Schools (Brent)

New Clause 5 – in the House of Commons at 12:32 am on 10th April 1986.

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

Photo of Mr Reginald Freeson Mr Reginald Freeson , Brent East 12:44 am, 10th April 1986

Brent schools are in crisis. This has been developing for years, but some schools are verging on breakdown. Teacher morale is sinking, partly because of the Government's pay policy but due also to political factions interfering in school administration and the abuse of so-called "anti-racism" in appointments and curricula. Parents are placing more than 20 per cent. of our children in schools outside the borough. Educational standards for more than 40 per cent. of our pupils are inadequate because of lack and loss of good staff and a failure to reorganise secondary schools, further education and training along comprehensive tertiary college lines.

In this short debate, I wish to deal with the physical conditions in which our pupils and teachers must work. They are a disgrace and they demand Government action. Infant schools, junior schools, secondary schools, colleges, special schools for handicapped youngsters, youth service and training school buildings are all at risk. The present decline in property maintenance and refurbishment is the cumulative effect of years of neglect even when Governments gave much more finance than they do now. But today it is so serious that soon part of the education service will have to close.

Council officers have drawn up a report on the condition of educational buildings which makes depressing and alarming reading. Some schools could be forced to close unless millions of pounds are found to repair them. This has already happened in two schools recently. Whole roofs and windows started to collapse. Only then was emergency action taken. Hundreds of infants and junior school children were evacuated to surplus secondary school rooms for months while urgent repairs were carried out.

More than £6·5 million worth of urgent work is needed in Brent schools. This includes re-roofing, mechanical and electrical repairs, replacing central heating and essential redecoration work. More than £ 1 million is needed for urgent roof replacements alone, yet present funds allow for only patching leaking roofs. Almost £2·5 million is needed for external and internal redecoration. Many schools have not been repainted for 15 to 20 years. In the condition of floors, windows, kitchens, wiring circuits and heating, the local education authority is in breach of the health and safety at work regulations. That is an important point. Government authority for capital spending and council revenue, backed by Government rate support grant, is not available to rectify this matter. So the law is broken, and our teachers, children and others are put at risk physically as well as educationally.

For years, I have expressed concern at the lack of planned maintenance in Brent— a problem that exists across the country. Even when Government support was far more than it is now, this was absent. When it should have been essential to good management, it was given low priority or none. Thus, essential work has always suffered first as resources were squeezed. In recent years, even less money has gone into maintenance in relation to need. This year, Brent has a budget of just more than £1 million. Remember the £6·5 million needed for urgent work. This year we have £ 1 million against the need for £6·5 million for urgent, essential work. I stress that it is essential, not just desirable.

A list of schools has been drawn up which could face closure unless major repairs are done. It includes primary schools, such as Bridge, Uxendon Manor, Barham, Lyon Park, Malorees and Sudbury, and secondary schools such as Claremont, John Kelly boys and John Kelly girls schools, Kingsbury, Sladebrook and Neasden. There are no funds for further and adult education colleges, toddlers' clubs and other children's facilities.

The minimum budget required for primary schools has been estimated at £325,000, yet only 15 per cent., or £48,000, is available. Similarly with secondary schools; just over £0·5 million is the minimum need, but only 15 per cent., or £75,000, is available. Much of the Kilburn polytechnic accommodation is substandard. The central block of the Willesden college of technology has already had to be closed while whole departments have to move indefinitely into temporary buildings which themselves will be very costly to maintain.

I could go on with more and more examples, but I have made my point. The resources available are inadequate for the needs identified. Not to recognise this and to act on it is a dereliction of duty. There is also general deterioration in Brent schools which has serious consequences for the future of education. It is wrong that staff and pupils should be forced to work in such poor, degrading conditions.

I have mentioned only the immediate problems. From what I have seen, I believe that the situation is even worse than has been reported. Apart from essential maintenance and repairs, there is a need for more general redecoration, refurbishment, new fixtures, fittings and re-equipment. Failure to meet that need now will mean that what is already a crisis will soon turn to disaster.

I have been driven to seek this Adjournment debate because of the inadequate responses to my pleas for more resources which I have so far had from the Secretary of State for Education and his Ministers. Instead of addressing the real problems and facing up to them, the Department has sent me generalised replies. I have been told: Much more could be done to improve the planning and management of repair and maintenance work. I agree. I quote again: the Department … has published guidelines for determining maintenance priorities in the local authority sector and for setting up cost-effective maintenance programmes. Fine. But the Government cannot of course direct local authorities how to spend their money. Of course not.

It is for each individual authority to decide its own priorities in the light of its assessment of local needs and circumstances.

In Brent's case the needs and the priorities have been identified. What Education Ministers have failed to answer is the fact that there are just not enough resources made available to tackle the urgent, essential needs which have been identified. This is the Government's responsibility. They control capital expenditure and also in large part rate and revenue spending. In other words, Ministers have never addressed the specific problems that I have put to them. In sum, these show an urgent need for much more capital expenditure to put educational buildings into a decent condition, and more revenue spending through the rates and the rate support grant for planned maintenance consistently for a number of years. Without that, the general advice received, which I have quoted, cannot possibly meet the case.

A committed policy by Brent for planned maintenance must be supported by properly programmed resources over several years by Government as well as council. Capital and revenue investment must be firm over a period. Generalised replies from Ministers are just not good enough. Nor is the failure by councillors to redirect money to this priority area. The real problems must be addressed and Brent's educational buildings given the resources they so desperately need.

The director of education and the director of works have identified and programmed essential works urgently required. I keep repeating the words "urgent" and "essential" and I mean them literally; they are not just being used for rhetorical purposes. They have made their report. What I plead for is joint action now by Government and council. Our pupils and our teachers cannot wait any longer. Many of the buildings will literally have to be closed. What do we do then, without the capital resources that I am pleading with the Minister, together with the council, to consider introducing into what is, after all, largely an inner-city area, about which so much is said by the Government and others but about which so little seems to be being done, at least in this field.

Photo of Mr Bob Dunn Mr Bob Dunn , Dartford 12:57 am, 10th April 1986

I noted with interest comments of the right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) and his realistic interpretation of historical events over many years. He will know, as I do, that the position that he has outlined tonight is essentially still, as it has been in the past, the result of a conflict between the cash allocation made by Governments of all parties and the establishment of local priorities. He was honest enough, and I give him fair and just credit for that, to admit that this problem has not just arisen but has been building up over a period of many years.

Before I turn to the particular problems of the London borough of Brent, I want to make it quite clear to the House that the Government have said on numerous occasions that their view is that local authorities should give priority to spending on the repair and maintenance of school buildings. More than that, there is scope for increased spending in this area, and that has been built into successive rate support grant settlements. Local authorities' own expenditure returns have shown that in real terms the rate of growth in spending on the repair and maintenance of the educational building stock has been considerable.

If the right hon. Gentleman will bear with me, and I know that he will be patient, I would like to make one or two comments for wider consumption than those on the particular interests he expressed tonight.

The House will know that between 1981–82 and 1984–85 spending nationally on the repair and maintenance of school buildings increased by some 13 per cent. Brent's own spending on primary and secondary school repairs and maintenance in 1984–85 was almost twice what it had been in 1981–82. In fact it showed an increase of 91 per cent. over the 1981–82 level. The year 1984–85 is the latest for which detailed expenditure data are available, but in their plans for local authority spending in both 1985–86 and, more recently, 1986–87, as set out in the 1986 public expenditure White Paper, the Government have allowed scope for authorities to continue to give some priority to repairs and maintenance provided they can contain costs generally and make efficiency savings whenever possible. Of course, it is for each local authority to determine its own priorities and it is not for Ministers to tell them how to spend their money.

Nevertheless, we are concerned about the physical state of some of the country's schools and we take very seriously the findings of Her Majesty's Inspectors and others that some schools are in a very poor state of repair. Indeed, in my own visits to local authorities up and down the country I have seen examples of such schools. I have no doubt that examples exist in the London borough of Brent.

I am aware also that many people, entirely understandably, would like to see more money made available to local authorities for capital building work and for repairs and maintenance. However, this wish needs to be balanced against what the country as a whole can afford and taken in the context of the Government's overall policy of constraining public expenditure in order to further reduce inflation and secure the sustained economic recovery which we would all like to see and on which all our public services depend.

The resources which are available for education depend on many factors, including the demands made by other services. For example, those services concerned with the elderly have demography on their side, whereas education, where pupil numbers fell by about 13 per cent. from 1980 to 1985, cannot reasonably be exempt from the overall policy of restraint. Nevertheless, despite falling numbers, spending on education has risen slightly in real terms. As the figures I gave earlier show, spending on repairs and maintenance has shown a substantial. rise.

However, it is not only the amount of money that is spent that is important. How and where it is spent is equally crucial. It is for that reason, as I said before, that we look to authorities to make savings wherever possible. Poor management — the right hon. Member rightly referred to this—tends to result in money being spent where it is not needed. Such money is wasted. Audit Commission studies have shown where money might be saved, notably in areas such as caretaking and cleaning, and money saved here could clearly be spent on more important items such as repairing and maintaining school buildings—an investment which would be directly to the benefit of both pupils and teachers.

It is also worth saying that in many cases the decline in the state of the educational building stock has not come about suddenly. I note the right hon. Gentleman's realistic comments. Rather, it has been a gradual decline, brought about as a result of inadequate spending on repairs and maintenance over many years. What authorities often lack —this is the case, as the right hon. Gentleman said, in the London borough of Brent—is a planned programme of maintenance for their school buildings. In order to carry out the complex task of managing their building stock with maximum efficiency, local authorities need adequate information about their educational building stock and objective methods for assessing maintenance needs and determining priorities.

I turn now to capital expenditure generally and as it affects the London borough of Brent. Each year the Department invites all local education authorities to submit details of their plans for capital expenditure in their following year at the county and voluntary schools in the area. In aggregate, these plans always exceed what the country can, in our view, afford. We therefore measure each authority's bids against certain criteria to determine what allocation each should receive.

The first step is to take into account authorities' commitments on projects which are already under way. This element of the allocation will generally not exceed the provisional indication of acceptable commitments of which the authority has been notified the previous year. The next priority is to cover expenditure needed to permit authorities to meet their statutory duties to provide sufficient schools for their area and to implement proposals approved by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science under sections 12 to 15 of the Education Act 1980, generally involving the removal of surplus places. All allocations have covered these items in full. The third priority is expenditure on smaller, non-statutory, projects to remove surplus places and to renovate or replace unsatisfactory or inappropriate school buildings. Allocations here are made on a basis which reflects the number of sub-standard places in each authority, as well as their planned expenditure. This sort of work is covered to the extent that the overall level of resources will permit.

Allocations for 1986–87 represent, in aggregate, 43 per cent. of local education authorities' planned capital expenditure on schools. Authorities are — this is an important point which relates to Brent — free to supplement these allocations by the use of the permitted proportion of their capital receipts and by the other flexibilities available to them under the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980.

The allocation made to Brent was determined on that basis. On the schools side, its expected commitments for projects already under way were met in full and, so far as new work is concerned, the planned cost of enlargements to the Brentfield and Leopold schools were allowed in full also. Similarly, the capital costs of the alterations needed to Willesden high school resulting from the closure of the Pound street annex were fully taken into account. Brent's total allocation for 1986–87 is £1,589,000. This represents a rather lower percentage of their planned expenditure than the national average, but, as a percentage of the total sum allocated nationally, it corresponds fairly closely to Brent's school population as a percentage of the national total. Statistics can, of course, prove anything. What is important is that the allocations to all authorities were made by applying exactly the same criteria and priorities. Brent was not singled out in any way for exceptionally harsh treatment.

I am well aware that local education authorities would like to spend even more on capital work. However, there is a continuing need to control gross public expenditure in the fight against inflation. I have to point out also that the London borough of Brent has not helped itself in that it has done nothing about the considerable number of surplus places in its secondary schools. I appreciate that the present administration's proposals for school amalgamations were quashed in the High Court but, before then, under Labour control, no action at all was taken.

There are two further areas to which I should like to direct the attention of the House and the right hon. Gentleman, in which the authority could have had useful scope for savings in educational expenditure—school meals and caretaking and cleaning. Because of the lateness of the hour, I shall not go into detail, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that there is considerable scope for Brent to achieve substantial efficiency savings in its school meals and secondary caretaking costs. Money saved here could clearly be targeted towards genuine educational priority, such as repairs and maintenance.

These are areas in which the authority might like to help itself. But my reference to them is by no means intended to disparage the authority's overall performance. The figures show that Brent's response to falling pupil numbers has been to reduce teacher numbers faster than the average for the outer London boroughs and the rates for England as a whole.

I have listened with great interest to the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that he fully understands the arguments we have put forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past One o'clock.