HC Deb 09 July 1968 vol 768 cc485-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper]

4.50 a.m.

Mr. Peter Kirk (Saffron Walden)

I apologise for detaining the House just a little longer at this very early hour of the morning, and apologise to the right hon. Lady for asking her to stay here to answer this debate because of the short notice I was able to give her about it.

The subject I wish to raise, though not of the wide-ranging importance of that we have been discussing, is, nevertheless, of very great importance to large numbers of my constituents. It concerns the rather complicated story of the secondary school at Great Dunmow, a story which I have tried to unravel myself and which I hope the right hon. Lady can asist me in unravelling a little further.

The school was built on this site in 1958, and was finally completed with a four-form entry for 600 children in 1960. It soon became apparent that a school of this size would not be able to serve the expanding needs of the area, and by 1964 the report of Her Majesty's inspector showed that the number of school children stood at 643, the lowest figure for that year, and that in September, 1964, it was expected to have risen to 720. The inspector said this was well outstripping the accommodation, and that the school would also be subject to still greater pressure as increase in entry advanced. So, three years ago, it was obvious that the school was already overcrowded, and likely to get more overcrowded as time went on.

It may well be asked why nothing was done about it. The story was that when the previous Government announced their provisional intention to expand the airport at Stansted, their provisional plan contained a lateral runway which had nothing to do with the two parallel runways—later the subject of discussion—and that this lateral runway would have ended just outside the back door of the Great Dunmow school.

The local authority rightly thought in these circumstances that it was not possible for it to consider an extension to the school, but the lateral runway was dropped from the airport plans, and, in consequence, there appeared to be no reason why an extension to the school should not go on.

It was decided by the county council to increase the school to a six-form entry instead of a four-form entry, thus providing another 200 places which it was felt would cope with the expected expansion. But when the matter was looked at again in relation to the capital programme for the school year 1967–68, as I understand the plan was then that this extension should be taken into consideration with the proposal to raise the school-leaving age, and that the school should be expanded to eight-form entry with 1,320 pupils, at a cost of£142,445. Then there is the raising of the school-leaving age, which was dropped. The situation now appears to be that no proposal whatsoever exists in any capital programme to expand the school.

I had a Question to the Secretary of State on 27th June. The right hon. Lady told me: We are unable to authorise this school to start this year because of the prior claim of schools to meet more urgent needs. We will be ready to consider it for the 1969–70 programme but I cannot say at this stage what the outcome will be."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th June, 1968;Vol. 767, c. 800.] When I asked what were the more urgent needs, all I got was a helpful answer, which did not answer my Question, telling me how much Essex had spent on education. I am not quarrelling with the county council, which has done the best it can. It keeps putting the school in the programme, and the Ministry keeps taking it out. I want to ensure that the school goes into the programme and stays there.

What puzzled me about the right hon. Lady's reply was that I had already received a letter from her on 19th March this year in which she said: The Essex education authority have submitted the project in their revised proposals and have assured us of the urgent need. We shall certainly consider it for inclusion in the review programme for 1968–69, but I cannot yet say what the outcome will be. Only three months later she was saying that it is not in the 1968–69 programme and does not know whether it will be in the 1969–70 programme. What happened between March, when we were to consider it for 1968–69, and 27th June, when we cannot even be definite about whether it will be considered for 1969–70?

The right hon. Lady should be clear what the situation in the school now is. Her Majesty's inspector, in 1964, noted that by September of that year the school would have 720 pupils, well outstripping the accommodation. In February this year it had 748 pupils, 148 more than is provided for. In September, this year's entry will raise the number of children to 804. Two classes are now being taught in demountable classrooms, some classes have occasionally to be taught in the corridors, two classes are being taught in a disused, substandard, abandoned primary school five miles away, sixth-form work is being done in a caravan provided by the parents of some of the children, and one class is being taught in the staff room. The right hon. Lady tells me that there are more urgent cases in Essex. I should be interested to hear where in rural Essex there is a more urgent one.

The prospect, therefore, is of another 60 children coming in this September and raising the total from 748 to 804. I do not think that this is a situation which can be allowed to run on with merely the prospect that perhaps there will be a chance of getting something in the estimates for 1969–70. I urge the right hon. Lady to realise that there is no alternative relief available. All the neighbouring secondary schools at Braintree, Chelmsford and Saffron Walden are full and cannot take any more children from Great Dunmow. In July this year the new sewerage works in the area was complete, with the result that new residential development over the whole area, particularly at Great Dunmow and the neighbouring villages of Felsted and Barnston, held up for 10 years, will go ahead, and so pressure on the school will grow even heavier.

While it is too much to expect the right hon. Lady to tell me any definite news tonight, I hope she will realise the extent of the urgency of the school situation and perhaps press upon her Department the need for some fairly rapid action. Otherwise, the school will simply burst at the seams.

5.0 a.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Miss Alice Bacon)

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) has described the position at the Great Dunmow secondary school and I know that the conditions are broadly as he stated. The extension of this school from a four-form entry school to a six-form entry school at a cost of£166,000 was included in the 1967–68 building programme. School building programmes are reckoned from 1st April to 31st March and since this school was included in the 1967–68 programme it was open to the Essex authority at any time between 1st April, 1967, and 31st March, 1968, to start the school. But this it did not do.

In January, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the postponement of the raising of the school-leaving age, the object of which was to save the money which was to have been spent on buildings for that purpose in the next two years. Local authorities had been allocated£36 million for each of the years 1968–69 and 1969–70, but this was partly offset by£7 million in each of the two years to help with secondary reorganisation.

Every year, local authorities have a building backlog of schools which have been in the previous year's programme and which for some reason they have not managed to start. This school was in the 1967–68 programme and could have been started by Essex at any time during that year. But the position was altered by the effect of having to take away the money which had been allocated for the raising of the school-leaving age.

It was clear that, unless we had taken some action, the local authorities would have been able to build as much from their backlog as the Government were saving by postponing the raising of the school-leaving age. So the Department issued a circular saying that those schools which were not started by 31st March, 1968, would have to be resubmitted for the 1968–69 programmes. Since about£29 million had to be taken out of the building programme which had already been allocated for 1968–69, it was only right that local authorities should be given a chance to state their priorities in the light of the new circumstances.

As I have said, Essex could have started this school at any time up to 31st March, 1968, but it did not do so because it was not ready to start and it therefore had to take its chance in the 1968–69 building programme. The local authority included the school in its revised proposals, but not as No. 1 priority, for 1968–69 as being justified in terms of meeting urgent basic need and as being essential to secondary reorganisation in the area.

But I must stress—and this to some extent answers the hon. Gentleman's queries—that when we considered these proposals, together with the proposals from the rest of the local authorities in February, it was doubtful whether the school would be ready to start within the programme year—that is, up to spring, 1969. The sketch plans had not been completed so that the timetable for the subsequent planning and tendering stages to allow a start before 1st April, 1969, was very tight.

The hon. Gentleman asked what school was more urgent. We had to survey the whole country and there were some schools of equal urgency where the local authorities were ready to go ahead at once. These other schools were just as urgently needed and could certainly start before the Dunmow school could start and they had to be given priority. If this school could not have been started, say, until about February, 1969—I am merely using this date as an example—the difference between it being in the 1968–69 programme and the 1969–70 programme could probably have been only a matter of two months.

The authority has been invited to submit its proposals for schools to start in the 1969–70 programme. If it includes this school, and it probably will, its claims for a place in the programme in terms of meeting basic needs will be carefully considered, but, of course, we have to survey the whole country, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would expect me to go further than that tonight. However, as the secondary reorganisation scheme approved for the area envisages an intake in 1969, the school may also be eligible for a share of the special£7 million added to the 1969–70 programme to help reorganisation.

Again, I say that when we were considering it in the light of the£7 million for the 1968–69 programme, we had to bear in mind that it was not ready to start, whereas other urgent projects in the rest of the country were ready to start immediately. This school can, therefore, be considered on two counts. If it is included, a start can be made early in the programme year beginning April, 1969, and little time will have been lost, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will realise that I cannot give any assurance at this time.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that in my answer I referred to what Essex was getting. Essex is getting a total of£2 million worth of starts in 1968–69, with 15 primary and seven secondary schools. These were the schools submitted by the Essex authority. I am pleased that tonight the hon. Gentleman has stated his case fairly and has not sought to make capital out of the general school building position. I should like to tell the House that a very great deal of school building is going on. In 1964, the value of school building projects under construction in England and Wales was£145 million; on 1st January, 1968, it was£152 million; and on 31st March, 1968, it was£193 million, so that nearly£200 million worth of school building is going on.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are going on with this large school building programme and that Essex is getting a fair share. We have considered the Dunmow proposal. I know the difficulties there. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any specific assurance for the future, but I think that he will realise what I meant when I talked about more urgent projects. There were those which were ready to go ahead immediately, whereas the Dunmow school was not. It was placed in the 1967–68 programme, which shows that the Stansted development had nothing to do with it. We put it in the programme, but for some reason, probably beyond the control of the Essex authority, it was not started before the deadline of 1st April, this year, and that meant that it had to be considered in next year's programme.

It was doubtful that it would be able to be started before nearly the end of the programme year; but we shall soon be considering proposals for the 1969–70 programme and I cannot go further than that this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Five o'clock.