HC Deb 26 October 1995 vol 264 cc1205-10

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

7.15 pm
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

I welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment to her first Adjournment debate. I was very pleased when someone whom I know to be a fellow Landrover owner—and a keen one—took over the portfolio; I look forward to working with my hon. Friend in her new job.

The debate is about future facilities at a school in my constituency; it is not—as the media seem to expect—a debate about lack of Government funding, the need for repairs or over-large class sizes. Oxbridge Lane is a very pleasant school, although it is small: it is efficiently run and well led, in good repair and with good class sizes. There are two classes of 30, and the rest comprise between 25 and 30. The buildings are in very good condition.

The debate concerns the future of the school, which is a victim of its own success, with a full roll and parents choosing to send their children to it. The plain fact is that the schoolis simply too small for the number of children who currently attend it, and too small for the number who will want to attend in the future.

At present, the school has some 450 pupils and 21 teachers. After Christmas, there will be 490 children. Given the current admission of 75 children per year, the maximum number that the school could hold is 525. The Department's maximum, I understand, is 442; the figure is based on an admission of 56 per year.

Under the Education Reform Act 1988, primary schools must admit pupils up to their "standard number". That was calculated in 1991 as the highest of the following: the number on the roll in May 1991, divided by the number of age groups; the number produced by dividing the capacity of the school by the number of age groups; and, if applicable, the number intended to be admitted under the most recent proposals under section 12 or 13 of the Education Act 1980. In the case of Oxbridge Lane, that figure is 525.

As a result, the school is so crowded that it has to have split break times and split lunch times, and cannot hold an assembly for the whole school at once because the hall is too small and such an assembly would not comply with fire regulations. There is no room for a library, or for proper physical education facilities as required by the national curriculum. There is only one playing field, across the road and up an alley, recently reclaimed from derelict land by the county council. The school nursery and music facilities are delivered in a Horsa hut, also across the road and up the same alley. There are terrible parking problems in the area, as there is no off-street parking.

Generally, the staff are doing wonders with what they have. The buildings are warm, dry and well maintained; when working, the school is quiet and well ordered. None the less, it is exceedingly difficult to run split meal times and breaks when children do not concentrate because other children are indulging in other activities outside the window and there is simply not enough space for all of them to be out in the playground at once. The school was built in 1890. It is now 105 years old; it will be 106 in February. The parents have recently raised a lot of money to refurbish the playground, and I pay tribute to them for their efforts and for the support that they have given to the school. The school is hemmed in on four sides by the Victorian streets that it is built to serve, and there is no room for expansion in any direction.

The children from the Oxbridge area of my constituency deserve adequate facilities so that they can receive excellent access to the national curriculum. Therefore, one of two things will have to happen: either there will have to be a reduction in the standard number at the school, to 60—the physical capacity, which will leave many parents disappointed at not receiving their choice—or a new school building will have to be provided on a site where it is possible to expand.

A reduction in the number of children would fly in the face of the Government's policy of parental choice. That has been endorsed by the governors and the local education authority, but it is, however, not an ideal solution. For instance, even at the lower standard number, the school would still have no kitchen facilities and all the catering would continue to be delivered on wheels from St. Bedes, some distance away, by lorry. That in turn takes the school hall out of use for a good part of the day. Ideally, if the school is to remain where it is, it would benefit from Marlborough road, the adjacent road, being closed off to give safer access to the grassed area and the nursery up the alley on the other side of the road. The Horsa hut, in which the nursery and drama facilities are housed, would also need replacement, as it dates from before the second world war, even though its present condition is quite good. There would still be no access to playing fields. There would still be no technology suite, and the staff room would still not accommodate all the staff at once.

The alternative is to consider building a new school. In another part of my constituency, Ingleby Barwick, we have two delightful new primary schools for a whole new community of new houses. But, in my submission, old communities in old houses deserve good schools for their children as well. The site for a new school is already designated. There are two models of what such a school could be like.

It would be in line with our policy to give parents a real choice if my hon. Friend were to recognise the strength of Oxbridge Lane's claim for capital over the next five years; recognise that it has been top of Cleveland's bid for the past five years; and lobby our colleagues for the necessary funds to start this great project. If she cannot do that, I would very much appreciate her advice as to what should be done.

7.21 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mrs. Cheryl Gillan)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) on raising the situation of this school with me, and welcome the opportunity to respond to the points that he has put on behalf of his constituents.

My hon. Friend is well known as an assiduous and hard-working Member who constantly puts issues on behalf of Stockton, South before the House. His constituents are most fortunate to have him as their representative in this place. I also thank him for his kind remarks, and as a fellow Landrover owner, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall try to keep this vehicle on the right road.

I am well aware of the position at Oxbridge Lane primary school, as are officials in my Department. Thanks to my hon. Friend's efforts, I and other ministerial colleagues have corresponded with him about the school on previous occasions. Indeed, my officials visited Oxbridge Lane last summer to see the school at first hand. I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend's description of conditions at Oxbridge Lane and have taken note of the representations that he has made about them. My hon. Friend and others on Teesside believe that there are too many children currently attending the school in the light of the facilities that are available on the current site. They also believe the reason for that situation to be an excessively high standard number, which forces the school to recruit additional pupils at a level above that which is sustainable.

I shall first of all say a few words about the rather technical system of the standard number and what it is designed to achieve. I shall then make two suggestions to my hon. Friend as to how the current situation at the school might be alleviated, which I hope he will find helpful.

As my hon. Friend will know, a standard number is a fixed minimum entry number and is intended to be an indicator of a school's capacity, which admissions authorities are required to honour. The intention of the system is to protect the exercise of parental choice. It means that as many parents as possible can have their first choice of school for their children, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would join me in endorsing that principle. We do recognise, however, that standard numbers can sometimes be too high in the light of the facilities that are available at individual schools. We have a mechanism for dealing with that, under which local education authorities can publish proposals for the reduction of standard numbers. Such proposals require the approval of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. She looks at each case that reaches her on its merits.

Our expectation is that most successful cases will involve the removal of physical capacity at a school, which implies, of course, that fewer pupils can be accommodated. My right hon. Friend is prepared, however, to take other arguments into account in reaching decisions on proposals for reductions in standard number. It is open to local education authorities to put to her whatever they feel is a convincing case. In reaching a decision, my right hon. Friend would, of course, have regard to the Government's policy of more open enrolment. As many parents as possible should be offered places for their children at the school for which they have expressed a preference.

We must remember that any reduction in a standard number could mean a reduction in the number of parental preferences that can be met. The case for a reduction must therefore be made with reference to the existing standard number and to the changed circumstances of the school since that number was set. My right hon. Friend will need a clear explanation as to why the current standard number should no longer apply. In the case of Oxbridge Lane primary school, therefore, it would be open to the local education authority to publish proposals to reduce the standard number if it felt that it was too high. Were it to do so, I can promise my hon. Friend that I and my right hon. Friend would look very carefully at any arguments that it put. We would also bear in mind what he said tonight.

I should add that the initiative in publishing such a proposal lies with the local education authority alone. Whatever impression my hon. Friend's words may have made on me tonight, action would lie in the first instance with Teesside. The local education authority has not published a proposal to reduce the standard number of the school, and my hon. Friend will, I am sure, wish to take the matter up with it directly.

It may be helpful to my hon. Friend if I comment on a further point about where responsibility for publishing any such proposal would lie. Cleveland county council is currently the local education authority for my hon. Friend's constituency, but from April 1996, Cleveland will, as he knows, be passing that particular baton to the new unitary council for Stockton-on-Tees. If it was the intention that the standard number should be changed before 1 April 1996, it would be for Cleveland county council to publish any proposal. If, on the other hand, the proposal was intended to be implemented after that date, it would be the responsibility of the new Stockton council. We have made explicit provision in regulations for shadow local education authorities such as Stockton to be able to publish proposals before they formally enter into their education kingdoms. There should be no delay in dealing with matters such as this purely because responsibility for education is transferring from one local authority to another.

My second set of remarks relates to capital funding. If something needs putting right at the school, action must in the first instance lie with the local education authority, which has a statutory responsibility for providing school places in Stockton and for ensuring that the buildings where children are taught are safe. Like other local education authorities, it will have substantial capital resources of its own that it could devote to the kind of work at Oxbridge Lane that my hon. Friend mentioned, if it so wished. It is not for me to seek to influence the decisions that it makes about local spending priorities. I should add, however, that it is open to Stockton-on-Tees council, which will have responsibility for the school capital programme in my hon. Friend's constituency from next April, to put in a bid to my Department for capital resources at the school. Indeed, I know that Stockton made reference to the school in the bid that it submitted to my Department only last week. My Department is currently considering local authorities' capital bids, including that of the new Stockton unitary authority, and final allocations will be announced in December.

It may he helpful to my hon. Friend if I explain a little about how our system of capital allocation works. As he knows, 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 the authorities: they must decide priorities between services and between projects within services. The borrowing limit is not the limit on authorities' capital spending. As I have already suggested, authorities are also able to invest capital receipts and they can use funds from their revenue budgets for capital purposes if they wish.

In determining each local authority's share of the national total of capital allocations, consideration is given to commitments arising from projects allowed for in previous allocations, 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, the remaining resources are 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.

The national priority criteria have been agreed with the local authority associations. They reflect authorities' statutory and contractual liabilities and have remained substantially unchanged for more than 10 years. They are designed to meet the most pressing needs for capital funding in schools.

One example to which my hon. Friend referred is the construction of two new primary schools in Ingleby Barwick. He should be aware that my Department was able to make a substantial financial contribution to the funding of those projects.

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 which attract consensus support.

I understand that the local education authority and the governors would prefer to replace Oxbridge Lane primary rather than reduce its standard number. However, my hon. Friend will wish to note that, in its past three capital bids, Cleveland local education authority has not bid for a named project for the school in one of my Department's priority categories but has said that it is a project that it wishes to fund out of its improvement/replacement formula. Capital under the improvement/replacement formula is not given for named projects, and it is up to local education authorities how they spend their improvement/replacement resources and, indeed, as I said a moment ago, their total annual capital guidelines allocation.

It is always open to local education authorities, however, to bid for additional capital resources in the supplementary credit approval rounds that take place three or four times a year. Supplementary credit approvals are late additions to local authorities' capital allocations for cases where capital could not be issued in the main capital round. They also act as a way of providing for projects that are clearly very worth while but might just fail to meet the strict criteria for specific cover that I have already outlined.

My Department currently gives priority to projects that involve significant investment from the private finance initiative and those connected with the single regeneration budget. I must, however, emphasise that all bids will be examined on their individual merits. I know that my hon. Friend would not expect me to make any promises here and now.

Cleveland local education authority has not bid for a supplementary credit approval for the school in question. The next supplementary credit approval round is likely to take place early next year. Any allocations given in that round are for spending before April 1996. Again, my hon. Friend may wish to approach the local education authority on that point.

Clearly, I cannot guarantee the success of any bid submitted for consideration, but my hon. Friend can be assured that, if a bid is submitted, I shall take into account everything that has been said this evening. If bids are unsuccessful, local education authorities are welcome to ask that their bid should be reconsidered in future capital rounds.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject and for the opportunity to discuss some of the issues surrounding school building projects and our policy on admissions. I am always happy to take account of any points that he would like to draw to my attention, especially in connection with Oxbridge Lane primary school, and I have sought to be helpful tonight.

I have particularly noted my hon. Friend's opening remarks, in which he said that the school is pleasant, efficiently run and well led. There is no doubt that his comments will be reflected on with pride by the teachers, governors and parents alike at that school.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Eight o'clock