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School Buildings (Dudley)

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 10 February 2009

Building Schools for the Future—BSF—is the largest single schools capital investment programme for more than 50 years. It aims to rebuild or renew England’s state secondary school estate during its lifetime. It is generally welcomed by teachers, head teachers, governors and parents, and, at this point, I must declare several interests, being not just the local MP, or MP within the borough of Dudley, but a former teacher in Dudley and a mother of two teenage sons who are still in Dudley’s state education system.

The Government will invest £9.3 billion in BSF in the 2008-2011 spending period alone. The sheer scale of BSF enables local authorities, such as Dudley, to move from a patch-and-mend system to rebuilding and renewal, with a more strategic approach to the funding, design, procurement and management of buildings. One reason why I support the BSF programme is that it is not just about buildings; it aims to create learning environments to inspire young people, unlock their talents and raise aspirations to help them to reach their full potential. It also aims to provide teachers with 21st-century workplaces and provide access to facilities that can be used by the whole community. As a former teacher, I know that that is just what is required in Dudley and in the wider black country.

Month by month, term by term, I see the BSF programme building momentum, but, alas, not in Stourbridge, Halesowen or Dudley. Why? Because Dudley’s Conservative cabinet, the council leader and education portfolio holder, have decided to close the door on these vast opportunities, and, I suspect, for the worst of reasons—party politics. How did we get to the point at which on 2 November 2008 the education portfolio holder, Councillor Liz Walker, told local newspapers:

“There are many costs which we couldn’t budget for, costs we weren’t aware of”?

She added that money needed to be spent on other priorities, such as roads. In the same week, the council cabinet decided against entering the BSF programme to secure £200 million to revamp the borough’s secondary schools, throwing away a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform education provision in Dudley. Head teachers were reported by the Express and Star on 4 November last year to be “gobsmacked” and worried that Dudley risked becoming

“the poor relation of the West Midlands.”

One head teacher, Graham Lloyd, of Holly Hall mathematics and computing college said:

“I am gobsmacked because it was my understanding we were working flat-out to be included in the next wave. I have said it before, if Dudley isn’t involved in BSF it will be a disaster. It puts us at a significant disadvantage to all the other authorities in the region who have this funding”.

The confusion that head teachers, parents and pupils feel is real, because, as Mr. Lloyd said, until the decision to withdraw, literally up to the day of the announcement, the local education authority was indeed working flat out to be included, having already applied to be included in earlier waves of BSF, and having worked on bids since an expression of interest way back in 2003.

In June 2006, Dudley borough council published its document, “Investing in the Future—Transforming Secondary Provision”, a 57-page document setting out statements of principle and intent, reviewing secondary schools throughout the borough and developing the education vision for Dudley. The consultees to the process ranged from young people attending Dudley schools to governors, head teachers, councillors, MPs, the local learning and skills council, primary care trusts, local businesses and community groups—in all, 37 categories of Dudley stakeholders, covering hundreds of thousands of people. The stated intention in the first paragraph of the introduction was to work with the then Department for Education and Skills for Dudley’s inclusion in waves 7 to 9

“ or earlier if the national position allows.”

The document spoke of vision, consensus, dynamism and the intention to address the needs of current and future learners. It underlined the strong link between capital spending, staff and pupil motivation, quality of teaching, learning, and pupil performance. A consensus emerged at the end of the consultation, and work began to pull together a bid that included planning for two academies in the borough and the significant development of long-established schools.

One scheme of particular importance to me is the Thorns community learning village in Stourbridge, costing £8.5 million, which the council acknowledged would transform special needs education in Dudley. It has now been shelved, or in Dudley council speak, “delayed indefinitely”. The plan was to merge Old Park special school with Thorns community college and Thorns primary school in Quarry Bank, based in separate buildings but sharing joint facilities on-site. Funding is already in place for the relocation of Old Park, the initial phase of the project, but the funds that Dudley LEA planned to secure through BSF for phases 2 and 3 are now, once again in Dudley council speak, “yet to be determined”, which roughly translates as, “We have no idea at the moment.”

That is one instance of the effect of the surprise U-turn on BSF by Dudley’s Conservative-controlled education authority. There are schools all over the authority which would have benefited and, indeed, are crying out for rebuilding. Halesbury special school in Halesowen still uses mobile classrooms that are at least 30 years old; Ellowes Hall school, a specialist sports college in the constituency of Dudley, North, was judged in its April 2008 Ofsted report to be

“hampered by inadequate sports facilities”,

one example being the lack of an adequate sports hall; and, in the constituency of Dudley, South, Wordsley school, Kingswinford school and Hillcrest community college would all have benefited directly from BSF funding.

Dudley council’s capital strategy for 2009 to 2014 still contains the following aim:

“By providing high quality accommodation with stimulating learning environments for school pupils and members of the community to ensure education standards continue to rise. Over the next five years the priorities will be to maximise external investment in the infrastructure from BSF”.

So, after an extensive consultation, consensus, planning and a strong statement of intent, why the U-turn? Councillor Liz Walker said in 2007:

“This multi-million pound investment programme will give us the money and the opportunity to improve all schools. It could result in at least £10 million investment in each school, which will re-model and possibly rebuild many of our secondary schools in the borough to an extremely high standard, fit for 21st century education. Investing for the Future is fundamental to inspiring learning for future generations. The proposals aim to secure the best provision for children, young people and local communities.”

However, the council leader and education portfolio holder recently stated that the cost of managing the bid was too high. The estimated amount of money— £2 million—has been included in every document relating to the scheme as far back as 2003, however, and it was reiterated in the capital plans and visionary documents to which I referred earlier. Does this woman not read her own papers? Is she not listening to the briefings from her officers?

The Secondary Heads Association in Dudley is united in its condemnation of the snap decision not to proceed. It has engaged in the choice and diversity agenda, bringing in a range of educational provisions throughout Dudley and setting up two of the first trusts in the country, and it recognises the importance of academies to the overall BSF process in Dudley. The LEA has been committed to BSF, having applied already to be involved in two earlier waves, but it has now decided not to go for it a third time—when the chances of acceptance are highest.

The Secondary Heads Association felt let down by the LEA pulling the rug from under its feet, particularly when it heard that it was just the set-up costs that were holding the LEA back—£2 million to release £200 million. What has happened to the LEA’s vision? The closure and sale of the Cradley high school site in Stourbridge was identified as the main vehicle for releasing the £2 million, but that decision was fought by the local population, with my support. However, although the school is now closed, the site has not been disposed of and we are now faced with the additional insult of council tax moneys to the tune of more than £250,000 being used to keep the site closed.

The Secondary Heads Association was so concerned by the announcement not to proceed that it offered to use part of its capital budget each year to raise the money for the LEA’s perceived shortfall. The offer was refused, and a highly politicised scrutiny meeting of the council upheld the decision. The head teachers feel the decision so deeply not just because their vision of state-of-the-art facilities for 21st-century learning has, in effect, been shattered but because the consequences of not going down the BSF route are too awful to contemplate.

Although Dudley is at the heart of the black country—indeed, it is often proudly designated its capital—it does not exist in a vacuum. The surrounding authorities of Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Walsall and Birmingham have applied for and are receiving BSF funds and are creating vast palaces of learning. It is inevitable that Dudley pupils and future learners will vote with their feet and cross LEA borders to take advantage of state-of-the-art facilities elsewhere, leaving Dudley’s secondary rolls to decline and deplete to the point that we fear closures will inevitably follow.

I am also dismayed that the potential for local employment that could arise from the BSF programme has now been thrown away by the council, which is, in effect, taking away opportunities for builders and other workers across the whole borough.

If the shortfall could have been made up by alternative funding, why still pull the bid? Could the decision possibly be linked to a report in The Guardian on 2 July 2008 about a meeting of Conservative council leaders that was urged to discontinue co-operating with Labour authorities in Whitehall and beyond, and to just say no? Or perhaps it was timed to link with this weekend’s announcements about future Conservative policy. Sadly, we do not know, but nobody with any knowledge or experience in the area can make any sense of the decision to pull the bid after so much work has been done and so many fine words have been said in praise of BSF and what it could do for Dudley.

Where can we go from here? I hope that the Minister will be able to intervene to get Councillor Walker and the council leader, David Caunt, to account for their lack of vision and betrayal of the aspirations and life chances of children in Dudley and, perhaps, to explore possible ways forward. I hope that the Minister can get clarification as to what will happen in the meantime to schools with declining facilities and to the plans for academies in Dudley. The LEA’s plans are in tatters and head teachers are condemned to firefighting one crisis after another, but they would all rather be watching their schools blossom in a joint visionary future.

The local politicians who pulled the bid appear to be “frit”, in the words of one Stourbridge head teacher, and there is definitely a lack of capacity at officer level. The LEA released a position statement on 2 December in which it said that it wished to explore every possibility with head teachers in the light of the political directive not to proceed. That was more than two months ago but, as yet, there has been no move from the LEA to do so, nor any answers to head teachers who are desperate to move forward. Perhaps today the Minister can start to get the answers that we are all hoping for and that the children of Dudley deserve.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) on securing this important debate. I know that she, having previously been a teacher, is committed to this issue, and that, as the local MP, she is ambitious for regeneration in her area. I also know from the assiduous lobbying and collaring of me on various occasions in this building by her and the other three Dudley MPs how strong feelings are on this matter. Her ambition echoes that of the Government to transform education and children’s services in this country to ensure that they are world-class.

The Building Schools for the Future programme represents the biggest investment in our school buildings in five decades. It is reinvigorating learners and regenerating communities. Fifty BSF schools are now open, with 1,000 schools across 80 local authorities now engaged in the programme.

Despite the current economic climate, which causes us to look at public spending, we remain committed to the BSF programme in full because we have seen what a difference it can make to children, schools and communities. That commitment emanates from the very highest levels of Government.

As I reported to the Children, Schools and Families Committee last week, to facilitate progress and the completion of projects in the current economic circumstances, and to minimise delays to programmes, we have accelerated the procurement process and reduced costs. There are indications of half a dozen or so banks returning to the schools lending market, and the European Investment Bank has agreed in principle to a funding package of up to £300 million.

The programme continues to gather momentum. By 2011, 200 rebuilt or refurbished schools will have been opened, and, by 2020, we expect the majority of local authorities to have completed their programmes in secondary schools. As my hon. Friend said, BSF is not just about making sure that we can build a few new classrooms. It is about creating inspiring environments in which children can enjoy their learning and feel safe. It is about 21st-century equipment and facilities for 21st-century learning. And it is about taking a real sense of pride in the institutions in which we educate our young people. As the consultation for secondary education provision reform in my hon. Friend’s constituency shows, young people themselves feel strongly about this and want to get involved in it.

Turning specifically to BSF in Dudley, I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment at Dudley council’s decision to defer its participation in the programme. I know that her disappointment is shared by head teachers, governors, pupils and parents alike. She makes a compelling case when she speaks not just about the advantages of BSF but the disadvantage to Dudley of not joining the programme, compared with the rest of the authorities in the region. It is missing out on an opportunity to boost local employment through construction, and risking pupils and parents voting with their feet and moving to one of the adjacent areas where they deem provision to be better. BSF offers an excellent opportunity for local regeneration, and taking part would show a real commitment to children and families in the Dudley area and would demonstrate that it is worth investing in 21st-century schools, resources, and education.

Of course, local schools are ready to back the programme. Last week, I met Brian Heavisides, the chairman of the Dudley head teachers group, to discuss BSF projects in Dudley. He assured me that the schools in Dudley are keen to join at the earliest possible time and stand ready to support the bid financially.

As we heard, Dudley council expressed concerns about raising the estimated £2.4 million for the initial pump-priming phase. The intention would have been to appoint staff at an estimated cost of some £500,000 per year. It is essential that the local authority puts in place the correct resources to manage the project, but it is important for the council to remember that the total funding does not need to be in place from day one—it can be scaled up—and that some professional costs which relate directly to the construction of new buildings may be classified as a capital cost and funded from the authority’s capital allocations. The cost of local authority staff, of course, should not normally be funded from capital.

As I said in my letter to Councillor David Caunt on 31 December—still working on new year’s eve—judgments concerning which costs could be capitalised are a matter for the authority working with its district auditor. I urged him to discuss whether the cost of staffing and external advisers could be funded from capital funding streams as a matter of urgency. I have advised that a representative from Partnerships for Schools meet with the local authority, also as a matter of urgency, to discuss the matter, and my officials are working closely with the council to effect a solution that will allow Dudley to enter the BSF programme at the earliest opportunity.

Some people have suggested—we heard this today—that the reason for Dudley’s decision to delay BSF is party political. I cannot comment on that, but I very much hope that it is not putting party politics before children’s education. I say to the people of Dudley that it is not too late for their council to decide to enter the programme. I am willing to come to the council and work hard with it to make this possible, but in the end the council has to want to will the means.

My hon. Friend mentioned the two new academies in Dudley and the effect that the council’s decision to defer its bid for BSF funding will have on those programmes. The buildings for the two new academies are being procured via the academies national framework, which makes provision for design teams and contractors in areas where new academy buildings are required outside BSF waves. Funding of up to £400,000 to deliver the two academies is available for the local authority in Dudley to bid for; this is standard for local authorities delivering national framework-procured academies. I therefore reassure my hon. Friend that the Dudley academies’ new buildings should not be affected by the council’s decision to defer application for BSF. Both academies are on track for opening in September this year and are to be in their new or refurbished buildings in September 2013. I hope that we will be able to get on and effect that change, because those schools in particular need the advantage that academy status will bring them.

My hon. Friend has mentioned Thorns community learning village in relation to BSF funding. As I understand it, the Thorns community learning village is a relocation of Old Park special school to an existing site already housing a secondary school and a primary school. Its construction is funded through a number of funding streams, including targeted capital funding, the asset management plan modernisation grant and the school’s devolved formula capital. Its initial phase was not intended to be part of the BSF programme. Rather, BSF was intended to fund any follow-on work required to Thorns community college and the primary capital programme will fund any work required on Thorns primary school. As my hon. Friend said, time scales are yet to be determined for these programmes, although I understand that the council’s position is that the follow-up work does not have sufficient impact on children’s educational outcomes to make it a priority. I personally urge the council to revisit this matter, to clarify its situation and—I hope—to proceed with the work that my hon. Friend is strongly advocating.

In conclusion, despite the current economic climate we continue to invest record amounts in school revenues and school buildings, largely through councils such as Dudley. Nothing is as important as investing in our education infrastructure and in the education of today’s young people and that of generations to come. Councils such as Dudley should be grasping the opportunities, the resources and the partnership that we are offering them to achieve gains for those children now.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his comments. I agree wholeheartedly, but what can we in Dudley do if the council does not go for the opportunities? Where will we be when Wolverhampton and the surrounding authorities get their money and continue developing as they already are? What prospects are there for children like my son and his friends and for my former teaching colleagues? In my vision, the prospects seem horrendous. I wonder what could happen, should the council not go for it. That is the true worry.

I am sure that, as a parent, my hon. Friend is not alone in being worried about the schools that she wants to send her children to and in worrying about how they will prosper if schools in neighbouring authorities have taken advantage of investment and it feels as though the schools in Dudley have not taken that opportunity because of decisions taken by the leadership of the council. Parents have a choice of schools; that has been an important driver in improving the standards of education over the past 12 years. The leadership of the council needs to be mindful of the fears that my hon. Friend has expressed as a champion for Dudley schools and as a local parent.

I will encourage the council and do everything that I can to work with it to help it make the right decision, which in my view is to invest now in children’s education and in creating the best possible learning environment to raise their aspirations and make them want to achieve for themselves and for the Dudley community. BSF represents a real opportunity for pupils, teachers, and families in Dudley. As I have said, we will continue to work with the council to ensure a swift and satisfactory solution.

Sitting suspended.