My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
House in Committee accordingly.
[The LORD SPEAKER in the Chair.]
Clause 39 [Role of admission forums]:
[Amendment No. 147 not moved.]
Page 28, line 29, leave out “may” and insert “shall”
The noble Baroness said: I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 148A, 148B, 154A, 154B, and refer to some of the other amendments in this group. One of the purposes of the Bill is to set up admission forums within each LEA area, which would report on admissions to the schools in their area, and in particular would bring together head teachers and others involved in admissions to look at the pattern of admissions over a whole authority area. The purposes of the amendments tabled by my noble friendsLady Sharp and Lady Walmsley and me are: first, to indicate that all admission fora should make reports—not that they “may” make them—as there should be an obligation to do so; secondly, under Amendment No. 148A, to ensure that the admission fora pattern extends to academies, CTCs and other schools outwith the definition of a maintained school; and, thirdly, to indicate that the whole group of schools should contribute to reports made by the admission forum and that the forum has the right to ask them to do so to ensure that all schools in a local authority area are covered.
Let me explain why we believe this to be so important, and in particular why the inclusion of all schools in an authority area is essential to ensuring that admission fora operate in a proper way. I shall start with two groups of children for whom the admission fora will play an extremely important part in ensuring fairness of admissions across the range of schools available to parents. At present, some 760,000 children in primary schools are believed to have special educational needs, and of that large groupof children—I repeat, around 760,000 in primary schools alone—only about 67,000 have formal statements. In addition there are around 775,000 disabled children, those with intellectual or physical disabilities, who form part of the group of children awaiting admission to a suitable school. It is essential that the entry of these children into schools follows both their needs and the wishes of their parents—all the more so since the Government are insistent about widening parental choice to a whole group of new schools, the so-called trust schools—and that children should have a fair right of admission to all the schools in the group. Since the Bill excludes academies and CTCs from the general scope of the requirement of admission fora—although we can return to the issue of funding agreements, and no doubt the Minister will do so—there is no absolute assurance that children with special educational needs or with disabilities will be treated completely fairly.
We say that because it is already quite clear that some head teachers object to taking on children with these needs. The Special Education Consortium, which brings together a whole range of voluntary and other agencies concerned with children in these groups, reports that parents have told them that they have received a very unwelcoming response from head teachers who are obviously anxious to avoid admitting such children. This may be because they are concerned about the impact it may have on their standing in the league tables and about the additional demands often made on teachers and the school as a whole in admitting children with special educational needs. There is, therefore, at least the seed of a possible conflict.
We believe that admission fora could go a very long way to resolving this problem, but only if all the schools in the group among which parents are free to choose are included in the scope of the admission forum. I can hardly say that more strongly because if schools are excluded from it or are not subject to the same legal requirements, there will be a temptation to avoid taking such children.
We also believe that the fora must issue a report about the whole pattern of admissions over the year in which they report back, and, in this respect, we must be able to ask all the schools in the area to contribute to the report if it is to be accurate and thorough. The Government are bringing about a major change in the educational structures and have said that they want to see a fair admissions system; we believe the responsibility of fora is, as far as possible, to ensure that there is a fair admissions system and that all schools contribute to the needs of these groups.
A wider consideration—to which the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, has drawn our attention several times in this Committee—is the needs of children from economically heavily disadvantaged areas. We also want to ensure that admissions recognise their particular needs and that schools respond to those needs to the limit of their abilities.
To sum up, the purpose of these amendments is to require all schools to be part of admission fora, and to include all schools within the requirement to enable a proper, thorough and comprehensive report to be made about admissions in an authority’s area. In that way, we would go a long way towards ensuring fairness for all children and that all children’s potential needs are recognised. I beg to move.
Perhaps I may intervene early in these discussions because I think I can meet almost all the points raised by the noble Baroness.
Amendments Nos. 148A, 154A and 154B seek to add academies and CTCs to the list of schools on which admissions forums can report, and the governing bodies of foundation and voluntary-aided schools to the list of bodies from which the admissions forum can request information. In the case of foundation and voluntary-aided schools, Clause 39(3) already covers this; new subsection (1B)(c) specifically provides for the governing bodies of foundation and voluntary-aided schools. Academies, through their funding agreements, are required to comply with admissions legislation and the school admissions code as it applies to admissions authorities in the maintained sector. Therefore, where a school forum and an admissions forum have an academy or CTC in their area, they will be able to include them in the report without the need for these amendments.
We obviously agree with everything that the noble Baroness said in relation to Amendments Nos. 148B and 157 in respect of disabled children and those with special educational needs, and in having regard to social and economic disadvantage. These matters are in fact covered in the regulations, the illustrative version of which I have already circulated to noble Lords. Page 215 of the big pack of illustrative regulations contains the draft regulations in respect of the reports to be prepared by admissions forums. Regulation 2(2) states that they shall include,
“the ethnic and social mix of pupils attending schools in the area of the authority and the factors that affect this … the extent to which existing and proposed admission arrangements serve the interests of looked after children, children with disabilities and children with special educational needs … and how well the hard to place pupil protocol”—
which governs the allocation of hard-to-place pupils between schools—
“has worked and how many children have been admitted to each school under the protocol”.
We want admissions forums for precisely the reason the noble Baroness gave—to be proactive in ensuring that admissions arrangements in their area operate fairly and promote community well-being. That is why we have given them the power to produce these reports. It is also why the Bill gives them the right to make referrals to the adjudicator of any school in their area which they believe is not fulfilling those duties in respect of its admission arrangements.
On Amendment No. 148, we believe it is unlikely that any admissions forum would not wish to prepare and publish a report, given their new strength and role in considering how well admissions arrangements are working to promote choice and access. Forums will have to act in accordance with the code, which will recommend preparation of these reports and will be backed up by regulations. I hope that I have met almost all the points that the noble Baroness raised.
I wonder whether the funding agreements are sufficient in respect of the obligation on the colleges—I think they probably are. Does the statutory remit of the admissions fora not require to be extended so that it clearly includes the funding agreements? Not being statutory in that sense, the funding agreements may not be sufficient to give the full power that is required to the admissions fora.
I added my name to Amendment No. 148; for some inexplicable reason, it is not attached to Amendments Nos. 148A or 148B. That is a serious omission from my point of view, because obviously the needs of disabled children and those with special educational needs have to be tied to the obligation for proper inspections and reports on how they are treated by local education authorities. However, I have to leave it to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, as to whether she accepts the Minister’s very clear explanation. She, perhaps, is more au fait with the wishes of the Special Education Consortium than I am at present. I support both amendments and hope that the Minister’s response has made it possible for the noble Baroness to withdraw Amendment No. 148.
I would like to raise one question with the Minister; it is along the lines of that raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. We remain puzzled about why some of these obvious needs are not in the Bill. It is in not only this area but others where we have been referred to funding agreements or regulations, as the case may be. We would have thought that the Government would wish to be seen to be making exactly the same requirements across the whole range of schools that they are now supporting, some of which they are attempting to launch, rather than leaving this to funding agreements, which are not in the public domain, or to regulations, which are often quite complicated for members of the public to get hold of.
We find it puzzling that the Minister does not seem willing to accept the amendments, which would make the position absolutely clear. If it is his view, as he has said in reply to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, that this is the equivalent of a statutory requirement, I ask him to copy to these Benches his letter to the noble and learned Lord. I intend to withdraw the amendment, because we may want to go back on Report to issues of this significance where we believe that there is a possibility that they might not be covered in the Bill.
Before my noble friend withdraws the amendment, there are a number of other amendments, notably Amendment No. 157 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, to which we have not spoken. I would like to speak to that amendment, but I think that the noble Lord should speak to it first. Perhaps we could give him the opportunity to do that.
I fully accept my noble friend’s point and I apologise. I was talking specifically about my amendments. I simply repeat that we will return to the question of why the provision cannot be in the Bill. The other amendments in the group have not been tabled by us so I defer to the noble Lord, Lord Dearing.
I hear the call. The amendment which I shall advocate states:
“In discharging its role a schools admissions forum shall have particular regard to the actual and potential contribution of schools in areas of economic and social disadvantage to the well being of the communities in those areas”.
The issue is very much the same as that which we discussed on the first day in Committee, when I argued the same point in relation to local authorities’ decisions about schools. The Minister gave a very helpful reply in which he said that when new schools are under consideration, regulations will state that the criteria should include promoting community cohesion, the aims of inclusiveness and partnership working, and the delivery of the Every Child Matters agenda. That went a long way towards meeting my concerns and I might have shut up altogether if he had gone on to say that a clause would be included which stated that this matter would be on their minds in relation particularly to communities with social and economic disadvantage. I hope that he will feel able to go that far.
At the centre of my concerns is well-being in the round for those communities, which goes further than the specifics to which the Minister referred. These communities are likely to experience greater social and health problems than most, and greater experience of overcrowding of accommodation, family tensions and debt than most. Truancy may be more prevalent, as well as all that goes with stress, poverty and parental inability to help their children either educationally or as effective advocates of their needs and providers for material needs.
To deliver for those families and children, schools and social and basic medical services need to be collocated in the community. We need a holistic approach. I admit that that is what every community would like, but to the well heeled, who can look after themselves, it matters less to have those schools and services collocated in their community. They will see to it much more effectively than parents in areas of economic and social disadvantage that their children get what they need. They know how to work the system and, if need be, can afford doctors and lawyers—for example, in statementing—to get their rights.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, who happens not to be in his place, said when we were debating my earlier amendment that politics is about priorities and that Governments have to make choices. He said that the priority should be getting resources to the most deprived. The Government have fully accepted this in their policy for city academies, which represent a huge commitment to areas of greatest need. I am arguing for an extension of that thinking.
If we are to do our best to see that the socially and economically deprived get the resources which we all want them to have, we need to accept that we shall do this best if we can deliver these services in an integrated way in the community where they live, through a community capability that is centred on the school, and make sure that the school is a good school. I recall well the comment by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, in the previous debate, to which I made a brief response, that communities are not really like this and are changing all the time. I acknowledge that there are communities—for example, the great local authority-funded estates created in the 1930s—which by their nature are not bubbling with energy and change.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred to the community in west Cumberland which he knows well, and I know such communities in my home city of Hull and its vicinity. I hope that we can carry forward the Government’s thinking on academies, which is a very powerful statement of their commitment to those communities. We should say to admissions forums, “At a time of declining rolls through demographic features, which we can do nothing about, there is a danger that these schools will die through attrition. You should have in mind that danger in particular in discharging your responsibilities”.
I endorse very much what the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, said. My name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley are added to the amendment. Unfortunately, my noble friend cannot be here today, but both of us feel strongly that the noble Lord’s points are very real. The potential contribution of schools to their community, and particularly to deprived communities, is enormous. We very much welcome the Government’s extended school model which enables that to happen. We are seeing it already with the Sure Start programme being linked to primary schools and nursery centres with parenting classes, infant clinics and so on. We hope that with the rollout of the extended school programme we shall see secondary schools providing youth facilities, extended sporting facilities and other such facilities so that the school becomes the hub within the community. This exists in a number of communities. There is almost an idealistic model of what a good community school might be and what it contributes to its community. Perhaps in rural communities one sees it in primary schools. We know very well that if you shut down primary schools in rural communities, you often shut down the hub of the community. That is one reason why, during the passage of the 2004 education Act, this House insisted that special considerations should be taken into account when it was proposed to shut rural schools.
This applies just as much to schools in deprived communities where a vicious cycle of decline can become apparent. A school can become unpopular and is deserted by middle-class parents, who know which schools get good GCSE results. The school gradually declines and fails, numbers fall away and it is left with just disadvantaged children—what we have termed in the past sink schools. We agree with the Government that sometimes the only solution is to close such schools down and try to regenerate through other schools. However, on other occasions it is vital that these schools are not closed down and that they are regenerated. We recognise that on occasion the Government use the academies programme to try to regenerate schools. As we discussed the other day, some Liberal Democrat local authorities are co-operating with the Government to do precisely that.
On occasion it is vitalthat the admissions authority should recognise the overall well-being of the community, as the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, has stressed, rather than look narrowly at the achievements of the school. As I say, I very much endorse the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, in that regard. I also endorse the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. We should include academies and city technology colleges within the remit of admissions authorities. We have in the Bill the remit for the admissions authorities. The noble Lord says that we do not have to include them because they are in the funding agreements; but the funding agreements are not in the Bill. We know of occasions when the funding agreements are honoured in the breach and are not being adhered to. Yes, you can go through the whole process of going to the adjudicator, but it is a very long, drawn-out and difficult process. Surely, if this is within the remit of the admissions authority—and this Bill is trying to set out the remit of the admissions authority—they should be included in the Bill within the remit, rather than being a little bit extra on the side in other agreements that people have to know about.
I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, has said, particularly the point about the well-being of communities. There is very little doubt in my mind from my experience as a magistrate in a number of communities that there is a continuous cycle. There is a need to put special resources, extra resources, extra effort and extra good teachers into those areas, because otherwise those same pupils will become the problems in that community for the future. It is money well spent and resources well used on the well-being of the community as well as the well-being of the individual pupil, which is absolutely paramount. It is only by doing the sort of thing that the Government are doing to such good effect, as the noble Baroness said, through Sure Start and other activities, that this can be achieved. Having that extra clause that the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, was referring to in the Bill would be very valuable.
I would like to be helpful to the Committee and to the Minister, which is not something that I normally am. Given that we are a self-regulating House, and certainly for my benefit, it would be easier if all noble Lords spoke before the Minister. It is slightly disjointed and difficult for the Minister and somewhat repetitive if he then has to come back and respond a second time. I am not sure why this did not happen in this case.
Let me own up to it being entirely my fault. I thought that all the amendments in the group were moved by the Liberal Democrats, and I failed to notice that one was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. I am extremely sorry, and no disrespect whatever was meant to him. Because I thought that all the amendments had been moved by the Liberal Democrats, I thought that I could meet most of the points and short-circuit what would otherwise have been a longer debate. I have answered most of the points, but I will make two more points.
Of course, we are discussing particularly the duties on admissions forums. I entirely endorse all the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, about the wider context within which schools work and the programmes of support and investment that are required to link schools more effectively with their communities and to tackle disadvantage. We are taking a good deal of that forward. First and foremost, we are spending50 per cent more on schools in real terms than we were nine years ago, which has been particularly focused in areas of disadvantage. Frankly, that makes a bigger difference than any set of detailed regulations that one could impose from this House, which schools do not have the capacity to meet.
On the specific issue of the duties on admissions forums, which would be laid down in their reports, the issues raised by the noble Lord are covered. They would include reporting on the ethnic and social mix of pupils attending schools in the area of the authority, and the factors that affect them. I take all the issues raised by the noble Lord to be included among the factors that affect this. In case that is not a sufficient power, these are some of the things that they must report on; they may report on anything that they wish to. That would also include details of other matters that might affect how fairly admissions arrangements serve the interests of children and parents in the authority. I take the point that spelling things out with greater clarity can have advantages. These are illustrative regulations. I will, of course, take full account of this short debate and the contributions made when we come to lay the final version of those regulations.
Finally, I will of course send the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, a copy of the letter that I sent to the noble and learned Lord. I try to copy letters round on all these issues and place them in the Library of the House. However, it is not the case that funding agreements are not public documents; they are. They are published; and every single one is on the website of the DfES. That involves far more transparency in the arrangements governing academies than it does any other state school in the country, no other one of which has its governing arrangements posted on the DfES website and so readily available.
Page 29, line 19, after “bodies” insert “or persons”
The noble Lord said: In moving AmendmentNo. 158, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 159,171, 261 and 262.
While provision in the Diocesan Boards of Education Measure 1991 requires admission authorities of Church of England schools to obtain the advice of their diocese before formally consulting about proposed admission arrangements, it does not give the diocese a statutory right of objection if a school ignores its advice; and there is no similar provision for other faiths or denominations.
These amendments therefore require faith-sponsored schools to consult an appropriate body or person on their proposed admission arrangements. We shall consult each faith group before prescribing in regulations which body or person should be consulted.
In response to representations made to us by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, these amendments will also give faith groups the power to refer to the adjudicator an objection about admission arrangements in any one of the schools of their particular faith. This provision would extend to admission forums the existing power to refer objections that currently applies to local authorities, governing bodies of maintained schools and prescribed groups of parents.
Amendment No. 166 standing in my name is technical. Currently local authorities, as admission authorities for community and voluntary-controlled schools, make decisions about which children should be admitted to those schools. However, there is no express statutory duty on the governing bodies of those schools to comply with those decisions. This amendment will put the position beyond doubt. I beg to move.
I thank the Minister very much for tabling these amendments. As he said, they are in response to our discussions about these matters and I hope that the amendments will help us to strengthen the advice that we currently give to our schools and, indeed, enable our schools to be fully inclusive in the way that we intend.
I am delighted that the Government have tabled their amendments and that the right reverend Prelate was complicit in them, because they will allow a gentle but much-needed improvement in the way that some Church schools approach admissions.
Generally, I take the view that admissions criteria and arrangements have to tackle some insoluble problems and will never be perfect, but there are two principles that should be borne in mind; one is fairness and access for all and the other is to give parents some sense of stability and the comfort of knowing that they will be able to get a reasonable school, from one point of view or another, for their children.
I have particular difficulties with banding as a method, not because there are not some justifications for it in certain circumstances, but because it produces an unholy level of uncertainty for parents who are looking to know which school they might possibly get their children into. Not only can a school’s catchment area vary year by year, but its admissions policy can vary in four or five different ways, according to the random pattern of applications and how children score in an examination. That makes it extremely difficult to know whether or not one has a right of entry to, say, Camden School for Girls. This pitches parents into the sort of arena that those who patronise the independent sector are used to, but which is none the less a source of considerable discomfort for them.
In the end, when one looks at banding arrangements that have been running for some while, as in some of the CTCs, one finds that the middle classes can work them just as well as they can any other kind of admission arrangements. They notice where the wider bands are; they get tutors to tell their children how to score within those bands, which they do; and the proportion of the middle class that gets into the good CTCs starts to creep up. Not surprisingly, the middle class is a very resourceful and determined group. However, I should like to see an admissions arrangement that genuinely offered all children a chance to access all schools.
The only sensible way of doing that is through a completely unconditional ballot, although I am not saying that that ballot would by any means be applied to anything like a whole school population. When we were discussing religion, the right reverend Prelate said that he would like to reserve a part of a religious school’s intake for people of that religion. There is a very good argument for allowing schools to have a strong bias towards people who live close to them because, in many cases, schools are part of the community.
Those who run grammar schools would doubtless argue that they have to select at least a proportion of their pupils, although that is not an argument that the Government have accepted in the case of Northern Ireland. There, they have said that, although a school can have an academic character and say that it will be run on academic lines, all parents should be allowed to choose it as the school to which they would like their child to be admitted. I think that that is reasonable: schools operate in that way. If you look at, for example, the sixth-form colleges in Cambridge—Hills Road and Long Road—you will see that there is no substantial difference in admission criteria between the two. One happened to be the boys’ grammar school and the other the girls’ grammar school. They have evolved so that Hills Road is the more academic and Long Road is the broader, and they are both extremely good sixth-form colleges.
Schools will move and change in that direction and, by establishing an academic character for a school, as in Hills Road, you can create an academic school without having to select. You can certainly have academic schools that do not select a proportion of their children on academic criteria but, rather, rely on parents to apply and still end up with an academic school. Parents, being mildly sensible, will not generally pitch their ordinary kid into the high-flown world of a top academic grammar; they will take advice on subjects and decide to choose another school.
I think that there is scope for opening up every school in England on the basis that a proportion of the children—I would start at 25 per cent—should be admitted, or be capable of admission, by unconditional ballot. It would also be possible to combine that with giving parents an unconditional right to have access to an individual school on the old catchment area basis. Parents would be faced with a form that said that, if they put Holland Park Comprehensive as one of their chosen schools, they would be guaranteed a place there if none of their higher preferences accepted them. But they could also go in for the ballot at any number of other schools and they might well find that they were successful. They would then be guaranteed a place at a school that was sensibly close to them and, although that school might not be acceptable to them, they would at least have certainty. Quite a large proportion of the population want the certainty of getting their children into a neighbourhood school or one that is convenient for them. At the same time, that system would open up the possibility of their applying to any school and getting into what have previously been closed geographical or religious ghettos, where only the rich kids go because their parents have bought the right house or have been to mass every weekend for the past five years and have contributed to church funds—or whatever the admission criteria might be. Obviously you cannot do that immediately, but you can work in that way.
If you find a school that, in practice, is not admitting 25 per cent of its children by ballot because its admissions are taken up by those who have a right to be in that school, then you allow that school to expand or, if it will not expand, you adjust the catchment area. So, over time, it should be possible to work to a position where any good school is admitting children roughly in the proportion of 75 per cent who are there by right and 25 per cent by ballot. Therefore, any child, within the possible constraints of transport, would have a right to apply to, and have a decent chance of getting into, any school, which is not the case at the moment. That would put us in a position where we could say that we were genuinely opening up access to our best schools to all pupils, which is what I would like to aim at as an objective.
I appreciate that the Government are heading in the right direction, and I hope that, over time, our Front Benches will reach agreement on what we intend to achieve in the way of admission arrangements. To my mind, co-ordinated admissions have been a great success. They give a great deal of comfort and ease to parents and they reduce the possibility of people finding themselves cast into limbo. We can continue to improve on that and we can continue to work away at ensuring that those who happen to be born within the catchment area of a school that does not suit them for one reason or another have a good chance of getting into another school that does suit them, whatever the geographical or religious admission criteria that apply to that school at present.
We have three amendments in this grouping—Amendments Nos. 162, 162A and 171B. Before I speak to them, I want to make one or two remarks about the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. He is right that what parents find very disconcerting about the current arrangements are the uncertainties that they face. There have been occasions when children have been left completely in limbo, which is a most disturbing and traumatising experience for them and their parents. They need some certainty about where they are likely to be going.
I very much like the noble Lord’s idea of being guaranteed a place at a local school for which you have exerted your parental preference by going into a ballot. I can see that that is attractive but, if certain places are guaranteed for those of particular faiths, we might have even more parents rushing into a faith in order to get a place for their children without necessarily having true allegiance to that faith. Nevertheless, I understand what the noble Lord is saying and I find some attractions in it.
I turn to our amendments in this group. Amendment No. 162A would insert a new clause suggesting that, rather than the admission forum writing the report on what goes on within its area, that role should be taken over by the local education authority—or, as we shall be calling it in future, the local authority. It mirrors very much the series of amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, for which he has not been arguing. The Minister sent a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Smith, explaining why he thought the amendments were unnecessary, and I have to say that I find the letter persuasive.
In my view, the admission forum has very close links with the local education authority. It does not mirror it exactly because the admission forum includes the representatives of local head teachers and so on. Although when initially proposed—I think before the 2002 Education Act—we had some doubts about admission forums, I think that they have worked relatively well. We are happy that they remain in being; it is obviously sensible that they should monitor what goes on and make reports. Therefore, we are happy to leave things as they are. The Bill clearly states that the admission forums will do the monitoring and will write regular reports on what they find within their local area.
Amendment No. 162, rather than looking at what is happening in the local area, looks at what happens at national level and calls for a national review of admissions procedures two to three years down the line after all these new measures have been introduced and this Bill has come into effect. The aim is to have an independent review, which would take evidence and commission research; its focus would be on how far the new procedures introduced by this Bill had helped to promote social cohesion. That independent review would report to the Secretary of State and, in the light of that report and its recommendations, the Secretary of State would, within six months, report back to Parliament on how he intended to implement the recommendations.
The case for having some kind of review of admissions procedures somewhere down the line after this Bill comes into effect is that this Bill proposes very substantial changes in current admissions procedures. Major concern has been expressed about finding procedures that help children from disadvantaged homes to access better-performing schools, which are often middle-class schools. To date, research has shown that many of those schools—the better-performing schools—have tended to be socially relatively exclusive and we need to assess how far this new legislation succeeds in changing that and meeting what is one of its aims.
That is even more important given that many oppose the notion of trust schools because they fear that the fact that those schools will have some control over their own admissions—that control is now very limited, but initially it was to be far greater—will exacerbate the trend of social exclusiveness, especially as the trust schools might be their own admissions authority and so be able to set their own admissions criteria, admittedly within the constraints of the admissions code.
There has been cause for concern. Various people have undertaken extensive research in this area. I quote from a study produced by Professor John Micklewright of the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute at the University of Southampton. He said:
“There has long been a debate about social segregation in schools. Many people are concerned that the changes proposed in the current White Paper”—
and now in this Bill—
“on education—more choice for parents and greater independence for schools—will increase the already uneven spread of children from different family backgrounds in secondary schools. Our research suggests that greater selectivity in admissions by state schools—which the Government claims will not happen—would be likely to increase social segregation, especially if this was coupled with any move towards separate academic and vocational school tracks”.
Why are we worried about that? The Commission for Racial Equality has recently been giving evidence to the Education and Skills Committee about segregation in schools. I shall quote from the evidence that Nick Johnson gave on 7 June. He said that,
“schools will reflect the communities that they are in, where we can see increasing patterns of segregation. We are pretty firm, in terms of the evidence that we look at, when we think that there is this increase in segregation residentially, but also, perhaps more important, socially, and people are just not getting a chance to interact with people from different backgrounds, with one another”.
If that is happening in schools, it sets people up to be segregated for life. I am sure that the Minister will refute those suggestions and tell us that that will not happen. However, I suggest that the best way of judging whether it will happen or not, or the best way to monitor the effects of the new legislation, is to set up an independent inquiry—
I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. Perhaps she could clarify the intentions of the amendment in regard to timing. I think that she used two expressions in her remarks: one was “in two or three years’ time” and another was “somewhere down the line”. The amendment is very specific and suggests that a body be set up within a year and that the report should come back to Parliament within less than two parliamentary years from now. I can see the point of a review after some time, but the timescale in the amendment would allow, at best, an interim year for the new admissions system. If she could be clear on the timing, that would be very helpful.
I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I was just coming to the timing. In the amendment, we have specifically suggested that the arrangements should begin in October 2008, which would allow, at best, only two years for the working through of the current procedures. That was suggested to us by Comprehensive Future, which had suggested the original amendment, although we amended it somewhat. We on these Benches feel that, if one were to undertake such a review, one would probably need a somewhat longer period and at least three years for the procedures to work their way through. The key issue is whether the Government are prepared to set up an independent review of these procedures within a reasonable period. Three years would probably be reasonable; leaving it very much longer would be less so. However, we would not necessarily adhere to the specific date in the amendment.
Amendment No. 171B also stands in my name. Its aim is to prevent schools from complying with the new arrangements for a year or so and then reverting back to former practices. That has happened on occasions. Schools have been taken to the adjudicator, who has given a ruling; for a year or so, the school adheres to the adjudicator's ruling but then goes back to the old practices of selection. The aim of this amendment is to ensure that schools comply with the terms of admissions procedures and with the code of admissions as required by the Bill and are not able to revert back.
I wish to speak to Amendments Nos. 172, 173 and 174 concerning our objections to some aspects of the role of the adjudicator. First, on banding, I would like to remind the Committee that we have already made some difference to the Bill. We are grateful that the other evening the Minister accepted our amendment to require decisions on banding to be left to governing bodies. That is a step in the right direction rather than banding being decided by local authorities.
Amendment No. 172 probes the thinking behind the broad powers granted to the adjudicator under Clause 43. The amendment leaves out the key words,
“whether or not he would be required to do so for the purpose of determining the objection”.
This is a broad power. It would mean that a person could make an objection on frivolous or vexatious grounds, and that this would then give the adjudicator the power to investigate every aspect of a school’s admissions arrangements and make changes. That could happen even where nobody objected to the offending part of the arrangements.
New subsection (5B) of Section 90 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 also refers to a decision of the adjudicator or Secretary of State on whether,
“it would be appropriate for changes to be made to the admission arrangements, whether in the light of his decision on the objection or otherwise”.
Amendment No. 173 removes this part of the clause. Again, we see no reason why potentially frivolous or vexatious complaints justify the complete review ofa school’s admission arrangements. Where the adjudicator considers the decision of an admissions authority, it should be limited to the grounds of appeal listed in the original complaint.
There should also be a right of appeal from the adjudicator. Amendment No. 174 would allow appeals where a party to the proceedings before the adjudicator is dissatisfied on a point of law. The adjudicator will have to state a case for the decision of the High Court. In another place, amendments were tabled to give a right of appeal to the Secretary of State. We accept that to introduce the Secretary of State into the process would risk politicising decisions that must be made. We therefore propose the High Court, which, I am sure we all agree, is sufficiently independent to avoid this.
We have heard much from the Government about how we do not need an appeal from the adjudicator because he is already an appeal body. However, this is not strictly the case. In the judgment given in November 1999 in the case of Regina v The Schools Adjudicator ex parte Metropolitan Borough of Wirral, Mr Justice Latham ruled that:
“The provisions of the Act that I have already cited make it plain that the Schools Adjudicator has what is, in effect, an original jurisdiction to determine the objection”.
This was restated in the decision in the case of The Queen on the Application of Metropolitan Borough of Wirral v The Chief Schools Adjudicator, given on 14 December 2000. Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that,
“it is plain that the adjudicator is exercising an original jurisdiction as to the appropriateness of admission arrangements. He is not reviewing a local education authority's decision, though obviously what they determine and why is very material”.
I admit that, when the decision-maker is a local authority, the analogy of an appeal works well. The local authority makes its decision and then various aggrieved parties can refer the matter to the adjudicator. For example, where a local authority proposes the discontinuance of a certain situation, the problem arises because we are moving away from a system in which local authorities make most of the important decisions relating to schools in an area, towards one of independent, self-governing trust and foundation schools making their own decisions. In such circumstances, a right of appeal, however limited, is essential. It is important that, when the adjudicator overturns the decision of a governing body on its admission arrangements, the governing body can challenge this decision relatively inexpensively and swiftly.
Similarly, local authorities will be able to refer proposals to the adjudicator where a school decides to acquire a trust. In such circumstances, the adjudicator will be able to overturn the decision of the governing body, which will have no statutory right of appeal.
At present, the only recourse for schools which object to the adjudicator’s decision is judicial review. As noble Lords will know, this is an extremely blunt, expensive and untimely tool. Some local authorities can afford to challenge the decisions of the adjudicator through judicial review, but schools and parents cannot. Many will decide that they have more important things to spend money on than this lengthy process. It cannot be right that bad decisions go unchallenged simply because the aggrieved party cannot afford it. The Newport Free Grammar School in Essex had its admissions policy overturned and, even though the governing body was dissatisfied, it simply could not afford judicial review on grounds of cost. The school’s website stated:
“The only recourse the school could have is to go to judicial review, costing in the region of £50,000—way outside the school's resources”.
It went on to state:
“The Government seems to want to promote self-governing schools, yet is not prepared to allow Governors to govern without interference from LEAs and quangos like the Schools Adjudicator”.
There are further areas where some right of appeal from the adjudicator may be important. In a number of cases, the adjudicator will be given decision-making powers directly, without the case first being decided by the local authority. For example, where a local authority is given the right to propose a new community school, the adjudicator makes the initial decision. Similarly, the Bill transfers from the Secretary of State responsibility for various decisions relating to non-playing-field land, involving disputes between foundation or voluntary schools and the local authority over the sale of land and the division of any proceeds; decisions over land transfer disputes when schools change category; and disputes over land required by a local authority for a new school. Here again, the adjudicator is given the initial decision-making power. If the adjudicator is an appeal body, as the Government say, where is the appeal in these cases?
It is essential that the adjudicator process has the confidence of parents and governors. A right of appeal may help to ensure that fewer people leave the process dissatisfied. Where the adjudicator is simply implementing the law, an appeal will demonstrate this clearly and remove any risk that the adjudicator is viewed as overly powerful and unaccountable.
I shall not speak again to my own amendments, which I have already addressed. I thank the right reverend Prelate for his support for them.
On Amendment No. 162 of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, raising the important issue of how we keep the national effects of admissions arrangements and their social consequences under review, we agree with her point. As part of his role, the new schools commissioner will use admission forums’ reports as part of a two-yearly review of fair access; that is in his job description. He will report to the Secretary of State, and that will of course be made available to both Houses to consider. I am sure that this important document will give rise to a good deal of debate when it appears. I think the noble Baroness will welcome this role for the schools commissioner, which meets the point she is making. An additional statutory review is not needed.
On the noble Baroness’s Amendment No. 171B, we agree that admission authorities should comply with the provisions of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, as amended by this Bill, on admissions. I should make clear that Clause 42 does not give them any flexibility to escape that requirement, which appears to be a concern.
Clause 42 and associated regulations will prevent admission authorities changing approved admission arrangements for three years. After that, admission authorities for these schools may review and amend their admission policies, but must still comply with legislation and, under the new requirements, act in accordance with the school admissions code. They cannot propose revised admissions arrangements outwith the code after that period, which meets the noble Baroness’s point. It is currently possible for them to do so, as she said, and you must then rely on a reference to the adjudicator to bring the admissions arrangements back in line. That will subsequently not be possible.
Amendments Nos. 172 to 174, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, would restrict the role of the adjudicator on admissions. As the noble Baroness said, existing legislation restricts the adjudicatorto considering only the part of the admission arrangements that the objection directly refers to. So, although other parts of a school's admission policy may have a direct bearing on how a criterion is applied, or be blatantly unfair, he currently has no power whatever to amend them. We do not think that that is a reasonable position or one that helps adjudicators to see that schools act in accordance with the admissions code. That is why the Bill allows the adjudicator to consider whether other aspects of a school's admission arrangements are fair, and to change them—I stress—in accordance with the code if they are not. The adjudicator does not have any unilateral powers beyond that.
That is a reasonable approach. It does not give the adjudicator unilateral powers to change admissions arrangements outside the code, nor to change those of any school which is in accordance with the code. A wide array of fair admissions practices are entirely consistent with the code. The adjudicator must also act reasonably; if he does not do so, he can be subject to judicial review. The noble Baroness recognised that adjudicators are subject to judicial review at the moment.
Under the new arrangements established by the Bill, the adjudicator’s determinations, along with the admissions arrangements of schools, will be fixed for three years. At the moment, they are fixed for just one year, and some schools—for example, in respect of partial selection—have been challenged every year. Having to defend its practices and make representations to the adjudicator annually is a huge burden on a school. We have taken the view that stability of admissions is essential, which is the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made in a different way. Ensuring that arrangements are fixed for three years and that adjudicators’ determinations hold sway for that period will stabilise the system and prevent practices that have been determined by an adjudicator being subject to repeated early challenge, as can happen at the moment.
Amendment No. 174 provides for appeals and references to the High Court by way of case stated. On this, I have to stick very closely to my legal brief, which says that case stated is a rather old-fashioned procedure, more usually used for criminal cases. It is unusual for this mechanism to be used in tribunals. It is by nature a form of consultation with a higher court to obtain an answer on a point of law. It does not preclude judicial review since, if an adjudicator were to refuse to state a case, that decision would itself be amenable to judicial review. We consider it preferable that parties to adjudicators’ decisions should have a right to seek judicial review where it is not the merits of a particular decision that are considered, but whether there has been a decision which is outside the adjudicator’s jurisdiction or is irrational, or where the decision-making process can be said to have been unfair procedurally. Applications for judicial review also require permission from the Administrative Court, which acts as a filter and reduces the burden on the courts.
I am not competent to give further responses to the noble Baroness if she wants to challenge that. If, when she has read what I have said in Hansard, she wants to come back, I will engage in correspondence with her on the precise relationship between the adjudicator and the High Court.
Amendments Nos. 160 and 161 were tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I am glad that he recognised that the new co-ordinated admissions process for secondary schools is producing greater certainty and better outcomes for parents. In particular, it has had the beneficial effect of preventing parents holding multiple offers, which was a particular problem. It has brought about a welcome increase in the proportion of parents who receive offers of a place in a school that they have positively chosen early in the admissions process. Even where a child cannot be offered one of the schools preferred by their parents, statutes and regulations govern the obligations of local authorities to offer a place at an alternative school or otherwise to provide access to full-time education.
The noble Lord raised the issue of the allocation of school places by ballot. In fact, this is an acceptable, but rarely used, means of determining who should be offered places at oversubscribed schools and can be used to allocate a proportion, or even all, of the places at an oversubscribed school in accordance with the code of practice. The revised code on admissions will make that explicit, which may stimulate some interest in this option. When I met the noble Lord to discuss this, I told him that the idea had attracted the attention of Sir Peter Lampl and his excellent Sutton Trust. My office will put Sir Peter in touch with the noble Lord so that they can seek to popularise this interesting idea.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Page 29, line 33, after “body” insert “or person”
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 39, as amended, agreed to.
[Amendments Nos. 160 to 162A not moved.]
Clause 40 [Support for parental preferences]:
Page 29, line 44, leave out first “of” and insert “and their”
The noble Baroness said: I shall also speak to Amendment No. 165. These amendments probe the idea of the choice adviser, whose role is established by the brief Clause 40. Amendment No. 162B should perhaps have been included in the group of amendments that dealt with the voice of the child. It is a neat amendment that makes clear that choosing a secondary school should be for parents and children, not just parents.
The Minister made available to us some of the draft guidance on choice advisers, which has got it right. Paragraph 7 states:
“Choice Advice is about helping and supporting families including mothers, fathers, adults with caring responsibility and children to make the best and most realistic choice of secondary school”.
After that, it goes downhill. It is full of detail about what choice advisers should know and do and how they should target disadvantaged families, but it constantly refers to parents and carers, not children. However, it is slightly redeemed by paragraph 17, which states:
“Wherever possible the child should be included and provided with appropriate advice so that they are able to express an informed view about a choice of school”.
This is an important point. When a child is 10 or 11, it is old enough to take a view about the school that it wants to go to, and it should be involved in the process of choice. The guidance is right, but I would like to see more emphasis on including children in the discussions. That should be in the Bill. Changing “parents of children” to “parents and their children” achieves what we want and sets the right tone. I hope the Minister is sympathetic to this amendment.
Amendment No. 165 was drafted before the draft guidance was available and reflects the Local Government Association’s view that guidance about what the Government wish local authorities to do is needed because the Bill makes clear that this system is to be run through the local authority. Local authorities now have extensive guidance, including a full-blown scheme for accrediting choice advisers. In general, these Benches applaud the vision and the degree to which the Government are anxious that each local authority works out its own scheme. The guidance provides a variety of models that might be followed.
We have one query about the process. The Government are making available £6 million a year—£12 million in total—to get the scheme moving. That works out at £300 per primary school. Paragraph 16 of the guidance puts the situation very clearly when it states that it,
“is clear that Choice Advice should be targeted at about 30 per cent of families”.
A typical primary school will therefore work with about 10 families. The examples, which talk about groups of perhaps 10 or 12 primary schools together, make clear that it is a full-time job for a choice adviser. I applaud the Government for setting up the procedures for choice advisers, but are they really providing enough resources to fund their proposals? One of the problems is that neither schools nor local authorities have spare resources with which to fund the extra posts. I beg to move.
I speak to Amendment No. 163A standing in my name. It is a constructive amendment, designed to strengthen support for parental preferences, which is the object of Clause 40. The philosophy behind it is simple—the more the system of centralised allocation shifts towards one of parental choice-based allocation, the more knowledge and information parents need to make their choices effectively, and the greater the responsibility of the Government to provide that information or make it accessible.
The Government clearly understand their duty to provide a greater information base to support parental preferences but I am not sure that the choice advice machinery to be administered by choice advisers is quite the right one. It needs to be supplemented by something else. My criticism is that the advice is to be targeted on a small number of parents—at one time in one passage it is 6 per cent and in another passage it is perhaps 30 per cent. But only that group of parents is deemed to need it. The number of parents who could benefit from this information is much larger. More seriously, the government guidance refers to the information which the choice adviser will need to have, not to the information which parents will need to have. The information will be with the adviser, not the parents. It is almost as though the Government have a model of a GP/patient relationship. I am sure that that is not their intention, but it does unconsciously reflect their view of the nature of the target group.
The assumption that all other parents have access to the information they need to make a choiceis wrong. Specifically, parents are likely to lack what they need most of all—information about comparative school performance in that locality. I have looked at a number of websites. Some have exam and key stage results and some do not, but none has local league tables. The best a school usually does is to publish its exam results and then compare them to average pass rates for England and Wales, which is not enough for a parent to see how good a school is in comparison with other local schools.
Moreover, information on school websites is not provided in standardised form, which is necessary for easy comparison across schools to be made. In fact, I have to say that the websites of most schools in this country are primitive compared with those of American schools, which give much more information. Noble Lords who are interested in checking this out might compare the website of the Frederick Douglass Academy in New York with that of almost any maintained school website in the United Kingdom. It is argued that the Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph and other high-quality newspapers publish reliable league tables and that those reports are available online. However, many parents do not read those newspapers and many more do not have access to the internet.
The conclusion I draw from all this is that information which parents need to make an informed choice is available to the persistent inquirer—and guess who that is likely to be—but in a scattered and non-standardised form. My idea is to concentrate this information in school information centres and to make it available to parents in a simple, readable and, above all, standardised form. I envisage there being such a centre—perhaps this is an idealised vision—in every town centre or high street into which parents can easily drop, receive information packs about the schools in their area, have their questions answered, and swap stories and information with other parents over a cup of tea or coffee. Above all, that information centre should be independent. It may be commissioned by the local education authority, but it should be independent of the local education authority and in a separate building.
I am also strongly attracted by the idea of annual school fairs, which I first came across in one of the districts in Manhattan, at which schools display their wares once a year. They were extremely popular with parents in a very deprived area, who had been alienated from the school system, but who loved these fairs and, as a result of them, got much more involved with the schools.
I accept that there are cost implications. Implementing my scheme will cost more than the £12 million over two years the Government propose to allocate to choice advice. I recognise that one or two districts already have parents’ advice centres. I notice from the guidance that this is done in Tower Hamlets. My impression is that these are targeted at disadvantaged and ethnic minority children rather than being a resource for all parents choosing a school at the end of primary schooling. Still, information is costly and I submit that the Government need to think hard about what information parents need to make, what the Minister often calls, “an evidence-based choice”, and how best to supply it in a customer-friendly way.
I very much support what the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said. There is a demand for this information from all parents—I am very well aware of that from my work with the Good Schools Guide—from those in the most deprived circumstances to those who are relatively affluent. Parents tend to be very busy. A lot of them are uninformed about schools; all of them want comfort and help when undertaking an extremely difficult decision; and, as the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said, the quality and consistency of information out there is well below par—certainly with regard to easy access. School websites are often dire and local authority information provision varies from the really quite good to the extremely difficult, obscure and unhelpful. There is not a good consistent standard there. One of the things a school adviser could do is to help bring up the general level of available information to a common and consistent standard and, ideally, as the noble Lord said, to something approaching the American model rather than the “Do we have to do anything?” standard that occupies a lot of British websites. To have that co-ordinated in a way which makes it easier for a parent to access it on a casual basis would be a great advantage. As I will come on to, one of the difficulties I see with the Government’s scheme is the question of how this adviser finds the parents they are talking about.
My amendment focuses on the need for independence. A lot of the time this adviser will be the Thomas à Becket character who wishes to give clear, honest and good advice regardless of the consequences to himself. If they do not have a position that enables them to do that without fear of imminent execution, they may well not have the courage of the right reverend Prelate’s predecessor and may temper their advice accordingly. That problem has become prevalent in, for example, the educational psychology service, where many people rely for their bread and butter on a relationship with a particular local authority. If the local authority likes to be dilatory, difficult and restrictive about giving statements, it is the common experience of parents that you will get a relatively bad service from those educational psychologists because they know who is paying their bills.
It is necessary to have a measure of independence because, much of the time, a competent adviser will say, “Don’t go to that school in Dorset. You are much better off if you hop across the boundary into Hampshire. It has the provision that you want, it has easy access so you have a good chance of getting in”, or, “No, whatever they say, that school does not really provide well for your child’s special need but there is very good provision a couple of miles away and, if you can establish a special need—and this is how to do it—you will have a reasonable chance of getting your child in”. Giving advice that is in the interests of the child and the parent will often be advice that the local authority wishes had not been given, to give it an easier life.
From the draft guidance, we are clearly envisaging a system that is quite well integrated with the local authority system. I should like to be sure that there is a good guarantee of independent advice; otherwise parents simply will not trust it. I am very grateful to the Minister for having distributed the draft guidance. Exactly how are those advisers going to turn away the middle classes? Yes, they may be targeting the 30 per cent who are most deprived, but if someone like me comes knocking on their door and says that they want help, are they going to say, “Go away”? Once they get a reputation, people who are aware of their existence will be after their services.
I am puzzled by the Government’s idea of the correct budget. If we are aiming for 30 per cent of pupils, we are looking at a budget of about £30 per target family. With the usual overheads, especially if these families have to be tracked down because they are difficult to get to, people will have to spend time at the end of the day at primary schools waiting for those parents to turn up. That will not be a time-efficient process. I suspect that the Minister's budget allows for about 15 minutes per target family, which is about a quarter of the time required to give a reasonable standard of service.
I am surprised that in-year admissions will not be catered for. That is one real problem for parents who are moving. We are trying to encourage a mobile and responsive labour market and make it easier for people to move around the country. Getting into schools out of term, or just moving generally, creates immense problems in our current system. You cannot even consider a place in a school until you have an address. If you get the wrong address, you may find that there is not a school place within five miles. You have no time, are out of the area, have no local contacts or infrastructure of other parents to talk to to find out what is going on, and no existing school to turn to for advice. Those people most need such advice. It is very helpful to the fundamental economy of this country that moving should be made easier for those people. They should be a target of the system.
I will be interested to hear how the noble Lord envisages that the system will work in practice. If it is aimed at disadvantaged people, how will they be tracked down without an awful lot of the money going into the system being spent just on the process of finding the parents, rather than giving them useful advice?
I support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. One thing that he said that is so important is that all parents lack information. During some of our debates, I have been slightly disturbed when there seems to be the assumption that if one is in the middle classes, one is an evil individual doing everything for one’s child and cares less about everyone else. That is very unfortunate. There are plenty of people out there from all social backgrounds, no matter from where they come, who take very little interest in their children’s education, sadly.
We must recognise that all parents lack information. It is important that everyone, with relative ease, can access information on choice. We all support the direction in which the Government are going in trying to offer more choice and diversity for parents. Information centres are a very good idea and I agree that they should be independent of the LEA. They must be somewhere central that parents can access. Today, all parents are time-poor. They have enough to do coping with the logistics of family life, so the more access they can have to information about schools, the more perceptions and misconceptions about their child having been unfairly treated will be dispelled. That is hugely important. I speak having listened to parents and from personal experience. Parents need to feel that the process is transparent and that they have open, independent access to the information.
Sir Alan Steer, in Learning Behaviour: The Report of the Practitioners' Group on School Behaviour and Discipline, draws attention to the need for pupil parent support workers. I am sure that we will come to this later, but I wonder if there is any connection between that role and that of choice advisers. Listening to the debate, it occurs to me that that early function might be a way to engage those30 per cent of parents about whom we are most concerned.
The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, raised concern about not putting too much responsibility on the heads of young children. I do not think that the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, would do that, but I reiterate the concern that we should not ask children to decide which school to go to. I am sure that that is not the intention, but I reiterate the concern that we should not ask too much of children. We should involve them in the process, but I know that some parents do not understand this and go too far the other way. They think that their child should be making the decision. That is just a warning.
I shall speak briefly in view of the hour. As a rule, as a former member of a local authority, I take a fairly pro-local authority view but, on this occasion, I support the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on the need for independence of choice advisers from the local education authority. As we move into this much more varied pattern of provision, it is essential that parents have confidence that the information that they receive is not biased.
I wanted to ask about choice advisers and the30 per cent most deprived to try to understand how the choice advisers are to determine who those people are and how they are to have the skills to do that. I echo the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that the sort of information that all parents require—hard data about performance, and so on—is not the same information that may be required by parents living in deprived areas who may have multiple problems. I am not clear about what capacity in training and time choice advisers will have to provide that service for parents in deprived areas. I am a little nervous about the emphasis that seems to be placed on choice advisers working with deprived families. I quite understand the sentiment; I am just nervous about some dangers.
Finally, the guidance proposes evaluation of cost-effectiveness. I should like an assurance that it is effectiveness in the broader sense that will be evaluated and not only financial effectiveness.
I give the noble Baroness that assurance: it will be effectiveness at large. I also very much take to heart her point on the independence of choice advice. The guidance which I have circulated makes it clear that we expect the information provided to be properly independent. Indeed, paragraph 7 of the guidance states that the information should,
“include information about schools which might be in a different local authority area”.
That also meets the point of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. We are seeking to update the guidance, and there is scope for us to strengthen the points that we make on independence and the type of advice that we expect advisers to make available.
In response to the noble Baroness, I should also say that we are in the process of developing accredited training for choice advisers and guidance for the advisers themselves. As soon as that is available I will make it available to the Committee. I hope that that will meet the noble Baroness’s points.
It is my duty as the Schools Minister to leap to the defence of our schools immediately in response to the outrageous suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that they are in any way primitive. I think our schools can well stand comparison with American high schools.
In respect of the websites, too, I think I can defend the schools. The noble Lord referred to a specific school. I refer him to a school whose website I was looking at only yesterday: Shireland school, in a very deprived area of Smethwick, which has the most fantastic website. I will look at his website after he looks at mine and we can then see whether they can hold their own against each other.
The noble Lord mentioned the figure of 6 per cent—this relates directly to the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel—which is a very important point and one of the really alarming statistics in the education system. Six per cent of parents failed to complete an application form at all for their children. It is a good part of the reason why often, at the beginning of September, we have the problem to which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, referred, of children who do not have places in schools. If ever there was a case made for pupil parent support workers, to whom the noble Lord referred—and I think that the choice advisers will play a part of that role regarding parents—it is that very alarming statistic.
On Amendment No. 165, spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, we have already issued guidance on the choice advice to which she referred. The new code on school admissions could be used to make that statutory, if we so wished, by including provisions on choice advice within that code, which is to be statutory. We shall reflect further on whether to do so in the light of this debate.
On Amendment No. 165A, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, as I said, we will look at how we can strengthen requirements on local authorities to see that the advice is independent.
I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and that by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, about providing advice for children. We accept, of course, that children do and should play a very big part in the choice of school that they go to, but we do not think that regulation is the best way of regulating relations between parents and their children, and it is the parents who actually submit the form. We therefore need to be careful that we get that balance right.
Amendment No. 163A, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, addresses school information centres. I listened carefully to what he said and think that he made some very good points on the obligation to provide general advice in a standardised format as well as targeted advice given by advisers themselves. There are a number of practical issues here but I will reflect further on his comments to see whether we might give a significant impetus to that idea. He also mentioned school fairs. They play an important part in the decisions taken by parents on schools. We strongly encourage them, and indeed most local authorities operate them. The new schools admission code will say that school fairs are good practice and an effective way of providing information to a number of parents at once. Guidance on choice advice will also recommend them as one of the ways in which choice advisers should consider reaching local parents.
I hope that that meets most of the points raised in the debate.
Secondly, does the noble Lord take my point on in-year admissions and, generally, people coming from outside the local authority—that they should have a precedence? Thirdly, yes, I agree that the 6 per cent are the key to reach, but how do you identify them? By the time they have identified themselves as not having applied, it is too late. You have to try to find some way of finding these people—apart from all those like me who turn in their tax return the day before they have to. An awful lot of people leave it to the last moment or do not actually send the form in until the last moment. How do you sift out the 6 per cent who are not going to choose from the perhaps 30 per cent or 40 per cent who will simply be late in choosing?
That is a difficult issue, but it is precisely why we are seeking to target the choice advisers on schools with the highest levels of deprivation. That will of course include a good proportion of that 6 per cent. I cannot say that we have the elixir that will eradicate that 6 per cent immediately, but I hope that the way in which choice advisers are targeted on schools with higher levels of deprivation will enable us to start getting at the 6 per cent.
I am grateful both to the Minister for replying to the various queries and to all noble Lords who participated. It has been quite a useful debate on choice advisers. I reassure the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that we have tabled amendments on pupil parent support workers. I feel they will be doing a very different task from that of choice advisers because they will be working with a group of parents within a particular school. As far as their being independent and choice advisers, I am not sure that they should double up. Although they might help at some point, it is not quite the same job.
I am a little sorry that the Minister does not accept Amendment No. 162B, which, as I say, I think a very neat little amendment. It simply changes the wording in the Bill. The intention is certainly not, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, suggested, that the children should take the decision—it is obviously a decision they take with their parents—but that they should be involved in the decision-making. The involvement of children here is important. Nevertheless, I accept that it is ultimately the parents who have to fill out the form, and that that might provide an excuse for not changing the Bill’s wording. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 163 and 163A not moved.]