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Harriett Baldwin responds to Private Member’s Bill debate

7th November 2014

Harriett Baldwin responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on a Private Member’s Bill that seeks to ensure pupils with a parent with a terminal or seriously disabling illness receive priority in the school admissions process.

The Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): It is a great honour for me to respond to the Bill on behalf of the Secretary of State for Education, who specifically requested that I do so. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for raising what is a very important issue. His constituents in Christchurch and Mudeford are fortunate to have as their MP someone who is a doughty champion of local issues on their behalf. We heard evidence of that in his opening remarks; he has already achieved a fantastic result for his constituents, Mr and Mrs Amey. I am sure they are delighted that their son, George, has been able to join his sibling at the Mudeford junior school, and I am pleased to hear that that constituency case was resolved on appeal.

I must also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for being legendary in this House for using the vehicles available to all Back Benchers in the form of private Member’s Bills to raise substantial and important issues on behalf of his constituents. Even today he has demonstrated his ingenuity in this regard by having not just this Bill on the Order Paper, but several further Bills: the Illegal Immigrants (Criminal Sanctions) Bill, whose Second Reading debate was adjourned on 24 October; the House of Lords (Maximum Membership) Bill, which he hopes will have its Second Reading today; and the EU Membership (Audit of Costs and Benefits) Bill, which is also due its Second Reading. That is just a small sample of the various different Bills on important issues he has been able to raise on behalf of his constituents through his great knowledge and understanding of parliamentary methodology.

As my hon. Friend said, the Bill before us is fairly short even by the standards of brevity we often see with private Members’ business. In its two short clauses it makes

“provision to ensure that pupils with a parent with a terminal or seriously disabling illness receive priority in the admissions process to maintained schools in England.”

The word “England” is used because my hon. Friend makes very clear in his Bill that his proposed changes would extend to England only. It is important to highlight that, as it shows how much proposed legislation, particularly on education, now comes forward that covers only England. I know he shares my enthusiasm for ensuring that we as a Parliament are in future able to ensure that those who represent English constituencies, such as Christchurch, can carry forward legislation that applies to England only.

I would like now to set out the Government’s views on the Bill before us. We believe my hon. Friend’s proposals are already covered by the existing provisions in the statutory schools admissions code and its supporting legislation. I have with me a copy of that code, published in February 2012, and I would like to draw his attention to paragraph 1.16, as it is important that we look at exactly what the code currently says. This effectively gives some discretion to local authorities but encourages them to take into account social and medical need in a situation such as the one he so eloquently described, where a particular set of circumstances needs to be taken into account.

Paragraph 1.16 of the school admissions code states that, if admission authorities decide to use social and medical need as an oversubscription criterion, they

“must set out in their arrangements the criteria against which places will be allocated at the school”.

They must state how they will define the need and give clear details of any supporting evidence that will be required, such as a letter from a doctor or social worker. They must then make consistent decisions based on the evidence provided. In the example given by my hon. Friend, I believe it would have been possible for Mr and Mrs Amey to provide that level of medical detail in order to support the case of their son, George.

As I have said, the school admissions code was published in February 2012, and the Government consulted on further, limited revisions to the code this summer. I note that one of the respondents to the consultation was my hon. Friend’s own county council. He did not respond to the consultation in person, however, and I regret to tell him that it closed on 29 September. I confess I do not have a copy of the response of Dorset county council children’s services in front of me, but evidence will be available on the Department for Education’s website. I would be happy to let my hon. Friend know what his county council’s response was, if it did not send him a copy at the time, in order to reassure him that it is engaging fully with the Department and is keen to ensure, as he is, that his constituents are able to access their preferred school.

Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that the Government carried out a consultation on the content of a revised code between 22 July and 29 September. Given that the Bill was ordered by the House of Commons to be printed on 7 July, which I think would have been the date of its First Reading, will she tell us whether the consultation took its content into account?

Harriett Baldwin: I thank my hon. Friend for his pertinent question. I understand that the Bill received its First Reading earlier this year. One would like to think that, although the views expressed in the Bill were not formally a part of the 444 responses to the consultation, they would none the less be taken into account by the Department. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will also have sent a letter on behalf of his constituents under the previous Secretary of State. The 444 responses are listed in the back of the Government document. I looked through it earlier to see whether the Bill was included in the responses, and I can confirm that it is not specifically mentioned in the Government’s documentation. However, he has used the mechanism of this proposed legislative change to make his views known.

I can summarise the results of the consultation for my hon. Friend. They have resulted in the Government proposing specific, limited revisions to the admissions code. As I have said, 444 written responses were received by 29 September, and the Government have held discussions with interested groups. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) asked whether discussions had taken place with people with specific caring responsibilities. Having looked through the list of 444 responses, I note that none of the organisations stood out as the kind of organisation that he would put into that category. I can assure him, however, that discussions are ongoing with all the interested groups with a view to meeting their needs for the admission code. I hope that that answers his question.

The overriding aim of the code is to ensure that admission authorities have clear, objective and fair oversubscription criteria. It is for the authorities themselves to decide which criteria to adopt, but the code sets out the most common ones, including giving priority based on social and medical need. I have drawn the House’s attention to the fact that that is set out in paragraph 1.16 of the code.

The Government want children to be able to attend a school of their parents’ choice whenever possible but, when a school receives more applications than it has places available, we believe that those places must be allocated in accordance with the school’s published oversubscription criteria. I am pleased to say that the vast majority of parents are offered a place for their child at their preferred school. In the most recent entry year, 2014, 86.5% of parents in England were offered a place at their first preference school. In addition, 95.6% of children—so nearly 97%—were offered a place at one of their top three preferences, and 96.6% were offered a place at any of their preferred schools.

The Government have just agreed to some specific, limited revisions to the code. They are designed to improve the fair and open allocation of places and, it is worth emphasising, to support fair access for the most disadvantaged children and provide additional clarity to some provisions that had not been found to be completely clear. The limited time scale did prevent more substantial changes from being considered but, subject to parliamentary approval, which we hope is imminent, the revised code will come into force on 19 December.

Mr Chope: Will my hon. Friend confirm that if the revised code includes the same expression of “social and medical need”, that will cover the need of a parent and not just of a child?

Harriett Baldwin: I thank my hon. Friend for, again, being assiduous on behalf of his constituents on that drafting. He has a copy of the code in front of him, as I do. I have read the wording from paragraph 1.16 into the record, and it is my view that individual schools would have some latitude on taking into account social and medical need because of the following wording:

“If admission authorities decide to use social and medical need”.

He would like things spelt out in statutory legislation, but the wording allows admission authorities some leeway without putting things on to a statutory footing. I reassure him that we will evaluate the impact of the new proposals once they have come into effect, and will certainly do that ahead of any future revision of the code. We will examine his proposal, along with any others made as part of the process. On the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), one thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has clearly done by highlighting this issue today is ensure that the circumstances he has described so eloquently are fed into that ongoing review of the code.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) touched on other aspects of the code. The code only requires that priority be given to a specific group of vulnerable people: those with a statement of special educational needs or an education, health and care plan naming the school; looked-after children; and previously looked-after children. Beyond that, the code states that admissions authorities must have their oversubscription criteria clearly, objectively and fairly set out. It is for admission authorities to decide exactly which oversubscription criteria to adopt, but the code does set out the most common criteria.

The Government believe that paragraph 1.16 is a broad provision, which can be interpreted to cover the social and medical condition of the child, the parent or both. We have no definitive data on this, but we do know anecdotally and from correspondence to the Department that a number of admission authorities do use social and medical criteria in their oversubscription criteria. At this point, I cannot say from the Dispatch Box whether Dorset county council is one of those, but I would be happy to follow this up and write to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch about it. We believe it is for admission authorities to decide whether to adopt these criteria and, where they do, to decide what ranking they should have, based on local needs and circumstances.

Any proposal requiring that all admissions authorities must give priority to pupils with a parent with a terminal or seriously disabling illness would require a change to the statutory code and the supporting legislation. It is not the Department’s intention at the moment to do that, other than in terms of the minor adjustments the Government have agreed to in the consultation that has just been responded to.

The overarching aim of our changes is to improve the fair and open allocation of school places. The changes are intended to provide greater freedom to schools and to clarify some of the existing provisions. For example, they allow all state-funded schools to give priority in their admission arrangements to children eligible for pupil or service pupil premium funding. In this of all weeks, it is important to emphasise the way in which the Government have tried to make it easier for the children of our armed forces to get an education in the school of their parents’ choice.

The changes also allow all admission authorities of primary schools to give priority in their admission arrangements to children eligible for the pupil or service pupil premium who attended a nursery that is part of the school. As part of that change, barriers to schools offering optional wrap-around care will be removed or reduced by ensuring that any charges paid by parents for such child care would not prevent their children from being prioritised.

The Government intend to make the following minor changes: to revise the timetable for admission arrangements; to bring forward dates for admission authorities to consult locally and to reduce the duration of such a consultation from eight weeks to just six weeks; to require the admission authorities to amend their admission arrangements to comply with the code within two months of a decision by the school’s adjudicator where the adjudicator rules that the arrangements are unlawful; to clarify the provisions relating to the admission of summer-born children to aid decision-making for admission authorities. I am sure that everyone is familiar with the particular challenges faced by children who are born towards the end of August, and the question over which year at school they should be entered. Madam Deputy Speaker, I note that you are vigorously nodding your head in agreement. I am pleased to draw your attention to that particular clarification.

Other minor changes include: extending priority for admission to all previously looked after children—I am talking about children not only who are currently being looked after but who have previously, at any time, been looked after—and making a number of minor technical drafting changes to improve the clarity of certain existing provisions. For example, we wish to make it explicit to parents that their child is entitled to a full-time place in reception.

I have run through some of the minor changes to the admissions code that the Government will bring forward. I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that his case is exactly what paragraph 1.16 of the code is designed to address. I know that he has been fantastically effective at not only representing his constituents in this particular case but using the vehicle of the private Member’s Bill and the full armoury of this House to raise, on behalf of his constituents as their voice in Parliament, these important matters. Having outlined the limited changes that we propose to make to the code, which will take effect on 19 December 2014, I hope that my hon. Friend will see that the case and the circumstances of his constituents are exactly those that the code is designed to cover.

I am happy to go through some more examples that would be covered by the school admissions code. I think I have answered the questions of the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, and of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.

Given the comprehensive nature of my remarks, I hope that I have convinced my hon. Friend that we do not need to move forward on a legislative basis. The extensive school admissions code, which runs to more than 38 pages, covers the situation that he described on behalf of his constituents. I therefore urge him to withdraw the motion.

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