HC Deb 21 July 1994 vol 247 cc555-64

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

9.37 am
Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

I believe that this is the first Adjournment debate that I have raised for 20 years. After a long spell away trying to provide answers, I get back to the serious business of asking questions. I raise this subject, the position of schools in Sutton Coldfield, against the background of good schools, excellent head teachers, dedicated staff, good results and close working relations between parents and schools. In those circumstances, one might ask what problems there are to be tackled.

The first and most intractable problem arises from the very success of the schools—in particular, the secondary schools. The problem is the scarcity of school places which, each year for the past two or three years, has caused concern and anxiety for children who have been refused places and for the parents of those children.

I shall demonstrate the point. According to Birmingham city council education department, its three schools—Arthur Terry, Plantsbrook and John Willmott—were all considerably over-subscribed this year. The position this year is not much different from previous years. This year, at Arthur Terry there were almost 400 first-preference applicants for 240 places. At John Willmott, there were 398 first-preference applicant for 210 places. At Plantsbrook, there were 335 first-preference applicants for 210 places.

In practice, that meant that siblings living within three miles of schools were given preference and then those living closest to the schools were given preference. Under the rules, many children were excluded. Thus, at Arthur Terry, one of the best schools in Sutton Coldfield, the last child admitted at the time of the allocation lived two and a half miles from the school. A child who lived beyond that limit was excluded.

A boy who lived 2.8 miles away was initially excluded under the allocation, although I am glad to say that, due to movement on the waiting list, the problem has been rectified. Other children were not so swiftly accommodated. Of course, if they failed in their first preference because of the distance limit, there was no chance with their second and third preferences, because other schools' first preferences were already over-subscribed. That has continued over the past three years and it has caused distress and concern for parents and children alike. A parent in my constituency wrote to me. I now face the prospect of uncertainty over the next three months and I can sense the growing anxiety this situation is causing my son, as unlike many of the pupils in his school he continues to be unsure about which school he is going to go to in September. That is one quote among dozens over the past three years. No one who has been, as I have, to parents' meetings can fail to recognise the emotion that the subject raises. In 1992, when the problem first arose, I called an impromptu meeting at literally 48 hours' notice. The meeting could scarcely be well advertised—it was not well advertised—but on a Saturday afternoon Sutton Coldfield town hall was filled with anxious parents. That gives some flavour of the concern over the past three years in my constituency.

I pay tribute to all the efforts that have been made to alleviate the problem. Because of the efforts of headmasters, the local education department and Department for Education representatives whom I have met on several occasions over the year, some of the worst results have been alleviated. There has been nail-biting concern until the last moment, but, over the past two or three years, we have scrambled through. Indeed, at the moment what was once a long waiting list is now down to about 25 Sutton Coldfield children who are still without local education authority places for September. That is still a substantial number, and I hope that the problem will be solved in the coming month.

Does that long and worrying process need to continue year after year? It has taken place since 1992. Does it have to be the case for the rest of the decade and into the next century? Can we reach a better position? Above all, can children in my constituency be assured of a place at the school of their choice in the constituency? That is what I aim at.

Changes are being introduced. On the recommendation of head teachers, the timetable for offering places has been brought forward. Last year, places were allocated on 22 April, and now they will be allocated at the end of January or early February. In addition, in the past, parents had to submit their choice by Christmas. This year, for 1995, they will have to return their choice cards by the end of September. Greater information is being given to parents to help them with their choice of school. For example, they will be told the allocation patterns over the past two years and they will be warned of difficulties with the popularity of certain schools. Those are very useful steps. I pay tribute to them—I have no criticism whatsoever. They will certainly assist administration.

But there is a more fundamental problem. One of the reasons for the problems that we face in Sutton Coldfield is that, because of the good reputations of the schools, parents from other parts of Birmingham and from elsewhere wish to send their children to those schools. It was once a minor issue, but in 1992, when the problem started, the age of transfer in Sutton Coldfield, which was 12, went down to 11. With that change in the age of transfer, which was good for all kinds of educational reasons, came various problems.

If it is to be the policy that children from other areas can go to schools in Sutton Coldfield because of their quality and reputation, there must be an adequate number of places to meet such demand. It would serve no one if that were not the case. It would certainly serve absolutely no one if children who are unsuccessful have to travel miles out of their local area, away from their friends, to other schools.

I pay tribute to the Government. I have been to the Department for Education on several occasions. I am grateful to the Government for giving the go-ahead earlier this year for some important capital projects—for example, at Arthur Terry where capacity is now being expanded. I welcome that development—I fought for it, and I was grateful that Ministers acted on it. I am glad to note that work is proceeding literally at this moment at John Willmott. Again, that is very welcome news. Six new classrooms are being created. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that work on the next six classrooms next year will also be approved.

Above all, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm a point of policy. Because there might be a case for reducing provision in some other parts of Birmingham—Birmingham is not the only city with the problem; it is a wider issue—such policy should not prevent the expansion of schools where there is proven and obvious public demand for schools in other areas. One of the most dispiriting things for parents is to be told to send their children five or six miles to another area because there are spare places there. That is not a policy of choice. A policy of choice allows the development of popular and successful schools to meet public demand. That is what our policy should be.

That policy was set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) in his circular of 22 June. I will, in passing, pay tribute to the former Secretary of State for Education who achieved a great deal in his time at the Department for Education and with whom I always very much enjoyed working. One of his most successful policies was set out in a consultative circular on 22 June on choice and diversity for new school places, which he called "Putting Quality First".

My right hon. Friend's policy was that, in line with the parents charter, the views of parents should be given full weight when proposals on school provision are made. The Secretary of State must always consider carefully the educational, as well as the financial and organisational, merits of any proposals. The consultative document stated that the criteria for approving new school places should be in the interests of quality, and that the Secretary of State for Education will approve new school places where there is no shortage of places.

That was a very important statement and it took forward the popular schools initiative of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) when he was Secretary of State for Education. Will my hon. Friend the Minister today confirm that that remains the policy of the Government?

One further point concerns me about the question of capacity, and this also concerns Conservative councillors in Sutton Coldfield and an organisation called PANIC, which was set up to deal with the problem of capacity and of children being refused places. The point that concerns me is whether expanding existing schools is a sufficient policy in itself. In other words, does there come a point when expansion cannot be taken any further?

We are probably coming to the limits of the natural capacity of the existing schools in Sutton Coldfield. For example, by September 1995, John Willmott will be taking 1,200 children and I doubt whether it can accommodate any more. The question that then arises is whether a new school can be provided in Sutton Coldfield and, if so, how it can be done.

We know that the pupil population will grow, on average, by about 14 per cent. during the next decade. We can guess that an area such as Sutton Coldfield, on the outskirts of a major conurbation, will be one of the areas where school population will rise as housing development continues. What should be the course? The circular to which I have referred describes the prospects of new grant-maintained schools being created.

The prospect of grant-maintained schools holds no terrors for those of us in Sutton Coldfield. Fairfax is grant-maintained, and, more interestingly, Walmley junior and infant schools are grant-maintained. I visited those schools last Friday and even from a short visit the high morale and the pride that they take in the fact that they are now running their own show was clear. There are no terrors for us with grant-maintained schools.

I should be grateful if the Minister could set out the plans for that area, the criteria by which new schools can be created, the prospects for the creation of such new schools and the time scale about which we are talking.

There are two other issues that I wish to touch on briefly. Although available places is the major problem, I also wish to refer to the problem of the maintenance provision in our schools. I mentioned grant-maintained Walmley school a moment ago. The only complaint there is about the quality of buildings that that school has inherited. That is not a product of the past one or two years, but of year after year of neglect by the local education authority which has not spent the money that has been necessary on maintaining the fabric of the schools.

As happened all too often in the past, the authority cut the capital programme when it should have maintained it by a step-by-step programme. I shall give examples. Walmley now has 370 children in the junior school and 250 in the infant school. It inherited buildings which are in urgent need of renovation on the outside, which have not been painted for years, where repairs have been put off and where buildings have been neglected. In some cases, children are still using huts which have long since outlived their usefulness.

The process has occurred over a long period and the responsibility for it undoubtedly rests with the LEA. But the responsibility now, as far the grant-maintained school is concerned, rests with the Department. The proper maintenance of buildings may not be an obviously striking popular education issue and it is not necessarily an issue which has detained education conference after education conference. Yet when maintenance is neglected, the working environment for children and teachers is poorer than it need be. That is doubly frustrating when everything else in the school is going well. Anyone who wants to see an example of the process should go to Walmley or to my second example in Sutton Coldfield, Mere Green combined school, where the same evidence is on show.

Mere Green brings me to pre-school provision, the third and last point that I wish to raise about schools in my constituency. Mere Green is another excellent school which is now providing nursery education for just over 100 children. There is no doubt about the need for that provision and Mere Green has shown what can be done. I congratulate the school on that and I hope that it will continue to be supported by the local education authority.

In the coming months, the Government will want to develop plans as a result of the consideration that is now being given to the nursery area. It is an issue of importance and I hope that my hon. Friend might say a word or two on it. I recognise that there are cost restraints; it would be foolish not to do so, but we need a path forward in this area.

I have raised three issues—the lack of places, the physical state of schools and nursery provision, of which the most urgent is the places issue. I do not want to see the same problem, year after year, of worried and concerned children and teachers. The only way forward is to support the expansion of popular schools and consider the building of new schools. I recognise that when there are surplus places in an LEA area, difficulties which will be created. However, that is a separate issue and the Government should expand the popular schools to which parents want to send their children.

It brings no comfort to anyone that children must travel miles out of their own home area to find school places. The Government should encourage good schools and give children the opportunity of as good an education as possible. Sutton Coldfield has an excellent range of schools by any standards. That it is good news and is what the Government's education policy is all about, but their success brings with it the problem of attracting to those schools children from a wide area, and that needs to be addressed. The Government should support schools that are popular because of the excellent education which they provide.

9.58 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell)

I must congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir Norman Fowler) on securing this debate on a topic which is of great importance to him and has a wider resonance in the House. On the day when he can be seen to quit the front firing line of public life, we as a country owe him a great debt of gratitude for his contribution as a Secretary of State in the past. In his party capacity, we are grateful to him for his work as party chairman.

My right hon. Friend warned the House that it is some 20 years since he launched an Adjournment debate. I see no diminution in his force or eloquence in raising this matter on behalf of his constituents. They should be grateful to him for raising matters of considerable importance to Sutton Coldfield and of wider national importance. From the reports that I have from officials, I fully understand my right hon. Friend's concern that the excellent standards that pertain generally in Sutton Coldfield should be maintained and encouraged. Indeed, other areas need to raise themselves to those standards.

My right hon. Friend rightly identified salient areas of interest, which I shall deal with during my remarks. If he feels that anything has been elided or compressed, I hope that he will feel that he can come back to me on it. We have listened carefully and will reflect on the points that he has made.

If I might give a little historic context, the background to the issue was the change from 12-plus to 11-plus in 1992, which has created another year group in the schools in Sutton Coldfield. I fully understand the important point that my right hon. Friend makes: that, as capacity shortens, the capacity to deliver choice at the margin diminishes rather more quickly. He has explained that in relation to the schools that he mentioned, and the data that I have confirm it.

Therefore, it would be most effective for the House if I answer the debate by explaining the general position of Government policy, as it bears on the points that my right hon. Friend made. This is a most welcome opportunity for us to restate the Government's commitment to increasing choice, quality and diversity in all schools, whatever their local education authority, to draw attention to what has been done to date and to explain some of our plans for the future.

Improving quality and choice in education underpins all the Government's education reforms. My right hon. Friend may not know that last week I spoke to the Council of Local Education Authorities in Wolverhampton and emphasised our common objectives and the importance of all authorities—for example, the LEA for its maintained schools, the Funding Agency for Schools and the Government—working together to deliver quality and choice. It is a progressive policy. It takes time to fulfil. If, perhaps, I cannot give my right hon. Friend all the immediate assurance that he requires, he will understand.

We have an impressive record on expanding the choice of school to meet the wishes of parents. We attach enormous importance to parents being able, so far as possible—that is a necessary qualification—to send their children to the school of their choice. In the Education Act 1980, some way back now, we gave parents the right to express a choice among local schools—something which they had been denied previously. We gave them a right to appeal if they felt that the wrong decision had been taken. That provided an important second bite of the cherry.

Since that time, parents have been able to apply to any maintained school, and the admission authority—the governing body of a grant-maintained school or a voluntary-aided school and the LEA in other cases—has to comply with their preference unless the pupils do not meet the academic standard for selective education or do not satisfy the religious requirements for entry to the school, so that the religious character of the school would not be preserved.

The more open enrolment provisions of the Education Reform Act 1988 reinforced the measures in the 1980 Act and were designed to extend choice of school. More open enrolment—MOE in the trade—and pupil-led funding under local management of schools—LMS—give all schools an incentive to attract and retain pupils by responding positively to parental concern for good-quality education. As it were, money follows the pupils.

More open enrolment was designed to eliminate artificial admissions limits. It ensured that schools admitted up to the school's standard number or any higher admissions number set. Bringing admissions more into line with the capacity of a school made it easier for parents to gain the school of their choice.

My right hon. Friend touched on the important point that local education authorities could no longer justify keeping admissions down at popular schools to prop up the less popular schools. On that point, I can give my right hon. Friend a clear assurance. We simply cannot accept that parental choice should be frustrated in that way. If a school is popular and there is space, a pupil has to be admitted, even if it means exposing the fact that an unpopular school is indeed unpopular, and has low intakes as a result.

To continue the story of development, in 1993 the Government took further action, as promised under the parents charter, to strengthen parents' rights in the appeals process. All appeals committees must now have a lay member, and the rules are such that representatives of the school governing body or the LEA can no longer be in a majority. Admission authorities must advertise for people willing to serve as lay members. The result is that parents who take their cases to appeal can have renewed confidence. The appeal will be heard fairly and impartially, and the appeal committee will take a balanced decision between the needs of the child and the implications for the school. Despite the difficulties that we all recognise in Sutton Coldfield, where the position has developed from a large number of dissatisfied parents of pupils towards a reducing, but, I accept, still significant number, the admissions policy and, I hope, the appeals process are working.

No less important was the publication in July 1993 of our circular 6/93 "Admissions to maintained schools". It set out for admission authorities their duties and responsibilities, but it also went much further. For the first time, schools and LEAs were given some clear guidance, derived from best practice, on what type of approach and which varieties of admissions criteria were desirable and which were not.

The basic message was clear, and was again based on citizens charter principles: parents should be able to see and understand without difficulty how an LEA or school would decide which children to admit before they stated their preference. I sympathise with the points that my right hon. Friend has made about proper information to parents. They should be able to have some idea of their chance of success. In particular, it was important that there should be clear, objective criteria for over-subscription—in other words, how a school would decide between competing claims when places were limited in a way that was fair and objective and so that everyone understood what was going on.

We have also helped to open up schools through the publication of performance and truancy data and reports under the new inspection system so that parents know how schools are doing. That can help inform their choice. That is part of our overall approach to quality.

Improvements in the way in which children are admitted to schools and in giving parents a real say in the outcome have been accompanied, of course, by a significant and continuing increase in the choice and diversity of school provision from which parents can choose. The first grant-maintained school was opened in 1989, only five years ago; now there are almost 1,000. There are 15 city technology colleges, and now 25 technology colleges, and more on the way. I note in passing that there is only one secondary and one primary grant-maintained school in Sutton Coldfield. I shall come back to that in a moment.

Of course, not all parents have or, perhaps more important, consider that they have a genuine choice to make. In some areas, parents may feel that there is only one good school—all others are second best, some are worse than that. But things are moving in the right direction and I believe that, as quality and standards improve in school, more and more parents will be happy with the prospect of sending their child to a school other than their first preference—although, by definition, first preference is best.

My right hon. Friend asked about some schools. being allowed to expand. He referred to the launch last month of the new circular on the supply of school places. It was carefully considered by my colleagues, but it remains a consultative circular. I cannot anticipate its final form until consultation is complete. It marks another milestone: in the progressive drive to raise standards in our schools.

In what we describe as our new settlement for education, we set out the basis for the development of schools policy over the next few years. We are taking a much closer interest in quality and standards than our predecessors have ever done in the era since the Butler education legislation 50 years ago. Securing the: right supply of high-quality school places is a key part of that picture. The key objective is not quantity but quality. Population growth to the end of the decade means that nationally we will need more new places in our schools. We must ensure that they are high-quality places.

The circular to which I referred sets out the new framework for the organisation of schools to deliver higher quality, allied with, and in no sense incompatible with, more choice and diversity. The role of the new Funding Agency for Schools is set out in the circular. The agency is a key part of the new framework. As more than 10 per cent. of Birmingham's secondary pupils are educated in schools other than maintained schools, the funding agency has shared responsibility with the LEA for planning educational provision, and the opportunity to work together to ensure that demand for school places is met effectively.

My right hon. Friend mentioned promoting new schools. The circular provides guidance on a new type of school to be described as grant maintained with promoters. There is already much interest and we look forward to well-founded proposals from promoters to help increase quality, choice and diversity. It may be helpful to my right hon. Friend if I make it clear that all proposals will be considered by Ministers on their individual merits against a number of criteria. Of course, the need for places and parental demand will be important considerations.

The Secretary of State will, however, consider approving proposals for new capacity in areas of surplus where it would add to quality, choice and diversity and where there is scope for subsequent rationalisation. Other factors will include suitability of premises, qualifications of teachers, ability to meet the requirements of the national curriculum and other relevant factors. We are moving very much in the direction that my right hon. Friend would like.

The circular also makes it clear that, under certain circumstances, approval may be given for new school places, even when there is no expected shortfall in capacity. It will be considered, in particular, in schools where the new places will significantly enhance the objectives of quality, choice and diversity and where they could be matched by withdrawals of excess places at other schools.

The need for new places in an area will continue to be a key factor in decisions about whether to approve new capacity. We would expect it to be improved in the absence of a shortfall only in a minority of cases where there is clear evidence of improved choice, diversity and quality and the scope for rationalisation to which I referred. It is an important modification of the traditional approach, but obviously it does not go totally in the opposite direction.

Alongside the drive to raise quality, we will continue to seek the removal of unnecessary surplus places. That is an important objective for all LEAs and my right hon. Friend referred to it in the context of Birmingham.

We believe that resources available to education must be spent first and foremost on pupils and not unnecessary buildings. Of course, some surplus may be justified—for parental choice and to preserve access to village schools, for example—but wherever practical, expensive excess places should be removed and the circular sets out a new streamlined procedure for achieving that.

My right hon. Friend expressed concern about the state of school buildings in Birmingham. That is primarily the responsibility of the LEA. The Wragg report has been published and he knows about that. It is well documented that some schools have had less spend on their fabric and repairs than they might have and that has been proper cause for parental concern. I am glad that the city council has recently decided to increase the amount that it spends on education.

A third vital area that my right hon. Friend mentioned was nursery education. He is aware that the Government would like to see a widening of nursery and other pre-school provision as resources become available. We are exploring ways, as resources allow, of making pre-school provision more widely available to those children who do not at present benefit. No decisions can be taken on statutory proposals until the outcome of the Government's current review is known, but we hope to keep further delay to a minimum.

I am sure that hon. Members will agree that we have a progressive and impressive record of expanding choice and diversity and trying to meet the needs of parents. Our aims must continue to be the same as those of my right hon. Friend—to meet the real desires and demands of parents. I hope that the measures that we have taken and can take in conjunction with local authorities and, as appropriate, the Funding Agency for Schools, will go some way towards alleviating the problems in Sutton Coldfield and benefiting parents and the pupils in the schools.

In concluding my remarks on an important topic, I thank my right hon. Friend for raising it and use the opportunity to express to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my right hon. Friend, all hon. Members present and the staff my best wishes for a good rest during the vacation break and an interesting and, I hope, constructive autumn term.