Primary Schools (Swindon)

– in the House of Commons at 10:30 pm on 21st June 2005.

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

Photo of Anne Snelgrove Anne Snelgrove Labour, South Swindon 10:42 pm, 21st June 2005

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise in this Adjournment debate education issues that are of great concern to my constituents in west Swindon. The big issue for primary education in that area is surplus places and the need to demonstrate that action is being taken to reduce them. That there is a problem of surplus places is not in dispute; parents, teachers and the local authority accept the fact. There is, however, a dispute over how much of a problem exists and what action should be taken.

Swindon borough council is a small unitary authority with responsibility for education. Recently, the local education authority received the good news that it was no longer in special measures, and that there were no schools in special measures in the authority. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the LEA, its officers and the schools and teachers on that achievement. It represents a significant step forward and will undoubtedly mean better education and life chances for all the children in Swindon, including those in west Swindon.

Reorganisation of schools is always difficult. I have personal experience of this in my previous career as a local education adviser, and in my political career as vice-chair of Berkshire's education committee in the 1990s. While I was a chair of governors, I oversaw the successful merger of an infants school and a junior school into a primary school. That was difficult to achieve, even with the support of the staff of both schools and of the majority of parents, with several issues continuing to resonate 18 months later at the new primary school's Ofsted inspection. All this experience has led me to the understanding that school reorganisation can destabilise even seemingly robust school communities. In more fragile communities, it can be a disaster.

My experience has also led me to believe that a number of principles need to be in place for successful reorganisations to occur. First, the educational reasons must be absolutely sound and honest for the current intake of children, and for future intakes. Secondly, the figures must add up, and must command the confidence of the wider community. Thirdly, there must be no hidden agenda on anyone's part, including that of local councillors, and nothing should be said or done to encourage the belief that there is. Fourthly, the confidence of the majority of parents must be maintained throughout the process and consultation must begin at an early stage.

TeacherNet, the widely respected Department for Education and Skills website for teachers and education providers, outlines best practice in reorganisations. A successful primary school reorganisation involves a number of factors, it says. First, the ground should be prepared and a set of guiding principles should be developed to underpin the approach, covering preferred size of schools, maximum travelling time of pupils, triggers for school review based on admission numbers, and criteria for demanding action at one school rather than another. Secondly, options should be identified and all the options should be examined before decisions are made. They might include a reduction in accommodation, alternative uses of accommodation such as extended services, changes in admission numbers, and amalgamation or closure. Lastly, partners should be involved. Key partners include parents, housing departments and trusts, planning and environment, transport, dioceses and many other groups.

TeacherNet makes clear that local education authorities should

"anticipate and respond to parents' concerns about the options being proposed."

As I shall demonstrate, I am not convinced that those principles were followed in the west Swindon reorganisation for all the schools involved.

The west Swindon consultation involved several public meetings, six of which I attended. My experience of the meetings did not fill me with confidence that the consultation was being conducted in an unbiased and open way. At two of the meetings, local Conservative councillors reassured parents that the school where the meeting was being held would be "all right" and that they had nothing to worry about. As these were public meetings, there were parents present from other schools who did not receive the same assurance at the public meeting on their school site. Naturally, that did not fill my constituents with confidence, and word quickly spread throughout the community that it was a paper exercise and councillors had already made up their minds about which schools would close.

The outcome of the consultation was that one school, Salt Way, was earmarked for closure from January 2006 and further discussions were to be held about three others, Toothill, Freshbrook and Windmill Hill. The decision on Salt Way was leaked to the local paper, so parents and teachers discovered that the school was likely to close during the Easter holiday break. That is not a good way to find out about the future of one's child's education or one's job. At Salt Way, most of the permanent staff have understandably found other jobs and will be leaving at the end of this term. I gather from discussions last week with the director of education that only two permanent members of the teaching staff remain, one of whom is on long-term sick leave. It has also become apparent that the closure of the school by January 2006 looks unachievable because there are no places in nearby primary schools for most of the children who currently attend Salt Way.

The current solution is to bring in teachers from other schools on secondments to teach the children. The process has resulted in plummeting staff morale, disruption to children's education and a question mark over when and if the school will close. Only tonight I was told by one of the parents that the LEA had announced at a meeting this afternoon that the school would close in August 2006 and that an extension would be built at Shaw Ridge school to take the extra pupils. There has been no exploration with parents of the alternatives to closure. On behalf of my constituents, I am genuinely disappointed by the high-handedness of the approach and sad that I learned about it through a parent.

The school has been left dangling, and as its representative I must do all that I can to ensure that the children's education is protected. I ask the Minister to look into the issue for me as it has ramifications for the other three schools whose future is also under discussion. The situation must not be allowed to happen twice.

I hope that, from my description, the Minister will understand my concern about the robustness of the surplus place figures used by Swindon LEA. To announce a school closure consultation and then discover that there are not enough places for the existing children to go to is not best practice, and I ask the Minister to examine the figures that have been produced. One of the difficulties may lie in the net capacity figures. Over the years, temporary classrooms have been added to west Swindon schools to accommodate expanding pupil numbers. They contribute to the net capacity figures, but many of the classrooms are past their sell-by date and could easily be taken out of commission.

In addition, many schools, including Salt Way, have done what the local education authority and the Department for Education and Skills asked of them—converted surplus classes to IT suites, pre-school groups, libraries and parent and community rooms. All those are needed, particularly in our more deprived wards, and all are good practice, but it strikes me and the schools as unfair that those spaces are then used to calculate how many children a school could and should accommodate.

The reality is that the schools cannot take up to the pupil numbers required by the DFES calculations. The situation that the Salt Way pupils are in demonstrates that. In theory, there should be room in neighbouring schools—after all, the figures demonstrate that—but in practice there is not because the spaces are not classrooms.

Moving on to the other schools under threat of closure, I will first refer to Toothill. Toothill is the most deprived ward in west Swindon and Toothill school serves that community. It has the third highest proportion of children in the borough with English as an additional language. Its unit for children with moderate learning difficulties has been integrated successfully into the main stream. It has a successful buddy mentoring scheme that has reduced bullying and made the playground a good place to be for all children. There are strong links between the school and the local community, with the school seen as the centre for community activities, including the west Swindon family centre. TeacherNet advises that local authorities should investigate the impact of the loss of such an institution on communities, but there was no mention of that in the consultation. I wish to be reassured that the LEA has considered that issue.

The local community in Toothill feels under attack because of the threat to the school. From my own knowledge of the area, I believe that significant numbers of vulnerable children would be at risk if the school were to close or to merge on another site. Because of the design of the estate, it would mean a difficult journey to reach another school.

The school governors and parents have worked with the LEA throughout the consultation and are aware of the falling rolls issue. They have a number of old and decrepit temporary buildings that could be taken out of commission, reducing the space, but they also have accommodation problems in their main building and desperately need a new school building. They tell me that they are "up for anything" in terms of the Government's extended schools and child first policy initiatives. I hope that Swindon borough council will be able to work proactively with the school to ensure its continued future in serving a vulnerable community.

Now I come to the most difficult aspect of the whole reorganisation. I do not envy the LEA's task as Freshbrook and Windmill Hill schools are round the corner from each other, yet face very different issues and, despite being neighbours, serve very different communities. Freshbrook's rolls have fallen, while Windmill Hill's are robust and show no surplus places. In fact, the school is slightly over-subscribed and parents are passionate in their support of the school, as was demonstrated in the large numbers of Windmill Hill parents' responses to the consultation, but the school is in temporary premises and was built when pupil numbers on the Freshbrook estate exceeded those planned. When I say "temporary premises", those are the Rolls-Royce of temporary classrooms, having been lovingly maintained and improved over the years.

Freshbrook school has recently come out of special measures, on which I congratulate the head teacher and staff. However, a significant number of parents removed their children from Freshbrook during its recent difficulties and placed them in Windmill Hill. Therefore, we immediately have a problem in that those parents' memories of Freshbrook are of a school where their children failed. Fair or unfair, that is the situation. Suggestions by the local authority to close Windmill Hill, an over-subscribed school that has been successful for many years, or to merge it with Freshbrook, a newly successful school, have been met with great fear by the parents. There is such a feeling against those options that the LEA needs to reconsider them and meet its obligations to consult parents in detail on the proposal.

Another solution must be found. DFES guidance suggests alternative avenues for reorganisation such as federation, collaboration and co-operation. The main rationale of those is to raise standards and to address some of the problems of falling rolls, but under them a school maintains its separate identity. A wide variety of different arrangements for schools working together are available and it is right to ask whether all the options were considered by the council.

There are two other issues that I ask the Minister to consider. Throughout the consultation, parents were presented with arguments that Government policy is for two-form entry schools. I can find no reference to that anywhere. In fact, the DFES position is that the responsibility lies with local government. DFES guidance says that primary schools of about 420 pupils, which are two-form entry, or of 210 pupils, which are one-form entry, are the most efficient and offer a critical mass that promotes more efficient teaching and learning. I hope that the Minister will agree that one-form entry schools offer choice for parents and should be encouraged. One size does not fit all and we need a diverse mix in Swindon. Keeping one-form entry schools could remove the need to close schools.

Parents were also told that the Government's extended schools initiative means that some schools in west Swindon need to close. I hope that the Minister will tell me and parents that this is stuff and nonsense. My postbag has been full of letters from concerned parents who think that one of our flagship proposals will lead to the closure of their school. An email that I received from a parent at the weekend stated:

"My concerns are around the need to close successful schools in order to raise the necessary funding to build new extended schools. I don't believe this was the intention behind the government's proposals. If insufficient funding has been made available to the council for implementing extended schools without these drastic measures then I don't support their implementation. Otherwise the council is using the extended school proposals as a way of closing schools for economic reasons."

Some of the issues that have arisen in the council's consultation on primary education in west Swindon are the direct result of interpretations of Government policy and initiatives. There is a case, therefore, for us to explore and answer, and there may be action that we in this place need to take, as well as action that Swindon borough council needs to take in my constituency.

I hope that I have made the Minister aware of my great unease at the way in which this consultation process has been carried out. I ask him to look at the decision to close Salt Way and at the consultation with the schools and the LEA. I ask him to remember that our education policy of extended schools and one-form or two-form entry schools needs to be explained properly and thoroughly to the LEA. I want to reassure my constituents and the LEA that I intend to work proactively with them to find a solution to this problem. I hope that they will meet me and my constituents halfway. It is my constituents for whom I have the greatest concern, along with their children's education.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills 10:57 pm, 21st June 2005

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Anne Snelgrove on securing this debate. She spoke very knowledgably and forcefully on her constituents' behalf, and she clearly has considerable personal experience of the issues that she raised. I am certainly aware of the interest that people living in Swindon are showing in the current review of primary school provision in west Swindon.

The Government are committed to continuing the drive to raise standards in education, so it will come as no surprise that we support the council's stated aims for the review, which are to provide high-quality education, to embrace the extended schools agenda—I will say more about that later—and to provide wide and all-encompassing community provision in west Swindon schools.

The Department's five-year strategy for children and learners, following on from the primary document, entitled "Excellence and Enjoyment—A Strategy for Primary Schools", sets out the success story of primary education, with many schools delivering very high-quality education. I am pleased to say that we have seen impressive strides forward in literacy and numeracy in recent years, and teaching has improved in every single curriculum subject in primary schools since 1997.

Although we have already made considerable progress, we recognise the need to provide all primary pupils with a quality primary education. I regret that there is an unacceptable variation in performance between schools. Authorities are encouraged to consider this when determining proposals under a review of provision. I am pleased to say that primary standards in Swindon are improving overall and are now moving in an upwards direction. There have been improvements this year of 4 percentage points in key stage 2 English and maths, and of 1 percentage point in science.

As we have just heard, Swindon council is reviewing primary school places across the whole authority, due to surplus places in the sector. My hon. Friend pointed out at the beginning of her speech that the problem of surplus places is recognised and is accepted as being part of the issue that needs to be dealt with. Swindon's school organisation plan projects a decrease in pupil numbers of 4.5 per cent. overall in the next five years, resulting in a level of surplus places of no less than 16 per cent. in 2008 if no action is taken. Following a consultation exercise on improving the education provision in west Swindon, completed in March, the education partnership board agreed to a pre-statutory consultation on the closure of Salt Way primary school and further discussions about the way forward for three other primary schools— Freshbrook, Toothill and Windmill Hill.

As a result of the pre-statutory consultation, the education partnership board will, on 30 June 2005—in nine days' time—consider a recommendation to close Salt Way primary school with effect from 1 September 2006, together with a linked proposal to expand Shaw Ridge primary school from the same date. I am not aware of any meeting or decision taken today to that effect, though my hon. Friend mentioned it in her speech. I understand that there has been a visit from Ofsted inspectors today, and I am not sure whether that might have created some confusion. I am sure that my hon. Friend will find out more when she returns to her constituency. Shaw Ridge primary school is in the same planning area as Salt Way primary school and places will be required to accommodate pupils. Statutory notices will then need to be issued to implement the proposals.

The outcome of discussions about the three other primary schools—Freshbrook, Toothill and Windmill Hill—will be reported to the education partnership board on 22 September 2005, which may lead to pre-statutory and statutory consultation, if appropriate.

My hon. Friend referred to staffing. I understand from the authority that staff are now being appointed at Salt Way primary for one year, in the first instance, pending decisions on the future of the school. I appreciate that there is inevitably a period of uncertainty for everyone involved, as my hon. Friend mentioned, and I would encourage the local authority to continue to give active support to the governing body of the school during this difficult period.

On the issue of school organisation, the Government wish to encourage changes to local school provision that will boost standards and opportunities for young people, while matching school place supply as closely as possible to pupil and parental needs and wishes. The Education Act 1996 places a duty on each local education authority to ensure that sufficient school places exist to meet the needs of the local population in order to promote high standards of pupil attainment. If an authority decides to reorganise provision, decisions are not taken by Ministers, but made locally, which is what Swindon council is currently doing. The proposals for the schools mentioned have not yet moved into the statutory phase of the process. In view of my hon. Friend's concerns about the process, I would like to say more about how it is undertaken.

First, all interested parties must be consulted before proposals are published; they must be provided with sufficient information and allowed adequate time. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's comments on how she saw it happening in Swindon. On deciding to proceed with closure proposals for individual schools, formal notices must be published in a local newspaper, posted at the main entrances of schools named in the proposals and placed in another conspicuous local area. There is then a six-week period for people to submit their representations in support of, or against, the proposals, except in the case of a school in special measures where one month applies.

If the authority has published the proposals and there are no objections, it may proceed and implement them. In all other cases, such as when objections are received, they are referred to the school organisation committee, which is made up of five or six groups each representing major stakeholders in the provision of education. Each group has one vote and must consider all the evidence in line with the guidance issued by the Secretary of State before reaching a decision. After that, if a unanimous decision cannot be reached, the case is referred to the independent schools adjudicator for a final decision.

Importantly, as my hon. Friend noted, the guidance for those publishing and deciding proposals for changes to local school organisation makes it clear that the Government are committed to greater personalisation and choice, with learners and parents at centre stage. However, that must be set in the context of raising standards.

Our guidance is that decisions must be made in the light of a range of factors, including the potential impact on local standards, the contribution to diversity, views of interested parties and cost effectiveness. We expect authorities to take full account of our offer on primary education, as set out in the five year strategy, when planning for primary school provision.

On the specific issue of the review of primary schools in west Swindon, surplus places can represent a poor use of resources that could be used more effectively to support schools in raising standards. In the light of a downward trend in the number of pupils in primary education, that is a concern both nationally and locally. We have developed, in conjunction with the Audit Commission, a web-based toolkit offering a range of practical advice and guidance on dealing with falling rolls, as has happened in Swindon.

As I said earlier, I understand that Swindon's school organisation plan, published last year, identified a potential increase in surplus places in the west of Swindon and hence the need for a review. The latest Ofsted report for Swindon LEA stated that the authority was now making good progress in this area and that planning was satisfactory. It did, however, mention the high level of surplus places in primary schools in the west of Swindon.

Along with the need to remove surplus places, the 2004 Ofsted inspection of Salt Way primary school identified that the school had serious weaknesses, especially in leadership and management. Although it provided an acceptable standard of education for its pupils, it was not effective enough. As I said earlier, Ofsted inspectors were due to visit the school again today, but it is for individual authorities to decide whether, and how, they reduce levels of surplus places taking into account local circumstances, including school performance as well as geographical and social factors.

My hon. Friend asked about extended schools and their use in these circumstances. I emphasise that extended schools are an important element of the Government's commitment to primary education. In embracing the extended schools agenda, Swindon council is implementing the Government's vision on what schools can offer their communities, as expressed in our publication last week of the extended schools prospectus.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in her announcement, the prospectus sets out how schools can develop additional services for families. We know that schools are at the heart of our communities, and it makes sense to extend the services that they offer beyond the traditional school day.

By the year 2010, all children under 14 who want it will have access to breakfast and after-school clubs that offer exciting activities from 8 am to 6 pm. That will give children the opportunity to keep fit and healthy, to acquire new skills and build on what they learn during the school day, as well as to have fun. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to see that aspiration and commitment implemented in extended schools in her constituency and around the country.

In west Swindon, the LEA proposes that, if a decision is made to close Salt Way primary school, the nursery would remain, with the feasibility of providing services to children and families being considered for the site.

We welcome the signs of positive improvement in the education system within Swindon, and early signs of progress on implementing the every child matters agenda. The aims of the west Swindon primary review appear to support that improvement. Swindon's education partnership board has an independent chair appointed jointly by a former Secretary of State and the council, and it has had a positive effect on educational progress in the council area. The latest report from Ofsted, as part of the October 2004 corporate governance inspection, reported continued overall progress in education.

I want to refer to capital funding, which my hon. Friend mentioned this evening. Of course, the Government are supporting the raising of standards with unprecedented investment in schools. Capital investment will reach more than £5 billion in 2005–06, and will increase further to £6.3 billion in 2007–08. Primary and secondary schools receive funding under existing programmes to provide repairs and improvements. In addition, our proposals for strategic investment include a long-term commitment to deliver 21st century learning facilities in primary schools.

The Chancellor announced in the 2005 Budget that the £150 million of new investment in 2008–09—rising to £500 million in 2009–10—will form part of a 15-year programme of primary school funding. Along with other capital funding already in the system, all primary schools will be maintained or, indeed, transformed. That funding has been made available in support of the Government's every child matters and extended schools agendas.

In short, having listened carefully to my hon. Friend's concerns—I am sure that people outside the House will listen to those concerns as well—we believe that the Government have in place a framework that seeks to address her concerns. We have a primary strategy and the five-year strategy for children and learners, which set out our plans for the future of primary education. We have established a framework for local decision making on school organisation that places decision making in the community that those involved serve and know. We have taken robust action to drive up standards in all schools, and we have greatly increased the capital available for investment in school buildings. I hope that, with the commitment of parents, the education authority and, indeed, my hon. Friend, the framework that we have put in place will ensure that the transition process that is happening in her constituency achieves the best outcome for the people who matter most—the children of her constituency.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Eleven o'clock.