HC Deb 07 July 2004 vol 423 cc305-12WH

4 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD)

Adjournment debates such as this often come too late, as they are either a reaction to something that has already happened or a demand to address a problem in which either resources or political will are lacking—or both. I do not think that this is one of those occasions. It is a chance for us in Westminster and the Minister in particular to influence a process that has barely begun, in which Government advice could be a significant directive help.

What instigates the debate is that Sefton metropolitan borough council—the Sefton LEA—has announced a primary school rationalisation/closure programme. It is a major exercise. It features the closure within a year of 11 schools and the review of the cases of a further 16. As we stand here, the proposals are out for what is referred to as "informal consultation".

I think that everybody recognises that, particularly when it comes to school closures and rationalisation of provision of any kind by any local authority at any time, tough decisions always have to be made, and in some cases, they should be made. We all understand that councils have to make tough decisions and that good politics is not the same thing as cheap populism. In this case, the LEA expects to encounter a fair number of howls of protest and many choruses of opposition. It has steeled itself to an adverse public reaction.

However, there is a distinct difference between making a tough decision and making the right one. If one is going to make a tough decision, one must make sure that it is the right decision and a fair and rational one that can be publicly defended by a public body. What is sad about the Sefton proposals, which are in a large document that I have in front of me, is that they are a response to a surplus place problem, and the solutions that they advocate for that problem are, I think, taxing—if not severely stressing—relationships between the LEA, schools, communities, parents and the children concerned.

That is a great shame, because Sefton has traditionally had a good relationship with its schools. Throughout the period for which the previous Government were in office, there was never a school that succeeded in opting out of local authority or that seriously wanted to do so. Funds were maintained in Sefton in good years and in bad, often to the cost of other services. Sefton was one of the first LEAs to give schools control over their own budget, long before the Government mandated it to do so.

Sefton had that sort of record to fall back on, but the proposals have blemished it to some extent. As a result of that good and positive relationship, attainment is high, Sefton has a fair number of beacon schools, its standard assessment test results are good in primary schools and its schools are generally well resourced both in terms of equipment and staff. The Minister will accept that that has something to do with the efforts of the Government to ensure that funding goes in that direction. I give credit to the Government for that, and I hope that the work load agreement will do nothing to impair it. Sefton schools, particularly primary schools, seem to be relatively well resourced by historic standards.

MPs in Sefton have had a similarly constructive relationship with the local authority. At least two of them had a very close relationship with it, having at one time been members of it. The dissolution of those satisfactory relationships is obviously based on the problem of surplus places and how it can be tackled. To be fair, that has been emphasised repeatedly to the authority by Ofsted, the Audit Commission and the district auditor in management letters. The Government have also not been slow to alert Sefton to the fact that there is a problem. At one time, the removal of surplus places was intimately linked to the Sefton capital programme, so Sefton could not help but be mindful of it.

Sefton does have problem. It is estimated that it has about 3,762 surplus places in the primary sector alone, although total primary school places number up to 23,000. There is no expectation that the problem will vanish overnight. The birth rate and census figures do not suggest that things will change for the better. With the phenomenon of young people being burdened with debt and unable to buy houses, I suspect that the age of child rearing will rise and that the patter of tiny feet will not be heard with greater frequency throughout Sefton. Additionally, the deserved expansion of some popular schools has aggravated Sefton's initial problem.

The problem of underused surplus places is further complicated by a separate problem that the Minister will understand and wish to respond to. He and I discussed the Sefton formula when considering the 4 per cent. guarantee on the increase for pupil places that the Government have recently instigated. During the debate on the statutory instrument, I said that, worthy though the initiative is, it will have a complicating effect on the Sefton formula.

The Sefton formula compensates schools in Sefton as the rolls fall and distributes money in a particular way. There are many complications, such as the square metreage rule and so on, which I need not go into now, but the formula endeavours to compensate schools for a decline in rolls. The Government's recent statutory instrument, which contains the good news that all schools will receive 4 per cent. more, also contains provision to do the same thing. That has resulted in one Sefton school that is on the closure list receiving £4,218 per pupil, and another primary school, which is similar in structure but not in terms of its pupils, receiving £1,998 per pupil.

There have been genuine difficulties and unhappiness in Sefton with the formula, which has been an added pressure on the problem of surplus places, although it is a separate problem and should not be wilfully or inadvertently confused and confounded. I am sorry to say that, in the local authority's document, the two problems are confounded to some extent. There is wholesale agreement however, that something must be done and wide acceptance throughout the Sefton education community that the problem must be addressed sensitively but effectively.

The problem is that, looking at the first rush of proposals, what Sefton is choosing to do is partly perverse. I would fault many things in the document. One page features the word "logic" in bold letters, presumably with the expectation that we might find some logic there, but there is not a great deal of fair argument. I could ignore the fact that Sefton's decision makers have been told, ludicrously, that there are savings in the package of £5.7 million. That is not the case, because £5.7 million can be saved only if schools are obliterated, the children go somewhere else and Sefton does not accept the responsibility for educating them. I could ignore the fact that the document presented by Sefton misrepresents the cost of running schools. Figures are quoted for the average cost per pupil—I assume that they are quoted accurately—but it is not explained that some pupils have a higher weighting because of deprivation, because they have free school meals, because they are infants and so on. When comparing school with school, the decision makers did not get the full information.

I shall also ignore that fact that, to my certain knowledge, some of the people who composed the document do not appear to have taken the elementary precaution of visiting all the schools that they intend to close, and consequently have produced some suggestions that closer inspection might have identified as physically unrealisable. I shall ignore the fact that it appears to me that the early years partnership, which is an important consultee in this affair was left entirely out of the loop during the composition of the proposals. Furthermore, I shall ignore the fact that in the evidence presented to decision makers, there is an astonishing ignorance about what facilities arc available in which school. In some cases, the document fails to identify the important facilities in schools nominated for closure.

If I ignore all those things, I can turn to what might be called the logic in the Sefton plan. It has a kind of central thread as to why some schools arc chosen for closure rather than others. The thread appears to be that the authority believes that it could manage without the schools on the closure list. That is what all the schools have in common. Some are undoubtedly failing and some are the walking wounded of the primary school world. The performance of some is acknowledged to be excellent, and some are in new buildings and are temporarily under-subscribed. Most strangely of all—this is what exercises me most and exercises many parents to an even greater extent—some are excellent schools that are performing well and are, by any standards, full.

The common strand uniting all the schools is that they are relatively small, and it is self-evident that it is easier to close a popular, successful, small, full school and to accommodate the pupils in a less fall large school than vice versa. That is the logic, if I can put it like that, that drives and seems to influence the Sefton proposals most.

The Minister does not need me to point out that the tack that is being taken, or the thrust of the plan, has nothing to do with raising standards, rewarding success, the wider community agendas that schools are supposed to embrace or school transport issues. To any reasonable parent, that appears transparently unfair.

I should like to cite two real cases, so that I am not talking pure theory. St. Teresa's infant school is a one-form entry school with a nursery attached. Ofsted regards it as in the top 5 per cent. The governors are supportive, the head teacher is excellent and the staff are committed. Pupils, parents and teachers are incensed at any suggestion that their school, full to the legal maximum as it is, should be on a closure list.

I would like to read out a comment from the report of the last inspection of the school, carried out by Her Majesty's inspectorate of schools. It is addressed to the head teacher, and it says: You must be very proud not only of your staff and pupils, but also members of your governing body and the parents and parishioners who give of their time cheerfully and unstintingly. Under your leadership and direction, you have ensured that all have a part to play in the school's splendid achievement. Mr. Tobin, the inspector, goes on to say: (All the more puzzling, therefore, that the school's success has not been recognised in terms of Beacon status!) According to pupil performance indicators, the school is in the top 5 per cent. of the national aggregate point score for reading and writing and in the top 10 per cent. of the national aggregate score for maths. What touched me most about the school were not those statistics, but a letter from a parent whose son was afflicted with autism, who described what their child personally got out of a school that performs so well.

That is not an isolated case. I could cite the case of Kings Meadow in Ainsdale, which is in the heart of an ex-council estate and has about two surplus places. The bizarre thing about proposing to close Kings Meadow is that, although at one time it was a school in trouble, it now subscribes to more or less all the positive forward-looking agendas that the Government support. The school is located in a pocket of deprivation where parents will have difficulty in getting their children to another school. It is very much part and parcel of the community, it has a nursery where numbers are increasing and it has now been given New Opportunities funding for wrap-around care on a three-year basis. It is well supported by the Sefton early years partnership and it has had £110,000 invested in it to provide better child care provision. It also provides all the necessary and desirable services that a school can offer to an area of relative deprivation.

It is perverse for that school to be closed. According to Sefton's plan, mums—many of whom do not have a car—will be forced to make a daily journey across a major road and over a railway line, and they will be targeted to go to a school, Shoreside, which does not have the capacity to take them.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair)

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wants the Minister to give a responsible reply, so I remind him that we only have until 4.30 pm.

Dr. Pugh

I am aware of that, and I am three quarters of the way through what I have to say.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair)

I would think that that is very discourteous to the Minister, quite frankly, if the hon. Gentleman wants him to respond adequately.

Dr. Pugh

I will bring my remarks to a close, but there are certain key things that I need to say.

Rationalisation in Sefton is always going to be hard. The situation is complicated by geography and by the fact that Sefton has a large denominational sector. However, the decisions presented and argued for by the local authority are explicable only as prejudice against smaller schools. As it stands, the agenda does not give sufficient weight to issues of choice and standards. I recognise that the diocese and the archdiocese will have an input when the final decision is made by the school organisation committee and possibly the adjudicator. However, key factors in the process will be the ministerial guidance, which all these bodies must attend to, and the interpretation of that guidance.

I conclude by asking the Minister to test how far what is currently outlined is in the spirit of that guidance. It seems to me that it is biased against small schools, rewards successful schools with closure and does not give primacy to raising standards. Is that a rational interpretation of where the Government guidelines should take us? I argue that it is not. I ask the Minister to look into the matter, and I would welcome it if he could find time to visit Sefton and some of the schools there to explore the plan further. If he cannot do that—I understand that he has to keep to many pressing engagements—could he meet a delegation of head teachers?

At the end of the day, this issue is about standards. I understand from some recent comments of the Prime Minister that standards are in the forefront of his mind, but surplus places may be a little less so.

4.19 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband)

It is nice to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Diner, and I look forward to responding to the points made by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh). He deserves the congratulations of the watching hundreds or even thousands—on television, if not in the Room itself—on securing a debate about this important issue. Early in his remarks, he said that he wants to engage in good politics rather than cheap populism. In my experience, good policy makes good politics, and I hope we can find some common ground on that basis.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue involving how to deliver a primary school strategy designed to raise standards, not just in literacy and numeracy, but across the curriculum. I am sure that he would agree with me that an enriched curriculum is an important part of primary school experience.

I want to set out some ground rules for the decisions that local government has to take on school places and surplus places. First, there may be some confusion among those watching or reading this debate about whether there is a rule relating to surplus places.

4.20 pm

Sitting suspended _for a Division in the House.

4.30 pm

On resuming

Mr. Miliband

I was explaining that, contrary to popular opinion or allegation, there is a no surplus places rule. The responsibility for managing the supply of school places rests with the local education authority. I know that the hon. Gentleman and his party will join us in standing up for the constitutional role of local government in making such decisions. At local level, people are best placed to ensure that schools meet the needs of parents. In managing the supply of places, LEAs must first elsure that schools provide good quality education and serve the needs of the local community.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about the survival of small schools. I am sure he agrees that it is important that policies are designed to raise standards in all schools, irrespective of size, because the quality of education matters most to parents. I have no hesitation in saying that small schools have an important place in our education system. One of the strengths of English education is its roots in the community.

However, I would point out something rather interesting to the hon. Gentleman: there are, I think, 89 primary schools in Sefton. Obviously, I would not have thought that they are all in his constituency. Only one has fewer than 100 pupils and 27 have fewer than 200. That is striking for a couple of reasons. First, Sefton does not have too many of the very small schools of fewer than 75, 50 or 40 pupils that are a significant issue in many parts of the country. Secondly, I guess that it has an above average number of schools above the national average size, which is about 200.

That shows that it is right that local people are able to take account of local diversity in reaching their decisions. I understand that Sefton is consulting on the proposed reorganisation programme about which the hon. Gentleman spoke. It is projecting a 10 per cent. fall in the demand for school places between 2003 and 2006. That projection is against a background of—I think I am right in saying—5,000 children being lost to the system over the past 10 years and a 13 per cent. surplus in primary school places in 2003.

It is important that I set out what the framework is for local government to make its decisions. There are five stages to the process: consultation; publication of a proposal; the six-week representation period; the decision making; and, finally, the implementation. Sefton LEA is very much at the first stage of the process and is consulting widely on it with the Churches and other bodies.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will know that Ministers no longer make decisions on closing schools. Given my generous nature, he might bemoan that loss of central power. The decisions are devolved to local level—to school organisation committees, whose members represent all aspects of the local community. He mentioned in passing that if there is no agreement, the independent adjudicator takes a decision. They would take into account the effect on educational standards of the decision, the availability of alternative provision and travel Implications, as well as the view of local parents. I hope that gives him some idea of the criteria we set.

I do not wish to underestimate the challenge that falling school rolls present to local authorities. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman tried to hide those difficulties in the least bit. There were 500,000 surplus places in primary schools in England last year, which is almost 12 per cent. of capacity. On the basis of the current forecasts, we estimate that primary schools will lose about 50,000 youngsters a year for the next couple of years. That adds up to a 4 per cent. fall by 2007. I am sure he agrees that 12 per cent. surplus places represents a significant number of local decisions on the allocation of resources.

That has implications for how much can be spent in the rest of the system. When examining the small schools issue it is important to look at funding, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. All schools receive funding in the form of a delegated budget share via a locally agreed formula set by the LEA in consultation with schools. The budget share is primarily based on pupil numbers along with other factors, including a recognition not just of school need, but of pupil need. Small schools cannot rely solely on the number of pupils on roll, or, in technical jargon, the age-weighted pupil units, to deliver sufficient resources for schools to function satisfactorily.

To deal with the diseconomy of scale in small schools, LEAs invariably have other factors built into their formulae to protect smaller schools. It is an open question how one defines a small school, which in some county areas would be fewer than 50 pupils, rather than the Government's definition of fewer than 100, or fewer than 200 nationwide. In most cases, a small school would be a primary school in a rural setting, but there are some in urban areas, too.

It is important to mention the per-pupil funding guarantee that the hon. Gentleman referred to. In 2004–05, a minimum increase is 4 per cent. per pupil, where pupil numbers are not changing. However, there are special arrangements for very small schools with 75 or fewer pupils in terms of the guarantee. We are soon to publish our proposals for 2005–06, the second year of the stability pact that we have agreed with local government. Those announcements learn from the lessons of this year, which has been more successful for the operation of the school funding system than 2003– 04. The decisions will have to take account of the work force reform to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which has an impact on primary schools.

Falling school rolls do not automatically need to lead to closing schools. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that officials from the Department are working with LEAs and the Audit Commission to develop a range of approaches that LEAs can use in addressing surplus school places. Although the number of surplus places is increasing with the decline in primary school pupil numbers, the provision being offered to the under-fives as well as to school children out of school hours is rising. Small schools can become extended schools and use their spare capacity for other purposes. One of the great strengths of small schools is their sense of community, on which they can capitalise, and extended schools can help.

Services delivered from school sites are accessible to the community. They can offer a wide range of services such as child care, parenting and family learning classes, and health and social care opportunities, and can be of great benefit to the wider community. Children can see specialists, parents can engage with the education system, adults can access important training opportunities and the whole community can benefit from a wide range of activities from sports to the arts. We will be supporting LEAs in developing options to utilise the schooling estate in a way that promotes standards and increases the range of services.

Small schools can make resources go further by collaborating or, ultimately, forming a federation, with other schools. Federations can deliver the curriculum through collaborative approaches that enable the sharing of facilities, staff and expertise. For example, shared heads, teachers, administrative staff and information and communications technology coordinators are an increasing part of the education scene.

I do not want to understate the importance of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman on behalf of his constituents—

Dr. Pugh

In the Government's guidance, in respect of rural schools there is a presumption against closure. It may not be stated in the document, but is there a presumption in the Department against the closure of schools that are full and successful?

Mr. Miliband

As I said, our guidance, which relates to local education authorities and to the role of the adjudicator, is to take educational standards seriously and to recognise also that other factors come into play. The hon. Gentleman is right: the technical position is that there is a presumption against the closure of rural schools, for obvious reasons, which he will recognise as there are rural areas in his constituency and in his borough. We suggest that school standards issues are taken into account, but the presumption is as he described.

I am sure the debate will carry on. Many hon. Members have similar issues to raise and I look forward to engaging with them as the discussion proceeds.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Five o'clock.