Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the children of serving members of the armed forces to have a right of high priority admission to schools outside the normal admission rounds; and for connected purposes.
It is an honour to present my first ten-minute rule Bill, which is on schools admissions for the children of our armed forces personnel, today, on the feast day of St Nicholas, patron saint of children and sailors. I am bringing this Bill to the House on behalf of tens of thousands of military children across our nation whose lives are challenged, year in, year out, by having to change schools as their parents, who are serving the nation in our armed forces, are moved from role to role around the country and abroad.
St Nicholas is the guardian of children, and I hope very much that we in this House, and the Minister listening today, will agree that we have a collective duty to all those children born to military families to do everything in our power to reduce the educational disadvantages that these school moves create, by ensuring that when they do need to take place, often at very short notice, we have done absolutely everything we can to make the transition as stress-free as possible for parents and child.
This issue was first brought to my attention earlier this year, when a serving Army officer contacted me in my capacity as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant. I take the greatest pleasure and responsibility in holding this role, and I am now privy to the anxieties of many, many military families as they try to keep stable family lives for their kids within the uniquely challenging framework that is being a serving soldier, sailor, airman or airwoman. I am honoured to be able to champion their needs and concerns in the House, as they have no voice of their own as a result of their service. My ten-minute rule Bill highlights just one such concern, which I believe we can, and must, sort out for them.
The Army officer I mentioned was being posted some 200 miles from his existing job, with seven weeks’ notice. Setting aside the other challenges of finding a suitable house near the new base, thereby gaining a postal address from which to organise all other domestic matters, the family had but a few weeks to research local schools and try to get a place for their child. That child is a little boy; let us call him James. James, at the grand old age of six, has lived in four different houses in totally different parts of England, and has been to three different educational establishments already. That means making new friends three times over by the age of six—no mean feat. With all the family support in the world, and parking for a moment the fact that his dad could be sent on deployment at any time, this little boy is being asked to develop levels of resilience that few of us would expect of our own children.
Not only did James’s parents have only a very few weeks to find the right school, fill in the forms and wait for a reply, which happened over the summer holidays, but they were initially told that their choice—the school closest to their proposed new home, which children from neighbouring houses on the base also attended, thereby giving James understanding and supportive new friends—was not possible. The local authority stated that
“whilst James is a Service child there is no right of entry and an admissions authority is within its rights to refuse admission.”
That struck me not only as extremely stressful for the parents and child, but as going wholly against the armed forces covenant.
On the basis that perhaps a few localised schools were struggling with large numbers of service children arriving all at once, I asked a number of colleagues to ascertain from their local authorities how many of their schools had children in receipt of the service pupil premium, and in what proportions. The results were truly unexpected; they showed, across the board, that there are a very few service children in a very large proportion of any local authority’s schools, regardless of whether they are close to a military base or not. In Northumberland, we have two military bases—RAF Boulmer in my constituency, and Albemarle barracks in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). In fact, service children are to be found in only very small numbers, often in ones and twos, in 63% of Northumberland’s 174 schools. In another authority that has more military bases than my own county, the proportion of schools with service pupils is 76%, but only six schools have more than 30 such children in their cohort. A single child arriving or leaving at any point during the academic year would therefore clearly not have a major impact on numbers.
Another distressing part of trying to sort out a place for young James at the parents’ new school of choice was that the local authority stated that it would accept him on to the waiting list, but would not inform the family of whether there was a confirmed place until the first day of term, stating that
“all this relies on there being no further applications for a year 1 place from someone who may fulfil criteria on the Admissions policy ahead of James”.
The family were hopeful that a place would be available, but they could not rely on it, or introduce James to other children whom he might end up in a class with, because the authority refused to give them any certainty. That is not what I would call meeting our commitment to serving personnel and their children.
I am pleased to inform the House that young James’s place was eventually confirmed a week before school started, thanks to the intervention and advocacy of the family’s new MP, but not thanks to any admissions code that would commit councils to providing a firm place for each serving family’s child. I have since learned of many children in similar and worse situations. For instance, a family with two children were offered places in different schools, and the parent does not drive. The proposal was that the child going into reception would just have to be late to school and miss an hour at the end of the day, so that the elder child could be collected on foot. Another child having to move at very short notice was offered a place at a failing school. The mother asked me:
“why is it that Army kids have to endure the worst schools, alongside all the others pressures they experience?”
I now know of several service pupils, some with special needs, who had no school place to go to at all in September.
The present school admissions system is structured towards two admissions per academic year, meaning that any child seeking admission outwith that framework must simply hope that the school they prefer has capacity. That is all well and good, but military families do not have the luxury of timing their moves within school admission timetables. By not taking into account military families’ unique and challenging situations, councils are failing to live up to the commitment they pledged to uphold when they signed the community covenant. Some local authorities think about how to apply their commitment in practical terms, and many do so very well, but others have not moved beyond good intentions. In fact, I know of one local authority that informed a military family battling with school admissions that the armed forces covenant does not apply to it.
Our education system is already geared to acknowledge that some children face exceptional and difficult circumstances, and that they will need priority when it comes to admissions to help to offset the difficulties that they have already faced. That is why looked-after children have top priority when it comes to admissions. The Bill seeks to recognise that military children face significant upheaval and educational disadvantages through no fault of their own, and that they too should have high priority for admissions in light of that. The Bill would have the secondary effect of easing the pressure on military families, who are often faced with short-notice moves and must then work out how to transport their children to schools miles from base because they face disadvantage in the schools admissions system.
Too often, it seems that local authorities push back against the armed forces covenant, despite having signed up to it, leaving families frustrated and deeply anxious, and having to fight appeals, which are sometimes lost, as they also try to change location and military role at very short notice. The schools admissions code is not robust enough to ensure that wherever and whenever a military family has to move, they will find the right schools for their children. We are not doing in practice what we talk about when we say we believe in, and are committed to, the covenant.
I never want to have to hear this again from a serving member of our armed forces who is trying to find a school for their child:
“This just shouldn’t be this hard; I can’t bear putting my boy or myself through this stress every 2 years, so I’m going to leave as soon I am able, even though I love my job”.
At a time when we need to retain as many of our highly trained and committed personnel as possible, allowing barriers such as this to make us risk losing them is unacceptable.
My wonderful grandmother used to say to me when I railed at things that seemed wrong with the world that, while it might not be possible to feed 1,000 starving children, it is almost always possible to feed one. We cannot immediately resolve the plight of those children trapped in Mosul. We cannot be sure that we can give a continuing education to every child in a camp who is displaced from their Syrian home, or ensure that every child is protected from malaria, but I am certain that, with a simple change in the law, we can change the code for school admissions, so that every single British military child can be guaranteed a place at the right school for him and his family’s unique needs, regardless of the time of year when they apply for a place, or to which school they apply, and in whichever year group they land. Young James and the 40,000 other military children whose parents put their lives on the line for our safety and freedom around the world deserve nothing less.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mrs Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Danny Kinahan, Tom Tugendhat, Ruth Smeeth, Mrs Madeleine Moon, Kit Malthouse, Sir Gerald Howarth, Mrs Flick Drummond, Mr James Gray, Tom Blenkinsop, Wes Streeting and Calum Kerr present the Bill.
Mrs Anne-Marie Trevelyan accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January, and to be printed (Bill 109).