Secondary School Places (London Borough of Sutton)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:14 am on 4th November 2015.

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Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 11:14 am, 4th November 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend Paul Scully on securing the debate. I have noted his invitation to join him for a tour of his constituency. I look forward to a formal invite, and I would very much like to visit the constituency in due course. He has brought to the House an important issue that will have a significant impact on the residents of Sutton in the coming years, and I share his confusion at the outcome of the council’s deliberations on the Rosehill site.

First, I want to take the opportunity to reiterate the Government’s commitment to one of our key priorities: ensuring that there are sufficient school places across the country. We have already shown the strength of our commitment to making sure that every child has access to a good-quality school place. We plan to invest £7 billion over the Parliament to provide new school places, including through basic need allocations to local authorities. That is £2 billion more than was allocated for school places under the previous coalition Government, and almost four times as much as was allocated from 2007 to 2011.

Ensuring that every child has access to the benefits of a good-quality education is a fundamental responsibility of all of us across the education system. As my hon. Friend knows, the statutory duty to provide school places rests with local authorities. Our financial commitment is a concrete demonstration of the level of importance that the Government attach to the provision of school places, and to our wider commitment to ensuring that every child has a good school place.

We committed in our manifesto to delivering at least 500 new free schools during this Parliament, creating 270,000 school places. Since the election in May, 18 new free school applications have already been approved, and many more are now entering the process. We continue to encourage businesses, cultural and sporting bodies, charities, community groups and parents to come forward with proposals for new schools, to add to the 304 open free schools and the more than 100 that are currently in the pipeline.

It is important that local authorities across the country see, and seek to capitalise on, the opportunity presented by the free schools programme. Such schools work alongside local authorities to create the school places we need to provide a good education for our children, and many authorities are choosing to work actively with the Government to meet that challenge.

As well as funding places, the Department keeps a close eye on the progress that local authorities are making in meeting basic need. Between 2010 and 2014, more than 445,000 new places were created through the work of local authorities and, of course, the Government’s free schools programme. Many more places have been delivered since then, and thousands more are in the pipeline. In 2013 and 2014 alone, local authorities reported adding an additional 110,000 primary and 74,000 secondary places into the system. The free schools programme is also adding significant capacity to the system; more than 153,000 new places have been created by the 304 free schools that have been established, with the promise of many more to come.

I pay tribute to all those in authorities and in schools who have helped to deliver the significant progress we have seen in recent years. The task, however, is not yet done. As the numbers I mentioned some moments ago suggest, the increase in pupils moving through the primary phase is now beginning to be felt at secondary level. My hon. Friend touched on that. Local authorities and academies must rise to that added dimension of challenge at the same time as primary numbers continue to grow, albeit less rapidly than in recent years. We should not pretend that meeting that challenge will be easy, which is why we are committed to helping both with funding and by establishing new schools directly under the free schools programme.

As a thriving global city, London has a large part to play in meeting that challenge. Some 35% of the new places delivered by 2014 were in London, and the capital will have a big part to play in meeting the challenge in the coming years. As my hon. Friend highlighted, the London Borough of Sutton has its own local context, with a wealth of strong local schools attracting pupils from beyond its borders. The popularity of those schools is a healthy sign, and I commend those who work in them.

A key strength of the current system of co-operation on school places, and one that is particularly seen across London, is that pupils can access schools beyond the border of their own local authority and find the school that is best suited to their needs. We do not want to lose that strength, nor the resilience that it helps to bring to the system. However, we need to find ways to support the boroughs that most keenly feel the impact of cross-border movement, such as the London Borough of Sutton.

The way that we provide funding for new places recognises that movement and is based on local authorities’ own assessments of the number of pupils they expect to have. That approach has helped the Government allocate Sutton council more than £110 million of funding for school places from 2011 to 2018, making it the 18th highest- funded authority for basic need in the country, and that funding has been put to work. Sutton council worked with its schools to put in place an additional 2,289 primary school places and 1,143 secondary school places between 2010 and 2014, with plans to create many more when they are needed in the coming years. That leads me to the matter in hand.

The Government are helping Sutton council to meet its places challenge directly, with the approval of the Sutton free school, which will see the borough join the many local authorities that have already benefited from the free schools programme. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the Sutton free school is scheduled to open in 2017, and is being built to provide eight forms of entry and a welcome new capacity of 1,550 places to the borough. The new school will add to the variety of options in the area and give parents even more choice in selecting the right school for their children. The school represents an exciting opportunity to broaden provision within Sutton and, with the co-operation of the council, it and other free schools can be delivered to help to meet the need for new school places. I am therefore perplexed by the current situation.

The Department for Education had meetings with officers of Sutton council about the Rosehill all-weather pitch site and was told that the council would agree for the land to be transferred to the Department for the school. I am seriously disappointed that the council has since changed its mind about the site and removed it as an option. Rosehill remains the preferred site for the Sutton free school due to its size, its access to playing fields and being in a good location for a much-needed, large, eight-form-entry secondary school. It is on metropolitan open land, but building on such land would not be a precedent in Sutton. Indeed, as my hon. Friend mentioned, there is an incinerator on metropolitan open land in Sutton at the moment.

The alternative site, the Belmont hospital site, could accommodate a smaller secondary school to help to meet the need for places from 2018 onwards. However, in its current form it is not suitable for the Sutton free school. Other free school proposers have been in talks with the council about a further, smaller secondary school in the next round of free school applications next year. Given the demand for secondary school places that is projected by the council, the ideal solution would be to take forward plans for both sites, with a proposer to be identified for a second school on the Belmont hospital site.

At this early stage, we still have the opportunity to review the options for bringing forward two much needed secondary schools in Sutton. I urge the council, in the strongest terms, to reconsider its plans to meet its basic need for secondary school places. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue.

Question put and agreed to.