HC Deb 22 March 2000 vol 346 cc234-41WH 12.30 pm
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I first say what a tremendous fan I am of yours? That is always a good note on which to start.

However, I am not a great fan of this Chamber, and I hope that what I have to say here will not be sidelined. It is vital to my constituents: the parents, pupils and teaching staff in the Ribble valley, and will, no doubt, also have implications for the rest of the country. I am delighted to have this opportunity to express my concerns about the Government's impact on education in the Ribble valley. I am also delighted to be able to do so on the day after the Budget—"Gordon's grim and tonic"—which headlines the good news while leaving the grim news to creep up on an unsuspecting public.

I shall divide my comments into four sections: nursery, primary, secondary and school sports—one aspect of school sports in particular. On nursery education, when Lancashire county council believed that it was to be part of a pilot scheme for nursery centres, it decided to embark on a wholesale review of nursery provision in the county. Nursery schools which stood apart from primary schools were told not to confirm any places until after the review. That led to a great deal of uncertainty for parents and for the staff in those schools.

I visted Ribblesdale nursery school in Clitheroe, where the headmistress—the excellent Mrs. Dewhurst—and the teaching staff were extremely concerned that the review would prejudge the merit of having stand-alone schools such as Ribblesdale, and that they would be amalgamated into other primary schools. I toured the school and met many parents who treasured the excellent nursery provision available. Will the Minister ensure that, when reviews take place in future, excellence is the determining factor, and not simply the fact that stand-alone schools may cost more than integrated provision? We need a period of stability for parents and youngsters in Ribble valley. The fact that a wide variety of nursery provision is available gives parents a greater choice.

The reason why I put such emphasis on assurances for stand-alone schools is that the local authority states in its review document that it intends to give more money to deprived areas. I have no problem with giving money to those areas where it is most needed. However, the document states: those nursery schools not required for enhanced provision should be amalgamated with adjacent primary schools. That would extend the age range of the primary school to include nursery-age children, and I have a problem with that. It is a clear example of socialism hitting hard. Nursery school children aged four are to be given their first lesson in the brave new world of politics, and of redistribution from the haves to the have-nots. Good quality nursery provision in Clitheroe could be sacrificed to pay for a more comprehensive nursery provision in a poorer area. It is a plan to soak the rich, starting with the children of those deemed well-to-do. I ask the Minister to come to Clitheroe and to see for herself that the children come from all kinds of backgrounds, and that excellence in education should never be sacrificed on the alter of political dogma.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Evans

I am delighted to hear the Minister assenting, and I look forward to her response, which I am sure will not be coloured by any political dogma whatever.

The children attending primary schools in Ribble valley have also suffered from vicious cuts in education. I have raised the issue of cuts in the provision of swimming lessons for youngsters over a period of several months, in oral questions and letters. The Minister for Sport wrote to me on 12 October 1999, stating: All primary schools in England are required to teach swimming, including the principles and skills of water safety and survival, as part of the National Curriculum for physical education. She went on to say:

In a recent meeting with OFSTED I raised the question on monitoring of the swimming requirement as I feel there are still many youngsters leaving school without achieving this standard. I applaud those aims. However, when an education authority halves the amount of money that is available for swimming, the provision of swimming is also halved. It also means that parents have to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for the "swimming tax". Primary schools in my area have to bus their pupils to swimming pools, some of which are miles away, which involves extra cost. The Minister clearly recognises the extra burden on parents, especially if they have more than one child in the school.

The local newspaper, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, quoted Sandra Dundon, who is head of Sabden county primary school. She said: We have had two separate 10 week swimming sessions, with 20 children a session. Under the old system we would have taken 60 children swimming during the whole school year. We now also have to share transport with children from Altham and Simonstone CE schools to get to and from Padiham pool. This could mean some youngsters being unable to swim when they leave primary school. The article also states:

Headteachers told the Lancashire Evening Telegraph that swimming lessons—which have been a crucial part of the curriculum for more than 30 years—have been cut since County Hall and Blackburn with Darwen Council were forced to devolve swimming budgets to individual primary schools. Mrs. Blackwell, who is campaigning for more school swimming for primary school youngsters, sends one of her children to Bolton by Bowland primary school. She explained how parents are having to contribute to pay for the swimming coaches, and her child still gets only a third of the previous provision. She has two other children. I am sure that the Minister understands the enormous extra stealth costs that are placed on those parents if they are merely to maintain any semblance of normal swimming lessons. We are talking about lifesaving skills, and youngsters in my area have suffered because of the cuts.

I understand, because of representations to county hall, not only from me but from Labour Members, that extra money for swimming lessons will be made available later this year. However, the figures for Sabden primary school reveal that it still has to make up a shortfall of £1,305. After all the fuss about the Chancellor's announcements yesterday, that represents taking with one hand and giving back with the other. I hope that the Minister will have some good news for the parents of the Ribble valley and the rest of Lancashire about getting the swimming lessons that their children deserve.

As we all know, small rural schools have suffered from the average cost of teachers' salaries being met by the county council, while actual costs—especially with regard to mature, experienced teachers—are sometimes higher. I understand that the county council is now considering phasing in actual cost refunding. That will be welcome to all the small schools in the Ribble valley and the rest of Lancashire. However, I do not understand why it has to be phased in—surely actual costs could be met immediately.

Mrs. Milne-Redhead is head teacher of Slaidburn primary school, which is one of the smaller schools in my constituency. She has explained that the amount of paperwork that she receives from the Minister's Department is "dreadful". The school has only a small number of pupils, but the amount of paperwork must make her feel as though it is one of the larger comprehensives. The school governors recently suggested having an additional meeting solely to concentrate on sifting through all the directives and red tape emanating from the Department. That is worrying, and I should like the Minister to tell me whether she believes that it is acceptable. Small rural schools are the lifeblood of many of our villages, and any threat to them must be resisted.

That brings me to Tosside school in my constituency. Its future is under review. It is a small rural primary school on the borders of Lancashire and north Yorkshire, and is very much out on its own, with 5.3 miles of unclassified roads between it and the next school. During the winter, there are often treacherous conditions and poor gritting in the area. It has only nine pupils at the moment, but had as many as 30 during the 1970s. The threat of closure has dogged the school and its prospects for many years. That has led some parents in marginal areas to send their children to schools elsewhere instead of to Tosside school where there is a possibility of closure and of children being uprooted and moved to another school. There has been little encouragement to fill the school. It needs continuity and stability. It has two full-time and two part-time teaching staff.

As the Minister will realise, Tosside is a rural school surrounded by farms. Farming is facing its deepest crisis for 60 years and villages such as Tosside need life support. We do not want to kick away its only chance of survival. The local pub recently closed for several months and an application was made to turn it into residential accommodation. That was resisted by the local authority and I congratulate it. The pub is now under new management and has reopened, which is good news for the village. The village has one local shop, which is not far from the school. If the school closed, the shop might be under threat, and jobs involving maintenance and cleaning at the school would also be lost.

Because of the considerable number of complaints about the possible closure, the matter has been referred to Ofsted for advice and a possible visit. If the Government believe in small, rural schools, they must ensure that the school if given another chance to grow. It needs a good number of years of life so that the teaching staff can sell the school to the parents; if the parents can be confident that it will not close in the middle of their children's education, it will have the chance to prosper.

The Ribble valley is blessed with excellence and variety in its secondary education. The quality of life in the area is very good and 75 per cent. of it is an area of outstanding natural beauty. I am sure that the Minister understands that people want to live there and that that is not due solely to the quality of the Member of Parliament.

House building has increased in recent years and, bizarrely, the brownfield developments are giving cause for concern, although there have been too many greenfield developments. The 1991–2006 structure plan envisaged 2,400 homes being built in the Ribble valley and, to date, 2,250 have been built. There are 1,161 in the pipeline, including large developments on brownfield sites at Calderstones and Brockhall, which are both sites of former large Victorian asylums. The extra houses are causing demand for local schools to go through the roof. Ribblesdale school in Clitheroe, under the stewardship of the headmistress, Glyn Ward, has an excellent reputation. She has turned the school around and I congratulate here on her tremendous work.

I hope that the Minister will find an opportunity to visit Clitheroe and, while she is visiting the primary school, she can see what is happening in Ribblesdale. Last year, I was able to show my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition around Ribblesdale school and he saw the excellent technology teaching that the school now offers local people. It now has technical college status and I offer my congratulations on that. Many youngsters want to attend Ribblesdale school. Other local schools include Longridge high, St. Cecilia's, St. Augustine's Bowland high, Clitheroe royal grammar, Fulwood high, Archbishop Temple and Corpus Christi. Demand for places at all those secondary schools is going through the roof. Even in the Fullwood area, house-building is high, and a third former asylum in Whittingham is under threat of an enormous housing development, putting more pressure on local secondary schools.

I have a meeting arranged on Sunday with local Ribble valley parents and councillors Albert Atkinson and John Hill. They are furious that school provision does not match local demand. That hits all sorts of people. We are not discussing parents who do not receive their first choice of school; they are being offered schools that never even featured on their radar screens. The stress and pressure for parents and children is intense. I need not rehearse the heartbreak when groups of local youngsters who live only yards away from one another are broken up and sent in different directions. I need not repeat the horror stories of youngsters facing long bus journeys from the Ribble valley to neighbouring areas during dark winter mornings and evenings to obtain secondary education.

Extra provision has been made in some schools. Ribblesdale school is now bursting at the seams as extra provision has been made available, and parents are waiting to hear how successful their appeals have been for places at other local schools. I resent the local authority telling the local grammar school that it cannot increase its numbers to 30 to cater for the additional demand for local places. The chairman of the education committee, Hazel Harding, says that she does not believe in selection and therefore does not want to encourage greater numbers of youngsters to go to the grammar school. Try telling her that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment was only joking when he said that there would be no difference in terms of policy on those schools, and that he was giving some kind of credibility to grammar schools. The Government say one thing while the county council says something completely different. I want politics to be taken out of local education provision.

Clitheroe royal grammar school, as the Minister acknowledged in a letter, is a beacon school. It has a high academic reputation; indeed, it is one of the best schools in the country. It is so good even Labour Members of Parliament would like to send their children there. There are no additional fees at Clitheroe royal grammar school, unlike at Manchester grammar school. Clitheroe royal grammar school should be allowed to provide the 30 additional places. It should be able to act like a safety valve so that additional youngsters from the vicinity can attend it. It is an indictment of the small-mindedness of some local politicians that they would prefer to see young children bussed around the county to spite the grammar school. That is a disgrace. There will be an extra building at Bowland, but its excellent new head, Maurice Graham, has told me that the new places will not be available for at least a year. There is speculation that Bowland high school will be replaced with a new school, but in five years' time. Short-term solutions are needed for the current crisis in school places.

According to the county council, extra house building means that it cannot use future projections on an area's housing to determine where a new school will be needed. Section agreements can be applied to large housing developments, whereby building is encouraged in a certain area as long as a school is also provided. In the Ribble valley, however, many such developments are small, and could not afford to pay for the building of an extra school. The local authority should be able to look at projected house building in an area, and build extra provision so that local youngsters who move into those houses can go to local schools.

I hope that the Minister will reconsider that policy. Given all the extra house building and the fact that people are moving around—she should give comfort to people moving to the Ribble valley, and to those who have lived there for many years and are now subject to a change in local government policy on where youngsters go to school. Government policy should change to ensure that local people and local children can access local provision.

12.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge)

I, too, am a fan of yours, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on securing the debate and expressing concerns about education in his constituency. It is a shame that he did not express the same concerns when his party was in government, and that he did not do more to secure adequate funding for education in his constituency. Under the last Budget of the previous Conservative Government, the old Lancashire county council suffered a real-terms cut in its standard spending assessment for education of £ 13.2 million. Next year, we will provide the new Lancashire county council, which is smaller than the old one, with an extra £12 million in its SSA. That does not include the money that the Chancellor announced in yesterday's Budget—a 10.5 per cent. real increase, which will go directly into schools, including those in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I would have hoped that he would applaud that record.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of nursery education. This Government's record on nursery education is second to none. We are investing £8 billion in early-years education and child care. We got rid of the divisive nursery voucher scheme immediately after we came into office. All four-year-olds now have a place in a nursery class, and we are doubling the number of free places for three-year-olds in nursery classes. In the first nine months of this financial year we have created 106,000 child care places. That is more than the established target, and more than double the number that the previous Government created in 18 years.

Next year, Lancashire county council will receive more than £2 million to provide an additional 1,871 free places for three-year-olds. That is the largest proportion of funding for three-year-olds in the north-west. In Hyndburn and the Ribble valley, 900 places for three-year-olds already exist in the statutory sector. Lancashire county council has received a child care grant of more then £1 million, enabling the creation of almost 2,500 new child care places in the first nine months of this year. Next year, it will receive a grant of £1.214 million—a 20 per cent. increase on this year—which will enable the creation of further places.

Lancashire county council is reviewing nursery education and putting excellence in education above political dogma, unlike the previous Government, who introduced a divisive nursery voucher scheme. Nursery places will be created in the location that is right for parents, so that we can overcome the travelling issue that arises in many rural areas, and to which the hon. Member for Ribble Valley referred. As I understand it, the nursery in his constituency is full, so there is no question of it being under threat. We are looking simply at the redistribution of surplus places.

As a member of the Conservative party, the hon. Gentleman ought to welcome this initiative. As Lancashire county council redistributes surplus places to areas in greatest need, the private voluntary sector will be able to play a role that it has hitherto been unable to play in the expansion of new places. That will provide real diversity and choice for parents. The hon. Gentleman ought also to welcome the proposal to change nursery schools into nursery centres, which will provide a more extensive service, spread costs and enable them to stay open for longer.

Mr. Evans

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for her commitment to keep Ribblesdale nursery school open. However, does she agree that the priority should be not cost but excellence in the provision of nursery education? We should not amalgamate Ribblesdale with other primary schools simply because it would be cheaper to do so.

Ms Hodge

Excellence is of course the priority, but the hon. Gentleman will agree that we want excellence and value. Lancashire county council's review contemplates the integration of child care and education, which will sustain excellence, increase value and extend the quality and services that nursery schools traditionally provide. Indeed, there are many examples of excellent practice in the Lancashire area. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the rural child care project, which began in September 1998, and to which I often refer in speeches. So far, it has provided nearly 250 child care places in rural areas.

The hon. Gentleman referred to swimming, which should of course be encouraged. He will know from correspondence with Ministers in my Department and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that swimming forms part of the national curriculum. By the age of 11, pupils should be able to swim unaided, competently and safety for at least 25 metres, and be aware of the principles and skills associated with water safety and survival. Of course, the distribution of available resources is a matter for the local education authority, but I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to yesterday's statement by the Chancellor. This year, an additional sum of between £3,000 and £9,000 will go directly to every primary school. The school that the hon. Gentleman cited will be able to control those resources, so it could divert them to its swimming shortfall if it so wishes.

The hon. Gentleman referred to rural schools. He will understand that I cannot comment on the individual case that he cited. He will remember that, in February 1998, we announced that, in any proposal for reorganisation, the presumption in the Department will be against the closure of rural schools and that the onus will be on the local education authority to make a strong case. From September 2000, that important policy will be supported by the small schools support fund that we have established. That fund will help small schools pilot innovative approaches to joint working, which will provide them with stability and greater assurance of a future so that they can overcome some of the difficulties that relate to their small size.

In addition, we have made funds available for this year and next to provide more administrative support staff an issue raised by the hon. Gentleman—in small schools where administrative tasks are thought to be most pressing. I hope that he will agree that our policies, such as those on smaller infant class sizes, will support rural schools.

Lancashire county council has a surplus of places in the primary and secondary sectors, but that surplus is being addressed in its school organisation plan. I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates—as I do, given the information that I have received from officials—that the particular shortages faced in his constituency have been recognised in that school organisation plan. Therefore, Lancashire county council has plans for 214 extra places in the primary sector and 345 extra places in the secondary sector. However, I hope that he will agree that we want excellence and value, and that providing surplus places that are not required or demanded by local parents wastes resources.

It is not appropriate for me to intervene in admission arrangements in secondary schools, which is essentially a local issue. Lancashire local education authority needs to settle that matter through consultation with local people and to decide which arrangements work best in the interests of local parents and children. Such issues are always especially difficult in rural areas, where children have to travel long distances to school. However, it is appropriate and proper that such decisions should be taken locally; it is for local people to decide what works best locally. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that our new admissions framework is intended to maximise parental preference through clear, fair and objective admissions criteria. Where local agreement is not possible, the admission authority and, in some cases, parents, can object to an independent adjudicator.

Yesterday's Budget announcement brought good news for schools. If the hon. Gentleman had really not wanted to play politics with children's futures, he would have welcomed the announcement of an extra £1 billion for the coming financial year. There will be an 8.5 per cent. real-terms increase over two years, most of which will go directly to schools. The 10 per cent. increase over two years in spending on schools means that each primary school in his constituency will receive between £3,000 and £9,000. Secondary schools will receive between £30,000 and £50,000 each. Head teachers will determine how to spend that money. Special schools will receive £15,000 each.

I shall put those increases into context. The average after-inflation increase between April 1998 and April 2002 per pupil will be £300. That increase should be compared to the £50 decrease per pupil between 1995 and 1998, when the Conservative party was in government.

Mr. Evans

Does all the wonderful trumpeting of all the extra money mean that youngsters will be able to attend local Ribble valley secondary schools? Can the Minister guarantee that, if any shortage occurs, the grammar school will not be victimised by Lancashire county council and that it will be able to provide extra places for the children in my constituency?

Ms Hodge

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is a matter for local decision. He should ensure that he has an influence in the local arena that truly reflects local priorities and parents' preferences, not his own political ideology. Much of what we have done in Ribble valley has benefited its pupils. We have put children first in terms of child care places, the size of classes, numeracy and literacy targets, information technology and books. We have invested in children because they are our future.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody)