HC Deb 24 June 2004 vol 422 cc1538-46

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

6.4 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD)

I am glad to have this opportunity to focus the Minister's attention on education in Northumberland and in particular to seek some clarification and help for parents and communities as they consider the difficult issues of reorganisation that they now face. Parents, children and school staff and communities in Northumberland face the prospect of a massive reorganisation of schools, which on present plans will change the age range of every school in the county and will require a substantial building programme. It has generated a major public campaign of opposition, with many thousands of supporters in the county's middle schools, and different views have been put forward by some of the high school and first school teachers and parents.

The background to all that can be found in a critical Ofsted report on the Northumberland education authority, which stood in marked contrast to the very good Ofsted reports on many of the schools threatened by that reorganisation. The report referred to the fact that the county has one of the highest levels of surplus places in the country and argued that that cannot be explained entirely by the fact that there are many very small schools serving isolated rural areas, especially in my constituency.

The report criticises the county's past attempts to deal with the problem by ill thought-out school closures, which were rejected by the adjudicator. It says that this is not an LEA which evaluates its own performance rigorously". It also says that the LEA does not engage sufficiently with its schools or with the local authorities to find innovative or imaginative solutions to the problems it faces. In addition, Northumberland and its schools, which already suffer from a poor standard spending assessment that is 8.5 per cent. below the national average, have been turned down again and again in bids for education action zones and specialist school status. The impression given was that the Department for Education and Skills would not help Northumberland unless something drastic was done. And it was.

The chief education officer of Gateshead and a team of officials were drafted in to take over on a temporary basis, and a massive reorganisation plan was produced. It involved the replacement of the county's three-tier system with a two-tier system, replacing transfer at 9 and 13 with transfer at 11. The plan depends on £270 million in funding from the Government's "Building Schools for the Future" programme and on capital receipts from the sale of school sites.

Following widespread public discussion and in the face of strong opposition from middle schools, including a 35,000-signature petition, the county's executive voted in favour of the two-tier system. At the full council on 9 June, the proposals were again carried, but with an opposition amendment making two-tier the preferred option but putting the three-tier system out for consultation alongside it. The Church of England and Roman Catholic dioceses have indicated an intention to move to a two-tier system.

I have much experience of the county's present system. Both my children were educated in it throughout their education. My first wife, who died six years ago, taught extensively in the county's middle schools and high schools. Middle schools have considerable advantages. In my experience, most of them are very happy schools, with an atmosphere of enthusiasm among both staff and children. The Rothbury Church of England middle school produced a wonderful video as part of its campaign that vividly portrayed the shared enthusiasm of staff, parents, community and children in support of the school, and a generally enthusiastic attitude towards education during the years between 9 and 13.

Most of the middle schools have good or excellent Ofsted reports and they provide good opportunities for the oldest children to take on positions of responsibility. The most recent visit I made to Berwick middle school was to attend a meeting of the school council, which consists entirely of pupils. No staff were present at all. The pupils engaged in a mature and carefully thought-out discussion with me about the advantages of middle schools. Many of them were exercising responsibility in the school at the ages of 12 and 13, or in their classes at lower ages. It reminded me forcibly that in such schools those who take responsibility do so at a relatively young age. From my observation of those children, that equips them well for later school and adult life.

Another advantage of middle schools is that because they were nearly all built as secondary modern schools, they are spacious, with good facilities for science, craft subjects and sport. The presence of specialist teachers benefits the age groups from 9 to 11.

In rural areas, transfer at 13 is felt by parents to be much better than having 11 and 12-year-olds travel 15, 20 or even 30 miles each way every day to high school, waiting at town bus stations and changing transport, sometimes several times in a journey. That advantage was vividly expressed in a letter from a Rothbury parent, which states: In the case of rural children there will be social exclusion from an earlier age if this 2-tier idea is forced upon us because they will not be able to access out-of-school activities from 11 instead of 13 years of age. Do you know that when our children undertake after-school activities at High school in Morpeth, this can mean parents undertaking 40–64 mile round trips to pick them up from school? The same letter points out: Our 11 year olds will be travelling between 1 h 50 min and 4 hrs a day. As the letter says, that will mean that they face days longer than those recommended by the European working time directive.

So why change? If the system is to be changed, parents need to be convinced by the educational arguments, not the money arguments. The Department's answers to parliamentary questions from me and from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) are studiously non-committal on the educational case for and against middle schools. The LEA has produced data suggesting that too many children make too little progress between the ages of seven and 13, and high schools argue that transfer in the middle of key stages 2 and 3 is disruptive and at odds with the national curriculum and the exam timetable.

Under a two-tier system, primary schools would be wholly responsible for key stages 1 and 2 and high schools for everything after that. Some of our high schools have had serious problems in raising achievement levels and their heads believe that they would do better if they had the full age range and the new staffing and accommodation opportunities that reorganisation could provide.

Many first schools see the change as a lifesaver for village schools. Back in the 1970s, many communities objected to the creation of middle schools because it took two age group; from local schools, making many of them liable to closure. It also involved nine-year-olds making long journeys to the new middle schools. However, there is wide interest in the federal arrangements for some small rural schools suggested in the county council's proposals, which build on the county's successful work in recent years building up clusters of small rural schools that work together and have some shared support teaching. The idea was pushed back by lack of funding but it was extremely successful and could be developed under the federal ideas for small schools. It was also accepted by some of the people who were opposed to the change to the two-tier system.

Parents fear that the change is too much driven by arguments about buildings and money. Surplus places are clearly at the heart of it. Over the years, we have had many arguments about whether calculations on surplus places are either fair or realistic, especially in villages where the school's facilities are used as a vital resource for the whole community.

We should remember that buildings were a key factor in the decision to introduce middle schools in Northumberland in the first place. Most of those schools are in former secondary modern buildings that could not be utilised effectively in the 11 to 18 comprehensive system, which was being introduced with very limited capital expenditure. Those were the newest buildings that the education authority had on its hands and part of the motive for creating middle schools was to make use of them, although they then became the focus of real commitment from head teachers who believed in middle schools as an extremely effective part of the system.

The present plan depends on releasing £31 million through capital receipts from the sale of school sites to fund the primary end of the system. However, it is difficult to see how that can be achieved while Northumberland is so severely restricted in the amount of house building that is permitted. The proposed figures allow only 30 houses a year in Berwick borough and between 65 and 70 a year in Alnwick district. That leaves the sale of sites dependent on hope value that may not be realised.

Central Government funding from the "Building Schools for the Future" programme will be essential for the building and extension of high schools. For example, Alnwick will require a new high school and major investment will be needed at the Berwick high school site. Parents need to know whether the Government will put their weight and their funding behind the reorganisation. If the money is not forthcoming, the whole scheme will collapse and there will be educational chaos. Bearing in mind that every proposed closure and every change in the status of a school can be challenged through the formal statutory process, and that parents will—understandably and rightly—use those challenges if they are not satisfied that they will get a better system after reorganisation, the Government must provide reassurance and answer some crucial questions. If they do not, the whole process will drag on. Indeed, on that point, some people have suggested that the whole thing should be put on ice while we hold the referendum on regional assemblies and reach a decision as to whether Northumberland will become a single-tier area or be divided into two areas.

I am not in favour of deferring the matter, because whether the result was a new single authority or two new authorities, they would face similar decisions and probably reach similar conclusions, with the added complication that, if two authorities were created, there would be movement across the boundary between the two areas, as well as all the upheaval of creating two education authorities. As education would be split between two unitary authorities, instead of being a whole-county responsibility, a significant number of my constituents would have to travel from one of the new proposed authorities to the other. So there are too many complications and disadvantages in deferring the issue until a possible local government reorganisation. We must face up to the decision and produce a timetable that can be achieved, perhaps based on one that the county has proposed. That can be attempted only if there is some confidence that the end result will be better and parents' anxieties and fears can be allayed—so far, those of many have not.

Parents need answers from the Government on key questions. Are officials at the Department for Education and Skills telling Northumberland county council that there will be no money for new schools unless they get rid of middle schools? That is the impression that has been pretty firmly left by the county council, although the chairman of the education committee denied that when I put it to him on the radio this morning. The story is that those in Whitehall have said, "Sort your system out, or you will continue to be unsuccessful"—as unsuccessful as Northumberland has been in many of its recent bids. At least, the Department is virtually on record as saying, "Unless you do something about your surplus places by this or some other means, you will get no additional money for new schools." Are the Government putting on pressure? If so, and they have good reason for doing so, they should tell us.

Do the Government believe that the middle school system is less educationally effective than transfer at 11 years? If so, is there any research evidence for that view that would convince the parents who are so committed to middle schools? If the county undertakes the enormous task of reorganisation. will the money be there to build the new high schools, or could all this be in vain? What a disaster it would be if we embarked on that horrifyingly difficult and complicated process and, somehow, the money was not forthcoming at the end of the day.

If the first schools become schools for five to 11-year-olds, how will they provide the facilities for science, technology and sport that have been available to nine to 11-year-olds in the middle schools? The first schools do not have provision for that age group and so do not have developed science and technology facilities—even the rooms, let alone the staffing—or the extensive sports facilities that nine to 11-year-olds can now benefit from in the middle schools.

What if the county decides that some areas must get special treatment? If the county accepts that areas such as Rothbury and Wooler, for example, need to keep middle schools because of the travelling distance, even if the rest of the county changes, will the Department accept a mixed system and still give Northumberland the funds that it needs for new schools? Other places in other constituencies might be candidates for that—for example, Bellingham and Allendale.

Will rural pathfinder bids be possible to provide resources for special schemes at rural schools? As well as the possibility of retaining middle schools or combined first and middle schools in some rural communities, some other ideas are forthcoming. At Belford, for example, a learning village centre of excellence is proposed for three to 14-year-olds, with youth and adult learning facilities as well—an exciting and pioneering idea, making use of existing buildings, while enabling children to stay in the village. Such ideas could benefit from rural pathfinder funds, but we need to know whether that is a serious possibility if such things are to be pursued.

Parents, communities and the teaching staff of schools are facing difficult choices against the background of suggestions and hints that the abolition of middle schools is, in practice, a condition of future funding. There is a great deal of uncertainty about what resources are on offer to carry through any change, thus a great deal of anxiety. Ministers need to come clean about their attitudes, so that there can be a genuine and open debate about which system is best for Northumberland's children and young people.

I ask the Minister to put himself in the position of a parent of children starting at a middle school in Northumberland and to consider what it would take to convince him that losing the advantages of that system will be effectively compensated for in those children's educational experience by something very significantly better. That is what he and the authority must do between them if such a change is to be carried through.

6.19 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on securing this debate and on having the opportunity to speak on behalf of his constituents and other residents of Northumberland, and particularly on bringing his family experience to bear on his opening remarks. I am acutely aware of the very high level of concern and interest in this matter among people living and working in Northumberland, which is obviously particularly felt among not only parents and pupils but staff, governors and the broader schools community. I shall seek in responding to the debate to address the particular concerns that he has raised.

We welcome and support the stated aims of the local education authority in conducting the review: to raise standards and to transform and improve the education service. We understand that the LEA is reviewing provision on the basis of a possible move to a primary and secondary system, as the right hon. Gentleman set out. My understanding is that its proposal is to start public consultation on a county plan in the autumn.

The right hon. Gentleman challenged me to come clean on the view in the Department for Education and Skills. My starting point in seeking to do so is to say that we do not prescribe a particular pattern of provision. That is very much to be determined locally. He asked specifically whether our officials are telling Northumberland that there will be no money for new schools unless it abolishes the middle schools. The answer to that is emphatically no. There is no suggestion of Ministers or officials in the DFES prescribing that.

In more general policy terms, the Department knows that the national position is varied. The majority of LEAs have a primary and secondary model, but a significant minority operate middle school systems. We accept as a Department that both systems can be effective, and we are not aware of any clear research evidence to suggest that one is preferable to the other. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman set out arguments for both the two-tier system and the three-tier system. Having seen both in practice in different parts of the country, I think that his points are a legitimate part of the debate.

The right hon. Gentleman made the point that the county may undergo considerable reorganisation and then face the question of whether funds will be made available to enable that to be implemented on the ground. He referred to the "Building Schools for the Future" programme, which aims to rebuild or renew all secondary schools in England over the next 10 to 15 years. The first wave of "Building Schools for the Future" was announced a couple of months back. Northumberland was not successful in that first wave of the programme, but will certainly feature in a future wave. We hope to be able to make an announcement on the future waves later this year. Clearly, there is contact between our officials and those in Northumberland on that.

Mr. Beith

This is a crucial matter of timing. I can only assume that Northumberland failed in the previous bid because it was too early a stage in the process. Is it therefore likely that some clear indication about funding possibilities could be given during the autumn or towards the end of this year, when the reorganisation is under discussion and it will be important to give some assurance to parents?

Mr. Twigg

Absolutely. Only 14 LEAs were successful in the first wave of "Building Schools for the Future". We are hoping to be in a position to make announcements in the early part of the autumn about the next wave. That will be important as a reassurance to Northumberland, as well as to schools in other parts of the country.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the possibility that at least some areas—he mentioned Rothbury and Wooler—in Northumberland will keep middle schools because of travelling distances, and asked for the Department's view on a mixed system and whether it would still be prepared to fund Northumberland if it decides to go down that route. I emphasise that funding from "Building Schools for the Future" is not dependent on the adoption of a two-tier system; it is not dependent on having a primary and secondary model. Other parts of the country continue to operate a three-tier system with middle schools, and they are preparing their applications and are in discussion with the Department about the funding under BSF that could be available to their schools. When we consider proposals as part of "Building Schools for the Future", we will be concerned to ensure that there has been appropriate consideration and consultation at the local level to secure the local consensus necessary for the particular application that an authority has made. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman made a specific suggestion about rural pathfinder bids. I want to take that suggestion away and write to him about it.

"Building Schools for the Future" is a hugely ambitious national programme of renewal for all schools. Large authorities, in particular rural authorities, may wish to phase their programmes within "Building Schools for the Future", with clusters of different schools reciving funding at different stages. Those are the sorts of discussions that we are having with other county and large metropolitan areas. It may well be a suitable way for us to proceed in Northumberland. I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman, setting t hat out in more detail.

I have a couple of other things to say about the position in Northumberland and how the process will move forward. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Ofsted inspection, which was conducted in June 2003 and published last September. It set out a number of serious concerns about the local education authority, and there had been some deterioration since the previous inspection in 1999. He set out some of the ways in which the LEA has been trying to address those weaknesses. The Department for Education and Skills has worked closely with the LEA to assist it in drawing up and progressing an action plan to overcome the weaknesses and some of the problems highlighted. We welcome some of the early signs of progress as a consequence of that work.

The right hon. Gentleman also rightly said that surplus places are a significant issue in Northumberland. Of course, that is not unique to Northumberland because of demographic trends, in particular the declining number of children of primary school age. The latest review of surplus places last year shows an overall level in Northumberland of around 5,000. I emphasise that it is very much a matter for individual LEAs to decide whether and how they reduce their number of surplus places. I welcome some of the innovative ideas to which he referred—collaboration, clusters and federations—as possible models in moving forward. The other possibility is to look to extended schools and using some of the surplus capacity in school buildings to provide extended services for the local community, rather than simply to take the option of closing a school down all together, thereby losing that critical asset for the local community, which is especially important to those in rural areas.

I have spoken about "Building Schools for the Future", so let me conclude by saying a little about where the process goes from here. It is important that the right hon. Gentleman's constituents, and the schools, parents and pupils in Northumberland, are aware of where the debate and consultation will go now. The combination of issues that he referred to form the backdrop for the consultation that the LEA will undertake. Any LEA that decides to reorganise provision takes that decision locally Such decisions are not taken in the Department or by Ministers.

The LEA will consult all interested parties, as is required by law. It must issue statutory notices in a newspaper, post them at the gates of the affected schools and put them in another prominent place locally. There is then a six-week period for objections and comments, and the notice and other supporting documentation need to be sent to the local school organisation committee. If no objections are received, the LEA may proceed to implement its proposals. If objections are received, the proposal goes to the school organisation committee, made up of five or six groups representing the major stakeholders in the provision of education. If the school organisation committee cannot reach a unanimous decision, the case is referred to the independent schools adjudicator for a final decision.

We recently issued new guidance from the Department for those who are publishing and deciding upon these proposals for changes to local school organisation, making it clear that the Secretary of State wants to see local education authorities organise provision so that places are where parents want them. We are clear that the removal of surplus places must always be in support of the agenda of raising standards and matching places with parental choice.

I reiterate that any decision to change the current pattern of provision rests, first, with the LEA and, secondly, needs to support those key policy priorities of improving standards and ensuring that we maximise choice for parents. The Department does not specify the type of provision that should apply. It is true, as I said earlier, that increasingly LEAs have adopted a two-tier approach, but there are a number of LEAs that successfully operate three-tier systems with middle schools, with the benefits of middle schools, as set out by the right hon. Gentleman. I can confirm that there are no plans on the part of the Department to phase out middle schools, as a matter of national policy, or to make our funding of particular programmes, including "Building Schools for the Future", in any way dependent on that sort of reorganisation.

Our priority as a Department is to give support to local communities in reaching these decisions themselves. I hope that the community in Northumberland will have the opportunity to have a full and informed debate about the merits of the proposed reorganisation, in which parents, governors, pupils and the wider community can seriously consider the advantages and disadvantages of the status quo as against the proposed change in the system.

I can certainly reassure the right hon. Gentleman and his constituents that whatever decision is reached locally, the major programme of investment that we are undertaking through "Building Schools for the Future" will be available to the schools in Northumberland to support their improvement, in the way that we seek to improve schools throughout the country. Our other capital programmes in the Department are also available to support first schools, which obviously by their nature will not qualify for "Building Schools for the Future". However, there will be opportunities, for example, through target capital funding as well as the mainstream capital funding of primary schools, to ensure that those schools are also receiving the investment that they need.

I finish where I started, which is to thank the right hon. Gentleman for airing this important issue for the people of his constituency. I very much hope that a full, open and rigorous debate can happen among the people of Northumberland.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Seven o'clock.

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