§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pearson.]10.11 pm
§ Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)
I want to draw the attention of the House and the Minister to the proposed amalgamation and closure of schools in Coventry. I shall touch on the consultation that has been carried out; on the formula that has been applied; on the location of some of the schools; and on the questions whether there is an independent adjudication process, whether any new formulas have been proposed by the Government and who makes the final decision. Those issues arise not only in my constituency but in other parts of Coventry.
I asked for the debate because I am concerned about the closure and amalgamation of schools in my constituency. The areas where those closures are to take place have in the past had high unemployment—for example, Hillfields, Willenhall and parts of Westwood. Much has been done in those areas, but the momentum should be kept up because there is a still a need for jobs and training, particularly for young people who for many years were unable to get a job. I readily acknowledge that the Government are trying to do something about that.
It may help the Minister in her reply to the debate if I tell her the name of some of the schools concerned. In Hillfields, the two schools to be amalgamated are St. Mary's and St. Benedict's, with the new school on the St. Benedict's site. In Willenhall, Corpus Christi and St. Anne's are to be amalgamated on the Corpus Christi site. In Westwood, the schools affected are Alderman Harris and Sir Henry Parks. Those schools will close and a new one will be built on a new site. There is a new proposal for Howes Lane school in the Cheylesmore area of Coventry, and there are plans for an additional community centre and structural changes to the school.
I readily acknowledge that a lot of work has been done by the local authority to improve the quality of life and the environment in those areas. In some instances, the Government have also provided assistance, which I may touch on later. However, there is certainly still a need for community facilities in those areas. More health care facilities, environmental improvements and, as I mentioned earlier, more employment opportunities are needed. May I pay tribute to the tremendous work of the residents' associations, which have done a professional job in responding to the local authority's consultation document? At public meetings that I have attended, they gave a professional response and used graphs, charts and other methods to outline their case. Most people who attended those meetings were very taken with those efforts.
At the same time, one must acknowledge that Coventry city council has helpfully made available grants and, as I said earlier, there has been Government support, for in the last year or two, a new shopping area has opened in Hillfields, the funding for which was provided by the Government and the city council. In addition, new houses have been built which have been badly needed in that area for some time. Residents' groups have made major efforts to combat problems such as crime. Another environmental improvement in the offing is the relocation of Coventry 955 City football ground. There are all sorts of traffic problems and lots of congestion in the Hillfields area on a Saturday. Members whose constituencies include a football ground in a densely populated area know exactly what I am talking about. The new football ground will be located in the old gasworks site in Foleshill—not in my constituency—which has lain derelict for about 30 years. So there is improvement not just in my constituency, but in constituencies outside my area.
As I said earlier, the consultation was carried out by the Department for Education and Employment and has now been completed. Parents' groups have produced their own alternatives to the city council's proposals because they feel that the present base formula sometimes works against them. They think that there is a case not only for the retention of the schools, but of other amenities such as playing fields, libraries and nurseries at some of those schools. Parents feel that the present formula needs to be more flexible. The assessment management consultation document is still out to consultation. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say what progress has been made on it and what responses she has had? Once the consultation is over, does she have a date in mind when its findings will be implemented? Lots of people would be interested in that.
Some ideas have been incorporated in public thinking concerning experiments in primary education in the United States of America, in which infant classes were reduced to 18 to 20 pupils. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen that research, but I should be interested to hear her comments. When my hon. Friend responds to the debate, will she say whether there is an independent appeal body that can settle any disputes, either between the education authority and the parents or between the governors and the authorities? Many people would like to know the answer to that. Many parents think that schools like St. Anne's and St. Mary's mild be retained on a part-teaching basis, in which the premises are shared with, for example, community facilities. That would enable those schools to respond not only to teaching and educational needs, but to other community needs.
In conclusion, will my hon. Friend enter into a fact-finding discussion with the local education authority, to try to save some of the schools? Will she say whether she is satisfied with the present formula? Will she ensure that serious consideration is given by the authority to the parents' views and to the documentation produced by parents to support alternative proposals?
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on gaining the opportunity for this debate. I know from previous conversations with him that he feels strongly about the matter and has already made representations to Ministers, as have his fellow Coventry Members. I am glad to have the opportunity to respond to some of the points that my hon. Friend made, and to emphasise the fact that the Government's approach to the organisation and funding of school places puts quality and raising standards at the heart of all our policies to support schools, teachers and pupils.
As well as dealing with teaching and learning, those policies focus on a quality learning environment suited to the needs of the 21st century. That is why the Government 956 are investing more than £8.5 billion in school buildings over the next three years. The investment for this year is three times the amount in the last year of the former Government, in addition to more than £5 billion invested over the four years since 1997. Like my hon. Friend, we are committed to raising standards of education for all our children. In Coventry, as elsewhere, we are taking action to drive up standards and ensure that school buildings are fit for children to learn in and teachers to teach in. I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about that.
My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of class sizes. Since 1997, we have taken action to reduce the numbers of infant pupils educated in classes of more than 30. In Coventry, that means that in January this year only 63 infants—that is, 0.6 per cent.—were in classes of more than 30. That is 3,157 fewer children than in January 1997, when 30 per cent. of Coventry's infant pupils were in large classes. Capital funding of nearly £300,000 has been provided by the Department for six new classrooms to help to achieve smaller class sizes in Coventry.
That is part of the unprecedented national level of investment in school buildings, of which Coventry has received total capital allocations of £31.275 million over the four years since 1997–98, with a further £5.6 million for 2001–02. I know that my hon. Friend is aware of examples in his constituency of our commitment to improving school buildings with projects allocated funding under the new deal for schools. That has brought about improvements at Bagington Fields school, Bishop Ullathorne Roman Catholic school and St. Thomas More Roman Catholic primary school, the refurbishment of design and technology accommodation at Ernesford Grange school and community college, and improvements to science accommodation at Bishop Ullathorne and Ernesford Grange schools. That shows the Government's commitment to high quality accommodation for our children's learning.
The main issue of this debate is local concern about the reorganisation. The school organisation plan published last October by the Coventry local education authority identified the need to reduce the number of school places in its primary schools because of actual and projected overcapacity. The need to rationalise school places was endorsed by Ofsted and the Audit Commission in their report on the authority last autumn.
We believe that resources that are locked into maintaining surplus places in schools can and should be freed up wherever possible and directed towards improving standards. What we want, as my hon. Friend emphasised, is high-quality education provided in the most cost-effective way. The resources released when surplus places are removed can and should be spent on priority areas such as books and teachers.
As my hon. Friend is aware, the authority has conducted a review of primary provision with a view to reducing surplus places by some 2,900 by January 2004, while leaving sufficient flexibility to allow for parental preference. It has drawn up proposals to reduce the size of some schools and amalgamate others for initial consultation locally. We understand that the authority will be considering the outcome of that consultation shortly and will decide what actions it wishes to propose in the light of that.
My hon. Friend rightly raised the important issue of the process by which such decisions are made, and the opportunities for his constituents to contribute to and raise 957 understandable concerns about the process, so it would be helpful if I outlined that process, and the role of the various bodies involved in deciding statutory proposals.
The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 introduced a new framework for local decision making in school place planning. Local education authorities must prepare a school organisation plan covering a five-year rolling period. That plan is subject to consultation locally and has to be approved by the local school organisation committee.
The Secretary of State is no longer responsible for deciding proposals to reorganise school provision. That role was devolved to the local level from September 1999. Decisions are now rightly taken at the local level, by local people with a far greater knowledge of the priorities, needs, concerns and character of the local area. The system is designed to involve all stakeholders and to ensure that any decision on proposals is taken in the light of a full consideration of relevant factors.
It is important that a full and informed discussion of any changes take place prior to the publication of proposals. I was encouraged to hear what my hon. Friend said about the active involvement that there has already been in consultation. It is because of that that the Secretary of State has required in, for example, sections 28 and 29 of the School Standards and Framework Act, that a full consultation process be undertaken prior to proposals being published. Further to that he has published, in circular 9/99, statutory guidance which specifies who should be consulted and the scope of such consultation.
I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured to hear that his constituents and other interested parties will have an opportunity at that stage, and also during the objection period which follows publication of proposals—if it is decided to go ahead with the reorganisation after consultation—to make their views known and be fully involved in the process.
All proposals which attract objections are considered by the local school organisation committee. In reaching its decision, the committee must have regard to a number of factors, including the content and outcomes of any consultation and the level and content of statutory objections. However, the committee is also required to consider issues such as standards of provision, the sufficiency of provision and the balance of denominational and non-denominational provision.
The school organisation committee is independent of the LEA. It is made up of a number of groups consisting of local schools, the LEA, the diocese, and further education. A decision can be taken on proposals only if the committee reaches that decision unanimously. If that is not the case, the decision passes to an independent schools adjudicator for a decision. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured about the independence of the decision-making process.
My hon. Friend also referred to concerns that have been raised locally about the way in which surplus school places are quantified. I understand that that relates to the primary reorganisation scheme proposed by Coventry city council and, in particular, to the sufficiency of the space requirement per pupil to meet the needs of those pupils' education. 958 Whether there is sufficient space at a school can be assessed through the following means. The Department issues area guidelines for schools, which are laid out in "Building Bulletin 82". The guidelines set out defined ranges of total area per pupil and give guidance on the range of areas of individual spaces inside the school. They recognise that a primary school does not consist solely of classrooms for teaching, but will include other spaces such as the hall, library and practical areas. I understand that Coventry city council has indicated that it aims to provide towards the maximum end of the Department's recommended range, which is set out in the area guidelines. For example, that will be nearer 2.1 sq m per pupil in a classroom under any reorganised provision.
As my hon. Friend said, the Department keeps those guidelines under review. We are currently reviewing the area guidelines in the light of the demands of the current and future curriculum, information and communications technology, inclusion and community use, and will consult widely later this year. I am sure that Coventry city council will want to avail itself of the latest thinking about that.
In addition, all schools are currently assessed in accordance with a measure of capacity called more open enrolment—or MOE—which takes into account the number of rooms that are suitable for use as classroom accommodation. However, once again, the hall, library and other accommodation that is not used as a base for teaching groups is not counted in the method of calculation for primary schools, as that method derives the total number of pupils that can be accommodated from the number of teaching class bases. In the current MOE method, an area in a classroom of 1.8 sq m per pupil is taken as minimum provision to accommodate up to 30 pupils. If a classroom in a modern school was built to provide 2.1 sq m or more per pupil, that would not affect the overall assessment of capacity.
That does not, of course, mean that spaces such as libraries and areas for information and communications technology and special needs cannot be provided by Coventry LEA. Quite the opposite: I understand that Coventry is aiming in its reorganisation and remodelling of schools to provide accommodation and facilities that are appropriate to the numbers that it expects to see in its schools and that the authority has indicated that the brief for any new schools arising out of the current round of consultations will be reviewed to ensure the best possible design to meet the current and future needs of children in schools.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, the Department has recently issued guidance on asset management plans in relation to the sufficiency of school buildings. The guidance gives details of a new measure of overall capacity within a school and provides examples of how that will apply to both primary and secondary schools in future. The intention is for the new capacity measure to improve existing methods of assessing capacity and to replace the more open enrolment measure to which I referred. We think that that will be a fairer and more precise measure that will take account of both teaching classrooms and necessary support spaces. The new measure is being introduced following consultations in which the majority of respondents agreed that there should be a single, revised assessment of capacity that takes into account all the usable areas within the school, 959 and also makes realistic allowances for special educational needs, information and communications technology and community use.
My hon. Friend rightly emphasised the importance of school buildings to the community. In rationalising accommodation, the authority could consider alternatives to disposal or demolition. For example, a local education authority might propose to transfer accommodation to other educational or non-educational uses, in line with other local and national priorities such as adult education and lifelong learning, or to another local authority service. In doing that, the authority needs to examine the benefits of alternative use, and whether it is value for money, as 960 well as the way in which its costs will continue to be met in future. I share my hon. Friend's view that it is important for authorities to maximise their use of buildings and devise imaginative proposals.
I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that his constituents will be fully involved in decisions about any changes that Coventry local education authority proposes, and that Government investment and policies are aimed at ensuring quality learning environments for all the children in his constituency.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Eleven o'clock.