11. The Education and Inspections Bill, which was introduced in Parliament on 28 February 2005, includes measures concerning the establishment, discontinuance or alteration of schools in England. The Bill contains specific proposals to enable all schools to acquire self-governing status, and the support of a charitable Trust (formed by a business, faith group, university, successful local school or a local voluntary, community or parent group). The Trust will hold land and buildings in trust for the benefit of the school and will be able to appoint a majority of governors. One implication of these measures is that, in future, many more schools may operate outside local education authority (LEA) control, being their own admission authority with responsibility for managing their own admission arrangements, including the appeals process.
12. In our earlier Special Report on School Admission and Exclusion Appeal Panels (Cm 5788) we specifically highlighted our concerns about the operation of appeal panels for foundation and voluntary-aided schools, particularly as regards:
13. We recommended that all admission appeals, including those for foundation and voluntary-aided schools, should be managed and run by LEAs regionally. In its response the Department said "Had the recommendation been for voluntary-aided and foundation school appeals to be handled by LEAs at LEA level, it would have found majority support. But there is still significant opposition from those schools and their representatives, so even this move would require controversial legislation, for which we have no plans".
14. As we mentioned in our last Report the admission appeals process was also heavily criticised by the Education and Skills Committee of the House of Commons in its 2004 report "Secondary Education: School Admissions" (HC 58-1), which also highlighted for particular criticism the appeal panels for voluntary-aided and foundation schools, urging, as we did, that all appeals should be managed by LEAs.
15. It is therefore particularly disappointing that once again the Department has failed to take the opportunity to address both our and the Select Committee's concerns about admission appeal panels for foundation and voluntary-aided schools. This could easily have been achieved by including a provision in the Bill to transfer the management and operation of all school admission appeals to LEAs, which, as the Department acknowledged in the response to our Special Report, would have found majority support.
16. We were consulted by the Department on an update to the School Admission Appeals Code of Practice, which aimed to clarify and strengthen the guidance to which both appeal panels and parents look for advice. We submitted a number of detailed comments, the most significant of which included:
17. Ministers decided subsequently not to issue the updated Code of Practice and we understand that a more thorough revision of the Code is taking place, on which we look forward to being consulted in due course.
18. As we mentioned in our last Report we have continued to support and promote the wider proliferation of the networking groups of the Education Appeals Support Initiative (EASI), which comprise groups of appeal clerks who meet regularly to share their experiences and examples of best practice. We identified the need for a networking group in London and to this end jointly sponsored a workshop for admission and exclusion appeal clerks from across the London boroughs. The event was well attended with only one or two boroughs not being represented. Speakers included a member of the Council, a representative of the existing EASI network, Information for Schools and College Governors (ISCG), the Disability Rights Commission and the Department for Education and Skills.
19. The outcome of the workshop was a unanimous agreement to establish an EASI group for London based appeals clerks. The group meets at our offices in Chancery Lane, which are easily accessible to clerks from across the London boroughs.
20. Our Diversity sub-group also had a useful meeting with representatives from across the EASI network to discuss how the constitution of the appeal panels might better reflect the diversity of the population they serve. The meeting included a wide-ranging discussion of the problem of attracting applications for membership of appeal panels from minority ethnic groups, particularly since the role is voluntary and unpaid. A number of positive suggestions were discussed, including:
21. The group plans to meet again later in the year to monitor progress and consider the scope for issuing some good practice guidance to assist other appeals clerks across the country in attracting a more diverse panel membership.
22. We facilitated a training seminar for panel chairs and clerks jointly with the organisation Information for School and College Governors (ISCG). The seminar's aims were:
23. The seminar, which was initially over-subscribed, was well attended on the day. Feedback from those who attended the seminar was positive and we hope that ISCG will be able to continue these useful one-off events since there is clearly a demand for them.
24. We were, therefore, disappointed to learn that the Department for Education and Skills was no longer providing funding for ISCG, particularly since ISCG has been instrumental in securing significant improvements in the provision and delivery of training for school admission and exclusion appeal panel members in recent years. Our Chairman raised our concerns in writing with the then Minister for Schools, Jacqui Smith MP, who replied that the department's funding for ISCG was never intended to be open-ended and the contract with ISCG had run its course. This response fails to recognise that ISCG's training material will quickly become obsolete unless it is kept up to date, which ISCG will be unable to do without funding. It will be regrettable if all the excellent work that ISCG has done over the past few years in the provision and delivery of training for panel members were to be undone for the sake of relatively modest funding.
25. Rosemary, Lady Hughes, President of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST), published what would be the last Annual Report to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, pending the transfer of SENDIST to the Tribunals Service under the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Our Social Affairs Committee is meeting with Lady Hughes to discuss the headline issues in her Report, including the reasons for:
26. Our member who represents the interests of people in Wales attended one of the user group meetings run by the Special Educational Needs Tribunal for Wales (SENTW). The tribunal runs three user groups covering South, mid and North Wales and meetings are usually chaired by the SENTW President, Rhiannon Ellis Walker. Our member reported on a rewarding meeting, which was welcomed enthusiastically by those attending.
27. We reported last year on our attendance at a SENTW mock hearing training event and have learned that a DVD of the hearing is being produced for those interested in seeing how the tribunal operates and what happens on the day of a hearing. It is impressive what can be achieved by a relatively small tribunal like SENTW in the provision of better information and advice for its users, which is a good example of best practice for other tribunals to follow.
28. We produced a special "education" edition of our electronic newsletter Adjust, which comprised news and articles about the education appeals world, including:
29. Our aim in producing this special edition was to help support and promote the sharing of best practice and provide a medium for networking and sharing of experiences within the world of education appeals.