Todmorden and Calder High Schools

– in the House of Commons at 9:58 pm on 9th March 2015.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Harriett Baldwin.)

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Conservative, Calder Valley 10:01 pm, 9th March 2015

My predecessor, the Labour MP for Calder Valley, tried in vain for 13 years to convince her Government to rebuild both Calder and Todmorden high schools. The two schools have been at the top of the local authority priority list for many years, nay for decades. The problem with the previous Labour Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme was that these schools never hit the criteria to be rebuilt and without a change in the criteria they would never have been rebuilt. The two criteria of the Building Schools for the Future programme were deprivation and underachievement, but neither school was considered by the then Labour Government to be in an area of deprivation and both overachieved according to the criteria set by that same Government. It was therefore inevitable that my predecessor would fail in her attempt to get them both rebuilt under that programme.

Since becoming the MP for Calder Valley nearly five years ago, as well as for the three years before that, I have had a constant stream of people visit the schools, including the previous Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend Michael Gove; the previous Minister responsible for children and families, my hon. Friend Tim Loughton; the Minister responsible for school reform, my hon. Friend Mr Gibb; the Prime Minister’s office; the director of capital at the Education Funding Agency; the director of finance and commercial at the Department for Education; the chief executive of the EFA; and a plethora of people from the funding agency. Every one has either pledged money or agreed that something needs to be done about these schools.

The problems at the two schools have been extensive, with gas leaks, electricity substations replaced, sewer collapses, banisters on stairwells too low for health and safety, heating systems that are so old that at one end of the building it is like a sauna and the other end it is like a freezer, asbestos, prefabricated buildings that are a couple of decades past their usable life, mould, water retention behind rendered walls, crumbling windows and crumbling windowsills, as well as the fact that both schools battle the blight of flat roofs that need constant repairs and leak like sieves. Those are just a few of the issues.

At Todmorden high school, the local authority has allocated an additional £250,000 per annum just for unexpected repairs. At Calder high school, when they built the Ted Hughes theatre not too many years ago in memory of our locally born national poet laureate they found that the part of the building on which they were building the theatre had no foundations at all.

Both schools are a mess. The fact that their teachers teach and pupils learn to their full potential is testament to the excellent heads, their management teams, excellent teachers and superb pupils. Calder high school was built in 1935 but did not open until after the war, in 1950. It was built for 350 students, but today it caters for 1,500 students and staff. It was also our country’s first comprehensive school, and with the exception of the separate sixth-form building, built over a decade ago, the building is mainly in its original form—all flat-roofed. Todmorden high school is a specialist high school for visual arts, but trust me, nothing at all about the buildings can be considered visual art. It was built in 1958, it too is all flat-roofed, and it leaks like a sieve. The Pennine wind howls through the windows, which constantly rattle, and the extortionate energy bills add to the global warming issue, rather than keeping the young people in the building warm.

Imagine the excitement, then, when it was announced that instead of the criteria used for Building Schools for the Future, there would be new criteria around dilapidation and places. Finally, after nearly two decades, these two schools were on a level playing field with others, and everybody assured me that justice would be served. Every school in the UK was to be surveyed, and finally, after the unfairness of Building Schools for the Future, both Todmorden and Calder high schools would be in with a real chance of getting the money, not only because they had been promised it by the Prime Minister, no less, and the Secretary of State for Education, but because the process for getting the money was finally to be fair.

In this Parliament, there have been only two lots of announcements of funding under the Priority School Building programme: PSBP 1 and, more recently, PSBP 2. Both schools narrowly missed out under PSBP 1; both, after the applications were ranked, came in the early 300s. The Government announced moneys to rebuild the first 261 schools. On that basis, it seemed a sure bet that they would be in the next round. PSBP 2, however, was done on a block-by-block basis, so schools applied to have blocks rebuilt, rather than the whole school. This time, because the Government used the surveys that had been done for prioritising schools, funding for 467 blocks was announced. This time, Calder high was the school with the lower block score, at around 1,700, and Todmorden, which everybody knows locally as being the most dilapidated of the two, scored 2,638, which is absolute nonsense.

I asked the Minister for Schools only last week about the property data surveys and why he would not publish the rankings of schools. My right hon. Friend replied:

“we have no plans to publish a ranking list of surveyed schools, which could be misleading without taking into account other information supplied by schools and local authorities with their PSBP 2 bids.”—[Hansard, 2 March 2015; Vol. 593, c. 661.]

If the DFE is taking into account other information supplied by schools and local authorities, why did we spend millions of pounds on property surveys? Why did the Department not use the statement of priorities, which every local authority uses as a working document, and uses to allocate maintenance spend? That could have saved the Department millions of pounds by preventing the carrying out of additional surveys—surveys that do not appear to be a true reflection of the real state of dilapidation. In fact, it was only a decade ago that it ceased to be a requirement for local authorities to submit those statements of priorities to central Government. I accept that not every local authority will now be using the same format. However, as it is down to individual local authorities to allocate maintenance spend priorities, they will have some form of working document that they use to allocate funds.

If the survey is not the only basis, in the interests of openness and transparency why will the Minister not let everyone know what other things are taken into account? We know locally that the surveys do not reflect the reality on the ground. If they did, Todmorden high school would be ranked as a higher priority than Calder high school. It is not.

After reviewing the survey data following the decision about phase 2 of the Priority School Building programme, I raised concerns about how robust the surveys were, in particular for Todmorden high school. After what seemed like a whirlwind tour of all and anyone who would listen, many of them agreed to my request for a second look to be taken at the surveys, particularly that of Todmorden high school. The director, finance and commercial, at the Department for Education and the chief executive of the Education Funding Agency have said they would look again at the surveys. The Prime Minister’s office has said that it would ask for a re-survey. The Secretary of State has said that she will ask for a re-survey. Even the surveyors have said they will do another survey.

The problem appears to be that the Minister seems to be blocking this. May I ask the Minister why he is blocking attempts to have at least Todmorden high school re-surveyed or the survey re-examined? Similarly, I am told that, even if we did manage to have Todmorden re-surveyed and it was correct, the Minister would not allow it to be added to the list anyway, despite there being contingency within the list. May I ask the Minister if this is true and, if he is blocking any other school being added to the list, why?

Finally, the Prime Minister promised money for Todmorden high school and the previous Secretary of State for Education promised money. Every person whom I have dragged around the schools over the years agrees that the schools need to be rebuilt, the 2,500 students and teachers at Todmorden and Calder high schools all agree that these schools need rebuilding, and every parent and grandparent of those young people who live and work in those communities know that the schools need rebuilding. Many parents tell me that the schools needed rebuilding when they went to them. Why does the Minister believe that he knows better than all these people? Why will he not reconsider having the schools looked at again? Why will he not agree to put them on the PSB2 programme if he got it wrong?

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools 10:12 pm, 9th March 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend Craig Whittaker on securing this important debate. I understand how important this matter is to him, and I recognise that he is and has been a strong advocate for the schools in his constituency.

It clearly is not right for pupils and teachers to work in buildings in a poor condition where learning is disrupted and staff time is diverted from the necessary focus on teaching. High quality school buildings send out an important signal to young people and to those who teach in schools about the importance that we place on education. It can also help to raise the aspirations of many young people, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds, if they are educated in appropriate settings. Investment in the school estate is one of this Government’s highest priorities, and it is our aim that every child will have a good quality school place in buildings that are safe and fit for purpose.

Over this Parliament the Government have spent some £18 billion on school buildings. This year we allocated a total of £1.4 billion to help improve and maintain the condition of school buildings, and have recently announced a further £4.2 billion in school condition funding up to 2017-18. This is in addition to the major investments in the Priority School Building programme, and the announcement of a second phase of that programme. Since 2011, we have also invested £5 billion in the creation of new school places in response to need, and we recently announced a further £1.3 billion in basic need funding for 2017-18 for new school places.

The Priority School Building programme aims to rebuild or refurbish those schools or individual school buildings in the very worst condition. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we should prioritise on the basis of need, not on the basis of deprivation, attainment or other factors that were considered by previous Governments. Through the first phase of PSBP, 260 schools are being rebuilt or will have their condition needs met. We are now actively engaged with all 260 schools in the programme—19 are already open in new buildings, 82 construction contracts have been signed, and the other schools are all in various stages of design and development. We are still aiming for all schools to be open in their new buildings by the end of 2017, two years earlier than originally planned.

In May 2014, as my hon. Friend indicated, we launched a second phase of the priority school building programme—PSBP2—a £2 billion programme between 2015 and 2021 to undertake rebuilding and refurbishment projects in schools with buildings in the very worst condition. While the first phase of the programme worked on the basis of the condition of the whole school site, through PSBP2 the Department has refined the approach to target individual school buildings as well as whole-school rebuilds where appropriate. That is for the good reason, as I am sure he will understand, that some schools have a large number of buildings, some of which are in a very good state and some of which are in an absolutely terrible state. It is not reasonable to overlook buildings in a very bad state simply because of the state of some of the school’s other buildings. This allows limited funding to be focused much more tightly on addressing specific issues in a school estate.

That approach has been made possible by the introduction of the property data survey programme—the most comprehensive survey of the school estate ever undertaken—which has provided information on the condition of individual school buildings. It has sought to do so—I emphasise this for my hon. Friend—in a way that is consistent across the country so that we do not rely on surveys that have been undertaken in very different ways by different local authorities and responsible bodies, on the basis of which it would not be possible to allocate money from central Government because we would not know whether there was consistency across the country.

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Conservative, Calder Valley

I accept what my right hon. Friend says about surveys, but the local authority surveys of Todmorden and Calder high schools are consistent. For decades, Todmorden high school has been prioritised streets ahead of Calder high, yet under the national surveys it is completely the other way around. Surely there is cause to look again at the national surveys of those two schools, because they are completely at odds with what we know locally.

Photo of David Laws David Laws The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, The Minister for Schools

My understanding is that, following my hon. Friend’s representations to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, the Department looked very closely at the judgments we made on those school buildings, and we continue to believe that they were right, but I will move on to that point in a moment.

I would like to make it clear at this point that I, as the Minister responsible for the capital programme, have not resisted any proposals that have been put to me in relation to buildings in my hon. Friend’s constituency, or any proposals from anybody in the Government. The Department received expressions of interest in the programme on behalf of 1,299 schools, covering over 3,300 property data survey blocks, which was a much greater number than for PSBP1. That was probably because of the willingness to accept individual block bids and, as my hon. Friend will know from his time on the Education Committee, because PSBP1 had a large private finance element, which put off some bidders, whereas PSBP2 is entirely from public capital.

Of the 1,299 schools that applied, 277 have been successful, which means that well over 400 school blocks will have their condition needs addressed, as my hon. Friend indicated. Individual school buildings were prioritised for inclusion in the programme on the basis of data from the property data survey programme, together with the information supplied in schools’ expressions of interest. Our aim was to identify those blocks where the poor condition is most highly concentrated, where the continued operation of the school is most at risk and where the cost of addressing the issues would present those responsible for schools with the greatest challenges, given the allocations we are able to give them at a responsible-body level.

I understand that my hon. Friend has concerns about the property data survey, particularly with regard to Todmorden and Calder high schools. The property data surveys were all conducted by professionally qualified building surveyors and engineers who are experienced in undertaking condition surveys in schools. Consistency among the surveyors was ensured by using detailed guidance and a standardised surveying pro forma developed by the EFA. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors provided feedback to the EFA on the methodology we used throughout the development of the programme and it has endorsed our approach.

Data from the surveys were subject to a rigorous quality assurance and audit programme. Schools’ responsible bodies were also given the opportunity to review their data and they provided feedback to the EFA on any discrepancies prior to the data being used. I know that Calderdale council raised a number of queries about the property data survey information. They were reviewed by our independent technical advisers in line with our published criteria for changes, and they decided that the original survey information should stand. I am sure that my hon. Friend understands why we took the decision to base the initial property data survey on a visual inspection only. An intrusive survey of every one of the schools that applied would potentially have damaged the existing school buildings and increased the risk of our disturbing any asbestos present in each building. The additional costs, as well as the inconvenience to schools, would have been significant.

We recognise, of course, that every survey has its limitations, which is why we invited those applying to the Priority School Building programme to submit additional local information. We considered the information submitted on asbestos and structural issues alongside the property data survey information. We have published information on the Government website on the methodology used to prioritise the programme.

In the majority of cases, the schools prioritised for the Priority School Building programme were not even in the previous Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme, which shows the stark gap between the previous plans and the priorities in many areas. The cost of PSBP schools is up to a third lower than that of BSF schools, saving millions of pounds per school. We are building or improving more than 800 schools during this Parliament, compared with less than 400 under Labour’s BSF programme. We have already completed more than 200 new school buildings since the last election.

The starting point for deciding on schools for the programme was the information contained in the property data survey, specifically the degree of need shown in the worst two condition grades in the survey, namely condition grade C, where elements are exhibiting major defects and/or not operating as intended, and condition grade D, where they are life expired or at serious risk of imminent failure. The need shown in those grades was then divided by the gross internal floor area of the block to produce a relative condition need value per square metre, to allow sensible comparisons to be made.

We automatically included in the programme blocks with a significant structural or asbestos need issue that could only be sustainably addressed by rebuilding, as well as those with condition D need that required the most substantial funding and would not otherwise make the programme. The remaining blocks were then ranked by the need per square metre calculation, including any structural and asbestos costings.

In the case of Calder high school—I believe my hon. Friend has discussed these matters with some of the senior members of the EFA—three blocks were included in the application. In those blocks, the degree of grade C and D need was simply less than those schools that were successful in their application. Indeed, the need was considerably less, as my hon. Friend knows. As part of the prioritisation process, we reviewed the information that was submitted with the school’s expression of interest in relation to structural and asbestos-related issues. As with all structural and asbestos issues raised, they were analysed on a consistent basis by our technical advisers to identify whether the need was immediate and significant enough to be accepted for automatic inclusion or for additional need to be priced and considered in the ranking process. The issues identified at the school did not, unfortunately, pass that assessment.

In the case of Todmorden high school, the expression of interest covered six blocks that all made up a single block as part of the property data survey. Again, the simple fact was that in the worst two condition grades C and D, the property data survey showed the school to have low need. Actually, it was shown to have no need at all in the worst condition grade D, and certainly much lower need than schools that were ultimately selected as part of the programme.

My hon. Friend will know that another of his schools was successful in the Priority School Building programme 2. Cragg Vale primary school was successful on the basis of the structural concerns raised in the school’s expression of interest. Independent technical advisers reviewed the information submitted by the local authority and confirmed that a retaining wall had been condemned and posed a risk to the school. The cost of the repair to the retaining wall was priced in line with Priority School Building programme 2 and PDS pricing. However, that would have addressed only the wall, and we could not be confident that it would have addressed the underlying issues causing the movement. The school was classified as having no viable repair, and was therefore escalated to the list. As he will understand, sometimes more significant structural issues are not automatically visible to those of us who are not experts in such matters, so a school may look in a better state superficially, but have a higher condition need.

We should be clear that the fact that Todmorden and Calder high schools were unsuccessful is not to say that they do not have condition issues that need addressing. We encourage responsible bodies to bid only for their worst blocks, and selection for the programme was made by comparison with other blocks in poor condition. To put that in context, the property data survey holds data on almost 60,000 blocks across England. It is likely that the successful blocks had a combination of very poor condition elements in their building—in other words, failing boilers as well as issues with their external and internal walls.

PSBP2 is intended to sit alongside, not to replace, the responsibility that local authorities, governing bodies, trustees, dioceses and other bodies have for the maintenance of school buildings in their care. As my hon. Friend will probably know, since 2011 we have made available more than £23 million in capital funding for the provision of new school places and the maintenance of schools in Calderdale. We have announced a further £16 million of funding for 2015 to 2018. Academies in Calderdale have successfully bid for more than £17.5 million in funding through the academies capital maintenance fund, of which about £10 million is for academies in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Over the 2011 to 2018 period, Calderdale schools will receive £22 million for the improvement and maintenance of the school estate.

I understand that Calderdale council is considering using part of the allocations to address some of the issues at Todmorden school. I would encourage it to do so, because that is exactly what the money is for. Indeed, the fact that the local authority has put forward these particular schools as part of the bidding process for PBSP2 implies that it must be concerned about their condition. Therefore, they should be a real priority for the money we have allocated to the local authority. We understand that local authorities have competing priorities for their capital resources, but I am sure that my hon. Friend is making the case to Calderdale council for investment in these schools.

Because of my hon. Friend’s representations to me, the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and senior members of the Education Funding Agency, I have asked EFA officials who lead on the delivery of our national school building programme to contact Calderdale council to offer their expertise in the development and procurement of capital schemes. I invite the council and my hon. Friend to make any further and final representations that they wish to make following either my comments or his in this debate.

In addition, I hope that EFA officials, who are able to offer expertise in the development and procurement of capital schemes, can review the full range of options for addressing the building condition need at Calder high and Todmorden schools. As I have previously said, we are delivering school building projects at a third of the cost of the previous Government's BSF programme, and, if appropriate, we intend to provide Calderdale council with access to the same procurement routes that allow us to deliver such savings. As a local council, it can, if it thinks it appropriate, use the money we have devolved to it to seek to prioritise these schools, and, following the efficient methods of procurement to which the EFA has access, to do so as effectively as possible.

We want to allow those responsible for the maintenance and improvement of school buildings, such as Calderdale council, to plan well across their estates. It is precisely for that reason that we have, for the first time, provided certainty on school condition allocations over the next three years. That is why my hon. Friend’s local council now has a significant amount of additional money to tackle this need.

I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the building issues facing schools in his area. I hope that I have explained the process of prioritising schools in the Priority School Building programme. I am sorry that he has so far been disappointed with the results, but I hope that we can work with his local council to deliver the right result for these schools in his constituency.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.