Stratford School

– in the House of Commons at 1:38 pm on 14th June 1995.

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Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms , Newham North East

I begin this debate about Stratford school by commending the Minister of State, Department for Education on his admirably frank statement last month about the problems at the school. The press notice issued by the Department for Education on 5 May 1995 said: The most recent report from Ofsted shows that standards of teaching and learning remain poor, that management is inadequate, and that the school has shown no signs of improvement since it was first found to be failing eighteen months ago. This persistent failure to provide an acceptable standard of education cannot be tolerated. My purpose in initiating the debate is to ask the Minister to spell out a little further his plans for the school and the way in which he envisages the problems he has identified there being resolved. I do not intend to criticise people who work at the school or to add to the problems with which the pupils there must contend.

First, I shall review the history of Stratford school and identify the errors that have led to the current intolerable position. Stratford school is not in my constituency; it is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), but I was the leader of the council in Newham when it was given permission to opt out, and since then I have followed developments at the school from a distance with mounting dismay.

The application for grant-maintained status at Stratford school arose from Newham council's reorganisation proposals. The pattern of demand for secondary school places in Newham had changed and, by the late 1980s, it was necessary to provide new places for the developing docklands part of the borough. The Department for Education made it clear that it would support the changes that were needed only if the council was to close a school. After a long and difficult exercise in the borough, it was decided that the least bad option was to close Stratford school.

Initially, when the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) was Minister of State, the Government said that they would support that plan. They continued to do so when there was a rather half-hearted application for grant-maintained status on behalf of the school. A ballot of parents in September 1989 rejected opting out, hut in a re-run in March 1990 there was a small majority in favour.

In the summer of 1990, there was a ministerial reshuffle. It was reported widely that the then Prime Minister was anxious that there should be more opt-outs—that the rate of opting out should be increased. The right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar) was appointed Minister of State in July 1990. After a few days in the job, he announced that he was minded to support the Stratford opt-out.

As I mentioned, I was leader of the council, and I quickly visited the Minister to explain why the council opposed the application. I argued that it undermined the reorganisation plan that had been painstakingly assembled in co-operation with the Government, although I knew that that consideration alone was unlikely to sway him.

I also drew attention to the specific local problems that dogged the Stratford proposal: the fact that the vast majority of the staff intended to leave if the opt-out went ahead, the fact that the governors objected to the opt-out and, most alarmingly from my perspective, the unstable collection of irreconcilable factions and personalities that had coalesced to support the Stratford hid. The problems that were likely to arise were crystal clear, and I spelt them out to the Minister then.

Given that the Minister had been sent in to boost the number of opt-outs, he presumably felt that he had a dilemma. He consulted other Conservative party supporters on what he should do, and I know that at least one of them confirmed to him that the warnings that I had sounded were correct. As the council's formal letter of objection put it in May 1990: the group supporting this proposal has not thought beyond saving the school from closure and does not have any awareness of the responsibilities that running such a school would entail. In such circumstances the lack of viability of this project must be questioned still further. The council challenged the opt-out at the High Court in December 1990. In an affidavit submitted by officials at the Department for Education, the danger of a staff exodus on opt-out, which subsequently did take place, was freely admitted but, in a striking sentence, the affidavit remarked, "Only time will tell," as indeed it has done.

The Minister knew all about the strife ahead before he allowed the project to proceed. It is a tragedy for the pupils of that school that he subjugated their interests to what he perceived to be his own interests. The life chances of dozens of Newham youngsters have been irreparably damaged as a consequence.

What followed exceeded in awfulness even what had been predicted. The agony of the school was played out night after night on the television news in early 1992. Race row head is back announced The Mail on Sunday on 12 January 1992, after the Secretary of State had had to step in after the governors suspended the head, but after that matters became worse. Appeal by Minister after police are called to crisis-torn school reported The Daily Telegraph on 8 February 1992. The school riven by hatred said The Evening Standard on 12 February 1992. An object lesson in discord said The Times on 24 February 1992, and Savage war of the governors said The Evening Standard on 25 February 1992.

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like for staff and pupils in the school during that time. In summer 1993, the school achieved the worst examination results in the whole of London, and in November 1993 it was declared a failing school.

I am angry that the Minister's predecessor used the children at that school for what he believed would be the narrow interests of the Conservative party. The impression that that was what that was all about was absurdly emphasised when, after the 1992 general election, Mr. Mark Prisk, the unsuccessful young Conservative candidate for Newham, North-West, was appointed as chair of governors at the school. He apparently had no qualifications for the job or previous connections with the district. He was a presentable young man. It was presumably intimated to him that a grateful party would bear his service in mind at future parliamentary selection conferences.

One cannot help but feel sorry for Mr. Prisk as he struggled to sort out the problems, but the problems required more than ambitious youthful enthusiasm. Mr. Prisk resigned from the governing body last month, but he cannot be blamed for his failure to resolve the problems.

That was one of the most disgraceful episodes in the sorry saga, and it is no way to run our education system. Schools cannot he treated as party political playthings. Young people in Newham have been the victims. That is why I am angry.

However, all that is in the past. The question now is, how can the standards of education being received by the children at Stratford school he improved? I welcome the fresh approach that the Minister has revealed, with the frankness of his statement last month. I am delighted with the progress that is being made with the desperately needed schools in Newham's docklands district, which led to the original closure plan at Stratford. We have been grateful for the efforts of the Minister of State on our behalf. There is real optimism in Newham that those matters are now being dealt with on their merits.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

As my hon. Friend knows, and as the House knows, I represent the part of docklands in Newham, which is three miles long and one mile wide, isolated between the A13 Newham way and the river. We have no secondary school in that district, but there are 12 primary schools. I made representations to the now right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar). He wrote to me on 13 December 1990, saying: Finally, may I say that the decision to accord grant-maintained status to Stratford School took no account whatsoever of what may or may not ultimately be needed in the Docklands development area. The two issues are totally unrelated. Unfortunately, be did not stick to that, but the two issues are related and I know that the Minister knows so, too.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms , Newham North East

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He points out correctly that the delays in providing much-needed schools in the south of the borough are undoubtedly related to the fact that the closure was not permitted to go ahead.

Last month, the Minister announced that he intended to appoint four new governors to Stratford school, and I had the opportunity to meet one of them on Monday. I hope that that initiative succeeds, but I think that the Minister will understand if I am a little sceptical. Appointing very distinguished additional governors to Stratford school in the past has not solved its problems.

Setting that history aside, I believe the problem now is that the school does not have access to support that would allow its difficulties to be addressed. Stratford was the first school in Newham to be deemed a failing school, but it will not be the last. Serious shortcomings in particular schools have been identified in the past and those problems were addressed by support and advice from the local authority which worked alongside school staff. That approach proved extremely successful in one case that I remember well and the school's achievements improved markedly and rapidly.

However, Stratford does not have access to that sort of support from a local authority or from anywhere else. Sending in extra governors may help—I hope that it does—but the staff of the school need local support also. It is a reflection on the school's isolation locally that neither my hon. Friends and I nor the local authority know who the governors are. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) tabled a parliamentary question inquiring who the governors were and he was referred to the school. However, the chair of the council's education committee wrote to the school in the middle of last month to ask who the governors were and has not yet received a reply.

Some observers have suggested that the best way to proceed would be for the Department for Education to hand the school back to the local education authority. As pupil places in Newham schools are filled, it is now much less likely that the borough will be able to manage without the teaching capacity of Stratford as it intended to do in 1990. The council is reviewing how it would proceed if the school's status were to change. However, I gather that in law it would not be possible simply to hand the school back to the local authority. I ask the Minister to comment specifically on that point when he responds to the debate.

This appears to leave closure as the only option under Government policy if there is no improvement by autumn. Last month's Government press notice showed that failing schools should improve substantially or close within two years—which, in this case, would be in November this year. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the timetable he has in mind and, if it is, how he envisages negotiating with the local authority on the provision of alternative places for the pupils affected? When will the closure occur? November is not too far away and I suspect that we would need more time to prepare if it were decided that the school should close.

The history of Stratford school is very unhappy. The former Minister of State made an error of judgment. However, it is now in everyone's best interests to resolve uncertainty about the school's future as soon as possible. The standards of education received by the children at Stratford school must be improved as quickly as possible. I believe that all hon. Members share and support those objectives.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 2:12 pm, 14th June 1995

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) on raising the subject of Stratford school. It shows that Newham Members of Parliament hunt in a pack on this and all other issues. The problems in the school do not affect only the Member of Parliament in whose constituency it is located. Stratford school is located in my constituency, although it is not actually in Stratford but in Forest Gate, where I live.

It is somewhat disturbing that, to try to revive its flagging fortunes, the school has begun to put flyers through letter boxes in its locality suggesting that people might like to send their children to the school. That seems a rather unhappy situation, as my hon. Friend said.

My hon. Friends and I enjoyed very good relations with Stratford school, before it was given grant-maintained status. I would like to restore those good relations between the local Members of Parliament and the school. I recently received a letter from Mrs. Snelling, the head teacher at Stratford school, who said that it was a pity that I had not visited the school in four years. I wrote back to her and said that, unfortunately, I had not been invited to visit the school—I do not visit schools unless I am invited to do so. I suspect that my hon. Friends and I will now be invited to visit the school to have discussions with Mrs. Snelling.

My hon. Friend has put the situation very succinctly. I attended the first meeting with the then Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold), and it was clear from that meeting that the right hon. Member agreed that it would be quite wrong to use an application for GM status as a way of avoiding closure as part of an integrated reorganisation of education. We were worried that there might be a knock-on effect to Sarah Bonnell's and other schools north of the A13 which would be asked by the Government to reduce the number of student places.

It is sometimes very satisfying to get to one's feet in this place and say, "I told you so." This is not one of those occasions. We have told Ministers in the past that we are prepared to sit down and discuss the matter quietly and coherently. We do not want Stratford school to be used as a political football. I hope that the Minister will respond to the overtures by the Newham Members of Parliament in the genuine and sincere manner in which they were offered.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth , Mid Worcestershire 2:15 pm, 14th June 1995

The hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) has done everyone, not least the school, a service by raising this subject today and allowing the House to consider it. I welcome the constructive nature of the latter part of his remarks. We all agree that we must be satisfied with the quality of education provided at Stratford school and we must ensure that it will provide pupils with every opportunity for the future. That fact is unarguable.

In that context, I was a little disappointed that the hon. Gentleman devoted the early part of his speech to raking over the ashes of the school's history. He referred to some admittedly very unpleasant conflicts. I cannot see how it will help the school to rehearse those events at this stage, but that is a matter for the hon. Gentleman to decide. There may he many things wrong with the school today, but I do not think that the racial disharmony and conflict between the governors and others to which he referred are among those problems. The governors, the staff and the pupils of Stratford school have put that behind them and they are determined to see the school progress and improve, if that is possible.

As to the criticisms levelled against my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar), I remind the House and the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend did not and could not have forced the school to adopt grant-maintained status. The parents at the school voted in favour of grant-maintained status, as the hon. Gentleman admitted, and they did so before my right hon. Friend was appointed as an Education Minister. As Minister, he had to decide between the wishes of the parents as expressed in a ballot and the local authority's plans. My right hon. Friend decided in favour of the parents, which forced the council to rethink its plans.

In that context, I make it clear that schools are not run for the benefit of local authorities; they are run for the benefit of pupils and are accountable to the pupils' parents. The ballot for grant-maintained status provides parents with an opportunity to express their opinions. The parents of Stratford school decided that their children's educational interests would be best served if the school left the local authority's control. I can appreciate how it would hurt municipal pride if a majority of parents were to take that sort of decision, and it may also reflect badly on the authority; but we can hardly pretend that, at the time, the local authority concerned was a by-word for efficiency and high-quality service, even though for many years it had received more funding per pupil through the local authority finance system than most other local education authorities in England.

I think that the hon. Gentleman implied that all would have been well if the school had remained within the aegis of the local authority. I doubt that. He went on to argue that Stratford school should be returned to the control of the local authority, and I shall return to that point later if I have time. The truth is that other local authority schools in Newham have problems of their own, and one school not far from Stratford has worse GCSE results if one compares the A to G scores. The hon. Gentleman's comment that Stratford probably would not be the last failing school in the area suggests that all is not well even with the schools under the local authority's control. To argue that, if the school had remained with the authority, the general quality of education and other things somehow would have been better is difficult to support with the facts.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms , Newham North East

My point was that, with local authority schools, it has been possible to provide support to help them recover. That has happened in the past, but it has not yet happened at Stratford. We are anxious that it should.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth , Mid Worcestershire

It can and will happen. It has already been happening, but has come from sources other than the local authority. Of course, in recognition of their independent status, grant-maintained schools have been given additional money—we will all wait breathlessly until next week to see whether the Labour party will erode that. On this occasion it could be used to purchase support. Support in the education sense cannot come only from local authorities. It can and does increasingly come from other sources and I, for one, welcome that. To suggest that GM schools are cut from all support is not true.

I turn now to the specific questions that the hon. Gentleman asked about the school and its future. He brought to the attention of the House the fact that I have made it clear that the school's current performance is not acceptable. That, I think, is clear to all.

The inspection report two years ago made depressing reading. It may not have been the worst that we have seen, but it was pretty damning. The standards of achievement in a significant number of subjects were unsatisfactory. The curriculum was not well planned or delivered. GCSE results were poor. Provision for bilingual pupils was inadequate. In the view of the inspectors, resources were not used effectively. It is, of course, a disappointment for me and my colleagues and others to hear that said of a GM school. However, for this purpose, the fact that that school is grant-maintained is of no significance whatsoever.

It says a lot, however, for the autonomy of the chief inspector and the independence of the inspection system that such things can and will continue to be said where necessary of schools that are failing their pupils. That alone is a great advance on the position not that many years ago when no one dared to publish a school inspector's report.

Since June 1994, the Office for Standards in Education has visited the school termly to verify progress or otherwise. Overall, standards have improved little. Limited progress has been made towards implementing the governors' action plan for turning the school around. The last visit still found the quality of teaching deficient in two out of every five lessons. That is not to say that there are no bright spots. There is good work in some subjects. For example, the school won a technology schools initiative grant of £300,000 in 1993. However, overall, there has been little improvement.

The problem that is emerging is that we are finding that all failing schools have in common at least two weaknesses that can be readily identified: the quality of leadership and quality of teaching. In some cases, there can be pupil behaviour problems because misbehaviour can obstruct teaching or a significant pupil absence dimension.

The inspectors at Stratford school found that the pupil behaviour was courteous and polite and that attendance was generally excellent. When the inspectorate writes of poor teaching, it describes teaching that is poorly planned, that does not address the full range of pupil ability in the class, that may not challenge and stretch pupils' ability and that does not record what pupils have learned and use it to plan future teaching.

Poor leadership and management in failing schools mean that senior management is not exercising control over standards or providing the direction and guidance that teaching staff need to improve. On this point, the Ofsted record of its last visit to Stratford makes predictably depressing reading. The governors and senior managers have not developed a long-term—three to five year—view of the school. The review of the action plan has not clarified the long-term targets to improve the quality of education provided at Stratford School. The governors and senior managers have not taken sufficient notice of the progress made to inform decisions about future strategies. The hon. Gentleman argued that a GM school does not have the support and resources available to other schools. I have already referred to that point and given my response to it.

I want to come straight to the point that the hon. Gentleman very reasonably made about the new governing body. He said that he had not been provided with a list of governors. In defence of my Department, if I need to defend it, I should say that we cannot maintain up-to-date lists of every governor at the more than 1,000 grant-maintained schools. However, I would equally say that grant-maintained schools should provide lists of governors to anyone who asks for them, especially to a local Member of Parliament.

I take this opportunity to give the names. We are rather proud of the governing body as it stands now and have high expectations for and hopes of it. As parent governors, we have Mrs. Bailey, Mr. Sagoo, Mrs. Hemming, Mr. Christian and Ms Campbell and, as teacher governors, Mr. Heales and Ms Earnshaw. There is also the head teacher herself, Mrs. Anne Snelling, to whom reference has already been made.

As first governors, we have Mr. Umer, Mr. Swallow, Mr. Newman and Mr. Hopper. Four new governors were appointed in May, to whom the hon. Gentleman referred. Three of them are additional first governors: Dr. Peter Osborne, former head teacher of Shenfield GM school; Mrs. Joan Greenfield, ex-chief education officer of Hillingdon; and Mrs. Pat Collarbone, head teacher at Haggerston school. I am sure that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), with his educational experience, will be happy to hear those names. I am sure that he shares my confidence that they will contribute to the school's improvement.

In addition, Mr. Paul Lewis, deputy chairman of Tate and Lyle, has been appointed as an additional governor by the Secretary of State, alongside Mrs. Daphne Gould, who continues to serve in that capacity. A governing body of that experience, power and authority will give the school every opportunity of improving in a way that perhaps it was not able to do before.

The remodelled governing body is now chaired by an impressive parent governor, Mrs. Merinda Bailey, who has already, I believe, taken an energetic grip on a difficult task at a most crucial time. I invited Mrs. Bailey and the head teacher, Mrs. Snelling, to see me to discuss the school's future. I made it clear that I expected to see significant signs of improvement in the standards of education by the time of Ofsted's autumn monitoring visit.

After that, there was a full briefing by my officials in the Department and Ofsted for governors at the school, which went over the original inspection report and subsequent monitoring report in some detail, explained the legal framework that governs schools under special measures and outlined the financial framework within which a school in Stratford's position operates.

The answer to the question that the hon. Gentleman very reasonably asked about the time scale is that we will expect the school to have demonstrated a significant improvement in its standards by the latish autumn. If that cannot be demonstrated, we will be faced with a very difficult decision and it is possible—I say no more than that at this stage—that the decision will be made that the school should close.

However, that would only initiate a procedure that would take a considerable time, because closure of a school is a serious business and it would require extensive consultations under the statutory framework and require the local education authority to be brought in. We would have to satisfy ourselves that sufficient places were available to accommodate the pupils displaced if the school were closed and that an acceptable quality of education was provided for them.

The point of the exercise is to identify schools that are failing their pupils and to give them an opportunity to improve the quality of provision. Ultimately, if that cannot be done, it might be a question of closing the school—something that we have not yet had to do—provided that suitable alternative provision can be made within an acceptable time scale. In this case, the process would not be sudden, like falling off a cliff, and the usual consultation would be undertaken.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the school could be returned to the control of Newham council rather than closed. I confirm that the law does not allow that. It would be a rather odd suggestion because, as he said, the council itself originally wanted to close the school. Moreover, in the current circumstances, I do not think that the authority's record with its schools is such as to inspire enough confidence in us to make us want to rush to return the school to the authority. That is not the route to take.

I firmly believe that the changes that we have made, especially to the governing body, will produce results. Support is on offer, based on the additional moneys available to Stratford grant-maintained school, as to any other. I have made it very clear to the chairman of the governors and the head teacher in particular that significant improvements must be made within a given time scale, because I cannot accept that pupils should continue to he let down by the school as, regrettably, they have been for so long. That combination of factors now gives us real hope that the school can be improved and turned around quickly.

I make it equally clear, however, and confirm that we may have to contemplate closure of the school in the interests of the pupils. We are all agreed that we must be prepared to act in the interests of the pupils and to put all other considerations—disappointment, pride or anything else—behind us. We must face the possibility of closure.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newham, North-East for bringing this matter to the House's attention. I hope that I have been able to answer his questions and that, with the co-operation of all the local Members of Parliament, we can see something happen to the school which, regrettably, has not happened for many years.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, pursuant to Order 119 December].