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Primary School Places (London)

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 3rd March 2009.

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Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 11:00 am, 3rd March 2009

Before we begin the next debate on primary school places in London, let me say that, because this is specifically a local debate, the wind-ups will begin at 12.15 rather than at 12 o'clock to allow as many hon. Members as possible to participate.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I am extremely grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting this debate, which is the first in this House to draw attention to the massive worry of parents across the capital: where, or even whether, their four-year-olds will get a school place in their first term of primary education. It is no exaggeration to say that primary education in London faces a crisis—if it is not already in one—with a huge increase in the number of young children needing primary school places that simply do not yet exist.

London Councils has given me new figures for this debate. It surveyed all London boroughs on this subject during October and November last year. Its figures show that over the next six years, if we do not act now, we could see nearly 12,000 five-year-olds without a primary school place and more than 15,000 children being educated in temporary classrooms. Given that it is illegal for a local authority not to provide a school place for a child, that is extremely serious. Yet I am told that already at least one London borough has a significant number of five-year-olds who have been without a reception class place since September 2008. If that is true, it is a scandal. However, the figures from London Councils show that that could be the tip of the iceberg. Worse still, I have evidence that since London Councils did its own data research at the end of last year, the true situation may be even worse. Boroughs such as Kingston, Hounslow and Merton have told me that their current predictions have increased substantially even since last autumn. The numbers seem truly massive.

If we are to avoid 12,000 or more five-year-olds not having a primary school place, we have to adopt one of the following options: build new, permanent classrooms as soon as possible; expand some schools and build new ones; or rely on temporary classrooms into the foreseeable future. Another option would be to allow infant class sizes to rise above 30, in breach of the current law, thereby breaking a key Labour election pledge from 1997. Clearly, only the first option of permanent solutions is acceptable. Our children deserve no less, and their parents, rightly, will demand no less.

In the debate, I will seek to show that there is a massive shortage of primary school places across London, beginning with the problems that my own constituents face. Then I will suggest why such a situation has arisen and why the Minister's answer today is likely to be out of date and completely inaccurate. Finally, I will set out a range of things that I should like the Minister to do after this debate, including, above all, pledging to support financially any London borough that can show that it has a genuine problem.

I first learned of the problem from parents in my own constituency in the royal borough of Kingston. I will dwell on their experience for a while because I believe that it is instructive for the rest of London. I remember an advice surgery last year when I was faced with a large delegation of parents wanting my help to press the council. I was particularly surprised because the parents were worried about primary school places, which had never happened before during my time as an MP. Previously, any problems with school places had always concerned secondary schooling. I agreed to take up their fight. I met council officers and councillors. I wrote letters, asked lots of parliamentary questions, met larger groups of parents and lobbied the council again. Eventually, thanks to some fantastic efforts by schools, governors, council officers and councillors, seven temporary classrooms were provided with seven "bulge" classes. Almost all parents received an offer of a school place at one of their three preferred schools. Although there was a satisfactory outcome, it was not without delay, great anxiety and worry for all the parents concerned.

During that period, the council carefully examined the whole process. It considered how the forecasts of reception class demand were made. In Kingston's case, as with most other London boroughs, it used figures provided by the Greater London authority. Then it reviewed the timetable for the application process for parents, and other issues such as whether this was a blip or a trend in demand, and what the implications for secondary school places might be in due course. Changes that parents had suggested were made in Kingston. For example, the timetable for applications was brought forward.

I turn now to the position in November 2008. From September, Kingston predicted that there would be 150 more five-year-olds than it had permanent places for, so it proposed five new temporary classrooms—five extra bulge classes—to accommodate them. Parents were being engaged earlier in the process; however, that was producing concerns from them much earlier, too. Some parents felt that the five extra bulge classes were not at the right schools. Others felt that an extra five classes would not be enough—a view that I tended to share and which turned out to be the case.

Last Friday, Kingston council announced five additional bulge classes—a further five temporary classrooms—bringing the total up to 10 for the 300 additional five-year-olds it is now thought that we need to educate from September 2009. I am glad to say that such classes are largely at the schools that concerned parents had wanted, and that I had pressed the council for. I am told that a very high percentage of parents will get offers of places at one of their three preferred schools. None the less, a lot of work still needs to be done and many parents remain worried, with plenty of questions. Unlike last year, when quick decisions had to be made in April, May and June, the key decisions this year appear to have been reached by the end of February.

It is clear that we cannot go on like this. Kingston council has assured me that it will look for permanent solutions this year, taking into account its new, much higher predictions of demand. That requires its having a statutory consultation on increasing the number of permanent places at existing schools and running competitions for the two new primary schools it predicts Kingston will need. There will be a total of 13 new forms of entry by 2012—a massive 25 per cent. rise in capacity.

Kingston wants to run the statutory consultation this year, so that it can start to build new permanent classrooms as soon as possible to avoid temporary classrooms for many more years. I should like it to run the consultation this year, because there are real options on sites in central Surbiton, in which demand for extra places is more acute, and because the taxpayer can benefit from the lower prices for land and material produced by the recession.

However, I have discovered a problem that will affect every London borough grappling with the issue, and I need the Minister to address it today. If she cannot do so in her speech, I hope that she will follow it up in writing soon. It relates to her Department's guidance on the School Organisation Unit website on how a local authority should carry out such a statutory consultation for increasing permanent school places. Paragraph 70 of guidance says:

"Proposals should not be approved conditionally upon funding being made available."

My reading of that paragraph and others in the guidance is that the council will need certainty regarding the funding of new buildings before it can even start any statutory consultation. Will the Minister confirm that position, because although councils such as Kingston can undertake informal consultations on school expansion plans, they cannot start statutory consultations unless and until they have satisfied themselves that the funding for those extra permanent places is secured.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

I have encountered the story that my hon. Friend describes in Brent. We need an extra six forms of entry to deal with the increased capacity. We currently have 44 children without a primary school place. As for funding, is it not also true that the primary capital programme is not targeted at increasing capacity, but at improving school buildings? Therefore, it will never deal with the problem that he describes.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

My hon. Friend is right, and I am disturbed to hear about what is clearly a challenging situation for the local authority in Brent. It will need some support from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. She is also right that many local authorities are having to use modernisation funds. They are supposed to be used for developing and improving information and communication technology in existing schools, but they are being used to provide new places. That is not what the Government intended and not what the money was for, but local authorities are given no choice because they do not have the cash.

We need clarity from the Government on statutory consultation. Funding needs to be in place before the statutory consultation can take place, but given the size and urgency of London's problems, Ministers need to act very quickly—action within the next two months might just be fast enough. If councils are to stand any chance of getting new permanent classes and schools ready for September 2010 or September 2011, they need ministerial decisions on financial support rapidly. Without those, councils can at best consult only on small-scale, partial and inadequate plans that they might just be able to afford from their own finances. Will the Minister address that problem in relation to all London boroughs?

My information for this debate essentially comes from London Councils and other published data on birth rates. It suggests that many London boroughs are in the same pickle. London Councils tells me that 25 out of the 33 boroughs are facing capacity and capital funding problems at primary level—17 outer-London boroughs and 8 inner boroughs have reported problems. Already, at least 12 London boroughs are using large numbers of temporary classrooms. Enfield and Merton have predicted that more than 3,000 reception-aged children will be taught in temporary classrooms between now and 2014. Kingston estimates that it needs 13 new permanent forms of entry by 2014, but the range of new permanent classes required, according to London Councils data, is from seven to 19 new forms of entry.

Of course, the costs will be huge. Let us look at the capital costs alone. Barking and Dagenham says that its shortfall in capital investment between now and 2014 is more than £86 million. London Councils estimates the figure for all London boroughs at £740 million. We should remember that I have some evidence that London Councils's figures are out of date already, and that they underestimate the actual funding shortfall. In essence, we should be in no doubt that we are talking about a lot of children, and a requirement for a massive increase in capacity at a high capital cost.

I am sure that the Minister's brief will say the following: first, that surplus places in some boroughs can easily take care of the problem; secondly, that data supplied to the Government show that the problem is not nearly as serious as I am suggesting; and thirdly, that the issue cannot be a surprise to councils because the number of four-year-olds now was known about when they were born. She might ask why there is a fuss all of a sudden. Not least because I want to be helpful to the Minister, and because I want to bring out the underlying causes of London's massive problem, I will deal with those entirely predictable Government defences in turn.

London has relatively fewer surplus places. In outer London, the average of surplus places in January 2007 was only 8.8 per cent. of the primary capacity and it is certain to be lower by now. The Minister will be well aware of the work by the Audit Commission and others suggesting that surplus capacity of 10 per cent. or less is about right, enabling some choice and flexibility in the system while achieving value for money. For Kingston, the January 2007 figure on surplus places—certainly an overestimate—was 6.1 per cent, whereas in Sutton, it was as low as 4.3 per cent. and it is probably lower still now. In other words, surplus places in many London boroughs cannot solve the problem, especially because those surplus places data refer to all year groups in a school. They are therefore useless when it comes to tackling the problems affecting one year group. Please, Minister, let us not say that surplus places are the way out of the problem.

I have looked at the Government data that the Minister might use to dismiss my argument, and I have talked to civil servants. I must tell her that the data are largely out of date. Essentially, the Department is using figures for 2007 supplemented by some for 2008, but there have been major and sudden changes. Also, my analysis is that there are clearly various misunderstandings between councils and the Department about which figures are required for the predictions. Rather than denying that there is a problem, it is time that everyone involved recognised the problems with the data and did something about them. Will the Minister ask her officials urgently to set up a new formal process for collecting, from all London boroughs, up-to-date data on all aspects of the matter and for cleaning that data? Will she guarantee that, in the next two months, she will require her Department to work urgently with London Councils and individual boroughs to refresh all the data?

On the final argument that the Minister is likely to use, I recognise that it is hardly intuitive that the problem of four-year-olds should be such a surprise, but having considered the matter, I am beginning to understand why it was so unexpected. The facts are as follows. For some considerable time, by and large, councils have been pretty good at predicting primary school place demand. Kingston's predictions, made using the GLA model and data, had been accurate for nearly a decade. However, in 2008 and this year, the long-standing model broke down. I think it broke down because of a powerful combination of several effects that cumulatively led to a radical change.

First, there has been a huge rise in birth rates. Since 2001-02, London's birth rate has been much faster than England's, at 20.5 per cent. compared with only 16.8 per cent. Some boroughs have seen far higher rises, with Barking and Dagenham at 40 per cent., Greenwich 36 per cent., Hounslow 29 per cent. and Sutton 28 per cent. Although the birth rates have been known, the sheer size of them has, I believe, helped to distort previously reliable forecasting models.

We should also consider the effect of the private education sector, which is important. The sector is significantly more important in London's primary education sector than elsewhere in England. The Audit Commission and others have argued that parents are deserting the private sector for the state sector because of the recession. That may be true in some cases, but I do not think that it explains the present problem, not least because most private schools are full. My theory is that while the number of London's infants has been rocketing, the number of places in London's independent schools sector has not grown as rapidly, thus the state sector is being asked to provide places for a higher proportion of a larger cohort of children.

In Kingston, up until 2006, 79 of every 100 five-year-olds would end up requiring a state primary school place. Two years later, that figure reached 89 out of every 100 five-year-olds. That rise in the so-called retention rate was not predicted and perhaps it could not have been predicted. However, if Kingston's experience were repeated across London, it could explain to a large extent the unexpected nature of the problem. Will the Minister ask her officials to write to every independent primary school or prep school in and around Greater London to seek data on their numbers and how they have changed? In my view, we will need to take much greater notice of the independent sector's dynamics if we are to improve forecasts.

We could theorise about other changes which, if true, would have been difficult to predict, such as the impact of the housing and jobs markets on internal migration in England. Demographic data from the GLA last month suggest that there was a record low outflow of people from London to the rest of the UK last year, but a record high inflow from the rest of the UK to London. The report concludes:

"The general decline in the numbers of people moving between regions and particularly those leaving London is an indication of the impact of the present financial downturn. While people coming to London tend to be young singles who rent, those who leave tend to be families who are owner occupiers."

In other words, that theory suggests that the unexpected increase in demand for primary school places in London is due to a change in migration patterns, with more children born in London needing a primary school place in London.

The Minister may say that any effect of the recession might not be sustained when the upturn comes and that the demand for primary school places might therefore go away, but I do not think so. There are plenty of other competing, complementary and equally plausible theories beyond the recession that explain the changes in family moves within and from London. The first theory is a positive one that she should welcome: as London's education has improved, more parents think that they will stay in London for the primary education phase rather than move for the sake of the state primaries in cities and towns elsewhere in England. Then there is the theory that factors such as housing stock, crime levels and general environment have improved to influence patterns of movement and keep families in London. Those are only theories, and I could suggest others, but I think that the point is made: many factors are likely to be behind the dramatic figures; some are predictable, but many will be with us for the foreseeable future.

I hope that I have persuaded the Minister that she needs to consider the problem seriously, whatever her brief says. I especially hope that she will consider Kingston's case, of course, although I acknowledge that quite a few boroughs have more severe problems than the royal borough. I am surprised not to see any Labour London Members present, not least because I contacted them specifically to invite and urge them to participate in this debate, as some of their boroughs are more seriously affected than Kingston. It is a shame that they are not here.

What about the solutions? To start with the capital side and money for investment, undoubtedly my favoured solution is urgent extra capital grant. Where Ministers become convinced of the need, quick solutions are necessary and capital grant is the quickest way to deliver. Coupled with a commitment to extra capital in the next spending review round, it would really help. The Department will no doubt say that there is no money, but if Ministers want a quick, pump-priming boost in demand to tackle the recession—one that will not suck in imports, will use unemployed resources, will provide good value for money for taxpayers and will leave a legacy worth having—a primary school building programme is the answer.

As it is the one preferred by the Department, the Minister's preferred funding route will undoubtedly not be the capital grant but the basic need route, which involves supported borrowing, in which the Government support the revenue cost of the borrowing needed to fund the capital investment. The problem with that route is that that theoretical support is already out there—it is often provided—but it is rolled up with a council's revenue grant. The majority of London authorities are unable to use that support because their increases in revenue grant are so low that they are called floor authorities and they cannot access it. Places such as Kingston are receiving real-terms cuts in their revenue grant, so any theoretical allocations for supported borrowing are eaten up in the cost of providing basic, legally required services. Supported borrowing is just not helping.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one difficulty, which I hope the Minister will discuss, is that some 24 of the 33 London boroughs are floor authorities, as he puts it? Passporting so much education expenditure in that way creates a problem throughout London for local authorities of all political colours.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I am happy to confirm that. The matter goes across parties. Despite my comments about Labour colleagues being absent, I want to make the campaign a cross-party one. The people about whom we should be concerned are the children and parents involved. Whatever party runs any particular borough, we need the cash—we need the investment. I hope that all parties will get behind the campaign.

What can local authorities do? Most, as I said to my hon. Friend Sarah Teather, are looking at an option—one that will be unnecessary if Ministers step in—of diverting cash meant for school modernisation projects into school expansion projects. That will still fall far short of the cash needed in areas such as Kingston and is anyway deeply undesirable, but boroughs might have no choice. I would therefore like the Minister to consider basic need safety valve funding—a wonderful title for a scheme that is supposed to help councils where unexpected changes occur during the three years of the spending review. The problem is that the Department allocates all the safety net money for the whole three years of the spending review period at the beginning of the period, which rather undermines the scheme's raison d'être. Could that be changed?

Finally, there is the revenue side of the matter. Longer-term revenue needs will sort themselves out, because eventually the cash will follow the child and there will be no problem. In the short term, however, two annoying aspects of the current finance regime prevent councils from getting the support that they need when they need it. The first is the inadequacy of the revenue safety net known as the exceptional circumstances grant, which is designed

"to help those authorities who experience significant pressures on their Schools Budgets from increases in overall pupil numbers".

The problem is that it is difficult for councils to obtain that funding, because the criteria apply across the whole school population and not just to the reception class population. Even next September's predicted increase of 300 extra children in Kingston is far short of the 500 that we would need to qualify for the grant. I ask the Minister to consider that problem.

The second is the crazy rule whereby additional pupils starting reception classes in September 2009 do not count for funding purposes until April 2010. That means that for seven months, the local education system receives not a penny towards the costs. Kingston's 10 additional classes for 2009-10 will cost more than £480,000. Because we will receive no help from Government during those seven months, that money will have to be top-sliced off the budgets of all other schools, meaning that other children will lose out.

It should not be like this. When banks get bail-outs while schools get temporary classrooms and no revenue support, parents understandably get angry. Families in Kingston and across London are not asking for the earth. They want a place in a quality local primary school. They do not want to return to the large class sizes that we witnessed under the Conservative Government, when class sizes in Kingston were some of the largest in the country; nor do they want demountable temporary classrooms to become part of the longer-term fabric of our schools. We will be spared those fates only if Ministers are prepared to think afresh, ask their civil servants to reconsider the numbers, acknowledge the problem and find the funding.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Two hon. Members have given good reasons for arriving late to this debate. It is still my intention to call everyone, but it is understood that I will call all Members according to when they arrived for this debate.

Photo of Paul Burstow Paul Burstow Shadow Chief Whip (Commons) 11:28 am, 3rd March 2009

I shall make a note of that for future reference, Mr. Amess.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Davey on securing this important and timely debate. Today is a significant day in the lives of many parents and children who are waiting for the letter to drop through their letterbox or the e-mail to hit their inbox, telling them whether their child has got the school of their preference. Many of us can appreciate the anxiety that parents feel at any stage in their children's journey through education when they find that their child does not have a school place. It causes huge stress, anxiety and disruption to the whole family. I draw on personal experience, as I am waiting for one such letter to arrive today. I hope not to be cast into the limbo described by my hon. Friend and faced by many of our constituents with children of primary school age. Nevertheless, we know that those problems are at large in our high school system.

I have three key points to make. They are all unapologetically Sutton points, but they speak to the wider points made by my hon. Friend. The first is that Sutton experienced London's third largest increase in births between 2005-06 and 2006-07. At just 2 per cent., Sutton has one of the lowest levels of surplus capacity in its primary schools, with surplus places in the upper years of schools rather than the lower years, and with no surplus places in reception classes. The past projections of birth rate figures supplied by the Greater London authority were critical to its application to the Department for its basic need capital funding. Because it used and relied on those figures, as required by the Department, the Department gave the London borough of Sutton an extremely low allocation that will be insufficient to enable the local authority to respond to the much changed circumstances of which we are now aware.

My hon. Friend was right to describe the situation as a crisis. The prospect of one's child having no school place causes anxiety and stress, and the resulting loss of education and all that comes with it has a huge impact on the child. Past GLA projections showed that Sutton would have had sufficient primary school places for the next 15 years. However, the data that were available in March 2008, on which Sutton based its primary capital bid to the Department, showed only a modest increase in the birth rate that would have led to a short-term, one-year peak in 2011-12, during which there would have been 70 children without places in reception classes. I think it is unacceptable for even one child to be placed in that unwelcome and unacceptable situation, so 70 is far too many; none the less, that was the basis of the bid. Since then, however, things have changed beyond all recognition.

The key to understanding what is happening is how the transfer rate, or retention rate as my hon. Friend described it—the ratio of the number of children going into reception classes in Sutton schools to the number of births in the borough five years previously—has changed. The changes in the number of children who go to school outside Sutton and the number of children from outside Sutton who are coming into Sutton's schools have had an impact on that rate. My hon. Friend has mentioned that families are moving far less now and are making different choices about private education—there is clear evidence of that in my constituency. That change, too, has an impact on the transfer, or retention, rate.

Last September, for the first time in many years, every reception place in my borough was filled, so things have clearly changed. That change has been driven by the transfer rate rising from an average of 86.3 per cent., over the past five years, to 90 per cent. now. It has also been driven by the 8.6 per cent. increase in the birth rate between 2005-06 and 2006-07. With birth rates on the increase in Kingston, Merton and Croydon, and to some extent in Surrey, there are fewer opportunities for children to go to schools outside the borough of Sutton than there once might have been. As my hon. Friend has said, the pressures arising from the credit crunch mean that fewer families are moving home and that many are reconsidering whether independent education is an option.

The bottom line is that many hundreds of children will be in limbo in the next few years, without the offer of a primary school place. Whether the transfer rate remains at 90 per cent. or falls back to 85 per cent., according to the figures that my local education authority officers have worked out, there will be a shortfall of between 147 and 271 places by 2011-12, rising to between 209 and 337 in 2012-13. The deficit in places is huge and growing and a variety of approaches will be needed to close the gap. I hope that the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend's questions on how those options will be paid for.

Using spare capacity is part of the solution. Analysis so far has identified just two schools in the borough with available rooms that are not used directly for educational purposes, which could be released for classrooms. That would cost £1 million. Another option is to add accommodation to schools. It might be possible to add as much as one form of entry at about seven primary schools, which would cost £9.4 million. Taken together, those options of using spare capacity and adding accommodation would still provide only 209 places. If the worst were to happen, although the figures do not suggest that it will, and there were higher demand—for 337 additional places—more schools would have to be expanded and a new, two-form entry school would have to be built.

The cost of dealing with the problem therefore ranges between £10.4 million and £22.2 million. Some of that money is needed now, not in a few years' time, so the formal bid processes cannot be followed. If they are followed, the necessary school places will not be available for children when they need them in 18 months' time. That is why we need the Minister to give us answers today, or at least as soon as possible, about how the Department will respond to the extraordinary need that is emerging, so that resources can be released as a matter of urgency and so that planning and work can be done with as little disruption as possible to the education of the children already in those schools. That is why my local authority needs to know now whether it will be able to secure £4.8 million to upgrade two schools and to provide two one-form entry expansions in existing schools.

I hope that the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend's many significant and detailed questions, and I request that she meet me, my hon. Friend Tom Brake and the officers from Sutton borough who have been dealing with these problems and grappling with what needs to be done to provide a decent education for children in my borough. I hope that she will meet us to discuss in detail what can be done and when, because we can be certain that if something is not done, we will have hundreds of children not going to school in the London borough of Sutton—in Worcester Park, Cheam and Belmont. Instead, they will be standing outside the school gates, looking in, unable to join their friends or to get the education that they deserve. I have outlined the need and made my plea. I hope that the Minister will meet that need.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning) 11:37 am, 3rd March 2009

I have a few brief points to make about the situation in Brent. First, however, let me congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Davey on securing the debate, which is very timely, as my hon. Friend Mr. Burstow has said. This issue has been bothering many MPs and councillors, as well as the many parents who face huge difficulties as they look for school places for their children for September.

The situation in Brent is challenging. Between 2006 and 2007, its schools faced a 9 per cent. increase in the number of applications for reception class places. Reception class numbers fluctuated between 3,000 pupils in 2006 and 3,265 in 2007, and the council had immense difficulty in meeting that need. It applied to the Government for emergency funding, which was refused, and it did its best to meet the need by installing temporary buildings and making use of bulge classes in a similar way to the council described by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton. However, those solutions are not permanent, and can be used only for a couple of years. In addition, large numbers of children have still been left without a permanent school place. Some Government funding was provided for temporary buildings for two forms of entry at the relatively new ARK academy, and one new form of entry was provided by rebuilding Wembley primary school, but that was done locally, using money from the council, and not through any extra Government funding.

Even with those additions, the council needs three more forms of entry on a permanent basis. It hopes to use some of the early years element of the primary capital programme to provide extra capacity by expanding one primary school. However, as I mentioned in my intervention, the problem with that funding scheme is that it is strongly focused on underperforming schools, on improving performance and on providing buildings for underperforming schools, rather than on dealing with capacity problems. Many old primary schools in Brent are in urgent and desperate need of modernisation. We have had cases of roofs falling in, and of the council not having extra funding immediately available to tackle that problem, so there is an urgent need to modernise some buildings. In addition, we are facing a dramatic increase in the number of children applying to primary schools in Brent. As with Building Schools for the Future for secondary schools, that funding scheme is not focused on tackling capacity needs.

As I have mentioned, 44 children in Brent are without a school place. Not all of them have been waiting since the start of term, as we have a highly transient population and people move in and out of the borough during the school year, but there are often long waits for children to get a place when they move into the borough. Currently, 16 children are without a reception class place, and the situation does not improve for secondary schools, as 74 children are waiting for a secondary school place. Brent urgently needs extra capital investment in schools, and it simply cannot wait.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton said parents did not want huts and temporary classrooms, but even temporary classrooms would be a step forward for Brent in the immediate future, with a promise of long-term funding so that they can rebuild the primary schools that are needed. I implore the Minister to look at the situation in Brent and other London boroughs. We cannot have a situation in which so many children lack school places as the level of deprivation in Brent makes the environment challenging enough, so I hope that the Minister will make that a priority.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 11:41 am, 3rd March 2009

I apologise for being a little late in arriving for the debate, Mr. Amess. No disrespect was intended to you in the Chair or to Mr. Davey, who has, as other Members have said, rightly introduced an important debate that goes to the heart of thinking throughout the capital. It is an acute problem, as is well known, in his royal borough. The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea has almost exactly the same problem, but it applies across much of London.

The hyper-mobility and diversity of the capital's population has become ever more prominent, although perhaps that has always been the case. The Minister represents part of the busy city of Portsmouth, and her Parliamentary Private Secretary, Anne Snelgrove, represents Swindon—both towns in which I suspect there has been much demographic change in the relatively limited time in which they have been Members of Parliament. The demographic change I have seen in central London and across the capital has gathered enormous pace over the past decade, and that is one of the key facts in the debate, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton rightly said in his opening comments. The predictive forecasting model, on which we have all relied, has to a large extent broken down. Demand for school places depends not only on the birth rate, but on migration, and aspects of the birth rate are linked to migration. In certain communities, particularly Muslim communities, there is a tradition of a much higher birth rate, which has had a significant impact on the issue.

The hon. Gentleman was right to point out that private education is most prevalent in London, which means that the articulate middle class voices that would normally be upstanding in addressing the issue have been quieter than would otherwise be the case, but perhaps that will begin to change, given the economic downturn and stagnant property market. Many parents with young children who might have considered moving out to the country once their children were beyond primary school age or once a second or third child had been born will not be able to do so for some time.

All those factors play an important role in a problem that is quickly catching up with us. It is easy for Opposition Members to criticise the Government for their predictive figures. Without such a high level of mobility, it would be easier to know what the birth rates are in any vicinity, so the number of primary school places that will be needed in four or five years' time could be predicted. I am not simply saying that the Department is at fault in this issue, because there are new concerns about the effect that the level of mobility and diversity in our population is having on the provision of school places, particularly in the capital. I reiterate the hope expressed by the three previous speakers that the Government will give considerable thought to that problem.

I hope that you will allow me to say a little bit about local issues in my constituency, Mr. Amess, because the issue has come to the fore in the past few weeks. Indeed, I was contemplating asking for a Westminster Hall debate on a similar issue. I was contacted three weeks ago by Farah Baig of Marylebone Mums, who wished to highlight the group's concern about the provision of state education at primary school level. In her letter to me, she stated that, unfortunately, very little credit was given to the fact that people were long-standing residents of Marylebone and that it was not uncommon for people new to the area to be offered a place before someone who had been a resident for 20 years. On seeking clarification from Westminster city council's school admissions team, she was advised that that was correct procedure and that, despite being state-funded, it was proper for faith schools in particular to have selection criteria.

The problem in my constituency is that choice is limited, and is often confined to faith-based schools. A significant proportion of parents take their children out of the state sector, and I fear that they often represent that articulate voice that could make a real difference. By the time they have decided to send their children to fee-paying schools from a young age, there is little incentive for them to make the difference that they otherwise might. Westminster has some fantastic local state schools at primary school level, but I am afraid that they are exclusively faith—based schools, either Church of England or Roman Catholic. However, their results are in the very top grade, even at the national level.

Part of the problem is the assumption that those who live in my city-centre constituency are wealthy enough to send their children to private schools if they do not qualify for one of those excellent state faith-based schools. Indeed, Carl Upsall, a leading member of the Marylebone Association, told me:

"Either you pay for private schools or you fall at the feet of the church."

I suspect that that sentiment applies to many parts of London and beyond the capital's borders. With the worsening economic situation, people are increasingly keen to see a good state school in their area. I hope that that means that some of those parents might have more of an incentive to make the state system work for them in future, but inevitably that will take time. When it comes to the education of any child of school age, time is one thing that parents do not have on their side. They want a good school now, not the promise of excellence four or five years down the line, by which time their child's education may have been detrimentally affected.

Parents are increasingly turning to home schooling because of their concerns about the provision of primary and secondary education in central London. That issue was raised with me only last week by two constituents, and I hope to raise it in a future Westminster Hall debate. Two concerned mothers, Mrs. Helen White and Mrs. Tina Robbins, both decided to educate their children at home, because they were worried about the quality of education in the state sector, particularly with regard to the restrictive curriculum and the culture of levelling down, rather than encouraging excellence. We have an obsessive approach to equality in the educational establishment, and there is an increasing view, perhaps understandably, given the furore over the baby P case and others, that educating children at home is an issue not only for education departments, but for social services. There is more of a disincentive to go down the route of home education, yet some of our most dedicated parents are deciding to educate their children in that way, which in many ways should be welcomed in relation to choice and diversity. The only downside is that it is often a reflection of parents' despair about the quality of education offered by the state.

D

I am seriously worried about the inability of politicians and members of so-called children's charities to understand that, if anyone has concerns about home educated children, THEN they have the same recourse to call in Social Services.

BABY P was NOT home educated. Victoria Climbie was NOT home educated.

Would you please stop showing your prejudices and misconceptions about one of the most loving groups of people of society? Home educationg parents sacrifice a lot of their lives to MAKE SURE THAT THEIR CHILDREN ARE NOT ABUSED AT SCHOOLS. You cannot accuse even a small group of parents of being child-abusers. There are laws to protect people from such defamation. Concentrate on reducing or banning child-to-child bullying/ teacher-to-child bullying and general coercion in schools. That's what you could do instead of maligning home educators who do a terrific job of educating AND keeping their own children safe.

I resent your implication that I would ever abuse any child, never mind my own.

Please be more careful what you are saying.

Submitted by Diane Varty Read 1 more annotation

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London)

Would the hon. Gentleman like to caveat that comment by accepting that, although children can be educated at home excellently, there are concerns about whether that is monitored in the way it should be, as some children are not getting a good education at home at all?

D

Would you please leave home educated children and their parents alone? If the Local Authority has concerns about a home educated child's education, they can enquire...

Submitted by Diane Varty Continue reading (and 8 more annotations)

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

That is a legitimate issue for people on both sides of the argument. The issue has to focus on educational needs, rather than just on social and equality needs. An issue that was, funnily enough, raised by the two parents to whom I spoke the other day is that, rather than simply excluding difficult children, it is in fact quite convenient for a local education authority to say to parents, "Why don't you, notionally, home-educate them?" I accept that an increasing number of children in that category probably get a less than adequate education at home. None the less, I support the idea of diversity and choice. One only wishes that it were a positive choice, rather than one made for negative reasons.

In my constituency, there have been calls to revisit the debate on building new primary, secondary and nursery schools south of the Marylebone road to cater for the large number of young families who have moved into that area. Indeed, it is a strategy of Westminster city council to encourage more families not only to live, but to stay in the centre of the city. I think that all London Members feel that parts of their constituency would definitely benefit from a residential population that was active in the local community and engaged with it. Whether it is Kingston town centre or bits of my constituency, such as Soho or Covent Garden, allowing parts of our constituencies to exist simply for the commercial sector has a detrimental knock-on effect for the community at large.

Many parents in my constituency are keen to have a non-denominational secondary school and nursery. There is a particular concern about provision for boys. As someone who has a 14-month-old son, I have an eye and firm ear to these matters. I welcome the work that the Government have done and I have met the erstwhile schools Minister, Lord Adonis, to discuss the refreshed Pimlico academy. It is early days, but one hopes that the academy will prove to be a great success in the months and years ahead.

Finally, I shall mention the work of the education department at Westminster city council. The excellent local councillor and cabinet member Sarah Richardson has told me that there is no reason to build a new secondary school, because parents have wide access to a great choice of 10 schools, which provide education irrespective of faith in the city of Westminster as a whole. That does not just relate to my constituency, but that of my Labour neighbour, Ms Buck. Just north of my constituency, the brand new King Solomon academy will eventually cater for children from nursery through to sixth form. It is fair to say that many of our local authorities are wise to these facts and are working hard. However, given that the issues of hyper-mobility and hyper-diversity have become profound ones in our capital city, local authorities need some assistance from central Government.

Thank you, Mr. Amess, for allowing me to speak at such length on this subject. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on what is an important matter now, and will, I fear, be an important matter for all London Members of Parliament in the years ahead.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 11:52 am, 3rd March 2009

I would like to start by apologising for being late. I was detained on a shadow ministerial engagement looking at Waterloo station and whether Network Rail can bring the platforms back into usage earlier than it has currently suggested it will. I suspect that matter might strike a chord with other hon. Members in this room.

I congratulate Mr. Davey on calling this debate. I share his surprise that others are not here, if they were forewarned. I am afraid that I only heard about the debate last night, but this issue is undoubtedly cross-London and cross-party. The matter was first raised seriously in my constituency surgeries in June last year and, indeed, at a number of open meetings that I held in the autumn. We have had a consistent problem.

The issue has had a major impact on Wimbledon, which was recognised by London Councils. It said:

"Merton has a particularly bad problem both in the number of children...and in the projected shortfall in capital funding."

The bulk of the problem in Merton lies in the Wimbledon end of the constituency because there has been increasing demand for extra places to the north of the Worple road. Last year, across the whole borough, I think that we had fewer than 15 spare places in our schools, yet there will be an 8 per cent. rise in numbers between 2008 and 2012. Immediately this year, there is already a demand for three extra forms of entry and the council estimates that there will be a requirement for 12 extra forms of entry by 2012. The problem is quite acute in Merton.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton talked accurately about why there has been surprise about the number of extra places required and why that might have been. My hon. Friend Mr. Field was right to say that the matter is not the Government's fault. There has clearly been some element of miscalculation by the Local Government Association, which provides the figures. There is also the issue of retention and people simply staying where they have been moved to or in the boroughs where they are, rather than migrating out of London. Other hon. Members have discussed that. Clearly, the impact of immigration over the past few years on many of our constituencies should not be underestimated. As my hon. Friend said, there has been huge demographic change.

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

That has led us to where we are. In addition, we are now seeing the impact of the recession, with people potentially staying longer in their houses. Indeed, there is also the potential outflow from the independent sector. The dynamics of the situation in my constituency are slightly different from those in other constituencies. The bulk of people move to the independent sector after enjoying the excellent state primary education. That is a reflection of why the state sector has always been relatively full in the borough of Merton—even though there is the expectation that because it is a middle-class area, there might be a number of surplus places.

Merton, and Wimbledon in particular, have been faced with an immediate requirement for three extra forms of entry. As I said, based on current estimates—a number of other hon. Members have discussed whether we take those estimates to be accurate—there is an expectation that we will have to have 12 extra forms of entry. My discussions with our excellent members for education, Councillors Debbie Shears and Krystal Miller, indicate that their concern is that 12 extra forms of entry will be on the low side, rather than being an overestimate. That remains a real concern.

The problem for councils on the ground is not just ensuring that the demand for extra spaces is spread evenly across our borough or, indeed, our constituencies. In Wimbledon, the demand for extra places is arising in areas where for all sorts of reasons there has already been huge pressure on first choices for primary schools. That is happening either because those catchment areas are traditionally regarded as middle class and more independent, and therefore fewer primary school places have been provided, or because the previous Labour administration sold off school sites and, therefore, there is simply not the potential to expand some of those sites in those areas. Such stress factors have resulted in real parental concern about how far children will have to travel, which has particularly been evidenced in relation to the expansion of Wimbledon Chase school.

In addition, where there is space in schools that already have two forms of entry, going up to three forms of entry will give rise to the prospect that relatively young children will be in a school that might have 700 to 800 children—although I accept that children will still be in a class size of 30. I accept that the evidence on the overall size of a school is equivocal; none the less, there is real parental concern about that. The right balance for councils in relation to what they are, in a number of cases, asking the Minister for is to say, "Yes, we absolutely accept that the influx and increase in the number of places cannot be laid at your door, but the Government could do a number of things."

A number of parents have raised with me the point that they have consistently heard from the Government that there will be money available for infrastructure projects as a means of fiscal stimulus. We all understand that those moneys are accessed through different pots, schemes and allocations, but, as another contributor has said today, many London boroughs are floor authorities. Merton is, too, so if we compare the situation with last September's inflation figure, we are suffering a cut in revenue funding in real terms. My local authority has made representations to the Department, but there has been a request for flexibility in terms of accessing the available pots. For instance, everybody welcomes the primary capital programme, but some of it will not be available for immediate purposes. Equally, other capital pots of money in departmental control would—if there were some flexibility, particularly on this problem—remove some of the real pressures on local councils.

All London Members present have, I am sure, experienced broadly the same problems: we have heard real parental concern about the size of schools and whether their standard of education will be affected by the increase in numbers. Ofsted-rated "excellent" schools are expanding, and I am all in favour of that, but such excellence will continue to pertain only if there is revenue funding to support it and the capital funding to allow us to make the transition, so that the environment in which the children learn is excellent, too.

The Government can indicate today that they are prepared to consider a flexible approach to capital requests from local authorities, and I hope that the Minister will address those concerns in her remarks.

Photo of Susan Kramer Susan Kramer Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park 12:02 pm, 3rd March 2009

I apologise for being late, Mr. Pope. I had to attend a meeting with utilities, local residents and traders, which I think has averted a roadworks disaster. I hope that you will forgive me for having gone to that and missed the early part of the debate. I also thank the Minister, who met me and representatives of Richmond upon Thames borough council a couple of weeks ago, because, for the Richmond part of my constituency, the problem is acute.

My hon. Friend Mr. Davey will have laid out the challenge that faces the royal borough of Kingston, and north Kingston, the part of that borough in my constituency, has three of this year's bulge primary classes and is in desperate need of help. The only long-term solution is a new primary school, and to make places available for children we must consult on that permanent solution this spring—ahead of the summer school holidays, so critical is the problem with the number of children. My hon. Friend will have presented the picture in Kingston, so Members will understand just what a crisis we face there. We have the children—there is no question but that they are there, unexpected though they would have been two years ago—and they must have schools and provision made for them. That cannot be done, however, without significant intervention by the Government.

I shall address the Richmond problem but leave significant time for the winding-up speeches, which will be so important. In some ways, Richmond was ahead of the game in terms of recognising the explosion in the number of children who would require school places. The borough has a very powerful reputation for primary education. If we exclude the City of London and the Isles of Scilly, each of which have only one primary school, Richmond is the highest performing borough in terms of primary school results. Although we regard some schools as weaker than others, we can fairly say that no school does not fall into the "good" category.

The schools are very popular with local residents, but we started to see the change in the live birth rate at least two years ago and, as a consequence, went to the Department. It attempted to give us support, so Richmond was one of only two councils to receive safety valve money. We needed £50 million to expand seven schools, but the safety valve money, while very welcome, was only £8.9 million. Since then, the problem has been exacerbated as we, like other boroughs, have experienced a significant shift as parents who intended to put their children into the independent sector decide that they can get outstanding provision in the state sector, and that, at a time of economic pressure, it makes sense to do so. The council has, therefore, just invested £12.25 million in expanding six schools to make provision for entry this year, but it has run out of resources that can be diverted to provide a similar number of new places in future years.

Richmond and Kingston are both small, floor boroughs that receive very little of their local government funding through the grant process. They are not considered to be disadvantaged boroughs, and they are not inner-city boroughs, either, even though both take a significant number of children from the inner city for various reasons, including the boroughs' contours. In those circumstances, there are not many other parts of the budget from which to pull in money: there are neither funds for various other academic purposes, nor pots of money that can be attached and redirected to provide the resource to cope with a delightful but challenging flood of children who require primary school places. I therefore hope that the Minister will recognise that, even though the Government are mid-cycle in their funding programmes, south-west London's boroughs face a real emergency.

Much of today's discussion has been about primary school places for the typical child, but there is a significant special needs component, too. Richmond and Kingston have become magnets for families with children with special needs. It is a compliment to the boroughs, but it has a significant impact on many resources, and in Richmond there is a major move to repatriate to the borough the capacity to provide places for many more special needs children, particularly those at the far end—the complex end—of the spectrum. The difficulty is exacerbated by the rapidly increasing demand for school places. Those children need our particular attention and care. The provision of funding to enable significant expansion in complex special needs services at primary level and all the way through the education process is an urgent factor that must be brought to the Government's attention.

It is important that we have a response from the Minister, so I shall sit down. However, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton on securing this important debate in the House.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London) 12:08 pm, 3rd March 2009

I shall also try to keep my remarks to five minutes or so to give the Minister time to respond. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Davey on securing the debate, and other hon. Friends and Members on their participation. I hope that if the Minister leaves today's debate with anything, it will be with the recognition that this is a cross-party matter. In spite of the absence of Labour Members, the problem affects many of their local authorities, so I hope that she will approach today's debate in that vein.

Members have sensibly set out the main causes of the problem. First, people have migrated to London and there has been an accompanying rise in birth rates. Secondly, there have been changes to London's housing stock. People who would have moved out of the borough when their children got older are now not doing so because of the state of the property market and perhaps because of improvements in education provision. That has certainly happened in my local authority area. Thirdly, the economic downturn means that parents who would have educated their children in the private sector either cannot afford to do so now, or are worried that they may not be able to afford it in the future. Those are the main drivers.

I hope that the Minister does not say that local authorities should have predicted all that. The Government did not predict what was going to happen in relation to migration or in terms of an economic downturn, so it is difficult to see how local authorities should have been able to predict 12 months ago that that sort of thing was going to happen. It is unexpected and exceptional and I think that the Minister needs to acknowledge that when she responds.

There is clearly a significant problem. London Councils has set out what it considers to be the financial implications. Its figures show a shortfall of £260 million in the current spending review period associated with the additional capital funding that is required and a shortfall of £480 million over the next spending review period from 2011 to 2014. Substantial sums are needed to address the problem.

Hon. Members have carefully set out the impact in their local authorities. As my hon. Friend Mr. Burstow said, the key is how the transfer rate changes and that rate depends on lots of factors, including parents moving in and out of the borough and so on. If there is a 90 per cent. transfer rate—in other words, 90 per cent. of the children born in the borough continue in primary schools when they reach five—some £22 million would be required and if the transfer rate is lower, perhaps nearer the transfer rate of 85 per cent. that used to apply, £10 million would be required. Whether the problem is seen at London level or at local authority level, we are talking about substantial sums.

Other boroughs have drawn up figures. Lambeth, for example, has identified a £16 million shortfall in what it needs to provide places, and we have heard about Richmond. There are similar problems outside London, for example, in Kent. So the Minister needs to respond to a London issue and a wider-than-London issue.

In terms of solutions, we and, I am sure, the Minister have received briefings from London Councils that set out how it thinks the matter should be dealt with in terms of additional emergency capital grants. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton made that point in his concluding remarks.

I hope that we will receive a considered, positive response from the Minister, because otherwise we are into Alice in Wonderland politics, with the banks having literally hundreds of billions of pounds invested in them to bail them out of a disaster that they created themselves through their greed and incompetence, for which they are rewarded with pensions 30 times a teacher's salary, yet schools being starved of funding despite a real need for investment in our primary schools to create new school places and investment that will create jobs and provide a long-lasting legacy for our children. I am sure that the Minister does not want that to happen—I am that she is not in the business of Alice in Wonderland politics—and that she will, therefore, come forward with a concrete response and agree to meet my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton and I to talk about our local issues. I also hope that she will do so, on a wider London basis, with other hon. Members who have been affected by this problem.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 12:13 pm, 3rd March 2009

I congratulate Mr. Davey on securing this debate and on his accurate analysis of the process of building new school capacity, which is Kafkaesque in its bureaucratic complexity and contradictions. That is something that the Conservative party policy would sweep away as we sought to implement a Swedish approach to bringing in new education providers.

In this country, the school admissions process and securing a place at either a primary or a secondary school for a child has become a fraught, highly stressful annual moment for parents. With one in three primary schools judged by Ofsted to be no better than satisfactory, it is clear why school admissions is such a sensitive issue: it is trying to squeeze a pint into a half-pint pot.

Last week I visited King Solomon academy, which my hon. Friend Mr. Field mentioned. It has an excellent primary school and is one of the schools rated by Ofsted as outstanding. However, the problem in Kingston and Surbiton seems to be one of poor forecasting rather than the quality of the primary schools. Plans were not put in place to raise capacity when the demographics were relatively clear that new capacity was needed, notwithstanding the recent trends arising from the recession.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I will not give way because of the time.

In January 2007, there were 678 surplus places in primary schools in Kingston, which is some 6 per cent. of capacity. That reflected a demographic trend that showed the number of five-year-olds in Kingston falling from 1,500 in 2003 to about 1,450 by January 2008, in line with national demographic trends. However, projections also made it clear that by January 2009, in relation to the September 2008 intake, the number of five-year-olds nationally would rise from 530,000 to 552,000 and then to 569,000 in 2010, with further increases in each of the following years. In Kingston, it was projected that primary places would need to rise from 10,400 in 2008 to 10,584 in 2009 and 10,809 by 2010, with further rises in 2011 and 2012. Despite these projections, last year there was a shortage, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said, of about 200 primary school places for rising fives in the borough, which resulted in the emergency bulge classes, or Portakabins as they are more colloquially known. This year a shortage of 300 places is forecast.

Kingston council has said that the number of primary school applications exceeded all expectations and called the increase unprecedented, but local parents, including Vicky Grinnell-Wright, for example, have said that the council's poor planning was due to negligence. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton blames the inaccuracy of forecasts and high birth rates since 2002, the independent sector not expanding in line with the higher birth rate and the effect of jobs and the housing market on the extent of internal migration to and from London. He also accurately described the problem of funding. My hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster and for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) both pointed out that there are 23 floor boroughs in London.

Parents in the borough are obviously hugely concerned. Nothing matters more to parents of young children than the choice of primary school. All parents want a good local primary school within a short distance that has a safe, happy atmosphere, that has a real focus on early reading using synthetic phonics and that will enable children to gain a genuine grasp of the rules of arithmetic.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telling us about the issues in Kingston, but he is completely wrong. Many boroughs across the capital are experiencing the same problems. I have talked to a lot of parents and when I speak with them they begin to understand the difficulties that Kingston has faced—and no doubt parents in other boroughs do, too. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will think again and join with Liberal Democrats and others to press the Government for support, rather than making inaccurate statements.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Parents in Kingston are concerned and they blame the council. Of course, they take into account all the other factors, but parents' concerns have also been raised by Helen Whately, who has been campaigning with the parents that the hon. Gentleman mentions to raise the profile of the problem and to put pressure on Kingston council to fix the immediate crisis and put in place plans for long-term solutions.

The hon. Gentleman is right: it is unacceptable that parents are facing the stress of not having a primary school place for their child. I hope that the Minister will assure parents in Kingston and Surbiton, and those in the rest of London, that these problems can be remedied in the near term.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families 12:18 pm, 3rd March 2009

I congratulate Mr. Davey on securing this debate on an important subject, and I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have spoken.

We have made it our ambition to provide a world-class education for every child and every child should have access to the opportunities and benefits that that brings. That means two things: making sure that every school is a good school, so that parents have real choice when deciding where to send their child, and ensuring that those opportunities are open to children from as early on as possible in their education. We all know that primary education is a really important stage in a child's life; it is their first experience of full-time education and a place where they get a good grounding in the basics, start to develop independent thinking and develop those skills that prepare them for secondary education.

Local authorities have a duty to secure sufficient provision for children in their area. They are responsible for planning school places, and ensuring that enough places are available to meet local need. That is right, because local authorities know best the specific challenges and circumstances facing their areas and are best placed to deploy local resources in line with those specific needs. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill will strengthen that further. Pending that legislation, local authorities will become the single point of accountability for all children's services provision from nought to 19 so that we can focus on children and their families.

It is crucial that local authorities make a full assessment of the future demand for school places in their areas. My Department relies on those forecasts when allocating capital funding to cover extra places for future growth in pupil numbers, so it is essential that those projections are as accurate as possible. Local authorities prepare their own pupil forecasts, based on local circumstances and taking account of births, new housing, population migration and other factors. There should be no unexpected demand for reception places because of a rise in birth rate—many hon. Members brought that up—because the information is available from the health authority. Local authorities also use other factors and other methods to predict mobility. As was said, some local authorities are better than others at using the information at their disposal.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

In a reply to a parliamentary question, the Minister said:

"We have begun work to evaluate the accuracy of existing forecasts".—[Hansard, 26 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 1853W.]

How is that work progressing?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

We are reviewing emerging pupil number trends to inform the next spending review, so work on accuracy is ongoing. We are also working with London Councils, which is also considering the matter— that work, too, is ongoing—so that we can offer advice and guidance to local authorities to help them to put those forecasts together.

Funding is fixed for three years at the beginning of the spending review period. That was done in response to requests from local authorities, which value being able to plan their capital expenditure with certainty. Resources in the current spending round have been allocated, and we do not hold back funds for later distribution on the basis that forecasts of the number of primary school pupils may be inaccurate.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London)

I agree that local authorities value having a three-year view of funding, but does the Minister acknowledge that they become angry about difficulties arising from migration, for example, when a large number of people come into a local authority area, but the funding does not kick in for a number of years after they have arrived?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

A balance must be struck between certainty in planning and being able to react to unforeseen contingencies, or perhaps contingencies that could have been foreseen, albeit not necessarily the migration the hon. Gentleman mentions.

In Kingston in 2007, pupil projections suggested an additional increase of about 500 pupils by 2012. Those figures provided the basis for the basic need funding to enable the authority to provide for growth in pupil numbers. The authority did not revise its projections in 2008. Virtually all inner-London authorities and four of the outer-London authorities have revised their forecasts of the growth in the number of pupils downwards since basic need funding was calculated for the current spending review period, so there should be no shortfall of funds in those authorities, although I accept that they are probably not the authorities that hon. Members here represent. We will monitor closely those who have projected a shortfall.

Local authorities may also have access to other local resources that can be used to create extra places. It is for local authorities to make those judgments about where their resources are best deployed, taking into account the different needs and pressures that they face. We have already agreed funding for schools for the next three years, based on pupil projections by local authorities, but I understand that London Councils is looking into whether those projections were sufficiently accurate. Many hon. Members have said this morning that they believe that they were not accurate. We are waiting for information from the January 2009 school census, and when we have those data and the information from London Councils, I undertake to consider them seriously. I am sure that they will help to inform future decisions about school funding.

We are reviewing emerging pupil number trends to inform the next spending review period from 2011-12 onwards to take account of the rise in child population and any changes due to the economic downturn. We will also consider other factors that hon. Members have mentioned today. We will cover whether it is still appropriate, depending on the accuracy of the forecasts, to allocate all basic need funding at the start of a new comprehensive spending review period.

We are working with the Association of London Directors of Children's Services on pupil place planning in London. Discussions are ongoing, and we are awaiting data to show where the shortage of places is. When we have all that information, I will be happy to meet hon. Members who are particularly affected because of changes in population.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I am grateful for the Minister's undertaking on previous data and her willingness to meet hon. Members. I shall certainly take her up on that kind offer. May I press her on the need for the data review to happen urgently and for the Department to consider changing the funding arrangements, not just in the next spending review, but in the current review, because the need is now and the need is urgent?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

When I have the data in front of me, I will consider it, but I will wait until I have had the information from London Councils and the Association of London Directors of Children's Services because I want to see exactly where the problems are.

Based on January 2008 capacity data, many London authorities, including those that underestimated pupil numbers, seem to have sufficient spare places at local authority level to meet current demand.

Photo of Susan Kramer Susan Kramer Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

Is the Minister talking about places in schools, where there may be places in year 5 when the need may be in reception? Is that not a distortion, and is it not used frequently?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

I am talking about surplus places in schools as a whole, but we must take into account the fact that surplus places may not be in schools that parents want to send their children to.

We have an annual allocation of capital investment under the primary capital programme, in which there is a range of criteria that local authorities use when identifying schools for investment. As Sarah Teather said, one is to have regard to school performance and to surplus places. They are also expected to identify priority for investment on the basis of responding to demographic pressure, so there is flexibility in the primary capital programme.

Funding for 2009-10 and 2010-11 has been confirmed for 13 London authorities, including both Kingston and Richmond. For a further 91 local authorities, 2009-10 funding has been confirmed, but future funding will be dependent on confirmation by the end of the month that problems identified will be resolved. Brent, Sutton, Westminster and Merton all come into that category, so I hope that hon. Members will press their local authorities to ensure that that information is with us and that we can resolve the issues by the end of March 2009 so that we can bring forward that funding. London authorities have reported collectively that they are planning to start projects at nearly 400 schools over the period 2008-11.

On the number of pupils moving from the independent to the maintained sector, the number attending independent primary schools has increased by more than 1,400 in Greater London over the past three years, and by more than 1,300 in inner London over the same period.

Every child should benefit from a first-class education in a good local school. That is one of our highest priorities and reaches throughout the system from national Government to local government to each individual school. Local authorities must use every resource at their disposal to ensure that every child benefits from those opportunities. We will continue to examine the data on current and projected numbers, and work with local authorities to manage that.

J

"Every child should benefit from a first-class education in a good local school. That is one of our highest priorities and reaches throughout the system from national Government to local government to each individual school. Local authorities must use every resource at their disposal to ensure that every child benefits from those opportunities."

Surely this should say "every child whose parent wishes it to attend state school should benefit from a first-class education in a good local school." Ms McCarthy-Fry must recognise and be aware that parents are entitled to choose independent schools and home education and that those children will not necessarily attend a local school, good or otherwise.

And as for the idea that local authories must ensure that every child benefits from those opportunies - surely this should be every child whose parents wish it to.

This is very muddy thinking, unless this is actually where the government is trying to head?

Submitted by Jax Blunt