HC Deb 12 May 1992 vol 207 cc593-600

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

10.18 pm
Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

Unfortunately, lack of time allows me—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Will right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber do so quickly and quietly?

Mr. Rogers

Unfortunately, lack of time allows me to deal only with the problems facing the education service in Mid Glamorgan. However, I do not want to create the impression that the education service is not providing the citizens with what it has always provided them. Mid Glamorgan, as with Glamorgan before it, has provided the highest standard of education notwithstanding the enormous social and economic difficulties that we have faced as a consequence of our industrial history.

I want first to pay tribute on behalf of myself and my colleagues to the skill and dedication of everyone involved in the education service in the county over the years. Two types of difficulty face us in Mid Glamorgan—those difficulties which are general to all local education authorities, and those peculiar to Mid Glamorgan and the valley authorities of south Wales. General underfunding of the public education service is the problem faced and shared with other local education authorities. For example, on capital financing, Mid Glamorgan's capital building programme averages £6 million to £8 million in any one year, on a revenue budget of £240 million. No business of that size can properly exist on such a low level of capital investment—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I wish to hear the hon. Gentleman. Madam Speaker has already made it clear that Members should be quiet.

Mr. Rogers

That is why we have old, badly maintained schools which are unsuitable, in design and layout, for modern teaching methods and for the delivery of the national curriculum upon which so much emphasis is placed by the Government.

Funding per pupil is the other aspect of funding which is of vital importance. Even allowing for the different basis for funding of the state and the private sector, the funding level per pupil is 50 per cent. higher for the private sector, which is reflected in better buildings, better staffing ratios and smaller class sizes, as well as salaries above the norm.

Much of Mid Glamorgan suffered in the inter-war years. Outward migration and a declining population meant that there was little school building in the 1920s and 1930s. Consequently, our schools are either pre-1917 or post-1950. Both types present maintenance problems. The old schools require extensive improvement if they are to deliver the national curriculum, and the Minister of State knows that very well. The newer schools, which were built to rigid Government-prescribed cost limits, resulted in flat roofs, system building and, in some cases, storage heating rather than central heating systems. That has landed the authority with considerable maintenance problems as the cheaply built structures deteriorate. That category includes most of the large secondary schools in the county area.

More than half of the authority's primary schools are pre-first world war, and they are often located in subsidence areas. Maintenance costs are high and the national curriculum has highlighted the lack of a water supply in classrooms, combined with inadequacies in electrical wiring systems and power points, which are necessary for the delivery of science and technology teaching. In the three years between 1990 and 1993 the LEA will have to invest £1.6 million of its own funds to carry out that work. The Government are not prepared to put in any extra money for that provision.

Welsh-medium education is one of the local authority's successes. Each year a new Welsh-medium primary school is opened. There are four Welsh-medium secondary schools in Mid Glamorgan. No other local authority in Wales can match Mid Glamorgan in its provision of Welsh-medium education, but that is not recognised in the capital allocations. There has been no Government recognition of the fact that the opening of a Welsh-medium school with a wide catchment area has little impact on the size of any English-medium school in the area. Welsh-medium schools create an additional demand for accommodation, which is not recognised in the capital grant.

Our county is a deprived area by any and every definition. The educational difficulties in the schools receive no Government recognition, in exactly the same way—oddly enough—that the health service in Glamorgan is not funded on the basis of deprivation factors, as a former Minister acknowledged in a debate some time ago.

Between the levels of special needs children, whom I shall return to later, and of achievers there is a large group of the school population which shows no motivation and has little parental support for educational development. The county has pleaded unsuccessfully for recognition of that.

Then there is the consequent drain on educational funding in the provision of a high level of free meals, clothing grants and so on. Instead, the Government face us with raw league tables by which schools are to be measured. No attempt is made to compensate for the fact that many pupils are deprived from birth of the richness of language, reading materials, educational play materials and parental support.

The local education authority has pioneered nationally a scheme of home-school support teachers, but that is limited by a lack of resources. Although the authority comes high up on the national scale of nursery provision, yet again there is a shortfall of resources which makes it impossible to meet demand within existing budget levels.

I should like to talk briefly about special needs and the poor, unfortunate children who must overcome multiple physical and mental handicaps simply to cope with the ordinary process of living. Many special schools in Mid Glamorgan have inherited their buildings from the old training centres when children with severe learning difficulties were considered uneducable. The buildings as a result are wholly unsuitable in terms of space and design to deliver a broad curriculum. The capitation allowance for special needs pupils is pitifully small. All special apparatus, minibuses, special chairs, standing frames and hydrotherapy pools are financed by private funds raised by the community and committed staff who are often exhausted by the extra fund-raising ventures during evenings and weekends.

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)

I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his superb work in the Rhondda in special needs education. Today I spoke to the headmaster of Bryncelynog comprehensive school, Mr. John Lloyd, who told me that he was desperately worried about the future of special needs education. Likewise, Mrs. Diane Johns, the headmistress of Pentyrch primary school. Does my hon. Friend agree that superb pioneering work in special needs education has been done in Mid Glamorgan? The prospects, however, are that schools will be opted out and there will be no provision whatever for this vital area of education. The staff and, I am sure, the parents of children with special needs are worried sick about that.

Mr. Rogers

My hon. Friend is right. Teachers of special needs pupils face the greatest problems of all. Anyone who visits a special school will see the caring, loving way that the staff deal with children with epilepsy, cerebal palsy or Down's syndrome, and how the children enjoy themselves and become involved. It is an experience to go to one of the concerts that the Rhondda special school puts on to raise money. I urge the Minister to come to one and to recognise the needs of those children. They need extra resources, for example, for transport to school. The LEA is forced to accept the lowest tender which takes no account of the pupils' special needs and disabilities—for example, whether a child is epileptic or requires a special harness or lift to get on and off the vehicle. The Government always insist on the authority accepting the cheapest tender.

The same applies to school meals. The pupils by the nature of their handicaps must stay at school all day. There was a time when the resources were available and the meals were cooked on the premises so that account could be taken of special problems, diets and feeding difficulties. Obviously, some must be individually fed. Now cooking cannot be done on the premises because there are not the resources to maintain that facility. Instead, pre-cooked meals must be brought in.

There is a lack of speech therapists in Mid Glamorgan. It is incredible that over the past year there has not been one speech therapy lesson in the Rhondda special school. How appalling it is to have a special school without a speech therapist. It has been suggested that there is an immediate need for 10 additional speech therapists in Mid Glamorgan, but just one is available. The same is true of physiotherapists, educational psychologists and other support services. The health authority is supposed to provide those services to the education authority, but it, too, does not have sufficient resources. A further £100,000 would be required to reach the nationally prescribed ratio for educational psychologists.

It is clear that Mid Glamorgan is suffering from specific difficulties over and above those that it shares with other authorities. Even so, the local education authority is £8 million above the Secretary of State's standard spending assessment. If Mid Glamorgan's SSA was reduced as a result of charge capping, the effect on the education service would be devastating. The authority would fall even further behind in its attempts to meet our people's needs.

I was appalled at the standard of the speech tonight of the new Secretary of State for Education. If he can deal with such an important debate in such a trivial manner, education is in a parlous state. I despair of that right hon. Gentleman accepting a constructive argument from me —I hope that I do better with the Minister of State at the Welsh Office.

I am concerned about the possible opting out of schools that apply for grant-maintained status. There are five comprehensive schools in my constituency. The opt-out proposal fills me with alarm, especially as those schools will have the ability to select their pupils across the existing catchment boundaries. The first school in the Rhondda that opts out can choose a process of selection that need not be based on educational standards or aptitude—at least the old 11-plus purported to do that. Selection could possibly be dictated by a child's family and social background. Schools could develop an elitist system of selection whereby a child could be rejected, regardless of his abilities, because of his family and social background. Can one imagine the chain reaction in the other four comprehensive schools in Mid Glamorgan? Which one of those schools would end up as the ghetto for those who did not have a place to go to? Is such a process supposed to create the classless society? Such divisiveness would destroy the closely knit valley communities as no other policy that even the Government introduced could manage. I hope that a separate approach is adopted towards education in Wales which recognises our unique needs.

I would rather not raise the matter of the award of the school cleaning contract in Mid Glamorgan, but I must do so because it is causing great concern. That contract is worth £10 million and it has been awarded to a company called Taylorplan. Unfortunately, its chairman is a Labour peer, Lord Parry of Neyland. The Minister must monitor that company because it intends to sack 20 per cent. of the existing work force—about 400 people. That might well mean that the company is unable to fulfil its contract.

There was a time when people would take the job of school cleaner to earn pin money. In the valley communities today the unemployment level stands at 20 per cent. and in some of those communities a wife working at a school needs the money—it is not a good wage even in the current situation—to maintain, not supplement, the family economy.

Taylorplan evidently specialises in bidding low to obtain tenders. It has made losses ever since it started in business and it has had solvency and cash flow problems. Councils and district health authorities have been wary of it. I understand from Mid Glamorgan that it vetted the company closely on financial and performance indicators. In January 1989, Croydon council described it as "a high-risk company" and it insisted that its Australian parent company should give an unconditional guarantee of financial support. Westminster council—that great Socialist authority up the road—was told in February 1988 by the city treasurer that he had reservations about accepting Taylorplan's tender because, he said, it involved a greater than usual degree of risk.

Taylorplan has been paying on its contract £2.40 an hour to cleaners in Suffolk. In Warwickshire, it was paying £2.80 an hour. In Kingston-upon-Thames, its workers were not receiving sick pay and no holiday pay was given to cleaners. It pulled out of its contract with Suffolk county council after only three months. The contract was to involve cleaning 19 schools, but the company ran into problems. The schools were not being properly cleaned.

I could give a long catalogue of incidents. For example, at Airedale general hospital, inspections found insects, cobwebs, dust, impacted dirt, urine-stained chairs and dirty windows on wards. Carpets that should have been shampooed had not been cleaned for long periods.

Lord Parry is a member of my political party and is chairman and a director of that company. My hon. Friends and colleagues in Mid Glamorgan feel that it is inappropriate for a Labour peer who espouses a commitment to fairness and supports the statutory minimum wage to be associated in the way I have described. I challenge Lord Parry and his company to give an undertaking to the 1,500 cleaners in Mid Glamorgan that he will maintain proper wage levels and jobs. Either the county has been managing the situation hopelessly or the company is unable to fulfil its contract without a reduction in the work force of more than 20 per cent.

The company must maintain proper standards. Our children have enough handicaps and problems to overcome. We do not want them to be educated in filthy schools. If the company, under the Government's privatisation directives, is to receive such contracts, the Minister of State, who is responsible for education in Wales, must monitor matters and ensure that the contracts are being performed to a proper standard. If not, the company must go immediately.

I do not have time to raise many other problems that we face in Mid Glamorgan. Many of those problems could be resolved with a marginal increase in resources. The problems have been clearly identified. The provision of extra resources is the only way to solve them. I ask the Minister to put his money where his party has been putting its mouth in recent months, and properly to fund the education service in Mid Glamorgan.

10.37 pm
The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Sir Wyn Roberts)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) on his safe return to this place and on his success in raising this issue on the Adjournment.

I will deal first with the hon. Gentleman's last point —the Mid Glamorgan cleaning contract. It is for the authority to be satisfied that the standards that it requires of contractors are clearly set out in contract specifications and that adequate monitoring arrangements are in place. If contractors fall below those standards, it is open to the authority to seek redress in the normal way. I stress that it is the responsibility of the relevant authority to ensure that it receives the service for which it is paying.

The hon. Gentleman has chosen a wide-ranging subject and has covered a number of issues. I doubt whether I shall be able to answer all the points that he raised. I shall read his speech in Hansard and, if necessary, cover in correspondence any points that I am unable to deal with in my reply.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about school buildings in Mid Glamorgan, and I appreciate some of his concerns. Over the years, since I have had responsibility for education, I have visited many schools in Mid Glamorgan. I shall be visiting the area again next Tuesday, when I hope to visit Ysgol Gyfun Rhydfelen, at the school's request, to see the condition of the buildings.

There is no doubt that over the years local education authorities have not invested sufficient funds in maintaining their education estate and that they have built up a considerable backlog of maintenance. The exact extent of the backlog is not known, but work by the education authorities following the efficiency circles initiative of my right hon. and learned Friend the former Secretary of State should enable them to determine the size of the task that they have set themselves through lack of investment.

Recently prepared information suggests that Mid Glamorgan had about £9 million worth of outstanding maintenance in 1987, and that by 1991 this had risen to about £18 million. My officials meet the education authorities every year to discuss their capital spending programmes. They also inquire about the levels of maintenance spending, but this is not always easy for the education authorities to determine, especially if maintenance is carried out through a central organisation rather than through the education building programme.

Mr. Rogers

Will the Minister give way?

Sir Wyn Roberts

The hon. Gentleman has left me only 10 minutes in which to reply. I am seeking to provide him with information.

Most problems are seen in schools which were system built 20 to 30 years ago, or in very old school buildings. There is no doubt that a large proportion of Mid Glamorgan schools fall into those categories. Central Government contribute towards county councils' capital spending by issuing approvals to borrow. In our planning for local authority spending we also take into account councils' past histories of supporting capital spending from their revenue accounts. This support is not, generally, directed at specific schemes or to particular service areas. In other words, we do not tell local authorities how to spend their resources, and it is for them to decide how to allocate them between services in the light of their own needs and priorities.

The level of potential capital investment that the Government plan for Welsh local education authorities is sufficient for them to meet their obligations according to their own priorities. In recent years, substantial increases in gross provision for education have been made. Between 1985–86 and 1991–92, capital resources notionally made available to LEAs for education building increased in real terms by no less than 38 per cent. Last year, the overall gross provision for education capital was £66.6 million. This year we have provided for gross capital expenditure by the LEA of about £63 million. That sum would have been higher but for the transfer of higher education from the local education authorities. Capital support for the higher education sector in this year has been set at almost £5.6 million. These figures reflect the high priority that the Government have given to the improvement of schools. It must be said, however, that local education authorities collectively have chosen to spend less than the Government have provided for in the past few years by 4.6 per cent. in 1989–90, 3.5 per cent. in 1990–91, and an estimated 15 per cent. in 1991–92, amounting to nearly £10 million.

Mr. Rogers

Mid Glamorgan?

Sir Wyn Roberts

The hon. Gentleman has referred to Mid Glamorgan, and the figures that I have given are for the whole of Wales. I understand, however, that Mid Glamorgan has been spending about the notional allocation.

Of course, capital spending is not the full picture, especially as much maintenance work can be carried out from revenue accounts, and in 1991–92 education authorities budgeted to spend almost 30 per cent. more—

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Kim Howells

Will the Minister give way?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. If the Minister does not give way, Members know very well that they must then contain themselves, however difficult that may be.

Sir Wyn Roberts

I have only four minutes in which to cover all the points, and I want to discuss not only school buildings but special education needs, speech therapy and all the other subjects that the hon. Member for Rhondda raised.

I want to say a word about the work carried out from revenue accounts. In 1991–92, education authorities budgeted to spend almost 30 per cent. more than they did in 1979–80. Taken together with the decline in the school population, that means that for each pupil in Wales the average expenditure has risen by some 36 per cent. to £1,321 per primary pupil and by more than 40 per cent. to £1,884 per secondary pupil. At primary level, Mid Glamorgan is spending slightly less than the average, at £1,288 per pupil, but spending at secondary level is slightly above average, at £1,908 per pupil.

A difficulty which must be recognised is the continuing high level of surplus places in the system. There are some 118,000 such places in Wales altogether, which are estimated to drain local education authorities' resources by more that £20 million per year. That money could be better spent delivering better services in better schools.

Mr. Rogers

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This Adjournment debate is specifically about education facilities in Mid Glamorgan, but all the Minister's answers have been about Wales in general. I know that you are not responsible for what he says, but surely he should deal with the subject of the debate.

Madam Deputy Speaker

That is not a point of order for the Chair. The Minister is well within the subject matter.

Sir Wyn Roberts

I know that Opposition Members do not want to hear the facts, but I was about to say that Mid Glamorgan continues to carry more than 13,000 surplus primary places and nearly 7,500 surplus secondary places. The hon. Gentleman will agree that that is a waste of resources.

The system of unhypothecated credit approvals for education building was instituted at the request of the local authorities themselves. If they then choose to spend their resources on services other than education, it is to those authorities that parents and right hon. Members should look to ensure that children receive the best possible education in the best possible surroundings. The alternative is that we in central Government should dictate to the LEAs what their education capital spending must be. I do not think that the local authorities would take kindly to that proposal, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it is never far from my mind when I hear about "crumbling schools"—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock.