Orders of the Day — Education Reorganisation (Sutton)

– in the House of Commons at 11:24 pm on 9th February 1987.

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

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam 11:40 pm, 9th February 1987

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for giving time this evening to answer a debate about a subject of enormous concern to my constituents in Sutton, Cheam and Worcester Park. That concern is felt equally by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman), who hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when I have finished my speech.

I fully appreciate the locus under which the Department of Education and Science has to operate when considering these proposals, which ultimately come to the Secretary of State. I fully understand the quasi-judicial role of my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State over the next few months. These are early days in considering the radical and debilitating options that have been offered to Sutton's residents by the alliance council.

I ask my hon. Friend to look at the problem facing parents in Sutton as they try to fathom the reasons behind these damaging, destructive and extreme proposals. Let no one be in any doubt—they have all the hallmarks of Socialism, reminiscent of the 1970s, when the Lib-Lab pact did so much to undermine the country. Education in Sutton is now being undermined, and, if the residents do not make their feelings known, we are in for a decade of educational chaos, rather like those years in the 1960s, when other local education authorities embarked on a programme of chaos, thus generating some of the disasters in national standards.

In Sutton, we have not had disasters until now. My hon. Friend knows well that Sutton has always had a high success rate, and any analysis will show it to be one of the top three education authorities. I find it impossible to comprehend the thinking behind these options—if any thinking has been done. It seems on the face of it to be pure political dogma. Before I offer that theory, we must look at the individuals involved in encouraging our people in Sutton to follow them down the path of social destruction. The social consequences on the community are the first item that we have to consider.

It is revealing to note that in the ranks on the new alliance council in Sutton there is a plethora of social scientists. I will not be uncharitable about that profession, because there is no doubt a worthy function for it. However, I fear that not much social science has gone into their thinking on the options paper.

There is widespread anxiety in the teaching profession over these issues. All the work done by our excellent head teachers and their staffs will be lost, and in Sutton we have a devoted teaching force. There is concern among parents, especially those whose youngsters are in primary school or just embarking on their secondary schooling. Anxiety in the home quickly affects youngsters, and any talk of major reorganisation tends to destabilise the community. By the nature of things, it will be prolonged, and thus have an enormous impact. There is no progress in schools when there is reorganisation. There is simply regression, and that is bad for the confidence of the teaching staff, parents and pupils. It undermines many socio-economic factors. Many people are put off moving into the area; housing prices can be affected; it can undermine commerce and industry in many ways. Therefore the social factors are absolutely critical. There are many areas that we have to look at, but social factors are an essential element in our consideration of these problems.

As for financing such a project, it looks as though Sutton has a looming problem over rates. I predict huge increases for my constituents before the year is out. One knows that the authority is increasing the number of staff and that it has retained the Marketing and Opinion Research Institute to handle the public consultation exercise for rates and local services. Even without the cost of education reorganisation, which admittedly would be over a period of years, we are heading for the title "Big spender of the south." I must warn my constituents to read the small print of the questionnaires very closely, because these papers are not what at first they appear to be.

We can take comfort from the words of Lord Diplock in a judgment in 1983. He said that a rating authority owes a duty to its ratepayers to deploy the full financial resources available to them, to the best advantage. Equally we know that section 76 of the Education Act 1944 also has the effect that a local authority is required to avoid "unreasonable public expenditure."

The Audit Commission has also made some important observations, detailing some of the steps that should be taken. It said that the authority should determine the cost of doing nothing in financial and educational terms before any options are considered.

It goes on to say that rumours are more damaging than reality and that the council should release a discussion paper outlining the problem and the cost of doing nothing and also publish the full range of options, with the cost and educational options spelt out for discussions before the local education authority decides what course to adopt.

I noted, too, in the publication "Education" dated 3 October 1986 an article by the deputy chief education officer of Devon, a county that is also going through this particular reorganisation scheme. He said: It is necessary in any but the simplest scheme to have a second round of public consultations where the preferred option of the council is presented. Time will tell whether we have a local authority in Sutton that recognises expertise and advice. At the moment it appears to be hell-bent on pursuing political dogma.

I turn to the third category that I want to examine—education in Sutton. It is a vital area for consideration. I must emphasise that my grave concern about the future of our young people in no way hinges upon grammar schools versus comprehensive schools. In Sutton we have a range of schools. Anybody who studies the prospectus of the local authority will see that that is so. I am anxious to retain the system that has served us and that is serving our youngsters so well. I cannot stress that point too strongly. It is serving us extremely well.

I said at the outset that our record is in the top echelon of the nation's educational achievement. The statistics show it, from the Inner London education authority's statistical survey to the recent Sheffield survey that was published not only in the Daily Express but in The Times Educational Supplement, which carried it on 30 January 1987. Indeed, in its statistical bulletin 13/84 the Department of Education and Science shows, in a regression analysis, that Sutton is the only local education authority among the London boroughs to have better actual passes than that forecast, or "fitted", by my hon. Friend's Department.

I shall quote the two extremes. I refer to the assessment of the London borough of Sutton by the Department of Education and Science. It said that no graded results should reveal a percentage of just under 8 per cent. Actual passes were just on 6·5 per cent. At the other extreme an assessment made by the Department of Education and Science suggested that those with one or more higher graded passes at O level or CSE should be 57·7 per cent. Sutton achieved over 60 per cent. In the category of one or more passes at A level, the suggested forecast figure by the Department is 18·8 per cent. Sutton achieved nearly 25 per cent. That gives some idea of how successful and effective we are.

Those statistics are open to everybody, wherever they may be, to review. Anybody who studies them will conclude that we have excellent results under the present system. Her Majesty's inspectorate report of 1983 recognised the all-round competence of Sutton's education system. I offer one comment from that report. The report says: The secondary schools are pleasant, well-ordered institutions, with hard-working and committed teachers. The courtesy and discipline of pupils and students is impressive—the achievement of pupils is generally satisfactory. Pupil achievements in public examination is good and teachers in Sutton's secondary schools are more likely to be graduates than the national average. That is not a bad series of recommendations to begin with. If we had more time in this debate I could enhance the evidence for the local education authority to note. I and Conservative councillors in Sutton have tried to elicit from the council what reasons it has for wishing to smash a good system. It is clear that reorganisation is not necessary as a result of falling rolls because the local education authority, under Conservative leadership, and under the education committee chairmanship of Mrs. Mavis Peart, took some difficult and unpopular decisions and closed four schools, taking out all the surplus places that it was necessary to take out. That was consistent with the need to allow for the expansion in rolls in the early 1990s. That fact is well acknowledged by the district auditor. In stark contrast, many other local authorities have had serious problems with falling rolls and surplus places and some are having a second and third reorganisation within 15 years. That is destabilising, but not so in Sutton's case where stability was acknowledged by the careers inspectors.

Another argument that I have heard used in favour of reorganisation in the council is what it claims is lack of opportunities for a wide range of subjects in either grammar or secondary modern schools. This is arrant nonsense, because Greenshaw comprehensive school in my constituency offers 23 CSE opportunities. Cheam high school, which is a secondary modern, offers 29, and it is the same throughout the borough. There is an enormous range of opportunities. We have linked courses with the college of further education, TVEI CPVE and so on. There is a broad curriculum and to say that there is not is to demonstrate ignorance. It is disappointing to note that the council has refused to offer the status quo as an option in its so-called consultation. That is against the advice of just about every organisation and, indeed, the circular from the Department of my hon. Friend the Minister. I rather feel that someone in Sutton's education committee is, perhaps, pursuing a personal vendetta against his or her former school and that that is the target of the strategy. I notice that twice in council the alliance voted against further consultation on a preferred option and my evidence so far is that this so-called consultation is meaningless, because parents have to unravel nine listed options, all of which, inevitably, mean change. Where is the leadership?

There are so many disadvantages to reorganisation on comprehensive lines and even more with a break at 16 years of age. First, we would have total chaos and disruption for a minimum of 10 years. Secondly, the proposals will have a disastrous effect on the staff. Thirdly, quite clearly the proposal is wholly unnecessary in the education sense. Fourthly, there will be more mixed schools, which most parents dislike. Fifthly, schools will become larger, and social problems are likely to start. Sixthly, there will be endless disruption for pupils between the ages of 16 and 18 as the local education authority tries to set up a tertiary college, and the problem will be compounded if the denominational schools refuse to join in.

The cost of building a new tertiary college or an extension at Carshalton college of further education would seem never-ending to the ratepayer. Disruption would be prolonged for the student. That is further evidence of the total disarray that we could expect—all because the alliance says that it has a manifesto commitment. Judging by the results of the election last May, I tend to doubt that.

The alliance says a great many things about its reasoning for going comprehensive and encouraging 11 to 16 schools. It says that the 11-plus is too restrictive on the primary school curriculum and that it dominates work in all primary schools. That is nonsense. What does a child have to undertake—merely two verbal reasoning tests and one practical test? Head teachers are under instruction not to coach or pressure the children. The alliance claims also that the 11-plus puts pressure on parents. It says that it is considering banding- testing children at 11 plus—to allocate different abilities fairly between comprehensive schools. Furthermore, I am told that the chairman of the education committee has said that the alliance does not object to tests—just to the pressure it puts on parents".

The alliance council says also that the 11-plus is not an accurate prediction at that age for sorting out children into different schools and thus influencing future careers. That, too, is nonsense. Pupils can and do transfer, but not many do because, in general, parents are totally satisfied and do not seek a transfer for their children.

I note with growing anxiety further pronouncements from the alliance group. It says that secondary modern schools cannot provide a full range of advanced level subjects and that, therefore, the pupils are at a disadvantage. That is absurd. Non-selective pupils do not, on the whole, have the ability to take advantage of a full range of A-levels. At the Greenshaw comprehensive school, non-selective pupils in the main do not take the A-level courses. They opt for CPVE, one-year re-sits, CET, and so on. In addition, pupils can transfer from one school to another or to Carshalton college of further education. The message that must be put across to the alliance council in Sutton is that, nowadays, at 16 years of age there is a choice.

The council tells us that the comprehensive system offers all pupils similar opportunities. Our present system offers all those same opportunities. The non-selective schools have the same range of subject options as the comprehensive school. Changing the system will not make any difference. The alliance council also says that our grammar schools offer solely academic subjects. That is patently absurd, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State understands. Business studies, TVEI, CDT are part of a grammar school curriculum.

The council's paper, which is now available for analysis, states: This leaflet invites you to help decide the future pattern of secondary education in Sutton. The move to a comprehensive system is a tremendous opportunity to make real improvements in the quality of our schools and the Council is determined to let everyone have a say in how this can best be done.The Council decided to move to a comprehensive system Where is the choice? That is the alliance council's interpretation of consultation. It is decided by the committee; it is now a fait accompli. There is nothing liberal about these proposals.

But the most challenging issue facing teachers and parents is the alliance proposal in the paper to go for a tertiary college for students at age 16. This is a major break with our tradition in Sutton. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will recall that, in the early part of this decade, I chaired a research group inquiring into education for 16 to 19-year-olds which was composed of all interested organisations. I do not think that that system is suitable for Sutton. It may well be suitable in some large metropolitan cities. A break at 16 may be beneficial. But at Sutton parents, teachers and head teachers will have to think very carefully before caving in to pressure from the alliance for this wholly new dimension to education in Sutton.

The future position is made clear in the option paper: In Sutton the tertiary college would be based on the present site and premises of Carshalton College. The premises would have to be extended and would cater for about 2,200 full-time equivalent students instead of 1,400 as at present. Everything that we read about the proposals is a mess. If the proposals go ahead, I foresee a barren wasteland for education in Sutton, especialy in the 16–19 years age group. I see that for an entire generation and beyond. These proposals are disreputable, deceitful and designed to destroy.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the consent of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane) and the Minister?

Photo of Mr Nigel Forman Mr Nigel Forman , Carshalton and Wallington

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I shall speak briefly in the strongest possible terms in support of my hon. Friend and his carefully researched speech. The proposed reorganisation of Sutton schools will be damaging, disruptive and expensive. It will be damaging to schools of proven worth, such as Wallington boys school and Wallington girls school. It will be disruptive to an excellent local education system which caters successfully for the full range of pupils and educational needs. It might force certain schools, such as Wilson's, which are an asset to the borough into the private sector. It will be expensive. Estimates of the cost of going comprehensive vary, but the figure could be as high as £12 million to £14 million for building works alone.

My hon. Friend has already quoted the chairman of the local education committee, who claims that the move to a comprehensive system will provide a tremendous opportunity to raise quality. I strongly dispute that. The quality of Sutton schools is high. Parents have been in the habit of moving into the borough for the quality of education provided, and the only consequence of such a damaging reorganisation will be to lower standards and demoralise pupils, staff and parents alike.

It is pretty good cheek for Mr. Penneck, the chairman of the local education committee, to end his message in the popular version of the consultation document by saying: Your Council wants to hear from you". What a slippery contrast to the local election campaign of last spring, when the alliance parties were careful to disguise their true preference for a comprehensive system.

What is on offer now to parents and pupils is nothing more than a damaging, disruptive, Socialist-inspired plan to go comprehensive smuggled into the realm of political possibility in a false alliance prospectus. At the least, local people should be encouraged to go out and cast their votes for the existing system, the status quo. Any other outcome would be an act of gratuitous vandalism by local alliance and Labour politicians, who should know better if they claim to be in touch with local feelings. I appeal to them to think again before it is too late. If they do not, they will bear a heavy responsibility for which the vast majority of local people and my constituents will not forgive them.

Photo of Mr Bob Dunn Mr Bob Dunn , Dartford 12:03 am, 9th February 1987

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane) on obtaining this early Adjournment debate on the proposed reorganisation of secondary education in the London borough of Sutton. I am grateful, too, for the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman). I should also like to pay tribute to my good friend, Mrs. Mavis Peart, for all the good work that she has done in the past and will continue to do in the future in the London borough of Sutton. I am aware that this issue is currently stimulating a great deal of local interest and discussion.

As my hon. Friends know, a standard set of procedures comes into play when a local education authority wishes to change the organisation or pattern of provision of its schools. These procedures are laid down by sections 12 to 16 of the Education Act 1980. Briefly, the requirements are that when a local education authority or, in certain circumstances, the providers of a voluntary school wish to establish, discontinue or alter the character or size of a school they must publish proposals explaining their intentions.

During the two-month period following publication, it is open to interested parties to submit objections to the proposals. If such objections are made, or if the Secretary of State has given appropriate notice to the local education authority, or if the school concerned is a voluntary school, the proposals fall to be decided by the Secretary of State and may not be implemented without his approval.

I should also mention that, although it is not a requirement of the Act, it has been established in the courts that those likely to be affected by proposals have a legitimate expectation to be consulted before such proposals are made. I understand that Sutton LEA has now reached that stage. It has issued a consultation paper seeking observations on a number of options with a view to publishing proposals later in the year.

When the Secretary of State is deciding on proposals to establish, discontinue or alter schools, he is under a general duty to act fairly. In other words, he must judge each proposal or set of proposals on its merits, taking into account both the arguments of those making the proposals and the views of those objecting to them.

My hon. Friends will, I am sure, understand that it is important for the Secretary of State to avoid prejudging the issues involved in such proposals. They will not, therefore, expect me to say anything about the proposed reorganisation that is the subject of this debate. I hope, however, that they will accept my assurance that I have listened very carefully to what has been said tonight, and that the points will be taken into account, along with other representations that we may receive, before a decision is reached on any proposals that may come to my right hon. Friend.

I thank my hon. Friends for the great interest that they have shown in the issues that they have brought before the House. I note their remarks most carefully.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Twelve o'clock.