HC Deb 15 July 1987 vol 119 cc1255-60

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

11.44 pm
Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

I direct my remarks immediately to my hon. Friend the Minister. Many parents, teachers and school governors are depressed and angry at the events perpetrated by the Hampshire education authority on the Aldermoor first and middle schools, Lordshill, Southampton. I shall give the background to the events.

On 1 April I received a letter saying that the Southampton area advisory committee had, on a resolution, voted to retain both the schools by 12 votes to seven. It had a second vote on the retention of the first school with the nursery school and the vote was 16 to three. It was fairly obvious at that time that the advisory committee was firmly determined to keep the nursery and first school and the middle school. Those votes were sent to the schools sub-committee in Winchester.

I wrote to the chariman of the Hampshire education authority and on 15 April I received a reply: The Sub-Committee will receive not only a full report on the urgent problem of empty places … it will also receive in very great detail the representations of all those who were consulted, together with the views of the Area Advisory Committee. The letter then goes on with a little patting on the back.

It says: the procedures employed by us"— meaning the Hampshire education authority— for consultation about school reorganisations were recently commended by the Audit Commission and I think it would be fair to say that no Committee spends more time and trouble than we do over these difficult matters. That was dictated by P. D. Merridale and signed in his absence. It is that sort of approach that has given rise to the main complaint from the parents, teachers and governors.

The consultation has been scarce. The sub-committee's visit to the eight schools in the area was cursory. "Cursory" was the word mentioned by some of the teachers at Aldermoor school. We have now reached a situation where the sub-committee in Winchester—it was approved by the full committee—agreed that not only should the first and middle schools be closed but the nursery school should operate on its own. I am aware that the nursery school is a valuable element in the area but it seemed to me at the time that it would have worked better within the nursery-first school concept. Therefore, a great deal of emotion was stirred up.

One of the stumbling blocks of the argument was the state of the school buildings. The parents paid for a survey to be carried out by a well-known firm of chartered architects in Southampton—Gutteridge, Woodford, Chambers, of 45 Westwood road. The architects did a survey because the survey carried out by the architect's department at Southampton city council for Hampshire education authority was so condemning. The survey was the result of three separate visits to the site. Several floor panels were lifted where access was formed for electrical and heating services, sub-floors inspected, cladding was removed to reveal the steel frame of the main building and so on.

It was a full survey and one of the disappointing factors, which shows how Hampshire education authority has behaved in connection with this school, is that the survey said: It is understood that no maintenance had been carried out on external decorations for at least eight years. In the circumstances it is surprising that the condition of the existing building is as good as a more close inspection found. The main buildings are constructed of steel lattice roof trusses … partly supported on steel columns". They were found to be in very good condition. The timber framing was also in excellent condition. Windows are recent steel windows, weather stripped in wood sub-frames. Rainwater pipes are cast iron with cast iron…gutters. Comments on the findings by Southampton city council were made by this firm of chartered architects. The firm said: There is no significant sign of rot despite lack of maintenance. The condition of the cladding is remarkable, and this indicates the quality of material used in the original building". The firm again mentions that regular maintenance had ceased eight years before, praises the steel trusses in connection with the pitched roofs and says that they were excellent. The firm also found that the city council report spoke about areas of wet rot or dry rot. The firm said: no evidence so far can be found of significant areas of wet rot, and there was no evidence of dry rot in the building. A paragraph that is terribly damning of the Southampton city council architect's report says: It is our contention that the Southampton City Council's report is misleading in this matter. The architects' conclusion says: It is our opinion that a decision to close the Aldermoor Schools cannot be justified on the grounds that the main buildings have reached the end of their useful life, or that it requires a large amount of finance to maintain its existence for another thirty years. During the survey, the firm brought forward some estimated budget costs for preserving the main building for another 30 years. The cost survey was carried out by a firm of chartered quantity surveyors, Jung and Barnett, and the total was £153,650. At the time that that report was written, Hampshire education committee was reading a report which said it would cost £500,000 just to preserve the first school and an additional £700,000 to preserve the middle school.

Naturally, the staff at Aldermoor have been greatly involved in this. It has been a school since 1939 and is very much a part of an established community—almost a village within a city. Aldermoor has the most stable school population of the four schools in the immediate area. There is a tremendous amount of parental involvement in Aldermoor. The parents engage in normal fund raising, but in their own time they also built and furnished a library for the first school. Those are the sort of activities that we are looking for in education.

I am worried because Hampshire education committee is now saying that there are plenty of vacancies around the area and that these children, certainly the children from the first school, can go to other schools. I have a letter from the governors of one of the nearest schools, the Shirley Warren county first school, which says precisely the opposite: The Governors … view these proposals with dismay … The LEA has assessed the capacity of the school at 264 places. This figure is considered to be much too high. Classrooms are small: in order to place such a number of pupils, the music room would be lost—to serve as a classroom … Toilet facilities and playground space would be inadequate for this number of pupils. It would appear that the LEA has failed to take account of residential building development within the present catchment area. The idea that the Shirley Warrren first school will take a great number of these pupils is pie in the sky. The governors say that they are of the opinion that the LEA's proposals, as at present formulated, would have a profoundly damaging effect upon the school and they urge most strongly, that you, sir, should require the LEA to exclude the Shirley Warren First School from the scheme. That is a group of governers in a nearby school that is expected to take up a number of pupils that will be turned out of Aldermoor first school.

The main questions are these. Are the buildings suitable? Can they be refurbished for a reasonable sum? Can the first school remain with the nursery school, or will the Hampshire education authority, when it completely reviews the situation, as I hope it will, agree that the main school can stay? The suspicion, perhaps not in my mind but in the minds of many of the parents, is that as this is a valuable 11-acre site in a desirable residential area, adjacent to a hypermarket, the school is being forced to close. I am sure that that is wrong, but I make the suggestion that if a first school is kept with a nursery school in the main buildings, a certain amount of land would be available for development.

I have had assistance from the department of management and science at Southampton university, which has done research on educational statistics in the Southampton area. It has made a damning report on the way in which the Hampshire education authority has worked out the number of vacancies in the area. The local education authority argued that in 1991 the rolls will be lower in the Coxford area than they are now. The statistical evidence presented by the LEA and the sources used by the local authority are inappropriate in this case. The forecast of a large fall in rolls does not stand examination. None of the statistical tools available to the authority can be used to forecast the number of pupils that schools in Coxford will have in five years' time.

There are large population movements within the area, with families with small children replacing those with children who have grown up. Many council houses have been sold in the area. People are moving into low-cost first homes for the young, who naturally wish to produce a young family. The only way that I can see that the area would have a fall in rolls would be if it were given over entirely to old age pensioner accommodation, and this is not possible under the present situation at Lordshill.

A statement was made by Mr. Molinero, a lecturer in the department of management and science at Southampton university. He has researched the educational statistics, and says: I find this whole episode rather depressing. The LEA could have argued from the beginning that on the current budget it could not afford to run so many schools so close to each other and that they were proposing to close the one on the most valuable site. They did not have to invent facts that turned out to be wrong; and once proven wrong they should have changed their arguments. As far as I am aware the LEA is pushing for closure irrespective of the facts; nothing has been changed in the original document. I do not understand what is meant by "consultation" if everything that the consultation produces is ignored. The closure of the school will be an insult to the parents, the local community, and to all of us who would like to see proper local democracy at work. That is a damning piece of paper. It was written by someone who certainly does not have any children at Aldesmoor school and who is not emotionally involved.

That statement shows that there are many anomalies. The first anomaly relates to the number of children and the vacancies in the area. Also, the method by which the figures were obtained seems to be more guesstimate than anything else. The figures completely overlook the residential side of the catchment area and how that is changing, with more and more children. An architects' report condemned the original report from the Southampton city council. I will not say that that council report was wrong, but it did not compare with the report from the chartered surveyors and architects who produced the final report.

I have a complete copy of the final report, and I know that my hon. Friend will be pleased to receive a copy of it. It contains many photographs of the buildings and a description by a firm called Insite (Southern) Ltd. on all the infestation and fungal decay and the possible reasons why a building should be pulled down. The report gives the main buildings a complete and clear picture and states that it is perfectly possible to retain the main building for a further 30 year life.

As my hon. Friend the Minister will probably know, the site is unusual. The building is one storey but is most attractively laid out. The parent-teacher association has laid out an area for environmental studies. A fountain has been built and the PTA has put together a library for the school. There are many community facilities and 30 volunteer parents work in the school every day. There is a very strong community feeling.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science has already said that he would not close rural schools unnecessarily, as they are a great focal point for community facilities. This is one such school. I know that there will be difficulties. I have already incurred the wrath of the chairman of the Hampshire education authority. It has gone ahead with its decision with little consultation. It is almost illegal to rush forward without massive consultation. So far, it has not even issued the notices, although the matter has been going on for some months. When the notices are served—as I am sure they will be, as Hampshire is digging in its heels—it will not admit that it has made a mistake in this matter.

I offer a halfway house. The council can preserve the nursery school and the first school. If it must take the land and playing fields, so be it. As for the middle school, perhaps there are vacancies in the not-too-distant areas of that part of Southampton. However, I do not think that we can stand by and allow it to close and become a small nursery site.

The parents, teachers and governors would not forgive me if I did not state their case. They are extremely angry. Perhaps they have not been their own best advocates, because at times they have acted in a more militant manner than has been necessary. I am sure that if the appropriate notices are served and there are three months in which to raise objections—I hope that everyone in Southampton who has written to me or said a word against the closure will write to the Secretary of State—my right hon. Friend will respond to a request from me to receive a delegation of all concerned so that the issue can be examined in detail. There are some anomalies and the professionals do not agree. I am sure that, with a little consideration, the chairman of the Hampshire education authority will at least reconsider the matter.

12.5 am

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) on obtaining this Adjournment debate on the proposed changes to first and middle schools in the Aldermoor and Lord's Hill areas in his constituency. I am aware that this is an issue which is currently stimulating a great deal of local interest and discussion.

We all know that the education system faces considerable challenges in the late 1980s and the 1990s. The prime challenge is the need to improve standards of achievement on the part of all pupils of all abilities, to improve the quality and range of the curriculum and the effectiveness of its delivery and to secure the best possible return from the resources which are found for education. For many schools, internal changes in the organisation of classes or the distribution of teaching duties will be needed. For some, such changes will not be sufficient and action involving closures and amalgamations will have to be considered.

Full account must be taken of education considerations when planning changes. New arrangements need to offer an education better suited to the needs of pupils of all abilities than the ones they replace. The viability of a school does not depend solely on the number of pupils. It depends on the age range and character of the school, its ethos, the quality and balance of expertise of its teachers and its non-teacher support, links with neighbouring schools, the fitness for purpose of its building and the extent to which all of these can be maintained.

Perhaps I should explain the standard set of procedures which comes into play when a local education authority wishes to change the organisation or pattern of provision in its schools. These procedures are laid down by sections 12 to 16 of the Education Act 1980. My Department has recently issued a circular entitled "Providing for Quality", which provides up-to-date guidance on the requirements of the Act. Briefly, the requirements are that when a local education authority or, in certain circumstances, the providers of a voluntary school wish to establish, discontinue or alter the size or character of a school they must publish proposals explaining their intentions. During the two-month period following publication, it is open to interested parties to submit objections to the proposals. If such objections are made, or if the Secretary of State has given appropriate notice to the local education authority, or if the school concerned is a voluntary school, the proposals fall to the Secretary of State to decide and may not be implemented without his approval.

I should also mention that, although it is not a requirement of the Act, it has been established in the courts that those likely to be affected by the proposals have a legitimate expectation to be consulted before such proposals are made. I am advised that the Hampshire local education authority recently completed local consultations and that the outcome of these was put before the education committee in April. The LEA is now preparing statutory notices for publications in the near future.

As my hon. Friend knows, when the Secretary of State is deciding proposals to close or alter a school, he is under a general duty to act fairly. In other words, he must judge each proposal or set of proposals on its merits, taking into account both the arguments of those making the proposals and the views of those objecting to them.

My hon. Friend will, I am sure, understand that it is important for the Secretary of State to avoid prejudging the issues where such proposals are concerned. He will not, therefore, expect me to say anything about the reorganisation which is the subject of this debate. I hope, however, that he will accept my assurance that I have listened carefully to what has been said tonight, and that his points will be taken into account, along with any other representations which we may receive, before a decision is reached on any proposals which may come to my right hon. Friend.

I assure my hon. Friend that as, if and when, proposals which affect these schools are made, I shall be most happy to receive a deputation from those schools led by him. I thank him for initiating this important debate and I look forward to receiving representations from him on this issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Twelve o'clock.