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Secondary Education (Bournemouth)

Volume 13: debated on Friday 27 November 1981

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

2.30 pm

I welcome this opportunity to say something about the organisation of secondary education in Bournemouth. The present organisation that has served the town so well for so long is being called into question by proposals advanced by the local education authority. A series of meetings is now taking place throughout Bournemouth at which school governors, parents and teachers are being invited to say which of three schemes for reorganisation of secondary education they prefer. All would involve considerable expenditure. All would involve the closure of some schools and the radical alteration of the character of others.

While one must take account of economic factors and population trends, I cannot accept that it is necessary to go so far as is proposed. I have great faith in the Bournemouth system of secondary education and nothing that I have heard or seen leads me to believe that there is any need for fundamental change. I hold most strongly to the view that the present selective system should be maintained and existing schools kept on.

The local education authority does not appear to me to have made out the case for change. The physical upheaval proposed, whichever of the three schemes may be favoured, would be considerable and costly. It is better, in my view, to keep to the existing structure, making such adjustments and improvements as may become necessary to meet changing circumstances.

In its consultative document, the authority has fairly summarised the benefits of the present selective system, based on two single-sex grammar schools and nine bilateral schools, together with a college of further education. This provides ample opportunity for any child showing academic promise, even if this is discernible only after the 11-plus procedures have been completed, to have access to a wide range of O and A-level courses.

The authority's case for change is mainly financial. There are no educational arguments of any substance that can be fairly brought against the present selective system. The main justification for change is clearly seen to be the urgent need to contain public expenditure by reducing the number of surplus places in the schools. The authority's view is that this cannot be accomplished without closing schools. The authority states its objective as being
"to reduce the over-provision of school places as quickly as possible to match the Government's targets and to avoid damaging reductions in expenditure on teachers, books, materials and equipment."
The responsibility for this exercise, which has aroused widespread hostility and anxiety in Bournemouth, appears to be placed by the authority on the Government. The authority says that it is supporting Government objectives. Is that, I wonder, how my hon. Friend the Minister sees it? Does he go around the country presenting parents with a stark alternative—either that schools should be closed or damaging cuts incurred in spending on teachers, books, materials and equipment?

I accept the need for economies, but I do not accept that these cannot be found within the existing structure. I acknowledge that there are surplus school places and I note that these could increase substantially over the next few years. The authority estimates that by the end of the decade there may be about 2,000 pupils fewer than at the beginning of this year, but these figures are being challenged.

The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys shows that the transfer of an increasing size age group to secondary schools will begin in 1986, and that by 1991 the total secondary school population will be increasing and is likely to do so until at least the year 2008.

In the authority schemes, the change-overs involving many of the schools in the secondary system are to be phased and would not be completed before 1991. I see no sense in spending about £4 million—which seems to be the mean cost for any of the schemes apparently preferred by the authority—because current conditions appear to require changes of that order of magnitude, and ending up by creating a structure which might well prove to be inadequate in the future.

Certainly some work needs to be done. Porchester school, for example, has to be completed. Expenditure on the Winton school is urgent and long overdue. It is a problem with which we have had to live for many years. An immediate start could be made in eliminating all temporary hutments and in making such consequential improvements to existing schools as may be necessary. I know that that would cost money. I am advised, however, that that sort of work could be done at a much cheaper cost than appears in the authority's estimates. It seems to be working to a figure of £66 per sq ft building cost, whereas I am told that building work is now being done at the rate of £40 per sq ft.

The authority claims, in one section of its document, that to make improvements and increase the size of the school rolls in one place would cost more than the complete replacement of another school. I find that hard to accept. I cannot see exactly where the truth lies.

I am sure that the cost estimates have been most carefully calculated, and I do not question the fairness or objectivity with which the various alternatives are being presented by officials and by members of the authority to the public meetings now being held. But I learn that the whole basis of the authority's financial costing—on which its case seems to rest—is increasingly being opened to challenge.

The people of Bournemouth are highly suspicious of the authority's motives in bringing the whole issue to the fore once again. These suspicions are given added weight by the presentation of a consultative document which claims that easily the most expensive route would be to keep to the present structure, and which invites parents, governors and teachers—most invidiously, in my view—to choose between one school or another or to risk severe cutback in essential educational facilities.

I hope that it will be possible later in the debate for my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If he does so, I am sure that he will endorse and add to what I have been saying. He will undoubtedly put, in his words and based on his experience, his views about the education system in Bournemouth.

I know that I can speak for my hon. Friend as well as for myself when I say that both of us have come to know and admire the quite outstanding achievements of our two grammar schools in Bournemouth. It would be an act of criminal folly were any step to be taken by the authority which would damage or destroy these two fine schools.

I hope that the Minister, whose presence in the Chamber I welcome, will be able to show that he at least recognises and appreciates the quality of education provided in Bournemouth throughout the whole of our secondary schools there. Will he also, at the same time, make absolutely clear the procedures which could be followed in the event of this exercise being taken any further? Will he also underline the fact that one of the options still available to the people of Bournemouth is to keep to the status quo and to maintain the present selective system of tried and proven success?

2.42 pm

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) for allowing me time, during his debate, to record my total and uncompromising support for the maintenance of Bournemouth's existing secondary school system and, in so doing, to express to him the appreciation of the vast majority of Bournemouth's parents and all our constituents for conveying their views so clearly to the House.

There is no room for any misinterpretation or misunderstanding by anyone about this matter. The almost universal message from Bournemouth is "Hands off our schools." That was the clear message that emerged when the present system was last threatened with abolition in favour of reorganisation along comprehensive lines. At that time, the now newly elected right hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Williams), as Secretary of State for Education and Science, wanted the end of all of our grammar schools and made a mockery of any consultation process. She has clearly not changed her clothes—I mean that figuratively—and she has made it fairly clear that she and her party, the Social Democratic Party—and presumably the Liberals in alliance with that party—continue to place Socialist aims before parental choice.

I was extremely surprised and rather disappointed to see a Conservative-elected education authority, freed from Labour's threat of compulsory reorganisation, giving serious and wasteful consideration to a comprehensive system for Bournemouth. That was not just because it must surely be obvious to all, as we learn more and more from the experience of comprehensive schools, that they leave much to be desired in terms of achievement, and especialy in comparison with those schools that they have replaced, but also because it must surely be clear that the Christchurch, Bournemouth and Poole area, being the largest non-industrial conurbation in the country in terms of population, can support with ease a secondary school system which can provide the widest possible choice for parents.

I share the suspicions of my right hon. Friend that once again it is those Socialist egalitarian levellers who are to be found in our teaching professions and education offices who are using reorganisation to attempt to impose a comprehensive system on unwilling parents.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will say that he and the Secretary of State acknowledge and appreciate the achievements of Bournemouth's existing bilateral school system—not just the two fine grammar schools but also those of the many bilateral schools such as Avonbourne and Beaufort in my constituency, and those mentioned by my right hon. Friend in his—and that it would be folly beyond belief to destroy a system that works so well.

When the county council's final decision comes before the Department for approval, I hope that my hon. Friend will consider seriously whether schools in Bournemouth need to close, taking into careful account the rising birth rate of the last decade, the numerous temporary buildings which should go first, and the ultimate cost in due course of providing new schools for what is proving to be one of the fastest growing areas in the country.

2.46 pm

I begin by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) for raising this subject, and I appreciate the concern similarly expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson). My right hon. Friend has a long contact with education. He has the reputation not only of being a first-class constituency Member of Parliament, but also, as I know, having visited some years ago an institution with which he has certain contacts, of having a long link with the education system. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East has been linked with constituency groups with an interest in education matters, and I know how well he is respected in representing the views of his constituents.

It is gratifying to hear right hon. and hon. Members paying tribute to the standards of the schools in their constituencies. It is good to hear those tributes at a time when people in different areas wonder about the standards in their schools.

There has been a long history to the current consultations on the reorganisation of Bournemouth's secondary schools. The Education Act 1976 was a typical example of the Labour Party's dogmatic approach to complex matters. I shared with my right hon. and hon. Friends the opposition that we expressed at the time, and we should do the same in the future were there any attempt to create a compulsory comprehensive system throughout the country by means of a statutory diktat from here. It is well to remember that when people talk, as they do these days, about liberty and a libertarian society. Many people who, in the past, were involved in politics are today becoming involved again, and I have in mind one individual who was closely linked with the Education Act 1976.

As my right hon. and hon. Friends have pointed out, whatever happens in Bournemouth, they wish it to be with the agreement of the people in the area. The 1976 Act compelled local authorities to put forward plans for comprehensive reorganisation, ignoring the views of local people and the suitability of the local geography and existing school buildings, and regardless of whether there should be any assessment afterwards of the success or otherwise in areas in which comprehensive schools had already been introduced. Put in theological terms, it was salvation by faith and not by works that was desired by another political party at the time.

I am proud to have been a member of the Conservative Government who amended that legislation, as I am sure all my right hon. and hon. Friends present are, although, judging by the attendance in the Chamber, there does not seem to be much concern at the moment about education in Bournemouth or anywhere else.

I am proud that on taking office the Government immediately took action and placed on the statute book the Education Act 1979. I took the Bill through Committee and at least one of my hon. Friends here today was involved with it. There are many heroes here today. Mr. Deputy Speaker, including yourself. We enabled those local education authorities that were being forced against their will to submit proposals for comprehensive reorganisation to withdraw those proposals. Not only did we say that schools would no longer be compelled to become comprehensive, but that areas that had the shotgun of the Labour Party pointed at them could withdraw the proposals.

That was the position in the Bournemouth area. After the passing of the 1979 Act, people in Bournemouth were probably dancing in the streets. I know that my hon. Friends are distinguished dancers as well as educationists, and they probably danced in the streets that night. Their area was free to decide whether it wanted to retain the status quo. We believe that there is no one solution for the whole country. We believe in a free society, which means that there are many avenues to truth and to the best way to organise education or anything else.

The Dorset county council was one of the education authorities that was compelled under the 1976 Act to submit comprehensive proposals for Bournemouth and Poole. It did so in 1978, but it was one of the first to take advantage of the 1979 Act to withdraw the proposals that it had submitted under threat from the previous Labour Government.

Reference was made to the birth rate. I am not a great expert on the birth rate, but I am sure that, with two distinguished Members of Parliament, the birth rate has been increasing in Bournemouth. By that I mean that with two such distinguished MPs many people would wish to live in Bournemouth. Indeed, they would flock to Bournemouth and breed when they arrived because they would like to bring up their children there.

There has been a fall in the birth rate and I understand that in Bournemouth secondary school pupil numbers are projected to decline from the level of about 8,900 in January 1980 to 6,400 by 1990. That is a fall of about 30 per cent., which means that there would be about 2,400 spare places in secondary schools in Bournemouth. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West queried those figures today. If a request is made to us under section 12 of the 1980 Education Act, there will be an opportunity to query the figures, and I know that my right hon. Friend will be in the lead in doing so.

My right hon. Friend asked me about the statutory provisions and what the people of Bournemouth should do if they do not agree with the proposals put forward by Dorset county council. The procedures are laid down in the Education Act 1980 and they are designed to ensure that no local education authority can simply ride roughshod over the wishes of local people.

If a LEA proposes to establish, close or significantly change the character of a maintained school it must publish its proposals and submit them to the Secretary of State. Once it has done so, there is a two-month period during which objections may be submitted. A statutory objection is one made by 10 local electors, the governors of any voluntary school affected by the proposals or any other LEA concerned.

If objections are received, the proposals automatically fall to be decided by the Secretary of State, who may, in any case, call in the proposals for decision if that seems appropriate, and that has been done from time to time. All voluntary school proposals are decided by the Secretary of State.

That is why I cannot comment in detail on the options being canvassed in Bournemouth. If the Dorset authorities decide to proceed with reorganisation proposals for Bournemouth, it is likely that the proposals will come to the Secretary of State for decision. He has a quasi-judicial role in the process and, despite the powerful oratory of my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend, I must take care not to be seen to be prejudicing his decision.

It might be helpful if I mention the sorts of considerations that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State bears in mind when reaching a decision on proposals for secondary reorganisation. First, we recognise the tremendous difficulties presented by the sharp fall in the number of pupils. There is no question of projections here. The problem has arrived in schools. Many authorities find themselves with too many schools, and if we leave things as they are we may find that classrooms are half empty, that teaching groups are uneconomically small and that schools with few pupils cannot afford enough teachers to offer a balanced curriculum with a sufficient range of specialist subjects, such as sciences and modem languages.

Rationalising provision by removing places that are surplus to present requirements offers an opportunity to maintain the quality of education in two ways—by making it easier to protect the broad curriculum, and by releasing scarce resources that can be better used on books and teachers than on heating, lighting and cleaning half-empty buildings. We issued a circular on that subject earlier this year.

We make it clear in the Manchester decision and in the draft circular on which we have asked local authorities and others to comment that the Secretary of State will take account of certain factors when deciding on the future of schools under the section 12 procedure.

Most prominent among those factors is the need to retain what has proved its worth in the existing system of secondary education. The Secretary of State will not normally approve proposals that would result in the closure or a significant change in the character of schools that have demonstrated their success in providing for sixth-form education and which, in his judgment, should continue to do so.

The exception that we make is where the prima facie case for retaining such a school is displaced by other compelling educational reasons. The draft circular also makes clear the Secretary of State's view that proposals should have particular regard to parental preference, on religious or other grounds, for maintaining opportunities for the education of pupils in single-sex schools.

The draft circular also emphasises the need to allow sufficient time for proposals to be implemented. We are thinking not only of the pupils who will experience a reorganised system when it is fully in operation, but of those caught up in the process of reorganisation. It is vital that LEAs plan to avoid disruption to the education of those pupils.

The draft circular has been sent out. Comments have been sought and a copy of the draft circular has been placed in the Library. My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend may look at it on Monday, if not today. We have asked for comments from interested bodies by the end of January and the draft circular has been welcomed by many people.

The debate has been important, not only for Bournemouth, but because it has enabled me to give an idea of Government priorities in the rest of the country. When section 12 cases come to us, we shall consider carefully not only the proposals, but the objections. If the people of Bournemouth feel that the proposals for the future are wrong they should object to the Department, and my right hon. Friend and I will look at them impartially, with a view only to maintaining high educational standards.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.