HC Deb 08 February 1984 vol 53 cc994-1002

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

11.30 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the question of the reorganisation of secondary schools in Liverpool.

I wish to begin my remarks by putting the matter into its historical context. The problem goes back to the very early and mid-1960s. At that time, politicians and planners were ripping the heart out of the city of Liverpool, displacing communities and laying waste whole areas through their scorched earth policies. The population displacement of those days is at the root of the city's problems today.

The decline in population has lost the city valuable ratepayers and, with them, valuable rate support grant. It has also lost contributing members of the community and led to the city having an ageing population. Indeed, the fastest growing group in Liverpool is the over-80s, and one quarter of the people are now over retirement age. That has coincided with a falling birth rate.

While some planners and politicians were embarking on the construction of vast municipal Bantustans that stretched facelessly between the railway lines and cemeteries, having shanghaied people to the outskirts of the city, others were building a whole variety of new municipal projects in the city. They were embarking on plans for inner ring roads and motorways, civic centres, high-rise blocks and massive schools. They were all pie-in-the-sky schemes and dreams that were to turn into ratepayers' nightmares.

Bigger did not necessarily mean better. It meant that small schools, small hospitals and small police stations closed, resulting in large faceless institutions that were far away from the people that they served. The education policy of the 1960s led to the creation of a massive school for 2,000 children in the very heart of the city. It currently has fewer than 300 children. That is at the root of the problems, which have been compounded by the falling birth rate.

In the building to which I referred, which has some of the best educational plant available, we see a monument to the municipal dictators who arrogantly believed that they knew best. That school is in the ward that I have represented from 1972, and in the constituency that I have represented since 1979. It was a great white hope that became a great white elephant.

In the mid-1970s the education committee recognised the need for rationalisation because of the falling birth rate and the small number of desks being filled. That is why the authority brought forward two plans. One was rejected in 1979 when Mrs. Shirley Williams was Secretary of State for Education and Science, and the other was rejected by the right hon. and learned Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Carlisle) when he was Secretary of State.

Those plans should not have been rejected; they should have been passed. There was little parental opposition to them in the city. I regret that a small number of people intimidated the then Minister with responsibility for Merseyside and threatened violence if that large inner city school was closed. They had their way and blackmail, bullying and bludgeoning became the order of the day. If those plans had been accepted, the city would not have the school reorganisation problems that it now faces.

The characteristics of those plans were the same as the alternative strategy that I recently put to the Minister when he was kind enough to meet delegations from the city. I pay tribute to the patience that he showed and his unfailing courtesy in meeting many groups of people with differing views. We are grateful to him for that. Many people in Liverpool would extend a welcoming invitation to him if he wished to come and see for himself the schools affected by the plans. I recognise and appreciate that in his current quasi-judicial capacity it will be difficult for him to comment in detail on the plans today, but as 70,000 people have objected to the plans he will not be surprised that I now put to him the alternative view of those who are worried about the proposals before him.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Alton

I have intimated to the Chair that I would give way to one of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends who approached me before the debate, and I intend to do so later. As I have allocated the limited time at my disposal with that in mind, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I mean no discourtesy in not giving way now.

The characteristics of the two plans and the Liberal party alternative that we put to the Minister are the same. They are based on choice. This is not the old argument about selective versus non-selective schools. All but one of the schools in the city of Liverpool affected by this plan are non-selective. It is about parental choice. In the late 1970s, when I was a member of the education committee in Liverpool, we abolished catchment areas around primary schools. As a result, about 98 per cent. of parents in the city can now send their children to the school of their first choice. That will no longer be the case if these plans go through. The Liberal party takes the view that the strong schools should be allowed to survive and those that parents have rejected should be allowed to wither on the vine. We believe that the people of Liverpool are canny enough to choose the schools that are best for their children.

The characteristics of the Labour proposals, however, are based on dictatorial dogmatism, disregard for parental preference and a levelling down that takes no account of academic excellence, standards, discipline or achiev-ement. I draw attention to the statistics that the Minister gave in answer to questions that I tabled towards the end of last year. Paddington school in the inner city, which I mentioned earlier, currently has 267 children on the roll although it was built for 2,000. This year 28 people in the entire city gave that school as their first choice, although 180 places were available. That school achieved 19 O-level passes and not one A-level. Aigburth Vale girls' school, which would be closed under the Labour plan, has 698 children on the roll and there were 145 applications for the 120 places available. That school achieved 198 O- level passes and 30 A-levels.

The same pattern is repeated when one compares Yew Tree school and Childwell Valley school or Speke school and HiIlfoot Hey school. There is a high standard of academic excellence and a good attendance record at the schools that would be closed under the scheme but poor examination results and poor attendance at those to be consolidated, despite the fact that parents have rejected them.

The Secretary of State says that excellence should be the criterion and that success should be built on success. If he believes that, he should reject the proposals. The incidence of absenteeism alone shows that some schools do not have the confidence of parents or their children. The former chairman of the Liverpool education committee, Councillor Michael Storey, tells me that the schools with the worst atendance recordds — three that I have mentioned—are those to be consolidated and kept open.

The North West Regional Society of Education Officers recently published a report shocking that in some schools where measurements were taken during one week, there was 40 per cent. absenteeism, including truancy of about 8 per cent., another 12 per cent. being absent without their parents' consent, and another 3 per cent. oversleeping and being late. Clearly, that is a matter for concern. It contrasts sharply with the figures currently offered by the department of education in Liverpool. Those alarming figures must be examined by the authority, even it if disagrees with the way in which the education officers conducted the survey. It is a reputable organisation and cannot be dismissed as being out of touch or lacking in understanding of education.

According to the society's figures, truancy is eight times higher than the levels to which the local authority admits, and absenteeism if four times higher. The local authority fails to keep monthly returns of attendance, which is to be regretted. I hope that it will do something about that.

The schools that will be consolidated in this plan are those which cost most. The example of Paddington school which I gave costs £500,000 a year to run, and the cost of educating one child there is one third as much again as the cost of educating a child in some of the schools that will be closed.

Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and the Minister for allowing me to intervene in the debate. If we are to evaluate the position, the facts must be placed before the House. During the past 10 years the Liberals and Tories who ran Liverpool destroyed it and its education system. They shied away from the reorganisation that was necessary because of falling rolls and the under-usage of buildings. For purely electoral reasons, Liberal councillors shied away from reorganisa-tion, and their neglect and political cowardice caused confusion in the hearts and minds of parents and children.

As the hon. Member for Mossley Hill knows, the Labour party is not insensitive to the needs and fears of parents. The Labour party does not want to lower standards; it wishes to raise standards for all children. In many schools, parents and children have no choice. We want high standards, choice of curriculum and potential for all Liverpool's children.

If the Liberal party is so worried about standards of education, how does the hon. Gentleman answer the charge that in 1979 the Liberal party campaigned to retain Fairfield school, Edge Hill school and Lawrence Road school—which had no O or A-level passes—but wished to close Paddington school, which provided those courses? The Liberal party closed Paddington school, having kidded the parents that the authority would provide a school on cathedral property. But it sold that land from under the parents' feet. It also closed Arundel school, which was one of the top five schools in deprived inner city areas that catered for the needs of working-class children.

This submission and others have been made to the Minister. The objectors have had a good go at keeping the schools open, and they have had the lion's share of the debate, so why does not the hon. Member for Mossley Hill present the truth to the House? This debate is nothing more than opportunism and publicity-seeking by the Liberal party, which created the problem. Its record of allowing the decline of education in Liverpool is at complete variance with the caring, sharing attitude that the hon. Gentleman displayed tonight. The people of Liverpool have seen through him, and have rejected him and his policies.

Mr. Alton

Had I been rejected so badly by the people of Liverpool, I would not be standing here tonight. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) said that Lawrence Road school, Fairfield girls' school and Edge Hill boys' school had no A-level passes. They did not have sixth forms, so they could not have had A-level passes. That demonstrates his lack of understanding about those schools.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Liberal party created the problem. I return to my earlier statement that the problems were compounded. The falling birth rate and the decline of the population of the city were a direct result of the policy of bulldozing for which the Labour and Tory parties were responsible in Liverpool during the 1960s, which depopulated the city. That is why we brought forward two plans, which were both rejected, one by a Labour Government and the other by a Conservative Government. However, the plans were introduced in good faith as the Liberal group tried to tackle the problem.

For the benefit of the hon. Member for Broadgreen I shall quote what one of his friends, the NUT local branch secretary in Liverpool, Jim Ferguson, said, as reported in The Guardian. He said: Teaching in Liverpool's schools…is becoming almost impossible. The schools are visibly tatty and uncared for, particularly in the semi-derelict areas of the inner city; absenteeism amongst staff and children is high; vandalism out of school hours is common, and the children are so hyperactive in the inner city schools that they are at times virtually unteachable. The article continues: Even worse is the absolute conviction among the professionals that education policy is not being governed by concern for the children but by calculations of naked political advantage.

The article also said: The Labour Party under the influence of the Militant Tendency remains equally committed to the principle of 11 to 18 neighbourhood comprehensive schools, regardless of sixth form size or the cost of maintaining half empty buildings, and apparently regardless of Labour's move nationally towards support for tertiary colleges for 16 to 19 year olds.

Mr. Fields

Jim Ferguson did not say that.

Mr. Alton

No, he did not. That was the report of Maureen O'Connor—

Mr. Fields

The hon. Gentleman is misleading the House again.

Mr. Alton

—and it was she who made the final remarks to which I have referred. I made that clear as I was reading the article.

The proposals reduce the number of schools in Liverpool from 27 to 17. They abolish all single-sex schools, despite the fact that Labour says in the leaflet that it circulated to schools that it is opposed to racism and racial discrimination. It has taken no account of the needs of the Hindu or Moslem communities, which are totally opposed to the proposals. They want to send their daughters, as do many in the indigenous white community, to single-sex schools. Labour wants to reimpose rigid catchment areas. I give the example of Booker avenue school.

Mr. Parry


Mr. Alton

Over the past 10 years, 652 children—

Mr. Parry


Mr. Alton

—have gone to the Quarry bank school from Booker avenue school and 32 have gone to New Heyes school. As a result of the reimposition of rigid catchment areas, many children will be forced in future to go to New Heyes school, which has not happened in the past. In the inner city area at the other end of my constituency, children at schools like Rathbone county primary, Earle road county primary and Bral street county primary will have to go to community school three, as it is called. They will not have the chance to go to schools in the suburbs. This will lead to selectivity by the ability to pay.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry) quite audibly to call my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) a liar on a number of occasions?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

It might have been audible at the end of the Chamber where the hon. Gentleman is sitting, but I could not quite tell whether the word was being used amid the hubbub from below the Gangway on the Opposition Benches. I could not hear what the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry) said. If he did use the word, he must withdraw it.

Mr. Parry

The remarks of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill, (Mr. Alton) are lies. Only this week—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat when I am on my feet. He must not attribute "liar" to any hon. Member. I think that he might find a different form of words to convey his meaning. He cannot use the word "liar", and he must withdraw it.

Mr. Parry

The hon. Gentleman is misleading the House. Only this week, in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden), I was told that only about a dozen Moslem families were involved. I think that it is totally misleading—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am dealing with a point of order. I hope that implicit in the hon. Gentleman's remarks was a withdrawal of the offending word. I shall be glad if he will confirm that. I am assuming that when he says that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is misleading the House, he means that the hon. Gentleman may inadvertently have been doing so.

Mr. Parry

The hon. Gentleman is telling untruths.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Perhaps we should move on. I am sure that the Minister wishes to reply to the debate.

Mr. Alton

I assure the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry), having received various delegations from schools in Liverpool and taken them to the Minister, that on many occasions the Minister has heard representatives of the ethnic minorities say that they believe that they will be prevented from having a choice of schools for their children as a result of the abolition of single-sex education. I am happy to leave it at that.

If this plan is implemented, we will replace selection by the ability to pass examinations with something far worse—the ability to pay. People who can afford to buy a house in the leafy suburbs can send their child to a local so-called community school, whereas people in the inner city cannot; they will have to send their children to the school in their area. The people who unfortunately live on the wrong side of the Maginot line must send their children to a school to which they do not want them to go. The effect on house prices needs only to be thought about to be easily realised.

The Under-Secretary will be aware that many of the consultation meetings were a charade. On one night alone, eight meetings were held, and many parents were treated to foul language, Marxist clap-trap and abuse. Parents were patronised and their views disregarded. In future, the Government must strengthen parental rights and ensure that, before such plans are submitted, the majority of parents' views should be agreed in local authority areas before the plans are submitted.

The Under-Secretary promised that any member of the LEA could see copies of the LEA's response to the objection. The chairman of the education committee refused to allow my colleague, Councillor Storey, to see the objections, which has led to deep suspicions in the city. How can that be rectified?

The Under-Secretary will have received the detailed reservations that Mr. Tony Ostrin, the solicitor acting on behalf of the parents action committee, outlined to him in a letter on 20 January. I would emphasise his objections to the legality of the scheme. The scheme seems to offend section 8 and 76 of the Education Act 1944, and section 6 of the Education Act 1980. It is contrary to the White Paper "New Drive" and circular 2/80 which talks about the timing of proposals. The scheme seems to be contrary to paragraph 25 of circular 2/80, which demands that detailed costings should be provided. Paragraph 26 of that circular states that reference should be made to alternative use of surplus buildings.

One of the reasons why certain schools have been chosen for closure is that they stand on prime residential sites, such as Hillfoot, Hey, Childwall, Valley girls' school, Aigburth girls' school and, in a future proposal, the Bluecoat school. Those good schools would be pulled down to make way for the 6,000 municipal dwellings that Labour says it will build in Liverpool using £12 million of inner city money. That is part of the complete socialisation of the city. Recently, the Labour party in Liverpool tried to take all 50 of the places available on school managing bodies locally. That is sheer political patronage. It is using education and children as political footballs. I would welcome the Under-Secretary's views on this.

I accept that the Secretary of State has a difficult task. I hope that he will consider, if he rejects these proposals, sending in Her Majesty's inspectors to draw up an independent assessment of what would be a suitable, educationally based scheme for Liverpool and take this matter out of the political arena.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have no power to stop the hon. Member. If he wants a reply, I remind him that the debate ends at 12 o'clock midnight.

Mr. Alton

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am aware that the Under-Secretary is in some difficulty about the length of the reply that he can give. I promise you that my remarks are coming to an end.

How can the Under-Secretary consider a plan that rides roughshod over the wishes of 70,000 objectors, over the wishes of 24 of the 27 schools affected and over the 1,000 letters sent to him direct? How can he agree to a plan that keeps open the Croxteth school which he ordered should be closed, that abolishes all single-sex schools and runs contrary to the principle of parental choice? How can he accept a plan that reimposes rigid catchment areas around primary schools? If he accepts the scheme, he will be putting his signature to a plan based on political dogma. It will be an unforgiveable act of political expediency, and the parents of future generations of Liverpudlians would never forgive him. He cannot support this scheme, and I urge him to say that he will not.

11.54 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Bob Dunn)

In the few minutes that remain I can attempt to sketch the background of our response to these proposals. I undertake to reply separately to the specific points that have been raised which I do not have time to answer.

Hon. Members will realise and understand that my right hon. Friend's quasi-judicial role in these matters prevents me from commenting on the detailed points raised by the hon. Members about the proposals to reorganise Liverpool's secondary schools. What I can assure the House, however, is that he is giving those proposals his most careful consideration. As with all statutory proposals, he is considering them on their individual merits; and his eventual decision will take account of the arguments put forward by the objectors and the city council, the local circumstances of Liverpool, the educational and expenditure issues involved, and all other relevant matters.

I can also say that we have now received from the authority the objections and its comments on them. There are 47 statutory objections against the proposals supported by a petition bearing nearly 70,000 signatures; 51 other objections; and a petition bearing some 10,000 signatures in support of the proposals. I cannot at this stage say when my right hon. Friend will take his decision, but we fully accept the need for it to be made as quickly as possible, because the implementation date proposed is September of this year. We shall deal with the proposals as speedily as is consistent with the proper consideration of all the relevant facts.

I cannot say more about the proposals at this stage. However, it may assist hon. Members if, in responding to this debate, I refer by way of background to two broad groups of factors which form the context in which the proposals were made and are being considered.

First, there is the general historical and demographic context of educational provision in Liverpool. Underlying the educational difficulties facing Liverpool is the problem of falling school rolls. This is a national phenomenon and not confined to Liverpool. On current estimates, the national school population will be below 7.5 million by the end of the decade, down by nearly 20 per cent. from its level in 1979. In Liverpool the problems are exacerbated because movement out of the area means that the city's population has fallen drastically from 746,000 in 1961 to 510,000 in 1981. Together, the falling population and the falling birth rate have led to a growing mismatch between the number of school places available and the demand for those places. Put simply, there are far more school places than pupils to fill them; and the surplus will grow dramatically in the years ahead if nothing is done.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is concerned with Liverpool's proposals for the reorganisation of secondary education. However, I want to put on record the fact that we must not lose sight of the equally pressing problems of spare capacity in the city's primary schools.

I think it fair to say that all concerned recognise the need for rationalisation of secondary provision in the city.

Mr. Parry

I want to put the record straight in the Official Report. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) appeared to be introducing racial undertones when he mentioned the Liverpool Moslem Association. I have spoken and written to the Minister on behalf of the Liverpool Moslem Association to ask whether he will receive a deputation. According to information I have received from the Liverpool education department, about one dozen families only are involved.

Mr. Dunn

I do not want to respond to that point at this stage. I should rather make some other points for the benefit of those outside who listen to the debate with interest.

Some progress has been made through the proposals from the city and the archdiocese for the reorganisation of Roman Catholic secondary schools approved by my right hon. Friend in August 1982. These proposals, implementted last September, reduced the number of Roman Catholic secondary schools from 41 to 15.

That was a move forward, but the problems in the county secondary sector are no less urgent. The authority's county secondary schools have a capacity of nearly 30,000 pupils. In 1978 there were 27,000 pupils aged 11–16 in these schools, and by 1983 that figure had fallen to only 22,000; by 1990 the number is expected to fall to less than 16,000. This clearly demonstrates the need for action: if nothing is done, Liverpool will be faced by the end of the decade with paying for two school places for every child of secondary age in its county schools.

However, it is not only the unnecessary financial burden which this surplus of school places imposes on Liverpool's ratepayers which is of concern to the House and the Department. The continuing existence of a sizeable surplus of school places has already had, and will increasingly have, serious consequences for the educational opportunities of all pupils. The worsening of educational opportunities will increasingly affect not only the schools which are now unpopular but also the schools which are currently popular.

These educational difficulties associated with empty school places are not, of course, unique to Liverpool, but my right hon. Friend spelt them out at length in his letter.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twelve o'clock.