HC Deb 30 November 1989 vol 162 cc930-6

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

9.45 pm
Mr. David Davis (Boothferry)

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting my subject for the Adjournment debate. Rural schools in Humberside face specific problems. I will come to the details in a moment, but I suspect that those problems are replicated in many counties with large rural areas and a majority urban population.

In recent years, much of Government policy has focused on the problems of the inner cities, recognising the specific problems there and attempting to do something about them. On the obverse side, there is a general belief that life is healthier in rural areas and that people in small towns and villages have a better quality of life than people in cities. They have less unemployment, less crime and fewer social problems. In my view, rural life is better than urban life, and I think that it should be made available to as many people as possible.

The quality of rural life is reflected in the schools, which have fewer behavioural problems, more parental involvement and a more positive attitude among the children. Accordingly educational attainment levels in rural schools are as good as—and sometimes better than —those in big urban schools. All those are virtues to be cherished. The thrust of my argument is that in Humberside all those virtues are at risk due to a policy of neglect.

Humberside has a large rural area, dominated by three major cities—Hull, Grimsby and Scunthorpe. My constituency of Boothferry is a predominantly rural area in the west of the county, furthest from Hull and Grimsby.

We all know how the mechanism for county councils obtaining money from central Government works—in practice if not in theory. On an annual basis, a typical county council makes a bid, which is almost always for more than the amount that it could reasonably expect to spend, because of the way the system works. It justifies the bid in the best way that it can and the Government agree to meet a proportion of the bid. In the past 50 years the average proportion nationwide has hovered at around 40 per cent. In other words, the Government have paid a typical council an average of 40 per cent. of its bid. Humberside has done much better than that. Although the bids have been large, the Government have allowed more than 60 per cent. of the bid submitted—almost half as much again as the national average. The Government have been generous to Humberside, and that generosity has allowed Humberside to spend £44 million to £45 million in capital on educational establishments.

More than £22 million of that money, however, has been spent on the Hull reorganisation alone. When it is finished, that reorganisation will have cost £23.6 million —50 per cent. more than the original bid. That massive overrun must be put down either to poor planning or to poor control—in other words, to poor management. There is considerable evidence that Humberside is not well blessed with good management in that respect. For example, the Audit Commission study of the provision of school meals in Humberside led to a number of salient criticisms about the way it was managed and identified management weaknesses accounting for some £2 million per year in excess costs.

In the reorganisation, the local authority did not send teachers to the schools that they ought to have attended, but left them for a considerable time in places where they were no longer needed. The local authority then offered an early retirement package so generous and so loosely managed that, instead of the 178 people that it needed to retire, 372 left. The county thus had to pay out for all those extra ones and then employ 200 new ones. That cost at least £4 million, which does not take account of the effect of the loss of a great number of experienced staff.

Such sloppy management is bad news for the ratepayer and the taxpayer, but the capital overrun is even worse news for my constituents in rural areas. For one school after another completion has been deferred, expansion has been put back and replacement has been denied. Many schools in my constituency are now overdue for capital expenditure. The most outstanding—there are many more are the schools at Howden, Walkington and Rawcliffe. So as not to take too much time, I shall take just one as an illustration—the Howden infants school.

Plans for a completely new infants' school were drawn up in the 1960s, and it was opened in 1971. At that time, the school operated on a split site—the new site, called Hailgate, and the old site, called Pinfold. As a temporary measure, in 1981, the children were moved from the Pinfold site to the Hailgate site and the Pinfold site was sold. The money from the sale went back to the county council. The children were put in temporary buildings on the new site. The county council got the money, but provided only half the school.

I will read an extract from a letter from a constituent, who takes up the story and describes better than I can what has happened since. She writes: For the past 8 and a half years, more children have been housed in temporary classrooms than in permanent accommodation. Continuous housing developments in Howden during the past 10 years have led to increased numbers of children at the school. In the summer term of 1986 there were 199 pupils on the roll. It does not take a mathematician to work out 3 x 30 in each mobile classroom plus 80 in a permanent building adds up to 170. That is a theoretical accommodation level at 29 less than the actual pupil numbers. In the summer of 1987 pupil numbers stood at 189. Having experienced severe difficulties the previous summer, pressure was brought to bear and the authorities agreed to the school's use of a vacant classroom in the adjoining junior school. Such a measure would not be possible in the future as the junior school is now at full capacity. The numbers for summer 1989 were 164, within the school's present capacity, but it is predicted that pupil numbers will rise again in the next few years. Numbers at the moment are expected to be 165 in 1990, 178 in 1991 and 180 in 1992. I think that those are very optimistic and low estimates.

The letter continues: In December 1988, Humberside County Council stated that late January 1990 start and completion of the building was expected and there was no intention of delay, unless the current budget review dictated otherwise. Following a visit by the assistant education officer (sites and buildings) it is now understood that the completion is unlikely to take place for at least two years. The proposed completion (or extension as the authority mistakenly call it) has been in the building estimates for several years. Each year the authority has deferred the building programme. The reason given this time is that the County Council has discovered that it needs to build a new school in Hull's dockside area. Why should Howden have to suffer for the County's poor planning and lack of foresight? It is not even known how large a school will be needed. Children from the new Dock side area could be bussed to one of Hull's half empty schools as a temporary measure. The children of Howden are here now; they are not a projected figure for the future and they should have their school completed now. It always seems to be the case that money is available for building in the cities but not in the rural areas. That view is widely held by my constituents. Indeed, it is a commonplace belief. The letter continues: This year 77 year 1 and year 2 children aged 5 to 7 years are starting the new year in mobile classrooms; they have to trek across the yard to the toilets, to the hall for Physical Education, movement, dance and drama and collective worship. It is time wasting, and on a wet day they are soaked, and on very cold days it is just miserable and unnecessary. Please can something be done now? That letter is calm, collected and factual, but for all that, it is a plea from the heart from someone who has children in a school that is more than half temporary and has been so for a long time.

It is not the only case. From my own visit there, Walkington seems to be a similar problem. Rawcliffe school is so old and bedraggled that it needs complete replacement. The reasons for the delays and deferrals given by various representatives of the county council vary enormously—so much so that they smack of excuses rather than reasons. Sometimes they say that the school will be completed, and sometimes that it will not be, either because there are plans for a new school in Howden or because the money is to be used for something else.

I illustrate that with a response from the director of education explaining why Howden is to be deferred again, just one more time. He blames the Government first, of course, for not meeting his bid in full. He then says that there is only enough money for four new schemes. He writes: One element of the new scheme is a new primary school to serve the new housing development in the Victoria Dock area of Hull. This is a development which has been planned since we planned the Hull Schools reorganisation. That would be in about 1986. The letter continues: There are no schools that are within reasonable distance of the new houses which could provide relief. "Reasonable distance" is, of course, a rather subjective measure. Many of my constituents' children travel much further than the whole diameter of Hull to get to school, and they have no alternative. The letter continues: The size of the school is 240 places and facility to expand to 360. You will understand that forecasting the size of a school in this housing development is difficult until the mix of housing types is known. We are now confident we know the balance and can forecast accurately. I am sure that you will appreciate that substantial developments such as this constantly bring new factors into our planning process. In other words, the Hull school has been planned since about 1986. Howden has been planned, nominally, since 1981. The Hull school is for predicted numbers, whereas the Howden completion is for current numbers of pupils and Howden is already overcrowded. The county council's priorities will prevent pupils in Hull having to travel perhaps a mile to another school by frequent bus services. Many of the children at Howden school have to travel quite considerable distances and there is no alternative.

There is a saying in my constituency that Humberside is longhand for Hull. Such political favouritism towards Labour-voting urban areas is, I suppose to be expected, but it is unacceptable that it should continue year after year to the penalty of my constituents' children.

I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to allocate the money for this year's budget for Humberside to specific projects so that my constituents could be guaranteed fair treatment, but I know that that is no longer an option under current rules. The law expects and assumes that the county council will behave in a responsible manner. However, I ask my hon. Friend to make a generous allocation to Humberside again. Humberside has particular needs and I have no dispute with the county council about the fact that those needs —not least the reorganisation of schools in Goole which is also in my constituency—will prove expensive.

I want my hon. Friend the Minister to make it clear to Humberside, however, that in giving it a generous allocation, he expects it to behave fairly towards the rural schools, especially those in my constituency. The other parts of Humberside have the same right to a good education and proper facilities for their children as are enjoyed by children in the Labour areas of Hull. When my hon. Friend reviews the bid in subsequent years, he should take into consideration just how the money given this year is used and whether the rural population has had a fair deal, because I want a fair deal for rural children in Humberside—no more and no less.

9.58 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Alan Howarth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis) on securing this Adjournment debate, and I am grateful to him for providing the House with an opportunity to discuss the important issues that he raised tonight. I have noted, of course, what he has said about the way in which Humberside local education authority has proceeded in implementing the reorganisation proposals and his belief that, as a consequence, rural schools have been neglected. I can well understand his feelings of frustration and those of his constituents as they see much needed work on their schools deferred. I know that projects have been planned but not yet implemented for work at the schools to which he has referred—Howden, Hook, Airmyn, Rawcliffe and Walkington.

I appreciate the difficulties that pupils, teachers and parents have experienced at Howden. My hon. Friend has been in contact with the authority and with us about Howden. Howden infant school is a named school for a 120 basic need extension in the authority's bid for the coming year. It has, however, as my hon. Friend suggested, featured in the authority's bids in previous years, along with other basic need projects—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended

10.2 pm

On resuming

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

Mr. Howarth

As I was saying, Howden featured in the authority's bids in previous years. As basic need was allowed for in the allocation made to the authority in the past it would seem that it has decided not to give priority to this project and presumably has channelled its allocation into the reorganisations. I do not need to remind my hon. Friend that my Department cannot direct a local education authority on how it should spend its money. The authority is responsible to its electorate for its spending policies, capital and recurrent. In the case of recurrent expenditure, the community charge will make all authorities more directly accountable to their electorates. It is my hon. Friend's constituents who must make their voices heard if there is to be criticism of the way in which Humberside local education authority has spent the money provided for it.

Humberside LEA, in common with every other, has received allocations from us over and above those calculated as necessary to implement proposals for school reorganisation for spending on improvements to other schools, including those in rural areas. If my hon. Friend does not consider that the resources available to the authority have been properly distributed, these are matters for him to continue to take up with the authority, as he has done already on behalf of his constituents.

My hon. Friend has referred to the reorganisation in his constituency—the Goole area—and in particular to the significant increase in the costs of the project. I understand that that has arisen as a result of the authority bowing to local pressure. It has developed, or is in the course of developing, a modern sixth form centre for pupils at the local comprehensive school in the premises of Bartholomew school, a former middle school. This was originally intended to house a primary school. It is now proposed to establish the primary school instead in the premises of the former Boothferry road first school, again in deference to local wishes. I am glad to be able to announce to the House that approval of the new proposal has just been given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, and the authority notified accordingly.

I hope that my hon. Friend's constituents will be glad that their pleas in respect of the proposed new primary school have not been in vain.

I note my hon. Friend's view that not enough money has been allocated for the Goole reorganisation, and that the authority has spent disproportionately large sums on the establishment of the new sixth form centre. I can only say that the estimated cost of the original proposals, as indicated by the local education authority, was fully taken into account in Humberside's allocations. Where an authority chooses to increase expenditure, or where cost increases occur, these have to be absorbed within its existing capital programme. It is up to local education authorities to get their costings as accurate as possible.

On the more general question of capital resources for schools, the Humberside LEA has submitted ambitious plans for capital spending to my Department. So have all the other local education authorities in England. I am glad to be able to remind the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State secured an increase for local authority capital, and for grants to voluntary aided and grant-maintained schools, in this year's public expenditure round. This extra provision will allow continued progress on improvement programmes in schools. Allocations to individual authorities of what are now to be called annual capital guidelines under the new capital control system will be announced by Christmas. We shall be looking at Humberside's needs, including the needs of some of the schools he has described which feature in the authority's plans, against that background. But I would not seek to give the House the impression that what we can distribute will meet all the spending needs identified by all local education authorities.

Hon. Members will have seen the Labour party's report published on Monday on the state of our schools. It is an opportunist and emotive document. Many of the figures are wrong, and some of the conclusions drawn are fanciful. But we would be the first to recognise that a great deal needs to be done to the fabric of schools all over the country to bring them up to scratch and to fit them for delivery of the high standards of education to which parents and teachers alike aspire, not least in the rural areas, and which our children should have. Local education authorities, and governors of voluntary aided schools, spend substantial sums of money each year in tackling the problem. They do this by means of borrowing power which we distribute, of receipts generated by sales of education assets—typically school sites sold as part of a reorganisation —by the use of revenue funds, and grant from the Department in the case of voluntary aided schools. Of course there is never enough to satisfy. The same is true of all public spending programmes.

Capital spending per pupil has nevertheless increased by 10 per cent. in real terms since we came into office. But more needs to be done, and it is against that background that there is to be an increase in local authority capital guidelines and in the money available for grant to governors of voluntary aided schools to which I referred earlier.

As in recent years, priority will be given first to meeting committed expenditure on projects outstanding from previous years. This stands Humberside in good stead because of the large-scale reorganisations approved in Grimsby and Goole which are still being implemented. Priority is next given to meeting the cost of new school places in areas of population growth, and then to removing surplus places. I know that new places for schools in my hon. Friend's constituency figure in Humberside's plans submitted to us. Any remaining funds are distributed to LEAs through an objective formula for spending on school improvements. I must stress that this is the basis for our calculations of entitlement at the Department of Education and Science. How local education authorities choose to spend the money generated by the borrowing power we distribute is up to them. They will be free to supplement this from proceeds of receipts, and from revenue—including the proceeds of the community charge—if they wish.

My hon. Friend suggests that not enough has been allocated to Humberside in recent years. I have yet to meet an hon. Member who tells me that his authority has had a sufficient allocation of capital for schools. What is available within public expenditure constraints has to be shared out as equitably as possible. But, as my hon. Friend generously acknowledged, Humberside has done better than most authorities in recent years in terms of the percentage of its plans covered-72 per cent. in 1987, 53 per cent. in 1988, and 55 per cent. in 1989, against averages for all LEAs of 38 per cent., 39 per cent. and 34 per cent. I am pleased that we were able to offer Humberside an extra allocation this autumn of £213,000 to meet the need for new school places in place of a crumbling school—an example in Humberside of how bogus the Labour party is to claim that we do not care.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the difficulties under which rural schools labour, and the need to safeguard rural life. I entirely agree. It is immensely important that authorities ensure that rural communities have a fair share of the services that they deserve. As for education, we are well seized of the difficulties that rural primary schools face. Humberside is one of the local education authorities that has benefited from the education support grant programme launched by my Department four years ago to help broaden and enrich the curriculum in rural primary schools. The Department recognised, long before the Education Reform Act and the national curriculum, that small rural primary schools can have real difficulties in ensuring a rich curriculum experience for their children, and that such schools can only too often suffer from isolation, lack of opportunity for contact between pupils and their peer groups, and little chance for teachers, and even head teachers, to compare notes. That is why we have paid grant—at 70 per cent.—on expenditure of some £1.5 million per annum by the 14 local education authorities concerned, all of which had a substantial number of small rural primary schools, as pump-priming funding for a series of projects, developed according to the way in which each authority thinks that the funding should best be used.

We have commissioned an evaluation study from Leicester university of the effects of the education support grant programme so that other authorities, which are not participants in the present programme, can benefit from the lessons learnt. But it is already possible to assert that the programme in general has been successful in meeting its prime objectives in reducing the isolation of small primary schools in our countryside, and enabling pupils to benefit from a richer variety of experience. As it happens, the programme could not have been better timed. Schools which have benefited from the programme, in Humberside and elsewhere, have told us that experience gained from projects funded by the programme has been invaluable in coming to terms with the introduction of the national curriculum.

In Humberside, for example, the local education authority has used education support grant money to fund the costs of five advisory teachers to offer a range of specialist curriculum expertise to schools where otherwise it would not be available. The teaching areas that they have chosen to cover are craft, design and technology, art, expressive arts, and environmental studies. One of their particular briefs is to explore ways of maintaining a degree of specialist teaching in these areas after the withdrawal of teacher consultants. This will enable schools to be more confident about curriculum development in these areas, which are important parts of the national curriculum, and which many small rural schools might not be able otherwise easily to deliver.

I should like to end by thanking my hon. Friend for drawing to my attention the consequences of decisions by his local education authority of changes in priorities for capital spending—consequences which impact directly on the quality of life in the rural areas that he represents. I am as concerned as he to see the quality of rural life safeguarded and enhanced. Rural areas must share in the increase in prosperity which the Government have helped to bring about since we have held office. This applies as much to the fabric of schools as it does to roads and other services.

My hon. Friend asked me to be generous to Humberside, and I assure him that I shall do my best to ensure that resources are made available to the Humberside local education authority at a level which reflects its needs and the needs of rural areas as far as is compatible with the need that we have to be fair to all authorities within the funds at our disposal.