is the only one to miss out and is now being sent to a school quite a distance away. Only nine boys from Fleetville went to Verulam. This is becoming a merry-go-round of mismatching, with pupils being sent elsewhere and then the sibling rule coming into place.

Parents living in priority areas felt that they might be able to access their preferred schools. However, we have many single-sex and faith schools in St. Albans, and that is causing perverse outcomes. Some people who choose a single-sex school are having to come from a long distance away. As a result, I would welcome the Minister’s view on a “swap shop” to deal with the perverse situation by which a child who wants a single-sex school is allocated a co-educational school, and a parent who desperately wants a co-educational school is allocated a single-sex school. I hope that a scheme can be brought into play in areas such as mine—I know that the position is not unique—so that parents can ask to swap, as people swap social housing tenancies, and there can be two sets of happy families.

Many parents say, “Is there nowhere that we can take our concerns?” The possibility of an independent ombudsman for education has been suggested. My constituent, Cristina Fenn, wrote to me only yesterday evening, asking whether it would be possible to have an ombudsman for education. That would be somewhere to turn for parents who are caught up in a merry-go-round of mismatched desires for schools and have slipped to the bottom because they followed the advice of the local education authority and selected local schools that are already oversubscribed, where sibling rules are causing a perversity of intake. She said:

“Where will next year’s admissions children who get no acceptable school place end up? Yet again?

What has happened to the 80 children this year? They”—

the authorities—

“are just turning their backs on 2 and a half primary schools worth of children. This is disgusting!”

We must consider these children’s futures and not treat them just as names and addresses. Ms Fenn says that she refuses to send her children to a school almost 2 miles away that is not her third, fifth or even eighth choice, and she is not alone.

Parents are asking what solutions can be put in place. Can guidance be attached to the sibling rule to avoid the perverse situation in which parents are totally unable to access local schools, totally unable to get out of their cars and let their children walk to school and groups of pupils are being split up so that one child is sent 3 km away when all their peer group have managed to access local schools? Can there also be support and help with rebranding exercises for schools that have not only fallen below the educational standards that parents choose to access, but have fallen so low in the confidence of residents—many of us in the House will completely sympathise with the lack of public confidence—that they are actively considering home schooling? The parents of two whole entries-worth of secondary school pupils filled the St. Alban’s arena saying that they are not prepared to accept a lower standard of education for their children when the Government promised them, “Education, education, education”. They do not believe that they are given a choice. They do not believe that they are given a fair way of filling in the forms when schools are already full and a local authority or a school itself will say that it is full. How can a parent have choice when their top three choices are totally filled up with siblings?

This is a complex matter. I very much hope that the Minister will visit my constituency and talk to not only parents but the district authority, which is putting together its local development framework, and the county council. I hope that that will offer us a way forward. In my area, some parents still do not know what will happen. The continuing interest rules are causing deep disquiet. People are keeping their options open, having been allocated perhaps a third-choice school, in the hope that they will move up the ranks. Other parents have no school place whatever for their child. I hope that the Minister will deal with some of those issues, and perhaps I can question her on some of her answers.

I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), on securing a debate on something that is acutely important in her constituency. She has brought her prodigious energies—

Order. I must explain that although interventions are permitted in a 30-minute debate, contributions are not, without prior arrangement. As we have only 14 minutes left, will the right hon. Gentleman please make his intervention brief?

I had understood that my hon. Friend had left a little time for me to speak, so there was an arrangement of sorts. Is that permissible?

That is fine, but the normal practice is to obtain permission from the Minister and also to inform the Chair. We now have 13 minutes.

I apologise, Mr. Cook, and my comments will therefore be much briefer.

I experience a similar problem in Harpenden, particularly with secondary education. Year after year, initial applications exceed the places available in the three excellent and popular schools. The outcome is invariably, after the continuing interest arrangements have come into force or additional places have been made available, that every parent and pupil does get a place at the school of their choice, but they go through a long period of uncertainty. I have obtained an assurance from the county councillor, Keith Emsell, who has been extremely helpful, that he will, if insufficient places are available through the continuing interest process, negotiate with local schools to expand capacity so that extra places can be created. He cannot, however, give an absolute guarantee.

I want the Minister to address whether there is some way to avoid putting parents and pupils through this harrowing process when, at the end of the day, we have always been able to accommodate them. Why cannot we offer a guarantee at the beginning, rather than the end? If, as I believe, national rules are to some extent hampering the ability of the county to offer such a guarantee, will she consider altering those rules? It seems that, in the first place, the county has to negotiate with schools. Secondly, if they negotiate before the process starts and expand capacity, that cannot be done on a provisional basis. That expanded capacity, if it is too great, results in places being made available for people out of the area and then, in subsequent years, their siblings can take places, thus making the situation more acute. Will the Minister address those problems—perhaps she can write to me—so that we can see whether we can avoid giving families and children that harrowing experience and causing them unnecessary distress summer after summer?

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook.

Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. She is a good advocate for the parents and pupils in her constituency. I cannot promise to come and visit, but I am happy to have a meeting with her and council officials about the issue.

Will the Minister extend that invitation to parents in groups such as SABLE, who would very much welcome being able to have a representative at the meeting?

Later in my speech, I will explain that it is the local authority that is responsible for allocating places, so parents’ first recourse should be to the local authority. However, I am happy to meet the hon. Lady and representatives of the county council and St. Albans city and district council.

I am sure that we would all agree that every child needs to have access to the opportunities and benefits that education brings. That means that we have to have two things: first, we need a fair and open admissions process that is responsive to the needs of parents, families and communities, workable for schools and clearly accountable for local authorities and schools when problems occur; and, secondly, we need to raise standards across the board—in all schools up and down the country—so that parents can have confidence in the professionals in schools and the quality of education.

We have strengthened our admissions process to ensure that it is as fair as possible, that it takes into account the views and opinions of parents and others, and that it has clear lines of accountability when things go wrong. The revised school admissions code, which came into force in February, places children and families at the heart of a fairer system. Unfair or covert admissions practices, which penalise low-income families and increase social segregation, have been outlawed. Local authorities must now set admissions arrangements for their local area, following consultation with the parents and communities they serve, and they must publish their school allocation plans.

I come now to the sibling rule. The guidance on page 36 of the new code says:

“The admission authorities for primary schools should ensure in their oversubscription criteria that siblings…can attend the same primary school”.

The hon. Lady will note that it does not say “must”. It is not a hard and fast rule; it is good practice. However, a local authority could use special circumstances, as she described, as long as it went out to consultation with all the parents in the area. This is not a “must”, but any changes would have to be agreed by all parents in the area—the consultation is the basis on which any changes would go forward. Wherever changes to admissions criteria are necessary, they must be published for public consultation.

When families do not get their first choice of school, the council will offer a place at the nearest school with an available place. Children who live further away than the statutory distance will be entitled to free home-to-school transport.

As a result of a stronger admissions code, we now have the fairest admissions system that we have ever had. A rise in school standards has meant that there is more choice than ever before. Nationally, 93 per cent. of families got one of their top three secondary school preferences this year, and the figure was the same in Hertfordshire. In St, Albans, only 1 per cent. of parents did not get one of their top three choices in the secondary sector, which means that 99 per cent. did.

Will the Minister address the inability to place a four-year-old on public or other transport to go to a primary school that is ranked 15th in terms of distance and parental choice? I completely understand the Minister’s views about accessing transport for secondary schools, but 80 of my parents have acute problems with primary schools.

Following the final run of the continuing interest process, the information that I have is that 58 children resident in St. Albans parish have been allocated a non-ranked primary school. Some 50 per cent. of those 58 children have been allocated a school that is nearer to their home than at least one of the schools that they listed as a preference, and 21 per cent. of the 58 have been allocated their nearest school according to Hertfordshire county council’s definition, although they did not rank that school as a preference. As at allocation day, all children resident in St. Albans parish who applied but were not offered one of their preferences were allocated a non-ranked school within the statutory walking distance. If that information is not correct, I am sure that the hon. Lady will write to me.

I want to be absolutely clear: the allocation of school places is a judgment to be made by local authorities, not central Government. Local authorities are responsible for planning school places and ensuring that there are enough places available to meet local need, and it is absolutely right that they are. Local authorities and schools know best the unique opportunities, challenges and needs in their local area, and they are in the best position to deploy their resources.

Local authorities are under a statutory duty to provide every child of compulsory school age with a school place, but they are not obliged to provide a place at a particular school. It is therefore important that authorities have robust planning processes in place to rationalise school places and to make accurate projections of future demand for places to secure sufficient funding.

As I stated at the outset, the provision of school places is for the local authority to determine. A decision has been taken to expand certain primary schools in the suburbs of St. Albans, rather than in the centre, and that has been unpopular with parents. However, in this case, the local authority felt that the expansion of those central schools was not feasible and decided to allocate places elsewhere.

On funding, it is crucial that local authorities make a full assessment of future demand for school places in their areas. My Department relies on those forecasts when allocating capital funding. Local authorities prepare their pupil forecasts on the basis of local circumstances, taking account of births, new housing, population migration and other factors. There should be no unexpected demand for reception places because of a rise in the birth rate, but I accept that other factors may be at play in this case.

Some £1.2 billion was allocated to authorities at the beginning of the current spending round—2008-09 to 2010-11—to provide for a growth in pupil numbers. The decision was made in that round that all the basic-need funding would be allocated up front to give local authorities a three-year planning window. That means that nothing is held back to help in the future. Funding is fixed for three years at the beginning of the spending review period.

In the current spending review period, £21.5 million of basic-need funding was allocated to Hertfordshire to enable the authority to provide additional places to meet increased pupil numbers. We operate a safety-valve mechanism for new pupil places funding. That delivers additional funding, but it is not offered every year. The safety-valve funding was allocated in 2008-09. Eight authorities applied for such funding for 2008-09 to 2010-11, but Hertfordshire was not one of them.

In 2008, Hertfordshire county council had more than 500 fewer primary pupils and more than 300 fewer secondary pupils to accommodate than it had projected the year before. Authorities also have the flexibility to use their overall resources to address changes to their priorities, and that includes providing new pupil places.

Eighteen primary schools in St. Albans have a more than 10 per cent. surplus of places, while eight are oversubscribed. Of nine secondary schools, one has a 39 per cent. surplus of places, while three are oversubscribed. The county council assures me that there are sufficient school places to accommodate local children, but the local authority must look carefully at its distribution and allocation of places to ensure that it is best meeting the needs of local pupils and families. Although there are enough places in the hon. Lady’s local area, I acknowledge her concerns and, once again, I offer her the opportunity to come with representatives from the local authorities to discuss the issue further.

As a parent myself, I understand that a parent’s decision about which school to send their child to is one of the most important that they can make. I therefore understand the disappointment and uncertainty that parents feel when they do not get their first choice. However, I want to be clear: a second-choice school does not mean a second-class education.

I have met parents at secondary and primary school level who did not get any of their choices. Will the Minister touch on the fact that places at some schools in the three top choices were totally taken up by siblings? As a result, some parents could not have their choice, but they did not know that.

Under our new system, we are trying to get much better information to parents at the beginning. I absolutely agree that parents cannot rank schools and give an informed preference if they are not aware of that information. We want to make much more use of parents’ forums to ensure that parents are at the heart of the system and that information is with them at the beginning, when they have to make their decisions.

We have placed a real focus on raising standards in all schools right across the board. The national challenge programme is ensuring that every school sees at least 30 per cent. of its pupils achieve five higher-level GCSEs, including in English and maths.

When making choices about which school to send their children to, parents need easy access to information about how a school is doing. We are currently reporting on the school report card, which we hope will give much broader information about schools, covering not just the narrow issue of attainment, but how schools address wider issues, such as the well-being of their pupils. We are also looking to include parents’ views about the school in the process, and we are consulting on whether such views should be on the report card.

In conclusion, local authorities need to use every resource at their disposal. They need to combine strategic direction with careful planning and to think creatively to ensure that every child benefits from the opportunities offered by education. We will continue to work with and support authorities to make that a reality.

Sitting suspended.