HC Deb 04 December 1987 vol 123 cc1278-84

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

2.53 pm
Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)


Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn amd St. Pancras)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We all recognise the predicament in which you, and Mr. Speaker found yourselves this morning. We, too, are in a predicament. Of all the possible justifications that the Attorney-General might have advanced for yesterday's court action, I do not think that anyone in his wildest dreams believed that he would say that it was based on an item in a gossip column in a Tory newspaper. That is why we are pressing, rather unusually, for a further statement. Neither you, Madam Deputy Speaker, nor Mr. Speaker, can require a Minister to make a statement, but can you confirm, Madam Deputy Speaker, that if a private notice question were to be submitted on Monday and accepted by Mr. Speaker, the Attorney-General would then be required to make a statement?

Madam Deputy Speaker

That is somewhat hypothetical, as I explained earlier. I recognise the seriousness of the situation and I have no doubt that any private notice question submitted would be considered extremely seriously.

Sir George Young

I welcome this opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the position of St. Saviour's Church of England first school in my constituency. I do so with some optimism, as I recall the decisive intervention of my hon. Friend the Minister when, on a previous occasion, I raised with him the need for a new building at Twyford school, which is also in my constituency. I hope that the case of St. Saviour's will provoke the same favourable response.

Earlier this week, the House gave a Second Reading to the Education Reform Bill, which is designed to make the system more responsive to the wishes of parents and to raise standards. In 15 minutes today, my hon. Friend the Minister could achieve those objectives for St. Saviour's without the hassle of having to put a Bill on the statute book.

I wish to provide some basic background information. St. Saviour's became a first school in September 1974, having been an infants' school since 1861. The site could not be enlarged at that time as the boundaries of the Ealing town centre scheme had not been finalised, so the additional children had to be accommodated in temporary huts erected in the playground. The site, which was already substandard under the school premises regulations of 1972, then became even more so. In 1981, new school premises regulations were published, with which, as an existing school, St. Saviour's must comply by 1991. Under those new regulations, the site and the building are substantially substandard.

By 1982, the town centre scheme had been finalised and it was then possible for the council to define the site for the school extension. Three years ago, the land was transferred to the education committee for the purposes of St. Saviour's, and ever since then has been lying as waste ground, while conditions at the school continue to deteriorate.

In 1983, the governors — in consultation with the local education authority, the diocesan board and the Department of Education and Science area architect— instructed architects to draw up a development plan for the school. That was then submitted to the DES for approval in the building programmes for 1985–86. That submission was refused. Further submissions for the building programmes for 1986–87 and 1987–88 were also refused. They have been resubmitted for 1988–89, and as I speak they are sitting in my hon. Friend's in tray— hence the opportune timing of the debate.

The London borough of Ealing has designated the development as its top priority among the bids from local voluntary schools. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend were successful, a few weeks ago, in obtaining additional resources for the education programme in the public expenditure round. I have no doubt that they could not find a better project in which to invest those additional resources than the much delayed building programme at St. Saviour's.

I want to describe some of the problems at the school, which I have visited on many occasions. I have already mentioned the temporary huts that were put up in 1974. Quite naturally, they are progressively deteriorating and there is a growing cost in maintaining them. When it rains or snows, because those temporary huts are in the playground the children who need to use the facilities in the main school get wet. There is no library at the school as there simply is not room for one. Therefore, no library skills can be taught, nor can a wide variety of reference books be made available to the children.

The main building, which dates back to 1861, has a highly dangerous spiral staircase, on which several by-elections have almost been caused. Quite rightly, that must be replaced for safety reasons. There is no medical room, and any ill child must stay in a stock room. The administration area is inadequate—there is not sufficient room in the staff room for each member of staff to sit down at any meeting. There is only one adult lavatory. The head's office must be shared, which makes it difficult to hold confidential discussions with parents. The playground is very substandard in quality and quantity. There is an acknowledged need for a nursery unit as there is no nursery school in any of the Church schools in the borough. There is nowhere for parents to meet.

It is much easier to show the problems than to describe them, so the parents and teachers have prepared a brochure—which I handed to the Secretary of State a few weeks ago—which gives a visual representation of the problem that speaks for itself. In a nutshell, the school is desperately overcrowded, especially in the administrative area. Those are not the sort of condition in which teachers should teach and children should learn in the 1980s.

Despite the difficult conditions, it is an excellent school. It is very popular and is over-subscribed. The reasons for that are entirely to the credit of Angela Mark, the head, the staff, the governors and the parents, who have created a popular, cheerful and successful school under rather difficult conditions. They have already raised £38,000 towards the rebuilding project and are raring to go. However, they cannot possibly proceed without support from the Department of Education and Science. Of course, the cost rises each year. Therefore, the parents and the Friends of St. Saviour's find themselves shooting at an ever-moving target.

The parents and teachers have been patient. They are not militants and they have made their case to me persuasively and forcefully. They are aware that the economy of this country is picking up. They look around west London and see visible prosperity because the Government's economic policies are working. It is becoming very difficult for the local Member of Parliament to explain why, year after year, funds are not made available for this worthwhile project.

The parent body, the Friends of St. Saviour's to which I have referred, is totally committed to the school. There is an active parent-governors body and good support is given to the many extra-curricular and social events organised at the school. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), many of whose constituents have children at the school, has asked to be associated with the plea that I am making this afternoon.

I want to sum up my case to my hon. Friend the Minister. The site and the buildings are substandard according to the Government's education regulations. There is an acknowledged need for a nursery school on the site. The land for the school is now available and presently lying as waste ground on the edge of a very successful and environmentally pleasing town centre. The plans are available and the scheme is ready to go. The parents and governors are very committed and will raise their 15 per cent. share. The local authority and the diocesan board support the rebuilding of the school and local people vote confidently in favour of the school by over-subscribing to it year after year.

If there is one school which represents all that the Government and the Conservative party stand for in terms of standards, parental commitment and the rest, it is St. Saviour's. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give the parents, governors and myself the assurance we seek, that the building programme will not be delayed further.

3.2 pm

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

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) on obtaining this Adjournment debate on the voluntary aided capital programme and, in particular, the proposed building work at St. Saviour's school in Ealing. I am glad of the opportunity to reply. My hon. Friend has spoken eloquently on behalf of the school, but this is by no means the first time that he has raised this issue. His active and continuing support for the school typifies my hon. Friend's keen concern for the interests of his constituents. I ask my hon. Friend to thank those at the school who were responsible for preparing the silver brochure which graphically and pointedly shows the range and variety of problems that the school faces and has faced for some time.

My hon. Friend spoke of the problems faced by the staff and pupils of St. Saviour's. Before I reply to those points, I should like, if I may, to touch briefly on the general issues of national policy which underlie this question, since this background will contribute to an understanding of the position of St. Saviour's.

There are in England almost 25,000 primary and secondary schools within the state system, maintained by local education authorities which meet their running costs. Most of these —rather over two thirds — are county schools, provided by the local education authorities. The remainder, known as voluntary schools, were provided by voluntary bodies — principally the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. This arrangement, introduced by the Education Act 1944, is known as the dual system. Voluntary schools make a very important contribution to the maintained sector of education. They bring variety to the provision of schools and they extend the range of educational choice available to parents for their children. The Government are strongly committed to the preservation of the dual system and the fostering of voluntary schools.

There are different types of voluntary school, but the largest category—to which St. Saviour's belongs—is that of voluntary aided schools. These are distinguished from voluntary controlled schools—the next most numerous type — by the greater powers possessed by their governors and by the division of responsbility for certain capital building and repair work. In brief, the governors are responsible for external repairs and for the greater part of capital building work, and they are entitled to seek from the Department a grant of 85 per cent. of the cost to them of such work.

The funds available to the Department for disbursement to governors are, however, limited. My hon. Friend knows that a fundamental element of the Government's economic strategy is the achievement of a sustained reduction in the rate of inflation. Only in this way can we generate the economic growth that is needed, and which is happening, to underpin the provision of state services. In order to achieve this, it is essential that public expenditure must be limited: expenditure on education, by both central and local government, cannot be exempt from the need for restraint.

In distributing the resources which are available for the voluntary sector, priorities therefore have to be decided and choices—often difficult choices—must be made. I should like, if I may, to outline the approach we take here. Each year the Department invites all local education authorities to submit details of their plans for capital expenditure in the following financial year at the county and voluntary schools in their areas. In aggregate, these plans always exceed what the country can afford. We are therefore faced with the difficult task of deciding between competing voluntary aided school projects. In doing so, our first priority is necessarily to meet continuing expenditure required for projects which have already started—committed expenditure, in other words.

Having met committed expenditure, our next priority must be to programme new projects which result from published statutory proposals which have been approved by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State under section 13 of the Education Act 1980. They are normally of two kinds: either the proposal is to establish a new school which is needed to provide new places in areas of population growth—this is known as "basic need"—or it relates to a reordering of provision in an area where the school population is declining, perhaps by amalgamating two or more schools so that a proportion of the surplus places can be taken out of use. Approval of such proposals places upon the proposers a statutory duty to implement them by a specified date. If building work is required in order to implement the proposals, it has to be programmed to avoid the risk of the proposers being unable to fulfil that duty.

The third priority, after such "committed" and "statutory" expenditure has been allowed, is for work which, for convenience, I will refer to under the blanket title of "improvement". Projects of this sort include minor alterations or extensions to existing school buildings; replacements of failing or unsatisfactory structures, such as outside lavatories or aging "temporary" accommodation; and work intended to bring a split-site school on to a single site.

Regrettably, we are always faced with many more worthy projects in this category than can be accommodated within the available resources, and hard choices have to be made on the basis of the urgency of the need and the general condition of the school buildings in question. In making these assessments, we draw upon the views of the maintaining local education authorities and, where appropriate, upon the expertise and experience of the Department's officials. We also have to bear in mind the implications of the projects in terms of capital expenditure in future years.

For the current financial year, committed expenditure took more than two thirds of the available resources for capital work at voluntary aided schools. Governors' plans for expenditure on projects to start during the year totalled nearly five times the balance of resources available for new work. Meeting the priorities I have outlined therefore used up all the funds available for new work and, in those circumstances, many schools have inevitably had to be disappointed.

A small reserve has been retained to cover those projects which are dependent on statutory proposals, which were awaiting my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's decision when the allocations were announced. No other reserve is held, but, as a normal part of the management of resources, my Department regularly monitors the progress of expenditure on projects at aided schools. If this monitoring shows that understanding is likely, it will enable us to authorise the start of further new projects.

Turning now to St. Saviour's, may I say that I take very seriously the representations rnade by my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Acton and for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) and others about the needs of the school. I am in no doubt about the difficulties pupils and staff are facing. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that our inability to programme the project so far is not the result of pervesity or lack of knowledge about the school's case, but is a difficult decision of the sort that must be taken when what is desirable exceeds what is possible. As my hon. Friend may well be aware, Ealing local education authority has again put forward the project at St. Saviour's for inclusion in the Department's programme of starts for 1988–89.

All authorities' plans are currently under consideration, and allocations for capital expenditure at county arid voluntary schools are expected to be announced later this month. My hon. Friend will understand, I am sure, that I am not in a position to give any assurances at this stage about the likelihood of programming the work at St. Saviour's. He will, I know and hope, accept the assurance I can give that the points that he and others have so eloquently made will be taken fully into account before decisions are made. Again I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this Adjournment debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past three o'clock.