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School Closures (North East Lincolnshire)

Volume 456: debated on Friday 2 February 2007

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

I am very honoured to have been selected for the Adjournment debate today, in which I will address the worrying issue of school reorganisation and closure in North East Lincolnshire.

I want to put the debate in context, to try to explain why residents are particularly worried about the secondary school reorganisation in Grimsby and Cleethorpes. During the 2005 general election, North East Lincolnshire council, which is jointly controlled by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, dropped a bombshell on our communities by announcing that a number of primary schools would be closed, for which they blamed the Government. Of course, that is complete nonsense. It goes without saying that we have to deal with surplus places, but it is up to the council how it does so.

Through work that my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and I did, we managed to demonstrate to North East Lincolnshire that it had come up with wildly inaccurate figures predicting future birth rates in our area. As a result, the three primary schools that were most threatened—Elliston primary, Bursar infants and juniors, and Eastfield infants and juniors—did not have to close. There have been some mergers, but we retained those schools.

Fast-forward to 2006, and it is the turn of the secondary schools. As hon. Members will appreciate, many parents, having gone through the reorganisation and closure controversy in 2005, are now worried about what is going on in secondary schools, particularly as in the past the council came up with flawed figures. Last time, as I said, the council simply dropped a bombshell, saying “These schools will close.” There were no alternatives. This time, it has come up with option A and option B, so that is progress. However, that has pitched school against school, MP against MP and councillor against councillor. It is not a well thought-out process. The council is forcing school communities to choose one option or the other. As we demonstrated in 2005, there are many ways of tackling surplus places other than those that the council has come up with.

The plans that are causing the most controversy in our area of North East Lincolnshire relate to two schools: Whitgift school in the constituency of Great Grimsby, whose head teacher is Mark Rushby, and Healing school in my constituency, whose head teacher is Ann Addison. The first option that the council came up with was to reduce the number of places at Healing school to 729 and to reduce the places at Whitgift to 880. That option retains the schools, which looks good on the surface, but it has very serious implications for Healing. In fact, that figure of 729 threatens the school’s future viability.

Healing is one of North East Lincolnshire’s top-performing schools and is in the top 25 per cent. nationally. In 2004, it became a specialist science college. Of course, we all accept that we need specialist science colleges in this country. The plans for the specialist science college were based on a school of 800 pupils—not the 729 suggested. Apparently, there are 791 pupils on the roll and the school is on target to reach 800.

Last year, Healing became a science and foundation college and is apparently planning to go for a second specialism. It has excellent Ofsted results, its GCSE results are improving—by 9 per cent. in the past two years—and it is oversubscribed by 29 per cent. It is a popular school. I mention how successful the school is, yet 18 per cent. of its pupils have special needs. The 729 roll would mean a loss of places in the school, making it unable to fulfil its science college plans. It would not be able to balance the books or to meet its 14-to-19 curriculum requirements and it would be unable to meet parental demand. Thus, at the beginning of December, the school governors unanimously rejected that option and went for option B.

Option B was to close the Whitgift school in Grimsby, with a modest increase in the size of Healing school. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby and I have resisted any closure of these schools for a variety of reasons. Whitgift school is located in the northern part of North East Lincolnshire. It is based in a large area of a former council estate, which is now run by Shoreline Housing. It comprises three-bedroomed family houses. Families moving into that area have Whitgift school at the heart of their community, which is also an area with some deprivation. We feel that closing Whitgift school will rip the heart out of that particular community.

This option would also mean more than 800 children seeking alternative provision, yet there is little available in neighbouring schools, which could not absorb that number of pupils. The nearest schools with places available would be some eight miles away, entailing long journeys for pupils who normally walk to school at the moment. I do not believe that the council has properly considered the environmental impact of closing the school or the damage that closure would do to that particular community. As I said, it would rip the community’s heart out. The school provides focus and cohesion for that part of North East Lincolnshire. A large area of the borough—larger than many towns in Britain—would be left without any education provision. If the school were to close, I seriously doubt whether any families would move to that part of Grimsby.

Whitgift school also provides a lot of added value to our communities. In fact, it is very lucky in having two swimming pools. About 50 per cent. of our primary school children have their swimming lessons at the school and other community groups use it, too. The head of our healthy schools project, Julie Boxall, has certainly expressed great concern about the loss of the pools to the area. Whitgift school also provides adult education and a film theatre. It has plans and aspires to be a specialist sports college, which is an excellent initiative. The council recently gave planning permission for the new Grimsby Town football club stadium in that part of the borough, so it would be excellent to have the educational work that the club does marrying up with Whitgift, a specialist sports college. Let us hope that it does not take too long before Grimsby Town starts scoring a few more goals there.

Our other worry about these proposals is the brain drain effect, from which we suffer enormously in the Grimsby-Cleethorpes-Immingham area. Some 500 pupils leave our area and go to grammar schools in neighbouring Lincolnshire in the towns of Louth and Caistor. That has a dramatic impact on our exam results and attainment figures. The brightest and best children are being creamed off and are going to a neighbouring authority. We believe that those plans will accelerate that brain drain and benefit a neighbouring county, rather than helping our area.

I do not want either school to close. A solution that could retain both schools would be to increase the number of pupils at Healing school above the magic figure of 800 on which specialist status is based. It would remain viable. It would fulfil all its plans. Perhaps we could consider either keeping Whitgift at the size that the council suggested or perhaps reducing it a little more. In effect, rather than option A or option B, both of which have a dramatic impact on our community and could lead to school closures, that is my option C, and it could be done.

I made that suggestion in my oral evidence to the North East Lincolnshire scrutiny committee last month. In fact, Ann Addison, the head teacher of Healing, told the scrutiny committee when she appeared before it that she would support an alternative that would retain Whitgift school in Grimsby and increase the roll of Healing to above 800. To achieve that, I want to pose some questions to the Minister. When I appeared before the scrutiny committee, these questions were put to me, and it is clear that some of these issues have influenced the council’s thinking.

What is the Government’s position on secondary schools that have fewer than 800 pupils on roll? There has been much talk in our area that the optimum size is 900 to 1,200, and many of our schools are simply not that size, so I seek some guidance on that issue. It has also been suggested to me that the 900 to 1,200 range represents a criterion for bids under the building better schools for the future programme. Is that correct?

I want to know whether social factors can be taken into account to justify smaller schools or perhaps a slightly higher surplus place figure. As I said, Whitgift school is certainly in a deprived area at the heart of a large council estate, so we hope that that type of social factor can be taken into account. Could geographical factors also be considered to justify smaller schools? We are on the banks of the Humber. Given the nature of the geography of our area, we do not have a 360° hinterland; we have half of that. We are not like major cities inland. That geographical point is pertinent to our schools.

We also have plans for academies in the area. The intake of those academies is fixed at 900, and questions have been asked about the fact that the size of the other schools in the area is being reduced because the academies are all fixed at 900. I should like to know whether that figure is fixed and whether there is any interplay.

I do not believe that any survey has been done of the schools in question to analyse the space being used—an asset survey. When the primary school reorganisation was under way, it transpired that many schools had already taken action to reduce surplus places, by redesignating classrooms as libraries and medical rooms and for special needs use. Yet the council still thought in 2005 that they were classrooms, when those schools did not have any surplus places at all. Does the Minister feel that a council should carry out such a survey before proposing such plans?

I should also like to know the Minister’s views on federations and federating. Whitgift school works very closely with Tollbar business college in my constituency. Healing and Whitgift schools work closely together and increasingly share expertise. I wonder whether that is one way in which we could address some of the surplus place issues. Additionally, I believe that the talk about increasing the school leaving age has cast the council’s figures into doubt, because they relate to a time before those suggestions came forward. Has the Minister got any views on the brain drain problem? Some 500 pupils leave the borough on a daily basis. The reorganisation could have an impact on that brain drain. Finally, I would like to know about transport. As I said, most of the pupils that go to Whitgift walk there. If the school closes, it will mean journeys by bus and car, which will have a detrimental impact on the area.

I want to touch briefly on one of the other proposals: that of having a joint faith school in the area. That would involve merging Matthew Humberstone Church of England school in Cleethorpes with St. Mary’s Catholic school in Grimsby. Such plans always seem to be trying to bring me and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby closer together. In essence, Matthew Humberstone is a comprehensive school at the heart of its community. It is close to where I live in Cleethorpes. St. Mary’s is much smaller. Catholic parents have told me that they would not support the merger and would take their children out of the borough, perhaps seeking Catholic schools in neighbouring Lincolnshire. Again, that would exacerbate the brain drain problem. What powers does the council have in relation to Church of England schools and Catholic schools, or would it be up to the diocese to decide? Recently, migration has had an impact on my area. In 2005-06, we had 690 migrants registered in North East Lincolnshire. Some 370 of them were Polish. Those figures have not been properly taken into account in the council’s plans. That could potentially solve the problem of the rolls in the Catholic school.

The issue is of vital importance to the residents of Great Grimsby and Cleethorpes. Much uncertainty has been caused by the proposals. Parents are already considering not sending children to the schools that they originally intended to send them to. I have heard of teachers saying that they are going to leave. That is the self-same thing that happened with the primary schools. People are really unsettled. I understand that the cabinet of North East Lincolnshire council will meet next week to discuss the proposals. I hope that the cabinet will take on board the suggestions that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby and I made to it about going for a different option from the two that it suggested. I understand that the council is perfectly entitled to do that and that nothing constrains it to its options A and B. I sincerely hope that the Minister’s reply to the debate and answers to my queries will assist in steering the council’s cabinet in the right direction, which is to keep both Whitgift and Healing schools open with a viable number of children on the rolls.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) for championing Whitgift and Healing schools and for the work that she is doing for her wider community in terms of the impact on her constituents—and in relation to Grimsby Town football club, which is important to her part of the world. If my experience in this area has taught me anything, it is that local authorities should work with and pay heed to local Members of Parliament, who, like my hon. Friend, tend to have their finger on the pulse of local opinion. From my experience of these kinds of changes in local authorities, we are all in a better position when they listen to local MPs.

In trying to respond to and answer all my hon. Friend’s questions, I will begin by talking about the role of the local authority in relation to decisions that have to be made about the reconfiguration of schools. Local authorities are responsible for planning school places and have a duty to ensure that there are sufficient places for the pupils in their areas and that high-quality education is provided cost-effectively. It is for individual authorities to determine whether, and how, to reduce surplus places, which can depend on local circumstances, including geographical circumstances, and social factors, as my hon. Friend said.

Ministers have no role in decisions on proposals for changes to local school provision or organisation. Such decisions are made locally. It will be for local authorities to take decisions on proposals to close schools when the Education and Inspections Act 2006 comes into force later this year. However, there will be the power to appeal to the independent schools adjudicator in some circumstances.

Decision makers will have to have regard to statutory guidance issued by the Secretary of State when taking decisions on such proposals. That statutory guidance details a range of factors that must be considered when decisions are taken, including the impact on standards, diversity and parental choice; the need for places; cost-effectiveness; the views of interested parties; and the impact on the local community. When considering proposals on closing a school in a deprived area, decision makers must consider the transport arrangements proposed, the quality of the transport links between the communities served by the school and the site of the alternative provision, and the possible effect of the proposed arrangements on pupil unauthorised absence and staying-on rates post-16. It will be for decision makers locally to consider individual proposals on their merits and to balance the weight of all factors, taking into account the particular circumstances of each case.

The Department’s statutory guidance to decision makers makes it clear that they should not make blanket assumptions that schools need to be of a certain size before they can be good schools. Local authorities are able to propose the closure of voluntary and foundation schools. If there was a local plan to establish a joint Church of England-Roman Catholic school, it would be for the local dioceses to publish proposals for that school. However, they would need the Secretary of State’s consent to publish proposals without running a competition for the new school.

My hon. Friend mentioned the brain drain and cross-border issues. As she knows, the Government do not support the principle of selection by academic ability. However, although we banned the introduction of any new selection by ability, we left it to parents to decide whether their local grammar schools should continue to be wholly selective. If there is sufficient parental support, the grammar school ballot system gives them a way to change the process and to decide whether the grammar school should become comprehensive. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that there has been only one ballot and that its result ensured that the school remained selective.

The answers that my hon. Friend has given so far have been most helpful. On the brain drain, the grammar schools in question are in a neighbouring authority, but right on the border of North East Lincolnshire. Parents in North East Lincolnshire would never have a say on the future of grammar schools in a neighbouring authority.

I am happy to write to my hon. Friend about the process for the ballots. I understand that they cover not only those who live in the catchment area, but those who use local schools.

I am well aware of brain drain issues. My hon. Friend talked about children going out of her locality to grammar schools; in my constituency, there are four grammar schools, so many children are coming into the area. However, it also means that many local children have to leave the area.

We want to ensure fair access, and I would have been more concerned if my hon. Friend had told me that children could not obtain admission to particular schools just because they happened to live in a different local authority area. All over the country, but especially in our cities, parents exercise their choice to cross borough and county boundaries to travel to school, and it would be unfair to restrict that choice. However, it creates a challenge for non-selective schools because, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, the most able pupils in the area may go to a nearby grammar school. Although the ability profile of their intake is different, non-selective schools are still in the business of providing the best education possible for their pupils, which we have recognised by increasingly putting greater emphasis on value added in schools.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of federations. The Government encourage schools to work together and collaborate, or federate, in a number of ways where it would improve school standards. That can include a statutory federation where up to five maintained schools federate under a single governing body. It is for individual governing bodies to decide whether they want to join a federation.

Schools in statutory federations continue to be individual schools, and admission to each school continues to be determined by the appropriate admissions authority, which is the local education authority in the case of community and voluntary controlled schools and the federated governing body in the case of foundation and voluntary aided schools. Schools also keep their existing category and character, and do not gain, lose or change their religious character through membership of a statutory federation. More informal collaborative arrangements between maintained schools and schools not maintained by local education authorities, such as city technology colleges, academies, independent schools and further education institutions, are also possible, but they may not include federated governing bodies or formal joint committees of governing bodies.

My hon. Friend asked about the size of academies and about the building schools for the future programme—BSF. I can reassure her that no criterion for BSF money is based on size; each proposal is considered individually. The figure of 1,200 is a guide for the average size of new provision, but it is by no means fixed. I hope that is helpful.

The size of academies is not fixed at 900. The statutory guidance makes it clear that decision makers should not make blanket assumptions that schools need be of a certain size before they can be good schools. A number of other factors should be taken into consideration when assessing individual proposals.

I hope I have answered most of my hon. Friend’s questions and I wish her the very best in fleshing out the options locally, working with her local authority, to ensure that local school reorganisation and provision delivers the best for Cleethorpes. That is in the interests of my hon. Friend and I am sure she will continue to champion the issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o’clock.