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Ottershaw School

Volume 958: debated on Wednesday 15 November 1978

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [ Mr. John Evans.]

10.24 p.m.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like to ask for your advice—

It is all right. The hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) is coming—although perhaps the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) had better carry on with his point of order for a few more seconds.

I should like to ask for your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as to what happens when the motion for the Adjournment is moved and the hon. Member who has the Adjournment debate happens not to be present—

The hon. Gentleman can now conclude his point of order. I call the hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie).

10.25 p.m.

We are having this debate following the sending out by the Department of Education and Science of a letter dated 27th October 1978, in which it was announced that

"the Secretary of State has considered the local education authority's proposal to cease to maintain Ottershaw Boarding School No. 4097 from 31st Augus 1980, and hereby approves the proposal under Section 13(4) of the Education Act 1944."
At the start of a debate such as this, certain things have to be mentioned. The whole business of the closure of Ottershaw school has been in the offing now for some years. I must at once thank the Under-Secretary of State for her continued patience and courtesy throughout that period. The hon. Lady has seen me on a number of occasions privately. She has received delegations of parents, former pupils and staff, and she has heard some of the existing pupils say why they believe Ottershaw is such a first-class school. I know that she has weighed the arguments very carefully before arriving at this decision.

It is also important to make it clear why Surrey county council has taken the decision that it has. Surrey, as one of the shire counties, was the victim of a violent and short-notice redirection of Government rate support grant money towards the inner cities. Over the past four years this has meant a loss of grant to Surrey county council of £78 million. This loss of income has come at a time of soaring inflation, so much so that a further £87 million was added to the county council's costs in that four-year period. The county has been forced to make savings wherever it could, and it is worth adding that, despite the savings, the rate precept has been doubled in the past four years, so this is not a case of any false economies having been made.

I should be grateful, therefore, if the Minister would accept, with a due sense of responsibility, that the action which caused this debate springs directly from the decision of her Government to change the rate support grant. Ottershaw school is one of the casualties of that decision.

Surrey county council set up a working party to examine Ottershaw school and in 1977 the working party recommended closure. The Minister felt that the arguments were sufficiently finely balanced to ask Surrey to have another look at the matter, and that is a great tribute to the action group, chaired by Mr. Ian Hislop, and the efforts of Tony Blowers, a county councillor.

Surrey county council later appointed another working party which also concluded that Ottershaw school would be too expensive to maintain and it recommended closure. It was this request for approval in May of this year that has now been granted.

But how ironic that this decision letter should be issued within days of a lament over the decline in numbers of boarding places in maintained schools, a lament made by none other than the Under-Secretary herself, replying in this House to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). According to The Times Educational Supplement, the hon. Lady said that she
"believed that boarding education should be available for those children for whom, for a variety of reasons, it was appropriate.
Apart from handicapped pupils, there were 9,739 boarders at schools maintained by local education authorities in England and Wales in January 1978, compared with 10,736 in 1973 and 11,347 in 1968."
The Minister is reported as having also said:
"it was not considered that the existence of local authority boundaries should be an obstacle to the provision of boarding education where there was a need for it.
Section 6(1) of the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1948 enabled the providing authority in such cases to recover the cost of tuition from the child's home authority unless the Secretary of State directed otherwise.
To try to ensure that boarding places in the maintained sector did not go unused, the Secretary of State was financing on an experimental basis a clearing house run by the Boarding Schools Association to provide information about the availability of boarding places in maintained schools."
In other words, the Minister obviously seems to feel, as I do, that there is a strong case for boarding schools in the maintained sector. Boarding schools do a particular job, and they do it well. Indeed, we might well ask why boarding schools should not be available to parents in the maintained sector. What has this decision done to enhance parental choice? I think the House will agree that "Not much" is the answer.

Whatever the Minister's personal, sympathetic inclinations have been, she has found herself without any real powers to stop the county council's closure decision. She regrets the decline in the numbers of boarding places, and yet she allows this closure to proceed.

I have already explained the impossible position in which the county council found itself. I think it would be too easy to criticise the worthy members of the council's working parties. All I would say is that there is a world of difference between assessing a school in terms of its performance and contribution and then making recommendations as to its future, and making an assessment against a background of having to find £8 million from the education budget.

I contend that in the particular situation and context in which it was operating, it would have been a surprise had the working party come up with any recommendation other than the one it did, particularly as no one has ever claimed that Ottershaw is a particularly cheap school to run. Very few boarding schools are.

The hardest area to assess is that of social need. It is still harder to put a price upon it. I very much fear that this decision, whatever it may mean in terms of wasted future potential in human terms, may also turn out to be a very false economy indeed when account is taken of social services support costs.

The excellence of Ottershaw school is widely known. The fact that three boys apply for every one boy accepted is also widely known. The fact that this year's examination results are the best ever should be widely known. For a school under sieges this is a truly remarkable achievement. It would be tempting for me to reprise the arguments so cogently deployed on behalf of the school, but I shall not do so, because the Minister is very familiar with them. In any case, to me a school is really about its pupils—in this case, the boys. I want to read from three case histories which have been supplied to me.

The first concerns Glenn, who is now aged 22. He entered Ottershaw in 1968, aged 13, his mother having deserted the family in 1961. The father continued to care for the children with the aid of various housekeepers; but following the appearance in court of a sister for larceny, the magistrates decided in 1964 to commit all four children to care with the Surrey county council.

On entering Ottershaw, Glenn began to work well with encouraging results in all subjects. In the house he was rather a loner at first, suspicious of all around him; but after becoming accustomed to his new environment he warmed to the friendship offered to him and began to join in all activities with enthusiasm. He was proud to be there and would readily volunteer to show visitors around. There was little contact with his parents, who let him down several times when he was expecting visits; but fortunately his foster-parents took a genuine interest in his progress.

Gradually Glenn developed into a young man of high standards, showing natural leadership and willingness to act on his own initiative. He was chairman of the flourishing young farmers' club. secretary of the dramatic club, winner of the annual science essay prize and a wholehearted participant in many other activities, in recognition of which he was made a house prefect and received school colours. On completion of his course at the school, he was offered a place at Sussex university to read science and he is now engaged on a commercial career. It is clear that Ottershaw school, working in close co-operation with the county council's children's department, gave him a security and sense of purpose which would not have been easy to provide economically in any other way.

I come now to the second case history. Derek is now 19. His mother deserted the family when he was 8, leaving his father to bring up alone a family of six children between the ages of 14 and 2. Although he was a conscientious parent, this was rather too much for him, and Derek and his three younger siblings were placed in the care of the children's department. The application for his admission to the school came jointly from his father and the area children's officer, who expressed the opinion that boarding education was desirable in part because he could then be returned to his home for the limited holiday periods. He was, indeed, successfully returned to his home when he entered the school, although he told the headmaster when he was 16 that he regarded Ottershaw as his true home.

Derek's school record was fairly average. He was reasonably well behaved, took part enthusiastically in games and activities, and, rather to his own and the staff's surprise, emerged with four O-levels. He became captain of his house, and a very good one, but left very reluctantly after one more term, realising that he was not going to manage A-levels.

Clearly, Derek himself benefited enormously from his time at Ottershaw, and was himself more than usually conscious of the fact. Equally clearly, the council's social services were relieved of the burden in that he could be taken out of care. In effect, Ottershaw once again proved itself an important part of both the social and educational provision of the county.

The last case history which I cite is that of Stuart, who is now 13. His mother left home when he was 5, leaving him in the care of his father and a succession of au pair girls. Divorce followed two years later. His father remarried but there was intense conflict between Stuart and his stepmother, and this marriage, too, ended in divorce. There followed an attempt at reconciliation between Stuart's mother and father, but this too failed. His father is now living with a third woman, whom he intends to marry but who is so upset by the tension arising from Stuart's presence that she will not accept him into the household for more than a few weeks at a time. Stuart himself would like to live with his mother, but father, who has custody, will not agree.

It is not surprising that Stuart eventually got into trouble with the police for theft. It was at this point that he entered Ottershaw; the alternative would probably have been to take him into care, at three times the expense.

It is too early to say whether Stuart will emerge unscarred. He requires constant careful ottention and is, for obvious reasons, rather unstable. But he has now been at the school for over a year without serious trouble, and it is only immediately after the holidays that he appears to be unsettled.

Ottershaw school is not entirely preoccupied by any means with boys from difficult homes. Indeed, these boys are a minority in the school. But those cases reflect the particular and special ability of the school which is easier to perceive when the challenge is greater. We can never know what Ottershaw might have achieved in the years before 1948 when it was founded. We shall never know what Ottershaw might have achieved after 1980 when it is to close. All we do know for certain is that from the original imaginative decision in 1948 Ottershaw has been a great success and it has made a tremendous contribution to society. This has been made possible by the dedication of the staff, superbly led by an excellent headmaster in Alan Dodds.

There are no villains in this piece. The Government took their political decision on rate support grant in good faith. The county council had to save money. The staff will all go elsewhere. The sufferers will be the boys who would have gone to the school, and therefore society will be the poorer. We have so many problems in our education service, with violence, vandalism and under-achievement, that to lose one school which is doing a good job is literally inexplicable to the ordinary man or woman. The decision to allow the closure of Ottershaw school is as myopic as the decision to open it was imaginative. The decision is nothing less than a tragedy and it has made me profoundly sad.

10.40 p.m.

I recognise that the hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) is expressing the keen disappointment felt locally at the decision to close Ottershaw school, but I regret that he laid the main cause at the door of the Government's rate support grant settlement. That is rather too simplistic an approach. I accept that the economic problems of the past few years have contributed in some way, but my impression is that these have precipitated the decision rather than their having been its sole or main cause.

Apart from the fact that the decision was taken to divert most money to areas of greatest need, there are inevitably a number of competing factors in any county to do with the level of rate rise, the original rate level and the policies of the county in regard to its balances, and so on, as well as the Government's decision on the grant. I accept that Surrey suffered from the wish to divert resources to areas of great need. Whether that is the main factor in the proposal to close Ottershaw is by the way at this stage.

We had a great deal of information before us from objectors. Many parents and pupils wrote in with detailed cases of the sort mentioned by the hon. Member. They made a substantial case for the provision that had been made at Ottershaw since its founding in 1948. The main case of the objectors was that the social benefits of keeping the school going outweighed financial considerations. They felt that strongly and sought to convince the county council of their view.

The authority, facing the difficulties of priorities in its education budget, decided that it could not continue to maintain Ottershaw. Part of the reason was the running costs involved, which are high, even by the general level of boarding schools. The average level of fees for smaller boarding schools is about £1,850 a year. The council told us that the cost of running Ottershaw was about £2,200 per head. In addition, the council felt that expensive maintenance work, of the order of about £150,000, was needed to be able to keep the school going. The financial considerations were great, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are always extremely sympathetic to arguments that, although financial considerations are very important, educational considerations are also important and that one should seek to weigh one against the other and not take decisions without the fullest consideration of educational questions.

The main argument of the objectors which concerned us was that the authority had not considered the alternatives which might permit the continuance of Ottershaw school. One suggested alternative was its retention as a larger school, with the implications of that on running costs and its viability—not financial viability, but its viability as a comprehensive school rather than as the selective school it is at present.

We took the point that this might have an effect on financial viability and might mean that the school could be preserved as a viable comprehensive school. Consequently, we asked the authority to reconsider the closure proposals. We also looked at the argument of the campaigners for Ottershaw concerning the social need of many of the pupils for boarding places and we asked the authority to give us further information on the extent to which it felt that it would be able to meet the need of such pupils if Ottershaw were to close. We requested the authority to give the fullest reconsideration to its proposals. Since one frequently has to criticise, it is only fair to say that the authority seems to have fully reconsidered its case. It set up a fresh working group, which included many people who had not been involved previously, and considered the alternative proposal in detail.

However, the group believed that there was no clear evidence that a larger school would necessarily give a lower per capita cost, even allowing for possible savings. It also concluded that the question of social need raised by my right hon. Friend did not dictate the maintenance of Ottershaw and that the social need cases could be dealt with either at two other boarding schools in Surrey maintained by the authority or at schools maintained by other authorities. The working group still believed, and on the basis of its report the authority once again concluded, that there was no alternative to closing the school.

When that fresh proposal was put forward, there were many strong objections. We reconsidered them and carefully examined the arguments, the details of costing and so on, but, regrettably, we had to conclude that the authority's case for closing Ottershaw was sound on balance. One can always question the details of these matters. We questioned them and re-examined them, but came to the conclusion that we could not tell the authority that its case for closure was unsound.

We still had one query, because the authority believed, following the report of the working group, that Ottershaw could not be viable even as a 360-place comprehensive. We thought that perhaps viability was not impossible, but we accepted that it was possible only if the authority was able and willing to make generous staffing provision and financial provision, on a scale that, together with the capital costs—expansion, remodelling of the building, and so on—we felt unable to force Surrey to incur.

That brings me to my major point. We very much regret the decline in maintained boarding places. We should like to see such schools continue. Discussions are going on in my Department, between Departments and with the local authority association to see what we can do to cope with the problems of the maintained sector. But, sadly, there is a great difference between feeling that there is generally a case for maintained boarding provision and telling a particular authority—especially one which maintains, as Surrey does, other boarding schools—"Because we think that nationally and generally there should be maintained boarding places, you and your ratepayers will continue to support this school."

In the light of the evidence that the authority had submitted, and the authority's clear decision on two separate occasions that it owed its ratepayers as a whole the duty to press forward with the school's closure, we did not feel able to reject the requests that Surrey again put to us. Consequently, we felt unable to force Surrey to keep Ottershaw going as it was or to attempt to force it to carry out proposals to run Ottershaw as a different school, as a 360-place comprehensive. The hon. Gentleman will know well that my right hon. Friend and I regret this. We can truthfully say that we have all done our utmost to find a solution to the problem but have been unable to do so.

I hope that Surrey is able to make—I am sure that it says in good faith that it is—suitable provision for the boys who would otherwise have attended Ottershaw.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I regret that we are celebrating—if that is the right word—a rather sad occasion this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Eleven o'clock.