HC Deb 22 November 2001 vol 375 cc443-5
2. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

If she will visit schools in Staffordshire to assess the condition of the (a) buildings, (b) heating and (c) associated infrastructure. [14632]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (John Healey)

The Secretary of State has no current plans to visit schools in Staffordshire. Staffordshire has, as requested by the Department, already carried out an assessment of the condition of its school buildings. Since 1997, £92 million has been provided to help meet the capital investment needs of schools in the county, and £39 million more has been allocated for the next two years.

Michael Fabricant

Well, that would seem to be a rather complacent reply on behalf of the Secretary of State, which is, perhaps, not typical of her. She may well know that, two or three weeks ago, head teachers from throughout Staffordshire came to the House of Commons to meet all the county's Members of Parliament and talk about their budgets. Duncan Meikle, the headmaster of King Edward VI school in Lichfield, said that his budget for those services has already run out this year, and pointed out that it is the worst budget he has had since he became headmaster of the school four years ago. Is it not typical of Education Ministers, like Health Ministers, that they talk about millions, even billions, of pounds, but when it comes down to it, services are getting worse?

John Healey

I remind the hon. Gentleman that his question was about capital, not services. We are not complacent; we are investing a massive amount of extra money in schools. Four in five of Lichfield schools have already benefited from targeted capital allocations since the election, and all Lichfield schools, like all the schools in every constituency, have benefited from direct funding through the new deal for schools. Over the next three years, £22 million more will be going direct to Staffordshire schools, and if the hon. Gentleman talks to two of Lichfield's head teachers, he will find that they are part of the asset management forum in Staffordshire and they can tell him exactly what the plans are for capital investment in his county.

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton)

Does my hon. Friend accept that the problems with Staffordshire schools and their buildings stem from the years and years of under-investment under Tory Governments? Does he accept that, in my constituency, although there are complaints about the needs of school buildings, many schools are seeing real benefits from the extra money being provided for capital spending?

John Healey

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is right, of course. We faced a massive backlog after two decades of Tory under-investment in our schools, and we still need to catch up in Staffordshire. The new asset management plan, prepared by the local education authority with schools, shows that over the next five years £72 million is needed for the county's schools. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that £52 million has already been allocated for the next two years.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

But can the Minister guarantee that capital spending in Staffordshire schools will not be financed through the sale of school playing fields? In a year when there has been a 60 per cent. increase in the number of playing fields being sold by the Government, is it not time that they started to live up to their promise to stop the sale of playing fields, or is the former Minister for Sport right when she says that the Government have lost the plot on the issue?

John Healey

When the Conservatives were in power they did not keep any check on the sale of school playing fields. There are new rules and new controls, and under this Government the number of playing fields sold has been way down on the number sold under the, Conservative Government, and the proceeds of sales are earmarked for education purposes.

Most of the new capital investment will now be formula-based and dedicated under the new asset management plans prepared by LEAs with schools. That is the guarantee of local control, of local decision making and of local transparency, and it means that the investment provided centrally will find its way into schools.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

Is my hon. Friend aware that my constituency has enjoyed unprecedented capital investment over the last four years? We have a new primary school, several new computer suites and science laboratories, new extensions and additional nursery provision. However, I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that one local school has just suffered a devastating fire, in which the catering buildings and gym facilities were totally destroyed. Will he congratulate the school, the staff, the LEA, the pupils and the governors on the magnificent way in which they have coped in very difficult circumstances over the last two weeks? The school was closed for only one day, and Staffordshire LEA now—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the Minister has got the drift.

John Healey

First, I pay tribute to the experience and expertise my hon. Friend brings to the subject as a former member of the Education Committee and one who knows a great deal about the system. It is telling that the picture of the education system that she paints differs starkly from the one painted by the Conservatives.

As for the fire at my hon. Friend's local school, I congratulate all those who made tremendous efforts to pull together and ensure that only one day of schooling was missed. In addition, I undertake to make sure that our Department provides all the support that we can and should provide in such difficult circumstances, to make sure that the school recovers as it needs to after such a catastrophe.