HC Deb 31 March 1987 vol 113 cc1069-74

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

2.53 am
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)

I am exceedingly grateful for getting this Adjournment debate. I must admit that, having learned today that the last time an Adjournment took place at this time was 3 February, I do not know whether to feel honoured or somewhat sorry for the people in my constituency who stay up late listening to "Today in Parliament" to try to catch what is happening in this Chamber and to hear the debate which we are about to have.

I should like to draw the attention of the House and of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to the plans of Derbyshire. county council to reorganise secondary education in the Derby area. However, tonight I shall be making my main points in relation to Ecclesbourne comprehensive school, which is in my constituency.

I wish to pay a particular tribute to the work that has been done by the action committee in the school, led by Mrs. Pauline Latham, who has put a lot of work and effort into putting the case over both to me and to the county council.

It is almost a year since my election. In my maiden speech, I made reference to the excellent schools in my constituency. I talked also about the threat to the sixth form at Ecclesbourne school. Unfortunately, that threat has now become a reality and the county council is proposing to close the sixth form, a sixth form which I shall show is of proven worth.

It is of proven worth not because the headmaster says so and not because the teachers say so. It is of proven worth because the parents and pupils say so.

It is true that post-16 education in Derbyshire is fairly poor, but that is certainly not the case, nor is it true, for Ecclesbourne school, where 55 per cent. of the fifth form stay on to go into the sixth form, whereas the average for Derby schools is usually only 18 per cent. The percentages of pupils in that school obtaining the higher grades in 0- level subjects— that is, grades A, B, and C—were: in English language, in 1986, 97, and in English literature, 80. The number of pupils enrolled in that school in September was 181. I believe that those are figures of which any school could and should be proud.

The figures to which I have just referred show why the parents want the school to continue and give it so much support. If one was driving through the area of Duffield in my constituency before the county council ripped all the posters down for which it seemed to find money available, one would have seen posters putting the case for saving Ecclesbourne school. If one was to walk in that village now one would see people wearing "Save Ecclesbourne" badges because it has become an issue of local concern and local campaigning.

Part of the authority's case is that falling school rolls require the removal of surplus places. That is true for Derby in general, but it is certainly not true for Ecclesbourne, where numbers are stable. Indeed, in 1977 the headmaster was asked to estimate what the school roll would be over the next 10 years. His estimate was that the number in the school in 1986 would be 1,205. The local education authority's estimate was 893. The number on the roll in 1986 was 1,204. Therefore, the headmaster, nine years before, was one out in his prediction. That shows that the parents are certainly happy with the school.

The authority also argues that sixth forms are not viable. On the authority's own figures, the sixth form is viable at Ecclesbourne for as long as predictions can be made. The authority tries also to suggest that tertiary colleges are somehow better than sixth forms. I have found no evidence for that claim. I believe that it is a false argument because the choice is between sixth forms and tertiary education and not between sixth forms or tertiary education. That choice is removed.

The parents in my constituency rightly object to tertiary colleges being forced upon them and changing a system that has proven results for a system that might be better. I do not believe that we should go from a system that is proven to a system that is unproven. That is a wild jump in the dark and we should not put our children at risk.

As I have said, Ecclesbourne is a school of proven worth. In its curriculum breadth, the school offers A-levels in 18 subjects and could offer more if there were a demand. It also provides 11 one-year courses for sixth formers, spanning the academic to the pre-vocational.

Ecclesbourne has a concern for low achievers and, on average, improvements over a 24-month period in reading ages of the first years needing help with basic skills. I offer the following quotation from a father's letter to the headmaster. It was quoted by the headmaster in his 1985 speech day report. It is a good endorsement of the school.The father wrote: He came to Ecclesbourne School seven years ago with a number of educational problems which resulted in a person with really no self-confidence and poor prospects. Indeed, his Primary teacher in her final assessment confessed him to be `a mess'. Now, as you may be aware, educationally he is in possession of 8 '0' levels and 3 'A' levels and he has embarked this term on a Further Education course. But even more importantly, he is now a happy, self-confident, well-adjusted person, knowing where he wants to go. What more can we ask of our schools?

There can be no doubt about the importance of a sixth form in a school and the school boasts the widest possible range of extra-curricular activities in which the sixth form plays a major role in organising.

There is a case for choice. Sixth forms are different from tertiaries. Sixth forms have high expectations in performance and behaviour. They make demands as well as offering choices. I believe also that sixth forms are a powerful and beneficial influence on the rest of the school.

There is no doubt that they attract better teachers. Sixth forms provide examples for younger pupils who also want to benefit from their activities as organisers.

Ecclesbourne's sixth form offers a valuable alternative to a tertiary college. Its students are set demanding yet realistic personal targets. Their progress and development are carefully monitored. The curriculum is carefully matched to the needs of their locality. It cannot even be claimed by the county council to be a financially viable alternative, as the local education authority admits that it will cost an additional £2.35 million to accommodate the extra pupils from Ecclesbourne and another school, John Port. The annual operating costs will also increase by £650,000, and no details are given of changeover or disruption costs.

Mr. Richard Ryder (Mid-Norfolk)

Where are the Opposition?

Mr. McLoughlin

Unfortunately, they are in control of Derbyshire county council, and that is our problem. Bearing in mind the answer which my hon. Friend, through the Secretary of State, gave to my question, he will know that out of Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire is the highest rated county.

Mr. David Lightbown (Staffordshire, South-East)

Get rid of Bookbinder.

Mr. McLoughlin

One thing on which it spends less per head than those other authorities is education, and I would like to see its education spending brought into line with that of other counties. I would rather see the money spent on education that on some of the other crazy schemes that the county council suggests. I want to see the money used in a positive way, improving opportunities for children in schools, not destroying them which is what the county council seems so intent on doing.

For every child in primary school in Derbyshire £780 is spent, while in Nottinghamshire it is £840, For every child in secondary school in Derbyshire £1,125 is spent, while in Nottinghamshire it is £1,220. But one does not improve educational opportunities by destroying what is good and proven.

The last area to which I wish to turn my attention is that of the governing body. This is a short debate and I know that some of my hon. Friends would like to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. They have given me unswerving support in this campaign, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) and my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight). I have said that my first speech in the House was on the Education Bill. I was extremely pleased to be appointed to that Standing Committee. As my hon. Friend will know, it changed the way in which governing bodies are appointed.

At the moment, the governing body of Ecclesbourne school has failed to give its total support to the campaign to save the school. Of the present governing body, 12 members are appointed by Derbyshire county council, two by Amber Valley district council and one by Derby city council. Seven are elected and 15 appointed by the county and district councils. One of the members said at a public meeting which I attended that although he would not like to see the sixth form closed it seemed that "we"—the governing body—"should support the council." After all, he said, they are socialists and we are socialists. I honestly believed that the duty of a governing body was to represent the best interests of the school, and certainly not the best interests of the local education authority. I am exceptionally glad that we have changed the law to ensure that we remove such politically biased people so that they no longer have a majority on school governing bodies. That legislation cannot come into effect in Derbyshire fast enough for the good of our schools.

The present governing body at Ecclesbourne obviously does not speak for the school that it is supposed to represent but rather its comrades in arms at county hall. This is a disgusting approach for a governing body to take, and one which should be condemned by the Labour Front Bench. Unfortunately, none of them is here. I very much doubt whether they will condemn it; indeed, they cannot condemn it this evening. The parents have only one hope of ensuring that these proposals are stopped. It is a hope to which this Government should he able to respond with ease because not only does the school provide good education but the parents are happy and satisfied with it and it is large enough to contain its own sixth form.

Sixth forms play a valuable role and I am reluctant to see them replaced by impersonal tertiary colleges. The tertiary college system should be the last resort of any local education authority. Before tertiary education goes ahead, the education authority should have considered carefully the arrangements for consortium education so that the sixth form pupil remains at the school at which he h as spent his whole school life and is not removed to a big, impersonal tertiary college at the end of his school days. We should look to tertiary colleges as a last resort and not try to jump for them as a first resort, as Derbyshire county council is doing in the proposal currently before the Secretary of State.

The parents can only look to this Government and to the Secretary of State as a believer in the individual and as a believer in parental choice, not Socialist dogma, to overturn the decision and reject the case for tertiary education for Ecclesbourne school. There can be no doubt about the commitment of my constituents to that school, as anyone who has been around this place today will know, having listened to the short speeches of hon. Members in other debates.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will not be able to answer one way or the other tonight. As the Member for the constituency I have placed on record a very strong concern on the subject. As Adjournment debates are not the easiest to answer, it would be wrong of me not to express to my hon. Friend my grateful thanks for his decision last week on a primary school in my constituency. When he informs me of the decision on the sixth form proposals of Derbyshire county council, I can only ask that his letter reads like the letter that he sent me last week when he said that the Secretary of State, under the powers vested in him, rejected the proposal of Derbyshire county council. It is only a Conservative Government that can reject such proposals; I trust that it will be a Conservative Government who do reject it.

3.4 am

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member For Derbyshire, West (M r. McLoughlin) on bringing to the attention of the House an extremely important matter. I support him unreservedly. May I say in passing that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), who unfortunately cannot be here, is also concerned about several aspects of Derbyshire county council's proposals for education within the county? She wishes to be associated with my hon. Friend's remarks.

This is an extremely important matter to anyone who has ties with the county of Derbyshire. We are entitled to ask why there is not one single member of the Labour party present for the debate. Why has not one member of the alliance bothered to stay to listen to my hon. Friend? That is a disgrace, and the matter should not go unobserved by the House. It will not go unobserved by the people of Derbyshire.

My hon. Friend properly concentrated on the position at Ecclesbourne school, but many other schools in Derbyshire will be affected by the county council's proposals. I accept immediately that some sixth forms need to close because of falling rolls. For example, there is no case for keeping open the sixth forms at Littleover school and Parkfields school, in my view, because of falling rolls there.

However, in addition to supporting my hon. Friend's comments on Ecclesbourne school I want to tell the Minister that other schools in Derbyshire have viable sixth forms of proven worth and should not be closed. I mention, en passant, Spondon school and Woodlands school, both in my constituency. If a sixth form is viable, surely it should be kept open so that parents and pupils have the right to choose.

I find amazing not only the absence of Opposition Members but also the astonishing silence of some of those from Derbyshire whom one would have expected to support the views of the parents and pupils. I am referring to local councillors and local-authority-appointed school governors. Why have we in Derbyshire not heard from them? Why have they kept quiet on this issue?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene briefly in his debate. I am not saying that every aspect of the Derbyshire plan is wrong, but I am saying that the proposals for Ecclesbourne, Spondon and Woodlands schools—are wrong. The plan is destructive and it should be rejected.

3.11 am
Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)

I support the retention of the sixth form at Ecclesbourne school. Ecclesbourne school is not in my constituency, but it is on its border and several parents who live in Amber Valley send their children to Ecclesbourne school.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) for allowing me to take part in the debate. As the hour is late, or early, depending which way one looks at it, I do not propose to speak for long, especially as most of the relevant points have been ably made by my hon. Friend, whom I fully and wholeheartedly support in his campaign for the retention of the sixth form at Ecclesbourne.

I want briefly to pay tribute to the action group, ably led by Pauline Latham and ably backed by many concerned parents. The most worrying aspect of the county council's proposal to close Ecclesbourne's sixth form is the way in which Derbyshire county council is blatantly and shamefacedly politicising education. I say that it is politicising education because the only reason for proposing to close the sixth form at Ecclesbourne is a political one.

There simply is no educational reason for closing the sixth form in Ecclesbourne. It is a good sixth form. There is no financial reason for closing the sixth form, because it would be cheaper to retain it. There is no democratic reason for closing it, because the parents and the people in the area are almost unanimously in favour of its retention.

The truth is that this is a blatantly political decision by the county council which wants to close the sixth form because it thinks that it would be elitist to keep it open. "Elitism" is the word which the county council bandies around to cover anything which it happens not to like.

How can it be elitist for a sixth form as good as Ecclesbourne to survive? Surely it is just the opposite, because it is good sixth forms such as the Ecclesbourne school sixth form which give children who do not necessaily have a privileged background an opportunity to succeed in our society.

Derbyshire county council's proposals to close Eccelesbourne's sixth form are undemocratic, in that they take no account of the wishes of local parents. They are bad for education, financially idiotic and understandable only in the context of the type of manic Socialist dogma into which Derbyshire county council—unfortunately—so often delves.

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

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) on his success in obtaining an Adjournment debate on the proposals of Derbyshire county council to reorganise sixth form education. I also place on record the congratulations of Conservative Members on the way in which my hon. Friend has conducted himself and represented the interests of his constituents since his election.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an issue that is of immediate concern to him, and to other hon. Members who represent Derbyshire. They have spoken about the proposals of Derbyshire county council to reorganise sixth form education in the county by providing 16-plus education at tertiary colleges, and to close sixth forms in secondary schools. Those proposals have already been published in the city of Derby and its surrounding area.

My hon. Friends will appreciate that it is impossible for me to prejudge the issues, and that I am therefore unable to say anything about the future of the sixth forms that are the subject of our debate. I can, however, assure them that I have listened carefully to what has been said tonight, and that the points that they have made will be taken into account along with the representations that we have received, and any others that we may receive, before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State makes his decision on the proposals.

Finally, I must state, without prejudice to this or any future case, that the Government are determined to preserve quality in education wherever and whenever it is found, and to work for its continued improvement. As my hon. Friends know, I have made that point on numerous occasions but I gladly make it again tonight, and hope that I shall do so many times in the future.

I thank my hon. Friends who have spoken so well. We will listen carefully to what they have to say, and I shall ensure that all the views that have been expressed come to the attenton of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Three o'clock am.

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