HL Deb 17 March 1994 vol 553 cc382-5

3.12 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the maximum number of schools which they have estimated may be closed under their plans for the rationalisation of school places.

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the Government have made no such estimate. It is for local education authorities to take action to rationalise their provision of school places. The means by which they do this will depend on local circumstances.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is widespread anxiety that within the DFE there is a hit list of local authorities, with specific schools indicated, on which the Secretary of State intends to move after the spring local elections, as his draconian powers take effect? Can the Minister say whether or not such a list exists? If it does, can she say how many local authorities and schools are on it, how many are grant-maintained and how many are local education authority schools? Will she give a categorical assurance that any proposals under consideration will be made public before the elections and not after them?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, no such list exists.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, in that case, on what criteria does the Secretary of State take a decision to shut a school other than because of numbers?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it very much depends on the case which is put to the department by the local authority. It will be for the local authority to come forward with a plan either to reorganise the schools, to amalgamate them, to change the organisation in some way or indeed to close a school. It will be on the merits of the case presented to my right honourable friend by the local authority which will influence him in his determination.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the noble Baroness is doubtless aware that one reason that schools go grant-maintained is to avoid closure because of excess placings. Does she therefore agree that rationalisation and going grant-maintained are, to a degree, alternatives and which of these represents the Government's objective?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there have been 85 applications to my department for grant-maintained status where those schools have been subject to closure proposals by the local authority. Of that number, 50 have been accepted for closure. Therefore, I can say that my right honourable friend does look at the merits of the case.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, was the Minister entirely correct when she said that the Secretary of State had not given notice to local authorities? He has given quite definite instructions to the Birmingham local authority as to how many schools it has to close.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an important point. I need to make a distinction between the issue of surplus places and whether my right honourable friend has a specific list with named schools in named local authorities. What my right honourable friend is doing, and has taken the power to do in the Education Act 1993, is to require information to come from local authorities and from the Funding Agency for Schools, when it is established on 1st April, to say how many places they have in their authority and how many children occupy those places, which gives a figure of how many surplus places there are. That information leads on to the pupil projections both for primary and secondary schools. The question which follows from that will be as to what percentage of those places it would be practicable to move. That must be work done by the local authority.

Lord Richard

My Lords, the Minister has told us that there is no specific list. Does that mean that the Government have no intention of implementing a pattern of closures? If the Government do riot have any intention of implementing a pattern of closures, what on earth do the Government need the powers for?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, according to the 1991 survey, there were about 1.3 million spare places in the country. Those spare places cost the state money in local and national taxes to the tune of about £300 million simply to keep the buildings heated, lit and maintained. That is a very considerable sum of money. My right honourable friend has a fallback power under which local authorities and the Funding Agency for Schools, when it is established, at least look at ways of making sure that that money is diverted to children in the classroom rather than being used for classrooms without children. Where a local authority drags its feet and refuses to accept its responsibilities in this matter, my right honourable friend has a fallback power: first, a directional power. He can direct a local authority to address the issue. He has another power which allows him to bring forward his own proposals, which would be an extreme use of those powers. If he ever did that it would be subject to public inquiry.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is evidence of overcrowding in some classes? In those circumstances, will the Secretary of State and the Minister be extremely careful as to what is done about that? Is she further aware that, on paper, some of the worst cases concern village schools? I believe that all Members of your Lordships' House will be aware of the great value of village schools—I am glad to see the Minister is nodding in agreement—where the workload for teachers is very heavy indeed? I hope that the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Government will be extremely careful about decisions which are taken to close those schools even though it appears that there are vacancies in them?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord an absolute assurance that the case for retaining schools in rural areas is the strongest. Distance factors and isolation of those schools are very important and are matters which my right honourable friend will certainly take into account. As regards overcrowding, at the top of the priority list for bids for capital is the need to provide places for children in schools either in overcrowded conditions or where in fact there are no places for children.

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, would the Government consider using some of these schools which they are closing for nursery education?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, again, that is a very important point and a matter for local authorities. If they wish to use spare places for nursery provision, that is their decision. My department has not yet turned down a request for extended nursery provision.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does the Minister accept that we have noted very carefully her assurance that no such list exists? Will she give us an equally categorical assurance that no proposals will be brought forward after the spring elections? Can she also assure us that, whatever considerations are made in the future in consultation with local authorities, there will be space for real parental choice, which must require some surplus places if parental choice is to be exercised?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I said at the beginning that it was a question of what percentage of that million or so places can be removed in a practical way. As regards choice, if it is a question of sending children to a half-filled unpopular school, it might be better for a local authority to consider expanding a popular school and giving the children in the unpopular school a much better chance of education. So it is important that local authorities link quality as well as school places. I cannot give the noble Lord any assurances about how my right honourable friend will use his powers in the future, but the local authorities must be seen to be in default of their own duties before my right honourable friend will take those powers.