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Secondary Schools (Colchester)

Volume 485: debated on Tuesday 16 December 2008

I bring fraternal greetings from Colchester: the town’s Labour party is unanimously opposed to proposals by Tory-controlled Essex county council to shut the Alderman Blaxill school at Shrub End and Thomas Lord Audley college at Monkwick. Colchester Liberal Democrats are also opposed to the closures, and even Colchester’s Tory councillors disagree with what the county Tories, who are based 25 miles away at Chelmsford, are proposing. There is not a single person from any political party in Colchester who agrees with Essex county council. Even the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), from whose constituency a minority of pupils attend secondary schools in the town, has publicly distanced himself from his Tory chums at county hall by putting forward his own proposal.

Last week, at a meeting of Colchester borough council, there was not a single speaker or a single vote in favour of any of the three options put forward by Essex county council for the reorganisation of secondary schools in the town. Instead, the borough council voted in favour of an alternative proposal known as option 4, which would merge Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley with Stanway school to form a single school—I have suggested the name “Roman River school”—operating from the three sites under whatever legal definition is required by the Government to enable that to happen.

The arrangement may sound familiar to the Minister because, in essence, it is already in existence and has been for just under a year. It has already been shown that it works very successfully, thanks to the inspirational leadership of Mr. Jonathan Tippett. The arrangement will be familiar to the Minister because it has been drawn to his attention, and that of the Secretary of State, more than once in recent months on the Floor of the House and in correspondence from me.

The Minister will also recall the Adjournment debate that I secured on 22 October last year about the future of Alderman Blaxill school and the then threat to close it, which the community successfully saw off. Another reason that the Minister knows about option 4 is the meeting at the House of Commons on 20 May this year with representatives of the local community. I am grateful to him for agreeing during departmental questions last month to have a further meeting with a delegation from Colchester to discuss option 4.

The Minister need not be alarmed: this is not clause IV. Option 4, a copy of which I have with me, is a joint response on behalf of the governing bodies of Stanway and Thomas Lord Audley schools, and the interim executive board of Alderman Blaxill school. It is entitled, “Raising achievement through the transformation of secondary schooling in Colchester”. The summary states:

“We believe the best way forward for secondary education in the South quadrant (of Colchester) is through continuing and developing the current federated arrangements covering three schools, since this has been shown to work.”

The Minister can be assured that option 4 would deliver the academic achievement sought by the Government, as measured by the 30 per cent. minimum examination success formula. It would also remove surplus places for as long as the drop in numbers required it, but would retain the opportunity for the extra places, including some 2,000 in the catchment areas of Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill, which will be needed in due course as the huge increase in new housing in Colchester takes place.

The option 4 proposals—the people’s choice—state with confidence:

“On current performance the attainment level of the new school in 2009 would be around 53 per cent A to C.”

Further confidence in a better, brighter future for youngsters in south Colchester is shown in this statement in the joint response:

“In the short term (12 months) the expectation is that Thomas Lord Audley will be ‘Good’; Alderman Blaxill will move out of special measures; and Stanway will become ‘Outstanding’.”

Option 4 thus ticks all the Government’s boxes. It would raise attainment and remove surplus places. It would also keep secondary education provision—a constantly improving education provision—in the communities of Shrub End and Monkwick, which is what the local communities seek and what Colchester borough council has stated is its preferred option. It is a winning formula.

It would also be considerably cheaper—a better-value-for-money option—than the proposal put forward by Essex county council, and it would certainly be better financially for the families involved. Contrary to negative comments from Tory county councillors, option 4 is consistent with the provisions of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and other education Acts.

The Minister will recall that our meeting in May came just 24 hours after the Secretary of State announced on the Floor of the House that proposals for an academy in south Colchester to replace Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill would not go ahead. The Secretary of State said:

“Essex county council has explained that its preferred approach is to build on the existing partnership with Stanway school and to pursue a trust. We will support the council in its decision”.—[Official Report, 19 May 2008; Vol. 476, c. 3.]

Essex county council has clearly broken the promise that it gave to the Secretary of State, and which he in good faith passed on to the House. I do not blame him; I blame the Tories who run Essex county council for breaking their promise.

The Minister will further recall that his officials were present at a meeting with a delegation from Alderman Blaxill school and the community. It was an exceptionally good meeting. In response to a question from the Minister about how long it would take to formalise the existing arrangement between the three schools, one official stated that it could take less than three months, given good will by all involved. We left the meeting in a mood of extreme optimism, and looked forward to the new academic year commencing with the formal establishment, using the necessary legal terminology—hard federation, soft federation or any other grouping of words that the Department required—of Alderman Blaxill, Thomas Lord Audley and Stanway school operating as one school on three sites.

However, there was not good will all round. Essex county council—perhaps more accurately, its leader, Lord Hanningfield—had other ideas. Instead, a proposal that is even worse than the one that had been rejected was drawn up: not the closure of two schools and the creation of an academy on the Thomas Lord Audley site at Monkwick, but the closure of both schools and the distribution of children from those two areas of Colchester to other schools in the town, leaving the whole of southern Colchester as a secondary school desert.

The hon. Member for North Essex has indicated that he would like to intervene on me. This may be an appropriate juncture, as I believe that this is the issue on which he wishes to come in.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for so generously giving a little time in his debate so that I may comment. I am a promoter of option 5, which is, I accept, a late arrival in the debate; nevertheless, it may prove to be the most viable option. I am able to place on the record today for the first time that Mr. Jonathan Tippett, whom the hon. Gentleman prays in aid, has said to me, in terms, that the most crucial issue is to maintain education in the south of the town, and that if option 4—which I fear will not attract the investment to Colchester that we all want—is not possible, he would contemplate option 5 as a compromise solution. That option is for a military academy school somewhere in the south of the town that would have the ability especially to serve the Army families of the garrison as well as other children.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving notice of his proposal. My only regret is that it is one that was rejected by Essex county council in May. The hon. Gentleman included the military component, which is new, but the principle of shutting two schools and creating an academy in south Colchester was positively rejected in May. I would also observe that whereas children from military families constitute between one fifth and one quarter of the pupils at Alderman Blaxill, they would be only about 10 per cent. in a single academy in south Colchester. However, I am grateful for his intervention.

To follow on from that, at the beginning of 2008, Essex education authority stated that there was a need for a 1,200-place secondary institution in south Colchester and produced what it said was evidence to support that position. How can the authority now argue, only a few months later, that there is no need for a secondary school in the whole of the south of the town?

Let me return to what was said at the meeting when the official advised the Minister that the arrangement for the three schools to operate legally need take only three months to bring about. I am sure the Minister will agree that his official would not have given such advice if it were not correct. However, Essex county council now tells us that option 4 is not legal. I cannot believe that the Minister would have been ill advised. Therefore I suggest that it is Essex county council that is being less than correct with its dismissal of option 4 on the ground that it is not legal. I am sure that, given good will all round, the correct legal status can be achieved so that what the community has put forward—a Colchester solution for Colchester’s schools, backed by Colchester borough council—can be implemented without further delay.

The longer the uncertainty continues, the more parents—not surprisingly—are voting with their feet. That is why numbers at TLA and Alderman Blaxill are depressed. It is not an attractive prospect for parents to send their children, at year 7, to a school that the education authority wants to shut. It is amazing that so many parents still have faith in the face of such an onslaught by people from county hall who are not democratically answerable to the people of Colchester. If the threat of closure is lifted, parents will have the confidence to send their children to those schools. Only five or six years ago, every year 7 place at both those schools was filled and fewer than 10 year 7 places were available across Colchester. I know that because parents were beating a path to my advice bureau, as parental choice was non-existent.

Colchester is the fastest-growing town in Essex and one of the fastest growing in the country. To shut two secondary schools and remove 1,700 places from the system is sheer folly, shows a total disregard for forward planning and, in the meantime, robs two communities of their local secondary school. It will not be too many years before someone has to pick up the pieces of such ill-conceived proposals, should the closures go ahead. In the meantime, the remaining five secondary schools, excluding the two selective schools and the Roman Catholic secondary school, which have been given protected status, will be forced to expand, perhaps to 2,000 or more pupils.

According to Essex county council, there are currently 10,365 secondary school places in Colchester and, in 10 years’ time, the maximum number of places required will be 10,275, which would be a virtual standstill in numbers despite the fact that the population is growing by 1,000 people a year, meaning that there will be 10,000 more people by 2018. Does the county council seriously believe that none of the massive new housing developments, with the accompanying big increase in population, will result in more children of secondary school age? The town’s already congested road system will become even more clogged as children are driven or bussed across town. The school buses will not be free and hard-pressed working families will have to find money to pay the fares, whereas at the moment many children can walk or cycle safely to school.

Whatever happened to the Government’s promises in respect of Every Child Matters? What about “safe routes to schools” and the clarion calls about “sustainable communities”? Essex county council’s proposals are contrary to all those Government policies. However, option 4 is fully in accord with Government policies. Colchester borough council has produced a detailed sustainability appraisal of secondary school options in Colchester, which looked at the three options advanced by Essex county council and option 4; its seven-page report ends with the following recommendation:

“It is recommended that Option 4 is supported. Under this option accessibility will not be reduced and the schools and their ancillary facilities will continue to serve the existing communities. Greenfield land will continue to be protected.”

Sadly, Colchester borough council, with a population of 175,400 and growing—one of the largest shire districts in England—is not responsible for education. Instead, it is rural-dominated Tory backwoodsmen from elsewhere in Essex, without any democratic accountability to the people of Colchester, who are in charge of education. Do they care? They are not listening, that is for sure. If Colchester was a unitary authority—it is big enough to be one—the town would not be facing this serious attack on secondary school provision in the south of the area, with the domino effects that that will have on the other five secondary schools.

Essex county council’s public consultation is one thing, but I am concerned about the private briefings in which Lord Hanningfield and colleagues are engaged. There is a lack of consistency about what is being said in the public domain and what is being said behind closed doors. I have visited all the secondary schools in recent weeks. I have advised all the heads that, whatever they have been told at private briefings, they should follow up and insist upon written guarantees of what they were told. I also visited county hall, where, using a Freedom of Information Act request, I inspected the files relating to both the current public consultation and the earlier consultation, involving the original proposal for an academy on the TLA site. All the files relating to submissions to that public consultation had been removed. Thus there is no way of knowing what was said by whom and what notice, if any, the county council took of representations.

Many believe that the current public consultation is little more than a box-ticking exercise and that Essex county council will proceed with option 1 regardless. What faith can people have in the democratic process when they are treated in such a contemptible way? I attended and spoke at all four public meetings organised by the county council. Attendances totalled around 1,500. There was no enthusiasm for what the county is offering, but massive support for option 4.

I obviously welcome the promise of capital investment in schools in my constituency, but I am not in favour of wasteful expenditure just because the Government have, we have been told, made money available. Is it true, as claimed by Essex Conservatives, that Colchester will lose £100 million of capital investment if an application is not made to the Government by March 2009? So far, the county council has not been able to say how it has arrived at the conveniently rounded figure of £100 million, from which sources this money will come, and what timetable will apply in relation to carrying out the Building Schools for the Future programme in Colchester.

There seems to be unanimous agreement that Sir Charles Lucas arts college needs a complete new building because its current campus is well past its sell-by date. There are mixed views as to whether an academy or a replacement secondary school is the best way forward in that regard, but there is unanimity that the site should continue to serve the existing communities from St. Andrew’s and St. Anne’s wards. The heads of Gilberd and Philip Morant schools have told me that they do not want their pupil numbers increased, as would be inevitable if TLA and Alderman Blaxill shut. Gilberd already has expansion plans for when 3,000 new homes—I repeat, 3,000 new homes—are built in north Colchester. Philip Morant will top 2,000 pupils if Alderman Blaxill shuts. That site could only accommodate such numbers if adjoining open space were developed, but the borough council would oppose that scenario. There is no room for expansion at Stanway school. St. Helena is also on a site where possible expansion is virtually nil and the head’s wish to build a new St. Helena school on nearby open space would be vigorously opposed.

Mr. Tippett has, in little more than a year, already transformed Thomas Lord Audley college to the point where last year’s exam results were the best in its history. The Minister knows this, because I sent him the full page article from the Colchester Gazette only last month. The fortunes of Alderman Blaxill school are also improving, as Mr. Tippett approaches the end of his first year in charge. He took over as executive head in January 2008 and has transformed the place in every respect.

I invite the Minister to come to Colchester and see for himself. I also urge him, please, to impress upon Essex county council that it should uphold the promise that it gave the Secretary of State in May and adopt option 4 as the best way forward and access the necessary funds from the Government to implement improvements to the fabric of Colchester’s secondary schools.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on securing this debate. As he said, it is the second debate that we have had on related subjects in the past year or two. That, alongside the regularity with which he manages to appear towards the top of the Order Paper in oral questions and is thereby able to ask about similar matters, means that the organisation of secondary school provision in Colchester is never far from the forefront of my mind.

This debate has given the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to air his opinion. Clearly, he has thought the matter through and has been campaigning hard with his constituents. He has advocated strongly for what he describes as option 4, which is not currently being consulted on by Essex county council, as he said. Similarly, option 5, mentioned by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), is not being consulted on. However, I am sure that Essex county council will be listening carefully to what has been said in the debate by both hon. Gentlemen. For reasons that I will explain later, I am somewhat more constrained in commenting on those options than the hon. Gentlemen might like.

This debate gives me the opportunity to congratulate Jonathan Tippett on the work that he does at Stanway school and the assistance that he has given to Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley school in improving their results. I will comment further on that.

In respect of the option that the hon. Member for North Essex described, in the limited time available to him during his intervention, I am not against the notion of involving the garrison in any kind of governance arrangement, if that is what it is interested in doing. Many young people benefit from the aspiration towards, involvement in and discipline of the armed forces. Clearly, there is a strong tradition in the Colchester community, in respect of the relationship with the garrison, that may be positively linked to through some kind of partnership with school provision in the town.

Our ambition is to make every school a good school so that every child, in every area, receives the highest possible standard of education, regardless of their background or circumstances. We are working hard to reshape the educational landscape to achieve that vision. The Building Schools for the Future programme, which the hon. Member for Colchester mentioned, has seen the biggest investment in school buildings in 50 years. Our national challenge programme is tackling underperformance in schools facing challenging circumstances, and new school governance models, such as academies and trusts, are providing real solutions and an opportunity for schools to benefit from leadership and strategic direction from those best placed in the community to provide it.

We now have a good track record of intervening when schools are performing below the required standard, and of turning that performance around, because we have the tools to do that. Although we can set a strategic direction for our schools, and learn lessons from progress, no two areas are exactly the same, and that is the merit of listening to debates such as this and the expertise of local representatives in Parliament. Every area and every school face a different combination of challenges, and need a different combination of solutions. As our communities and the priorities of learners and their families continue to change in the fast-paced 21st-century environment, we must be able to adapt, to challenge the solutions that we have in place, and to come up with alternatives.

School organisation is a local issue, and that is to some extent a constraint on my commenting too much, particularly as we are in the middle of Essex county council’s consultation. It is right that school organisation is a local issue. Local government is best placed to determine local need and to find solutions to local problems. It would not be right for us to impose solutions on communities from the centre.

What is the definition of “local government”? The truly local government is united on an option. Essex county council is breaching a promise that it gave to the Secretary of State just last May.

I am aware of that, because during recent oral questions to my Department the hon. Gentleman said that Colchester borough council is opposed to Essex’s plans, but I shall not be drawn further into that.

Local education authorities have a duty to ensure that there are sufficient places for pupils, and that high-quality education is provided cost-effectively throughout the area. Those who make the decisions must have regard to statutory guidance issued by the Secretary of State when considering proposals. The guidance details a range of factors, including the impact on standards, diversity of provision and parental choice, demand for places, location and transport, and cost-effectiveness. Our society and communities are changing all the time, so local provision must be reviewed. We must be honest and objective about existing services, and challenge ourselves on whether they are continuing to do the best for the children and families who use them. For example, a surplus of places is clearly not a good use of resources, so we expect local authorities to come up with solutions to tackle that challenge, and to direct resources to raising standards. All factors must be considered in the round, and decisions should be based on what will bring the most benefit to the highest number of pupils.

In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the 2007 figures show a surplus of 530 places for the three schools combined, which are the subject of option 1 in the consultation. The current proposal, following consultation, is that two successful schools in the Colchester area—Philip Morant and Stanway schools—should be expanded, and that there should be a new academy. The council believes that that would be sufficient to cater for demand, to help to drive up standards throughout the area, and to make better use of local resources. The decision is a local one. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 clearly sets out that school organisation decisions are local and that Ministers should not intervene. The consultation is ongoing, and people are still responding. It has canvassed the views of all secondary schools in Colchester, as well as parents and other residents who would be affected by the proposed changes.

I cannot pre-empt the outcome of the consultation. It will be for the local authority—Essex county council—to consider the responses when that process is complete, and to decide how best to proceed, bearing in mind the representations from the hon. Gentleman for option 4, and those from the hon. Member for North Essex for option 5. I urge the hon. Member for Colchester to keep in mind the importance of raising standards for all pupils in Colchester. Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley schools and Sir Charles Lucas arts college are three of the lowest-performing schools in the country, and 15 months ago all three were in special measures. A particularly significant challenge for Colchester was that, when only 50 schools fell into that category nationally, Colchester had a relatively high concentration. Many people have worked hard to turn that situation around, not least the staff and pupils at those schools.

Although we will not have validated exam results until the new year, self-reported GCSE results from the summer show improvement in all three schools. I pay tribute to the staff and pupils for that achievement, but those schools are still not where we want them to be in terms of what they are achieving for their pupils. Although two schools have now improved and have been lifted out of special measures, Alderman Blaxill school remains in that category. All three continue to need extra support, and receive that support from my Department through the national challenge. Essex county council decided that they should remain within the national challenge programme, because they are in continued danger of not reaching or of dropping below the 2011 floor target of gaining 30 per cent. five A* to C at GCSE, including English and maths. Under the national challenge, for this academic year, £66,500 of support has been allocated to Thomas Lord Audley school, £75,500 to Alderman Blaxill school, and £91,000 to Sir Charles Lucas arts college. That funding will focus primarily on improving standards in English and maths, and raising the quality of teaching. It will also focus on improving attitudes to learning, exclusion rates, and the quality of leadership at middle management level.

The hon. Gentleman is aware that plans for school reorganisation in Colchester are still under consultation. In addition to the closures being considered, the council is considering turning Sir Charles Lucas arts college into an academy, and again that is a matter for local decision. I am encouraged that the council is considering a range of solutions to the problems facing Colchester, and academies are a viable option. I ask the hon. Gentleman to take a pragmatic view of that.

He says that he has, and we are grateful for that.

The recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report found that academies are making excellent progress, and going a long way towards tackling the difficult problems facing some of our communities and schools. The report said that sponsors contribute significantly to school improvement, and that leadership and governance in academies is good. According to the National Audit Office, GCSE performance is improving faster in academies than in other schools, and they are on course to deliver real value for money. Of the 24 academies so far inspected by Ofsted, 96 per cent. have been graded with good or outstanding leadership.

Academies are making a real difference, and the national challenge programme is providing a floor target, substantial funding, and a real opportunity to raise standards in some of our most challenging areas. Given that track record, and the opportunities presented by the national challenge, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will view academies with an open mind, and support them if they are right for pupils, parents and the community.

The only problem with the Minister’s last observation is that the option of an academy in south Colchester was rejected in the spring because the public did not want it. It is difficult now to advocate an academy when the education authority dismissed it and gave the Secretary of State a categorical assurance that it would proceed with the three-sites, one-school option. That promise was given to the Secretary of State, and he gave it in good faith to the House, but it has been broken.

Expansion of Stanway school would be difficult because the surplus playing field was sold off to pay for the new school, so there is no room for expansion there. It would also be difficult to expand Philip Morant school because the only way would be to build on land that is preserved as public open space. Those two schools cannot physically accommodate pupils if the other two schools shut.

The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to comment on school organisation while it is subject to consultation, but I shall resist that. I am simply suggesting that an open mind is helpful when considering academies. The proposal for the arts college is for an academy, and regardless of how matters are resolved in respect of Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley schools, if Sir Charles Lucas arts college becomes an academy, I hope that he will not oppose that if he thought that it was right for pupils in his community.

Our ambition is to build a world-class education system so that every child can make the most of their potential and go as far as their talents will take them. If we are serious about building better schools that serve the needs of 21st-century learners and communities, we must be prepared to make some tough decisions when they are called for.

I wish both hon. Gentlemen and you, Mr. Martlew, as well as pupils, families and teachers in Colchester, every success for the future and a very happy Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.