Skip to main content

St Bede's School, Redhill

Volume 87: debated on Wednesday 27 November 1985

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

11.25 pm

I wish to raise on the Adjournment the urgent need for St. Bede's school in Redhill to be included at last in the capital programme for voluntary aided schools.

Academically, St. Bede's is an unusual institution. It is an ecumenical, comprehensive secondary school for boys and girls aged from 12 to 18. The school was formed in 1976 from two other schools—St. Joseph's Roman Catholic mixed school and the Bishop Simpson Anglican girls' school. There are approximately 1,140 pupils on its roll. It is a shining example of a joint venture in education by the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. It is appropriate that we should turn our attention to that example after two days of debate on the cultural and sectarian divides in Northern Ireland.

St. Bede's school has proved successful and has been visited and praised by religious leaders and educationists from all over Britain and abroad. However, all its staff and pupils labour under a great handicap. They have to work in 14 separate buildings spread over three separate sites. The main buildings and six temporary hutted classrooms are in Carlton road, Redhill. The sixth form centre, craft and technology and music departments are in prefabricated buildings and huts the other side of a large playing field. Worst of all, second-year pupils are in a turn of the century building in Frenches road, one mile away from the main building.

I cannot stress too heavily the acute difficulties of having to operate over such split and widely separated sites. It means that 57 hours of staff time are spent each week moving between buildings. The difficulties were foreseen at the time of the school's foundation. In the section 13 notice published by the then Secretary of State in 1974, it was clearly stated that it was intended to bring the school on to one site within five years. That was 11 years ago. Since that time the school has grown larger, but repeated requests for inclusion in the capital programme for voluntary aided schools, with the full backing of Surrey county council, have been refused by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

As well as the difficulties presented by split sites, the buildings are grossly inadequate. First, there is the 80-year-old annexe in Frenches road, to which I have referred, a mile from the main building with the busy A23 road passing between. It is used to cater for the 224 second-year pupils.

The fact that there is only one science laboratory forces mixed ability teaching in those vital subjects and means that many science lessons have to be taught away from the laboratory in ordinary classrooms. It also means that laboratory staff have to carry chemicals to and fro from the main school because there are no secure storage facilities at Frenches road. The entire building is antiquated, to say the least. One hall has to serve as assembly room, drama department, gym and canteen. PT equipment has to be stored in one of the two classrooms opening directly from it. Girls returning from games have to change in an old, open cloakroom. Washing facilities are primitive and the lavatories are outside, and ancient. When I visited recently I found part of the hard playground and fire escape held up by temporary scaffolding in an underground boiler house. I wondered which was the greatest risk—fire or a call to fire drill.

Next, I direct my hon. Friend's attention to the three prefabricated buildings and two temporary huts at Colesmead, reached by pupils and staff having to cross playing fields from the main building. Those, too, are totally unsuitable for their present use. The need to site craft and technology here means total separation from the art and design work done in the main school. The separation of the music rooms—which in themselves are cramped—from the mainbuilding, makes it especially difficult to pursue musical activities after school hours.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, St. Bede's is unique in this part of Surrey in having its own sixth form, which is also one of the largest and strongest in Surrey. But the common room for sixth formers at Colesmead is the most primitive I have ever seen, in a building that can only be described as squalid.

And so we come to the main school buildings, in Carlton road, which suffer from severe design defects. The lack of a through corridor on either of the upper floors means that staff and pupils have to interrupt other lessons to pass through. Laboratory assistants use the fire escapes to service their laboratories. Almost all pupils are obliged to pass through the central entrance hall between lessons, causing severe disturbance to those sitting public examinations in the adjacent hall. The only secure place to lock the examination papers in accordance with the regulations laid down by the examination boards is in a lavatory.

The library is cramped for a school of this size, and has to be used by sixth formers for private study. That prevents younger children from being brought in as a class and taught study skills. Only recently the Surrey school inspectors reported critically on the way in which the school is able to use its library. There are, again, too few science laboratories. The staff room is small, and currently used by more than 60 staff. There is not the space to provide enough tables at which staff can prepare and mark work. All those difficulties, and more, in every one of the three split sites, impose terrible constraints on timetabling, and blight any further development of the curriculum, especially in technology.

Yet, as my hon. Friend will be aware, St. Bede's is an excellent school. It has been oversubscribed every year since its foundation. Earlier this year 270 applied for 210 places. Its academic achievements are high. To give just one example, in five A-level subjects last summer more than a quarter of candidates achieved A grades.

But that record of excellence cannot be made an excuse for refusing to St. Bede's the development on one site that was promised by a previous Secretary of State in the section 13 notice issued back in 1974. It has become urgent for the Department to honour that commitment, by including the necessary architects' fees and other consultants' costs in next year's capital programme for voluntary aided schools. I must tell my hon. Friend, too, that many of us see that as a critical test of whether the Government are sincere in their expressed support for the voluntary aided sector in general, and for advanced ecumenical education in particular. I know that that point was stressed to the Secretary of State when he met a delegation led by the Bishop of Southwark and the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton in June this year. In developing further the concept of ecumenical education, St. Bede's sets an example that others would be wise to follow, yet what encouragement is there for it to act—perhaps by making the best use, for the time being, of what scattered and unsuitable buildings are available to it—when it can see how a school that was promised development on one site 11 years ago is still denied any place in the capital programme?

Therefore I urge my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and, through him, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to give substance to their words and give St. Bede's its long-promised place in their capital programme so that the school can develop on one site and enjoy the facilities appropriate to any good, modern comprehensive school.

11.35 pm

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) on obtaining this Adjournment debate on the voluntary aided capital programme and, in particular, the proposed building work at St. Bede's school. I am glad of the opportunity to reply. My hon. Friend has spoken eloquently tonight on behalf of the school, but this is by no means the first time he has raised this issue. His active and continuing support of the school typifies my hon. Friend's keen concern for the interests of his constituents.

My hon. Friend spoke of the problems faced by the staff and pupils of St. Bede's and the apparently anomalous position of the school in relation to the availability of capital resources. I shall endeavour to answer these specific points in a moment, but before I do so I should like to touch briefly on the general issues of national policy which underlie this question, since this background will contribute to an understanding of the position of St. Bede's school.

There are in England almost 25,000 primary and secondary schools within the state system, maintained by local education authorities who meet their running costs. Most of these—rather over two-thirds—are county schools, provided by the local education authorities. The remainder, known as voluntary schools, were provided by voluntary bodies—principally the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. This arrangement, introduced by the Education Act 1944, is known as the dual system. Voluntary schools make a very important contribution to the maintained sector of education. They bring variety to the provision of schools and they extend the range of educational choice available to parents for their children. The Government are strongly committed to the preservation of the dual system and the fostering of voluntary schools.

There are different types of voluntary school, but the largest category—to which St. Bede's belongs—is that of voluntary aided schools. These are distinguished from voluntary controlled schools—the next most numerous type—by the greater powers possessed by their governors and by the division of responsibility for certain capital building and repair work. In brief, the governors are responsible for external repairs and for the greater part of capital building work, and they are entitled to seek from the Department a grant of 85 per cent. of the cost to them of such work.

The funds available to the Department for disbursement to governors are not, however, unlimited. My hon. Friend knows that a fundamental element of the Government's economic strategy is the achievement of a sustained reduction in the rate of inflation. Only in this way can we generate the economic growth that is needed to underpin the provision of state services. In order to achieve this, it is essential that public expenditure must be limited. Expenditure on education, by both central and local Government, cannot be exempt from the need for restraint.

In distributing the resources that are available for the voluntary sector, priorities therefore have to be decided and choices—often difficult choices—must be made. I should like, if I may, to outline the approach we take here. Each year the Department invites all local education authorities to submit details of their plans for capital expenditure in the following year at the county and voluntary schools in their areas. In aggregate, these plans always exceed what the country can, in our view, afford. We are therefore faced with the difficult task of deciding between competing voluntary aided school projects. In doing so, our first priority is necessarily to meet continuing expenditure required for projects which have already started—committed expenditure, in other words. For the current financial year, governors' estimates of committed expenditure were considerably higher than earlier indications had given us to expect, partly because of "slippage"—work proceeding more slowly than scheduled—and partly because of unforeseen increases in the costs of certain, mostly large, projects. Short of asking governors of all schools with capital building projects to reschedule the work over a longer period—something which would be impracticable, costly and highly unsatisfactory for all concerned—we have no option but to programme all such expenditure, as there are no alternative sources of funding open to governors.

Having met committed expenditure, our next priority must be to programme new projects which result from published statutory proposals which have been approved by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State under section 13 of the Education Act 1980. They are normally of two kinds: either the proposal is to establish a new school which is needed to provide new places in areas of population growth—that is known as "basic need"—or it relates to a re-ordering of provision in an area where the school population is declining, perhaps by amalgamating two or more schools so that a proportion of the surplus places can be taken out of use. Approval of such proposals places upon the proposers a statutory duty to implement them by a specified date. If building is required in order to implement the proposals, it has to be programmed to avoid the risk of proposers being unable to fulfil that duty.

The third priority, after such "committed" and "statutory" expenditure has been allowed, is for work which, for convenience, I will refer to under the blanket title of "improvement". Projects of that sort include minor additions or extensions to existing school buildings, replacements of failing or unsatisfactory structures, such as outside lavatories or aging "temporary" accommodation, and work intended to bring a split-site school on to a single site. Regrettably, we are always faced with many more worthy projects in that category than can be accommodated within the available resources, and hard choices have to be made on the basis of the urgency of the need and the general condition of the school buildings in question. In making such assessments we draw upon the views of the maintaining LEAs and, where appropriate, upon the expertise and experience of the Department's officials. We also have to bear in mind the implications of the projects in terms of capital expenditure in future years.

I should at this point perhaps clear up one possibly confusing point relating to St. Bede's. Since the school came into being as the result of approved proposals, there would be logic in the assumption that the building project to bring the school on to one site would fall into my second category of statutorily necessary work. That is not so, however, for the following reasons. The "duty to implement" which gives that category its high priority was introduced by legislation which took effect in 1976. approval of the proposal to establish St. Bede's predated that legislation. The result is that projects such as that at St. Bede's must fall into the third priority category of highly desirable projects which are not essential for statutory reasons.

Turning now to St. Bede's school, may I first acknowledge the way in which the school has successfully broken new ground? St. Bede's is one of a small but growing number of ecumenical voluntary aided schools. Those pioneering schools demonstrate that it is possible to combine Anglican and Roman Catholic education successfully in one institution. In many ways they are a pointer to the future, as the steady decline in secondary school rolls will increasingly face local authorities with the problem of the town with two aided schools neither of which is big enough to be viable but both of which attract justifiably strong support. The ecumenical solution can be a way of ensuring that the strengths of the two institutions are combined and of avoiding the lasting bitterness that can result from the invidious choice that must otherwise be made.

I fully acknowledge the strength of the school's case. Officials of the Department have visited St. Bede's, and we are in no doubt of the difficulties which pupils and particularly staff have to overcome every day. My hon. Friend also knows that the bishops of both the dioceses concerned have discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and have conveyed forcefully the strength of feeling, locally and within the two churches, about the importance of giving St. Bede's the support it needs in its pioneering work.

All this is well understood. The arguments for St. Bede's are strong. Nevertheless, there is another side to the case. The cost of the project, currently expected to total more than £2·5 million, is substantial indeed. If the project were to start next year, it would pre-empt a sizeable proportion of the limited resources available for capital work at voluntary aided schools from now to the end of the decade. At a time when there are many dilapidated primary schools in sore need of attention at a relatively modest cost, the implications of committing such a large sum have to be weighed very carefully indeed.

That is not to say that St. Bede's will not find a place in the programme. I simply wished to make the point so that my hon. Friend and his constituents may understand that our inability to programme the St. Bede's project so far is not a result of perversity or ignorance, but a painful decision of the sort that must be taken when what is desirable exceeds what is possible. The allocations of capital expenditure at county and voluntary schools are currently under consideration and will be announced next month.

My hon. Friend will not, I am sure, expect me to give any assurances at this stage about the likelihood of programming the work at St. Bede's. He will, however, accept an assurance that I can give him. It is that the points which he and others have eloquently made will be fully taken into account before decisions are made.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.