HC Deb 15 September 2004 vol 424 cc505-12WH 4.53 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con)

Mr. Conway, this may be a sad day for democracy and security, but the fact that we are discussing education, and education in Southend, is timely. However strongly we feel about issues, the attempt today to halt proceedings was a very sad action indeed.

I am very grateful that the Minister for School Standards is responding to this debate as it was not so long ago that I was part of a delegation to meet him. This is not an opportunity to criticise or berate the Government for what they have done in terms of education. All parents in Southend are very grateful for any assistance that the Labour Government give to our schools and that the Conservative council in Southend also gives to our children.

Southend used to be a very popular seaside resort, but times have changed and many people now travel abroad. The local authority has desperately looked for a new outlet in activities in Southend and, sensibly, it has been decided to try to make Southend a centre of learning. That is not easy to achieve, but I congratulate all those who have worked in partnership to make it happen.

South East Essex college of arts and technology is working with the university of Essex to enable young people to benefit from higher education. They have signed a joint venture agreement and have embarked on a unique partnership. The vision is for the joint development of an integrated further and higher education campus offering progression opportunities for young people and adults.

The college has recently relocated to its splendid new building in Luker road in the heart of Southend. The building forms the first phase of the campus and houses most of the college's further education and all its higher education provision. I hope that the appropriate Minister can visit our new campus. Everyone in the town is excited about it and the opportunities it affords. There will be a strong vocational focus in an exciting and innovative flagship building. The college, in partnership with the university, is helping to raise aspirations and skill levels in an area that, traditionally and unfortunately, has low rates both of staying on post-16 and of participation in higher education. The project fits in extremely well with all the aspirations of the Thames gateway.

The Minister has probably heard many Members of Parliament praise local examination results, and I intend to follow that example. I give the credit entirely to the children who have achieved those results, to their teachers and to their parents. Also, I want to touch briefly on the relationship between grammar schools and comprehensive schools in Southend and the impact it has on the results. As the Minister will know, we have four grammar schools in Southend. We are very proud of them. We know that the Labour party has pledged not to abolish them so we will be working with the secondary schools that we have in Southend at present.

Westcliff high school for boys was ranked among the top 50 schools in England and Wales, based on this summer's A-level results. We also saw excellent A-level results from Westcliff high school for girls, Southend high school for boys, Southend high school for girls and St. Thomas More high school for boys. I am pleased to tell the Minister that the percentage of pupils attending schools in Southend who achieve five or more A* to C passes at GCSE is above the national average. The percentage has risen from nearly 57 per cent. last year to nearly 60 per cent. this year. The national average is about 53 per cent.

Westcliff high school for girls, which one of my daughters attends, had a pass rate of 100 per cent. Southend high school for girls, which another of my daughters attends, had a pass rate of 99 per cent. Westcliff high school for boys had a pass rate of 98 per cent and Southend high school for boys had a pass rate of 96 per cent. As a Catholic, I was pleased to see the two Catholic schools—St. Bernard's, which is wonderfully led by Miss Vicky Squirrell, and St. Thomas More, wonderfully led by Frank Keenan—do so well. The Eastwood school also did splendidly. I congratulate all those involved.

Much as I praise all those schools, Prittlewell school and Belfairs school in my constituency are equally important. I do not want to use the short time that is available to go into the detail of what has happened at Prittlewell school. I simply put on record the fact that it has been a splendid school, given all the challenges it has faced. I am sorry that as a result of the Ofsted report it is now under special measures, something that I never thought would happen while I was the local MP. I was totally unaware that this was happening. We have support from the Minister's Department, but once a school is labelled as having difficulties it often takes a generation to turn it around. I will not shut up about Prittlewell school: I want to ensure that normal education provision is returned as soon as possible because I cannot believe that in just a year something has somehow gone terribly wrong there.

The final school, Belfairs, is magnificently led by John Duprey. I have had the privilege of attending many events at that school. The headmaster is very proud of all that has happened there, but he is concerned about the impact that the activities of other schools are having on his school. Obviously the grammar schools take a number of children who are not from Southend. However, the number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds is significantly higher at a school like his and the number of asylum cases and those from economic migrant families is higher at his school, and that type of population is, by character, fairly mobile. The Government have said that such pupils must be included in schools and they feel very strongly about that. However, such a change has absolutely no impact on the grammar schools, as the youngsters who are to be included are invariably not sufficiently able to go to grammar schools.

I would never support the abolition of grammar schools in Southend. We must live with the way things are at the moment. I feel very strongly that Belfairs' magnificent achievements should be recognised in a different way, not merely in terms of the tables as printed. As the Minister knows, Belfairs has a wonderful drama facility and other areas of excellence, but in its academic achievements it is seen not to be doing as well as the grammar schools. I will support Belfairs school to the end; it has a magnificent staff, and it is a bit tough on them when the results are printed and Belfairs appears not to be doing as well as the other schools.

I have decided not to name the heads of secondary schools who have given me various pointers that I shall use in this debate. However, the head of one secondary school in Southend feels that channelling money to disadvantaged schools is unlikely to produce the effects that the Government want. He believes that the reverse will happen because learning is difficult; it comes from sustained and deliberate application over time and it is the product of patience and resolution. Learning is not amenable to a quick fix; neither can it be equated with having access to a computer. I have strong views on computers: I agree with the headmaster that information and communications technology by itself cannot usher in an age of higher standards. The head feels that the problem is a poverty in home life and in conversation, in reading, which many cannot do, in understanding the cultural and historic roots of our society, in seeing the significance of the principle of personal responsibility and in recognizing that the puritan ethic ought be a source of continuing vitality in our affairs. The head also believes that the Government have not understood the distinction between education and training, which he feels will eventually have an adverse effect on the work force. The Government have always talked about "education, education, education", but that headmaster believes that there has been too much bureaucracy, bureaucracy, bureaucracy.

Several heads have complained about the cost of examinations, especially of modular A-levels, vocational examinations and so on. I hope that the Minister will say how funds will be given to the schools to sustain the cost of examinations.

My party feels strongly about parental choice. When the Government introduced the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, infant school class sizes were restricted to 30. In the tiny urban area that I represent, there is no space in the playground to build extra classes, and restricting class sizes to 30 has had an adverse impact on parents' choice of school. Once upon a time, you could go along to a teacher—they were all paid the same amount—and say, "Do you mind taking an extra one or two?" Schools cannot do that now, so primary schools such as West Leigh, Leigh North Street and Chalkwell have been turning parents away, literally in droves. Will the Minister comment on that?

The meeting that we had with the Minister was about budgets. I have to tell him that schools in Southend have muddled through with their budgets, but there are staffing restrictions, even with transitional grants. I am advised that the money is simply not enough, and next year the grant goes down by 50 per cent. I fear that schools will be in trouble again, although I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on that point.

A number of head teachers have raised concerns with me about funding generally, and work force reform in particular, which is an issue for both primary and secondary schools. Schools in Southend are very worried about how they will pay for those activities that were formerly performed by teaching staff, but that will now have to be performed by non-teaching staff. As I understand it so far, the Government have not yet, indicated how funding will be passed on to the schools. Although it is laudable that the Government insist on non-teaching staff doing things formerly done by teachers, will that work force reform be fully funded?

Another head teacher wanted to share with me her concerns about pay, recruitment and the retention of staff generally. It is an issue in Southend. I do not know whether it is because we are at the end of the line, but we are currently finding it rather difficult to attract head teachers in particular, which is very surprising and disappointing. When vacancies are advertised, there is a small selection of replies. Head teachers feel concerned about funding for the upper pay scales. There appears to be a huge constraint on budgets for schools with established and experienced staff—I am sure that that is not the first time the Minister has heard that.

The transition from a local education department to a directorate of children's services, which is currently happening in Southend, has financial implications. The time scale and process seem unclear, and coupled with the loss of staff in the local education authority it has removed support from schools. During the same period, the local education authority is being further stretched by the secondary school that I mentioned—Prittlewell—going into special measures. There is additional concern that a second school on special measures—not in the area that I represent, but at the other end of town—will further distort the admissions into secondary schools.

The Minister will know that we also had a meeting with the Minister for Children earlier this year, at which the deputation was concerned about the financial impact of looked-after children, relative to Southend's size, and at which we gave the Minister all sorts of examples of how we thought we were not being treated fairly.

One primary school teacher—together with Michael Frampton, the excellent head master of Southend high school for boys—stressed to me very strongly that there does not seem to be any equality of funding whatever. She certainly feels strongly that the primary schools are not being treated fairly, and that there are no incentives for schools to reduce their budget deficits. I have to tell the Minister that she rather longs for the days of grant-maintained schools.

Recruitment and retention is an issue in Southend. In May 2003, there were nine primary, 19 secondary and two special school vacancies. That is quite high. At present, there are four primary and 16 secondary vacancies, and fortunately, we have solved the vacancy problem in our special schools. Will the Minister comment briefly on that?

I end with a comment about our special schools. I have five special schools in the area that I represent, and they are absolutely splendid. I am deeply moved every time I visit the schools and see their wonderful achievements. The Minister will understand that when it was first mooted that children with all sorts of special educational needs be absorbed into mainstream schools, there was resistance from many parents who felt that their children would be at a real disadvantage in some schools.

However, following the local authority's decision to reorganise special education in Southend, the five special schools—Kingsdown, Lancaster, Priory, St. Nicholas and St. Christopher's—have been preserved, although they are going through a period of prolonged change. The strategy adopted means that more people will be able to be educated locally in Southend, which I applaud, and there will be greater choice for parents with enhanced facilities in some of our mainstream schools, which I am particularly delighted about.

I am very pleased that in Lancaster school, 19 to 25-year-olds, for whom there has always been a gap in provision, will not be forgotten once they leave school. I praise Southend-on-Sea borough council for that development., which is one of just a few in the country. Eastwood secondary school, led by David Penketh, has a drama facility and music centre, and is a wonderful school. I am now into my eighth year as MP for Southend, West, and I am seeing all sorts of changes that the education authority is doing its best to cope with.

Finally, will the Minister look carefully at Southend council's position as a unitary authority outside Essex county council? I know that the change was not his decision but that of the local residents, but the fact that it is a unitary authority means that there are special circumstances in terms of educational opportunities. I look forward to working with the LEA and the Department for Education and Skills in raising standards for all our children in Southend and rejoicing with the Minister and others concerned as Southend marches on to become a centre of educational excellence.

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

I can only guess at the excitement that you, Mr. Conway, and the millions of others who are watching us on television feel at joining what is becoming an extended conversation between the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and me about education in Southend. Until today, the discussion has been sadly restricted to private meetings, but we can now be assured that it will be seen by a wider range of people who can gauge the passion, common sense and innovation that are part of it.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the beginning and end of his speech, and I associate myself wholeheartedly with his congratulations to the teachers, pupils and parents of all the schools in Southend on their achievements this summer. I am pleased that he has not joined the brigade of so-called well-informed commentators who, every time that test and exam results come out, are the first to say that the results are the product not of hard work and good sense but of the exams getting easier. Like him, I believe that young people and their teachers are working more smartly and better, and that they deserve the results they achieve.

The hon. Gentleman was also honest enough to recognise that not every young person is fulfilling their potential at school or college and that we have to fight any sense of complacency that we feel about existing provision while celebrating the good work done by pupils and teachers in Southend.

Looking at the statistics for this year, I was struck by the fact that the number of 15 and 16-year-olds getting five or more GCSE passes—when the hon. Gentleman referred to passes, they were for grades A to C—rose by 2.9 per cent. in Southend, which is encouraging. That is above the national average and an increase from 48 per cent. when the authority went unitary in 1998, to pick up on a later point that he made. Also, the percentage of students receiving no passes fell—it nearly halved—this year. I am sure he agrees that that is significant.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman talked about the work of the South East Essex college of arts and technology at advanced level. The A-level average points score in Southend rose to 48.4 per cent. this year, which is significant. Looking at the description of the new £52 million South East Essex college—I gather it is opening on Southend high street within a matter of days, and I am sure that the bunting will be put out—it was striking to see that nearly two thirds of enrolments at the college are in business, information and communications technology and visual and performing arts. Those are three areas in which there are growing employment opportunities and it is good to see that that often technical type of education, which has sometimes been neglected in this country, is being supplied by the college. I applaud the work that it is doing.

The hon. Gentleman concentrated his remarks on the secondary sector, but I am sure that he will join me in welcoming the renewed progress at primary level. Secondary schools cannot prosper unless the primary stage—the foundation of education—is properly undertaken. The improvements in that area are really striking.

Let me run through some points that the hon. Gentleman raised, because I want to ensure that they are covered. He mentioned Prittlewell school and said that he was worried that it might take a generation to repair and restore its fortunes. I do not just hope that that need not be the case; I believe it. The record of schools being placed in special measures shows that they can make fast progress. The average time schools spend in special measures is about 13 months—just over an academic year. It is a challenging process, but I am sure that he would agree that when Ofsted, the independent inspectorate, finds serious weaknesses or significant problems, it is right not to avert our eyes but to get in there and sort the difficulties out.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that overall the number of schools in special measures has fallen significantly over the past seven or eight years—it has more than halved. The number of schools with less than 20 per cent. of pupils getting five A to C grades at GCSE is down from 361 in September 1997 to an estimated 59 this year. This need not be a counsel of despair. I am sure that it is disappointing for the people at the school involved, but they can be sure that they will get support—not just from the local authority but from central Government—to get them out of special measures as soon as possible. It is not just that we want to avoid a spiral of decline; we believe that we can avoid it and have a virtuous circle of improvement. I am sure that any help or positive support that the hon. Gentleman can give will be welcome.

I will not dwell on the hon. Gentleman's worries about computers. Suffice it to say that the use of information technology seems to me quite compatible with learning how to read and write well—in fact, they can support each other.

The hon. Gentleman had a specific question about exam costs, which is an issue. I think that he was probably thinking of exam registration fees. Rightly in my view, the exams are run by independent charitable bodies, not by central Government, and they fix their fees under the watchful eye of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. He referred to the costs involved for schools and colleges. Perhaps he did not have this in mind, but it is also important to think about the assessment burden in terms of coursework, which can take time away from teaching. We must look at both aspects. The Tomlinson review of 14 to 19 provision is looking directly at those issues and the cost implications; it will be published in about three or four weeks. I hope that we can address some legitimate points that were made by the hon. Gentleman's constituents in that context.

The hon. Gentleman talked about funding in Southend, but he has been misinformed that there was a 50 per cent. cut in its grant. Perhaps that was a slip. The funding for Southend continues to increase. This year, every school in his constituency is guaranteed at least a 4 per cent. increase per pupil in funding. Next year—2005–06—it will be at least 5 per cent. for primary schools and at least 4 per cent. for secondary. I will explain the difference later; it relates to work force reform, which he also mentioned. Those are the minimum increases. It is also important to recognise that Southend's overall increase per pupil was 6.3 per cent. this year, so significant extra funds are going to Southend.

I think the hon. Gentleman was talking about the transitional grant, which was given specifically to help to overcome some problems in 2003–04. He is right in saying that that is going down from £1.4 million to £0.7 million and to zero eventually, because it was a two-year grant to help to smooth out some of those difficulties. It is right that we do not go straight from £1.4 million to zero, which is the cliff edge that Southend might have faced. I hope he agrees that the overall increase in the base—6.3 per cent.—provides a significant safety net as the transitional grant is withdrawn and that the commitments for schools are inviolate.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to work force reform as well as the three-year programme to ensure that teachers focus on teaching and that the administration and whatever bureaucracy is necessary is taken care of by administrative support staff. That has been carefully modelled, most recently in 72 primary schools during the summer term of the 2003–04 academic year.

Furthermore, I am delighted that the National Association of Head Teachers, the Secondary Heads Association, significant teaching representatives and the Local Government Association have worked with us to develop the funding formula for 2005–06—the last year of the work force reform initiative—to deliver funding that will provide the stability, predictability and cover that primary and secondary schools need.

We have upped the minimum increase for primary schools because they face a particular challenge in the third year of the agreement as teachers are entitled to 10 per cent. of their teaching time being reserved for the preparation and planning of lessons, which are obviously critical as demands on the curriculum rise. However, we believe that the measures we have taken, with the support of those partners I mentioned, will cover that.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about children's services, and I heard and read about his meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children. There are big opportunities for schools and social services to work together in ways that they previously have not.

I shall wind up on a note of common agreement. Special schools have a critical role to play in our education system. For some pupils, they will always be right, but not necessarily for the whole of their school career. I do not want a battle between special schools and the mainstream sector; I want more co-operation between them so that the special skills in special schools and among the teaching staff are spread across the system.

I am glad to hear that the hon. Gentleman supports that and that he is as inspired as I am by what goes on in our special schools. They have a lot to offer—not just to their pupils, but to the wider system—and I look forward to making the most of them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Five o'clock.