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Primary Schools Admissions Criteria

Volume 604: debated on Thursday 7 January 2016

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

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise an issue that is currently disadvantaging a small but vulnerable group of children. Many are already seriously disadvantaged, so any extra problem is one which causes considerable hardship.

First, I should declare myself a big supporter of the Government’s schools agenda, if I can do so without seeming overly sycophantic towards the Minister. He cares passionately about raising standards and getting the best education possible for children across the country. He has personally done a huge amount of work in the past 10 years to make these issues a priority for our party, and I thank him.

This is not a party issue, however, nor is it a question of Government policy. The issue is a very specific and technical point on how infant class admissions operate in practice. It was raised with me by a group of concerned campaigners, including many experienced people working in the field of school admissions appeals, such as those who sit on independent appeals panels and work in local education authorities. A number of them are watching this debate today and I thank them sincerely for raising this matter with me and providing me with a detailed briefing of the problem. I will draw on much of that material this afternoon, and I made it available to the Minister in my letter to him last month.

Before I come on to the crux of the issue, I want to put it on record that there is an outstanding group of primary schools in my constituency. I have visited many and I will visit them all. I am there to help all schools, teachers and parents in whatever way possible, whether Harrison primary school, an outstanding teaching school led by the inspiring Carolyn Clarke, which is leading the Pioneer Teaching School Alliance and is the home of the school-centred initial teacher training programme in Hampshire, or Locks Heath junior school led by Kevin Parfoot, where I was thoroughly put through my paces in a question time by years 5 and 6. I am proud that they are schools of national excellence in primary education. I invite the Minister to pay a visit to see that excellence for himself.

I also want to say why I care so much about schools and the education of our children. Education is the heart of social justice and the reason I am a Conservative. I owe so much to my education. My parents came to this country in the 1960s with nothing but hopes in their hearts and dreams for their child. I was blessed to have encouraging teachers, disciplining schools—I needed them—and inspiring lessons, all of which helped me along the path from an inner city state school to Cambridge University. My father started on the shop floor of a paint factory and my mother was recruited as a nurse at the age of 18. For them to see their daughter achieve in education was an aspiration come true. Education is the engine of aspiration and the reason I am a proud Conservative.

The issue of this debate relates to admissions to infant classes. Currently, the law limits class sizes to 30 pupils for infant classes, something that has been in place for many years and has widespread support. Let me be clear: that principle is not in question. However, the law allows an exception for certain categories of pupils that an admissions authority deems “excepted pupils” who can be allowed into a particular school even if the infant class size limit has been reached. This is set out both in the school admissions code and in the statutory class sizes regulations. At the same time, parents of children who fail to gain a place at a particular school have a right of appeal to an independent appeals panel. Herein lies the first problem with the current regime.

These appeals are limited in scope to reviewing how a decision was taken by the admissions authority and ensuring there was no error or irrationality in how the admissions criteria were applied—Wednesbury unreasonableness—and can take into account only the information available to the authority at the time of the original decision. It is not a merits-based appeal. This limited scope means that the children affected—those seeking places in reception, year 1 and year 2—are treated less favourably than older children in other years, because, by contrast, for all other appeals, known as normal prejudice appeals, independent panel members can balance the difficulties for the school in taking an extra pupil against the needs of the child, so that a more flexible judgment can be made on the evidence available.

Secondly, what happens if there is a significant change in a child’s circumstances or some other exceptional situation that might make a compelling case for them to attend a particular school? Currently, if the change in circumstances happens after the date of the family’s application for an infant class place, but before the appeal is heard, it cannot be taken into account by either the admissions authority or the independent appeals panel. Similarly, if such problems arise and there are no social or medical criteria in the admissions authority’s over-subscription criteria, the same problem arises. The family might have an exceptional and convincing reason for their child to attend a particular school, but there is no discretion. There is then no power for the appeals panel to consider those factors.

This situation is leading to serious injustice for a significant group of vulnerable children who might be facing severe and exceptional problems—things such as murder, suicide or serious domestic violence in the family, which we would all agree are serious matters for consideration. Even when the facts and their relevance are accepted, still no one in the system has the discretion to consider them. Such cases are coming before independent appeals panels, and I have heard from many involved about the distress they are causing.

Perhaps understandably, there is a suggestion that in some cases panels are nevertheless persuaded by exceptional factors to allow such appeals. They might find a technicality or artificially interpret a different criterion to justify a decision. While that might be a welcome outcome, it is nevertheless improper and leading to arbitrary justice. As a lawyer, I believe in the rule of law—its predictability and its robustness—and I do not want it to be circumvented in order for justice to be done.

Real life cases illustrate the problem. In one case, a parent had two of their children at a Roman Catholic primary school whose admissions criteria gave priority to regularly practising Catholics residing in the parish. Their third child was already attending the school’s nursery, and understandably the parent wanted them to have some continuity, to join their siblings and to have a Catholic education. However, that child was denied a place at the school, and was instead offered a place at a different, non-Catholic school. The reason was that, at the time of their application, the family had been rehoused by the local council as a result of domestic violence and then lived outside the parish. When the case was appealed, the panel was sympathetic but could not allow the appeal because of the lack of social and medical criteria and because they had no additional discretion themselves.

Let us consider another case: a family faced an awful tragedy when the father of the child in question committed suicide, after the allocation day for places, when their child had failed to secure a place at a particular school. Her sibling already attended it, and she had other difficulties that meant she could not easily transfer to another school. Her bereaved mother naturally wanted the children to be together and set out cogent evidence of the extra difficulties both faced as a result of their father’s death. But, again, there were no social or medical criteria and no discretion for the appeal panel to take those exceptional circumstances into account. And a last case: an unsuccessful yet timely application for reception year where, after allocation day, the child had been sadly diagnosed with cancer. The child already attended the nursery at the school. It was an own- admission authority school and the school governors wanted to admit the child in these circumstances but could not do so. There are many other cases, all suffering from and indicating the same problem: the rules are the rules; the law is the law; and the policy says no. My response is to ask whether the rules can be changed.

The representatives to whom I have spoken made some suggestions about what might need to be changed. There is a precedent for protecting categories of vulnerable pupils in the admissions process, in the treatment of previously looked-after children in the current schools admissions code as exceptional cases. That seems to offer a useful model, and it would appear that a specific and discrete amendment to paragraph 2.15 of the school admissions code would be what is required, inserting a new category that could be worded along the lines of “children in crisis for whose mental health and/or physical well-being it is in their best interests to be admitted to that particular school.”

What the campaigners on this issue are seeking is not an immediate commitment to such a change, but merely that the Government should consult on it, examine its likely effects and consider the inclusion of a general discretion. They feel that this would allow the issues I have summarised today to be properly considered and aired in detail.

Fundamentally, the problem comes down to whether the current admissions regime builds in sufficient discretion for vulnerable children to be treated as exceptional cases. I believe that it does not. I am persuaded by the argument that an admissions authority should be able to consider the exceptional and compelling circumstances of a child in crisis, where they believe that the child would suffer a significant detrimental impact by not being admitted to a particular school. I also believe that making provision for this discretion would be consistent with the protection already afforded to previously looked-after children.

We all know how emotive and controversial school admissions can be. Parents pin their hopes for their children on getting them into a school that is right for them, and where places are limited, tough choices have to be made. So I realise how carefully the Government will need to consider any change, but I hope I have been able to demonstrate that there is an issue here worthy of that consideration. I thank the Minister for his attention, and look forward to hearing his response.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) on securing this debate, and I thank her for opening kind comments. She, too, is a passionate supporter of high academic standards in our schools, and her pioneering work in chairing the Michaela community school board of governors is having far-reaching consequences—beyond Brent and throughout the country. She is absolutely right when she says that education is the engine of aspiration. I look forward to visiting some of the schools in her constituency, which she has kindly invited me to see.

This debate is timely, as we are currently reviewing the school admissions code and are considering at the same time whether it would be appropriate to make changes to the school admissions appeals code. The debate also provides me with the opportunity to set out how the school admissions process supports vulnerable children, as well as the importance of the infant class size limit in supporting the progress of all younger children.

I understand the concerns raised by my hon. Friend about the small number of cases where neither the school nor the appeals panel can offer a place to a child who, owing to an extreme change of circumstance, becomes vulnerable with a compelling case to admit them to the school in question. The Government’s aim is to ensure that the most vulnerable children in society are provided with a place at the school that best meets their needs.

The admissions code makes it clear that the responsibility for setting admission arrangements rests with school admissions authorities. However, all schools must admit children with a statement of special educational needs or an education, health and care plan that names the school. The code also requires that all schools must offer first priority to children either in, or previously in, local authority care. Those who have suffered domestic violence or bereavement are, of course, vulnerable, too. This is why the admissions code allows all admissions authorities to prioritise children with a social or medical need.

We are determined that a child’s economic circumstances should not predict the outcomes of that child’s education or life chances. Our aim is to raise the attainment of disadvantaged children and thereby improve social mobility in the long term, breaking the cycle of disadvantage from one generation to the next. That is why we amended the admissions code in 2014 to extend to all state schools the freedom to prioritise children who are eligible for free school meals, the pupil premium or the service premium. Previously, only academies and free schools had that freedom.

The Government want all children to receive the best possible education, no matter where they live or what their circumstances are. To ensure that all children had access to good school places, the Government in the last Parliament invested £5 billion between 2011 and 2015 to create the places required. Those funds helped to create 445,000 school places between 2010 and 2014, with many more in the pipeline.

As we announced in the spending review, we shall be spending £23 billion on school buildings between 2016 and 2021 to create 600,000 new school places, open 500 new free schools, and address essential maintenance needs. We are also increasing the number of good school places by tackling underperformance where it exists, and allowing good schools to expand without the restrictions and bureaucracy they have faced in the past.

The changes that we have made are working, and, despite the unprecedented rise in the number of children requiring infant school places, the average infant class size remains at 27.4, well within the statutory limit of 30. Furthermore, 96.5% of families received an offer of a place at one of their preferred primary schools. That is encouraging, but, as I am sure my hon. Friend understands as a result of her work as chair of the governors at the Michaela community school, good schools will always receive more applications than they have places for.

It may be helpful if I clarify the position relating to the infant class size limit. As my hon. Friend knows, the statutory infant class size limit is 30 pupils per school teacher. The law requires schools to limit numbers in that way because research shows that smaller classes allow teachers to spend more time with individual pupils and that that can have a positive effect on the progress of younger pupils, particularly in the case of maths and literacy. The limit does mean that the admissions process for infant classes differs slightly from that applying to other year groups, as schools are restricted in terms of the number of pupils that they can admit to an infant class. There are, however, a small number of prescribed exceptions to protect the most vulnerable children, such as those in care, or those who move into an area where no suitable school places are available. The excepted pupils do not have priority over other children, but a school can lawfully admit them to a class of 30 without breaking the statutory requirements.

When parents are refused a school place for which they have applied, they have the right to appeal to an independent panel. The panel can uphold a non-infant class size appeal if it considers that the admission of an additional child would not adversely affect the school’s ability to operate effectively. The panel can also uphold an appeal if it considers that the parents’ reasons for wanting their child to attend the school outweigh the school’s reasons for refusal. To ensure that the statutory class size limit is not breached, the school admissions appeals code requires infant class size appeals to be treated differently from those applying to other year groups. When a child is refused a school place because it would breach the infant class size limit, the appeal can be upheld only if the admissions arrangements were unlawful or had not been applied properly, or if the decision for refusal was not one that a reasonable admission authority would make.

There will, of course, always be circumstances in which good schools are full and unable to increase the number of pupils whom they admit. In such cases, an appeals panel is unlikely to uphold the appeal, even when the child in question is an excepted pupil. My hon. Friend is suggesting an amendment to paragraph 2.15 of the School Admissions Code and the infant class size regulations, to include a new category of excepted pupil for children in crisis whose mental health or physical wellbeing mean it is in their interests to be admitted to a particular school. The important point my hon. Friend makes is that, although admissions authorities are able to give priority to children with social or medical needs, when those particular needs only arise after applications have been made, the infant class size limit means admission authorities are unable to admit the child and an appeal panel would not feel able to uphold their appeal.

We are currently considering a number of possible changes to the admissions system to support families and schools while ensuring the system remains fair for all, and we will look at my hon. Friend’s suggestions in carrying out this work. I am grateful to her for raising this important issue today. I hope that she is reassured to learn that we will look carefully at the important issues she has raised and consider her suggestions for changes to the codes.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.