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Schools (Stoke-on-Trent)

Volume 482: debated on Tuesday 4 November 2008

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. I applied for this debate amid great sadness, and it is a tragedy that it is necessary—a £250 million tragedy, to be precise.

When I rose in Parliament on 24 November 2005 to ask the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills about the huge investment in education in Stoke-on-Trent, hon. Members on the Government Benches turned in amazement on hearing that so much money was being made available to my city. Looks of jealousy were all around me, but now we are in a sorry state. Stoke-on-Trent council, Serco and, sadly, even the Department for Children, Schools and Families have turned that good news into disaster. Why? Because the council thinks that it knows best and does not trust residents with a genuine say in how Building Schools for the Future funds are used. In that question three long years ago, I asked that the council engage with local people in spending BSF money. Those three years have passed with a lamentable absence of engagement, as I will illustrate in the time available to me.

We had three or more false starts with laughable activity, such as the council issuing draft plans only to withdraw them quickly and pretend that nothing had been issued. In July last year, the city’s Members of Parliament discovered by chance that the council had briefed the local media that it intended to close all 17 high schools in Stoke-on-Trent, as well as—almost as an afterthought—the special schools. I found out about the closure of schools in my constituency during a chance conversation in the Library corridor. At that point, the council said that it would open just 12 new high schools, with a reduced number of co-located special schools. After a speedy intervention, we managed to buy time last summer for the council to engage in proper dialogue not only with city residents but with specialists, educationalists and health professionals—indeed, with all who have a stake in the future of our great city.

Despite that, we had a summer of inactivity. A token event held on 12 October last year was nothing more than a sham. It was to some extent a gathering of interested stakeholders, but it by no means included all of them. Ironically, we witnessed a presentation about the importance of engaging with all stakeholders that gave no opportunity to hear the views of those gathered, let alone those not invited.

I will not detain those present with a blow-by-blow account, but suffice it to say that at every turn, fellow Members of Parliament and I were told one thing while the council did another. We were told that discussions with head teachers would take place at the start of this year, but we then found out that those meetings were held without our input and that head teachers were simply told what was happening to them, with no dialogue taking place. As a result, Stoke-on-Trent, South, which currently has five non-faith schools, will have just two if these hare-brained plans go ahead.

Let us look at what is planned for my constituents. The council, aided and abetted by its henchmen from Serco—I will turn my attention to that lot in a moment— plans to close Edensor, Longton, and Trentham high schools. Blurton high school is to be rebuilt, which is good news. Sandon has been rebuilt and, at my invitation, was formally opened last week by Lord Mandelson. That school is to be extended to take even more pupils. A new school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) is planned for the Park Hall site. Incredibly, the Park Hall site is currently occupied by the hulking mass of an old gasometer. It is on a busy traffic island and opposite a main bus garage, with buses pulling on to and off a busy main road. So much for safe routes to school.

Pupils from the Meir North or Weston Coyney areas of my constituency will now have a choice. They can travel to Sandon high, which is a good school, but the journey will involve crossing the very busy A50, which has an average of one serious accident every week just in the stretch that runs through my constituency. Or they can journey some miles to the Park Hall site, with all the problems that I have mentioned. Why? Because local Longton high, which head teacher Jan Webber has successfully brought out of special measures to be a nationally recognised specialist arts college, is reckoned to be surplus to requirements.

Pupils from Sandford Hill and Meir Hay will have to travel along the narrow, congested, dangerous Anchor road, which has a narrow pavement on one side and no pavement at all on the other to the aforementioned Park Hall site. Alternatively, they can travel through Longton town centre, avoiding all the traffic, cross the A50 as I have mentioned and go down into Blurton to their new school. Pupils in Trentham or Hanford will have to travel along Longton road, over the west coast main line railway track, over a canal and on to the bottom of the Trentham Lakes industrial park. There, no doubt, they will have to compete with the lorries that use Sir Stanley Matthews way to access the major distribution warehouses on that site.

Those listening to this debate may be wondering by now how the council chose the sites. That is a good question, especially considering that Serco and the council did not even bother to visit at least half the schools before announcing their plans. The next thought might be, “Why reduce five non-faith schools in Stoke-on-Trent, South to just two?” The council has projected that the city will have about 12,000 pupils by 2014. That is an easy equation—12,000 pupils divided by, let us say, 1,000 is 12 schools—but it is supposed to be a plan for our children’s future, not a primary school maths lesson.

Let me unpick those figures a little. According to the BSF guidance for pupil place planning, the council should be using the number of pupils forecast for 10 years in the future, so we should be looking at the number of one-year-olds in the city, as they will be the pupils entering high school at age 11. According to Stoke-on-Trent primary care trust, there were 3,181 one-year-olds in the city last year, and in the first nine months of 2008, 2,852 babies were delivered. That suggests about 3,000 children each year or, for a five-year high school, 15,000 children aged 11 to 16.

According to the House of Commons Library, Office for National Statistics figures show that this year there are around 14,100 under-fives in the city. It is projected that by 2018—that, not 2014, is 10 years’ time—that may have fallen to 13,000, so between 13,000 and 15,000 children in Stoke-on-Trent will need a high school place in 10 years’ time. But the council is looking at 2014, which is not in 10 years’ time, and it has not taken account of the increased birth rate in Stoke-on-Trent, which even it admits has risen noticeably.

The BSF funding guidance for pupil planning goes on to say that where rolls will have fallen at the 10-year projection point but a BSF school opens in advance of that, BSF will fund the extra places up to 5 per cent. Even if we take the lowest figure of 13,000 and add 5 per cent., that still gives us 13,650 pupils compared with current pupil numbers of about 15,000. The council in its gross simplicity said, “Okay, let’s call it 13 schools,” without any rational thought. We should have places for at least 13,650 pupils, or more likely 15,000, based on current birth rates.

Let us turn our attention to the other part of the Mickey Mouse equation, the 1,000-pupil schools. Where does that magic number come from? Put bluntly, the figure was come up with simply to maximise the funds available to individual schools, without any regard for the effect on pupil well-being and the challenges faced by my city. It also ignores collaborative working, which even the council, with its travel to learn partnerships, suggests that it wants to engage in. A pupil in an intake of 250 can never be an individual, but must be an element of a teeming mass. So much for Every Child Matters. Again, the council has ignored Government guidance that local authorities should use local needs when modelling projects.

All the way along, Serco and the council have said that the programme is not about buildings but about improving education, but all their attention so far has been on buildings. All that we have heard from them is closure, closure, closure. To look more closely at Serco, the company says on its website that it designs innovative solutions. Really? Serco told parents of pupils at Longton high that to get children to activities outside the normal school day, it would provide taxis or buses. Well, that is innovative.

Serco states that

“our vision is to deliver shared success by understanding the needs and challenges faced by every school, teacher, learner and parent.”

So why has it run a programme of misinformation, division and information control? Why has it failed singularly to engage with schools, parents or teachers in any other way than by taking an arrogant “We know what’s best for you” approach? Perhaps it is because Serco also runs everything from the Atomic Weapons Establishment to the Woolwich ferry.

Serco’s website also says that if

“you haven’t heard of Serco”

in the context of BSF, it might be

“because we just get on and do it”.

Those of us in Stoke-on-Trent, South know that that is true—Serco just gets on and does it—because it certainly has not listened to the needs and wishes of local people.

There is no dispute that we in Stoke-on-Trent, South, like the rest of the city, need to improve how our young people are educated—no one has ever disputed that—but let us not pretend that it is a complete disaster at the moment. Longton high used to be a failing school, but instead of being helped, it has been cut down at every opportunity. It has been said that the Department’s role, through the national challenge programme, is to support the efforts of schools that are improving from a low starting point. Who said that? It was my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

Jan Webber and her team at Longton high have done a fabulous job of improving the school, despite the death sentence that has hung over it for the past three years or so. Longton high had a proud history, but council bully boys have seen an end to that.

Trentham high school is the second-best performing school in Stoke-on-Trent and the best performing non-faith school. The head teacher, Sue Chesterton, was brought in by the local authority to bring the school out of special measures. The results that she has achieved speak volumes about how effectively she has done that. But how are she, her team and her pupils rewarded? Well, the school serving the Trentham and Hanford communities is to close. How pathetic.

Because of schools such as Trentham high and Longton high, Stoke-on-Trent is now in the top 20 most improved school authorities. My right hon. Friend the Minister will know that there have already been demonstrations, a walk to Westminster and numerous fundraising activities to fight the madcap ideas that I have described. In his letter dated 20 October, the Minister asked me whether I will now support Stoke-on-Trent authority with its plans for reshaping their schools under BSF. I must say to my right hon. Friend that the answer is no. Those are not the authority’s schools; they are the parents’ and pupils’ schools; they are future generations’ schools; and I will only support plans that are in the best interests of current and future generations, not plans that serve the convenience of Serco or council officers.

I facilitated an alternative proposal for Stoke-on-Trent schools. It involved a plan drawn up by teachers and parents based on educational needs rather than mathematical simplicity. I did what Serco and the council should have done, but in their ignorance failed to do. I am not an education expert, but as a local MP my role is to pick up the pieces when people are let down by those who are paid to serve them. That alternative proposal could have formed the basis of a more sensible plan to improve education in my city, but it was dismissed out of hand. I then had copious meetings to find compromises to find a way through our difficulties, but of course Serco and the council were never interested in anything other than their supposedly innovative bulldozing schools for the future plan.

Indeed, I have a copy of a glossy booklet produced by the city council, which is called “Our Vision for a Learning City”. It is fascinating reading. In the introduction, it says:

“This is not a short-term vision.”

Well, I agree with that. Instead, it says that it is a vision that has been

“developed by councillors and officers within the local authority who … have been working over the past five years with a wide range of stakeholders”.

I do not know whether the Trade Descriptions Act applies to a document such as this, but if it does then the document will be kicked out.

The council’s “vision” goes on to outline key principles. It says:

“Our aim is to create a family of schools.”

It talks about “‘travel to learn partnership’” and also, amazingly, about:

“Placing the school at the heart of the community”.

If that were true—sadly, it is not—why not have a ranger of smaller schools, or a school that is spread over several sites?

My hon. Friend has referred to the Park Hall site, which is in no community whatsoever. It is a gasometer site poised between his constituency and mine, and it has no population around it whatsoever. It is the antithesis of a community school. My hon. Friend’s critique of the local authority and Serco has been so devastating that anyone listening to it might feel that it was overstated. I would just like to put on record that I share every single one of his reservations and criticisms. He has put a very intelligent and comprehensive case. The plans, as they are at the moment, will damage both communities and education in his constituency and in mine in a devastating way.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for those words.

Moving on through the so-called document—I can think of better uses for it—it states that

“the transfer to new schools and academies will be carefully planned and properly managed. We will work closely with school staff and their unions”.

So far, I have seen no evidence whatsoever of that happening. In fact, I have seen quite the opposite; I have seen places such as Longton high being abandoned just to get on with things.

The document goes on to talk about

“Ensuring that young people’s access to learning is not limited by the length of a school day or access to facilities”.

That is a further joke in this supposedly serious document. It continues:

“The new schools and academies will be located on sites to serve communities throughout the city with safe and accessible routes and at reasonable travel distances.”

Quite how the Park Hall site or the site at the bottom of an industrial location can be considered to be “safe and accessible” beggars belief.

The document continues on the subject of parent choice, talking about

“increasing diversity of provision to meet parental choice”.

What parental choice? How can there be parental choice when a popular, well-performing school, one of the best schools in the city, is closing and one of the most improved schools in the city is closing? I fail to see how parental choice comes into that context.

The Trentham parents action group is now pursuing the excellent idea of forming Trentham high school into a co-operative school. After all:

“Engaging parents is, of course, important - and it was this government which helped set up the first parent-promoted school last year and will now fund 100 co-operative trust schools.”

Those are not my words; they are the words of my right hon. Friend the Minister in his article in The Times Educational Supplement on 24 October.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the time for warm words is over and that the game of ping-pong is over. No longer can the council say that its hands are tied as the Government are dictating the number of schools, and no longer can the Minister say that the matter is all in the hands of the local authority. We now have a newly appointed, very excellent and capable acting chief executive officer at the council, who I hope will see the sense in our proposals.

In conclusion, I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister a question. If the council proposes allowing Trentham to become a co-operative, parent-promoted school, will he allow them to do so? Furthermore, if proposals come forward for a school to serve Longton, Meir North and Weston Coyney, will he allow that too? A simple yes will suffice.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) for raising this important debate. It is particularly important for his own constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher). I know that they have both been involved in this issue, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, and in a series of discussions that we have had. We have met on a number of occasions, including with the Stoke MPs as a whole. I have always been grateful for his ideas and those of the other Stoke MPs, and I can assure him that they have never been dismissed out of hand. From the tenor of what he has just said, he accepts that we need to get on with realising the benefits of this substantial investment in education in the city.

Nothing could be more important than making sure that every child in every area is able to go to a good school. The landscape of our communities is dramatically changing, with regeneration seeing a transformation in public buildings, services and homes. New health centres are springing up, as are Sure Start children’s centres, libraries and schools.

Schools are at the heart of their communities and they are intrinsic to this process of change. It is right that they are at the heart of their communities, because children and young people should be the focus of our communities and at the centre of everything that we do. Building Schools for the Future is the biggest Government investment in school buildings in five decades.

In September, tens of thousands of pupils started term in new buildings or new schools, with the highest number of new or refurbished schools for at least 30 years; more than 20 of those schools across the country were BSF schools. After decades of under-investment in school buildings, we are saying to children, “Your learning environment matters, your communities matter and your future is worth investing in”. We must achieve that investment in a consistent way for every child.

In Stoke currently, education provision is not consistent; some schools are working well and improving in their pupil attainment, but others are not. Seven schools in Stoke-on-Trent are currently achieving below the 30 per cent. threshold for GCSE pupils gaining five higher level grades, including in English and maths, or are in danger of falling below that threshold.

I will come back to the issue of pupil projection in a moment. However, falling pupil numbers, which result in surplus places in schools across the city, is preventing schools from making the best use of their resources, from providing a consistent standard of education across the city and ultimately from driving up standards and pupil attainment.

Real change for children and their families sometimes involves radical decisions by local authorities. We cannot shy away from those decisions. Last month, I visited James Brindley high school in the north of Stoke-on- Trent and I saw a school where the standard of accommodation—the quality of the buildings—was frankly not good enough for the generation of pupils that is currently there, let alone for future generations. That visit convinced me of the urgency of getting on with things in the city. I suspended the BSF project there some time ago, to try to see whether or not further discussion and consultation locally would help to achieve a consensus. However, I am convinced now that we need to get on with things.

The council has made a number of proposals: reducing the number of secondary schools from 17 to 13, as we have heard; opening five new academies, and new buildings funded by BSF will make schools more accessible to children and their families. None the less, I understand that there are geographical constraints in the city, which makes achieving that accessibility more difficult in some areas than in others, and the council will need to address those constraints. There will be greater strategic direction and leadership through the academies model, and real local commitment to the children of Stoke will be demonstrated.

I am pleased to say, although I know that it will not be universally celebrated, that yesterday I approved the Stoke-on-Trent “Strategy for Change” part 1 document, which outlines the local authority’s aspirations for change, and I look forward to the sequel, part 2. I am keenly aware that the decision to close schools is a difficult one that is unpopular in parts of the city and certainly with my hon. Friends. That is particularly acute in relation to Trentham high, where results have risen in the past two years. I congratulate teachers, pupils and the head teacher, Sue Chesterton, in particular, on progress there. However, the local authority faces a significant challenge with the fall of pupil numbers in the south of the city. In common with its clear legal duties, it has taken the decision to reduce the number of schools in order to rationalise places.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South talked about pupil number projections. In January 2008, there were 13,113 pupils aged 11 to 16 in Stoke-on-Trent’s mainstream secondary schools, which have a net capacity of more than 15,500. The mainstream secondary school population in Stoke-on-Trent is projected to decline, over the next 10 years, to 11,790 at its lowest point, in 2013-14, and rise to 14,642 by January 2019.

I suspect that those figures are a little disingenuous given that huge volumes of pupils are leaving the city—indeed, they have been encouraged to leave—because of the council’s appalling behaviour in recent years. A school on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent currently has only about 50 per cent. of its pupils from Stoke-on-Trent. The figures that my hon. Friend has quoted relate to the number of pupils currently in the city’s schools, and are based on the assumption that the flow out of the city will continue.

I am certainly aware that there is a migration to neighbouring authorities. However, our delivery body, Partnerships for Schools, has confirmed that the methodology being used is sound and in line with national best practice. The council has taken into account, among other factors, live birth data from the local primary care trust, and the migration of pupils to secondary schools in neighbouring authorities. The PCT’s figures are cumulatively greater than those from the Office for National Statistics, which my hon. Friend quoted. Such differences are quite normal and are generally acknowledged by the ONS as being due to local knowledge. The figures are more up to date. I have had to consider this issue, and we have had discussions about the council’s earlier ideas, so we have challenged some of the projections, but I am now convinced that the projections are right. They have therefore informed the decisions on school organisation that the council has had to make.

If I heard correctly, my hon. Friend just said that the PCT’s figures are more accurate because they are more up to date. According to those figures, we should expect there to be about 15,000 11 to 16-year-olds at the 10-year projection point, which is the point for BSF. Is he saying that the funding going to schools in the area outside Stoke-on-Trent will be increased because they are getting pupils who should be being educated in Stoke-on-Trent? He is obviously acknowledging that 15,000 young people will require schooling in 10 years’ time, at the age of 11.

I am saying that the methodology, based on national best practice and in line with that practice, says that the high point will be in just more than 10 years’ time, when there will be 14,642 pupils across the city. That is the high point on which the planning has had to be based.

The local authority feels that the new site at Blurton school, because it is more centrally placed, will allow more pupils in the south of the city to benefit from high-quality educational provision. Statutory responsibility for school planning rightly lies with local authorities. It would not be right for us to impose central solutions to local problems. My job as a Minister is not to judge school organisation matters. Under the Education and Inspections Act 2006, that is a matter exclusively for the council. My responsibility, as the Minister for Schools and Learners, is to ensure that the huge investment in Stoke’s schools that my hon. Friend talked about at the beginning of his speech will raise standards, particularly where they are patchy, as they are in the city. I am satisfied that the plans pass that test.

BSF’s success will be measured not in bricks and mortar, but in community improvement, pupil achievement and brighter prospects for all. Clearly, the nature of the public debate in the city on BSF means that there is a lot to be done on community cohesion and bringing people together when decisions have been made. As the report of the Select Committee on Education and Skills on BSF said, we must make sure that its impact is sustainable and that it continues to inspire long after the smell of fresh paint has faded.

BSF is not a facelift to make schools look 10 years younger. It has to be a permanent solution to make them last for decades. For the pupils of Stoke-on-Trent, great buildings, strong leadership and renewed direction will bring an impact that I am confident will last long into their futures and will build a strong platform for success now and for generations to come. I know that it has been difficult locally to get to this point, but, as I have previously discussed with hon. Friends, now that it has been necessary to make the decisions, I hope that we can urge local people in the city and their representatives to move forward and get behind the plans, rather than continue to oppose them and create that sort of division.

Will my hon. Friend take up the opportunity offered by last week’s referendum, in which the elected mayor, who has pushed through the plans, was hugely rejected? The plans, which are very much the mayor’s creation, have been rejected by parents at almost every school in the city—in my constituency and in those of my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, South and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley). Now, the mayor who pushed the plans forward has been rejected by the general population. Is not this a moment to spend a little more time considering the plans and to see whether a plan that has the support of parents, teachers and governors can be shaped? That would not require a great deal of alteration, but it would be a constructive move and would be widely welcomed across the city.

I have noted the decision in the referendum on the principle of whether to proceed with the mayor. People who have more local knowledge will judge whether that was a referendum on the personal performance of the mayor who was in post or an answer to the question of whether to proceed with the principle of having a mayor. As I have said, decisions about school organisation, such as which schools should be where and what capacity they should be, are, by law, decisions for local authorities. It is not inconceivable that the local authority will, given the referendum result, listen to what my hon. Friend says.

I should like to underscore my impatience that we should proceed. I would not want anyone listening to the debate to take any comfort from any of my remarks in feeling that I want any more delay. I was struck by my visit to the north of the city, and if I have an opportunity to visit the south, I shall do so. I have a responsibility to all the pupils in the city to allow them to gain from the investment and for it to go ahead. As long as the council is coming forward with plans that improve school standards, I will approve them and allow the city to move on. I hope that everyone understands that and accepts my impatience for the children of the city.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.