I am grateful for the opportunity tonight to highlight a number of issues surrounding potential changes to primary school provision in Havering, with particular reference to my constituency, Hornchurch. The Minister is aware of the matters I wish to raise as we have been in direct correspondence. I understand that he met the head teacher of one of the schools concerned just before Christmas, and I am grateful to him for the time that he spent there and the answers that he gave to the various matters raised with him.
The background to the debate is the proposals by the London borough of Havering to invest in modern primary school facilities in the borough and to address surplus school places in some of the schools. In my constituency, two schools have been particularly affected by the local authority's proposals—Ayloff primary school and Dunningford primary school. I pay tribute to the head teacher, the teaching staff and the governing bodies of both schools. Each of them has achieved high standards for their pupils and they are a key part of the community in Elm Park.
However, both schools have surplus places. Ayloff has a surplus of 25 per cent. and Dunningford has a surplus of 38.1 per cent. In line with Government and Audit Commission guidance, the local authority felt it necessary to address the issue. As I understand it, the reduction in both schools to, for example, single form entry was not viable, leading to the consideration of more significant changes in the arrangements necessary to deal with the surplus school places.
The council initially proposed the merger of the schools and the creation of a new purpose-built school facility at the current Ayloff site. The council argued that in the difficult situation that it faced in dealing with significant school places, that route would provide a new purpose-built school facility, while maintaining equality of treatment between the staff and governing bodies of both Dunningford and Ayloff, with a new unified school being created. However, it became apparent that the proposed arrangements had not taken account of new provisions introduced under the Education and Inspections Act 2006. Those regulations required proposals for all new primary schools being created, for whatever reason, to be subject to a competition process. It was an extension of arrangements that existed for new secondary schools. The new regulations require that all new primary schools be subject to a competition that invites other potential promoters of schools to express an interest in setting up and operating new schools. Under such arrangements, the local authority continues to have capital responsibility for providing the school's facilities and maintaining the school as part of the ongoing dedicated schools budget revenue funding model, as applied to all other schools.
If expressions of interest are received, an ongoing competition process ensues. The competition is most likely to result in the provision of a foundation trust or voluntary-aided school if the local authority elects to have no part in the process. However, the authority can choose to be involved with a promoter's bid or itself submit a separate proposal for a new school. The local authority, having considered the situation, applied for an exemption in relation to this case, to retain—as it saw it—the concept of equality of treatment between the two schools, but through a merger.
However, that permission was refused by the Secretary of State. As a consequence, Havering council decided to adopt a revised proposal with the proposed closure of Dunningford, even though, as was noted in the briefing paper to the cabinet of Havering council on
"it would require a more unpopular decision to close one school and retain one school and thus place staff and governors of the closing school at a significant disadvantage to the school that would remain open."
The Minister will be aware that I wrote to him about the situation and the impact of the operation of the regulations in the scenario of action to address surplus school places. In his reply to me, the Minister said:
"I can confirm that we considered very carefully the case made by Havering for consent to publish proposals for a new community primary school, but we were not satisfied that the proposed school would contribute to raising local school standards, increased diversity and greater parental choice."
I understand and appreciate that that decision has been made and I am not seeking tonight to reopen specific consideration of that issue. I also recognise that it is a matter for each local authority to set out and determine its plans for school provision for the local community that it serves, and that Ministers should not intervene. However, I hope that the Minister will be able to provide some clarity on the practical operation of the competition regime under the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and to address some more general issues highlighted by this case.
In particular, how in circumstances of what were in essence school closures because of surplus school places could a local authority demonstrate greater parental choice, as referred to in the Minister's letter, to meet the requirements of exemption when two schools were being reduced to one, albeit new, school? My driving principle in reviewing the situation has been to consider how best to ensure fairness and equality of treatment between two good schools in this extremely difficult situation. In that context, the Minister will be interested to know that I have made representations to the local authority to hold a competition for the replacement school. However, I have to say that I have done so to preserve balance and equality in the current situation, in which the risk is increasingly that one school might be pitted against the other; it is not because of any real enthusiasm for what appears to be a rigid and bureaucratic measure that the competition regime appears to provide.
In that context, it is worth mentioning certain points that Havering council has put back to me, as highlighted in particular in a letter from Andrew Ireland, the group director of children's services at the London borough of Havering. He said:
"If it is the case that the only way that diversity and parental choice may be enhanced is through a competition to provide a school then the council's proposal does not achieve this. However, competition itself does not deliver a greater diversity of providers if the successful bidder is the local authority. So far there has been only one secondary school provided through competition, in Haringey, and the Local Authority won the competition. That school is not yet built. There has been no primary school built through the competition route to date. There is no evidence at all in the primary sector to justify a claim either way."
"The competition route was open to it, but officers' view was that the delay to achieving a new school would be a full year, disagreeing with the DCSF theoretical calculation that the delay would be only 4 months. The alternative route, to close one school, removed the delay but at a cost to the staff and governors of the school being closed. There is real evidence that extended delay can contribute to diminished outcomes for children. The council's position has to be that the experience of children has to be put first with regret for the worsened position of some staff this entails."
It should be noted that the council has sought to ameliorate the impact on the staff of Dunningford by declaring that there will be no compulsory redundancies.
As I understand it, the council's point on the extended delay and its difference of view from that of DCSF officials is that, in order to minimise disruption to the education of pupils, change is best effected at the start of the academic year, and to ensure an appropriate operation of admissions policies in practical terms this requires a specific timetable and means that the delay caused would be about a year. That is a practical issue that has been pointed out to me, and I hope that the Minister might be able to reflect on it as regards the model that has been established.
Other concerns that have been raised include the following: neither the council, the schools or the communities involved would know what the outcome of the process would be until completed; a range of promoters could come forward, or not; the future position of all governors and staff involved would be uncertain, and if a promoter or proposals other than for a community school were approved, it is likely that the staff would be subject to a procedure under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981; that an early start could not be made on new building design as a third party would not have to accept any work completed by the council, further delaying implementation; and that the process for the council providing capital to the new school promoter is at best unclear at this stage.
Those practical and genuinely held concerns have been raised with me, the public in Havering, the schools concerned and the governing bodies. I hope that the Minister might be able to consider and respond to them and in so doing give some guidance on how they could be overcome in this specific example, or more generally for a council in a similar predicament to that in which Havering finds itself. The Minister may say that they are not well founded, in which case, in terms of the continuing process, the officers in the cabinet of Havering council can hear him give another viewpoint on the competition route, which, in practice, may not be as they see it.
It is important that control is given to local communities rather than having it vested in central Government, who prescribe more heavily in terms of how a process should operate. Because this is new ground—a process that has not yet been fully tested, certainly not in the primary school arena—it may be right that questions should be raised by Havering so that other schools and local authorities can review the position and learn from the experiences that we are having to deal with.
Parents, children, staff and governors at Ayloff and Dunningford have a difficult period ahead of them, whatever outcome is finally decided on, depending on whether a competition route is adopted. There are no easy solutions in this sad situation where two excellent schools with very strong management teams have to address the difficult question of managing surplus school places. I ask the Minister to reflect upon the case of Havering and to look again at the policy framework and perspective that arise in this case so that lessons can be learned. Even if the law cannot be changed, perhaps guidance or further advice can be provided to local authorities to explain more specifically the relevant issues and the practical considerations.
I hope that we will find our way through and work out how we can best manage the situation in Havering. Through this debate, perhaps we can provide input and guidance and insight into how local authorities manage a situation where there are surplus school places and where no new school is being created. It is a question of consolidation, and how the regulations fit in; I still have questions about whether they are practical or appropriate to such concerns. I hope that the Minister will take that issue on board, and reflect on the points made to me, and through me, to him, in this debate.