HC Deb 22 July 1996 vol 282 cc122-6

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

8.34 pm
Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the issue of school places in east Dartford. I do so because I am concerned and alarmed that the educational infrastructure of east Dartford is not apparently being developed as fast as it should, to take account of the current growth in the school-aged population and the tremendous growth yet to occur given the planned expansion in houses and jobs along the Kent Thameside area in my constituency and north of the A2.

There is a problem in east Dartford, with the demand for places in local primary schools well outstripping supply. In some—in fact, too many—instances, and despite the appeals system, parents with children in primary schools in east Dartford and on Temple Hill have failed to secure placements for siblings in the school attended by the first child.

For too many parents, places have been made available for second and subsequent children in schools in central and west Dartford, which poses problems for families in which the mother has no private means of transport. The mother is faced with the prospect of collecting and delivering one child to a school on the east of Dartford, while being expected to collect and deliver another at the same or similar time to a school in the west of Dartford. To do so is impossible, yet schools on the east of Dartford are full. At least one school has, through its governing body, made representations to me and the local education authority on the difficulty of coping with over-subscription on a large scale.

If Dartford were a static community, it would be easy to dismiss the upsurge in the school-aged population as a temporary phenomenon. However, it is not: it is dynamic and, to date, there has been a significant increase in new housing in the eastern and riverside areas of the borough of Dartford—thus the upsurge in the numbers of young children is augmented by families who have moved into the local authority area. The problem exists now, and needs to be dealt with now. It will only get worse in the Thames gateway area, as more and more development proceeds.

The local education authority has addressed the problem to a point by increasing the size of schools in and around central Dartford, with some enlargement in Stone and at the Brent. A new primary school is planned for the Bexley hospital site to the west, as is one in Swanscombe, but I fear that all this enlargement and new build is inadequate to eliminate the problem. A new secondary school is also planned in the Swanscombe-Greenhithe-Stone area, which is welcome but, I fear, inadequate given the time scale necessary for taking forward new build.

I hope that I am wrong in my fears, but I am of an age to remember the example of the Kirkby estate in the former Huyton constituency that was represented for many years by the late Lord Wilson. Kirkby was a huge 1950s overspill estate, built to rehouse Liverpool people from the slums and to provide housing for those whose homes had been lost in the second world war. The estate was big, but it was only after some time that the planners realised that, although they had built much-needed houses, they had forgotten to provide infrastructure for schools, for leisure and for the elderly.

It is inconceivable that the problems of Kirkby should be visited upon north Dartford, and I believe that the Thames gateway is a huge success. But equally I would be failing in my duty as the hon. Member for Dartford if I did not remind the House of the need for decisions to be taken now to secure local sites for education, for the elderly and for leisure.

Much is being done, and has been done, locally, but the co-ordination of forward planning needs to be made crystal clear to the people I represent. Given that from three to five secondary schools and eight to 10 primary schools are needed, I ask my hon. Friend to intervene to help prevent the growth of a problem.

However, before I list my needs, may I inform the House that I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on 26 May 1995 about the implications of the Thames gateway project? My right hon. Friend pointed out in a letter to me on 21 June My role will be to consider on their merits any statutory proposals which result from this and to determine the level of capital support that can be made available to support the expansion of provision. I understand that at least some of the basic need places we recognised in the most recent capital round for the Dartford area were as a result of the initial stages of this development. I entirely agree with her, but the problem is now more pressing than when I wrote to her last year, given the rapid pace of development.

I wish to put three points to my hon. Friend the Minister. Will she commit her officials to a real evaluation of the educational needs in my constituency, given the implications of the Thames gateway project? Will she ensure that, after such an audit, she will arrange such liaison as is necessary between the various agencies so as to minimise the time from concept to school opening? Finally, will she inform my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—who offered on 21 June last year to meet me and such a deputation as I could put together to discuss the problems—that we would like to take up the opportunity to visit the Department to discuss at first hand the particular needs and problems faced by my constituents?

I wish to assure my constituents that the House is now aware of the problems they face, and that action is urgently needed. I will do all I can to minimise the conflicts that exist, until such time as new provision is made.

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

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) for drawing this important matter to the attention of the House. He is formidable in pursuing the interests of his constituents on every occasion—not least in education. I hope that, by the time I sit down, I will have answered him fully and given him the help that he seeks.

I know that this debate has been prompted by issues that have caused my hon. Friend great concerns—the problems that his constituents have experienced in getting their children into local schools, and their concerns about the lack of primary school places generally in the east Dartford area.

It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves just how much progress has been made in this area since the present Government took office in 1979. At that time, of course, parents had no say at all in deciding which school their child would attend. Schools could be kept half-empty, but parents would still not be offered a place, and there was certainly no right to appeal against decisions that others had made about the school placement of their children.

Under the arrangements progressively introduced by this Government, parents now have a clear and unequivocal right in law to express a preference for the school they wish their child to attend. Admission authorities—that is, governing bodies of grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools, and the local education authority for county and controlled schools—must comply with that preference if places are available. The only exceptions to this are denominational schools and selective schools, which may keep places open in order to preserve their particular character.

However, if a school is over-subscribed, it may be that parents do not receive a place since the school can be filled with pupils with better claims for places. It is up to the admissions authority to organise the over-subscription criteria to judge between the claims of candidates for places. Admission authorities may use any lawful criteria in taking decisions about whom to admit.

Under our policy of more open enrolment, schools must admit up to their standard number, or any higher admission limit set. As a result, admission authorities can no longer keep spare places at popular schools to safeguard the viability of other, less popular ones. The bottom line is that, if a school has spare places, eligible children must be admitted.

Parents now have more rights, more information and more access to a wider choice of different schools than ever before. What the Government have tried to do is remove the artificial barriers that, in the past, have all too often stood in the way of parental choice. Evidence suggests that some 90 per cent. of first-choice applications are successful.

Where parents are unsuccessful in gaining a place, they may if they wish exercise their rights to appeal to an independent appeal committee. Appeal committees offer parents an important second chance. They must consider any appeal in the light of the evidence available and the merits of the case before them. Nationally, around 40 per cent. of appeals are successful.

All appeals committees must now contain a lay member, and representatives of the admission authority cannot be in the majority. As a result, parents can now have more confidence that their appeals will be heard by an independent and impartial panel who will carefully weigh up the needs of the child against the implications for the school.

I can understand the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford about the problems that some of his constituents have experienced in getting their children into their local school. I know, too, that he has written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment about this matter on several occassions.

But these problems are not new. It is impossible to guarantee admission where many more parents have expressed a preference for a school than there are places available. What we have tried to do is put in place a framework that ensures that responsibility for admissions rests with individual admission authorities, who we believe are best placed to respond to the wishes and needs of parents and pupils.

As I understand it, parents whose children have been refused admission to schools in east Dartford have been offered places at schools in west Dartford. In some cases, these alternative schools are little more than a mile away from where parents live. However, I sympathise with the travel difficulties of parents, which were described so graphically by my hon. Friend.

I now turn to the issue of the supply of school places. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford will be aware that Kent is a stage 1 authority for the primary sector. Despite the large number of grant-maintained secondary schools in the county, less than 10 per cent. of Kent's primary school population is in grant-maintained schools. That means that Kent local education authority has sole responsibility for ensuring that there are sufficient primary school places in its area for pupils of compulsory school age.

The authority estimates that 5,000 primary school age places will be needed over the next 10 years in the Thames gateway area. Clearly, Dartford is in this growth area, and we have recognised this. In the 1994–95 bidding round for capital funding, we accepted a basic need case for 260 additional primary school places in Dartford and a further 300 primary places the following year. In the 1996–97 capital round, Kent LEA was given an educational capital guideline of over £23 million—by far the largest in the country. That represents 40 per cent. of the authority's total bid—significantly above the national average of 23 per cent. and reflects the extent to which its plans for spending on schools matched the national priority criteria.

Nevertheless, it is for LEAs to decide their capital expenditure priorities and make the best use of the resources available to them. The annual capital guidelines announced are not tied to particular projects, nor do they represent the full total of resources available to LEAs for capital spending: LEAs can invest their capital receipts and can use funds from their revenue budgets for capital purposes if they wish. The Government do not control the funding of individual projects at county or voluntary-controlled schools. I hope that the LEA will take note of what my hon. Friend said tonight.

To fulfil its planning responsibility to ensure a sufficient number of school places, Kent LEA has the power to publish statutory proposals. It can publish them to establish entirely new schools or to make significant enlargements to existing schools. It would be for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider any proposals that fall to her for decision. However, the LEA can, of course, make non-significant enlargements to existing schools without approval from her. I understand that the authority is considering the need for new primary places in the Dartford area and consulting locally on how to provide 210 additional places.

Governing bodies of grant-maintained schools can make proposals to enlarge their schools. My hon. Friend may recall that two GM primary schools in his constituency followed the statutory procedures and received approval from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for enlargement: Holy Trinity Church of England GM primary, with effect from September 1995; and Horton Kirby Church of England GM primary from September this year.

As my hon. Friend knows, our recently published White Paper proposes that grant-maintained schools should not in future need approval to enlarge their current capacity by up to 50 per cent. It also proposes that, when a new school is needed to meet a shortage of school places, power is given to the Funding Agency for Schools to submit proposals for a new GM school alongside any proposals from the LEA.

Although that would not change the planning responsibility of the LEA to ensure the provision of sufficient places in stage 1 authorities, it should help to promote a wider choice in the range of provision available. Of course, we would consider all proposals on their individual merits. Circumstances will vary in each case, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take account of all the relevant factors. However, as a matter of general policy, she would favour proposals that enhance diversity.

Let me assure the House that it remains our policy to allow schools to have more freedom to develop in response to popular local demand as well as to increase parental choice. Children have different abilities, aptitudes, interests and needs, which cannot all be met by a single sort of school. The Government want parents to be able to choose from a range of good schools of different sorts, matching what they want for their child with what a school offers. I am confident that that can be achieved in the Dartford area.

Finally, as my hon. Friend appreciates, the issues that he has raised will not be solved overnight, but my Department and my officials stand ready to help. Should he wish to bring a delegation to the Department, I would be only too happy to meet it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Nine o'clock.