Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con):
I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), on securing a debate on something that is acutely important in her constituency. She has brought her prodigious energies-
I experience a similar problem in Harpenden, particularly with secondary education. Year after year, initial applications exceed the places available in the three excellent and popular schools. The outcome is invariably, after the continuing interest arrangements have come into force or additional places have been made available, that every parent and pupil does get a place at the school of their choice, but they go through a long period of uncertainty. I have obtained an assurance from the county councillor, Keith Emsell, who has been extremely helpful, that he will, if insufficient places are
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available through the continuing interest process, negotiate with local schools to expand capacity so that extra places can be created. He cannot, however, give an absolute guarantee.
I want the Minister to address whether there is some way to avoid putting parents and pupils through this harrowing process when, at the end of the day, we have always been able to accommodate them. Why cannot we offer a guarantee at the beginning, rather than the end? If, as I believe, national rules are to some extent hampering the ability of the county to offer such a guarantee, will she consider altering those rules? It seems that, in the first place, the county has to negotiate with schools. Secondly, if they negotiate before the process starts and expand capacity, that cannot be done on a provisional basis. That expanded capacity, if it is too great, results in places being made available for people out of the area and then, in subsequent years, their siblings can take places, thus making the situation more acute. Will the Minister address those problems-perhaps she can write to me-so that we can see whether we can avoid giving families and children that harrowing experience and causing them unnecessary distress summer after summer?