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Schools Reorganisation (Havering)

Volume 472: debated on Thursday 21 February 2008

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

I am grateful for the opportunity tonight to highlight a number of issues surrounding potential changes to primary school provision in Havering, with particular reference to my constituency, Hornchurch. The Minister is aware of the matters I wish to raise as we have been in direct correspondence. I understand that he met the head teacher of one of the schools concerned just before Christmas, and I am grateful to him for the time that he spent there and the answers that he gave to the various matters raised with him.

The background to the debate is the proposals by the London borough of Havering to invest in modern primary school facilities in the borough and to address surplus school places in some of the schools. In my constituency, two schools have been particularly affected by the local authority’s proposals—Ayloff primary school and Dunningford primary school. I pay tribute to the head teacher, the teaching staff and the governing bodies of both schools. Each of them has achieved high standards for their pupils and they are a key part of the community in Elm Park.

However, both schools have surplus places. Ayloff has a surplus of 25 per cent. and Dunningford has a surplus of 38.1 per cent. In line with Government and Audit Commission guidance, the local authority felt it necessary to address the issue. As I understand it, the reduction in both schools to, for example, single form entry was not viable, leading to the consideration of more significant changes in the arrangements necessary to deal with the surplus school places.

The council initially proposed the merger of the schools and the creation of a new purpose-built school facility at the current Ayloff site. The council argued that in the difficult situation that it faced in dealing with significant school places, that route would provide a new purpose-built school facility, while maintaining equality of treatment between the staff and governing bodies of both Dunningford and Ayloff, with a new unified school being created. However, it became apparent that the proposed arrangements had not taken account of new provisions introduced under the Education and Inspections Act 2006. Those regulations required proposals for all new primary schools being created, for whatever reason, to be subject to a competition process. It was an extension of arrangements that existed for new secondary schools. The new regulations require that all new primary schools be subject to a competition that invites other potential promoters of schools to express an interest in setting up and operating new schools. Under such arrangements, the local authority continues to have capital responsibility for providing the school’s facilities and maintaining the school as part of the ongoing dedicated schools budget revenue funding model, as applied to all other schools.

If expressions of interest are received, an ongoing competition process ensues. The competition is most likely to result in the provision of a foundation trust or voluntary-aided school if the local authority elects to have no part in the process. However, the authority can choose to be involved with a promoter’s bid or itself submit a separate proposal for a new school. The local authority, having considered the situation, applied for an exemption in relation to this case, to retain—as it saw it—the concept of equality of treatment between the two schools, but through a merger.

However, that permission was refused by the Secretary of State. As a consequence, Havering council decided to adopt a revised proposal with the proposed closure of Dunningford, even though, as was noted in the briefing paper to the cabinet of Havering council on 14 November 2007,

“it would require a more unpopular decision to close one school and retain one school and thus place staff and governors of the closing school at a significant disadvantage to the school that would remain open.”

The Minister will be aware that I wrote to him about the situation and the impact of the operation of the regulations in the scenario of action to address surplus school places. In his reply to me, the Minister said:

“I can confirm that we considered very carefully the case made by Havering for consent to publish proposals for a new community primary school, but we were not satisfied that the proposed school would contribute to raising local school standards, increased diversity and greater parental choice.”

I understand and appreciate that that decision has been made and I am not seeking tonight to reopen specific consideration of that issue. I also recognise that it is a matter for each local authority to set out and determine its plans for school provision for the local community that it serves, and that Ministers should not intervene. However, I hope that the Minister will be able to provide some clarity on the practical operation of the competition regime under the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and to address some more general issues highlighted by this case.

In particular, how in circumstances of what were in essence school closures because of surplus school places could a local authority demonstrate greater parental choice, as referred to in the Minister’s letter, to meet the requirements of exemption when two schools were being reduced to one, albeit new, school? My driving principle in reviewing the situation has been to consider how best to ensure fairness and equality of treatment between two good schools in this extremely difficult situation. In that context, the Minister will be interested to know that I have made representations to the local authority to hold a competition for the replacement school. However, I have to say that I have done so to preserve balance and equality in the current situation, in which the risk is increasingly that one school might be pitted against the other; it is not because of any real enthusiasm for what appears to be a rigid and bureaucratic measure that the competition regime appears to provide.

In that context, it is worth mentioning certain points that Havering council has put back to me, as highlighted in particular in a letter from Andrew Ireland, the group director of children’s services at the London borough of Havering. He said:

“If it is the case that the only way that diversity and parental choice may be enhanced is through a competition to provide a school then the council’s proposal does not achieve this. However, competition itself does not deliver a greater diversity of providers if the successful bidder is the local authority. So far there has been only one secondary school provided through competition, in Haringey, and the Local Authority won the competition. That school is not yet built. There has been no primary school built through the competition route to date. There is no evidence at all in the primary sector to justify a claim either way.”

He adds:

“The competition route was open to it, but officers’ view was that the delay to achieving a new school would be a full year, disagreeing with the DCSF theoretical calculation that the delay would be only 4 months. The alternative route, to close one school, removed the delay but at a cost to the staff and governors of the school being closed. There is real evidence that extended delay can contribute to diminished outcomes for children. The council’s position has to be that the experience of children has to be put first with regret for the worsened position of some staff this entails.”

It should be noted that the council has sought to ameliorate the impact on the staff of Dunningford by declaring that there will be no compulsory redundancies.

As I understand it, the council’s point on the extended delay and its difference of view from that of DCSF officials is that, in order to minimise disruption to the education of pupils, change is best effected at the start of the academic year, and to ensure an appropriate operation of admissions policies in practical terms this requires a specific timetable and means that the delay caused would be about a year. That is a practical issue that has been pointed out to me, and I hope that the Minister might be able to reflect on it as regards the model that has been established.

Other concerns that have been raised include the following: neither the council, the schools or the communities involved would know what the outcome of the process would be until completed; a range of promoters could come forward, or not; the future position of all governors and staff involved would be uncertain, and if a promoter or proposals other than for a community school were approved, it is likely that the staff would be subject to a procedure under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981; that an early start could not be made on new building design as a third party would not have to accept any work completed by the council, further delaying implementation; and that the process for the council providing capital to the new school promoter is at best unclear at this stage.

Those practical and genuinely held concerns have been raised with me, the public in Havering, the schools concerned and the governing bodies. I hope that the Minister might be able to consider and respond to them and in so doing give some guidance on how they could be overcome in this specific example, or more generally for a council in a similar predicament to that in which Havering finds itself. The Minister may say that they are not well founded, in which case, in terms of the continuing process, the officers in the cabinet of Havering council can hear him give another viewpoint on the competition route, which, in practice, may not be as they see it.

It is important that control is given to local communities rather than having it vested in central Government, who prescribe more heavily in terms of how a process should operate. Because this is new ground—a process that has not yet been fully tested, certainly not in the primary school arena—it may be right that questions should be raised by Havering so that other schools and local authorities can review the position and learn from the experiences that we are having to deal with.

Parents, children, staff and governors at Ayloff and Dunningford have a difficult period ahead of them, whatever outcome is finally decided on, depending on whether a competition route is adopted. There are no easy solutions in this sad situation where two excellent schools with very strong management teams have to address the difficult question of managing surplus school places. I ask the Minister to reflect upon the case of Havering and to look again at the policy framework and perspective that arise in this case so that lessons can be learned. Even if the law cannot be changed, perhaps guidance or further advice can be provided to local authorities to explain more specifically the relevant issues and the practical considerations.

I hope that we will find our way through and work out how we can best manage the situation in Havering. Through this debate, perhaps we can provide input and guidance and insight into how local authorities manage a situation where there are surplus school places and where no new school is being created. It is a question of consolidation, and how the regulations fit in; I still have questions about whether they are practical or appropriate to such concerns. I hope that the Minister will take that issue on board, and reflect on the points made to me, and through me, to him, in this debate.

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) on securing this debate. I am grateful to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) for raising these matters with me in conversations here, in earlier questions and in correspondence. I am also grateful to the parents and children who have written to the Department about the proposed school closures.

Parents, pupils, staff and the wider community are always rightly concerned about the effects of any changes to local school provision. As today’s debate shows, that is true of every community throughout the country, not just the rural ones that have been in the news in the past few weeks.

Understandably, people have strong views and they want them to be heard, and it is important that local authorities listen to the people who will be most directly affected and to their representatives, such as hon. Members, in order to get these difficult decisions right. Before I respond to the issues raised concerning Havering, I want to set the context of the way in which local authorities act as strategic commissioners for school places.

The local authority is now the commissioner rather than the direct provider of educational services—a vision that we set out in October 2005 in the White Paper “Higher Standards: Better Schools for All”, and put into law with the Education and Inspections Act 2006. Authorities are responsible for managing the supply and demand for schools in their areas. They are well placed for that role; they are certainly better placed to make those decisions than I am, sitting in Whitehall. They can use their local knowledge and local consultation to ensure that schools serve the needs of their communities and provide good quality education in the most cost-effective way. To do that, they have to adapt to changing circumstances.

As birth rates fall and rise in different areas, local authorities have to consider what schools they need and where they should be, which may mean that not all schools are of the right size or in the right place. Too many surplus places can represent a poor use of resources, so authorities with high levels of surplus places will consider reducing them as part of their planning strategy. But, of course, that does not mean rushing to close schools.

Capacity can also be reduced by removing temporary accommodation, consolidating split site schools and by rationalising school space. I have said repeatedly in recent weeks that local authorities should think creatively about their future planning. They will need to assess whether accommodation can be adapted for alternative use, broadening the services that their schools offer in line with the likely future pattern of children’s services as a whole and with the needs of local communities. They can look at forming federations or consider collocating schools with other services to ensure that their buildings are viable. As I said, it is for the local authority to take the lead in that process, as the strategic commissioner of school places, while taking account of the particular local circumstances. Part of the new role for authorities is to provide greater choice and diversity for parents and children, as the hon. Gentleman said. The 2006 Act makes it clear that if a local authority wants to open any new school for pupils of compulsory school age, it must publish a notice inviting bids from other providers—in effect, start a competition. We introduced the change to bring new talent and energy to school provision. Standards of teaching and learning will be improved if there is a diverse range of good schools for parents to choose from.

The change is starting to work. We are already seeing energetic and dynamic providers coming forward in some of the competitions that have been run and in those that are running, including those for new primary schools. The hon. Gentleman is right that the council won the competition in Haringey—that just shows that competitions are not stacked against local authorities—but we have also held competitions for new secondary schools in Lincolnshire, as well as two competitions in Southampton, and there are six competitions for primary schools in Salford, two in Devon, one in Cambridge, one in West Sussex and one in Northamptonshire.

I am sure that officers such as Andrew Ireland in Havering will be looking closely at the experience in those authorities, as will we, because the hon. Gentleman is right: in these early days of competition, we need to be able to look at the experience. I am particularly concerned to ensure that there should be enough providers out there wanting to enter such competitions, especially for primary schools—there is no question but that a number are interested in secondary schools—to ensure that the competitions genuinely are competitions.

That brings me to the reorganisation in Havering that the hon. Gentleman has raised in this debate. As he said, Havering’s primary schools have 10 per cent. surplus places, with eight of its 65 primaries having more than 25 per cent. surplus places. It is sensible that the authority should address that surplus. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the local authority wishes to open two new community schools to replace Dunningford and Ayloff schools, and Edwin Lambert and the Manor schools, yet without holding competitions.

We recognise that there may be cases where a competition will not necessarily be appropriate in a particular area. We have indicated that we might be prepared to give consent in three circumstances: first, straightforward amalgamations of infant and junior schools where a replacement primary school is proposed; secondly, where there is to be a reorganisation of religious schools in the area and schools with a particular religious character are to be replaced by schools with the same religious character; or thirdly, where an independent proposer proposes a new school to increase diversity in the area, rather than in response to a local authority’s need to reorganise.

We have provided that, with the consent of the Secretary of State, proposals to open a new school can be published by the local authorities or other providers without the need to run a competition, if the proposals meet those criteria. However, we have made it clear in debates, including during the passage of the 2006 Act—my first days as Minister for Schools were spent taking the Bill through Committee—that consent would be given only in exceptional cases, such as those that I have described.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that careful consideration was given to the case made by Havering for consent to publish proposals for two new community primary schools without competition, but we were simply not satisfied that there was a compelling argument to depart from our clear policy in those cases. We did not believe that the interests of the area would definitely—that is the test for us—be best served by the proposed new schools or that they would definitely contribute to raising local school standards and increase diversity and parental choice. We believe that competition would have tested all those questions. I am therefore pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman has continued to promote the idea of competition with his local authority.

Instead, the local authority has chosen to amalgamate existing schools without running school competitions. It is legally entitled not to hold a competition if it is proposing to close one school and make alterations to the other, rather than to establish a new school, but we would still have preferred to see the competitions. The local authority could have closed the two pairs of schools and held competitions for the two replacement schools, which would have provided an opportunity for other providers to set out alternative proposals. Havering could have obtained approval to enter its own community school proposals into those competitions, which could have been considered alongside those from any other providers. If Havering had been the best in the competition, as Haringey was, the schools adjudicator would have found for the council. The most important point is that had that been done, local people would have been able to submit their views on all the proposals. The local authority’s proposals would have been considered on merit against any others, and the questions raised by the community about why Dunningford and the Manor school were selected for closure—and the resulting sense of disadvantage among pupils and staff—could have been avoided, because there would have been a transparent competition process.

I know that time was an issue. The local authority expressed concern that it had already carried out detailed consultation on its plans before the new requirement for school competitions came into force. However, I gently remind it that our proposals were well heralded. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 was introduced in February of that year, over a year and half before Havering applied to the Department. Following Royal Assent, detailed draft regulations and guidance were issued in November 2006 which made it clear that we expected competitions to be run for new schools. The local authority should therefore have recognised that the new measures would affect their plans, and should have taken them into account earlier.

Local consultation is a critical element of any proposed reorganisation. Authorities must set out exactly what they propose to do, explain why, and explain how people will be affected. I know that Havering has consulted extensively on its reorganisation plans, and its current document includes changes that it made after listening to people’s views. I note that the local authority has gone some way towards dealing with local concerns by making a commitment to secure equality for all staff when determining the new staffing structures, and to avoid redundancies. However, consultation is not the same as choice, and as I said, our preference—and, I think, that of the hon. Gentleman—would have been for a competition.

I do not believe that that would have seriously delayed progress. Competitions could have been well under way by now, and decisions could have been made by the schools adjudicator in midsummer. The process would have involved a competition involving all interested parties, with a variable time scale. An initial notice would have been published inviting bids for the establishment of a new school, in a local newspaper and in a conspicuous place in the area served by the school, with a deadline of four months for proposals. A second notice would then have been published summarising the proposals submitted. It would have had to be published within three weeks of the end of the first notice period.

There would have been a period for representations, allowing comments and objections to be submitted in relation to all proposals. During that period, a public meeting would have had to take place. There would then have been a decision by the local authority, or the schools adjudicator if the local authority had submitted proposals or had a role in the trust of a proposed trust school. Decisions are generally made within two months, and implementation would have followed. I think it is possible to complete the process in less than a year, and I believe that the schools adjudicator could have made a decision if Havering had chosen to enter the competition in midsummer. However, I accept that it is within the law for the local authority to amalgamate schools in this way, and it is for the authority to respond to concerns about its particular approach.

The Minister will know that various specific concerns were raised and appear still to be held by the local authority. May I ask him to reflect on what has been said in the debate, and to respond later to any points that he has not been able to address tonight? That would be helpful, and it would be appreciated.

I was about to say exactly that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned issues raised in Andrew Ireland’s letter, such as the way in which capital transfers and staff transfers would work. I should be happy to write to him, and I am sure that he would want to pass that information on to the authority.

Let me end by stressing the Government’s commitment to ensuring that schools receive the funding that they need to raise standards and deliver high-quality education. Over the next three years, we will provide £21.9 billion of capital support for investment in schools, compared with less than £700 million a year about 10 years ago. Over the next three years, Havering and its schools have been allocated £46 million of capital support. That includes £13.2 million of devolved formula capital for schools, £8.4 million of primary capital money and £8 million of targeted capital for 14 to 19 diplomas, special educational needs and disability needs. That allocation, averaging more than £15 million a year, compares with an allocation to Havering of less than £300,000 in 1996-97.

I want to stress again that raising standards is at the heart of our agenda. That sometimes requires difficult decisions or imaginative solutions to changing patterns of need and, crucially, local authorities are responsible for these decisions—and, having listened to parents, they must take them.

I will reflect on the issues raised in the debate, and I will continue to learn the lessons. I hope that authorities will learn the lessons from each other as well. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising these issues tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Twelve o’clock.