HC Deb 06 November 1978 vol 957 cc646-56

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

I am delighted to have the opportunity so early in the Session to raise in an Adjournment debate the subject of the plight of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic junior school, in my constituency. I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring it to the notice of the House, although I am sorry that I have to raise it on the Floor of the House, having been unsuccessful in trying to find a solution to the problem through correspondence with the Department of Education and Science.

I want to stress immediately that I believe that St. Joseph's is an excellent school. I believe that the head teacher, Mr. Ball, and his colleagues are doing a first-class job. I have certainly been very impressed, when I have visited the school and when I have talked to parents and pupils outside the school, and it is clear that it is doing a first-class job. The tragedy is that it is being done in a totally out-of-date and inadequate building. My fear is that the appalling workplace will eventually have a sapping effect on the energy of the staff, that it will sap their enthusiasm, and that in the end the efforts of the teachers, caretaker, school secretary and pupils will suffer because of the workplace.

It is a little difficult to discover precisely when St. Joseph's was built. Certainly, most of it was put together between 1900 and 1910. There are a few later additions. Today there are some major, glaring defects in the building. Let us look first at the toilet facilities. In a school with nearly 300 pupils there are for the boys two cubicles and one urinal, which is about 6 feet long, and for the girls there are five cubicles with partitions that would be much more suitable for an infants' school. There are nine washbasins. The toilet provision is very unsatisfactory. I am told that originally the school had some outside toilets, but they fell down and it was felt to be unreasonable to replace them.

I turn to the question of accommodation for the staff. The factory inspectorate insisted that one extra toilet was provided for the staff. Last term the staff did not do too badly. They had a staff room that was one of the class rooms. Although using it had many drawbacks, the situation was nothing like as bad as the situation this term. The staff now have nowhere for a staff room, as the classroom has been returned to teaching. They have to have their morning and afternoon breaks sitting in the school corridor.

It seems to me deplorable that teachers in a junior school who have to gaze at their pupils throughout their lessons should have no morning, dinner or afternoon break when they can get away for a minute or two from having the pupils watching their every move. It is only reasonable that they should have somewhere where they can at least be out of the gaze of the pupils for a few minutes while they have a cup of coffee or smoke a cigarette.

The classrooms in the oldest part of the building are divided by tall wooden partitions which do not look safe to someone coming in from outside, although I am assured that they are in fact perfectly safe and that there is no danger of their falling on the children. But they have long since ceased to be movable, and therefore have no advantages, and only disadvantages, in that they offer very little soundproofing between one classroom and the next.

The library is a typical example of the way in which the staff have worked hard to make facilities available out of nothing, but when all is said and done, however hard the staff have tried, the school library is only a corridor, and the lighting there is very unsatisfactory. But for lighting that the staff themselves have put in, the children would find it almost impossible to see the titles of the books, let alone sit down and read there.

There are four classrooms in which there are no power points. I have always believed that visual aids are very important in education and that the use of television and being able to show slides or films occasionally during lessons has a great advantage. But if there are no power points in classrooms, either it is impossible to do it without moving children from classroom to classroom or it is necessary to have long flexes trailing along corridors which are quite unsatisfactory from the safety point of view. Certainly it is impossible to put on some form of visual aid as a small exercise. It has to be a major event which in my view often reduces its effectiveness as a teaching aid.

It is said, of course, that the whole school needs completely rewiring because not only are the electrical points unsatisfactory in terms of numbers but, according to a local authority report, the wiring itself is extremely old and unsatisfactory, as is the lighting. But as eventually a new building has been promised, one can hardly justify at present putting in a new wiring system, and that is fairly typical of the problems which the school faces.

At the side of the school there is a substantial area of ground which was acquired for the building of a new school and for playing fields. But although a superficial glance at the area reveals what appears to be green and suitable for children to play games on, in fact it is merely soil tipped on top of the old demolished bricks. It is totally unsatisfactory as a playing field, and threading their way through the site there are even one or two of the old roads. Again, the local authority or the school managers can hardly be expected to spend even a small sum of money on tidying it up if in the not too distant future bulldozers are to move in and a new school is to be built.

This is the real problem in which the school is caught. It is caught in a system by which it cannot spend anything at present on small repairs or improvements because the money might be wasted if in a short time a major scheme were to come along. But for almost 20 years this process has been going on of not doing minor repairs and improvements because of the hope that in the not too distant future they would be unnecessary because there would be a new school and new playing fields.

Back in the 1960s, it was decided that it was pointless to go on repairing the outside toilets. The school needed replacing completely, so proposals were drawn up. Fortunately, it was found possible to include the school in the Government programme for the replacement of pre-1910 schools, and it was put firmly into the programme for the 1975–76 period. As a result, morale in the school rose. Everyone felt that for only a little longer would they have to put up with the total inadequacy of the school buildings and that very soon the builders would move in and start building a new school. The staff were consulted about facilities they would like to see in the new building, and their enthusiasm rose steadily.

Then, at one fell swoop, the Government cuts were introduced and the programme for replacing the pre-1910 schools disappeared. It was scrapped. Along with many other schools, St. Joseph's found that its place in a secure building programme had disappeared and, of course, during that period of high hopes few of the essential repairs had been done.

In 1977, the school governors reassessed the situation and decided at long last that they would have to do some minor repairs, and they actually carried out a number of them. But they did not get down to any major work, although they decided that in view of the Government cuts it was perhaps too much to expect the school to be rebuilt completely and that they ought to look at slightly more modest proposals. They got the architect to look at the school again, and he came to the conclusion that it might be remodelled, that much of the old building could be saved, although completely altered in its use and appearance, and that with some additional classroom space added and a school hall provided—there is no hall at present—the whole structure could be made satisfactory.

The Stockport local authority was asked to include these remodelled proposals in a building programme. The architect suggested that the scheme would cost between £190,000 and £200,000. The Stockport authority has decided that it might be able to find between £70,000 and £80,000 in 1981.

I do not wish to blame the Stockport local authority. I can often criticise its education policy, but I feel that it has no choice in its allocation of resources for school building. Most of the money that the authority has been given permission to spend in the next three years is committed merely to putting roofs over the heads of children living within new housing areas.

That is the old problem for the people of Reddish. They find that they have the old baths and other old facilities. Because they have something, inadequate though it is, and those on the new housing estates have nothing, they lose out. Most of Stockport's money for the next three years must be spent on providing schools where there are no schools at all or on the completion of secondary reorganisation, and particularly on providing secondary schools for Catholic children.

I cannot say that Stockport should reallocate its money. What I do say is that the Government should be considering restarting their programme of replacing pre-1914 schools. That programme should never have been cut. It was cut because of the severe economic difficulties of two and three years ago, but more resources should now be made available for that purpose.

It is difficult to explain to children in St. Joseph's school that their classroom is inadequate and needs rebuilding when they know that many of their out-of-work parents have building trade skills and could be used to replace the school.

I ask the Minister to say that the building programme for pre-1914 schools is to be restarted. If she cannot say that, I hope that she can say that schools such as St. Joseph's will be treated as special cases so that the church authorities are given permission to go ahead. If she cannot say that, I hope that she can at least say that in the next two or three months she will come to look at St. Joseph's to see the problems and discuss with the authorities ways in which they can be overcome. She could then take back to the Ministry the strong feelings of the people of Reddish that their school should no longer be neglected but given a high new priority.

10.13 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Margaret Jackson)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this problem. I know that the example of St. Joseph's school is reflected in many parts of the country. My hon. Friend is a conscientious Member. He is always anxious to remedy wrongs in his constituency.

I can appreciate the anxieties of parents and staff who, perhaps for many years, have looked for the replacement of schools such as St. Joseph's. I know that they face practical and physical difficulties in their efforts to raise educational standards when they lack so many elementary aids to education.

I know that St. Joseph's has a commendable sporting record, as well as a good academic record despite the difficulties. Unfortunately, the problems of St. Joseph's, which my hon. Friend outlined, represent an all too familiar story, particularly in the inner urban areas.

A departmental study of school buildings published by the Government last year estimated that of the 23,000 primary schools in England and Wales more than 8,000, or 20 per cent., were built before 1903. It showed that another 7 per cent. of the stock were built, like St. Joseph's, between 1903 and the First World War. As one might expect, these proportions are particularly high in areas of special social need, and such schools tend to suffer more from a number of severe deficiencies such as those that my hon. Friend outlined—overcrowding, poor environment, inadequate sites, outside toilets, poor or no facilities for the staff, and so on.

The study highlighted the great inadequacies in our school buildings generally and showed that if we were to bring all the schools that we are likely to need in 1986 up to standard it would cost about £1,200 million at November 1975 prices. My hon. Friend will therefore realise that St. Joseph's is not an isolated case and that we cannot solve problems of this order overnight.

It is particularly unfortunate that at this time the Government are facing economic difficulties and have been unable to make available capital building programmes of the kind that we might wish to see. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the resources that are available have had to go chiefly towards meeting basic needs; in other words, towards providing places in areas where otherwise there would literally be no room in schools for the new pupils who wish to attend them—areas where the pupil population is still growing.

Meeting that basic need has left very little for improvement or replacement of the kind that would benefit St. Joseph's, and in 1979–80 we have had to limit the allocation nationally for these purposes to £11 million. Even within that total, a certain amount has been reserved to enable some authorities to proceed with work which is essential for secondary reorganisation, a principle with which I know my hon. Friend has great sympathy. This therefore means even less money being available for schools that face the problems confronting St. Joseph's. We accept that the level of resources available for work of this kind is insufficient to help out schools in the difficult position in which St. Joseph's finds itself. This is, however, a necessary accompaniment of public expenditure restraint, and one with which we must cope to some degree.

We hope to be able to allow local authorities at least to make a start in tackling the problems that we have outlined in our general study of school buildings. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is certainly doing her utmost to secure additional resources for this end.

In 1979–80, Stockport's allocation for school building is just over £750,000, and, as my hon. Friend will know, it is entirely for the local education authority to decide how the money is to be spent. Officers of the authority are to meet my officials this week to discuss this and other problems, but I understand that there are two basic major needs projects in the borough. One is a question of roofs over heads, involving both a primary and a secondary school, and priority may have to be given to making provision in the borough for Roman Catholic pupils to stay on after the age of 16.

That may mean that the allocation will not allow the authority to programme all the projects that it would wish, and that therefore replacement and improvement schemes like that of St. Joseph's will once again be found, if not at the end of the queue, certainly not at its head.

We understand the difficulties that authorities face in circumstances of this kind, and we and our officials are always willing to meet them to discuss the problems to see what we can do to help to solve them. However, as my hon. Friend will realise, no amount of discussion will substitute for adequate funds being made available.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will my hon. Friend agree to come and look at St. Joseph's, perhaps in the next couple of months when she is in the North-West?

Miss Jackson

I shall come to my hon. Friend's request in a moment.

The background to my remarks about the general problem of which St. Joseph's is only a part means that no firm commitment can be given at the moment on the future of the school, although I understand that the authority has a minor works project programmed for 1980–81.

I recognise the difficulty that my hon. Friend has outlined. There is a difficult decision to be made about whether it is worth while to pursue minor works projects rather than a general replacement programme. It is my understanding that discussions are still going on between the managers of the school, the authority and the Salford diocesan authorities about the project best suited to the needs of St. Joseph's. Perhaps it would be unwise to anticipate what decision will be made about remodelling, or a totally new building, or a combination of both.

I assure my hon. Friend that my officials and our architects, as well as Her Majesty's Inspectorate, are always available to advise on the best choice in these matters if those involved locally feel that it would be useful. In the meantime, I gather than projects are going ahead to provide additional accommodation at the infants section of St. Joseph's and that the authority places a high priority on the junior school's electrical problems, outlined by my hon. Friend. Its proposed rewiring project will tackle some of the problems that he has detailed.

There are no quick and easy solutions to the problems posed by schools such as St. Joseph's. The authority and the diocese have to reach their own conclusions in cases of this kind. Nationally, there are the difficulties faced by the older primary schools, particularly those with a range of deficiencies, which have to be examined in the long term. It is our hope that more funds will become available for remodelling and replacement projects, perhaps this year, and certainly in the years ahead. At present I cannot give my hon. Friend an assurance on this matter. He will understand that the relevant decisions have not yet been taken.

The question of starting a national replacement programme is dear to my own heart and that of the Secretary of State. There is nothing that we would like better than to have money available to enable us to provide not only the basic programmes of spending for roofs over heads but to be able to make a substantial start on replacement and improvement projects, wherever they may be. We are not at present able to say when such a programme will start.

My hon. Friend made the point about St. Joseph's being a special case. To some extent this depends upon the level of resources generally available. He asked whether I would come and look at St. Joseph's. I suspect, although I have not looked up its specific address, that I am already fairly familiar with St. Josephs, and certainly its area. This is an area with which I have been familiar from my childhood.

I cannot guarantee that I shall visit St. Joseph's on a particular date. I am sure my hon. Friend realises that in every part of the country—whether it is a replacement project, an improvement project, a reorganisation project, a closure or an opening—there is no group which does not call upon myself or the Secretary of State, preferably both, asking us to see the site and the local problems. I am fairly well acquainted with the problems faced by St. Joseph's and the area generally. If I pass through the area I shall certainly have a look at the site. I cannot say that I shall specifically visit St. Joseph's. If I gave that assurance I should be unable to set foot in this House or my constituency from now until the end of this Session because of similar commitments which would arise in respect of other hon. Members.

I have great sympathy with the difficulties faced by St. Joseph's and by my hon. Friend as a constituency Member. We aim to solve these problems. As with many other things, they are inextricably linked with the economic wellbeing of this country. This is something which we cannot jeopardise, even for such a worthy project as this.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Ten o'clock.