HC Deb 20 February 1985 vol 73 cc1172-80

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

2.11 am
Mr. Ken Hargreaves (Hyndburn)

While I am most grateful for the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the problems currently faced by St. Oswald's Roman Catholic primary school in Accrington, I am sorry that the opportunity has come on a night when my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science could have registered his bisque and been happily tucked up in bed at this late hour. As a good Christian man the Minister will know that the debate was scheduled to start on Ash Wednesday — the beginning of Lent and the time for penance and sacrifice. I am happy to have helped him to get his Lent off to such a good start.

The history of the school can be traced back to 1952 when the chapel, which was also used as a school, was built on land given for the benefit of the people of Accrington. In 1869 when a new church was built, the original chapel became a school, which eventually moved to a building in Brown street in the Willows lane area of the town. In 1967 the building was declared unfit and a new school was built at the top of Willows lane in the area of Accrington called Fern Gore. The school has, therefore, been catering for the educational and spiritual needs of Roman Catholic children in Accrington for more than 130 years. It is still functioning as a school, even after the fire on 6 July 1983, which virtually destroyed it and left a mass of tangled metal with only two classrooms remaining standing.

Since the fire, the children have been housed in several temporary premises. Their current home is the ROSLA building at Mount Carmel high school. While everyone concerned with St. Oswald's fully appreciates the generosity of the governors of Mount Carmel in providing temporary accommodation, the position is unsatisfactory.

St. Oswald's children do not have sole use of the building but share it with 13 to 16-year-olds, as they share the school playground. Clearly four and five-year-olds should not be with 13 to 16-year-olds. It is wholly unsatisfactory and should be remedied with the utmost urgency.

The ROSLA building lacks many of the amenities of an average primary school. There is no school hall and the large classroom that is used for morning assembly is not large enough for physical education for the junior children. Cloakroom facilities are inadequate, and first and second-year infants keep their coats in their classroom. The toilet facilities are poor, and infants share two toilets with the junior boys in a dismal area with no windows, and in which the electric light must be left on all day. School dinners and packed lunches must be eaten in the classroom. In other words, the accommodation has all the hallmarks of temporary accommodation, and rather unsatisfactory temporary accommodation at that. Nevertheless it has allowed the school to stay together.

It is a tribute to the dedicated work of the acting headmistress, Mrs. Priestley, and her staff that despite the conditions 34 new entrants have registered at the school since the fire. That is 70 per cent. more than the original projected intake of 10 children per year.

That demonstrates the need for a Catholic primary school in the Fern Gore area of Accrington, because despite the difficulties faced at Mount Carmel the advantage is that it is situated only a quarter of a mile from the original site of St. Oswald's school.

If conditions are as unsatisfactory as I have outlined, one has to ask why parents continue to send their children there when there are at the moment spare places in other Catholic schools in the vicinity. I can appreciate those who do not know the area failing to understand the problem. One has to know the area to realise that the Fern Gore district of Accrington is at the top of a steep hill on the outskirts of the town. The steep hill, which must be climbed from all approaches, is a barrier to communication and travel. It is no simple journey on foot or by bus to get into the town centre from Fern Gore. The return journey is even more arduous. That journey would have to be undertaken each day to reach possible alternative schools at St. Anne's Accrington or the Sacred Heart, Church which are approximately two miles from St. Oswald's or St. Mary's Oswaldtwistle, which is a little nearer.

The journey is therefore too difficult to undertake on foot. It would consequently be necessary to take a bus. This is not an area in which daddy goes to work in the family car and mummy uses the second car to take the children to school, if daddy works at all. With the high unemployment rate, there is less than a 50 per cent. chance that he will travel to work by car. Even if he does, there will be no second car in the garage for mother to use.

It must be noted that St. Oswald's school has been designated as a social priority school. That status is based on the number of children having free school meals. At St. Oswald's, two thirds of the 65 children who stay qualify in that way. The qualification for free school meals is a low income—one child and a net income below £60 per week; two children and a net income below £75 per week; and three children and a net income below £90 per week.

The need to pay bus fares would therefore place an impossible burden on many families, especially those with more than one child, who already find difficulty coping on a low budget.

The sheer physical and financial difficulties to be surmounted, if they decide to send their children to an alternative school, are a major factor in the decision by parents to allow their children to remain at St. Oswalds even in the present unsatisfactory circumstances.

It is important to bear in mind that St. Oswald's was not just a school but was a commmunity centre for the people of Fern Gore. It boasted a thriving pack of brownies and guides, cookery, judo, badminton and dancing evening classes and a pre-school playgroup for 24 children. It is therefore a definite asset to an isolated community.

According to Lancashire county council's policy guidelines, community needs and the role of the school in the local community should be taken into account in urban as well as rural areas.

I have outlined the difficulties to be faced if the children have to attend alternative schools, but an even greater difficulty may have to be faced in the years ahead—that of finding a place in an alternative school.

We are all aware that the school population dropped dramatically because of the falling birthrate and St. Oswald's suffered as much as other schools in that respect. However, since 1978 there has been an increase in the birthrate, and that is confirmed by the difference between the projected figures for St. Oswald's and the numbers now registered.

According to Hyndburn borough council planning officer, the 1981 census shows that children under 10 form a higher proportion of the resident population in the area around St. Oswald's than in Hyndburn as a whole—17 per cent. under 10 as against 13 per cent., and that figure will be accentuated as property in the town centre and outside the catchment area for St. Oswald's is cleared.

In the past I have criticised Lancashire county council for taking too great a proportion of these surplus places from Church schools. In the case of St. Oswald's a letter of 6 December 1984 from the chief education officer, Mr. A. J. Collier, to the permanent secretary at the DES confirms that the education authority has accepted, as has the Salford diocesan schools commission, that there is a need for the 120 places which a rebuilt St. Oswald's school would provide. The borough council's report shows that that need will be greatest in the Fern Gore area.

Before the unfortunate fire, the Lancashire education authority and the local school governors were trying to find ways of reducing the number of places in Catholic schools in Accrington by the 40 per cent. of excess places requested by the DES. The loss of 345 places at St. Oswald's meant a reduction, not of 40 per cent. of excess places, but of 90 per cent. If St. Oswald's is rebuilt at 120 places, 60 per cent. of excess places will still have been removed. The Roman Catholic community in Accrington will therefore have done more than its share to provide the savings asked for by the Department. If St. Oswald's is not rebuilt, we will in the not-too-distant future be getting perilously close to denying parents the right to send their children to a denominational school of their choice.

I understand that there is some disagreement about whether the rebuilding of St. Oswald's should be a major project or a repair. The Catholic Education Council submits that it has always been DES practice to regard the reinstatement of a school destroyed by fire as a repair. If it is not a repair, what is it? Surely it cannot be a new school, certainly not in the legal sense, as a school still exists in the temporary accommodation, and there is no need for any section 13 proposals for its replacement in permanent accommodation.

The only people to benefit from a decision by the DES not to treat the rebuilding as a repair will be the insurance company, which will not have to meet the liabilities for which Lancashire county council had insured. The parents, the governors, the children and the teachers at St. Oswald's are not interested in departmental disagreements, but, like me, they find it unacceptable that an arsonist found guilty of causing £2 million worth of damage and sentenced to life imprisonment should leave one of his victims depending for its future on some definition of rebuilding status. Their concern, like mine, is that the school is rebuilt urgently. Their case is justified, but only on social and education grounds. However, I suggest that in the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the school, justice also demands that the school be rebuilt.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to give such rebuilding his urgent and sympathetic consideration so that St. Oswald's may serve the Roman Catholic community in Accrington for at least a further 130 years.

2.22 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Bob Dunn)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) obtained this Adjournment debate, as it allows me to pay tribute to him for the way in which he diligently and successfully represents the interests of his constituents. I have noted carefully the points that he has made about St. Oswald's school in Accrington and shall do my best to respond fully in the short time available to me.

I should like to start by expressing my sympathy to the pupils, staff and parents of St. Oswald's for the loss of what was clearly a well-loved school building. I quite understand how important this issue is to local people in Accrington, and I am aware of the difficult conditions in which St. Oswald's is having to work, as so graphically described by my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend's constituents have left me in no doubt on that matter. I should also like to pay tribute to the efforts of the headteacher and staff of St. Oswald's to ensure that, despite the inevitable disruption following the fire, the damage to the education of the pupils has been kept to a minimum. It is clear that they have retained the full confidence of pupils and parents alike throughout these difficult circumstances. I should like particularly to acknowledge the charming letters written by pupils of the school, many of which are illustrated with their designs for a new school.

In replying to my hon. Friend, I shall try to explain the background against which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has to take his decisions about this particular school. I shall start by explaining the history of our involvement with St. Oswald's, then I shall cover the national issues and Government policy that affect this case, and finally I shall discuss the way in which Lancashire's aided schools, and in particular St. Oswald's, fit into this background.

First, the history of the case. On 8 August 1983, we received a letter from the Salford Roman Catholic diocesan schools commission informing us that St. Oswald's school had been completely destroyed by fire on 6 July. The letter explained that exhaustive efforts had been made to find suitable alternative accommodation for the school's pupils and that the only possible solution involved using spare accommodation at Mount Carmel high school, supplemented by a double temporary classroom unit, for the purchase of which urgent approval was sought.

In this case, because of the urgency of the situation, approval was given over the telephone on 11 August for the work to start immediately, before the formal documentation usually required in such cases was received and processed. The House will see, therefore, that the swiftest action was taken in the Department to safeguard the interests of the pupils of St. Oswald's. When the appropriate documents were eventually sent in, the Department was asked to approve the purchase of three temporary classrooms, and so far some £34,000 has been paid in grant, at the rate of 85 per cent. towards the cost of that accommodation for St. Oswald's We heard nothing further about St. Oswald's until February 1984, and I understand that, in the meantime, the Lancashire education authority had been conducting a general review of primary school provision in the Hyndburn area and was not prepared to commit itself on the future of St. Oswald's until that review had been completed. In February 1984 I received a letter from my hon. Friend enclosing one from the St. Oswald's action group, which said that Lancashire had agreed to the rebuilding of the school. My hon. Friend will recall that in my reply I pointed out that, as the project had not been included in the 1984–85 building programme by Lancashire LEA, and as that programme was already fully committed, there was no prospect of the rebuilding of St. Oswald's proceeding in the immediate future.

I am aware that since then both the Salford schools commission and Lancashire LEA have disputed the Department's view that the rebuilding from scratch of a school that has been completely destroyed by fire should be regarded as a new capital project to be met from the LEA's allocation for voluntary school building works. They have maintained that building works of this kind are equivalent to a repair and, as such, should not need to be met from Lancashire's annual allocation.

The Catholic Education Council has also challenged this view in the case of St. Mary's school at Madeley in Shropshire, which has suffered a similar fate to St. Oswald's. The issues involved are complex and have considerable ramifications beyond the two specific cases being considered.

I hope my hon. Friend will appreciate, therefore, that in the light of the wider implications, in particular my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's various statutory responsibilities, we must give the most careful consideration to what is the correct conclusion, and that I cannot at this stage say what that will be.

However, I would not wish to mislead my hon. Friend or his constituents about this issue. Even if we concluded that, legally, the rebuilding of St. Oswald's counted as repair, that would not necessarily mean that work on the project could start immediately. Work of this magnitude requires approval and must be considered against the total resources available.

Even for smaller repair projects we have for several years, run with the agreement of the appropriate voluntary bodies, run a system of voluntary rationing on repair projects. This involves assessing needs and priorities, and St. Oswald's would have to be considered against other competing claims.

If it were treated as a repair, the governors' share of the expenditure on which grant-aid would be payable would be some £150,000, and if it were to go ahead it would preempt a significant part of the budget for repairs, and other worthwhile projects would necessarily be delayed. When considering any project, however it is classified, my right hon. Friend has a duty to satisfy himself that it is a wise use of public funds, particularly at a time when, nationally, funds are restricted.

Until now the proposed work at St. Oswald's has been classified as a new capital project and was considered as such when the allocations for 1985–86 were drawn up. I would now like to devote some attention to the issue of why St. Oswald's failed to find a place within the total allocated to Lancashire for 1985–86.

Let me explain briefly how the funding of capital works at aided and special agreement schools is managed. The day-to-day running costs of an aided school fall to the local education authority which maintains the school. Most of the responsibility for providing buildings and improving them where necessary rests, however, with the governors of the school. To assist the governors in discharging that function they are provided with grant-aid from central Government. The proportion of the costs which are borne centrally has varied from time to time, but currently stands at 85 per cent. The provision and maintenance of aided schools involves, therefore, a three-way partnership between the voluntary bodies, the local education authorities and the Government, and this is reflected in the way in which allocations for grant-aid on building works at aided schools are made by the Government.

LEAs are responsible, after consultation with the relevant voluntary bodies, for making bids each year to the Department for allocations for work to be carried out by the governors of voluntary aided and special agreement schools in their area. Since invariably the total of the bids exceeds the sum available nationally, we face difficult decisions about priorities. First, priority has to be given to meeting the Department's 85 per cent. share of expenditure to which governors are already contractually committed. The next priority has to be basic need to provide "roofs over heads" in areas where we are satisfied that population and denominational demand is increasing and the need cannot be met from any spare capacity in existing schools. Once these priorities have been met, consideration is given to building work arising from statutory proposals under section 13 of the Education Act 1980 that have been approved by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. When such proposals are approved, the proposers are under a statutory duty to implement them. Clearly, we must make the necessary provision to enable them to do so. Any remaining resources are allocated to projects designed to replace or bring up to standard school buildings which are currently substandard with priority being given to those projects that would lead to the removal of surplus places.

We ask LEAs when making bids to list those for major projects costing more than £120,000 in priority order. The LEAs, with their detailed local knowledge and overview of all the schools in their area, are of course best placed to make those judgments and also have a direct financial stake through their responsibility for maintaining the schools. For building work costing less than £120,000, LEAs are simply required to put forward an estimate of the total sum required. Once an allocation for such works has been made, it is for the LEA and the voluntary bodies to decide on priorities within that total.

In making the 1985–86 allocations for work by the governors of voluntary aided and special agreement schools, we faced a particularly difficult task because the total of committed expenditure within LEAs' bids far exceeded the provisional figure arrived at a year ago on the basis of LEAs' estimates of the likely phasing of expenditure on projects to be started last year. In many cases there appears to have been significant unforeseen slippage. Because of this it was necessary for us to be extremely selective in deciding which major new projects could proceed in 1985–86. All justified claims of basic need and all the projects arising from approved section 13 proposals were included, but this left only a tiny sum nationally for improvement and replacement projects. In order to allow some minor works to proceed, this remaining sum was divided between all LEAs to be used for that purpose.

Lancashire's allocation for building work by the governors of voluntary aided and special agreement schools in 1985–86 is £2.244 million, the second highest in the country. The great majority of this is for committed expenditure. When Lancashire was informed of its 1984–85 voluntary school allocation, it was given a provisional indication that £750,000 committed expenditure would be met in 1985–86. But its bid last September for 1985–86 included £2.2 million of committed expenditure, £1.4 million in excess of that provisional indication. Lancashire was able to convince us that the slippage had arisen from factors outside its or the voluntary bodies' control, and since it had made a timely surrender of excess provision in 1984–85 we agreed to cover all the estimated committed expenditure for 1985–86. This of course had to be at the expense of provision for new work nationally. None of Lancashire's bids for new major projects fell into either of the two categories to which we gave priority and therefore Lancashire did not receive an allocation for this purpose. Apart from committed expenditure, the only allocation for building work at voluntary aided and special agreement schools which Lancashire received was for minor works.

So what does this mean for St. Oswald's? Given the shortage of resources for grant-aid to voluntary aided schools nationally, the Department clearly has to make sure that those resources which are available are used to best advantage. When a school is burned down, therefore, we have to ask whether a school is still needed in the area and, if it is, whether it needs to be the same size. That is a particularly important question at a time of falling school rolls, which are creating surplus school places in many areas. It would be a waste of public resources, for which we would rightly be criticised, if scarce grant-aid were spent on building a school that was no longer needed, or which was much larger than was justified by the numbers of pupils expected to attend it in the years ahead. That is what we have been seeking to establish in the case of St. Oswald's.

In this context I have to mention the priority which Lancashire LEA affords to the rebuilding of St. Oswald's. When making its bids for capital expenditure in 1985–86 Lancashire indicated that there were a lot of projects which it would like to see proceeding, but asked us to look at four in particular. These were placed in order of priority and St. Oswald's appeared third on the list. The LEA really is better placed to assess the relative needs of different schools in Lancashire than the Department. It appeared that it believed that projects at Thornton Cleveley's Roman Catholic primary school and at Our Lady and St. Gerard's Roman Catholic primary school in Walton-le-Dale were more urgent than the rebuilding of St. Oswald's.

It is, of course, open to my hon. Friend and his constituents to try to persuade us, or indeed Lancashire LEA itself, that it has got the order of priorities wrong. I am always prepared to listen to such arguments and, as my hon. Friend knows, I have agreed to meet a deputation of his constituents who wish to come and put their point of view on the matter. I should add that one point which is already in St. Oswald's favour is that I understand the governors recognise that what is needed is school premises for about 120 pupils, rather than the 345 which was the capacity of the original building.

I can also say that I fully recognise that the diocese, governors, teachers, parents and children have now had to endure 19 months of uncertainty about whether their school will be rebuilt. July 1983 must seem to them to be a very long time ago. The Department is therefore conducting an urgent review of this case. It is already in touch with Lancashire LEA to obtain what remaining facts are required; and the deputation which my hon. Friend is bringing to see me early next month will no doubt be of further assistance by providing other relevant information. My hon. Friend will understand that while this review is in progress I cannot give any undertaking that grant-aid will be available to enable St. Oswald's to be rebuilt in 1985–86. What I can undertake, and do so willingly, is that the school will not have to wait long for an answer.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Three o'clock am.