Education and Health

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 7:31 pm on 2nd June 2010.

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Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester 7:31 pm, 2nd June 2010

I have been here throughout the debate and there have been some excellent maiden speeches. I congratulate all those who have spoken so far, and there will be more to come. I also thank those who paid tribute to their predecessors. That is appreciated as well.

I will be voting for the Queen's Speech, warts and all, because I think that a Government must have a programme to take forward. However, I give notice that, when some of those warts come back, I shall need some convincing if I am to vote for them.

In Essex, there is an attraction about getting shot of Essex county council. It is not so much that it has a dead hand on education: as far as Colchester is concerned, it has a warped hand. The council has failed to listen to the people of my constituency even though, in a consultation exercise, in excess of 96% of them said no to the secondary school reorganisation.

If we can persuade the sixth-form college and the Colchester institute to come together with all the local secondary schools in a co-operative-or whatever name we want to give it-my hope is that we can build on what the coalition is putting forward and get shot of Essex county council. As the previous Government well knew, the council is a disaster as an education authority. Indeed, hon. Members who were in the last Parliament will know that I raised the shortcomings of the Essex education authority time and time again.

The coalition needs to look at a policy paper put to the Liberal Democrat spring conference of March 2009. It stated:

"the Academies model is unfair in relation to freedoms granted and unsustainable given the way it is centrally run from Westminster.

Liberal Democrats would replace the Academies programme with a new devolved model of Sponsor Managed Schools in which...All schools, including existing Academies (which would become Sponsor Managed Schools) would be under the strategic oversight of local authorities and not Ministers in Whitehall."

Nothing that I have heard or seen in the succeeding year and a bit since has altered my view on that. A letter appeared in last Friday's Liberal Democrat N e ws from Helen Flynn of Skipton and Ripon, and I should like to put it on the record. It said:

"Though much has been achieved in terms of shoehorning in Lib Dem policy in many areas of the Coalition Agreement the Queen's Speech shows how we have dropped the ball on education-massively.

It defies belief that as the party supposedly set apart for its stance on localism in education we have allowed in massive expansion of the Academies Programme, which is at once centralised as opposed to local in its accountability framework, and is divisive as opposed to inclusive in terms of its admission arrangements."

I will delay more comment until the Second Reading of the Academies Bill. We look forward to that with great interest, but I return to the fact that Essex county council has failed the secondary school system in Colchester. I was greatly encouraged by the Secretary of State-and I shall be reading Hansard closely tomorrow-because I think that there is a glimmer of hope in what he said.

It was confirmed only this week that Colchester is the fastest growing borough in the country, yet Essex county council has plans to shut two secondary schools there when all the figures show that they should be retained, and that a new school will be required elsewhere. That is nonsense: shutting schools while expanding others to provide for up to as many as 2,000 pupils is not localism and does not make sense.

I hope that Colchester schools will come together and that we can save Thomas Lord Audley school in Berechurch and Alderman Blaxill school at Shrub End. In one of my interventions in the speech by the Secretary of State, I drew attention to early-day motion 25 in my name, which relates to the fitness of children. Linked with that is early-day motion 24 on learning outside the classroom, and Ministers may also want to look at early-day motion 65, which raises questions about the results achieved by academy schools.

Lastly, this debate is about education and health. I therefore urge the Secretary of State for Health to draw together health and education in an holistic approach, and bring education about first aid into the school curriculum. All the evidence shows that that would save the NHS tens of millions of pounds a year by reducing the numbers of people going to hospital accident and emergency departments. Lives would be saved in the precious two or three minutes after an incident happens, for example when someone falls down the stairs or is involved in a road crash.

To conclude, although I will be voting for the Queen's Speech, I have set out my serious reservations about school academies and free schools.