Richard Lee Primary School

– in Westminster Hall at 12:30 pm on 15th March 2011.

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Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth Labour, Coventry North East 12:30 pm, 15th March 2011

Thank you for calling me, Mr Williams, and for presiding over this debate. The Richard Lee primary school in my constituency is a 1950s Hills-system-built school. It is built of reinforced concrete and high-alumina cement, and it has simply come to the end of its design life. Its rebuilding was repeatedly delayed because of needs arising from rising rolls in Coventry and demand for new-build schools, but it was due to be rebuilt in 2009. As a result of the collapse of another school in Coventry, that rebuild was further delayed.

The devolved capital budget for the Richard Lee primary school last year was £49,150, £40,000 of which was spent on essential repairs and maintenance, leaving practically nothing for any development within the school, any enhancements or any improvements. This year, that devolved capital money has been reduced to £9,439. The main problem with the Richard Lee school, according to the head teacher, is that it badly needs a new roof. It simply cannot be patched any more. There are patches on patches, it is coming apart, and water is ingressing the school in many places. Even if a new roof were possible with the school’s construction, it would cost in the order of £500,000.

The school needs a new boiler, and has had to close twice in recent months because the boiler has failed, but the cost would be £40,000. The windows, which form entire walls in many of the classrooms, are being pulled apart by the strains on an ageing building. As a result, they are draughty, cannot be secured, and are sometimes sealed with curtains and pieces of cloth to make the classroom environment something like bearable. A quote for replacement windows is of the order of £110,000.

Six toilet blocks are in need of refurbishment at a cost of £7,000 a block. There are awful smells and regular flooding from blockages. Despite £15,000 being spent to sort out the drains, that did not solve the problem in its entirety, and on one occasion sewage flowed freely across the school car park. There is rising damp in classrooms. They are being recarpeted and retiled regularly, but children cannot sit on the floor for story times or anything else without sitting in wet.

There is a lot of asbestos throughout the school, and although it is safe in its undisturbed state, the cost of any repairs is considerably higher than it would otherwise be. Because capital funding is being spent on repairs and maintenance, second-hand furniture is regularly bought from other schools that manage to obtain new equipment through their budgets.

The Minister and the Government claim to be interested in the big society and believe that organisations other than the Government should make a contribution to the maintenance of services that people need. The school is pretty good at tapping into local organisations and scrounging money. Local firms, such as E.ON, Jaguar Land Rover, the Prince’s Trust and local church groups, have all helped by painting and decorating parts of the inside and outside of the school. When I visited it recently, there was evidence in two separate classrooms of teachers painting the walls having bought paint to decorate their own homes.

A burst water heater resulted in reception children being taught in the corridor for more than six weeks while attempts were made to dry out the classrooms and lay new flooring. The children returned to their classrooms in February, after the half-term break, but sadly the new flooring is already beginning to lift because of damp and will have to be removed again during the Easter break. I hope that this time it will be refloored satisfactorily.

The education welfare officer, who monitors attendance weekly, is worried about the number of absences through illness. With 4.5% of pupils absent, she believes that those genuine absences are due in part to the cold, damp conditions that the children must endure in many of the classrooms. The school does not comply with disability discrimination legislation. It has seven flights of stairs inside and four outside. They cannot, without huge expense, be adapted with ramps or lifts because of the nature of the building.

The council is so worried about the state of the school that, in May last year, it commissioned a technical report to see what needed to be done, whether the school was safe, and what the options were for keeping the school open and viable. A technical report by Martech Technical Services Ltd said that for the time being the school is safe, despite evidence of carbonisation of the cement, and therefore the beginning of corrosion of the steel reinforcement of the concrete structure, and that it could have its life extended for 10 years, but that the costs would be considerable. A simple 10-year extension of the school’s life would require concrete repair costing about £20,000, corrosion inhibitor costing about £40,000, anti-carbonisation coatings costing about £30,000, a new roof, which the head put at £500,000 and Martech put at £450,000, and preliminaries costing about £90,000. It gave no figures for contingencies such as removal and replacement of ceilings, asbestos removal, access and internal redecoration. I put those figures to the Minister in the light of the school’s capital programme of £9,439 a year.

As I was going through what I would read out from the report, I was worried that the Minister would think that I am exaggerating the difficulties, so would he be prepared to visit the school? I have been in politics for a long time, and I am rarely surprised by what I see. Nevertheless, a visit to this school is shocking. It is a good school and its recent Ofsted report—received only yesterday—stated that there have been considerable improvements, that the school is well led with an engaged and supportive governing body and that the teaching staff have made significant efforts to improve the output of the school. Ofsted is not obliged or encouraged to talk about school buildings, as that is not part of its job. In this case, however, the Ofsted report did comment on the state of the building and the impact that that was having on the school.

What on earth is the school to do with £9,400? The council is desperate to include a rebuild of the school in its capital programme, but the uncertainty about that programme, and the diminished resources that it has for the whole school estate in Coventry means that it is worried about committing to technical appraisals and the architectural work that would be needed. It does not know whether the rebuild money is likely to be forthcoming in the near future, and such technical work would take a big slice of the Coventry capital programme. I would like the council to go ahead with the necessary preliminary planning work so that the school can be rebuilt at the earliest opportunity. I do not believe that extending the life of the school is in any way viable, but the council needs reassurance about its future capital programme before it makes a considerable outlay at the expense of other school needs in the city.

I do not know whether the Minister can provide any comfort with regard to plans for the future. The Secretary of State talked about the varying needs of primary schools, perhaps as part of moves to excuse his decisions on the Building Schools for the Future programme. He said that there were other needs, and that it was not only about secondary schools. Having reached this situation, however, there is no alternative for Richard Lee primary school other than a total rebuild, even though, as the Minister knows, that will be expensive and in the order of £8 million.

If the Minister believes that I am in some way exaggerating the difficulties faced by the school, I ask him to come and have a look. I am sure that he will be as shocked as I was by the state of the school buildings. If he cannot find time to visit, perhaps he would be prepared to meet a delegation so that some of the dedicated governors and teaching staff can meet him, and he can see in detail some of the things that I have seen. Most of all, may we have clarity about future funding programmes so that the council can make a commitment to what is needed? Even if we have a programme now, it will be 2013-14 at the earliest before a new school can be provided.

Having got through this winter, I frankly do not know how the school will get through next winter, and I am certain that it will not be able to do so with a capital programme of £9,000. The degree of patching and mending evident at the end of this winter is far more than the school’s resources can cope with. Good people are providing a good education to children in my constituency, but they are being undermined by the appalling state of the buildings in which they are asked to work.

D

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Regards


David Pitt
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Submitted by David Pitt

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 12:44 pm, 15th March 2011

I congratulate Mr Ainsworth on securing this debate and on raising an issue of concern in his constituency. I do not know whether this is the first time he has secured a debate in this Chamber, free from the constraints of being a Minister; I know how frustrating it can be as a Minister that one does not get the opportunity to air important constituency matters. However, the right hon. Gentleman has certainly aired one such matter today very graphically, and I appreciate the concern that must be felt by him, by parents and by teachers regarding the state of the school that he described.

The Minister responsible for schools, my hon. Friend Mr Gibb, is unfortunately detained with Committee work today, but I will pass on the request for him to visit that school if he is in Coventry, or to meet a delegation. I know that he has campaigned on behalf of schools in the past, and that he is a strong advocate for improving provision for all pupils, teachers and parents.

As the right hon. Member for Coventry North East knows, improving provision is a priority that the Government share. Even in times of austerity, we are determined to make this country’s education system among the best in the world by ensuring that schools prepare every pupil for success. I congratulate Richard Lee primary school on the comments it received in the recent Ofsted report. The dedication of the teaching staff and those signs of improvement are doubly to be congratulated because of the challenging physical circumstances involved.

Our ambition is based on the simple but profoundly important principles of giving teachers and heads greater freedom, giving parents greater choice, providing higher standards for pupils, and reducing the amount of red tape in the system. We have taken steps to achieve those aims. The academies programme has been expanded, and we are now looking at the national curriculum with the intention of restoring it to its intended purpose—a minimum core entitlement beyond which teachers can tailor their tuition to meet the particular needs of pupils. By February 2011, the Department for Education had received 323 proposals to set up free schools, and that initiative is progressing. Through such changes, each local area will have a good mix of provision, and parents will have real choices for their children.

As the right hon. Gentleman persuasively argues, school buildings, teaching staff and pupils need to be a continuing part of the investment, and the coalition Government are committed to ensuring that that remains the case. However, we are faced with exceptionally tough circumstances. The appalling economic and financial inheritance left by the previous Government, of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member, is one of those obstacles. The amount that the Government currently spend on debt interest payments could be used to rebuild or refurbish about 20 primary schools such as Robert Lee every day. We urgently need to reduce the deficit, and the previous Government knew that. They had already set a target of a 50% reduction in Government infrastructure expenditure by 2014-15, but they failed to admit that an impact on school building would be inevitable after such a reduction. Although I recognise the parlous state the school is in, it is not something that happened over the past nine or 10 months. The situation has been in decline for some time, and there were opportunities to address it in the past.

The underlying financial position was not the only element that the previous Government chose to ignore. Since four-year-olds are too heavy for storks to transport, there is generally four years’ notice of a child’s need for a primary school place. A small part of the pressure on places arises from migration and immigration, but the birth rate has been rising since 2002, levelling off for a couple of years from 2007.

Two years ago, Members of the then Opposition highlighted the increasing need for primary school places in a debate in this Chamber. On 3 March 2009, my hon. Friend Mr Davey, now the Minister responsible for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs, led a debate on the need for primary school places in London. My hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis, now the schools Minister, and my hon. Friend Sarah Teather, now the Minister responsible for children, also took part. All speakers underlined the need for action to ensure that there are enough school places for the children who need them, and although the debate focused on London, the issue has spread beyond the capital.

Making sure that there are enough places in schools is fundamental; it is the most basic need of the school system. Nevertheless, the Government of the day chose not to treat the matter with the seriousness it required. Instead of tackling the need to which my hon. Friends drew attention, the Government proceeded with their unaffordable and inefficient Building Schools for the Future programme, announcing the entry of new authorities to that programme on 15 July 2009, and last year on 8 March and 5 April, just before the general election.

However, I must be fair to the previous Government. They were not the only ones who failed to respond to rising birth rates and the impending pressure on school places. Local authorities have statutory responsibility for ensuring that there is a school place for every child who needs one, and several authorities have been slow to respond to the emerging evidence of pressure on school places.

As well as being responsible for ensuring that there are enough school places, local authorities are responsible for ensuring that schools such as Richard Lee primary school are kept in good condition. Clearly, that is a particularly big challenge in this case. Schools shoulder some of that responsibility through the delegation of school management to the schools themselves. The central Government capital grant is intended to help, but the maintenance of premises is one of the purposes of revenue budgets. The revenue budget for the 484 pupils of Richard Lee school in 2010-11 was more than £1.5 million, which averages about £80,000 for every 25 pupils—an average class size. Freedoms for schools entail responsibilities and, for every school, those responsibilities include a share of the maintenance responsibility.

However, none of that improves the situation of the pupils of Richard Lee school, some of whom have been having lessons in conditions that no one would regard as satisfactory, as the right hon. Member for Coventry North East rightly highlighted. I was relieved to learn that all the classes are now at least taking place in classrooms. I understand that, as he said, for a spell after the boiler burst, some classes were taking place in corridors, which is completely unsatisfactory.

We are taking a number of urgent and decisive steps to tackle school building needs. First, we have put a stop to the bloated and misdirected Building Schools for the Future programme, because we recognise, as the right hon. Gentleman’s party did not, that the top priorities for investment in school buildings have to be ensuring enough school places and tackling poor building condition—precisely the needs that Richard Lee primary school embodies. Through the work of the capital review that Sebastian James is leading for us, we are developing ways of managing capital that will be more efficient and give better value for the funds spent. We expect the review to report in the next few weeks.

In the announcement of 13 December, £13.4 million was allocated to Coventry city council and its schools for capital investment in Coventry schools in 2011-12. We expect similar levels of funding to be allocated from

2012-13 to 2014-15. The allocation forms part of a national allocation for Department for Education capital of £15.8 billion during the four years from April this year to March 2015. To put that in perspective, the figure for 2014-15 is 60% below the historic high of 2010-11, but the average annual capital budget during the four-year period will be much higher than the average annual capital budget in the 1997-98 to 2004-05 period.

Within the allocations, basic need and maintenance are the areas to which we are giving priority. For 2011-12, the grant to Coventry for new pupil places is £6.5 million and the maintenance allocations come to £5.8 million. It is now up to Coventry city council to decide its priorities for the available funding, having regard to the building needs of the schools in the city and in line with its statutory duties and local priorities.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth Labour, Coventry North East

I seek clarification. I want to make the Minister aware that there are four Hills system schools in the city, two of which are in my constituency. The school that we are discussing is but one of them. He appears to have just talked about a capital allocation for Coventry that in total is about £13 million. He knows that a rebuild of Richard Lee in itself would take about £8 million of that city-wide £13 million pot, leaving practically nothing for distribution to the rest of the city. Is that figure to remain the same, and is my understanding correct that he said we would have clarity on the capital budget within the next few weeks?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The right hon. Gentleman knows that if we had more money from Building Schools for the Future—if money had been spent much more efficiently on the schools that were built at that time—more money would have been left over in the budget to spend on primary schools that are in a parlous state. I did say that the Sebastian James review will report in the next few weeks—imminently—about how we will approach capital spend in the future. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to take some clarity from that.

The situation is not easy. As I have said, we are in very tight budgetary circumstances, but I entirely recognise the particularly harsh circumstances in which Richard Lee primary school finds itself physically at the moment. I gather that Richard Lee was included in Coventry city council’s original primary strategy for change submitted in 2008 as part of the city council’s primary capital programme. Work on the school was to be a new build project, with an estimated budget cost of £8 million, as the right hon. Gentleman said.

However, the school was not subsequently prioritised in the council’s primary capital programme. That was a matter for the council. Instead, another school was deemed a higher priority due to its condition and the need to address additional pupil numbers. One might wonder about the state that school must have been in compared with the school to which the right hon. Gentleman is referring.

The primary capital programme will not continue beyond the current comprehensive spending review term. Therefore, there will be no opportunity of funding for the school through that route. However, I understand that Richard Lee school is now the council’s top priority for capital investment when funding can be identified.

We know that there are schools, such as Richard Lee, in need of refurbishment that missed out in previous Government capital programmes, and people feel that they have therefore been treated unfairly. We are determined to continue to invest in the school estate overall. It is for local authorities to determine their priorities locally. As I have said, the average annual capital budget during the period will be higher than the average annual capital budget in the 1997-98 to 2004-05 period. However, I recognise that in the short term it will be difficult for schools to adjust to reduced capital funding.

We will introduce a new approach to capital allocation, which will prioritise ensuring enough places and addressing poor conditions as quickly as we can. That model will be outlined in the capital review, which, as I said, will report in the next few weeks. Within the funding available to us, our intention is that the new model will prioritise areas that are experiencing high pressure to increase the number of school places and those with buildings in most need of repair, as would appear to be the case for Richard Lee school.

We are determined to ensure that money is spent on school infrastructure and the buildings themselves, not on bureaucracy and processes, which have claimed too much of the funding in the past. Even when funding is tight, it is essential that buildings and equipment are properly maintained to ensure that health and safety standards are met and to prevent a backlog of decay that is expensive to address. Clearly, the patching of patches that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned is not the most effective way of spending resources.

By stopping Building Schools for the Future projects that were not contractually committed, we have been able to allocate £1.337 billion for capital maintenance for schools, with more than £1 billion being allocated for local areas to prioritise maintenance needs. In addition, £195 million will be allocated directly to schools for their own use. We have also allocated £800 million for basic needs in 2011-12, which is twice the previous annual level of support. We expect similar levels of funding to be allocated from 2012-13 until 2014-15. The capital allocation for this year for Coventry city council and its schools was announced on 13 December, as I said. It is now up to the council to decide how it prioritises its local spending.

I entirely appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s very genuine and clear frustration with the state of that primary school in his constituency. I repeat my congratulations and thanks to the staff and governors for the job that they are doing in very adverse circumstances. We are determined that in future what reduced moneys there are for capital spend will be targeted at those most in need, in terms both of the condition of the fabric of buildings and ensuring that sufficient places are available, given rising school rolls. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to see from the results of the James review, coming out soon, how we intend to achieve that, so that there may be some renewed hope for his school—now at the top of Coventry’s priorities—to get a better settlement in the future to deal with the problems that it clearly has. I will pass on his request for a visit or for a meeting with a delegation to the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, who is responsible for schools. Once again, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on having raised the subject today.