Secondary Schools (Wellingborough)

– in the House of Commons at 11:13 am on 2nd December 2005.

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

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 2:31 pm, 2nd December 2005

I would like to thank the Speaker for granting me the opportunity to hold a debate on an issue of immense importance to my constituency. I am also grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Phil Hope, who will respond to the debate. I am pleased that half of the Members who represent Northamptonshire are in the Chamber, as well as my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski, who is concerned about the issue.

Secondary school provision in Wellingborough has been a huge concern for many years, as I will explain. I am grateful to all the teachers in my constituency, who do a tremendous job in circumstances that are not always ideal. I give them my praise and thanks for the superb job that they do. I should also like to place on the record my praise for the pupils and students who attend Wellingborough schools. They, too, face difficult conditions but, together with the help of their teachers, they work extremely hard to achieve their individual goals.

The problem with secondary school provision in Wellingborough has been apparent for many years, ever since the closure and demolition of a local secondary school in 2001. The John Lea secondary school was closed in 1998 by the Labour-run county council, which thought that there were enough secondary school places in Wellingborough for local children. How wrong it was. John Lea secondary school was a modern school with good buildings and facilities. At the time, there was widespread fear that the closure of the school would leave the remaining schools in Wellingborough oversubscribed, and would leave some children without any education at all. Despite that fear, the school was demolished in 2001 to make way for new homes for new families. Those families, of course, had children who required secondary school education.

Let us be honest: the closure and demolition of John Lea was meant to make money, yet that money has never gone back into secondary education in Wellingborough. I was not living in Wellingborough when John Lea was closed—I moved there shortly afterwards. However, I was living there when the decision was made to demolish the school. Along with many others, I fought to save the school with my "Listening to Wellingborough" campaign. I founded that campaign because I felt that too many politicians of all parties had become arrogant and out of touch. They were more than happy to preach to people, but were not prepared to listen. My "Listening to Wellingborough" campaign aims to seek the views of local people, groups and organisations and to campaign on their behalf for change.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I shall first make a little progress, if I may.

I listen to local people at every opportunity through surveys, public meetings, visiting residents and people coming to me. They were crying out for someone to listen to their views and concerns, and then do something about them. I spoke to many worried parents who were very concerned about the effects of the closure of John Lea school. As part of my listening campaign, I started SOS—"Save Our Secondary Schools." I could see, like many others, that the closure and demolition of a local secondary school would have a hugely detrimental effect on secondary education in Wellingborough.

We campaigned against the demolition of the school. We went door to door seeking the views of local people, and we distributed numerous leaflets informing local residents of the proposals. The then leader of the Conservative party, my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith, and the shadow Secretary of State for Education at the time, my right hon. Friend Mrs. May, both came to Wellingborough to give their support to the SOS campaign. Chris Heaton-Harris MEP petitioned the European Parliament on behalf of parents from Earls Barton, a community in Wellingborough, whose children were being denied a secondary school place. Yet despite all our efforts, the decision was made by the Labour-run county council to demolish John Lea school, and in 2001 the school was no more.

One of the biggest oversights that was made in this case was that no one took into consideration just how much Wellingborough was due to grow in the coming years. The oversight has had a devastating effect on school provision and school choice, and the effects are still being felt.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

My hon. Friend describes the problem in Wellingborough as acute, and I am grateful that he has brought it to the attention of the House. The problem is also significant in rural areas, particularly in some of the villages near Shrewsbury. One such case is Grafton school—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The debate is specifically about Wellingborough.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I accept his general point about the provision for rural areas. Many people think of Wellingborough as an urban area, but Earls Barton, for example, is a rural village from which children have to travel miles to get to a school.

When John Lea was closed, it was noted by the local authority that although there would be enough secondary school places for pupils transferring from primary schools, there could be further difficulties ahead if extra children were to move into the area. In fact, after the closure of John Lea school, all the remaining secondary schools in Wellingborough were oversubscribed and crowded.

Some children had to be bussed outside the county to go to school. Some parents paid for their children to go to a private school. Some parents started to educate their children at home. Some families even moved away from the area to get their children into a school. Most worryingly of all, some children were left at home without any education at all. In April 2001, there were 21 pupils who were forced to stay at home because of a lack of school places. Some of those children had been without any education for up to six months. In short, although many children were not getting the education that they deserved, a worrying number were not getting any education at all.

Some of the children denied a school place were at a critical stage before their GCSE examinations. How could an education authority and a Government leave children at home with no education at all? Had it been the other way round, and had parents been deliberately not sending their children to school, the LEA would have come down on them like a tonne of bricks. Sarah Robertson, who was 15 at the time, was at a critical stage in her education, with exams imminent, yet she had been without a school place for almost six months. I met many worried parents who did not know which way to turn because of the failure of the Labour-controlled local authority, and I met pupils who were bored and frustrated by being stuck at home. If that had been a one-off incident, it would have been bad enough, but it has happened time and again because of the closure of the school. In a subsequent year, another large group of children were left at home for weeks on end without any education at all.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this afternoon's debate. As the Member of Parliament for the neighbouring constituency of Kettering, may I say that I share his concerns? I put it to him that one of the major themes in our combined local area is that we face the prospect of 52,000 new houses being built in north Northamptonshire by 2021, while existing educational provision is not sufficient for the current population.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I know how hard my hon. Friend works on behalf of his constituents. I feel a little guilty that secondary school children from Wellingborough are being bussed into Kettering because provision in Wellingborough is insufficient. I shall address his second point later in my speech.

What was the solution proposed by the local authority and the Government? They decided to force already overcrowded schools to take even more pupils, which damaged the education not only of the pupils forced into those schools, but of all those already there. That should not have been allowed to happen, but unfortunately some children still do not have a school place. Since 2001, there has been a huge amount of growth in my constituency with many, many new families, whose children require secondary school places, moving into the area.

Over the past four years, there has been an explosion of new development in my constituency, to which my hon. Friend Mr. Hollobone has referred, and it is set to get much, much worse, with thousands of new homes being built on the order of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The Milton Keynes south midlands sub-regional strategy will see 13,000 new homes being built in Wellingborough by 2021, with another 10,000 homes planned for east Northamptonshire, large parts of which are in my constituency. Yet despite the knowledge that those new homes will be built, the Government have not indicated whether the infrastructure will be in place to support new and existing Wellingborough residents and their children.

Turning to the problems that we face at the moment, there are currently four secondary schools in Wellingborough—three are foundation schools and one is a community school. I have been told that in Wellingborough between nine and 10 children a month find themselves without a secondary school place and must go through a lengthy process in order to get into a school. For example, a parent came to see me at my surgery last Friday. Mr. Hussein moved back into Wellingborough after being away for two years. He has two children, one of 17 and one of 12. The 17-year-old had previously been educated at a secondary school in Wellingborough, but that school could not re-admit her because it is now over-subscribed. The other child could not get into a secondary school near where they live, and both children were told that they had to go on a waiting list, so they are currently at home with no education at all.

I have spoken to the local education authority, which will do its best to get those children into a school. However, the process that it uses to place nine or 10 children a month involves a meeting which occurs only once a month and which can only occur after the LEA has been made aware of the situation. It is quite possible that such children will be without any education for three months. Do the Government think that that would be the case if one of Wellingborough's secondary schools had not been knocked down?

The LEA claims that some secondary school places are available in Wellingborough, but those places are all at the only school in Wellingborough that is in special measures. For many families moving into Wellingborough, there is no choice whatever—no matter where they live and no matter how far away they are from the school, they must go to the school that is in special measures. That situation is unacceptable, because there must be choice—parents should have some choice in what school their children go to. I note with interest that the Government's education White Paper advocates parental choice, which is welcome, but unfortunately it is just not happening in my constituency.

Even those pupils coming from primary schools in Wellingborough are limited for choice. At the Wrenn school last year, there were 280 applicants for 250 year 7 places. Twenty-six people appealed, but only three of those appellants were able to get a place at the school. That means that the school is already, in year 7, three pupils over the number that it considers to be its maximum admission level. The admissions system allows parents to put down a first, second and third choice of schools in Wellingborough, but if their children do not get their first-choice place, they are extremely unlikely to get their second choice, because those will already have been filled.

It is natural that every parent wants their child to go to the best possible school, and inevitable that some schools are better than others, but the most popular schools in my constituency are constantly oversubscribed and struggle with the limited capacity of their school buildings. Let me take one as an example. It is extremely popular and high-achieving. Only 208 places in each year group are available because of the restrictions of building capacity. In fact, the school now has to operate a one-way system on the stairs because the corridors are so full. It is having to use up its reserves to pay for essential maintenance. There is damp on the walls in some of the classrooms and condensation on the windows. This popular and high-achieving school needs Government funding to allow it to remain so. It is simply not big enough, and parts of it are literally falling down.

When I asked the Minister whether provision was being made to build a new secondary school in Wellingborough, I received a written answer stating that as part of the building schools for the future programme, Northamptonshire schools are due to be refurbished or rebuilt over the next six to 14 years. Six to fourteen years? This work needs to be carried out now.

In response to a second question that I asked about a new secondary school in Wellingborough, the Minister said that the Wellingborough area of Northamptonshire is prioritised towards the end of the building schools for the future programme. Apart from the obvious paradox that nothing is prioritised if it is at the end of a list, that means that, three times over, year 7 students could start secondary school and go through the whole of their secondary education before the existing Wellingborough schools are refurbished, yet those schools are in desperate need of repair now.

There is currently no real choice for parents and children in Wellingborough. If children are not granted their first choice of school, they are rarely granted their second choice. The only pupils who seem to have a real choice of school are those with special educational needs. That is most welcome, but although it is important that statemented children should be able to go to the school that parents believe will cater best for the children's needs, it is equally important that the right funding and resources are put into these schools to help facilitate SEN pupils throughout their schooling. I do not believe that that is happening in Wellingborough.

Schools in Wellingborough are oversubscribed and some have been forced to take on extra pupils over their maximum intakes. At Wollaston school, years 7 and 9 are over the 240 maximum. At the Wrenn school years 7, 8 and 10 have more pupils than the 250 maximum. Last year, Sir Christopher Hatton school was oversubscribed by more than 40 pupils who put it down as their first choice.

It is clear from what I have said today that Wellingborough needs a new secondary school, and given the huge increase in development over the next 15 years, we need it now. I ask the Minister to be good enough to deal with the following points. First, what are the mechanisms necessary to get a new secondary school built? Secondly, when can we realistically expect a new secondary school in Wellingborough to be opened? Thirdly, in the intervening period, will he undertake to look at providing more funding so that existing schools can expand for the benefit of all the pupils in Wellingborough?

I believe that the demolition of John Lea school may have been a genuine mistake, but it is essential that the Government, working with the local education authority, take urgent action to correct the situation.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills 2:49 pm, 2nd December 2005

I congratulate Mr. Bone on securing this debate. I am aware of his interest in this issue from the parliamentary questions that he has tabled in the past.

Changes to school provision in an area are essentially a matter for local decision. The local authority has a statutory responsibility for planning sufficient school places and for proposing to close schools and to open new ones. These duties are further strengthened in the schools White Paper, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and I shall say more about that later if time allows.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the relevant mechanisms, and I will start by talking about the present school organisation arrangements and why they came about. Before this Government took office in 1997, proposals for changes to schools often came to the Secretary of State for a decision. We considered that those matters were best decided locally, however, and a new system was put in place by the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.

If a local authority decides that there is a need for a new school, it must first consult in the local area. Among those bodies that we advise should be consulted are any schools affected by the proposals, as well as parents and teachers in the area. I am pleased to say that the guidance was revised in September, when local Members of Parliament were added to the list, as were the local district and parish councils in the area in which the schools are situated. Local authorities are responsible for planning for school places in their area. They have a statutory duty to ensure that there are sufficient places and that high quality education is provided in a cost-effective way.

I understand that Northamptonshire updated its school organisation plan in September this year. The new plan shows that the authority expects the number of secondary pupils in Wellingborough to increase gradually between now and 2008. However, there are at present 425 surplus places in the town. I shall come back to that point in more detail in a moment. In the longer term, a new secondary school might be required, and if Northamptonshire decides that such a school is needed to cater for a growth in the local population, the mechanism requires it to hold a competition in accordance with the provisions of the Education Act 2002. We have introduced competitions because we want to encourage a wide range of educational providers to come forward and promote schools that have a strong ethos. This is all part of our aim to drive up standards and to ensure that every child has the opportunity to go to a good school.

As the hon. Gentleman has asked, I shall explain what would happen should Northamptonshire decide to hold a competition. First, the authority would publish a notice inviting interested parties to bring forward proposals for the new secondary school. The authority would then publish a summary of all the proposals received and any that it wished to make itself, as the local authority. Anyone would be able to pass comments on any of the proposals, be they objections or expressions of support. The authority would then submit all proposals and comments to the school organisation committee for consideration. The committee would pass the proposals, with its comments, to the Secretary of State for a decision.

Of course, any promoter may publish proposals for a new foundation or voluntary school at any time, under the existing arrangements, to increase diversity. There does not need to be a general shortage of places. Such proposals are decided by the school organisation committee, or by the schools adjudicator if the committee cannot reach unanimous agreement. The committee may approve proposals only if it is satisfied that any capital necessary to implement the proposals has been secured. I hope that I have described the mechanism in a straightforward manner.

Under the normal funding arrangements, the Department for Education and Skills is allocating Northamptonshire schools more than £78 million of capital over the next three years. We expect that money to be used for its priority needs, including the provision of statutory school places. It includes an element to cover pupil number increases. However, local authorities can also apply to the targeted capital fund—the TCF—every two years, if they have exceptional growth that they cannot fund from other sources.

Northamptonshire has been allocated £12 million from the TCF for 2006–07 for a replacement school in another part of the county where it is prioritising need. Northamptonshire did not apply in the TCF round for 2007–08 funding. It will have a further opportunity in due course to apply for 2008–09 funding.

On the revenue side, Northamptonshire has benefited from an increase in its total funding for education of £1,100 per pupil in real terms since 1997. We will announce in the near future the school funding settlement for 2006–07 and 2007–08, including each local authority's allocations of the new dedicated schools grant for each of those years.

In the longer term, the building schools for the future programme—a massive investment in schooling—will support investment in all secondary schools in Northamptonshire, including new schools, where there is a need. Northamptonshire is expected to enter the building schools for the future programme in waves seven to nine—2011–14—with projects in Northampton and Corby. It has proposed five geographical groupings of schools for its building schools for the future investment. Wellingborough, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, is prioritised in the final tranche of investment in waves 13 to 15, in 2017–18.

I want to set out the detail of the local position that the hon. Gentleman described. I understand that since the closure of the John Lea school more than seven years ago in July 1998, Wellingborough has been served by three secondary schools. The John Lea school was closed because the number of pupils on the roll fell below 50, with more than 90 per cent. surplus places, and funding empty places, as we know, can represent a poor use of resources. The three remaining schools—Sir Christopher Hatton, the Weavers school and Wrenn school—now have 425 spare places between them.

I am aware—and the hon. Gentleman mentioned—that the Weavers school has been in special measures since November 2004. In conjunction with Ofsted, the authority is addressing that. The new head teacher is helping the process and two additional school governors have been appointed to provide additional support. The local authority is also supporting the school, and there have been discussions with Department for Education and Skills advisers about how that can most effectively be done The Department has partnered Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire for the new relationship with schools. Each school will be allocated a school improvement partner, who are mostly experienced head teachers and senior managers in schools. They will provide high-quality support, challenge and monitoring. Given the hon. Gentleman's concern about the quality of education at that school and its current position, I advise him strongly to get active and join the school and local authority in finding ways in which the school can turn the situation around.

On the question of growth, which has been raised by the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members in the Chamber, the authority is confident that recent enlargements to its secondary schools will provide sufficient capacity to meet future demand for places in the medium term. In the longer term, Northamptonshire might decide that a new secondary school will be required to cater for growth in the local population, but that will be a decision for Northamptonshire at a local level. I understand that there are no current plans to open a further secondary school in Wellingborough, but the local authority will monitor that situation and the progress with growth projections, which he mentioned earlier.

I have described the situation that pertains to date, so I shall briefly mention some of the changes that we propose in the White Paper, which might have some future relevance to the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman. Building on the progress that we have made since 1997, our aim is to transform our school system, so that every child receives an excellent education, whatever their background and wherever they live.

The White Paper sets out our plans to improve radically the system by putting parents and the needs of their children at the heart of our school system. We will ensure that every school delivers an excellent education, that every child achieves to their potential and that the system as a whole is increasingly driven by parents and by choice.

We are going to introduce tougher rules for failing schools. Schools in special measures will be more quickly turned around and where no progress is made after a year a competition for new providers will be held. Schools that receive a notice to improve from Ofsted will enter special measures within a year if progress is not made. Parents will be able to urge Ofsted action, or request new providers. Where there is strong demand or dissatisfaction with existing choices, local authorities will have to respond to their concerns.

Time does not allow me to go into more detail unfortunately, but there is a new approach, in particular with the abolition of school organisation committees, which gives local authorities a key role in making decisions on the most appropriate schools for an area. The authority will be expected to assess proposals that it receives on their merits and approve the one that best meets the needs of the area. Under the new regime, it will be possible for a local authority's decision to be challenged, in which case the schools adjudicator will make a decision.

I hope that I have described the mechanisms, outlined some of the factors that will affect a decision in terms of timing—

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute past Three o'clock.