HC Deb 05 May 2000 vol 349 cc473-80

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

2.31 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of secondary education in Southwark. Today is a happy day for Liberal Democrats because we shall have an extra Member of Parliament. There will be 47 Liberal Democrat Members and the sun is shining outside.

There are three issues on three successive days to exercise the minds of families in my constituency. Yesterday, whatever their political views, they rejoiced at the restoration of London government. Tomorrow, they hope that Millwall will beat Oxford and thus make the play-offs to move from the second to the first division. Today, there is an opportunity for one of the borough's Members of Parliament to raise a matter that has greatly exercised families throughout the borough—secondary education in Southwark.

I shall briefly outline the background. There are six secondary schools in my constituency—more in the borough as a whole. I represent two fifths of the borough. The right hon. Members for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Ms Jowell) represent the other parts. Of the six secondary schools in my constituency, three are local authority schools, two are Roman Catholic schools and one is a Church of England city technology college.

Throughout my time as a Member of Parliament, all the Church schools have been oversubscribed and the local authority schools have been less popular, whatever the efforts of their staff, whom I commend. I have worked with them and supported them, as I try to support all the schools in my constituency. However, this time every year, I am visited by tens—sometimes hundreds—of families who are unhappy because they cannot obtain places for their children in the schools of their choice. The parents are up in arms.

Again this year, parents gathered at meetings, where their anger and frustration was evident. They reiterated that the problem has existed for too long. It is so bad that some parents who are offered a local authority school place—all parents should be offered such a place, but sometimes they are not—do not send their children there because they do not want them to go to a particular school. Sometimes they send them there belatedly; buy education, although they may not have the money; or move away. That is not helpful in the context of sustainable communities.

Most parents try the appeals system when it exists. There is no proper, independent appeals system for the city technology college. That is frustrating, and parents approach their Members of Parliament. This year, the parents' campaign has become even angrier. I pay tribute in passing to one of our local newspapers, Southwark News, which has supported the parents. The borough comprises 250,000 people. Its make-up and character are varied, and it has great cultural diversity.

This is the history. We had a boys' secondary school, Scott Lidgett, run by the Inner London Education Authority, which was closed. Bacon's college was a Church of England secondary school—I was a governor— which became a city technology college, although I voted against the change. Southwark took over from ILEA as the education authority. ILEA was Labour run throughout its existence; Southwark has been Labour run ever since. Labour now runs Southwark by the casting vote of the mayor. There are four Conservatives, and one independent.

We have a Labour education authority and an education action zone, but secondary education outside the Church sector still does not enjoy the confidence of the people of the borough. Thirty per cent. of secondary school pupils leave Southwark. I tried—as, more recently, did my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow)—to persuade the Government, and the previous Government, to reverse the Greenwich judgment, which forbids local authorities to prioritise their own secondary school pupils. My hon. Friend recently presented the School Admissions (Amendments) Bill for that purpose, but was unsuccessful. As a result, many parents choose to send their children elsewhere. There is, of course, an influx of children, but it is not as great as the number of children who leave.

Let me mention one frustrating aspect, which I hope the Minister will refer to the Department. I thought that I had persuaded Ministers to introduce a co-ordinated appeals application system for schools. It could apply to nursery and primary schools as well, and it would take some of the grief and angst away from parents. Parents shop around; some know the system better than others. I think that we would all be better served by an independently managed system, a bit like the university application system.

Sadly, prejudice is not the reason for the dissatisfaction of so many families. They are dissatisfied because the performance has been so bad. It gives me no delight to quote from the performance tables—I have never been a great fan of such tables—but I shall do so notwithstanding their inadequacy. The local education authority average in England for pupils attaining five or more grades A to C at secondary school rose from 43.3 per cent. in 1994 to 46.3 per cent. in 1998, and to 47.9 per cent. in 1999. The Southwark average was 18.3 per cent. in 1994, 27.2 per cent. in 1997, 29.1 per cent. in 1998 and 29.5 per cent. in 1999. Some schools produced dire figures: 8 per cent. in one secondary school in my constituency in 1994, 9 per cent. in another—both are borough run—and 6 per cent. in another Southwark school in the following year.

Then there is the "top and bottom" local authority table. In 1999, Southwark was sixth from the bottom with its 29.5 per cent., whereas four authorities—represented, I note, by my hon. Friends—were in the top 10. Isles of Scilly came top with 61.3 per cent., Sutton came third with 60.1 per cent., Kingston upon Thames had 57 per cent. and North Yorkshire had 56.8 per cent. We are not achieving, and parents do not want their children to go to schools that do not deliver results. That is understandable.

Paradoxically, schools in special measures have continued to struggle while some of the greatest improvements have occurred in schools outside the local-authority sector. St. Saviour's and St. Olave's—a Church of England girls' school—and Notre Dame, a beacon school, have been among those recognised by Government as some of the most improved.

It is not just my view, or that of parents, that the education authority is not doing its job properly. In 1998, the Office for Standards in Education commissioned a report, inspected it and set various targets. The follow-up report published last autumn states: Southwark LEA was first inspected almost a year ago. It received a report which made some sharp criticisms and set the authority a number of important recommendations. However, at that stage, the expectation was that the LEA had sufficient management competence as well a sufficiently good relationship with its schools to implement the recommendations and to improve. In the event, that expectation has proved over-optimistic. The LEA has gone through a difficult period…At the same time, the national agenda for change has not ceased to press as hard upon Southwark as on other LEAs…Overall, however, the LEA has regressed. In particular, it has lost the trust and respect of its schools, some of which can no longer discern any useful purpose that the authority serves. Many of the best schools in Southwark no longer feel that the LEA supports them. That feeling is a direct consequence of the LEA rightly attempting to direct its resources to need. The schools' reaction reflects a culture of dependency which should, in time, be dispelled. This is the telling point: To an extent, therefore, we sympathise with the view expressed by the Chief Executive and others that the LEA is going through a sea-change and that things will "get worse before they get better." However, we see no immediate prospect of improvement and are, therefore, impelled to ask "how much worse, and for how long?

Parents are saying that they cannot go on like this. Not only do some parents not enrol their children, but other young people who are enrolled leave or play truant. We have many more not attending than the official figures reveal. I have always been concerned that we do not have a satisfactory procedure for dealing with failing LEA schools, and have argued that point in my party and locally for a long time.

There is some hope and opportunity ahead, which is why this debate is well timed. Southwark has recently elected a new leader and a new chair of education, and has recently appointed a new director of education, who started last month and whom I have not yet met. Coincidentally, the Liberal Democrat opposition also elected a new leader this week. We now have a charter school in the south of the borough under the new start scheme, following the closure of one of the least satisfactory schools. Outside the borough, the Church of England has indicated that it is interested in possibly taking on other schools, and a report is expected on that.

Much development is taking place, especially in my constituency, which would provide space opportunities for the building of a new school. There is also the possibility of converting the old St. Saviour's and St. Olave's boys grammar school building at Tower bridge, because the school has moved to an outer London location. More land is available near Tower bridge, next to the site of the Greater London Authority building which is now under way. Land will become available in the Surrey docks, and at the Elephant and Castle under a redevelopment scheme by the local authority. Land is also available in Bermondsey through the Spa road regeneration scheme.

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment gave further grounds for optimism in his widely reported speech on 15 March to the Social Market Foundation, which was entitled "Transforming Secondary Education". He ended his introductory remarks by saying: And finally there must be no excuses for underperformance. Hence my plea to the Minister today.

Things have moved on and, as a result of the parental pressure and outcry, matters went before the local authority education committee on 27 March and the full council on 29 March. A resolution proposed by the Liberal Democrats was agreed after amendment by the Labour majority and the Conservative third party group. The resolution agreed that there would be speedy progress towards assessing the need for a new school in north Southwark in the light of revised roll projections and further data on feasibility; including a detailed action plan and timetable for opening a new school.

This week, the education committee received a petition carrying several hundred signatures from residents of Southwark requesting a new school, which was presented by my colleague, Councillor Jeff Hook. It stated: We the residents of Southwark ask that a new secondary school be built in the north of the borough. Many children have been left without a secondary school to attend come September 2000. We understand that all the schools are over subscribed and cannot accept every child that applies to their school. However this does not justify the amount of children that have been left feeling very upset, disheartened and worried about receiving a decent education. We also appreciate that money is a problem, but if money can be found to build a millennium dome and wheel, surely it can be possible to find money for one new school. Children are our future and as parents and carers it is our duty to make sure that they receive the very best there is to offer our children. The first thing we should make sure of is that they receive an education that they so deserve. Unfortunately this year is no exception from any other year, and we feel that this problem has gone on for far too long. Now is the time to rectify it before the next set of children have the same problems. I say amen to that.

First, given that we want a new school in the north of the borough, but do not want any schools that parents would not choose for their children, and given that we must have provision for those who are excluded so that they do not fall out of the system altogether, will the Government support a new school although technically there might be an argument that every place across the borough is not being filled? I would strongly argue that, if we have a new school and the other schools are popular, the numbers will recover and the places will be filled. Parents take their children away from schools that do not reach acceptable standards. It is a chicken and egg situation; unless we have decent schools, we will not fill them.

Secondly. what sort of school can we have? Could we have a Church school if the Church wanted to provide one? Are we eligible for a city academy? It seems that one could be provided within a year and a half. I understand that one could he built ready for the autumn term 2001. If we were to have a city academy, could we have one that had an admissions appeals procedure, unlike the current one? I must declare an interest as a trustee of Bacon's college, but I remain critical of the fact that it does not have an admissions appeals procedure. Could we have admissions criteria that gave priority to those from SE1 or SE16, or certainly the local area which feels deprived? Can we have some encouragement that it is not necessary to have a 5 acre site and that a school can be built on a 2.5 acre or 3 acre site although the playing fields may have to be elsewhere?

Can we make sure that, when we build the new school, which I hope the Government will approve, we do not neglect the other schools that are still regarded as being of a less high standard so that they remain part of the programme? I am absolutely committed to the idea of a programme to ensure that no school is not justifiably successful and popular.

Finally, can we guarantee provision for those who end up being excluded simply because they do not conform to that standard? We must not leave them out.

Southwark is undergoing a real transformation. The Tate Modern is opening next week and the Millennium bridge, which is not quite finished, will be open soon. It is the borough of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens. If we cannot provide education now, we will not produce the scholars that Southwark, London and Britain need for the future. I hope that the Minister can give me a positive and encouraging reply.

2.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks)

I shall not follow the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) too closely in what he said about the election results, but as a Londoner I can say that this is a great day for London in that democracy has come home to the capital city, and we look forward to working with the elected mayor and members of the Greater London Authority, whom we congratulate on their success.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important matter. We are all committed to raising standards of education for all children. In Southwark, as elsewhere, we are taking action to drive up standards and support initiatives which underpin that. As well as listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, I have discussed the matter with the two other local Members of Parliament to whom he referred, my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Ms Jowell).

Since we have been in government we have made a clear commitment to raising standards, and our record shows consistent and effective action through all stages of the education process. Our aim is clear: it is to ensure that every child has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the well earned popularity of some schools in Southwark. We recognise that two secondary schools in the area are in special measures, and we are taking positive steps to drive up standards in all schools in the borough.

Most importantly, we have established an education action zone in the north of the borough, which comprises 15 schools. Altogether, about £1 million a year is being put into the zone. Some of the money is provided locally, but most of it comes from central funds. The zone has received enthusiastic backing from local parents, businesses and others as it endeavours to improve literacy, numeracy, IT and science skills. It has an objective of attracting high quality teaching staff.

As the hon. Gentleman noted, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State approved the closure of the former Dulwich high school for boys. The school will reopen in September this year as the Charter school, a comprehensive for both boys and girls. The Government are providing £4.5 million in funding through the new deal for schools to enable that to happen. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities, in her constituency capacity, worked very hard with local parents to achieve the establishment of the school.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned city academies. That new initiative is a radical approach to the fresh start programme, and it aims to find local sponsors to help establish new schools. The recent Budget made initial capital provision of £60 million available nationwide for the fresh start spending programme as a whole. People in Southwark may well come forward with proposals that relate to the city academy initiative.

We need to ensure that schools are supported by their local education authorities, which have a duty to promote high standards. In essence, that is what they are about. They must prepare education development plans that set targets for pupils and for the quality of teaching, leadership and management in schools. Where an LEA cannot provide that support, the Secretary of State reserves the power to secure proper performance of its functions.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Southwark received its second adverse Ofsted report last December. The report concluded that the LEA was not adequately fulfilling its functions with a view to raising standards in schools, and that it currently lacked the capacity to do so. In the wake of the report, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State concluded that radical action was needed to secure the significant and lasting changes that would be necessary to drive up standards in Southwark schools.

In partnership with Southwark council, we appointed KPMG to analyse the problems facing Southwark, and to suggest solutions to these problems. The most significant of those solutions was that Southwark should advertise for a private sector organisation which could act as a strategic partner for the authority, and take on some of its key educational functions. There is no limit to the extent of the partnership, but the partner would be expected to take over the running of the school improvement service and to play a major role in policy formation.

The closing date for organisations to bid to become this strategic partner was only last week. A number of high quality bids were received, and they are currently being considered by educational experts in Southwark and in the Department for Education and Employment, assisted by KPMG. Southwark Council and the Department will select by the summer an appropriate model of partnership, and a partner with which the council will enter into a formal agreement for a period of between three and seven years.

I note what the hon. Gentleman said about the new leadership evident in the Department, and about the political leadership in Southwark. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is confident that a strategic partner will be selected which, in partnership with the authority, will be able to bring about major and lasting improvements in the standards of education in Southwark schools. In passing, I should also note that the Government are sensitive to the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised when he mentioned children who do not participate in schools on a day-to-day or week-by-week basis. We are taking initiatives to deal with issues relating to truancy, exclusion and bullying, which can be especially important in city areas.

I turn now to the vital issue of school places. The hon. Gentleman made some valuable points about the situation in Southwark, about which my Department is concerned. I know that there has been interest in a new school in the borough, and that concerns have been raised by parents who have been unable to get children into their first choice of school.

I recognise that the position in Southwark is complicated by the movement of pupils between different boroughs. That is not atypical within the Greater London area; such movement takes place in line with parental preference. In Southwark there is a net outflow, as has been acknowledged. Some 1,700 children come into Southwark to be educated, but well over 3,000 go out.

The law gives parents the right to express a preference for the school at which they wish their child to be educated, but it has never guaranteed all parents a place for their child at their preferred school. I understand the frustration of parents whose application has been unsuccessful. We would like all parents to be able to send their children to a school that is satisfactory to them. The hon. Gentleman, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities and I have all seen parents in our advice surgeries, and we understand their frustration when parents cannot obtain a place for their child at their desired school. That is a difficult issue, of which, in my neighbouring constituency of Croydon, North, I am very aware.

However, if a school has more applications than places, it cannot admit every applicant. Sadly, simple arithmetic dictates that. In those circumstances, places have to be allocated among applicants according to published oversubscription criteria. Admission arrangements for all schools must be published annually by each local education authority. Cases can also be taken to independent appeal panels.

In Southwark, applications have exceeded the places available at some schools. Indeed, I understand that the new Charter school has received 800 applications for entry in September. Some schools have always been more popular than others. Our view is that the only way in which to meet parental preference effectively is to raise standards in all schools, so that the choice parents have to make is between equally good schools. Our policies are focused on achieving this aim. However, as will be appreciated, that cannot happen overnight. As I know from my own locality, schools, and their reputations, can and do change, often quite rapidly. Yesterday's failing school can become today's oversubscribed school. That happens in different parts of our city.

In Southwark as a whole, there are enough places to satisfy demand based on current patterns of pupil movement. The local education authority's returns to my Department show that in January 1999 there was an actual surplus of secondary places of some 10 per cent. However, forecasts produced by the LEA predict that there will be a growth of almost 13 per cent. in secondary numbers by 2004–05, and that the supply of and demand for places will by then be finely balanced.

The school organisation plan for Southwark was agreed fairly recently, on 14 September 1999. This locally agreed document states that although a new school in the north of the borough may be required by 2005, it is evident that on the basis of current projections there is little case for such an initiative. I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said about parental wishes and about recent discussions in the council, and I assure him that my Department will listen very carefully to any application from Southwark. He will appreciate that I cannot say more than that. The situation in boroughs such as Southwark is complex, but we shall consider the issue as positively as we can.

Officials and Ministers in my Department are aware of pressure on school places in south London and are monitoring the position carefully. In the summer term, officials will visit LEAs to discuss those and other issues. In short, the Government are taking action to address the issues that underpin the hon. Gentleman's concerns. Those issues are vital for Southwark, particularly for parents and children. Indeed, I have taken some time to read the comments of parents in the pages of the local press, and I am moved by their determination to achieve decent education for their children, which I fully understand. These important issues will be tackled energetically and urgently in Southwark, with every possible help from my Department.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.