HC Deb 15 January 2002 vol 378 cc267-74

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

10.17 pm
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I cannot help but feel a certain irony in taking part in this debate, as I spoke in last Friday's debate on pensions and annuities. However, Eastbourne is like that; we have a large elderly population but, as I shall describe, we also have a fast-growing population of young people, which is estimated to continue well into this century. As I am sure you do, Mr. Speaker, I have a personal rule of thumb; if I am not getting angry letters about something, it is probably okay and there is not a problem.

Increasingly, in recent years I have been getting letters from disappointed parents who cannot get their children into the school of their choice. In East Sussex, parents are given three choices—the local education authority prefers to call them preferences, but I think that that is a distinction without any difference. On a number of occasions of which I am aware—no doubt there have been others—parents have not got their children into any of their three choices. I am so concerned about resources and the allocation of school places in my constituency that I have recently announced a programme to revisit all its schools in the coming months to see the problems for myself.

There is a problem in the primary schools. According to the briefing that the LEA kindly provided, in the East Sussex school organisation plan—SOP—for 2002 to 2005–06, the number of primary age pupils, which has grown substantially, will decline in the county as a whole. In Eastbourne, however, the total number of primary age pupils is expected to increase by about 100 in the next two years. There is already a problem in primary schools. I believe that Ocklynge junior school in my constituency is the largest junior school not just in the country, but in Europe. Only the other day, I visited Stafford junior school in my constituency, which is being pressured to take a total of 370 pupils, when it was originally designed to take a maximum of 280. I saw for myself the four mobile classrooms—I hesitate to use the word "temporary" as it is often misused in the circumstances—in its grounds.

The problem is therefore widespread at every level of education in my constituency and in other parts of East Sussex. I have reached the conclusion that in the medium term we need another new school in Eastbourne, or at least a major extension of one or more of the existing schools. The SOP shows a continuing marked increase of some 1,200 in the number of secondary-age pupils across the county over the plan period. However, in Eastbourne it is expected that the total number of secondary-age pupils will increase by more than 600, or almost 12 per cent., during the period of the plan.

A working group chaired by the lead member for education, Councillor Rupert Simmons, concluded that taking into account likely new housing that the Government seek to impose on the area, 700 new places will be required. The group concluded that up to 350 new places will certainly be needed by 2005. A number of options have been identified.

That is not to say that there is no good news. We have the £16 million committed by the county council to the new secondary school, the Causeway school, which will provide up to 950 places. The Church of England-aided school, Bishop Bell, is about to commence a £2 million project to provide 150 additional places. I should mention in passing that Bishop Bell is the most oversubscribed school in the entire county, largely owing to the efforts of its excellent head teacher, Mr. Terry Boatwright.

I am pleased to say that in only a few short months, the new Conservative administration in East Sussex has got a grip under Councillor Simmons's leadership and is looking at priorities, which was not achieved during the previous eight years of Liberal Democrat control. In particular, the previous administration seems to have ignored the view of the district auditor in his report in 1998, which stated that the margin for parental preference in Eastbourne was very small.

The figures are extraordinary. With the exception of the new Causeway school, which is still in the process of filling up, every secondary school in my constituency is well over capacity, with percentages ranging from 8 per cent. up to 19 per cent. In the case of the Eastbourne technology college, formerly Hampden Park school, the LEA and the governors are allowing for the possibility of it being up to 26 per cent. over capacity. That shows an enormous pressure on school places and on staff and pupils.

It is true that there are vacant places in Eastbourne, but it is also true that, without exception, they all exist at Eastbourne technology college. That is interesting for two reasons. First, ETC is already 19 per cent. over capacity. Secondly, for reasons that may not be fair, may be historical and are beyond the scope of this debate, Eastbourne technology college is currently not a popular school, in the sense of attracting as many first preferences as some other secondary schools.

That causes an additional problem. Despite the excellent work of the staff, and particularly the relatively new head teacher, Janet Felkin, there are parents whose children are assigned to Eastbourne technology college although it was not one of their three preferences, and who are not happy about that situation. That is the only school, as confirmed by the director of education, Denise Stokoe, that has spare places. She states in her letter to me: As you can see, there are sufficient places in the town overall. There is a particular problem that all the spare places are at one school. Councillor Simmons remarked in an e-mail to me on the matter that the council has set out the basis of a development plan, brought together all the six secondary heads involved, and is seeking to devise a plan. He says: Mobile Huts can bail us out of a temporary situation but only for so long. Willingdon"— that is, Willingdon school— are running with 20 now and all in a poor condition. He goes on to talk about an extremely limited capital budget. All those issues will be addressed at a meeting of the council's cabinet on 31 January.

An interesting option that emerged only today in a press statement from the LEA is that of moving the existing Cavendish school to what is effectively a greenfield site at Cross Levels way to give the school up-to-date facilities and, perhaps even more important, to increase its size to about 1,200 places. As the statement makes clear, councillors have yet to make decisions about resources for the forward capital programme. It states: At this stage, there can be no guarantee of funding for the plan. This is a question not merely of numbers, however, but of the real human problems caused by the figures. For example, Mr. Keith Martin, one of my constituents, has fought a tenacious battle to try to get his daughter Claire into the school of his and his wife's choice. That has not been possible and they have been offered a place at Eastbourne technology college. Claire is still being tutored at home at great expense and inconvenience to all concerned. There seems to be a state of impasse at the moment as far as her education is concerned.

The other day, a local teacher sent me an e-mail that stated: Morale has never been so low in all my 31 years of teaching. The paperwork and bureaucracy mean that we are working every evening and weekends to complete so many meaningless documents that are not helping the children one jot. She went on to write: I urge you to revisit … schools in your constituency and find out just how underfunded they all are … Oldies like myself are counting the years until we retire … Now everything has become prescriptive and the joy has gone out of teachers' lives. That is a crushing indictment of the current system.

We have a worrying picture of the effect of the current situation on class sizes, the pressures on teachers, the possible prejudice to the education of local children in Eastbourne and elsewhere in East Sussex and the undermining of parental choice. I have three questions for the Minister. First, does she accept the scale of the pressures that I have described and agree that they must be addressed? Secondly, does she accept that, in the short term, the problems of the existing facilities, such as temporary classrooms, must be tackled? Thirdly, does she accept that, in the medium term, my constituents need either another new secondary school or significant extensions to one or more existing schools and that the planning for that development, whichever option is adopted, must start now? I want to be able to go back to my constituents, such as Mr. Martin and many others, and give them reassuring answers to those questions after tonight's debate.

10.28 pm
The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) on securing this debate. I am delighted to hear that he is undertaking a programme of visiting his local schools. I must admit that I am surprised that that is not a regular part of what he chooses to do. Even speaking as one of us busy Ministers, I can say that I make it a point in my schedule to ensure that I regularly visit schools. Indeed, there is never a time when a school has not seen me within about 18 months.

Mr. Waterson

If the Minister had been listening with her usual care, she would have heard me use the word "revisit".

Margaret Hodge

I heard the word "revisit", but I am none the less surprised because regular visits are a feature of my constituency duties. I hope that all Members of Parliament show such interest in the educational infrastructure of their constituencies.

I welcome the debate because it gives us an opportunity to put on record our approach to ensuring a framework that provides choice and opportunity for children and their families. I understand and sympathise with the anxieties that the hon. Gentleman's constituents have expressed in correspondence. It is proper to raise them in the House, and I am delighted that he has done that.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that many solutions to the problems that he has raised are in the hands of the Conservative-controlled local education authority and local people. We have properly made it their job to plan for and provide the necessary places so that parents and children can enjoy the choice that he wishes them to have. After the debate, I hope that he will go back to his colleagues on the local education authority and encourage them to get on with planning to ensure that proper bids are submitted to the Department so that we can respond to the needs that he has highlighted.

Tonight's debate allows me to explain the national context in which local decisions about the allocation of school places are made. It also gives me the opportunity to outline our proposals in the Education Bill, which is currently being considered in Committee, and to explain how they will reinforce our priorities and ensure choice in local communities.

Since we have been in government, we have made clear our overriding commitment to improving educational standards. We aim to ensure that parents and children have a choice and the best way of doing that is through equally good schools. That is vital to making equality of opportunity and parental choice a reality.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who is present, is dealing with the Bill in Committee. Its focus is the transformation of our secondary schools, which the hon. Member for Eastbourne mentioned. I want to draw his attention to several proposals in the Bill that will support his aspirations for his local community.

We propose to expand the successful specialist schools programme, which will help to extend diversity, and hence choice, in secondary schools. Schools ready for specialist status will be encouraged to seek it, and we will support those who are working towards it.

Successful schools will be encouraged to excel and innovate. We intend to give the best schools greater freedom—for example, to take new approaches to staffing, or to accelerated learning.

We are establishing a schools innovation unit to work with teachers and heads, and to help stimulate and disseminate new ideas, especially in relation to catering better for pupils' different requirements and aspirations.

We hope that governing bodies in the hon. Gentleman's area will be able to work together to create families of local schools, sharing problems and pooling resources in everyone's best interests. Those proposals will help us to raise standards, which will help to enhance opportunity and create choice.

We are responding to the wishes of many parents who try to ensure that successful and popular schools are able to expand more easily. That is especially relevant to the hon. Gentleman's anxieties. The governing bodies of successful schools will be able to appeal to the adjudicator if their proposals for expansion are turned down by the school organisation committee.

In the Bill, we not only focus on how to encourage and support best schools, but recognise the need to tackle low standards in schools. The hon. Gentleman talked about the lack of popularity of Eastbourne technology college. I hope that some of the measures that we are introducing will support improvements in quality and standards in all schools in his constituency.

Schools that face challenging circumstances will receive a programme of support, with the aim of setting a floor and ensuring that a specific number of pupils at every school obtain five GCSEs at grade A to C by 2006. It is to East Sussex local education authority's credit that only one of its schools fell within the category of challenging schools—that is, those in which 25 per cent. or fewer pupils gained five or more GCSEs at A* to C grade. I am pleased to say that that school improved its performance in 2001, with 30 per cent. of its pupils having achieved 5 GCSEs at grade A* to C.

Local education authorities will invite—or, if necessary, be instructed to invite—external partners to help turn around failing schools. None of our plans to improve standards can come to fruition unless we have sufficient well trained, well motivated teachers in place. The one letter that the hon. Gentleman chose to read to the House does not, in my view, reflect the feeling of most teachers, who recognise that we are investing as best we can to ensure that they can focus on the job that they do best, and for which they are trained, which is teaching. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support our proposals to modernise the teaching profession.

Teacher recruitment and retention is a key issue to us. In the lifetime of this Parliament, we will recruit 10,000 more teachers and the crucial 20,000 more support staff who will support them in their administrative work, much of which is necessary if we are properly to monitor the fact that we are raising standards in schools. We have doubled the money given to East Sussex local education authority last year for recruitment and retention of teachers. In 2002–03, it will receive £703,000. How that is spent will be determined locally, and I hope that it will be spent wisely to improve recruitment and retention.

I now want to respond to the specific local concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman. 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 every parent a place for their child at the school of their choice. I understand the frustration of parents whose application has been unsuccessful. Indeed, in my time, I have shared that frustration. However, if a school has more applications than places, it cannot admit every applicant. In those circumstances, places have to be allocated among applicants according to a local education authority's published oversubscription criteria. Some schools have always been more popular than others.

LEAs have a duty to provide sufficient school places for their area. We believe that decisions about the organisation of school places are best taken locally by the people who know the area. That is why, through the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, we established a new framework for local decision making. LEAs now have a duty to prepare a school organisation plan covering a five-year period, and that has to be a rolling programme. The plan sets out how the LEA proposes to deal with surpluses and deficits of school provision, and what provision it intends to make for pupils with special educational needs.

Independent school organisation committees have also been established for each LEA area. Their role is to consider the plans and to take decisions about statutory proposals affecting the local organisation of school places. School organisation committees are independent statutory bodies answerable to their local communities. If any LEA is able to demonstrate an overall deficit in school places, it can apply for funding in the annual capital round. I urge the hon. Gentleman to return to his local education authority and tell it to get on with putting in such an application.

Our officials are aware of the pressures on school places in East Sussex, but finding a solution to those pressures is an issue that has to be addressed by the local education authority, and through the local school organisation committee. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it would be completely wrong of the Government to impose a solution centrally. It must be the responsibility of the local education authority to come forward with its preferred solution. I concur with the figures that the hon. Gentleman put before the House. We have figures showing more than 1,000 surplus primary school places in East Sussex, and a shortfall of around 270 secondary school places.

The LEA has shown in its projections that demand for places will continue to increase over the next three or four years, particularly in the secondary sector. In the hon. Gentleman's constituency of Eastbourne, it also forecasts a continuing increase in demand for primary school places in the next two years, but that will decline.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the growing pressure on secondary schools is a concern, but as he also noted, officers and local head teachers have been working together to analyse the information and consider ways to meet the pressure on them. They estimate that they need about 700 extra secondary school places by 2010, although about half must be available by 2005. I hope that the council will shortly consider the four-year capital programme for the Eastbourne area alone.

I am pleased that the LEA has added capacity through the phased expansion schools, such as the Causeway school, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, has increased its numbers to 600 pupils. It will eventually accommodate 900. We support the LEA's requirement to meet the demand for places through basic need funding.

Throughout the county, including Eastbourne, a large number of new homes are planned or under construction. That is a healthy development in any locality. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman thinks that the Government are not responding to the capital pressures arising from providing additional places in his constituency. This Government, more than any other in my memory, have put more money into capital initiatives and ensured better investment, despite the huge backlog that we inherited. There is no reason to suggest that we have in any way inhibited the necessary expansion of places in East Sussex. The onus lies with the LEA to make appropriate proposals that it can justify in relation to the extra demand.

To give an example, we have already committed £10.5 million for an additional 292 primary, 1,273 secondary and 49 post-16 places between the 1999–2000 and 2001–02 financial years. We have just committed a further £10.98 million of basic need funding for 2002–03 to 2004–05, to provide an additional 247 primary and 1,012 secondary places. That allocation fully meets the LEA's bid to us for basic need funding for primary and secondary school places, and it shows our commitment to work constructively with the LEA. However, I again urge the hon. Gentleman to ask his colleagues in the LEA to get on with making appropriate proposals to us.

On the secondary sector, I have mentioned the expansion at the Causeway school; Bishop Bell Church of England school is also being expanded for 2002–03. If the council cabinet agrees to the proposals put to it for further capital programmes, more places should be available from 2003. The LEA and its schools must continue to work in partnership to monitor and plan to meet the need for additional provision.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the need to replace temporary classrooms. I fully agree that schools must have accommodation that is fit for purpose, providing an environment in which schools can work effectively and children can learn. That is why we have greatly increased capital investment in schools since we came to office. In the past four years, we have made £5.3 billion available and a further £8.5 billion is being made available over the next three years. By 2003–04, annual capital investment will be £3.5 billion.

That commitment will allow LEAs and schools to make real progress in modernising schools so that they are fit for the 21st century. That includes replacing temporary facilities that are no longer suitable, but I stress again that the onus lies with the LEA to put sensible, workable propositions to us.

The Government have made a real commitment to investment in schools. We have made real progress in driving up standards in all our schools. We have set out an agenda for change, especially at secondary school level, that will deliver an education through the years of compulsory schooling that is fit for the new millennium. The cumulative effect of those numerous initiatives will be to raise standards so that ultimately the choice that parents will have to make should be between good schools, rather than between good schools and schools that need to improve.

While the Government can facilitate and support progress, establish an appropriate framework and provide proper funding, the onus to deliver properly for local people must rest with local LEAs. We would expect them to respond appropriately to pressures on demand, and to plan and provide enough places for children in their areas.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.