I start by congratulating James Brokenshire on securing this debate. I am grateful to him and to my hon. Friend Jon Cruddas for raising these matters with me in conversations here, in earlier questions and in correspondence. I am also grateful to the parents and children who have written to the Department about the proposed school closures.
Parents, pupils, staff and the wider community are always rightly concerned about the effects of any changes to local school provision. As today's debate shows, that is true of every community throughout the country, not just the rural ones that have been in the news in the past few weeks.
Understandably, people have strong views and they want them to be heard, and it is important that local authorities listen to the people who will be most directly affected and to their representatives, such as hon. Members, in order to get these difficult decisions right. Before I respond to the issues raised concerning Havering, I want to set the context of the way in which local authorities act as strategic commissioners for school places.
The local authority is now the commissioner rather than the direct provider of educational services—a vision that we set out in October 2005 in the White Paper "Higher Standards: Better Schools for All", and put into law with the Education and Inspections Act 2006. Authorities are responsible for managing the supply and demand for schools in their areas. They are well placed for that role; they are certainly better placed to make those decisions than I am, sitting in Whitehall. They can use their local knowledge and local consultation to ensure that schools serve the needs of their communities and provide good quality education in the most cost-effective way. To do that, they have to adapt to changing circumstances.
As birth rates fall and rise in different areas, local authorities have to consider what schools they need and where they should be, which may mean that not all schools are of the right size or in the right place. Too many surplus places can represent a poor use of resources, so authorities with high levels of surplus places will consider reducing them as part of their planning strategy. But, of course, that does not mean rushing to close schools.
Capacity can also be reduced by removing temporary accommodation, consolidating split site schools and by rationalising school space. I have said repeatedly in recent weeks that local authorities should think creatively about their future planning. They will need to assess whether accommodation can be adapted for alternative use, broadening the services that their schools offer in line with the likely future pattern of children's services as a whole and with the needs of local communities. They can look at forming federations or consider collocating schools with other services to ensure that their buildings are viable. As I said, it is for the local authority to take the lead in that process, as the strategic commissioner of school places, while taking account of the particular local circumstances. Part of the new role for authorities is to provide greater choice and diversity for parents and children, as the hon. Gentleman said. The 2006 Act makes it clear that if a local authority wants to open any new school for pupils of compulsory school age, it must publish a notice inviting bids from other providers—in effect, start a competition. We introduced the change to bring new talent and energy to school provision. Standards of teaching and learning will be improved if there is a diverse range of good schools for parents to choose from.
The change is starting to work. We are already seeing energetic and dynamic providers coming forward in some of the competitions that have been run and in those that are running, including those for new primary schools. The hon. Gentleman is right that the council won the competition in Haringey—that just shows that competitions are not stacked against local authorities—but we have also held competitions for new secondary schools in Lincolnshire, as well as two competitions in Southampton, and there are six competitions for primary schools in Salford, two in Devon, one in Cambridge, one in West Sussex and one in Northamptonshire.
I am sure that officers such as Andrew Ireland in Havering will be looking closely at the experience in those authorities, as will we, because the hon. Gentleman is right: in these early days of competition, we need to be able to look at the experience. I am particularly concerned to ensure that there should be enough providers out there wanting to enter such competitions, especially for primary schools—there is no question but that a number are interested in secondary schools—to ensure that the competitions genuinely are competitions.
That brings me to the reorganisation in Havering that the hon. Gentleman has raised in this debate. As he said, Havering's primary schools have 10 per cent. surplus places, with eight of its 65 primaries having more than 25 per cent. surplus places. It is sensible that the authority should address that surplus. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the local authority wishes to open two new community schools to replace Dunningford and Ayloff schools, and Edwin Lambert and the Manor schools, yet without holding competitions.
We recognise that there may be cases where a competition will not necessarily be appropriate in a particular area. We have indicated that we might be prepared to give consent in three circumstances: first, straightforward amalgamations of infant and junior schools where a replacement primary school is proposed; secondly, where there is to be a reorganisation of religious schools in the area and schools with a particular religious character are to be replaced by schools with the same religious character; or thirdly, where an independent proposer proposes a new school to increase diversity in the area, rather than in response to a local authority's need to reorganise.
We have provided that, with the consent of the Secretary of State, proposals to open a new school can be published by the local authorities or other providers without the need to run a competition, if the proposals meet those criteria. However, we have made it clear in debates, including during the passage of the 2006 Act—my first days as Minister for Schools were spent taking the Bill through Committee—that consent would be given only in exceptional cases, such as those that I have described.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that careful consideration was given to the case made by Havering for consent to publish proposals for two new community primary schools without competition, but we were simply not satisfied that there was a compelling argument to depart from our clear policy in those cases. We did not believe that the interests of the area would definitely—that is the test for us—be best served by the proposed new schools or that they would definitely contribute to raising local school standards and increase diversity and parental choice. We believe that competition would have tested all those questions. I am therefore pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman has continued to promote the idea of competition with his local authority.
Instead, the local authority has chosen to amalgamate existing schools without running school competitions. It is legally entitled not to hold a competition if it is proposing to close one school and make alterations to the other, rather than to establish a new school, but we would still have preferred to see the competitions. The local authority could have closed the two pairs of schools and held competitions for the two replacement schools, which would have provided an opportunity for other providers to set out alternative proposals. Havering could have obtained approval to enter its own community school proposals into those competitions, which could have been considered alongside those from any other providers. If Havering had been the best in the competition, as Haringey was, the schools adjudicator would have found for the council. The most important point is that had that been done, local people would have been able to submit their views on all the proposals. The local authority's proposals would have been considered on merit against any others, and the questions raised by the community about why Dunningford and the Manor school were selected for closure—and the resulting sense of disadvantage among pupils and staff—could have been avoided, because there would have been a transparent competition process.
I know that time was an issue. The local authority expressed concern that it had already carried out detailed consultation on its plans before the new requirement for school competitions came into force. However, I gently remind it that our proposals were well heralded. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 was introduced in February of that year, over a year and half before Havering applied to the Department. Following Royal Assent, detailed draft regulations and guidance were issued in November 2006 which made it clear that we expected competitions to be run for new schools. The local authority should therefore have recognised that the new measures would affect their plans, and should have taken them into account earlier.
Local consultation is a critical element of any proposed reorganisation. Authorities must set out exactly what they propose to do, explain why, and explain how people will be affected. I know that Havering has consulted extensively on its reorganisation plans, and its current document includes changes that it made after listening to people's views. I note that the local authority has gone some way towards dealing with local concerns by making a commitment to secure equality for all staff when determining the new staffing structures, and to avoid redundancies. However, consultation is not the same as choice, and as I said, our preference—and, I think, that of the hon. Gentleman—would have been for a competition.
I do not believe that that would have seriously delayed progress. Competitions could have been well under way by now, and decisions could have been made by the schools adjudicator in midsummer. The process would have involved a competition involving all interested parties, with a variable time scale. An initial notice would have been published inviting bids for the establishment of a new school, in a local newspaper and in a conspicuous place in the area served by the school, with a deadline of four months for proposals. A second notice would then have been published summarising the proposals submitted. It would have had to be published within three weeks of the end of the first notice period.
There would have been a period for representations, allowing comments and objections to be submitted in relation to all proposals. During that period, a public meeting would have had to take place. There would then have been a decision by the local authority, or the schools adjudicator if the local authority had submitted proposals or had a role in the trust of a proposed trust school. Decisions are generally made within two months, and implementation would have followed. I think it is possible to complete the process in less than a year, and I believe that the schools adjudicator could have made a decision if Havering had chosen to enter the competition in midsummer. However, I accept that it is within the law for the local authority to amalgamate schools in this way, and it is for the authority to respond to concerns about its particular approach.