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School Places (Barking and Dagenham)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:12 pm on 17th March 2016.

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Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Labour, Barking 5:12 pm, 17th March 2016

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jon Cruddas on securing the debate, and on selecting this issue.

I will not give all the figures, but Barking and Dagenham has experienced the greatest increase in school numbers in the country over the last five years, a massive increase of 48%. Although the increase will slow down a bit over the next five years, it is still huge. The growth in primary school figures is now hitting the secondary school estate, which will experience a 57% increase over the next five years. It is predicted that a third of the borough’s population will be under the age of 19. I think that we face a problem of huge proportions, and I hope that the Government will accept that.

I want to add two comments to what my hon. Friend has said. First, the current estate, especially the secondary estate, is horrific in some instances. Barking Abbey, a secondary school in my constituency, teaches to really high standards in atrocious buildings, all of which are portakabins. When I took the Public Accounts Committee down to see the borough during our an inquiry into school places, we saw dangerous wires coming out of some parts of the building. There are not enough science classrooms, and the entire sixth form is being taught in portakabins; yet the school has been asked to accept more young people. That is an impossible ask when the current conditions are so atrocious.

Gascoigne primary school, which is also in my constituency, is the largest primary school in the country. We are constructing a new building for it some distance away. I am always very sceptical about the ability of a headteacher to manage two buildings that are not on the same site. When I last visited that school, it had lost practically all its playground space. In a week when the Government are talking about encouraging school sports, I have to tell the Minister that the places are simply not there. It has also had to lose its library, which has moved into a portakabin, and it will be impossible for it to meet the aims of the anti-obesity strategy that the Government have spelled out. I just want to draw to the Minister’s attention the reality of people’s lives as they try to manage, given the insufficient number of school places.

I get endless cases of this nature, and I am sure that my hon. Friend does as well. One involves a young girl who is looking for a secondary school place. She has not been given a place at either of her first two choices of school. She wanted to go to Sydney Russell school, where her older sibling is, but she is being sent instead to a school right in the east of my hon. Friend’s constituency, a 45-minute bus ride from where she lives. Another involves a young boy who has also not been given a place at either of the schools he wanted to go to. He wanted to go to the new school, Riverside school, which is a 15-minute walk from his home, and we should be able to cater for his needs. However, he has been given a place at Eastbrook school, which involves a 40-minute journey on two buses. I hope that the Minister agrees that that is unacceptable. It is not what any responsible Government should be providing, which is the very best start in life for our young children.