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Schools Admissions Policies

Volume 520: debated on Monday 13 December 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

Tonight, I shall try to find the balance in schools admissions between the right of schools to set their admissions policy and the right of parents to get their children into a local school. In Milton Keynes, a growing city with many in-year admissions, that is no mean feat. Hopefully we can find a resolution tonight, but it is fair to say that for many, school admissions is a sore subject. It preoccupies parents, has the power to inflate house prices and has even been the stuff of TV drama.

In Milton Keynes, schools admissions has gained renewed controversy since changes were made to the allocation process. The previous Government said that those changes would ensure fairness, but combined with other factors, they have had the unintended consequence of leaving scores of children out of education or having to travel miles across the city to get to school. The delays and distances endured by many of my young constituents are simply not fair.

From September, local authorities were charged with co-ordinating all applications for foundation schools and academies for those applying outside the yearly round. Previously, these in-year applications, usually from people moving into the city, were submitted directly to schools. Now councils must match each child’s three preferences with the schools’ admissions criteria and capacity, and allocate a place. Nationally, councils have reported concerns to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator about this new role. Pressure group Parents Outloud even championed the previous system, and admissions staff at schools have bemoaned the new layer of bureaucracy. Locally, the impact of the change has been compounded by the fact that all our 12 state secondary schools are foundation schools, with one voluntary aided and one academy. Milton Keynes council only has a team of five to deal with its new responsibility.

Since September, I have been inundated with complaints from parents about delays in the process, as well as about what has been offered. Children are now sitting at home for weeks while the council finds them a place, and then further weeks for the school to induct them. When places are offered, many of them are on the other side of the city.

My hon. Friend is raising an important topic. Is he aware that on my side of Milton Keynes I have received a similar number of complaints, and that some of the complaints about admissions relate to primary schools as well as secondary schools?

I am aware of the problem, because it is the same in Milton Keynes North. However, I am also aware of my hon. Friend’s sterling efforts in getting many of his constituents into school. I congratulate him on that.

This is a particularly timely debate. The Government are reviewing the school admissions framework and the school admissions code, with a view to making it simpler and fairer. A White Paper on “The Importance of Teaching” has just been published, putting the onus of fair access to schools on local authorities. Fairness is the driving force of the White Paper. I want therefore to outline the situation in Milton Keynes and consider how we can make admissions fairer for schools, authorities, parents and, most importantly, pupils.

As I have said, many of the complaints I have received relate to the delays in council allocation and school induction. This year, Milton Keynes council received 327 secondary school in-year applications. This influx is to be expected in our city, which is an area of rapid growth. The Department for Education—or the Department for Children, Schools and Families, as it was then—recommended that places be allocated within five school days. Milton Keynes council aims for a turnaround of 15 days. Owing to this year’s influx, however, parents have seen a reported six-week wait for their child’s three preferences to be processed. Then, once a place is allocated and accepted, there is a further delay as the school conducts its induction arrangements.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In September and October, I was inundated with problems from parents, particularly in the Holme Valley, Honley and Brockholes, with over-subscribed schools. Does my hon. Friend agree that consistency in admissions policy would be particularly helpful, especially when it comes to siblings being able to go to the same school?

That is absolutely right. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point that I will come on to.

We can all agree that the last thing we want is children out of school. In fact, parents could be prosecuted for keeping their children at home for such lengths of time. However, according to a Mail on Sunday investigation in September, bureaucracy was barring up to 15,000 primary and secondary pupils from the classroom nationally. Each school calculates its own published admissions number—known as a PAN—every year. This determines the number of pupils that can be admitted to each year group. However, such is our shortage of places that 120 of this year’s 327 secondary school applicants did not get any of their three choices.

One school is bearing the brunt of the city’s scarcity of school places. The Radcliffe school in Wolverton does not fill its PAN, so when the council cannot give in-year applicants any of their three preferences, it allocates them to the Radcliffe, seemingly regardless of where the children live in our ever-expanding city. Head teacher John O’Donnell is currently dealing with an influx of 140 allocations. A staggering 119 are from children who are out of area, many of whom will have to be bussed or potentially taxied in from outside. Understandably for students who are out of catchment, Radcliffe was not one of their three preferences. The council is fulfilling its duty—every applicant is being offered a school place—but this is turning the Radcliffe into a de facto community school. Whereas 5% of its intake came from outside the catchment area previously, that has suddenly increased to 10%, and is set to rise further.

That volume of allocations has taken its toll. Mr O’Donnell is devoting two days a week to dealing with the backlog. His induction arrangements involve meeting the pupils and families to determine their requirements, be they special educational needs, academic courses or even language—after all, 37 mother tongues are spoken at the school. The induction process has been criticised, but it is understandable that Mr O’Donnell wants to get his pupils off to the best start. His school finally broke out of special measures in October 2009, after a well-deserved record round of GCSE results, but do we want him to put children straight into lessons that are not appropriate just to get them into school, or do we want him to continue raising standards? Such is the backlog that pupils are now being allocated places at the Radcliffe, where they will not be able to start for months. The result is scores of children sitting at home—not studying, just waiting.

Why has the Radcliffe seen such an influx? It can be partly explained by the creation of the Milton Keynes academy—a fantastic new facility, and the city’s first—which opened in September 2009. As I told the Secretary of State after he delivered his White Paper on 24 November, the academy’s PAN is lower than that of its predecessor, the Sir Frank Markham community school. That has displaced people from the academy’s catchment area, who are instead being given places at the Radcliffe. For example, Mr O’Donnell is for the first time seeing applicants from the Netherfield estate, which is 1 mile from the academy, but nearly 7 miles from the Radcliffe. In fact, many of the Radcliffe’s new intake of 119 are from the academy’s catchment area.

It is worth taking a moment to consider why it is so important for children to go to a school close to home. Once they are 18, many seem to pick a university that gets them as far away as possible—or a continent that takes them even further afield, on their gap year—but most school kids just want to walk to school with their mates. The national Walk to School campaign highlights why travelling on foot is good for morale and health, taking congestion off our roads and promoting a more cohesive society.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this excellent debate and campaigning so vigorously on behalf of school pupils across Milton Keynes. I am sure that he will be aware that there is a problem right across the country. In Ingleby Barwick in my constituency, a local group called BO2SS—Barwick’s Own 2nd Secondary School—has come together to put forward a free school application specifically in order to allow local pupils to attend a school within walking distance in their community. It is important to put on record the fact that although the problem is significant in Milton Keynes, it needs to be addressed across the nation as a whole.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I would argue that a good basis for the big society is schooling children in their own communities.

With Mr O’Donnell’s out-of-catchment intake, he is seeing a massive decrease in those attending after-school activities. Engagement has already taken a hit because many pupils have to change buses in central Milton Keynes. There, they are drawn to shops and attractions, rather than continuing with their journeys, which sometimes involve catching two or three buses. We have to think about what sort of society we want to create. Do we want our children to become juvenile commuters, reading bus timetables rather than textbooks?

The problem is not confined to the two aforementioned schools. For example, the Mumford family moved to a house in Newport Pagnell that overlooks a secondary school, Ousedale. Two of their daughters were offered places at the school, but not in a classroom yards from their home—rather, at the campus in the next town, Olney, which is more than 8 miles away and not on a bus route. They were alternatively offered places at the Radcliffe school, 6.5 miles away, but told that they would not be able to start until November. After weeks out of education, they face a daily commute when there is already a school on their doorstep. Likewise, a mother and her son moved to Olney, very near the town’s Ousedale campus. The son was instead offered a place at the Radcliffe school, 11 miles away. As there is no bus service that would get him to school, he was offered a council-funded taxi to take him there and back every day. Fortunately, after an intervention from my caseworker and persistence from his mother, his appeal was successful and he has happily started at his local school, without having to use a taxi, that would have cost the council £2,875 a year.

We are talking about fairness, but what is happening is unfair on children whose parents are not able, for whatever reason, to fight their case and push for appeals. It is unfair on the children whose parents cannot provide them with transport if they have to travel several miles to school or support them if they are stuck out of education for a period of time. Indeed, schools can admit above their PAN in exceptional circumstances if children fall into the categories stipulated by the fair access protocol. This protocol also applies to those who have been out of school for more than one term or those whose parents have been unable to find them a place after moving to the area. However, Milton Keynes council resorted to this protocol on only four occasions last year and not at all this year.

After my prolonged campaign for “I before E”—infrastructure before expansion—and the coalition Government’s commitment to it, I am confident that our rate of school building will keep up with our population growth. After all, Milton Keynes is the fifth fastest-growing city in the UK, but I am concerned that, as new schools appear, they will fill up with pupils from across the city before nearby houses are built. Head teachers have wanted to hold places, but the incentive is to fill places to secure maximum funding.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the problem is not limited to growing towns? We have a strikingly parallel situation in Cheltenham, where two neighbouring schools were both over-subscribed, which left an admissions gap between them. Again, pupils were referred a long distance away. That was resolved in the end by the good will of the governors of both schools, but with the assistance of the local authority. Does he share my slight concern that the more independence we give schools over admissions, the less incentive they will have to co-ordinate and resolve these problems?

The hon. Gentleman comes to the nub of the problem—how we square that circle between the rights of schools to set their own admissions and the rights of families to get their children into their local school. In Milton Keynes, the consequence is that new families moving in cannot get a place at their local school.

Network Rail’s new headquarters is set to bring 2,000 new staff to the city. Yes, there will be school places for the children who move here, but will these be anywhere near their houses and how long will they have to wait to start? This situation also spells trouble as we see the creation of more academies. In Milton Keynes, two schools have applied for academy status, which I wholeheartedly support. I am delighted about it, but will they, as in the previous case, have reduced PANs and will we see yet more displacement within the city?

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State has mooted the idea of allowing schools to prioritise children from disadvantaged backgrounds in the oversubscription criteria. While this is laudable in principle, it has been suggested that allocation will favour a child’s means over their proximity to a school. Will we end up with a city where students are crossing each other’s paths as they travel to school? Indeed, this situation has posed more questions than answers. Of course there is no dispute that fairness should underpin whatever we do, but there remain two problems with the current set up: delays and distance.

Various recommendations have been made. One that head teachers say would make a big difference is allowing schools in high-growth areas to be able to hold places for people moving in at a later date. This could be made possible by “ghost funding” those places, which is the approach taken by armed forces schools. Again, I am all for infrastructure before expansion, but it has to be done in a strategic way, because at the moment people are moving next to these new schools, but are not able to get a place there.

The school admissions code needs to recognise the importance of schools admitting children from the catchment area. Councils do not seem to have a problem sending children 10 miles away; parents and head teachers do. If we want to improve attainment and children’s quality of life, we must recognise that proximity of schooling is very important. A school’s duty should be to serve its local area. John Prescott famously warned of the dangers of setting up good schools, because

“everyone wants to go there”.

Well, our schools in Milton Keynes are all good. The only danger is that many children will continue to wait too long and travel too far before they actually get to go there.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) on securing this debate. I understand the importance he attaches to education, and it was he who introduced me to Peter Barnes, an inspiring head teacher of the Oakgrove school in his constituency.

My hon. Friend is right to say that admissions policy is a sore subject. I would go a step further, and say that for many parents admissions are a cause of huge stress as they fight to secure a place in a good school when the education system provides insufficient good places. We have some of the best schools in the world, but we also have too many that are still struggling. According to Ofsted’s annual report, published on 23 November, 39% of secondary schools and 36% of primary schools are judged to be inadequate or merely satisfactory. If the admissions system is to be fair, all parents must have the opportunity to choose a good school, not just a satisfactory school. It is not good enough that nearly four in 10 secondary schools and over a third of primary schools do not yet reach that level.

Although 83% of parents secured their first-preference school in this year’s admissions round—in Milton Keynes the figure was 88%—that still means that, nationally, nearly one in five parents failed to achieve their first choice of school. It is worse in cities, with one in three missing out on their first choice in London and Birmingham. In some local authority areas, only 50% of parents manage to get their children into their first-preference schools. In 2008-09, more than 88,000 appeals were made by parents who were unhappy with the schools that had been allocated to them, and in 22% of cases the appeals were allowed.

That is the scale of the problem that the Government are charged with tackling. They must establish how to increase the number of good school places, and how to reduce the stress and unhappiness that arise every year during the admissions process. That problem is compounded by the fact that, according to the latest report by the Programme for International Student Assessment, this country’s educational ranking has fallen from seventh to 25th in reading, from eighth to 28th in science, and from fourth to 16th in maths.

We need to learn from the best-performing countries, which have been successful in closing the attainment gap between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds while raising standards for all students. Many have drawn up comprehensive plans for school improvement that involve improving teacher quality, granting greater autonomy to the front line, modernising curriculums, making schools more accountable to their communities, harnessing detailed performance data, and encouraging professional collaboration.

Only through such whole-system reform can education be transformed to make our nation one of the world’s top performers, and that is what our White Paper “The Importance of Teaching”—which was mentioned by my hon. Friend—will allow us to do. It will provide greater autonomy for schools, an enhanced teaching profession with renewed professional status, a war on the bureaucratic burdens and red tape that sap motivation and energy, a real focus on raising standards in reading and arithmetic in primary schools, and a revised and slimmed-down national curriculum focused on core knowledge.

We also want to ease the burden on local authorities. Rather than their having to engage in activities such as setting up admissions forums or providing the schools adjudicator with an annual report because central Government says that they must, we want them to concentrate on making the admissions process as fair and straightforward as possible. As my hon. Friend intimated, we intend to simplify the admissions code, while still ensuring fair access to schools for all children.

As my hon. Friend said, local authorities have a critical role to play. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State describes them as our indispensable partners, and nowhere is that truer than in the co-ordination of fair admissions. Decisions about the allocation of school places can only be made locally. When schools are over-subscribed, the current system allows admission authorities to set their own criteria to decide place allocations, provided that they comply with the school admissions code and admissions legislation.

The use of catchment areas is a popular method, but there are others, including prioritisation based on travel distance, siblings—that too was mentioned by my hon. Friend—and feeder primary schools. The admissions code states explicitly that when catchment areas are used, they must always reflect the community served by the school and must never disadvantage particular social groups by, for example, excluding certain housing estates or addresses.

Those arrangements—as well as the timetable governing when parents apply for their children to start primary school or transfer to secondary school—have been in place for a number of years, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, local authorities have been required to co-ordinate all in-year applications and offers only from this September as a result of changes made by the previous Government. On the one hand, this means that parents have to complete only a single application form to the local authority where they live, instead of having to go through the often disheartening process of contacting schools direct. It also allows local authorities to help more vulnerable families. On the other hand, it also makes for the kind of slow and bureaucratic process that my hon. Friend North described and delays the allocation of places. In recent months, the Department has had a steady flow of correspondence from local authorities and schools echoing those same concerns—which were also echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton)—and arguing that schools should be able to offer or refuse a place directly. Admissions processes are an imprecise science, but having heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North and having received representations from admissions authorities and members of the public, I am convinced that we have to look again at this issue. It will be considered as part of the review and the simplification of the admissions code that we are currently undertaking.

My hon. Friend also raised the important issue of travel to and from school. In common, I am sure, with all Members of this House, we want as many children as possible to be able to walk or cycle to school wherever they can. It is healthier and reduces traffic congestion. I know from the Milton Keynes “Walk’n’Roll” scheme, launched in October as part of walk to school month, and the “cycle train” interventions, that the authority is committed to working with schools to achieve precisely that.

It is far from ideal for children to have to travel long distances. Parents want their local school to be a good school that they are happy for their child to attend, which goes back to my original point that we have to do more to create more good school places and to raise standards in underperforming schools. The statutory walking distance is currently 2 miles for pupils below the age of eight and 3 miles for those aged eight and over. Where a pupil is attending the nearest suitable school and it is further than the walking distances, free home to school transport has to be provided by the local authority. I am pleased to be able to say that today’s local government funding settlement announcement included the proposal to conduct a root-and-branch review of home-to-school transport policy in the new year. The current arrangements have remained largely unchanged since the Education Act 1944 and the Government believe they are no longer appropriate for today’s modern education system. In the meantime, I know that there are specific issues in Milton Keynes and that a number of pupils face long and difficult journeys, and I have listened carefully to the points made so effectively by my hon. Friend.

In summary, we have to improve our education system and we have to improve our admissions system. Fair and inclusive admissions are a vital component of a world-class education system, and I will ensure that our review of admissions addresses all the points my hon. Friend raised today.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.