Question for Short Debate
My Lords, parents choose schools, or at least we make great efforts to give them that opportunity. Certainly I believe it is extremely good for parents to have that choice. They should have the chance to find the school that suits their preferences and those of their children and not simply be stuffed into whatever school happens to be closest to them. In my life outside this place as the editor of The Good Schools Guide I spend a great deal of time trying to make that happen. I feel and I think the Government agree that parents having a choice is good for the system as a whole. It is a slow mechanism. Parents change their views about schools and schooling quite slowly, but over time it works to improve the system and it certainly works to improve the relationship between schools and parents. When parents have a choice of school, that makes for a much better day-to-day relationship between parents and schools than was the case before when schools tended to shut parents out because they did not need their permission to exist.
In order to make a choice you need high-quality information that is easily available. It also needs to be accessible in the sense that it must be delivered in a form that enables parents to make sense of it without devoting their lives to doing so. Successive Governments have made great strides in this direction. Performance tables are now hundreds of columns wide and contain a great deal of data. Government websites are becoming ever more informative. The latest edition is just out and is a great improvement on the previous one, and no doubt we will see more of that. Apart from the occasional imposed idiocies—I am thinking of my great friend Nick Gibb and the noble Lord, Lord Knight —of excluding GCSE and similar exams from the data, it is pretty high quality and useful stuff.
The attitude of the department over the years has always been open and constructive. However, the one area where this is not true is information on admissions. Yes, it is available after a fashion. Local authorities publish brochures in physical or PDF form. They are all in different formats and do not by any means contain all the information they are statutorily supposed to show. Moreover, they are generally not set out in a way that encourages comparisons between schools and understanding what you as a person located in a particular place on the map with a particular set of circumstances have access to. As the fragmentation of the system has continued, the quality and availability of this information have declined. I know of only one organisation that makes a serious attempt to collect this data, which is 192.com, and indeed a lot of schools are simply delinquent about providing the data. The information is patchy even though it is the best that is available.
Availability also means accessibility, something that can be used to make decisions. Because the data is available only in PDF form, with no standard format within the PDF, it cannot be integrated in any way that helps parents to make decisions. That creates a complex system where, in somewhere like London, you have to look at several sets of data because people live close to local authority boundaries. You have an immense variety of catchment systems. Distance is measured six different ways, I think, in English catchment systems. There are feeder schools, selection or partial selection and multiple streams of entry.
The result is that the advantaged in society become yet more advantaged. They know enough, they know the people to talk to, they have the understanding to find out what opportunities are there, the schools that have ballots that they may take advantage of or understand how to navigate a banding system to their advantage—which band you want to get your child in to have the best chance of getting into Camden School for Girls, or whatever. The disadvantaged become yet more disadvantaged. Even the advantaged, who are the people I spend most of my life talking to, are full of anxiety at this uncertain, unclear, difficult-to-navigate process.
The Government could do something about it very simply and at very low cost. The data are all there. Every admissions authority knows its admissions criteria. They all follow a coherent structure and the information on how an admissions round has gone is not exactly complicated. If each admissions authority had to contribute those data to a common table and the table was then made open data by the Government, that would be all they had to do. The great gods in my world are the property websites. They command so much traffic that we all have to pay attention to what they want. They want as good a set of catchment information as they can get. If the Government were to make these data open, I and a multiplicity of other people would suddenly find ourselves having to spend large amounts to catch up with the market, and that would be no bad thing.
The cost to the Government would be the creation of a table and no more. The responsibility for the accuracy of the data would remain with those who put the data into the table. The benefits, apart from a general reduction in anxiety, would be a better quality of choices, particularly for the disadvantaged, because it becomes easier to give them something that they can use to understand their options and encourage them to look at schools that are opening their doors to them.
Something that some schools are trying, and which I really encourage the Government to consider instead of grammar schools, is opening some of their admissions to ballot rather than things that are gameable. Schools that do so find that they still get only the advantaged applying because the disadvantaged do not know how it works or even that they have the option.
To have serious information systems out there that made it easier to find out your chances of getting in to which schools would be really helpful in giving the disadvantaged access to excellent schools. Local authorities I have spoken to would also find that helpful. They are getting less and less complete information as to what is happening in admissions in their area because crucial data are withheld by academies. They are just a black box. You send them a list of people who have expressed a preference and back comes a list of people that the academy will accept. There is no indication of what process the academy has gone through; no data are flowing back.
If we are to pick up on the White Paper—I would be very happy if we did—and make local authorities the champions of parents, we have to provide excellent data. To have the data open and available would do nothing but good for the honesty of schools in the application of their admissions criteria, because every disappointed parent could see why they failed and whether that was fair.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on securing this important debate and on his contribution. I agreed with pretty much everything he had to say, which often happens, but not always. In particular, when I talk about the relationship between parental choice and those with disadvantages, I will echo some of his points.
I start, however, with the new Prime Minister’s commitment to social mobility, made in her first speech outside No. 10. She said that Britain should be,
“a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”.
I thought that not only would that have been a nice thing to hear a Labour Prime Minister say going into No. 10—they could easily have done so; it sounded a bit like the “for the many not the few” rhetoric used so much by Tony Blair—but that it was a positive sign of her commitment to education.
Parental choice, which is what this debate is about, is designed to improve the quality of education for everyone. The notion is obvious: if you give parents the power of the market in accountability terms, you can improve schools because they can use their choice to go somewhere else—with per-pupil funding, the consequence will be that schools sort themselves out. We know, however, that this does not necessarily work. I represented a rural area in Dorset when I was in the other place, and in the chunk of my constituency in the Purbecks you basically had no choice. You had to try to get your child into the local secondary school because the distance you would have to travel otherwise was, for most parents, prohibitive.
There is, moreover, an assumption that parents will choose on the basis of standards. That is also not always the case. When I was doing the Minister’s job, I recall being particularly frustrated that there was a Catholic school in the east of England that was doing appallingly in examinations but had full rolls. It was oversubscribed largely because of an influx of Catholics from Eastern Europe who wanted to send their kids to the nearest Catholic school. They were exercising their choice but not necessarily in the way the policy intended. So we have to have some caution about parental choice.
The best recent discussion of evidence that the disadvantaged find it harder in an environment of parental choice is in the department’s own analysis, published in January 2014 and authored by Rebecca Allen from the Institute of Education and Simon Burgess and Leigh McKenna from the University of Bristol. They conclude:
“The evidence suggests that what parents look for in a school may vary by social class: middle classes tend to value performance and peer group; lower SES groups may look for accessibility, friendliness of staff and support for those of lower ability. This may lead lower SES groups to select themselves out of high performing schools to avoid possible rejection or failure. Disadvantaged families (by definition) have access to less in the way of resources, which may limit the range of schools which they can consider due to transport costs. More affluent families tend to have access to higher quality information on schools and be more adept at using it. The publication of performance tables and Ofsted reports aims to level the playing field in this regard, but cannot generate informal knowledge of local schools”.
That sums up all of the reasons why support for parents in navigating schools’ admissions arrangements is really important. We have to try and replace that lack of informal knowledge that more advantaged and better networked people have. How many local authorities now offer a choice advice service? As I recall, this was introduced in the Education and Inspections Act 2006, a piece of legislation that I inherited from my predecessor Jacqui Smith when I was a schools Minister. It all passed by in a bit of a haze, but I think that piece of legislation brought it in. It is a very useful service. I had a quick look today at the council websites for the London Borough of Barnet, Nottingham and Redcar and Cleveland. Those authorities clearly have active sites with active advice and are employing people to try to help families in their areas. I would be interested in how much of that sort of service still continues, given local authority cuts and how effective it is.
It is also important to think about how we might develop more peer-to-peer networks so that families from communities that are successfully navigating the complicated picture of different schools’ admissions policies can to some extent be like the expert patients that we have sometimes had in the health service. They are to some extent the expert parents. Can more be done on what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said about the use of data? We can then enable private and third-sector smartphone app developers to develop solutions to make it really easy for parents to show their preferences on transport, as well as standards and faith and all the different things that weigh on parents’ minds when they have the anxious experience of deciding which school to choose.
It is really hard for parents to select schools. It makes me want to ask—this is just about relevant to the debate—why we might want to make it easier for schools to select parents. It is really important that we have a tough admissions code. It is really important that we create as level a playing field as possible for parents so that schools are not going out to choose them to make their job easier in the high-stakes accountability that we have in this country.
It is equally important that we do not extend selection. My parents benefited from a grammar school education, as a result of which my father became an accountant. He joined the professions without going to university. My mum was able to join the banking profession. As a result they were able to afford to buy me and my brother the privilege of an independent school education and we were then the first in our family to go to university. At one level, you could say that is a great story of social mobility, but they were the lucky 25% at a time when in the economy there was perhaps a logic to letting 75% go and work in factories or marry those who worked in factories. That logic no longer persists because we now have a very different economy from the one in which the grammar school system was designed. We need to move away from education being used to sift people and being more about an education than a schooling system. I know the Minister is committed to empowering every single child and helping them achieve the best of their talents. Writing off too many through a selective system does not do that.
I also point to the work of Professor John Hattie from the University of Melbourne, who says the data from all the studies around the world show the two things that work are great teaching and what Carol Dweck would call a growth mindset. How do you develop a growth mindset in a bunch of kids who feel that they failed at the age of 11 and no longer have any life chances? No wonder Alan Milburn, the social mobility tsar, calls it “a social mobility disaster” and the chief inspector a load of “tosh and nonsense”.
I cannot help but be diverted to say in the context of this debate that we must not go back to grammar schools. I do not know what sort of information you would give parents in the context of a selective system, especially once their child had failed. If the Minister wants to answer that, I would be most grateful.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on securing this debate. I declare my interest as a governor of King’s College London Mathematics School, which is a state-funded school for 16 to 19 year-olds, sponsored by my university and employer, King’s College London. I have therefore had first-hand experience of struggling with the construction of admissions codes that can be clearly understood by potential parents and students.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Knight, I found myself agreeing with just about everything the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said. However, I would like to say a little about the nature of the information that is provided to parents. The complexity of that information seems to be a problem in and of itself. There is a very real danger—I will duck the grammar school question, which would just make it even more complex—that in responding to perceived problems we will actually end up increasing the complexity of the codes and the fact that parents are faced with more and more information that they cannot really cope with.
Because it is not my own experience, I have been struck by the perception of many people that schools are already trying to manipulate their criteria in such a way that they are in fact selecting parents. For example, John Dunford, who was once general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, believes that some schools are making it as opaque as possible for parents in order to maximise the chance that those schools will receive fewer applications from children from poorer homes. As I have said, that is not my personal experience in any of the schools that I have had to deal with, but from this very complexity comes the perception that these rules are very hard to understand and that, when it comes to appeals, it is much easier for middle-class and educated parents to know how to appeal and to do so successfully.
I hope I will be able to persuade the Minister that the answer to this is not more and more complex codes. That would be a tempting and easy route to go down but my own experience, which has been borne out by many other people who have tried to create all-singing, all-dancing, totally transparent codes, is that that is not something that works.
Both noble Lords who have already spoken have alluded to the fact that we are in a system of school choice. Obviously, you get rid of admissions problems if you simply allow the state to decide where every young person should go. Personally I am not in favour of that, but if you have a system in which you have oversubscribed schools, as is very likely, you essentially have two options: either you use a lottery or you have rules for deciding who gets a place in an oversubscribed institution. In fact, we have some experience of what happens with lotteries because Brighton and Hove tried it out. The experience was an educational one, in the sense that it was a field day for the researchers, but it was also rather depressing because the reality was that it did not improve access. That was not the result, partly because they did not go for a complete city-wide lottery, which might have resulted in practically every child in Brighton and Hove having a long journey to school.
The experiment also made it clear that many people do not find lotteries fair. There is a perfectly good case for lotteries not being seen as fair because, first, they do not take account of the strength of preferences and, secondly, they do not make it possible to take account of individual circumstances. That is the crux of my point. The reality is that when you are faced with a problematic set of decisions, which school admissions are, either you can try to have automatic algorithmic rules or you are thrust back on decision-making, discretion and judgment. It is very tempting to feel that bureaucratic rules that you cannot get around, where there is no room for discretion, must be better and fairer. However, the experience of human beings is that all too often this is not the case. You have to choose between the possibility that sometimes people will not exercise their judgment correctly and fairly and the certainty that if you have a system that does not allow you to take account of the unexpected, the problematic and individual circumstances, you will always have situations in which a decision is seen by those affected as unfair and unjustifiable. That is just the way life is, but it has tremendous implications for how we might respond at this point.
Schooling is becoming more and more important; more and more parents take seriously where they want their children to go, therefore the issue of oversubscribed schools will get more rather than less acute. There are good reasons for feeling that it will be easier for the educated and the privileged to deal with this. As I said, I argue that the answer is not more and more rules. In preparing for this debate, it was interesting to look at what the previous schools adjudicator said about the current situation. You get the impression that the whole thing is a catastrophe: at least half the schools in the country are breaking the code.
However, when you look at the details, you find two things. I have tremendous sympathy with one of the problems—and anybody here who is a school governor and lives with this calendar of policies and things that have to go up on the website will sympathise. A large number of problems are caused by schools that do not do what they are directed to do because they did not understand that they needed to do it. I do not mean putting up your admissions criteria—clearly, that is important. As an example, a school might have decided that it will just go on doing what the local authority did; the local authority decides to change it, the school does not have a meeting of governors at which it deliberates and decides, and therefore it has broken the code. That sounds so silly that one does not need to take it seriously, but it is important to understand that many violations of the code are of this sort.
However, there is also the very real complexity issue, which I will concentrate on for the last couple of minutes. The adjudicator points out that in many cases you have complex arrangements and over-subscription criteria that are difficult to understand. It is also the case that just about every sixth form out there is in contravention of the code. That is because once you get to that point, there are complex decisions to be made. It is not like admitting somebody to a completely standardised primary school curriculum: you have to make decisions, not just about the number of students in your school but whether or not you will have viable numbers. Do you end up with a set of students and end up abolishing certain key A-levels because you were not allowed to take any account of whether or not the students you accepted would create a viable group, which might be the only group in that city which was offering that A-level? In the current situation, unless you are a special school, like a mathematics school, you do not have any ability to balance out these very real dilemmas. I argue that when you have a code that everybody breaks, which is the case for the sixth forms, maybe the problem is the code, not the sixth forms. When everybody breaks something, maybe there is a real problem.
There have been a number of occasions in the past—for example, national vocational qualifications—when Governments have believed that you could create a set of rules so clear that anybody, trained expert or not, could come along and say, “Okay, this one has passed—that one has not; this one goes in this box—that one goes in that box”. The reality of experience in every case is that we cannot foresee all the circumstances that occur—we cannot foresee the future—therefore in any complex situation we have to allow some room, or some slack, for human discretion and judgment.
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will do a great deal to support parents. However, I urge him in doing so to look at procedures, access to help and, above all, simplifying rather than further elaborating the current code and requirements.
My Lords, I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for bringing this Question to the House for debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely normally takes the lead on these matters but he is unable to be here today, so I want to make just a few comments. The subject of admissions is a complex one. As a child’s education is so vital and important, not surprisingly it often leads to impassioned responses. That can be true of the subject of admission to church schools, on which I know that several Members of this House have expressed opinions in the past. Before I turn directly to the topic of faith-based admissions, which your Lordships will not be surprised I wish to address, I would like briefly to set out some points by way of context.
It is important to recognise the role that Church of England schools play in the lives of their families and the wider community. Around 1 million children across the UK are educated in Church of England schools that reflect the diversity of their local areas. In many rural areas Church of England schools form an integral part of a local rural community. Indeed, I saw that yesterday when making a visit to one of our schools in the diocese in Bedfordshire. It is also important to recognise that many parents want and positively choose for their children the vision and ethos that underpin our schools. The Church of England’s vision for education is that every child should have fullness of life and enjoy academic success as well as moral, spiritual and personal development. Sometimes, that is missed. We hear complaints from people who object to Church of England schools, not praise from those who value them.
By way of context, I hope that the House understands that the majority of Church of England schools actually have no faith-based admissions criteria. Church of England schools exist to serve the whole community, not a select faith group. The make-up of the student body tends to be representative of the wider community. Church of England schools have as many pupils on free school meals as the national average, for example, while schools operating in areas with a high population of a religious minority tend to reflect that. A substantial number of Church of England schools have more than 80% intake from the Muslim community. Where faith-based admissions criteria exist, they apply only when the school is oversubscribed and they tend to feature only in areas where alternative provision already exists.
Of course some people have no objection to the principle of schools that embody a Christian ethos but strongly object to the idea of faith-based admissions criteria. They argue that such schools increase social division and tend to benefit the middle classes. I probably do not need to tell the House that those criticisms exist within the Church of England as well as without. The reality is that there is no silver bullet when it comes to achieving a fair admissions policy. Research shows that parents who are the most affluent and best connected stand the best chance of getting through the admissions policy, whatever is put in place. Research also shows that those parents are much more likely simply to have bought a house in their desired catchment than to attend church, for example, in order to get their child into their desired school. Where faith-based admissions exist, at least they allow students to attend from beyond the immediate and potentially sometimes more affluent catchment area.
On the issue at hand, helping people to navigate school admissions arrangements, I am grateful for many of the suggestions that have been made, with interesting points not least from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. It is clear that some schools, including Church of England schools, have in the past failed in their duty to provide clear admissions information to parents. The report from the British Humanist Society and the Fair Admissions Campaign called An Unholy Mess identified technical and minor errors in how a number of Church of England schools administered their admissions policy. Examples of errors included forgetting to name the feeder school or failing to have an effective tie-breaker between two applicants living equidistant from the school. It is worth pointing out that none of the errors identified by the BHA in Church of England schools were specific to the issue of faith-based admissions. It is clear that similar areas would be found in any school which acts as its own admissions authority, whether religious or not. However, it is clear from the research that many schools find the process of admissions difficult to administer and this will inevitably make it harder for parents. I believe that the answer is not to attack schools for their failures but to ask how they can be better supported. A rapidly changing landscape of education with its greater focus on autonomy and independence for schools in the academisation process will only increase the challenges for schools in providing clear admissions criteria and advice.
With an increasing number of schools becoming their own admissions authority for the first time, it is more likely that errors could be made. With this in mind, the School Admissions Code, which is available to parents, would benefit from revision and clarification to ensure that both schools and parents are confident in navigating admissions arrangements. It is also important that the Office of the Schools Adjudicator is strengthened and well equipped to prioritise admission complaints that have a basis in legality rather than having to waste its time on complaints that arise only from ideological objections to particular admissions criteria.
As I say, there is no silver bullet for making admissions fair and open to all, but I hope that the Minister agrees that the future lies in all stakeholders working together to help schools to improve their administrative processes so that parents, wanting the very best for their children, are better equipped to navigate what can be a difficult, confusing and sometimes puzzling system.
My Lords, I thank the Whips’ Office for allowing me to speak in the gap, and I promise that I will not delay the Minister for very long at all. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for raising this issue. It is interesting to note that over the almost 20 years that I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House, I typically follow the noble Lord in the speakers’ list for debates only to find that everything I wanted to say has already been said by him—sometimes to the consternation of my own Benches. We have been ad idem most of the time for many years.
The wonderful thing about being in this House is that you are able to look back at your own experiences and try to offer them for the future. I should like briefly to give the Minister a short, personal narrative. The day King George VI died, 6 February 1952, was the most important day of my life. It was the day I took the 11-plus exam. I was 10 years old, and indeed most children sat the exam at that age. I have never understood the extraordinary misnomer of 11-plus. I passed, so I got a cap and a blazer and, unlike almost all the other children at my primary school in north London, I went to a grammar school. I never saw my friends from primary school again. An extraordinary wall came down, with them on one side of it and me on the other, and I have never really fully recovered from that.
I am convinced that the only selection component involved in my passing the exam was the fact that my mother took herself off to Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road and bought a batch of old exam papers, which I was then required to go through. I vividly remember sitting in the exam room that day and seeing the absolute horror on the faces of the kids around me as the exam papers were turned over. At least I was familiar with what I was about to do.
I put it to the Minister that never can we go back to a system where life’s chances are determined irrevocably at the age of 10. I am here today because of that one day in 1952. As he was reminded yesterday in Oral Questions, the 1944 Education Act had two routes. It offered the opportunity for children to retake the 11-plus exam at the age of 13 or the opportunity to go to a technical college. There were no technical colleges and I think that only around half a dozen were ever built. I am sure that the statistics are held by the department, but I never knew a child to arrive at my grammar school having retaken and passed the 11-plus at 13 years old; it just did not happen. Effectively, my entire generation’s life chances were determined at the age of 10 or 11.
All I would ask the Minister to do is to remember this story. I have the privilege of sitting in the House of Lords because my mum got on the Tube and bought a batch of old exam papers in Foyles. That opportunity was not afforded to the other 30 children in my class.
My Lords, in the week in which many schools in England have returned from their summer holidays, it is appropriate that your Lordships’ House has been given the opportunity to debate the important issue of admissions arrangements. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on achieving that, and welcome the fact that we are returning to the subject following the QSD in my name on the specific issue of the admissions code, which the House considered in May. The admissions code underscores everything that has been said in the debate so far because the “schools’ admissions arrangements” referred to in the title centre around the code.
I note what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said about schools themselves needing some assistance with the code, but parents also need help interpreting the code, and that is the nub of the problem. Every parent, and I am one, knows of the tension associated with doing their best to ensure that their children secure a place at the school of the parents’ choice. Around 80% are successful in that venture, which is commendable. However, when they are not, they must, at the very least, have the knowledge that they were competing on a level playing field.
The question of school admissions is very much a hot topic, with the Government—whether wittingly or unwittingly—having reintroduced the subject of grammar schools and the selection that that involves. The debate on grammar schools is for another day—in the not too distant future, perhaps, if rumours of an impending Green Paper are to be believed. However, as we just heard vividly from my noble friend Lord Puttnam, a major and long-established problem with the 11-plus exam, which is used to decide who is admitted to a grammar school, is that well-off parents pay for coaching or to get the exam papers in advance. That is a very sensible tactic, but not one that is available to everyone, as not everyone is familiar with Foyles, far less with the Charing Cross Road. It is an important point that some children have additional assistance to get into a grammar school. That is not a level playing field.
Last evening, the Prime Minister commented to Tory MPs that she already believed there was selection in state schools, caused by the ability of some parents to move to expensive housing in the catchment areas of high-performing schools. I very much agree with her. But those who claim to live at advantageous addresses are not always genuine in doing so and the admissions code should be a means of ensuring that that is not often the case.
The current system is open to abuse, and that is where the admissions code comes in—at least, it ought to. It is not acceptable simply to say that we cannot criticise parents for doing what they believe is in the best interests of their child. Actually, we can and we should, if, in so doing so, parents are wrongly or unfairly depriving another child of a place that he or she is entitled to.
All state-funded schools in England must comply with the School Admissions Code and the School Admission Appeals Code, and the statutory legislation that underpins them. Objections to admissions criteria and procedures can currently be submitted by anyone to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, whose decisions are binding. However, as noble Lords will be aware, for some months now, the Government have been putting forward plans to restrict those who can object to breaches of the code.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has already referred to the Fair Admissions Campaign and the British Humanist Association survey that was carried out. It demonstrated that there are many schools with intakes more favourable than would be expected given their location, and that these are often faith schools or other schools that control their own admissions. The two organisations analysed the admissions policies of a sample of faith schools and found that virtually all of them broke the admissions code in one way or another. I accept what the right reverend Prelate said: that in many case these were minor breaches. However, they were breaches none the less, and the adjudicator upheld 87% of the objections put to her in 48 schools. People have said that that is only 48 schools, but to repeat a remark I made in our debate in the Chamber in May, we are told that a sample of 1,000 can give the opinions of 60 million. Therefore, 48 schools is a valid sample, and a lot of important information was gleaned from that survey. The title of this debate is particularly apposite in the light of those findings.
The question is this: how do the Government provide support to parents seeking to navigate their way through what can be shark-infested waters? The admissions system is becoming increasingly complicated and difficult for parents to find their way through, favouring as it does those with the skills and the time needed to deal with it.
In the debate in May, I questioned the noble Baroness, Lady Evans—whatever became of her?—as to what the DfE had done to make sure that the schools identified in the survey as having breached the code had changed the way that they operate. The noble Baroness did not, at that time, give an answer, so I hope that the Minister may be able to now—perhaps the civil servants behind him can give him the information. Those schools surely cannot carry on as they were prior to that survey.
The issues identified by the survey are only part of the story, because there are a considerable number of devices used by schools that have been found to be acceptable under the code but which enable schools to gain a more favoured intake. The level of segregation of pupils by faith and, less often, by ethnicity and socioeconomic position is dangerously high. It is a significant threat to social cohesion, which of course all schools have a duty to promote.
I was quite taken aback by the powerful contribution by the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf. I knew that there were problems in the way the code does or perhaps does not operate, but I was unaware of the extent of it. I certainly knew nothing about the sixth-form aspect of it. Perhaps I might arrange to meet her at some time to discuss that in more detail, because it sounds like a serious problem.
In opening the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said that parents should choose schools. Surely that is the bottom line; it should be for parents to choose the school that their children go to, not the school that chooses the children. When the Schools Minister led a revision of the code some years ago, it was driven by his wish to allow anyone to object to malpractice. At that time, there was also a Select Committee inquiry. It received evidence from the Sutton Trust, which said,
“all the evidence suggests that those schools that are autonomous or have autonomous admissions are those that are most socially selective when compared to their localities”.
Yet, regrettably, the Government are proposing changes to the code that will reduce the number of complaints. They are supposedly about “unclogging the system”. Neither I nor, I suspect, anyone else has any wish to clog the system; I certainly would not want to see schools overburdened. However, the solution for any school that feels it is being or might be burdened by complaints about code violations is quite simple: stick to the admissions code. If they do that, they will have few if any additional administrative demands placed upon them.
Slightly worryingly, the Secretary of State’s rationale at the time when the changes were put forward was:
“So that parents can be confident that the school admission process is working for them”.
I fear that is little more than a coded message to those who are able to benefit from the present arrangements. Perhaps the Minister can explain how requiring schools to adhere to the rules in some way prevents school admissions codes from “working for them”. Taking issues to the adjudicator is not about changing the rules; it is about enforcing them—unless of course “working for them” means benefiting from the current situation when rules are all too often breached.
There is another issue here: no one is involved in enforcing or even monitoring the code. I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, in May whether the Government would bring forward a means of ensuring that the code was at the very least monitored. She did not give me an answer but said that the question was being looked at. Is there any update on that? The noble Baroness said,
“we are looking at whether we need to do more around compliance”.—[Official Report, 11/5/16; col. 1786.]
I hope there may be something to say. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said that one of the options was to strengthen the role of the schools adjudicator. If she was given more staff, monitoring might be an option.
I contend it is essential that organisations concerned about the manner in which the code is being adhered to should retain the right to raise complaints. If it becomes widely accepted among parents that there is in effect a two-tier system on admissions, cynicism will set in. For parents to come to believe that those with sharper elbows will crowd them out would be a gross distortion of what should be a fair and transparent system. It would lead to greater inequality and social disadvantage, which I am confident the Minister will agree must not be allowed to happen. I hope he will set out how he proposes to ensure that that it is not.
My Lords, I am extremely pleased to answer this Question for Short Debate, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, is particularly timely as children across the country take up their new school places this week. I start by making absolutely clear that our priority is to ensure that the admissions system continues to fully support parents. Choosing a school for their child is one of the most important decisions a parent makes and we want to ensure they can easily understand how to navigate the admissions system and obtain a school place. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Lucas for bringing this debate today as I have recently taken over responsibility for admissions—it is extremely prescient of him to have organised such a helpful teach-in for me. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for his comments about the Prime Minister’s commitment to social mobility and for bringing his valuable experience to this debate.
Let me reassure noble Lords that right across the admissions system there are good processes in place to support parents in applying for and obtaining a school place. Indeed, it is fundamental to the way the system is designed. All schools, including academies, are bound by the School Admissions Code and other admissions law. The code makes it clear that when drawing up admission arrangements the criteria should be fair, clear and objective. It stipulates that parents should be able to look at a set of arrangements and easily understand on what basis school places will be allocated. This will help parents consider whether their child has a good chance of obtaining a place. The code contains safeguards to ensure that the process of obtaining a place remains fair and transparent. For example, schools are prohibited from prioritising applicants who have named the school as their first preference to ensure parents are not restricted in their choice of school.
The process by which parents apply for places is also designed to make it as easy as possible for them to navigate. Although parents applying in the normal admissions round can express a preference for at least three schools, they only have to submit one application form to a single deadline, directly to their local authority. We require local authorities to then work with all the schools for which a parent has expressed a preference. They then give all parents in their area a single offer of a place at the parent’s highest preference school, which has a place available for their child. We also require this offer to be made to all parents on a national offer day—1 March for secondary schools and 16 April for primary schools—so there is clarity and consistency.
To support parents through the application process, each year local authorities are, as my noble friend Lord Lucas mentioned, required to publish a prospectus on admissions which contains information about how parents can apply for a school place in their area. It also includes the admission arrangements for all mainstream state schools in the area, including academies. Thereafter, local authorities continue to be a valuable champion for local parents and provide them with advice, assistance and support throughout the whole admissions process.
Having read all that from my brief, I was very interested to hear what my noble friend Lord Lucas had to say about data, both as regards their accessibility and usability. I found many of the issues he raised quite compelling and I was put in mind of a talk given by somebody from New York a couple of years ago about the New York iZone, which I think noble Lords will be interested to investigate. He said that when he took over responsibility for schools in New York the admissions requirements were so complicated that the average parent could not possibly work it out, and that the government website, as sometimes can happen, was rather difficult to fathom. They put the service out to tender to a whole lot of companies—no doubt run by young tech wizards—and within a few weeks had a number of apps which basically cracked the problem.
I was looking at this and I would like to read what it says on their website, as some of it might feel familiar. It says that research found that participants struggled to find personal relevance amidst the superabundance of admissions deadlines and data—I am sure that sounds familiar. Proceeding on the premise of certain understandings about how people experience choice-making and how design can influence human experience—for example, that people do not just need data to make choices but ways of evaluating options and relating those options to their own lived experiences —iZone led six software developers through the first school choice design challenge to create prototypes of new digital tools to help students and families identify schools that fitted their interests and qualifications, enhancing the school admissions process. Essentially, they designed ways to actively support more engagement and meaning during the evaluation stage, which led to more informed choices, which produced better outcomes.
I thought that was very interesting and I can assure noble Lords that we will investigate the iZone experience in some detail. I would also be delighted to continue discussions with my noble friend Lord Lucas to see what we can learn from that and other projects to modernise the admissions process and lessen its complexity.
The noble Lord, Lord Knight, asked about advice services. This is apparently not a compulsory requirement, although the school admissions code makes it clear that local authorities must provide advice and assistance to parents when they are deciding which schools to apply for. However—the noble Lord will be familiar with this phrase—the number of local authorities offering choice advice services is not centrally held information. I can assure him that I will investigate the issue further.
The noble Lord also mentioned Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, which I am a great fan of. I strongly recommend that he visits the excellent free school in Bradford, Trinity Academy, which practices this approach very strongly. I was struck by what the pupils had to say about their growth mindsets and I would be very happy to make that introduction.
I do not think at this stage, having been on my feet twice in the past 26 hours in relation to the matter of grammars, that there is anything more I particularly want to say on the subject, except in relation to the very moving points made by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. We have no intention of turning the clock back and will consider all the issues in relation to any increase in selection very carefully.
On a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, I repeat what I said in the House yesterday: we are working with the Grammar School Heads Association to develop tests that it will be much harder to coach children for.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, made some very powerful points. I pay tribute to King’s Maths School—which I have visited—which is producing a generation of new mathematicians. It is a very impressive establishment. I assure her that I share her suspicion of complexity and her desire for simplicity, and I was extremely interested in what she had to say about sixth form admissions. I will look at that very carefully in my new brief.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned the vital role that Church schools play in this country. I pay tribute not only to that but to the important role they play in community cohesion. Some years ago, the University of York carried out a very persuasive study to show that, in fact, Church schools were the most inclusive in the country.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, requested various information. As I said, I have just taken over responsibility for this brief but I will look at his points carefully. We need to get it into context, though. Last year, the adjudicator received 218 objections, which is just 1% of schools.
The system we have in place to support parents ensures that the vast majority of children attend a school of their parents’ choice and 95% get one of their top three choices. However, as we said recently, many parents still cannot get their kids into a good school close to them, and that is partly what any reforms we come forward with would aim to improve.
In the last few years, we have made great strides in creating new places; something that I am also responsible for now. We have created 600,000 new places in the last five years and have funds in place to create another 600,000 over the next five years. We will continue to work hard to ensure that every child has access to a good education so that they can go as far as their talents and hard work can take them.
I thank all noble Lords again for their contributions to this debate.