Adjournment (Whitsun)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:21 pm on 26th May 2005.

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Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes 12:21 pm, 26th May 2005

I am delighted to follow the maiden speech of Mr. MacNeil. This is my first opportunity to mention the name of his constituency in the new Parliament. My surname may be McIsaac, but the McIsaacs—pronounced differently—originally hailed from the isle of Eriskay. While I may not share the hon. Gentleman's Scottish Nationalist politics, I am sure that we will continue to share a love of the islands of the west of Scotland. I pay tribute to his maiden speech, which highlighted problems that I know exist in the islands, and I hope that he does well in the House.

Being called today made me cast my mind back to my own maiden speech, which seems a long time ago. On that day I focused on education, and particularly on primary school class sizes, a subject to which I want to return today.

During the general election campaign, North East Lincolnshire council, which covers the constituencies of Cleethorpes and Great Grimsby, announced controversial school closures. I am inclined to go for the cock-up rather than the conspiracy theory of history, but many residents of Grimsby and Cleethorpes sense a very fishy aroma wafting from Grimsby town hall. The Liberal Democrat leader of the council stood against my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell at the election, and two of my opponents were Liberal Democrat and Conservative cabinet members. Although I do not think that that was deliberate, many people in the area do.

Having announced the closures in the middle of the election campaign, the council has now given a closing date of 31 May for comments. I think that that is far too short a period for parents worried about their children's education to come up with alternatives to closure. I hope that my hon. Friend Nigel Griffiths, the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, will talk to education Ministers to establish whether a properly defined time limit for this part of the consultation is possible. But regardless of the time limit, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby and I believe that the closures are entirely unjustified. They do not conform to Government guidelines, and I think that education Ministers should reiterate to councils that it is not good practice to start eliminating surplus places by closing schools that are successful and, in the case of some of those earmarked for closure, over-subscribed.

Another reason why the proposed closures are completely wrong is the fact that the information used by the council is out of date. Its net capacity figures relate to 2002 or thereabouts. Since then, many of the schools in question—not just those threatened with closure, but some that are threatened with amalgamation or a reduction in the number of classrooms—have taken steps to deal with the problem of surplus places. The paper produced by the council does not recognise that. The fact that the figures are out of date and wrong must be addressed as a matter of urgency before any decision is made to close a school.

The schools themselves are challenging the figures. One of them, Bursar primary school in Cleethorpes, is close to my home. The council says that it has capacity for 243 admissions, but its limit is actually 210, and there are currently 198 children on its roll. That could not be described as an excessive number of surplus places. Elliston infants school and Elliston junior school are also in Cleethorpes. One of those schools is above capacity and is one of the best-performing schools in the borough, yet it too is being earmarked for closure.

The council has come up with predictions of the size of the Grimsby and Cleethorpes population in 2009. It asserts that the population in the borough is declining and that the number of births is falling. It claims that there will be 400 or 500 fewer children each year. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of live births in the area is increasing, and it predicts that the number of children of primary school age will also increase over the next few years. If the council proceeds with its plans, up to 2,000 primary school-age children may be without places because of its severe underestimate of future numbers.

I am deeply worried by the council's failure to announce alternatives to the closures. It simply announced in the press, in the middle of an election campaign, that schools would have to close, and told parents to come up with alternatives. Surely it would have been better practice to liaise with parents, with the schools involved, with head teachers and with unions in a co-operative way, with a view to identifying alternatives and to see what the schools themselves could suggest. Some of those earmarked for closure have no surplus places at all, and it is entirely wrong for over-capacity schools to be closed as a first step in the process of dealing with surplus places.

My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, with whom I have sparred on many occasions—I remember doing so on the issue of compensation for distant-water trawlermen when he was doing one of his earlier jobs—knows that once I get my teeth into an issue, I will not give up. I shall use every opportunity to harangue Front Benchers to establish whether there are any measures that they can take. I realise that it is for the council to come up with a solution to the problem of surplus school places, but I must seriously say to my hon. Friend that I do not believe the guidelines are clear enough to councils. Because they are unclear, councils such as North East Lincolnshire can come up with controversial proposals that worry parents and teachers and, in this case, create a great deal of uncertainty.

Now that the council says that schools will have to close, parents are wondering whether to risk sending their children to a particular school in September, and teachers are wondering whether they have to start looking for new jobs. Indeed, if there is a vacancy, how will head teachers recruit staff if a school is going to be open for only three or four more months? The situation is a recipe for disaster. I tell the Minister again that we need far clearer rules on how to deal with surplus places, and I shall try to arrange a meeting with education Ministers to make that point.

Ultimately, the most serious political reason for my raising this matter before the 31 May deadline for comments is that, just as Governments are not allowed to make announcements during an election period, there is merit in local authorities not being allowed to do so, particularly in the middle of a general election campaign when people on the cabinet of that council are putting themselves forward for election, and when their main line during the election campaign in Grimsby and Cleethorpes was to blame the Government for the closures. We must seriously examine how certain councillors misuse their position to try to gain political advantage at the expense of school children and their parents.