HC Deb 28 October 1999 vol 336 cc1091-2
12. Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

What discussions he is holding with directors of education to ensure that there is an adequate supply of school places in areas where housing growth is expected to take place in the near future; and if he will make a statement. [94261]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith)

Responsibility for the adequate supply of school places rests with local education authorities, which take proposed new build into account in their planning.

Mr. Flight

I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. I am sure that she is aware that there is a major problem in my constituency and in many other rural areas in the south-east. With the additional housing forced on areas by the Government, there are not sufficient schools places for children, so young children must travel five, six or seven miles to primary school. Will the Government ensure that that contradiction in policy is resolved? It is unsatisfactory that such problems should be forced on children.

Jacqui Smith

I am sure that, for those reasons, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that the number of infants in class sizes of 30 in west Sussex has fallen from 3,875 last September to 1,251 this September; that the Government have made available in his constituency an extra £8 million, through the new deal for schools and class size capital; and that the planning undertaken by his local authority through the school organisation plan has been approved by the local schools organisation committee, which gives a role to schools and head teachers in the planning process. Hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench would do away with that if they were allowed to put their own policies into operation.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend and my very good friend on her promotion to the Front Bench. I know that she will make a great success of it. I draw to her attention the number of rural schools that were closed under the previous Conservative Administration. Does she agree that the Government have done much to safeguard schools in rural communities, such as one primary school in my area, to keep them open and to protect them for the future, so that they can meet the needs of all the children in the communities where they are situated?

Jacqui Smith

I thank my hon. Friend for her words. I agree that the activities of the previous Government with regard to rural schools give the lie to the Conservatives apparent concern for promoting those schools now. The Labour Government have provided support through the small schools support fund, which will enable small schools, particularly in rural areas, to work together constructively to safeguard those facilities for local communities and to raise standards.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) in welcoming the hon. Lady to the Front Bench. Is not my hon. Friend right in his analysis—that the extra development of 1.1 million houses in the south-east is likely to be in areas where schools are already oversubscribed? What the hon. Lady has just said about class sizes is likely to make that situation worse. Would it not be common sense to try and plan so that local authorities would not be obliged to provide further development in the green belt and on green-field sites? In our schools, we rightly teach children about the importance of the environment. Should we not plan so that we can avoid development that ruins the environment?

Jacqui Smith

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I agree that it is important for local education authorities to work with district councils in looking at local structure plans in planning their school places. That is why the Government, in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, required LEAs to produce school organisation plans which are subject to local decision making through school organisation committees, which, I reiterate, involves local schools and local head teachers. The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has already announced that she would get rid of all that, presumably to reduce the level of local planning and the influence of schools and head teachers in the planning of school places in local authorities.