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Surplus School Places

Volume 204: debated on Tuesday 25 February 1992

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To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what plans he has to intervene where local education authorities fail to take action to reduce surplus school places.

The Government continue to press local education authorities to remove surplus places, since only they can make proposals for reorganisation. Our latest survey of school capacity shows that Wolverhampton has nearly 12,000 surplus places. We estimate that it will cost Wolverhampton more than £2 million a year to keep them empty.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Pressing is not enough. Unfortunately, the Labour-controlled council in Wolverhampton continues to ignore our pressing. Does my hon. Friend agree that that money should be intended for pupils? Will he please come to the rescue of Wolverhampton parents and, if need be, intervene to ensure that Wolverhampton council manages education and does not waste money?

I shall consider that point. Wolverhampton has the fifth highest overheads of any education authority in England. Its administration consumes more than 5 per cent. of its schools budget. Its education bureaucracy appears to cost £100 per pupil, compared with £30 next door in Solihull. At present Wolverhampton appears to employ more non-teaching staff than teachers under its education budget.

Does the Under-Secretary understand that if the Government had not embarked on the wholly cynical and two-faced policy of enticing schools with surplus places to opt out, the children at Stratford school would not now face chaos? Given that the Secretary of State's own appointed governor, the former chief inspector, Eric Bolton, said that the situation at the school is "unsatisfactory" and that the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers said that pupils and staff at Stratford school are "disturbed", does the Minister recognise that the Secretary of State's statement last week that Stratford school was "operating satisfactorily" had no basis in fact and could come only from a Secretary of State who sought to evade, rather than take, the responsibility which was plainly his?

Let me give the hon. Gentleman some facts. Of the 143 grant-maintained schools to which he referred and which have been approved so far, only 23 were named in reorganisation or closure proposals. As for the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the grant-maintained school policy might be paralysing the production of reorganisation proposals, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that in the past 12 months 150 proposals for school reorganisations were received and some 93 have so far been approved. No such proposals have been made by Wolverhampton.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the state of affairs to which he referred in Wolverhampton has continued for about 10 years now? Has not the Labour-controlled local authority frequently made proposals for reorganisations, knowing that they would be rejected because they were highly partisan? Would it not be a good thing if the Government explained to the people of Wolverhampton, perhaps even by taking an advertisement in the Express and Star, that the gross overspending has continued year after year because Wolverhampton council has seen education in terms of employing people in schools, not in terms of providing good education?

I can tell my hon. Friend that 17 of Wolverhampton's 18 secondary schools have surplus places. It is high time that Wolverhampton got round to proposing some reorganisations. As for Wolverhampton's budget, there was a serious overrun last year of some £2 million, including on the operation of something called the Jennie Lee centre. The working party's report said that the overrun on that centre

"generally reflected policy instructions that no additional cost should be involved but in specifics turned out not to be manageable".

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker. All the interventions from the Conservative Front Bench will not save the seat of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks).

Yes, I definitely want to do that. First, I want to draw the attention of the House—[Interruption.] I want to ask the Minister—

I want to ask the Minister why his two Back-Bench colleagues from Wolverhampton did not nominate the schools which they would wish to see closed or from which they would like to have surplus places taken away. In addition, I accept that the Minister is new to his Front-Bench position. Wolverhampton has already submitted two proposals for surplus places and they have been rejected by the Government.

It is clear to the House from that sort of defence that Wolverhampton, even by the standards of Labour councils, is a pretty dreadful education authority, with the fifth highest overheads in England. Parents in Wolverhampton will want to know why the paperwork cost is £100 per pupil there, compared with only £30 per pupil down the road in Solihull.

If the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks) wants to raise the matter, she could raise it on the Adjournment.