HC Deb 24 May 1989 vol 153 cc1097-102

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

1.37 am
Mr. Tom Arnold (Hazel Grove)

I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of school capacity. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, I want to draw the attention of the House to the dispute that has arisen between the village of Highlane in the Hazel Grove constituency and the local authority, the Stockport metropolitan borough council.

The borough council has recently carried out a reorganisation of secondary education in the borough and, as part of that reorganisation, it has also introduced new priority areas for determining who can be admitted to particular schools. Since October of last year, I have received representations from parents in the village of Highlane, who have discovered that, contrary to the previous history of the village, they can no longer expect to send their children to the town of Marple to be educated in Marple's high school. That has come as a great shock to my constituents in that village, because hitherto Highlane has been included in the Marple priority area, and now and henceforth that will no longer apply.

I have received a great deal of correspondence and I have attended a great many meetings, including at least two public meetings that were extremely well attended. The feeling in the village has run high, because it is a village community and one where a sense of cohesion has traditionally been a marked characteristic of life in the village.

The situation has been made worse by the fact that it had been widely thought in the village of Highlane that at a meeting in 1985 to discuss the council's proposals an undertaking was given by the then chairman of the education authority that, consequent upon the changes to reorganisation in the borough, parents in Highlane could continue to send their children to Marple. The parents believed that an undertaking had been given at that meeting. The local authority denies that and as there is no agreed record of what took place at the meeting, this rather odd and disturbing situation cannot be resolved one way or another. I thought it worthwhile mentioning this to my hon. Friend the Minister because it underlines once again the extent to which feeling in the village has been driven to a very high pitch by the sequence of events which has taken place.

The history of Highlane has been inextricably bound up with the town of Marple. The children of Highlane have been educated in Marple, to my understanding, since the first half of the 19th century. Certainly in recent decades the links between the village of Highlane and the village of Marple have been very strong. The issue that we are facing now relates to parental choice.

I do not believe that it was right for me to have campaigned at the last general election on the issue of parental choice only to turn round now to the parents in Highlane who are affected by this issue and say to them, "Ah well, but of course in your particular circumstances parental choice does not apply. It is administrative convenience which must rule the day." I do not accept that proposition, but the local council and councillors are urging me to accept it.

There will always be occasions when granting freedom to individuals will produce untidy situations. It may well be that in trying to organise secondary education in the metropolitan borough of Stockport the council will face a certain amount of untidiness if the principle of parental choice is to be allowed to proceed. My attitude towards that is, "Well, so be it." It is worth having a certain amount of untidiness to maintain a fundamental freedom and to increase it with regard to parental choice in this issue.

In a letter to me dated 1 December 1988 my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out that there is an appeals procedure. Mrs. Hazel Howard, who lives in Highlane and who is a leading campaigner in the local movement, said that the effect of the new priority areas is that the children of Highlane will in future have absolutely no choice but to attend Hazelgrove high school. My hon. Friend the Minister explained that that is not so. Stockport education authority operates an admissions system which guarantees children living in a certain priority area a place at the school associated with that area. However, that does not debar other pupils from applying for vacant places. It is also open to parents to appeal to an independent local appeal committee if their choice is not accepted. My hon. Friend the Minister explained that he understood that last year 15 appeals against non-admission to Marple Hall school were successful.

All that is true, but I do not believe that an annual appeals procedure is the same as having a right. Previously the parents had a right by virtue of the way in which the boundaries of the priority area were drawn. To tell the parents that they have an appeals procedure available to them is hardly the same as recognising the historical ties of the village and allowing them to take it for granted that their children, upon completing primary education, could proceed to Marple. As I suggested earlier, administrative convenience has won the day. While I do not doubt for one moment that compromises were necessary within the metropolitan borough of Stockport to carry through the reorganisation of secondary education, I want to make my position perfectly clear. I am challenging the council's policy of priority areas.

The councillors and council officials concerned have been at some pains to say to people who have raised objections and made representations to the authority that they do not consider that the capacity of the Marple school is the real point at issue. They say that we are effectively challenging the authority's decision on priority areas. My response to that is to say, precisely. It may well be proper for the council to develop a policy and it may be entirely understandable that it should wish to develop it in this particular way, but not at the expense of the principles to which I referred earlier.

The capacity of Marple Hall school has been the subject of widespread local debate. My hon. Friend the Minister has kept me in touch with the various complicated developments which have taken place in the recent past. I shall not rehearse all the figures now, except to say that parental choice should be limited only by the school's capacity to take pupils, and no other criteria. If Marple Hall has the capacity to take these parents' children, the school should be allowed to do so.

The numbers of children involved are not large. Although, when the matters were first brought to my attention, 35 families were involved, the number of children has now dropped to 11. That is because the passage of time and the parents' concern about the future of their children's education this autumn has led them to make other arrangements. A number of children have accepted places at a Cheshire school in Poynton. A number of other parents may be thinking that they should accept the policy put forward by Stockport that henceforward their children must go to Hazel Grove. However, 11 parents who want their children to go to Marple Hall enjoy my support.

I have seen no evidence to suggest that Marple Hall does not have the capacity to take the relatively small number of children involved. However, the council has been adamant in responding to all my representations by saying that it is not prepared to deviate from its policy because to do so would create serious repercussions across the metropolitan borough. It would say that, but my constituents and I cannot possibly support that attitude.

What then is to be done, and what would I like my hon. Friend the Minister to do? I recognise that in such matters his powers must, necessarily, be limited. My hon. Friend was kind enough to point out in one of his letters to me that, under the open enrolment provisions of our new legislation, there would be scope for what is referred to technically as the standard number—in this case 270, which has been set as the admissions level for Marple Hall —to be revised.

In his letter, my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out that: The authority are of course, free to admit above the published admission number if there is fair capacity available. From 1st September 1989, the governing body of the school will also be able to propose a higher number than the authority's published figure if it has reason to think that that number, whether it is the standard number or not, is too low. If that is rejected by the authority, the governing body's proposal will then fall to the Secretary of State to decide … I should explain that this provision does not come into force until September because it will only be then that admission levels are published for the 1990 intake. Admission authorities are entitled to set a level for 1990 and beyond which is higher than a school's standard number, without publishing proposals. It remains to be seen whether Stockport will do so for Marple Hall, but whether they do so now or not is a matter for them. At the moment, I am not optimistic that Stockport council would wish to avail itself of that procedure because it has been so adamant about its desire to stand by its present policy at all costs. I hope that this debate will help to focus attention locally on the important issues of principle which are involved. I hope that it will help both the Marple Hall governors and the councillors and their officials to recognise that my constituents' sense of grievance in this case is genuine and rooted in much precedent and local history.

I hope that—notwithstanding the lateness of the date in terms of the arrangements that must be made for next autumn—a spirit of good will can prevail, and that the council will recognise that it should try to meet the points that have been made by adopting a more flexible and, I believe, more reasonable policy. That policy should recognise that parental choice has a part to play in our fundamental freedoms, and that an issue of freedom faces us now.

1.55 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. John Butcher)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Arnold) on the tenacity and clarity with which he has pursued this issue over a long period. When I knew that he had succeeded in securing this Adjournment debate I looked at past correspondence and noted that my predecessor also had to deal with the matter. In the light of that, I thought that the best way in which I could help my hon. Friend would be to see whether I could give the House any new or additional information which my hon. Friend could then communicate to his constituents when they sought his advice—which I am sure they will continue to do, given his diligence in pursuing their interests.

As my hon. Friend made clear, his main concern is the matter of the priority areas for Marple Hall and Hazel Grove high schools in Stockport. He has written to me about it several times, and I am aware that it is currently of particular concern to parents in the Highlane area. My hon. Friend described the long and historic links between Highlane and the village of Marple. I confirm that his anxiety for parental choice to be delivered is also very much my concern, and we do not differ at all on the priority that it should be given in practice within local authorities. However, we run a pluralistic system in our society and, indeed, in education, and there are parts of local authority remits in which a DES Minister cannot and should not intervene. We can, however, urge on all involved the view that local authorities should where possible consolidate on schools that are supported by parental choice, and that that is the best way in which to serve the interests of the local community—and, in the long term, those of the local education authority.

As my hon. Friend has pointed out, the children of Highlane have for the most part attended Marple Ridge high school. Because Highlane is further from Marple Hall than from Marple Ridge and is nearer to another school —Hazel Grove high school—I understand that it was the LEA's decision to include Highlane in the priority area of Hazel Grove high school. That was Stockport's decision. My hon. Friend, as I have said, is fighting for his constituents' interests, and is legitimately seeking ways either to challenge that decision or—as I interpret his comments—to appeal to the authority's sense of reason and duty to respond to the demands of its residents, ratepayers and electors.

I am a little mystified by the attitude that a long tradition should be curtailed, and that long-standing loyalties, parental choice and commitments—which, for all I know, may well run through families for generations —should be severed in this way.

I shall amplify the comment that I made in my recent letter to my hon. Friend. From 4 August 1990, as my hon. Friend correctly pointed out, schools will be required to admit at least their standard numbers if there is sufficient demand. There is provision in the Education Reform Act 1988 for admissions authorities to admit in excess of a school's standard number. Furthermore, an authority that is not responsible for admissions can take action if necessary.

Where the local education authority is responsible for admissions, that authority is the governors—and vice versa. My hon. Friend may like to consider that aspect tomorrow morning, when we have had a chance to recharge our cerebra with the tonic that comes from sleep. If the judgment of that authority is that the existing standard number underestimates the school's capacity, and if it cannot reach agreement with the admissions authority on the level of admission, on or after 1 September 1989 it may ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science to fix a higher standard number.

Any future amendment to the standard number of Marple Hall school will be for the local education authority and the governors to consider in the first instance. Only the Secretary of State can vary a standard number, so it would not be in order for me to comment on that possibility—in case such an application were to come before my right hon. Friend. My hon. Friend will appreciate that, to use these awful words, the quasi-judicial position of the Secretary of State is a regular and frequent restraint on what can and cannot be said, even in this Chamber.

As I indicated, the question of priority areas is riot within my right hon. Friend's locus and therefore I cannot comment on it. However, I hope that my remarks on the mechanism of requesting—as in this case, presumably—an upward variation in the standard number are helpful. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will refer to me again if he requires further advice or clarification of how his constituents can make use of that mechanism—presumably, and preferably, with the co-operation of the local authority. I hope that my hon. Friend finds some reassurance in those few words. I shall continue to keep a close eye on developments in the community whose interests he represented so well tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Two o'clock.