Liskeard School and Community College

– in the House of Commons at 10:44 pm on 11th March 1997.

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

Photo of Mr Robert Hicks Mr Robert Hicks , South East Cornwall 10:46 pm, 11th March 1997

I welcome this opportunity to raise the urgent need to unify the Liskeard school and community college on a single site. It is always gratifying to know that the Minister answering an Adjournment debate is familiar with the local geography. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), has kindly agreed to stand in for another Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, our hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan).

Our hon. Friend visited Liskeard in November 1995 to see for herself the very real problems being experienced at the Liskeard junior school. During that visit, she also saw something of the unsatisfactory situation at Liskeard school and community college. Her visit to the junior school had a very favourable outcome, as a new junior school is now under construction—I like to think, as a result of her intervention. Therefore, she has set a precedent for her colleague, a fellow junior Minister at the Department for Education and Employment, to respond in an equally favourable manner to my remarks this evening. We are hopeful that, by my raising this subject, we shall make some tangible progress regarding the needs of secondary education in Liskeard.

Six comprehensive schools are located in my constituency. They occupy single sites, with the exception of Liskeard, which occupies two sites at opposite ends of the market town. The first two school years—about 400 pupils—are based on the former grammar school premises. Those pupils are, in practice, isolated from important facilities offered on the main campus. This latter site—formerly the Liskeard secondary modern school—is very attractive. Needless to say, all the new facilities that were provided since the amalgamation of the two schools in the mid-1970s were built on that latter site.

Because Liskeard school is the top priority for unification on one site in Cornwall, the local education authority has decided—for totally understandable reasons—not to spend scarce economic resources on upgrading the older buildings at the lower school site. As a result, the lower school buildings and temporary classrooms are not energy-efficient. It is not a sound use of scarce resources to maintain more than 20 temporary buildings, mainly wooden Elliott Medway-type huts. Consequently, the teaching areas at the lower school are substandard.

That is the physical position at the lower school, but in addition there are the human dimension and the accompanying practical difficulties arising from the split site. To emphasise these genuine problems, I can do no better than quote from the Office for Standards in Education inspection report of May 1996: The school's split site poses problems for its work. The lower school buildings provide a poor learning environment…The school is part way through a phased development of its accommodation, designed to consolidate the school on one site and improve facilities in the future. The quality of some of the new buildings is good, for example the sixth form area and computer rooms at the upper school. However, for pupils currently in the school, the provision and standard of accommodation are unsatisfactory in a number of respects. The school occupies two sites approximately 1 km apart. The unavoidable movement of teachers, and to a lesser extent, pupils, has a negative impact on the quality of education provided. I graduated in geography some 35 years ago—a long time ago—and therefore feel for the subject, although I have forgotten most of what I learned at university.

The report continues: The extent of movements reduced teaching and preparation time; for example there are 31 such breaks in geography in each timetable cycle apart from those coinciding with breaks and lunchtimes…The lower school presents a dispiriting learning environment. This site provides little stimulus to pupils on entry to the school…Some teachers spend a high proportion of their time with only one part of the age range and this on one of the two sites. This hinders the development of consistent practices and communications…Good formal and informal communications seek to overcome the problems of having staff on two sites; the tension between seeking to reduce staff travelling and ensuring full participation in subject teams has not yet been resolved satisfactorily". The situation, then, is that time is wasted in travelling between the sites. There is stress on staff; inefficient use and duplication of equipment and materials; timetabling constraints; under-use of specialist facilities at one site and over-use at the other; and there are revenue funding implications for the local education authority and the school itself. My hon. Friend's Department has allowed £23,000 towards the school budget to try to cover the split site situation. Cornwall makes the figure up to £45,500. The governors' realistic assessment of the cost of the split site is £77,000.

The conclusions reached by the Ofsted inspection team clearly show the need to improve the position as soon as possible. One of the key issues identified by the inspectors was the need for the local education authority and the governors to

continue to seek to overcome the constraints imposed by the split site, and, in the short term, to improve the learning environment in the lower school and to integrate it more fully into the life and work of the school as a whole. The governors and the staff are attempting to do that. Certain improvements and extensions are being undertaken. I must emphasise, however, that, when those improvements are completed, the difficulties associated with a split site will still not be resolved.

The Cornwall local education authority submitted an application to the schools renewal challenge fund for £3.35 million to complete the consolidation process at Liskeard. I realise that that is a large sum of money, given the fact that the total amount of SRCF grant available in the second tranche was just £15 million. Although the application was for £3.35 million, the total cost of the scheme is £4.77 million. Approximately £1.4 million can be found from other sources, such as the basic need capital allocation, the school's bid for technology college status and capital receipts.

Cornwall LEA—like all of us—recognises the constraints on capital funding nationally. It prioritised the SRCF bid into independently deliverable components.

The first priority is for a new technology and art block, which will cost £2.25 million. The second priority is to convert the existing outdated technology rooms into science and general teaching rooms, at a cost of £470,000. The third priority is a music suite to complement the recently established dance and drama suite, at a cost of £590,000. The fourth and final requirement is to build 16 new general teaching rooms to replace the 20 or so existing wooden huts, to which I have already referred.

That is the total need, but one reason for identifying four priority categories was to show that, once the first component—the technology and art block—is completed, it will enable the LEA to convert the existing technology and art rooms into science laboratories and general teaching rooms. That in turn will enable the greater part of the curriculum for the whole school to be delivered in permanent buildings on a single site.

Furthermore, had the SRCF bid been successful, it would have enabled the LEA to negotiate a favourable tender with the contractor now on site. That would have provided considerable savings compared with a new contract at some stage in the future. Sadly, our application for funding was not successful, and we will have to start again. Much to the disappointment of the school and the community it serves—there is genuine anger in some quarters—unless the Minister is forthcoming tonight, we shall have to wait some time before the scheme materialises.

I do not wish to dwell on the reasons for refusal given by my hon. Friend the Minister in her letter to me dated 4 February 1997. We must be positive, and look to the future. In that same letter, however, my hon. Friend not only stated that she had visited the school but confirmed that the work was urgently needed; my purpose in raising this subject tonight is to further the process.

I mentioned that the new Liskeard junior school was under construction. It was in my first Parliament, in 1972, that I initially raised the need for a new Liskeard junior school. That was 25 years ago. I only hope that Liskeard, the catchment area for the secondary school, and, indeed, my successor will not have to wait a further 25 years before secondary education in the town is consolidated on a single site.

11 pm

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler , North Cornwall

I am grateful to the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Sir R. Hicks), and to the Minister, for allowing me to speak briefly.

The hon. Gentleman and I were sparring partners in the 1970s, and, for a brief moment—almost the twinkling of an eye—I interrupted his parliamentary career. I hope that, on this occasion, he will forgive me. I am glad to say that subsequently, in the 1990s, we have been parliamentary neighbours—and, indeed, cross-party collaborators.

I know that this may be the hon. Gentleman's final contribution in the House, and I express, from the Opposition Benches, my personal appreciation—and appreciation on behalf of many other hon. Members, and the people of Cornwall—for the work that he has undertaken on behalf of his county, his constituency and, if I may say so on a cross-party basis, those who believe in democracy and the way in which it should be represented in the House.

I live on the outskirts of the catchment area of Liskeard school and community college. I think it fitting not only to pay tribute to the talents of the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall and his advocacy of his constituents' interests, but to underline his final point: that he and, I think, all of us look to the Minister not to attempt to resist the eloquent plea that has been issued to him. It would, I think, be the final triumph of the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall's career in the House if, between us, we could persuade the Minister to be forthcoming and generous, and to use his common sense to show that, on behalf of the Government, he can respond to us positively.

I am sure that it would delight not just the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall and his successor—whoever that person may be, and whatever his party may be—and those who are present now, but, in particular, the people of Liskeard and the area it serves, if the hon. Gentleman's advocacy is successful. I hope that the Minister will respond accordingly.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch 11:03 pm, 11th March 1997

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Sir R. Hicks) for giving me the opportunity—indeed, the privilege—to respond. I echo what was said by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) about my responding to my hon. Friend's last speech in the House of Commons. Let me make it clear that I regard him as a friend: we have known each other for a time—although not, I immediately concede, as long as the hon. Member for North Cornwall can claim.

It is a measure of my hon. Friend's status that, just after 11 o'clock on a weekday evening, a series of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber were surrounding him to listen to his speech. In addition to the hon. Member for North Cornwall, we have the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) and my hon. Friends the Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) and for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), who are here in recognition, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), which, we would all concede, is a slight jump from Cornwall. The key message is that their presence is in recognition not just of the status of my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall as the senior Cornwall Member, but of his role as a Member of Parliament over nearly 27 years, where he has demonstrated what I would describe as a commendable independence of spirit, and has attracted the significant loyalty of friends, including those on the ministerial Bench.

My hon. Friend raised the subject of Liskeard school and community college in a typically robust and clear way. It is an area that he has represented with considerable skill, and a subject in the general area of education that, as he made clear, he has raised many times before.

I take this welcome opportunity to underline the Government's commitment to improving the condition of our school buildings in general. We estimate that over £6 billion has been spent on county, voluntary-aided and grant-maintained school buildings this decade. That is a substantial national investment, which we wish to continue.

As my hon. Friend has said, it would normally have been the task of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) to respond to this debate, as she is responsible for capital funding for schools, but she cannot be here this evening because of other ministerial business. However, as he said, she has first-hand knowledge, and therefore she regrets her absence. She enjoyed her visit to Liskeard following his invitation in November 1995, a visit that he knows I narrowly missed because of a reshuffle of responsibilities but a few months before. Speaking as the son of a Cornishman, my loss was my ministerial colleague's gain, and I have to some extent been able to draw on her knowledge in making my remarks this evening.

In the past couple of years, we have been able to allocate significant sums for the improvement of schools in Liskeard. This year, we have introduced the schools renewal challenge fund—the SRCF—so that we can target resources on meeting urgent needs, while increasing value for money. That has proved enormously successful and popular. Cornwall, and the Liskeard area in particular, have felt the benefits of that initiative.

In July last year, we were able to allocate to Cornwall £621,000 towards the rebuilding of Liskeard junior school. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall made clear in his speech and I readily affirm, that followed significant activity by my hon. Friend in pressing for such funding over a number of years, although I was unaware that it stretched to the full 25. That was on top of £756,000 that had already been allocated to Cornwall in response to bids for the two Liskeard schools in its annual capital guidelines, to which I shall return, assuming time allows.

As I have said, the SRCF has been very popular. Inevitably, it has been highly competitive, and we have been able to support only the best of the bids that we have received—those that have most closely met the published criteria and that offered the best value for money. Judged against that competition, we were unable to make an allocation for Cornwall's bid to bring Liskeard community school on to a single site.

That does not have to be, and is not, the end of the matter. It is not a once-for-all rejection. There is absolutely nothing to stop Cornwall making a further bid in 1997–98, when the SRCF will continue with at least £20 million. I recognise that that bid will not be backed in person by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall, at least not in the Chamber, but I understand that the local education authority has been in touch with my Department's architects to discuss how the cost-effectiveness of the scheme might be improved.

In total over the past two years, Cornwall LEA has received £1.377 million specifically for Liskeard junior school and Liskeard school and community college through the various means of ACGs, supplementary credit approvals, and so on. That is a significant sum going to the schools in one town—as I know colleagues representing constituencies elsewhere would readily recognise—but is of course not the end of the story.

My hon. Friend will be aware of significant levels of capital funding that have been made available to Cornwall through annual capital guidelines, which feed through into the authority's general borrowing approval. We were able to allocate £6.156 million for 1996–97 and £6.372 million for 1997–98. To put that in context, it represents 66 per cent. of Cornwall's bid, compared with the national average of 21 per cent. That shows that Cornwall has done rather well in terms of allocations in general for school buildings, and I hope goes some way towards answering the odd comment that I have seen, which has implied that Cornwall has been treated less favourably than other authorities.

I should, of course, draw attention to the wider point, that the Government do not control the funding of projects at individual county and voluntary-controlled schools. LEAs decide their own capital expenditure priorities, and it is their responsibility to make the best use of resources available to them. It has been Cornwall LEA's decision to spend the money on schools other than Liskeard in the past. That is not a criticism, necessarily. The priorities are for the authority to set, and it must answer for them to the local community.

I have referred a few times to ACGs. They in turn do not represent all the resources available to LEAs for capital spending. There are, of course, other resources available. LEAs can invest capital receipts and use funds from revenue budgets if they so wish. We have made it easier for authorities to do that in a number of ways. For example, for two years from April 1996, LEAs have been required to set aside only 25 per cent. of proceeds from the sale of surplus assets for debt redemption, as opposed to the previous 50 per cent. That will mean that yet more is available for new capital projects.

We encourage LEAs to explore all funding routes available. Besides the SRCF, they should also consider the private finance initiative. We are committed to achieving the potential opportunities of more and better investment in schools' infrastructure that are offered by the PFI.

I cite one example—it would not be fair to cite more—of an LEA that is taking forward an innovative PFI project to replace the worn-out kitchens of its entire school stock. There has been a good deal of private sector interest from local catering companies, but some larger national players have shown an interest, too. I know that my hon. Friend would agree that it is appropriate that we should encourage all LEAs to consider the PFI options seriously in the interests of opening up investment opportunities and securing better value for money.

Substantial sums have been directed towards improving and renewing educational buildings in this decade. For 1997–98, we have announced record levels of support for capital programmes in schools—just short of £700 million. When the substantial support that we announced for the previous two years is added to it, a total of more than £2 billion in centrally available support has been made available over three years.

To return to the subject of the debate, the picture in Liskeard is far from bleak. As I have made clear, Cornwall has received substantial sums over the past two years for schools' capital expenditure generally and for Liskeard in particular, and there remains the opportunity to bid for further funding in the near future. I very much trust that, when my Department's architects visit the area, they will not only be able to give the LEA useful advice but return with even more knowledge that will enable us better to consider what I am sure will be a subsequent LEA bid.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to set out the facts. I hope that he will understand if I conclude by wishing him, on behalf of the whole House, a long, happy and healthy retirement.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.