While it is true that the number of year 7 pupils in Colchester has fallen in recent times, it was not that many years ago that parents were beating a path to my door because there were seemingly no vacancies at the town's secondary schools. Parental choice was something of a myth for hundreds of parents. History tells me that the numbers will rise again in due course—within the next few years, in fact. Therefore, we should not be talking about reducing the overall number of secondary school places, particularly in a town where there is a huge amount of house building going on.
In his briefing, has the Minister been told that about 2,500 dwellings—yes, 2,500 homes—are to be built on the site of the former Colchester garrison? All of them fall within the traditional catchment areas of Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley schools. Does anyone believe that such a huge housing development will not have children of secondary school age? On Friday—the very day on which the schools broke up for half term, which is perhaps why that day was chosen in an attempt to bury bad news—Essex county council published its proposals for an academy on the TLA site to accommodate 1,200 pupils. We can safely assume that the county's so-called consultation will be a sham, and nothing more than a box-ticking exercise. It is deaf to reason and blind to the obvious. Our only hope is that the Government will realise that the county's costly plans do not add up.
The current combined authorised admission number for TLA and Blaxill is 1,700, so the academy proposal would result in a reduction of 500 places in south Colchester, totally ignoring the 2,500 new houses being built at the former garrison. I acknowledge that the current number of pupils is well below the published authorised figure, but the number of pupils currently in year 11 at the two schools totals 300, indicating that, even before the population growth resulting from new housing at the former garrison, south Colchester requires a minimum of 1,500 places in the age group 11 to 16—school years 7 to 11. Evidence that I obtained this morning shows, from the number of children born in recent years, that, by 2015, the number seeking year 7 places will match the number currently in year 11 at Colchester's secondary schools. That is before we take into account the number of children who will move into Colchester to live in the thousands of new dwellings that are being built.
Can we trust Essex education authority when it comes to forecasts? No, we cannot. Just look at the monumental £24 million blunder of the Bishop Park school at Clacton. It opened only five years ago, yet it is now under threat of closure because it has too few pupils. I suggest that the education authority is so traumatised by its incompetence, following its overestimate of the projected numbers at Clacton, that it is now deliberately underestimating the numbers in Colchester for fear of repeating the financial consequences of what happened at Bishop Park.
In relation to value for money, I suggest that, instead of spending some £27 million on a new academy—the average cost according to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee inquiry into the academies programme—it would cost the public purse considerably less if money were invested in upgrading both Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley. This would maintain each as a community-based school serving its distinctive local community.
Let me now deal with the consequences of shutting Alderman Blaxill School and requiring youngsters to travel from Shrub End to Monkwick. Although they are in neighbouring wards, there is no community of interest between the two; indeed, they are separated by the largest super-garrison in Britain. Building work on the second phase is currently taking place; it is a massive complex. There is only one road linking Shrub End and Monkwick. For much of its distance, it is a narrow country road, and an extremely busy one at that, with large stretches without pavements and street lights. There have been several fatalities. It is not a safe route to school. There is no bus route linking Shrub End with Monkwick. Roads on the St. Michael's and Montgomery Army estates are not public thoroughfares: they are maintained by the Ministry of Defence and can be closed whenever required for security reasons. Access by the civilian population is not encouraged. It has been suggested that transport will be provided for children from Shrub End to Monkwick. Will the Minister confirm that free transport is available only for those who live more than three miles from the school?
Yesterday, I drove from the front gate of Alderman Blaxill school in Paxman avenue to Thomas Lord Audley school. The distance to the entrance into the school playing field, off Monkwick Avenue, is precisely three miles. The main entrance, however, is a quarter of a mile further away in School road—a narrow cul-de-sac that the TLA shares with Monkwick infant school, Monkwick junior school, Berechurch community sports and youth centre, and the Ormiston centre, a sports complex. It is already a traffic nightmare. For Shrub End parents, I can foresee lots of disputes over who is entitled to free travel and who will have to pay. At least two thirds of pupils from Shrub End will not be entitled to free transport, thus adding a financial burden on families, many of them on low incomes.
A second issue is that of the additional traffic that would be drawn into the Monkwick estate to reach the greatly enlarged education establishment, using narrow residential roads not built for such heavy traffic. That is not something that local residents will welcome. What is guaranteed is increased traffic chaos and more road safety dangers for everybody. Incidentally, today has the been the first day of half term and the roads in Colchester were free of traffic. I suggest that the education authority and the highways authority engage in some joined-up thinking, as much of the traffic congestion in the mornings is caused by school-related traffic.
It is worth observing how differently Essex education authority has treated the governing bodies of the three secondary schools put into special measures. Those at Sir Charles Lucas and Thomas Lord Audley were allowed to remain in place, and given time and encouragement to turn their schools around. The governing body at Alderman Blaxill, however, has been sacked. Why? Governors had drawn up an action plan to tackle the problems and, as already mentioned, Ofsted has praised the new head for the steps that she has already put in place. The sacking, I submit, is pure spite by the county Tories who resent the determination of the governors to make a success of Alderman Blaxill school.
I discovered today that the interim executive board has already met twice in secret. Nobody knows who sits on the board; the chairman is a mystery man; all parent governors have been removed. What I can say is that, even though there is unlikely to be any confidence in a governing body that has been imposed on the school, the campaign to save Alderman Blaxill school will not be silenced by such an anti-democratic manoeuvre. There are weekly meetings of the parents and community forum, which is made up of people determined to resist the school's closure. Last month, they organised a successful fun day. They have unveiled a "tree of hope" in a town centre shop, launched by the town crier. Will the Minister promise that he will, at the very least, insist that the democratically elected parent governors should be restored to the governing body?
Let me now turn to the prospect of an academy, as disclosed officially for the first time by Essex county council last Friday. What the public announcement does not mention is the prospect that the academy may be sponsored by the Chelmsford diocese of the Church of England. Several weeks ago, in conversation, a clergyman based at Chelmsford casually told me that the diocese had hopes of taking over the then rumoured academy in Colchester. I decided to check that out. Confirmation of such a possibility has been given to me by the chief executive of Essex county council. Although I was assured that
"no specific agreements have been made in respect to the Diocese and Essex County Council sponsoring an academy in Colchester", the chief executive confirmed that such a possibility in Essex had been discussed several months ago.
Although I have a Christian upbringing, I am not an Anglican, but come from good nonconformist stock. I have serious misgivings about two of Colchester's local secondary schools being shut down and their replacement academy handed over to the Chelmsford diocese. If the diocese wants to have a secondary school to promote Anglican teachings then let it, like the Brentwood Roman Catholic diocese, organise its own school in Colchester to serve the whole of north Essex for those parents who wish to have such a denominational school—not impose itself on a particular geographic area of the town whose parents may not necessarily wish to have their children taught under a religious regime. What parental choice will there be for those in Monkwick and Shrub End who do not want their children to attend a religious academy? Will other secondary schools in Colchester have places available to accept them?
Academies have a less than impressive track record and are widely opposed by, among others, many Labour MPs and the National Union of Teachers. At a public meeting in Colchester, Mr. Alasdair Smith of the Anti-Academies Alliance observed
"An academy is owned and controlled by its sponsor and is a law unto itself.
We elect Councillors to a local education authority and parents elect the Governing Body of a school, but at an academy the democratic involvement of the community is removed."
Will the Minister confirm that Mr Smith's statement is correct? Will he confirm that an academy sets its own admission policy, and that it is not subject to national agreements on staff pay and conditions? Will he also confirm that the proposed academy in south Colchester would not have to guarantee a place for every child from Monkwick and Shrub End whose parents sought admission?
Will the Church of England have competition? The prospect of a Church of England-sponsored academy contrasts with a statement made in June by an Essex county council spokesman who was reported in the Gazette as saying:
"It is possible for the Army to become an academy sponsor."
That took Colchester garrison by surprise. The Deputy Commander said that nobody had discussed it with him. Will the Minister comment on whether his Department has had discussions with the Ministry of Defence about the MOD's sponsoring an academy in Colchester?
"Colchester Garrison will be asked to make a significant cash investment in creating an academy for Colchester.
Under the plans, leaked to the Gazette, the Thomas Lord Audley and the Alderman Blaxill Schools would both be shut down and demolished to make way for a new 1,200 place academy.
It will be built on the site of the TLA while the Alderman Blaxill site, in Shrub End, would be sold off for housing."
Has the Minister seen the plans that the Gazette says were leaked to it? Is he satisfied that he has been given the full pack of cards? There appears to have been some dodgy dealing on the part of the Essex education authority
Colchester is a growing town. Huge new developments are taking place, with several thousand more homes to come in the north, in the central areas, in the former port area in the east, and in the west of the town. Of major significance are at least 2,500 planned new dwellings on land whose nearest local secondary schools are Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley. The education authority's projection, which shows a reduction of 500 secondary school places in south Colchester, is ridiculous.
Whatever "here today, gone tomorrow" Chelmsford-based officials and Tory county councillors are saying, the reality is that the closure of Alderman Blaxill school would be short-termism at its worst. I therefore urge the Minister to get to grips with the county hall wreckers and give Alderman Blaxill school the support and continued future that it deserves, and which the local community looks to the Government to deliver.
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