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Schools (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Volume 465: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2007

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

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): This debate is about school building and reorganisation in the Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency, which is a large one, covering more than 1,000 square miles, in an enormous county with a small population. Some of the schools are within a few miles of Ashington, such as Lynemouth, Ellington and Linton; others, such as Cambo, are not far from Newcastle airport and others are closer to Edinburgh than to Tyneside, including those in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and are the northernmost schools in England in the Minister’s jurisdiction. I am glad that the Minister for Schools and Learners, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), who takes an interest in our problems in Northumberland, is in the Chamber to answer the debate.

The size of the area means that it is expensive to provide education there. A larger number of schools, including many village first schools, is needed because of the travel distances involved. Transport costs are high and statutory transport requirements take a significant slice of the budget, even though the county now charges pupils aged over 16 heavily; it costs them £360 to travel to school or college—an issue I have raised on other occasions.

However, to deal with such expensive requirements Northumberland receives less money than most other authorities; only four authorities in England have less funding per pupil. In the current year, Northumberland has £3,552 per pupil against the England average of £3,888. Of course, some areas are well above that average, but in Northumberland the costs and pressures are high. On the other side of the border, funding is hugely better in Scotland, which is particularly apparent to my constituents given where they live.

An added problem—not on the same scale but worrying none the less—arises from the Government’s plans, announced earlier this year, to take so-called surplus cash from schools. The amount could be as much as £225 million over the whole country, some of which may already have been spent, because nowadays schools need to conserve money in their budgets for repairs and other commitments, or save money one year for a new project in the following year. The policy is based on assumptions that are not well founded and it could be damaging.

In the 2004 Budget, the Prime Minister—then the Chancellor—said that he would ensure

“for every constituency in the country that by 2015, every secondary school can be refurbished or rebuilt with world-class technology in every school”.—[Official Report, 17 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 335.]

I sat up with a start when I heard those words. I counted up the schools in my constituency and wondered how the policy would be delivered in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

I am still asking how that promise will apply in my constituency, where as well as three high schools we have many old first and middle schools that require refurbishment or rebuilding. Some of our schools date from the 1870s, although they are among the better built ones and when refurbished some of them are very good. Many of the schools were built just after the Education Act 1944. Some date from the 1950s and a lot from the 1960s—they are generally the worst, as some were deliberately built with only a 25-year life span and have been patched together since.

The then Chancellor made his promise about secondary schools, although for many purposes middle schools count as secondary schools, too. However, I shall concentrate on two high schools. Coquet school in Amble is the most recently built of our high schools and the only one that was built for the age group it serves—the three-tier system to which I shall refer in more detail. Although the school has some problems, they do not compare with those at the other high schools in my constituency, at Berwick and Alnwick.

Most of the buildings at Berwick community high school are old and outdated, although some are more recent. They were built for a style of teaching that is no longer practised. The teaching approach was very different 50 years ago and was based on children sitting in rows, facing the front. The school had serious, unexpected problems with its boiler, which is exactly why schools need reserves in their budget. The buildings are not compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and some of them cannot be made so.

The state of the buildings is shown in sharp relief when we look just a few miles away to Duns and Eyemouth where £50 million to £75 million has been spent on new schools. No parent from Berwick can send their children to those schools, because they are on the other side of the border which, educationally, is something of an iron curtain. There are very few ways to cross the border educationally, but my constituents look over it and see heavy spending on the schools on the other side that their schools do not share.

The worst problems for high schools are faced by the Duchess’s community high school in Alnwick where the main buildings are old and declining. They have passed the end of their useful life and there is a severe capacity problem. The school was built for 900 pupils, but now has 1,150 on a split site. The dining hall seats only 200 children, but more than 1,000 children have to use it during the lunch break. That means that there are numerous sittings and that pupils have to be pushed out quickly so that the next lot can get in. That is an impossible situation.

According to the fire certificate, the assembly hall can fit only 300 pupils, but that is not even enough to hold the sixth form for sixth-form assemblies. I am very familiar with the room, because on most of the occasions on which I have been elected to the House the votes have been counted in the high school hall. That happened in my very first election, but even the elections have now moved on. They now take place in the much more spacious, comfortable and attractive leisure centre on the other side of town. However, the school is still condemned to use its very constricted hall. There are only eight science labs for 13 science staff; 13 mobile classrooms in a state of disrepair; and heating problems.

Then we have the problems of the Bailiffgate site, which is an old building some distance away from the main school. Getting to it involves crossing a road, and it is on four floors with narrow staircases. It is essentially an old domestic property across the road from Alnwick castle, and it does not have sound-proofed music rooms. Despite the quality of the musical effort at the Duchess’s high school, that is not always appreciated by people trying to do other work in the same building. It is impossible for the building to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act and timetables have to be rewritten to accommodate pupils with mobility problems so that they can stay on the ground floor. We certainly cannot get 21st century best practice for learning environments given the constraints of the buildings.

It is impossible to make any progress in reducing the carbon cost of the school. It still uses a coal-fired boiler and the buildings are very draughty. Because of the use of a split site, one hour per pupil teaching time is lost every week because of movement between the sites. The school has been made as safe as it can be, but there are still serious issues of safety.

In 2003, Ofsted drew attention to the difficulties caused by the buildings, particularly the Bailiffgate annexe. In its report, the inspectors gave a list of things that the school should do and one was to

“Improve the accommodation available by vigorously pursuing the ongoing review of the replacement or refurbishment of the Bailiffgate site.”

The school has vigorously pursued that, but there has still been no progress.

Ofsted inspected the school again last week, so obviously I do not know what it will say this time. However, I will be surprised if it does not commend the school on the very good progress that it has made. I expect some positive features in the report, but I will be equally surprised if the report does not contain condemnation of the school’s buildings and an indication that they are just not fit for purpose. Parents are very exercised by the problem. A recent parents’ questionnaire attracted 400 replies and by far and away the main concern expressed was about the buildings.

As if those problems were not enough, Northumberland is attempting a massive schools reorganisation—from a three-tier to a two-tier system. We have middle schools for nine to 13-year-olds, first schools for five to nine-year-olds, and high schools for 13 to 18-year-olds. The system dates from when the county went comprehensive in stages from the 1970s and it was chosen partly because the most modern buildings that the county had at that time were the secondary modern and technical schools that were built in the aftermath of the Education Act 1944. The reorganisation was largely designed to fit the buildings, but of course those buildings are now very old. The county wants to change things partly to address the sheer number of schools, and the surplus places problem, but the change is controversial and gives rise to a great deal of concern. Educationally, however, the county has another motive. Northumberland is in the top 5 per cent. for key stage 1, but is only average for key stage 2. Pupils transfer in the middle of key stage 2 and again in the middle of key stage 3. That is a system that very few authorities now use.

Strong arguments are advanced against the change from three to two tiers. The proposal is particularly controversial in rural areas where the middle school is the only school within quite a large area. If middle schools cease to take nine to 13-year-olds, children would be completely outside their rural area from the age of 11. The issue applies to the middle schools in Wooler, Rothbury, Belford, and Seahouses, and to other parts of Northumberland outside my constituency, such as Bellingham and Allendale.

Many parents and teachers in all kinds of areas think that middle schools have positive value. Both my children went through the system, and middle school was a particularly happy time for them. It is a time in which children acquire more responsibility, and they feel that they are taking a responsible role as they get to the top of the school. That has to be balanced against some of the problems arising from transfer at that age, and the short time that pupils then have in which to prepare for GCSE.

Whatever view one takes of the reorganisation, it will clearly be difficult to achieve unless there is capital for school building. Indeed, we must question whether it can be done at all, even through the phased approach that the county is taking, without substantial extra resources. It will cost money, and it means a lot of school building. Obviously, it is intended that some of the school building will be funded through property deals—by the release of sites. However, the reorganisation should not be shaped by the saleability of sites. That process cannot fund more than a part of what will be required, and it would be distorting if the pattern of reorganisation came to depend on which sites could be sold to release money for new schools to be built.

Against that background, the county’s hope lay in the Building Schools for the Future programme, yet at every stage Northumberland found itself at the back of the queue. It is currently in wave 13 of that programme. Why? That is what I keep asking. The Minister came to a meeting that we held in Woodhorn. There were many interesting people round the table—people from the schools, including pupils, and people from the authority. They asked him a lot of questions, and the questions that we keep asking him is, how does that decision come about? What is wrong? Is the Department making the wrong assessments, or is there something wrong with the bids that Northumberland puts forward?

If you apply for a job these days, Madam Deputy Speaker, you expect to get some feedback if you do not get the job. I am not suggesting that you are applying for any jobs yourself, but you will know of the process. When people bid for a lottery grant or something like that, best practice now is to give them feedback to tell them in what ways their bid was on the wrong lines, or how they can improve it so that they stand a better chance in future. I do not think that Northumberland has ever had that. I have asked repeatedly for that to be done, so that we can have some understanding of why an authority with such obvious needs is constantly at the back of the queue.

The result is that Northumberland has had to fund school developments without BSF help. It has committed nearly £28 million to the reorganisation in the Cramlington area, and £26.5 million towards the £54 million programme in Blyth. Incidentally, both of those projects are outside my constituency. All of that heavy capital expenditure is going to the south-east of the county, and not to any part of the area that I have described in my constituency.

The county has looked into whether academies provide a suitable route. It has followed that route, very controversially, in Ashington and Blyth. In both places, there are huge local arguments about whether the county should be doing that at all. The issue is not just about the principle of academies, but about what the effect will be on schools that the authority has already provided in those areas. However, those are not the problems for tonight. Alnwick, which the county was interested in as a site for an academy, did not meet the criteria, despite having a highly deprived ward directly adjoining the current site of the Duchess’s community high school. The academy project went to Ashington and not to Alnwick.

Given the fact that the academy route has not worked and that Building Schools for the Future has not worked for Northumberland, how is the Government’s declared objective and the Prime Minister’s declared objective of rebuilding and refurbishing all secondary schools to be realised in my constituency? I ask the Minister to consider some of the things that he might do. The first is to be ready to support Northumberland over the replacement of the Duchess’s school in Alnwick. There are many people in Alnwick who say to me, “When is the Schools Minister going to come up and visit Alnwick? He said that he would do so, to come and look at the Duchess’s school.”

People have pinned a great deal of hope and responsibility on the Minister, and he should do what he can to assist and support Northumberland in dealing with an urgent problem, the replacement of the Duchess’s high school. A lot of negotiation has been going on, particularly with the castle estates, which are the principal landowners in the area, but it remains a difficult process for which significant capital funding will have to be found. I want the Minister to take a personal interest in that, as he has already indicated willingness to do so.

I pose the question, not out of particular enthusiasm for such a scheme, whether the academy route might be explored for Berwick, bearing in mind a number of special circumstances there. There are deprived wards directly adjoining the location of the school, which are among the 10 per cent. of wards with the highest degree of deprivation. Berwick is also a special case because of its rural character and the area that it serves. It is a special case because there is no parental choice in Berwick, and there is no prospect of parental choice.

The only parental choice is for those who can afford to send their children to the one private school in the area, Longridge Towers. There is no parental choice within the state sector because the nearest school to which parents are allowed to send their child is in Alnwick, 30 miles away. I have just explained what difficulties are faced there. There is no other school. The schools that are 8 miles and 12 miles away are in Scotland, and the border is an absolute barrier. The Scottish system is different, with transfer at a different age. That, too, makes Berwick a special case.

There are opportunities to involve further and higher education in Berwick, which are seriously underprovided there. Getting anyone to undertake further education in Berwick is extremely difficult. Huge travel is involved. We have had major arguments about the denial of rail travel for the long, long journey to Newcastle. Edinburgh is nearer, but that is excluded for most purposes by the border. There are real possibilities with Northumbria university and other potential providers. There are even possibilities of co-operation with the private sector in education, which make Berwick a potential special case. It is worth considering whether the academy route is possible for Berwick, despite it not obviously fitting the criteria that have been applied in some other places.

I should like the Minister to look carefully at slippage in the Building Schools for the Future programme. We know that there has been significant slippage. Indeed, the Department’s memorandum to the Education and Skills Committee in its report on sustainable schools stated:

“There has been significant slippage in BSF projects in waves 1-3, with the majority of projects behind the ideal project timelines.”

The memo went on to identify some of the problems that authorities encountered, many of which are problems that Northumberland knows how to deal with. Northumberland could meet many of the requirements and has already shown its ability to do so and its willingness to commit its own resources to seeing through major projects. I should like the Minister to consider a bid from Northumberland to use what I refer to as slippage money—money that it is not currently possible to spend on some of the planned schemes—to deliver in earlier waves of Building Schools for the Future. Northumberland could act and could deliver.

I have repeatedly made the request that the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about the funding formula. The Chancellor says that he is making more money available for education than was previously proposed. Unless something is done, all that will do is ratchet things upwards while preserving the huge inequality between Northumberland and many other parts of the country. I would like the Minister to pass on to his colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government, to whom we also make the same points, that the funding formula when applied to education seems to have particularly unjust effects in Northumberland and makes it difficult for the county to meet its obligations on so difficult an issue.

In 2006, the Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor, spoke in his Budget statement about raising investment in state schools so that instead of it being £5,000 per pupil, it went up to the £8,000-per-pupil average of the private sector. I do not think that we are anywhere near that figure; I am not sure how the calculations are made, but I am sure that we are short of it. Again, mechanisms will have to be used to overcome the difficulties that I have described if the Prime Minister’s declared objective is to be achieved in the constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

I have laid out the problems that arise from Northumberland’s character and size, the issues of reorganisation and the age of its schools. I have suggested things that the Minister can do to support the moves to replace the Duchess’s community high school in Alnwick and to consider how to get not only a new high school but a much broader range of education provision in Berwick. I have also suggested that slippage in the Building Schools for the Future programme might present an opportunity and that the funding formula should be considered again. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on securing this debate and on the excellent way in which he put forward his argument—not quite as excellent as Arsenal’s 7-0 victory this evening at the Emirates stadium, but almost as good.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, I had the pleasure of visiting his constituency 12 months ago. I enjoyed the meeting at Woodhorn and remember hearing from his constituents—those from Alnwick in particular—a rehearsal of the debate around reorganisation, which I observed with interest, but in a slightly detached way given that reorganisation issues are for the local authority, not me, to determine.

I accord with the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the two-tier and three-tier systems; there are merits in both. My daughter was educated in the middle-school system and my son largely in the two-tier system, and I am proud of both their educational achievements. Both systems can work well. On my visit, I saw some of the excellent work done in the region of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency and his great concern for the standards of education there and in the north-east in general.

The Government have made a commitment to creating school buildings fit for 21st century teaching and learning. Given the shoddy state of schools that we inherited, that was more akin to climbing up a mountain than strolling gently up a hill. However, the scale of the challenge means that we can be rightly proud to be delivering on it. We made that bold commitment because we want to provide a genuine opportunity for every child, overcoming attainment gaps and eradicating child poverty, ensuring that outcomes are determined by talent and hard work, and building a fair society and a culture that celebrates success.

We also made the commitment because we want every pupil to get a personalised education, responsive to their individual needs and supportive of their individual talents. We want to give each child the best possible start in life by giving them the skills that they need to thrive in the modern world, to live happy and successful lives and to fulfil their potential. A good education depends on many things: teachers, parents, standards and discipline. We need to improve all of those—and we are improving them.

However, well designed buildings, and good facilities where young people can learn and grow, are a vital foundation, so I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration as he waits. A well designed school can make a difference in simple but vital ways, as well as providing the right facilities for teaching and learning: imaginatively designed dining halls—hopefully larger than those he described—can encourage healthy eating; wider corridors can cut bullying; and classrooms with natural lighting and fresh air can help pupils’ concentration and behaviour. Dark, dingy and decrepit buildings need to be condemned to the past, where they belong.

Over the past 10 years, we have increased investment year by year, and we are seeing the fruits of that investment in the transformation of school buildings across the country. The shoddy, make-do buildings that we inherited are now, in so many places, a thing of the past. Over the past 10 years, we have built more than 1,100 schools and a further 27,000 new or improved classrooms, as well as 6,600 new or improved laboratories. A total of 2,450 schools have better sports facilities and 2,300 have new or improved kitchens. In the Berwick-upon-Tweed area of Northumberland, about a dozen kitchens and serveries have been refurbished in recent years, and two new science labs have been built, as well as a new assembly hall and a whole new school.

However, the scale of the task has meant that we have not been able to do everything at once. This is as true for Governments as it is for local authorities. We have made a start. We have struck a balance between ensuring that every school has some investment and tackling the worst school buildings. For instance, there are now no schools that have to rely on outside toilets. In our major strategic programmes, such as Building Schools for the Future, we have concentrated on those who most need it as determined by levels of deprivation and educational attainment. I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman does not feel that he has had proper feedback, but that was the foundation of the assessment that we made and the basis on which we asked local authorities to make applications for Building Schools for the Future money. If his constituents need an explanation as to why certain areas have been allocated on a certain basis, it is the combination of our priority in respect of levels of deprivation and educational attainment and how local authorities have then responded to those priorities in their applications.

Why has none of Northumberland’s bids been successful, even though it has plenty of instances of deprivation and some instances of lower attainment than should be achieved?

The other piece of the jigsaw thatI should mention is that there needs to be sufficient scale to construct a cost-effective procurement model. Without knowing the exact detail of the situation in Northumberland, it may be that it could do it in two waves rather than one. The procurement model would have to be got right. Some of the larger authorities can do it in several stages and some of their waves have been split accordingly, with some earlier and some later.

We are now moving ahead. Over the next 15 years or so, we aim to rebuild or refurbish all secondary schools and at least half of all primary schools. Earlier this month, I announced £21.9 billion of capital investment allocations to local authorities to raise standards with state-of-the-art arts, sports and information and communications technology facilities. Our capital investment will mean that by the end of this latest spending period, there will have been a sevenfold increase in investment in real terms since 1997. We will shortly make a revenue allocation announcement.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the clawback of balances. We are consulting on that, and no decision has been made to do it. The consultation closes this Friday, and I will look to make decisions and announcements quickly, certainly in respect of some aspects. People have raised concerns particularly about the retrospective nature of some of the proposals that we consulted on, and I would like to provide some certainty on that as quickly as I possibly can, because I know that it is causing concern to schools throughout the country. I have some sympathy in respect of revenue, which is not really the subject of this debate, because I represent a Dorset constituency which also does not have one of the best-funded authorities in the country. Although we will not be able to put everything right in one fell swoop, I hope that we will be able to make some progress when we make the revenue announcement.

As part of our capital funding, we are kick-starting the primary capital programme to rebuild or refurbish half the primary schools in England, with £1.9 billion over the next three years, and we are putting another £9.3 billion into Building Schools for the Future, including academies, to revamp secondary schools. By 2011, 200 new, rebuilt or revamped secondary schools will be opening every year. We are continuing to strike a balance to make substantial funding available for councils not yet in the Building Schools for the Future programme, such as Northumberland, for special educational needs pupils and for 14 to 19 diplomas, providing more money for school kitchens, and with £3 billion devolved straight to schools and over £4.5 billion devolved to councils.

We will continue to provide funding direct to every school to spend on buildings and ICT as they see fit. Schools that have not yet been modernised will receive a higher rate, with modernised schools receiving a standard rate, which means that the Berwick high school in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency will receive funding at the higher rate. I am advised that it will get £90,000 and that the Duchess’s community school that he talked about will receive £126,000.

How the funding devolved to local authorities is invested is for each local authority to determine, not for us sitting in Whitehall. We have given local authorities centre stage with new powers and duties so that they can be the strategic leaders of education in their area and the champions of parents and pupils because they know best what is most needed in their regions and who can best deliver that service. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is continuing to lobby his friends at county hall. We will look to local authorities to focus on the key priorities, to raise standards in the classroom and to ensure that all children have the opportunity to reach their full potential, because that is what most concerns parents.

Northumberland will receive its share of funding, with £65 million allocated for capital over the three-year period, including more than £8 million for the primary capital programme. That comes on top of the £41 million that Northumberland received in the last spending review period. It is worth noting the 50 per cent. increase in funding that the county has been allocated over the spending period. In 2010-11 alone, Northumberland will receive £27 million, which compares to just over £3 million that it received in 1996-97. How all that money is invested is a matter of local decision making to support both local and national priorities. As I have said before, even with the amount of money in question, sometimes difficult choices will still have to be made.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about Berwick and the potential for the high school to become an academy. At the moment it does not technically meet the criteria for consideration as an academy, as he said. However, given the rural nature of its catchment area, its isolation from other schools, and the points he has raised, if a scheme is put forward with a sponsor and so on, I will look as sympathetically as I can within the constraints I am under to see whether we can extend support to it.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned Alnwick. I am advised that the council remains committed to delivering a solution to organisational and building issues in the town. Perhaps there is a combination of capital receipts that the council can realise in the medium term that it can then invest in resolving some of the issues. I will take an interest in the matter—the right hon. Gentleman consistently raises it with me. I still intend to visit Northumberland again during the next few months. I have not decided on the final programme because all sorts of people want me to visit all sorts of things, but I will not forget that I made a commitment to visit the Duchess’s school, and if I possibly can, I will do so when I am in the area.

We already have some 72 local authorities in waves 1 to 6 of BSF, which were prioritised on educational and social need. Northumberland local authority is currently prioritised in the later waves of BSF, as we have heard.

We have already announced that all authorities with projects in wave 7 onwards will be given the opportunity to revise their expression of interest in inclusion in the programme. That may include the way in which they group their schools. Earlier, I talked about the waves and whether it is possible for regrouping to be done in four or five waves that would deal more acutely with the sorts of things that have been described. We aim shortly to consult on the process and on proposals for the management of the later stages of the programme. That will be informed by the lessons learned from the early waves to ensure that the programme delivers to plan, avoiding the sort of slippage that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, and benefits all authorities. It will come as no surprise that the key criterion that emerges from the later waves is authorities’ readiness to deliver.

With the right vision and plan, authorities can put themselves in a good position to enter the programme from 2011 when we aim to launch wave 7. I would certainly encourage all authorities to do so and encourage the right hon. Gentleman to continue his discussion with Northumberland. I do not doubt that Northumberland can make a strong case. Indeed, I am advised that it is keen to re-present its case on Building Schools for the Future.

I take the opportunity to put it on the record that the mischievous reporting 10 days ago in The Sunday Telegraph and the News of the World that the review is a prelude to axing BSF is false. Indeed, I hope that the process will allow us quickly to allocate any future slippage to new areas. However, we naturally anticipate that if local authorities, contractors and the Government learn from our experience, any slippage will be minimised if not negligible.

We have already refurbished thousands of schools throughout the country, but that is only a start. In the next 15 years, we are committed to going even further to ensure that our children and young people have the best possible learning environment, with inspiring new buildings and integrated technology instead of the cramped classrooms, peeling paint and outside loos that they had to suffer for decades under the Conservative Government. That is good news for teachers, parents and communities throughout the country, including those in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Ten o’clock.