HC Deb 18 October 1995 vol 264 cc324-32

2 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue of great concern to parents, head teachers and governors in my constituency and throughout the county. I am pleased to see my hon. Friends the Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) and for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) in their places today. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), who has been following the issues very closely, has expressed great regret that she is unable to be in her place because of a prior engagement to which she had been committed for some time.

I should like to outline the nature of the concerns and to seek a thorough and detailed response from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Schools.

It is perhaps necessary to say a few words about how the present system operates within the county of Buckinghamshire. For primary school pupils other than those who attend combined schools, the age of transfer from first to middle schools takes place at 8-plus. The transfer from middle or combined schools to secondary schools takes place at 12-plus. In the county outside Milton Keynes, a selective system of secondary education system is still in operation. Children attend either a grammar school or upper school depending upon the results of a 12-plus test. That in turn means that the reserved areas for individual secondary schools overlap. The reserved areas for individual upper schools tend to be discrete, but in some cases the reserved areas for grammar schools overlap and some upper school reserved areas are divided between reserved areas for different grammar schools.

I should briefly mention two other points. First, as my hon. Friend the Minister will know, Buckinghamshire schools produce good results, comparable with the best anywhere else in England. I pay tribute to the LEA and particularly to head teachers, their staff and governing bodies for that tradition of success in Buckinghamshire.

Secondly, Buckinghamshire LEA is a prudent spender. Every organisation is imperfect, but there is precious little fat to be cut in Buckinghamshire compared with less well-managed education authorities. I know that heads of governors have had at times some difficulties in the current year dealing with what was admittedly a tight spending round and welcomed assurances from my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment that education will be at the top of the Government's priorities for the 1996–97 financial year. In that context, it is important to stress that the fears about the possibility of a wholesale change to the age of transfer within the county derive in large part from apprehension about the financial implications of such a step.

The issue dates from 9 June 1995, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State approved proposals that Buckinghamshire LEA firmly believes have serious implications for all schools in the county. My right hon. Friend approved two changes. First, she approved a change in the ages of transfer in Slough schools which form part of Berkshire local education authority. Those changes had been sought by Berkshire and included a change from 8-plus to 7-plus in the age of transfer from first to middle schools and from 12-plus to 11-plus in the age of transfer from primary to secondary schools. Those changes are due to take effect from December 1996.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend announced that she was planning to agree to a change sought by the governors of Beaconsfield high school, a grant-maintained girls' grammar school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. In that case the governors were seeking a change from 12-plus to 11-plus in the age of admission and the Secretary of State decided that that change should come into effect from December 1997.

The Department for Education and Employment wrote that same day—9 June—to the chairman of governors of Beaconsfield high school. The content of that letter demonstrates the Department's awareness of the potentially grave difficulties that the decision might cause to schools elsewhere in the county. The letter said that the Secretary of State had reached her decision after careful consideration of the arguments put forward by Buckinghamshire LEA and by other objectors to the governors' proposal. It is the view of Bucks LEA that approval of the proposal to change the age range at Beaconsfield High School would make it inevitable that they would have to change the age range of their own schools. Such a move would have capital implications requiring careful examination. In addition, the approval of the governors' proposal may affect the LEA's ability to meet its responsibilities under the Sex Discrimination Act 1976. The proposed modification to the implementation date of the governors' proposal thus aims to provide Buckinghamshire LEA with sufficient time to give proper consideration to the issues arising from the proposal's approval. That letter reveals an awareness that the decision would cause difficulties elsewhere in Buckinghamshire and that the Department expected that Buckinghamshire LEA would have to consider seriously changes to the age of transfer in county schools.

The effect of the Secretary of State's decision can be described in three ways. First, from 1997, year 7 in primary schools in the reserved areas of Beaconsfield high school will consist of boys of all abilities together with less able girls who have not been able to obtain a grammar school place. The more able girls would have gone on to Beaconsfield high school.

Secondly, according to counsel's opinion obtained by Buckinghamshire county council, the LEA and the Funding Agency for Schools would be in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 for failing to make the same opportunities available for 11-plus boys as for 11-plus girls in south Buckinghamshire. Clearly, that principle would apply elsewhere in the country if further changes were approved to the age of transfer in respect of other individual schools.

Thirdly, the county fears there will be a domino effect and that parents and governors will add to the pressure for other secondary schools to follow the example of Beaconsfield high school. There have already been indications from grant-maintained schools in Marlow in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe and in Chalfont that schools are intending to follow the example set in Beaconsfield.

The overlapping nature of school reserved areas means that it is difficult for the LEA to isolate change in south Buckinghamshire from change in the rest of the county. The reserved area for Wycombe boys' grammar schools stretches across large parts of south Buckinghamshire. Pupils from the town of Princes Risborough in my constituency have reserved places in the Aylesbury grammar schools and Princes Risborough's own upper school, but some pupils from villages just outside Princes Risborough who are in the Princes Risborough upper school area come into the reserved area in respect of grammar schools located in High Wycombe. Pupils from the Great Missenden area in my constituency have reserved places at the Aylesbury grammar schools and also at some grammar schools in the Chiltern and south Buckinghamshire educational division of the county. I should have said earlier that I am the only Buckinghamshire Member whose constituency includes parts of three areas within Buckinghamshire's local education authority. I have followed the arguments closely.

Strong pressure is being exerted from many quarters for the whole county to seek a planned switch in the ages of transfer from 12-plus to 11-plus, and correspondingly from 8-plus to 7-plus. It must be said that there are educational arguments for such an approach: it would, after all, align the ages of transfer between schools with the key stages of the national curriculum. Pupils at key stage 1 would go to first school, and would then transfer to a middle school at the beginning of key stage 2 and to a secondary school at the start of key stage 3.

However, any such move—whether brought into effect at once, or phased over a number of years—would have considerable financial implications. First, there would be capital expenditure implications. School rolls in Buckinghamshire are already rising, and taking year 7 pupils—about 8,000 in the county as a whole—would require new buildings and other facilities in many secondary schools. The LEA has estimated, for example, that it would be necessary to provide additional buildings to cope with 100 places at Misbourne Upper school in Great Missenden and 135 at Sir Henry Floyd grammar school in Aylesbury.

According to Buckinghamshire's current estimate, about £25 million in capital expenditure would be required to provide additional school accommodation in a way that would follow existing patterns of parental preference between schools. It is difficult to see how that could be achieved within the confines of the normal formulae relating to the allocation of borrowing approvals and capital spending permissions between different local education authorities.

Primary schools are understandably worried about the impact of such a change on their revenues. For middle schools, the loss of year 7, with its additional weighting—because those pupils are sitting key stage 3—would be only partly compensated for by a change in the age of transfer from first schools from 8-plus to 7-plus. Small village first schools are now becoming extremely worried about the consequences of a lowering of the age of transfer between themselves and middle schools.

I have sketched the outlines of what is, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows from earlier discussions, a very complicated issue. My hon. Friend will be aware that the LEA and the full county council are still debating the best course to follow in the interests of parents and pupils. I am grateful for the understanding that my hon. Friend has shown in his conversations with me and with representatives of the county; let me now ask him a number of questions.

First, like my constituents, I should like to know why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made the decision that she made. What arguments and evidence overrode the considerable objections voiced by the local education authority? Secondly, what is the Department's assessment of the legal position concerning the Sex Discrimination Act? According to counsel's opinion, taken by Buckinghamshire, both the LEA and the Funding Agency for Schools would be liable, because they share the responsibility for planning for school places in the county.

Thirdly, are there examples of good practice in other LEAs that have had to deal with the problem in the past, from which Buckinghamshire could usefully draw in deciding on the best course to follow in the future?

Fourthly, will Ministers and officials in the Department for Education and Employment make a commitment to work with Buckinghamshire LEA and individual local schools to find a solution to the financial problems that I have described, which are causing great alarm in the county?

I know that a body of opinion in Buckinghamshire would like my hon. Friend to announce that the Secretary of State was prepared to reconsider her original decision about Beaconsfield high school in particular, but the view of the chairman of the education committee, certainly, is that such a decision is not to be expected, and that we must cope with matters as we now find them.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend is not responsible for drafting the annual Budget statement, and that it is beyond his power to give me some of the details and assurances that I seek today. My constituents feel, however, that the problems that I have described stem from a ministerial decision, and they and I now look to Ministers to help us to deal with the consequences.

2.15 pm
Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) on raising this important subject.

I do not think that anyone has seriously suggested that there are any educational arguments against making the change from 12-plus to 11-plus. It makes a great deal of educational sense to make that change, and to fit in with the national curriculum. The arguments against it are solely financial and practical; I believe that in Buckinghamshire it is inevitable. As my hon. Friend said, we shall soon have an application from Chalfonts community college to change its status, and I suspect that, if it is consistent with the previous decision, the Department will approve that application.

I supported Beaconsfield high school's application to change its age of admission, because I believe that eventually all pupils in Buckinghamshire will benefit from such a change. I understand the difficulties, especially for primary schools, and—like my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury—I hope that the Department will work very closely with the LEA to make it work.

2.17 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Robin Squire)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) for raising this important issue, and welcome the opportunity to discuss it. He was nobly buttressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) and for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney), and, as he said, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan)— my ministerial colleague—has taken a close interest in these matters for constituency reasons.

Buckinghamshire has an education system of which it can be proud, and its achievements speak for themselves; but I know that those involved in education in the county are not complacent. They want not to rest on their laurels but to extend and develop opportunities for Buckinghamshire's pupils.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury knows that it is for the local education authority in respect of its schools, and for the governing bodies of individual voluntary and grant-maintained schools, to publish proposals if they wish to change their age range. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will consider any such proposals on their merits. We certainly have no policy of favouring one age of transfer over another. Perhaps understandably, however, my hon. Friend dwelt for some time on my right hon. Friend's recent decision, and it seems only fair for me to respond as best I can.

My hon. Friend referred particularly to the impact of the approval of proposals to admit pupils to Beaconsfield high school at the age of 11. All statutory proposals are considered on their individual merits. The Beaconsfield proposals were considered alongside proposals published by Berkshire LEA and by grant-maintained grammar schools in Slough to change their age of transfer. Beaconsfield argued that a change in Slough would seriously undermine their viability. I assure my hon. Friend that we took great care in considering the Slough proposals and those from Beaconsfield. My ministerial colleagues and I saw representatives both of those speaking in support of, and those arguing against, the proposals, including Buckinghamshire county council. Indeed, a moment ago my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield highlighted clearly how there can be more than one viewpoint in this area.

Consideration of statutory proposals often requires the Secretary of State to balance conflicting arguments. That was so in this case and it was clearly impossible to satisfy all interests.

The decision on the Slough proposals to change the age of transfer and on those from Beaconsfield high school to admit at age 11 is now taken. The Slough changes are to take effect from next September; the Beaconsfield change from September 1997. The decision cannot now be reconsidered. Berkshire LEA and the governing bodies of the voluntary and GM schools involved are now under a statutory duty to implement their proposals.

It is for Buckinghamshire county council and for the individual governing bodies of voluntary aided and grant-maintained schools in Buckinghamshire to decide how they now wish to act.

My hon. Friend referred to the implications of the Beaconsfield approval for the duty placed on Buckinghamshire under the Sex Discrimination Act. To offer a similar number of single-sex selective places for girls and boys would not necessarily prevent unlawful sex discrimination from arising. If there is an unequal number of places but demand has been met, no discrimination would seem to arise.

Beaconsfield's proposal does not change the overall number of girls' places available, but it does change the number available in each year group and offers the opportunity for single-sex education at 11.

It is for Buckinghamshire LEA to take its own legal advice on the implications of this decision for its responsibilities. It is by no means clear, however, that approval of Beaconsfield's proposals requires a change to the age of transfer throughout the county.

I understand that the education committee resolved last week to advise the county council that in the light of resource constraints it is not appropriate to conduct public consultation on changing the age of transfer. That is a matter for that body. But it might be helpful if I said a few words about the statutory proposal procedure and about capital funding.

Let us be clear about the procedure. The local education authority or governing body wishing to consider a change of age of transfer must first consult all who are likely to be affected. Buckinghamshire has already done that for schools in the Burnham area. Consultation is an essential part of the process. It provides an opportunity for those affected—including schools and parents—to express their concerns. I know that Buckinghamshire takes consultation very seriously and provides opportunities for all views to be heard.

Having consulted, the authority or governing body must then formally resolve to publish proposals, taking account of views expressed in consultation. Following publication there follows a two-month period in which formal objections to the proposals can be made. That provides a further opportunity for schools and parents to have their say. The proposals then come to my right hon. Friend to be determined.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury knows and has said, the authority has raised concerns about funding the change of age of transfer with me. I have endorsed on-going discussions between my officials and the authority on the technical aspects.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I described the arrangements. Local authorities are given permission to borrow up to a certain level to fund capital programmes for all their services, including education. Decisions on how to use the resources generated by borrowing are entirely for authorities. They must decide priorities between services and between projects within services. The borrowing limit is not the limit on authorities' capital spending. In practice authorities can and do invest capital receipts and they can use funds from their revenue budgets for capital purposes if they wish.

In determining each local education authority's share of the national total of annual capital guidelines, priority in the schools allocation has been given to: commitments arising from projects allowed for in previous credit approvals; providing new school places in areas of population growth; and implementing cost-effective schemes to remove surplus places.

After allowing for authorities' liabilities for work at voluntary aided schools and for approved capital work at special schools, all the remaining resources are then distributed by a formula to contribute towards the cost of all other capital-related work at schools. The formula is made up of elements to meet improvement work, work at special schools and other work. Those priority criteria were agreed 10 years or more ago between the local authority associations and my predecessors. They reflect authorities' statutory and contractual liabilities. Each year we undertake a review to determine whether the procedures should be amended, in the light of changes in the organisation of schools and of comments from local authorities and other interested bodies. Of course we would consider carefully any representations for a change in the criteria, particularly when they attract consensus support.

The capital funding of proposals is always dependent on the extent to which they can meet those agreed criteria. Discussions between my officials and Buckinghamshire LEA should ensure that the LEA has a realistic idea of the availability of funding. Where elements are unable to meet the national criteria it is open to the authority to bid for a supplementary credit approval, or SCA.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury wisely spoke about the concern felt by his constituents that the education of their children would be disrupted by a change to the age of transfer. There is no reason why that should be so. I know that if they proceed with this option the local education authority and the schools concerned will be anxious to minimise the disruption to the education of pupils. The requirement to consult gives parents the opportunity to satisfy themselves that appropriate arrangements are being made. If they have concerns, they should raise them at that stage.

My hon. Friend also referred to school concerns that a change to the age of transfer will cause upheaval at a time when they had been hoping for a period of stability—a point he made strongly to me when he recently came to see me. I understand those concerns. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that there will be no further changes to the national curriculum for five years in order to provide some stability in that area.

My hon. Friend went on to mention primary schools. I can understand the particular concerns expressed by primary schools and that some would see a change to the age of transfer as a threat. Others may, dare I suggest it, see it as an opportunity: either to respond to demand for places that they are currently unable to meet, or to add pre-school provision. I have said that the Department has no policy of favouring one age of transfer over another. No doubt primary schools concerned about the impact of possible age-of-transfer changes will raise their concerns with the authority.

The Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food published the rural White Paper yesterday. That makes clear that we recognise the contribution that schools can make to village life, not only for the education that they provide but for the focus that they provide for the community—the sense of security that they bring to the children and the balance that they give to village life. Many village schools are of good quality, are popular with parents and are within easy reach of the communities they serve.

If Buckinghamshire decides to propose changes to the age of transfer, I have no doubt that it will have regard to the principles set out in the White Paper when considering the possible closure of village schools.

I know that the LEA is concerned that if there is to be a change it should be managed in a planned and orderly way. Again, that is a matter for it, but I understand that concern. It is for those responsible for publishing proposals to propose the timing of the implementation, and I hope that any disruption or uncertainty can be minimised. Buckinghamshire has argued that, in its particular circumstance, a single implementation date for the majority of the county would be most appropriate. The authority has, of course, begun the process of change at an earlier date in the Burnham area. Buckinghamshire based its view on the pattern of provision in its secondary schools, and, as my hon. Friend said, the extent to which catchment areas overlap.

Most recent reorganisations have been in authorities that had operated a mixed economy of two and three-tier provision and which took the opportunity to standardise. It is for Buckinghamshire to decide how to go about any change in the light of its own circumstance, but in so far as it is possible or relevant to draw lessons from the experience of other LEAs, my officials will be happy to discuss that with the LEA, and, of course, I shall be happy to do so separately with my hon. Friend.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, and I judge that it has been a helpful debate. I have already met my hon. Friend, as well as the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) and members of Buckinghamshire county council. I am ready to have further meetings if that would be helpful.

I am confident that if Buckinghamshire embarks on the process that it is considering, the authority and schools will see it as an opportunity further to enhance the quality of education that is provided for Buckinghamshire pupils.

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