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Darlington (Primary Schools)

Volume 81: debated on Monday 17 June 1985

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

12.25 am

I am grateful for this chance to raise an issue which is of concern to all my constituents in all parts of Darlington and which in Haughton at least has united all parties, councillors and governors, headmistresses and parents. I am referring to the provision of primary school education in Darlington.

I raise this not just as an issue of parental preference, although all the evidence before me shows that parental choice is being widely and arbitrarily denied at schools such as Whinfield and Springfield, Abbey and Heathfield, but as an issue of the town's basic needs and the most efficient way to meet them. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science has taken a keen interest in the matter and I am grateful to him for that. He will know the background, as we have corresponded in the past two years on the subject of Whinfield and Abbey schools in particular.

If I give less time to Abbey school in this debate, it is not because it deserves less attention. My hon. Friend the Minister will recall that the Abbey junior and infants schools are very popular and efficient schools and constantly over-subscribed. This year there were 84 applications for only 64 places in the infants school. Yet the county council has continually sought to reduce the admission limit both for infants and for the junior school. In 1982 my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State blocked an attempt to reduce the admission limit for juniors, but the limit for infants was reduced to 70. A further reduction to 60 was proposed in 1984, but as the county council had based the reduction on an erroneous standard number it later had to raise it to 62. In any event, the county council has continually refused to provide the additional teachers and facilities which the demand for Abbey school seem to require.

The demand within the catchment area is increasing and will continue to do so. We therefore face more and more appeals from parents whose children have been rejected, and more heartache as families are split up and brother separated from sister. The authority's failure to appreciate the increase in demand and to take steps to deal with it lies at the heart of this debate. No one denies that there are surplus places in the north and the centre of Darlington, but new housing is developing fast elsewhere, around Abbey school in the west and in Haughton in the north east.

Darlington is the one area of county Durham in which the birth rate is rising rather than falling. It has been rising since 1982 and is now 1,500 per year. The county council does not deny that. A report submitted by the director of education to the building and resourcess sub-committee of the council on 12 June states that primary enrolments across the county are now approaching stability after some years of falling rolls and forecasts a considerable rise in the figures. That rise is much greater in the Darlington area, and the bulk of the increase is to be found in Haughton in the north-east.

My hon. Friend may not know that Houghton is centred on a village older and higher than Darlington, inside the town, but not part of it. It is physically separated from the old northern part of the town as well as the town centre. It is an area of rapid housing development. Several hundred more homes are planned there, and my hon. Friend will be interested to know that the council ward is being redrawn and expanded to allow for a further council seat. The director of education admits that more than 3,000 new homes are being constructed or planned in that area.

This growing community is served by Whinfield infants and Springfield county primary schools. As the catchment area for the two schools shrinks, both will become hopelessly overcrowded. In fact, Whinfield school is already overcrowded. Last year there were 79 applications for about 60 places. This year there were 80 applications for the same number of places, and the headmistress already knows of 71 forthcoming applications in 1986. There is the same story at Springfield—67 applications this year for 60 places. This year alone, 27 children must find places elsewhere, and more than 50 parents are being denied their preferences. My forecast is that next year even more parents will have to appeal and even more will be rejected.

What does this mean for those parents whose appeals are turned down? First, it means a long journey into the northern part of the town. I accept that it is just within the two-mile limit, but it is a journey across open land and along busy roads into a part of the town that is physically separated from the community in Houghton. Secondly, it means extra costs—perhaps up to £10 a week in bus fares and lunch money—as the children will be unable to return home at lunchtime. Thirdly, it means that families will be broken up. Even the sibling connection will be disregarded, and friends will be separated The community around Whinfield school will be slowly pulled apart.

The solution to this problem is simple, obvious and long overdue. It is the provision of an additional classroom at Whinfield infants school at a cost of several thousand pounds. That has been called for by the governors, parents, local councillors, staff and people of all political parties in Houghton, and it has been the subject of submissions to my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend over the last couple of years.

That classroom would never be wasted. Even if subsequent demand fell, the headmistress has pointed out that the school is so overcrowded that the extra space would be an invaluable asset in future years as an additional mathematics room, music room, remedial room and so on.

This application for one additional classroom, even a simple demountable facility, has been turned down by Durham county council. Just last week the education department refused to accept any case for basic need at this school and considered only minor adjustments to the intake limit. I am sorry to say it—I hope that my hon. Friend will agree—but I find that response predictable from an education authority which is notoriously indifferent to parental choice and from Labour councillors who are notoriously indifferent to the real feelings of people. That decision from the education authority is bitterly disappointing for the parents of Houghton, and it will cause great hardship for those who will have to take their children outside this community to have them educated further afield.

The authority will claim that there are unfilled primary school places across the town, and I have seen its submission that there are up to 840 places available to meet a demand which it measures as a potential maximum of 600. I cannot accept that its figure of 840 is realistic. About 81 of those places are in Roman Catholic schools, while others are in older schools which will eventually have to be pulled down and replaced. Almost all of those places are simply in the wrong areas of town.

The responsibility in this matter rests with Durham county council, which has known of the situation over the past couple of years, but has failed to do something about it. That may come as a surprise to my hon. Friend when we recall that this county council was able to find £750,000 to assist the miners in their futile dispute last year, and £500,000 from the education budget alone to provide free school meals for miners' children and to keep schools open over the summer and Christmas holidays. That council still cannot find a few thousand pounds for an extra classroom.

Not only is parental preference being denied in this matter—40 or 50 appeals across the town is ample evidence to justify that statement, and those appeals will be added to next year—but the authority is failing in its primary duty under section 6 of the Education Act to provide sufficient education to make efficient use of its resources.

Education cannot be efficient either if a school is overcrowded or in a dilapidated, century-old school in a rundown industrial part of the old town. Nor can the county council be said to be making efficient use of resources when it overspends its target by 1·5 per cent., some £3·2 million, and thereby incurs a penalty of £5·27 million. The county council cannot find from an overall budget of £214 million the few thousand pounds needed for an additional classroom at Whinfield. The authority has a case to answer and is failing to carry out its statutory obligation under the Education Act. I ask my hon. Friend to consider the case.

12.27 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Bob Dunn)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) on obtaining this Adjournment debate about the provision of primary schools in Darlington. I am pleased to be able to reply to him. He has spoken tonight about a matter which is of immediate concern in his constituency—the very important matter of parental preference for a school place for their children. That of course is of national, as well as local, concern since it relates to the Government's policies in relation to giving parents the maximum possible choice of school within the inevitable limitations of finance and availability. In raising these issues tonight, my hon. Friend has demonstrated the active and diligent way in which he represents his constituents' interests. Indeed, he has corresponded with my right hon. Friend in the past about some of these matters.

My hon. Friend spoke about the position at two particular schools maintained by the Durham local education authority—Abbey county infants and Whinfield county infants schools in Darlington. I shall come to that in a moment but before I do so there are a number of relevant issues of national policy that need to be set out because they form the background to a full understanding of the local position. If I may, I should like to run briefly through those first. Essentially, these relate to three matters: parental preference, falling school rolls; and public expenditure.

The central issue is that of parental preference. The principle that pupils should be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents is one that Conservatives have espoused for a very long time, and the Government are committed to the maintenance of development of parental preference. The provisions that we made in the Education Act 1980 gave parents, for the first time, a statutory right to express their preference of school and extended the practical effect of that principle.

The Act requires local education authorities and the governors of voluntary aided and special agreement schools to publish their admissions and appeals arrangements and information about individual schools. That information provides parents with the basis upon which they are able to express preferences as to which schools they wish their children to attend. LEAs are therefore under a duty to meet those preferences except in certain narrowly defined circumstances set out in section 6(3) of the Act, broadly speaking to do with the efficient use of resources, and provision of efficient education.

For those parents whose preferences are nevertheless not met, the Act established a new right of appeal to an independent local appeal committee, whose decision is binding on the authority or the governors as the case may be. If parents feel that there has been maladministration in the way a case has been handled by an appeal committee, they of course have the right to complain to the Local Commissioner for Administration.

That brings me to the question of falling school rolls and the extent to which the problems which they have generated bear upon the exercise of parental preference. My hon. Friend quite rightly talked about an increase in births of recent years which will bring about a small upturn in primary rolls. But that will not bring us back to anything like the numbers of children we used to have in our schools, and there thus remains a very considerable surplus of school places. Whilst the breathing space which this has given to many schools may be superficially attractive—and, indeed, it has had real benefits in enabling pupil-teacher ratios to be reduced to the lowest levels ever—surplus places present LEAs both with problems of adequate provision of the curriculum in very small schools and with costs which the education service as a whole can ill afford to bear.

This is why my Department issued circular 2/81 four years ago setting out the case for taking surplus places out of use and offering guidance on strategy in achieving a reduction. Better to spend the money that we spend on education on the children who are there, and not on empty desks.

All this has an important bearing on the issue of parental preference. An LEA needs to consider its provision to assess what scope there is for securing a reduction in surplus places, whether by closure, by amalgamation, or by taking part of a school out of use. My hon. Friend will understand that a review of that kind can introduce an element of conflict with the principle of parental preference in a situation where one school in an area is popular with parents and others within a reasonable distance have significant spare capacity. In circumstances of that kind, authorities must have regard to the totality of their provision and to the need to avoid retaining too great a margin of surplus accommodation with the educational and revenue costs that flow from it.

Then there is the inevitable issue of cost. My hon. Friend will not need to be reminded by me of the crucial importance of continuing control over public expenditure in the battle for national economic regeneration. There are of course circumstances in which new school building is essential, where school rolls are rising above the available schools capacity, but national funds for capital provision are necessarily limited and some hard choices have to be made. Given those restraints, it would be very difficult for my Department to sanction a capital project, to add to a popular school so as to enable it to increase its intake when, at the same time, other schools within a reasonable distance already had spare capacity. To do so would be a waste of scarce capital resources and would inevitably divert funds from some more urgent need.

In the light of those national considerations, let me now turn to the issue of the particular schools about which my hon. Friend has spoken tonight. Although the circumstances are different at each, both are popular schools currently receiving more applications for entry than they have places available. Earlier this year, a constituent of my hon. Friend wrote to my Department about the admission limit set for Abbey infants school by the Durham LEA. Officers of the Department consulted the authority to establish the facts so as to consider whether statutory proposals under section 15 of the 1980 Act were needed. That section requires such proposals to be made where a school's annual intake is to be reduced to four fifths or less of the standard number. The standard number is defined as the number of pupils admitted in the admission age group in the school year 1979–80. In this case, I understand that there had been some dispute about the standard number. That was resolved, the school's admission limit was raised from 60 to 62 and statutory proposals under section 15 were not then needed. In the event, the parents of 88 children expressed a preference for Abbey as their first choice for this September. This is in excess of the school's capacity and therefore not all of them could thus be successful. It would not be feasible to consider providing additional accommodation at this school when sufficient spare capacity exists at other schools not very far away. Following the initial allocation of places, 17 parents submitted appeals. A total of 64 pupils were allocated places at the school, including five who had been successful on appeal and seven who were granted a place before appeals were heard to replace children who had moved out of the area. That left five disappointed applicants whose appeals were unsuccessful. It would not be helpful of me to say only five were disappointed, because of course for each of those five parents it is very disappointing, and I fully understand that. However, I gather that there is capacity for those children at the alternative schools within a reasonable distance. To have admitted more to Abbey infants school would have put it under unreasonable pressure to the detriment of all the rest of the children. The LEA decided that it could not do that and of course that is within its judgment, and not mine or my right hon. Friend in our locally administered education system.

At Whinfield county infants school the position is rather different, but its effects on individual parents are much the same. As my hon. Friend has said, there is housing development under construction and planned in the area. Last week the LEA considered whether that housing development would justify its putting forward a case to my right hon. Friend for a capital allocation so as to allow it to build an extension to Whinfield infants school. In doing so, it had, of course, to consider the situation in the light of alternative capacity elsewhere. The nearest alternative school, Springfield county primary school, has a full intake planned for this September; but there were last April 650 surplus places at the eight other primary schools within two miles of Whinfield. I understand that the journey to these alternative schools is not particularly difficult or dangerous, and that there are school crossing patrols on the few major roads. Although—against the county trend—the birth rate in Darlington has increased in the past two years, this will not compensate for the decline of previous years. In the light of this—and of the surplus places elsewhere in the area, to which I have already referred—the authority concluded that it could not mount a case for new building on grounds of basic need.

The Durham LEA originally set the Whinfield admission limit at 60 places for this September. The parents of 82 children expressed a first preference for a place there, and 69 places were eventually made available on the basis of the admissions criteria which Durham—like all authorities—is required to publish. The independent appeal hearings have yet to be held. Some appeals at least may be upheld, but, even if all were upheld, they would not be sufficient to constitute a new form of entry.

My hon. Friend will understand that ministerial powers in all of this are limited. The law lays down clear responsibilities to be met by LEAs and procedures to be followed by them in considering applications for admissions to schools. My right hon. Friend has no power to intervene in those processes unless an authority is acting unreasonably within the strict legal definition of the word "unreasonably" or unless it is in default of a statutory duty. Those circumstances may not apply here. Nevertheless, I fully realise how important and difficult a matter this is for the parents involved, and I shall ask my officials to make further inquiries of the Durham LEA so that I can be kept fully informed of developments—in particular, about the numbers to be admitted this year to Abbey infants school.

I accept that that will not be the reply that my hon. Friend hoped for, but I hope that his constituents will recognise that the case for new building is not sufficiently strong, given the surplus capacity at so many other nearby schools.

Having said that, let me reiterate that it remains our policy, within the necessary practical and financial limitations I have already indicated, to afford to parents the maximum possible choice of school and choice of type of education, at both primary and secondary level, and that we do look to all education authorities to respect both the spirit as well as the letter of recent legislation that seeks to put that principle into effect.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to One o'clock.