Education (Rochdale)

Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 1:19 am on 12th July 1988.

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

Photo of Cyril Smith Cyril Smith , Rochdale 1:25 am, 12th July 1988

I am delighted to have the opportunity to fire the first public salvo at national Government level at the proposals now with the Secretary of State for Education and Science to reorganise education in Rochdale—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. I hope that if hon. Members wish to discuss matters other than the Adjournment they will do so outside the Chamber.

Photo of Cyril Smith Cyril Smith , Rochdale

I have no hesitation in urging the Secretary of State to reject the proposals from Rochdale. For the children in my constituency, the proposals will lead to a lowering of standards, a reduction of opportunities and the abolition of choice. What is more, they will do so at an increased cost to the ratepayers.

As I do not consider cost to be the main argument—it is merely a complementary one—I shall deal with it first. Figures ranging from £10 million to £21 million are floating around as representing the cost of reorganisation. Such expenditure inevitably adds up to £1 million a year to the revenue estimates—to educate fewer children in fewer buildings. That extra cost comes not from more books, materials or even teachers, but basically from interest on capital borrowed and the repayment of loan charges.

I said that the scheme now with the Minister was not properly costed—a fact which was openly admitted at a recent public meeting by the chairman of the Rochdale education committee. That leads me to my first important submission. It is extremely doubtful whether the scheme presented to the Minister meets the requirements of procedure laid down in DES guidelines. The proposals are procedurally flawed in other respects, too—most notably in the manner in which the consultation process was practised. No alternative scheme was put before parents in the 12 months before the submission to the Minister. Any alternatives that were put to them were put in 1981 or 1982.

The consultative process was a sham. The authority informed parents; it did not consult. Parents were often denied the right to vote at meetings, and the propaganda issued before the meetings at considerable expense to the ratepayers blatantly promoted only one scheme of education in Rochdale. Such meetings as were held were conducted not at a formative stage of the proposals but after the local education authority was firmly committed. Despite parental objections, no significant changes were made to the plan.

As required by the procedures, the local authority has received a document of objection to the plan from CARE, a spontaneously organised body of parents who formed themselves into a voluntary organisation to promote a campaign against the reorganisation of education—CARE. The organisation has done a superb job, and I commend its objection document to the Minister, who will receive a copy from the local authority. It is quite a substantial document. It is now with the local authority, and I hope that the Minister will ensure that CARE is allowed to see a copy of the authority's reply to it. The Minister will be able to read in the objection document some of the disgusting procedures that went on at some of the so-called consultative meetings. I urge him, on receipt of it, to look at examples of Chawfield, Sidall Moor and Calder hill schools.

The chairman of the education committee in Rochdale, who is paid a salary by one education authority and then released for two or three days a week, on salary, to act as chairman of the Rochdale education authority, with another fee of thousands of pounds, is on record as saying: The people who attend the meetings are those who are opposed to the proposals. Perhaps that explains why parents were not allowed to vote at the meetings that were held. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me that the objections submitted by CARE will be given full emphasis in his consideration and, further, that he will agree to meet a deputation of the parents, led by me, before a decision on the proposals is taken, presumably in the autumn.

My first submission is that the proposals have resulted from a highly suspect procedure and improper consultation and that they have not been properly costed and do not provide alternatives. I hope that the Minister will duly consider that aspect of the submission.

I was a member of the Rochdale education committee for 23 years, and its chairman for over six years. It has a superb education record. I am not anxious to see that record washed away because of political ideology at worst, and the desire for change, any change, at best. The existing system has much to commend it, and I see no reason to change it. Uniformity of system throughout the borough is not an adequate reason.

Let us look at one school—Calder hill—which has a superb record. I have selected it because all the parents there overwhelmingly rejected the proposals, in another document, which has been sent to the local authority, and which the Secretary of State will also soon receive and be able to read. I hope, again, that the Minister can assure me that that submission, from the staff-parents association at Calder hill school, will have his full consideration, and that the parents from that school will be able to meet him. We would love to welcome the Minister to the school.

The subjects available in the school at fifth and sixth form level number close on 30. The external examination pass rate is well above the national average. There is an open sixth form of 325 students, of whom, last year, 105 went on to the upper sixth. Of those 105, 75 pupils gained entry to various universities and similar institutions to read for degree courses. Seven of those went to Oxford.

That is a wonderful record, and it includes subjects such as business studies, chemistry, creative art, drama, economics, English, Urdu, electronics, geology, history, computer technology, statistics and many others. Despite that record of achievement and that breadth of success, in the proposals submitted to the Minister is the proposal to destroy it. That is an act of sheer criminal vandalism of the worst order.

The total abolition of sixth forms in our schools is the most disgraceful part of the scheme because it denies choice in the future. There are young people at 16 who can best succeed in a college-like discipline, but others need the informal adult, but none the less more formal, sixth form discipline in secondary school. All my experience teaches me that that is a fact. This scheme will deny that choice to all the 16-plus young people wishing to continue in education in Rochdale, because the only choice that will be offered to them will be a tertiary college.

I stress that it is hoped that that tertiary college can be provided at what is now De La Salle training college. Young people from my constituency will be bussed several miles to the site of that college. I stress again that it is hoped that the tertiary college will be there, because, if the site is not obtained by the local education authority, the proposed tertiary college will have to be on a split site, and that would be an even bigger education disaster for the students.

I understand that even if the De La Salle site is obtained, a split site will still be necessary for the proposed tertiary college for up to 10 years. During that interim period the education of 16-plus youngsters will be adversely affected. Those young people—like all other young people—cannot live the years again during which they will have been denied educational opportunity. If De La Salle is not ultimately available, presumably new proposals would again have to be submitted for consultation at local level.

I have used Calder hill as an example, but other schools have excellent sixth forms which can be equally defended and which, too, will be destroyed.

In Rochdale we have the middle school system. Those schools do and have done a superb job. It is a wilful waste of expertise and experience to abandon such a system merely to impose a uniform scheme of an extremely different type. The CARE document excellently argues the case for middle schools, and I again commend it to the Minister's attention. In his consideration he should not overlook the fact that those middle schools do the foundation work of the upper schools.

I understand that last year Her Majesty's inspectorate reported on those middle schools in Rochdale, but the report has not been published. As we have some grounds for having an idea of what that report contains, we welcome the publication of the HMI comments.

The local education authority proposes to establish 12 schools for 11 to 16-year-olds. Six of those schools will fail to reach six-form entry. That is despite the fact that the local education authority's own study showed that a six-form entry school, let alone a smaller one, would be more restricted in the range of options available for individual students.

This is an Adjournment debate, so the clock is always against one. The case against those proposals is overwhelming. I have merely touched on the basic outline of that opposition. I say again that I hope that the Minister will agree to meet us in a few weeks' time for further discussion.

We have a Minister who constantly and publicly declares his belief in parental power. I now urge him to put his money where his mouth is. If he does that, he will reject these proposals because parents wish him to do so. He will reject them because they abolish excellence and choice, because they are economic nonsense, are based on political dogma and ignore what is in the best educational interests of children in my constituency.

The Minister's decision within the last 14 days on Cronkeyshaw primary school in my constituency gave great joy to parents, and I am grateful to him for it, bat we have had a stupid reaction from some councillors, who cannot be grateful in defeat—a fact demonstrated by some of them on previous occasions. They are now threatening to punish the children by refusing to repair the roof of the school. I believe that at last week's town council meeting the chairman said that the decision was based. not on educational grounds, but on the personal relationship between the Minister and me. The chairman would have a shock if she saw some of the letters that I have written to the Minister in the past few months.

I warn the Department that it is dealing with a petulant chairman and an authority a few of whose councillors are not in the first flight. One of them joined us recently from West Bromwich or Southampton—somewhere like that. I am sure that the Minister can be relied upon to back his judgment, and that of the parents, and to reject the proposals before him. I join the parents in inviting the Minister to reject those proposals. I commend to him the documents produced by CARE and the parent-teacher association of Calder Hill school, and I look forward to the ongoing dialogue which I am sure the Minister will promise in his reply.

Photo of Mr Bob Dunn Mr Bob Dunn , Dartford 1:41 am, 12th July 1988

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) on obtaining this Adjournment debate on the proposed changes to primary and secondary schools, and to first, middle and upper schools, in Rochdale. I am aware that the issue is stimulating much local interest and discussion. I know the area, because I am a native of south-east Lancashire. We are grateful to see in the Chamber, supporting the hon. Member for Rochdale, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie), and, in support of me, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder). We have quite an attendance for this Adjournment debate.

On a more personal note, may I say how delighted I was when the hon. Gentleman recently joined the ranks of the knights of the shires. I am sure that it gave him as much pleasure as it gave to his friends on both sides of the Chamber.

Perhaps the most important challenges to the education system in the late 1980s and 1990s are the need to improve standards of achievement among all pupils of all abilities, to improve the quality and range of the curriculum and the effectiveness of its delivery, and to secure the best possible return from the resources that are found for education.

For many schools, internal changes in the organisation of classes or the distribution of teaching duties will be needed. Planning is called for and some hard decisions will need to be taken by local authorities everywhere. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has asked all local education authorities to examine how the education service can provide a more effective response to national and local needs and circumstances, and to undertake systematic reviews of their school provision, area by area.

Although financial considerations are important, above all, local education authorities must take full account of educational considerations when planning changes. New arrangements must offer an education better suited to the needs of pupils of all abilities than the ones that they replace. They must also reflect, wherever possible, parental preferences for schools of particular types. The viability of a school does not depend solely on the number of pupils. It depends on the age range and character of the school, its ethos, the quality and balance of expertise of its teachers and its non-teacher support, links with neighbouring schools, the fitness for purpose of its building and the extent to which all those can be maintained.

That is the background against which the Rochdale LEA has examined school provision within the borough. Let me explain the standard set of procedures that come into play when a local education authority wishes to change the organisation or pattern of provision in its schools. Those 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 size or character 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, 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 the Secretary of State to decide and may not be implemented without his approval.

On 13 April this year the Rochdale education authority and the Manchester diocesan council for education published statutory proposals to replace the existing mixed pattern of primary, first, middle, secondary and upper schools in the borough with a system of primary and secondary schools, with provision for children aged 16 to 19 being made in a tertiary college, as the hon. Gentleman said. I understand that those proposals have attracted a number of objections, which the Rochdale authority will shortly be required to send to us, together with its comments on them.

When the Secretary of State is deciding proposals to reorganise 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 the arguments of those making the proposals and the views of those objecting to them.

I know that the hon. Gentleman will understand that it is important for the Secretary of State to avoid pre-judging the issues where such proposals are concerned. He will not, therefore, expect me to say anything about the particular reorganisation that is the subject of this debate. I know he will accept my assurance that I have listened carefully to what has been said tonight and that his points will be taken into account, along with any other representations that we may receive before a decision is reached on these proposals.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would be prepared to meet deputations about the proposals. He knows that the answer is yes and that I shall be happy to meet deputations when dates and times can be arranged between us. I am conscious of the fact that I have met the hon. Gentleman many times and that our arrangements have always been worked out amicably. I thank him for the tenor and tone of the debate and for the way in which he put forward his arguments on behalf of his constituents, some of whom are much nearer to us than they might have been a little while ago.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Two o'clock.