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Three-tier Education (Bedfordshire)

Volume 495: debated on Monday 6 July 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Tami.)

The subject for this debate is two-tier and three-tier education. When I became the MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, a system of three-tier education was in operation, as is the case now—that is different from what happens in most of the rest of the country. Shortly after I became an MP, three-tier education and whether or not our area should transfer to offering two-tier education became the subject of much debate among parents, schools and councillors. At that time, the remit for education was under the authority of the county council. A vote was taken and the decision was to retain the three-tier system. That vote took place nearly three years ago, since when a cultural change in attitude towards three-tier education has taken place in Bedfordshire, because we have seen year-on-year improvement in children’s outcomes. That happened because the attitude previously had been that at some stage the area would change to having a two-tier system, so the three-tier approach had been slightly neglected, but, following the vote, outcomes have improved.

One of the reasons why the vote to retain a three-tier system was carried was that it was felt that sacrificing a generation of children in the transformation from one system to the other was too high a price to pay; many children would probably have been spending much of their education in portakabins while schools were being sold off to raise finance for new schools to be built or while mergers of schools were taking place, and it was felt that the transitional impact on those children would be too great. That was one of the issues. Another was, of course, the cost. It was felt that no evidence existed to demonstrate that huge improvements could be achieved through the change or that this would be a life-changing event, in terms of academic or other outcomes, for children. On the contrary, the evidence demonstrates that the pastoral care given in middle schools—in the smaller school environment—can hugely enhance a child’s education. All that was lacking was the commitment to get behind three-tier education, invest in it and make it work well.

We have had a change recently in Bedfordshire and we now have the unitary authority system. The Central Bedfordshire authority is taking a sensible and measured approach to the issue and is consulting the various portfolio holders and members of the executive. It is taking a steady and reasoned approach and will go to full consultation. It has also brought head teachers from all three tiers into the consultation. Nobody in the Central Bedfordshire authority has taken the decision to change to two-tier, so it is going through a genuine process and evaluation.

However, the same cannot be said in Bedford, where the mayor—I believe that his party is Better Bedford—has decided that the change will be made. The decision was made a while ago—perhaps the mayor wants it to be his legacy. That change appears to be very much against the wishes of parents, if the e-mails that I have received are anything to go by—or the 20,000 hits in the last 60 days on the save our schools website for Bedford, or the presentations made by parents at the 20 or so consultations that have taken place over the last few months. The strong feeling is that parents in Bedford like the smaller school system, especially as many of the schools are in rural areas—not all, but some. Parents like the smaller schools and the pastoral care, which works well especially for children with learning difficulties or special needs. It is much easier, in the small school environment, to focus on those children and identify problems earlier.

The original proposal was that the decision to change from three-tier to two-tier would be taken using mayoral powers. The mayor is now rowing back from that and the decision may be taken by the full council. However, some of the information that has been given out to parents and schools is not entirely accurate. One of the areas of propaganda is the claim that the Building Schools for the Future funding will not be available to schools in Bedfordshire should they retain the three-tier system. I do not know whether that is true, and I hope that the Minister will clarify the point. I would argue that middle schools are upper schools. They are still educating children of that age—it is not as though a whole age group are not being educated. Therefore I fail to see why that should be the case.

It is also claimed that in order to obtain Building Schools for the Future funding, a school has to demonstrate that the funding would have a transformational effect. I would argue that over the last three years we have seen transformations taking place in education in Bedfordshire. For example, in Mid-Bedfordshire there are no schools in special measures.

Some of the other information that has been given out is slightly duplicitous and a bit naughty. For example, the consultation document that has been given out includes eight pages of information about the two-tier system, which the mayor wants to change to, and 18 words about the three-tier system.

I have received about 600 e-mails and letters, and there are lots of stories about pressure being put on people; I have no personal evidence of that—it is only what I have been told by parents and teachers.

Another matter of which I have proof is that in the consultation document, GCSE results in the borough are limited to the state schools, compared with the figures that are collected on the national basis, which include the results of independent schools. Bedford has an independent school system known as the Harpur Trust, made up of a fee-paying group of schools. They are quite low-cost and very good. They were set up as a trust and have been established for a long time. Their examination figures have been taken out of the consultation document, so just the very select figures from the state schools are being used as a comparator with the national figures. There are issues concerning the use of those figures.

The “Save Middle Schools” campaign, which is running in the area, has not been allowed to give out its literature in the upper and lower schools because of pressure from elsewhere to prevent it from doing so. That too has been an issue of concern.

Let me turn to my main concern. I like three-tier education—I will put my hand up to that. If I was pressed against a wall by parents about this issue—and I am, frequently—I would say that I like three-tier education, because I am particularly interested in special needs and because I like the small teaching environments and the pastoral care and teaching that can be given in such environments. I like the fact that our outcomes have been good over the past three years. However, it is not my decision, and it is not the decision of councillors.

When the mayor of Bedford was elected, the decisions about education in Bedford were made by the county council. It was not within his remit. He did not stand on any manifesto or any platform to do with changing to two-tier education. The same can be said of Central Bedfordshire council, because all the councillors recently stood for election, and not one of them included three-tier and two-tier education in their manifestos. Nobody in an elected position in Bedfordshire has been elected as a result of any recent statement on education, because it was not within their remit at the time at which they were elected.

If we are going to subject a generation of children to a change from three-tier to two-tier education and if that means that children will have to study in portakabins and will receive an education that involves a lot of change, that must involve parents, governors and, most importantly, the children. Anything we do in education in this country should be focused on achieving an educational outcome for the particular children involved. I believe that it should therefore be the responsibility of the parents, teachers and governors to decide whether that change should take place. I hope that the Minister supports that view. As no elected person in Bedfordshire—including the mayor of Bedford—has the mandate to decide whether we should change to two-tier education then, if the decision is to be taken, it should be taken by the parents via a referendum.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) wants to speak about the financial points, so I shall finish my speech. May I ask the Minister whether it is the case that, if we retain three-tier education, we will be prejudiced against or damaged in any way as regards receiving Building Schools for the Future funding? Culturally, are the Government putting any pressure on the mayor, on Better Bedford, on the council in Bedford or on whoever else is involved to change to two-tier education? Will we be financially disadvantaged? Does the Minister agree that if such a huge change is to take place within education, parents and teachers should have some kind of referendum as no one has the mandate to introduce such a change?

Rather than taking an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire, if it is acceptable, Mr. Speaker, I shall hand over to him to allow him to make a speech.

With the kind permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) and the Minister, may I offer a couple of comments on the debate? First, I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend on succeeding in applying for and winning this Adjournment debate on what is, as the Minister will understand perfectly well, a contentious issue.

My understanding is that there is no guidance from the Department for Communities and Local Government or from anywhere else that either a three-tier or two-tier system is innately preferable. I am sure that all our evidence would show that the quality of the school and the education system is determined by the quality of the head teacher, the ethos of the school, the quality of the staff and the work that goes on there. The Government express no preference for one structure or the other. However, for parents in an area where the matter is up for consideration it is one of the utmost importance, because it concerns their children—either those who are in the school system now, or those who will come into it in the future. So the debate in Bedfordshire is keenly contested.

Two debates are going on. As my hon. Friend said, our constituencies share local authorities. Most of her constituency covers Central Bedfordshire; my constituency is split quite evenly between Bedford unitary council and Central Bedfordshire. Bedford unitary council is going through the process of deciding whether to retain the three-tier system. Central Bedfordshire is not yet able to make that determination, but has indicated that it is considering the future of its education system.

We seek the Minister’s clarification of three areas, if he would be so good. First, on the funding elements, as my hon. Friend said, there is a relationship between the decision to be made about the future of our schools and a possible bid for the Building Schools for the Future programme, linked to the desire to improve the quality of our schools. As she also said, there has been issue about whether any bid under that initiative would be related to the structure of the schools. Having held a meeting with the Minister’s predecessor, I am convinced that the Government do not have any preference one way or another, and that it will be possible for Building Schools for the Future money to be available for authorities that maintain three-tier education. I would be grateful if the Minister would say whether any applications from authorities with three-tier education have been successful. Has any area with a middle school structure been successful in obtaining funds under the Building Schools for the Future programme?

Secondly, we seek the Minister’s guidance on the decision-making structure. He may not be able to answer us this evening, but he might be able to do so by letter. In Bedford council, there is an elected mayor, with a cabinet and council. There is a debate about whether the decision on the structure of schools should be made by the mayor alone, by the mayor and his cabinet, by the mayor and his cabinet and a third of councillors, or by the whole council. My view—and, I think, that of my hon. Friend—is strongly that a decision of such importance should be made by the full council. I wonder whether the Minister can give any indication of whether, under the system of elected mayors, it is possible for the decision to be made by the mayor on his own or by the mayor with the approval of the cabinet and a third of the members, or whether it must be made by the full council. If he cannot answer that tonight, I would be grateful for confirmation by letter.

Lastly, I wish to make a brief point about funding. Building Schools for the Future is an imaginative initiative, but I am afraid that Conservative Members feel that it falls into the same trap as a number of Government initiatives: it talks about very large sums of money projected into the future, and there is scant evidence that there can be delivery of those sums. If Bedford unitary council is to make a decision on the structure and future of schools, it is essential that it understands what future funding will be. Can the Minister say that if a decision is made to go two-tier and the council comes to the Government in the next few months, the indicative funding of £340 million will be made available, there and then, up front and banked? If that it not the case, what will the funding be in 2010, 2011 and 2012? Can the Minister honestly say that the funding will be there in successive years? If it is not there up front, as all the indications are that Government finance will be under heavy pressure, I do not think that those sums can be sustained in the future.

Accordingly, what I seek is for the council to be able to make its decision understanding absolutely clearly what Government funding will be. So I look to the Minister to tell us what the funding is likely to be post-2010. Does he take the Prime Minister’s view that all is well and rosy, or does he take the Chancellor’s view that, in fact, no one can predict what Building Schools for the Future funding—or indeed any other Government funding—will be post-2010? None the less, it is essential that that before the councillors decide whether to have a three-tier or a two-tier system in Bedford unitary council and Central Bedfordshire, they should really know what the facts of the funding will be. I am very grateful for the time that has been allowed to me in this debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) on securing the debate, and having heard her contribution to the Opposition day debate earlier today, I congratulate her daughter on securing her degree. The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) advanced their arguments in their usual style, and I appreciate the manner in which they did so. The last time I responded to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire in an Adjournment debate, the subject was the proposed eco-town in Marston Vale. I think that I reassured her on that matter; I hope that I can do the same again tonight.

In responding to the arguments advanced by the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, I want to do three things. First, I shall discuss briefly school reorganisation and the merits and disadvantages of the two and three-tier systems. I shall also mention my Department’s policy on the three-tier education system, which is linked with that subject. Secondly, I shall discuss funding and, crucially with regard to this debate, the links between school reorganisation, departmental policy and funding. Thirdly, I shall mention the consultation for schools in Bedfordshire, with which both hon. Members and their constituents are engaged.

I can well understand the emotion as regards schools and their reorganisation; I have seen it myself in my constituency. I think that the whole House would agree that schools are a vital part of the community, and it is fair to say that people feel an ownership of them, and possibly hospitals, that it is difficult to apply to other institutions. The education of their children is rightly of major concern to parents. They want a school system that allows their children to enjoy learning and become equipped with the skills that will allow them to fulfil their potential and realise their ambitions. As we have heard tonight, it is in that context that Bedford borough council is carrying out a public consultation on the proposal to reorganise its school system from three tiers to two tiers.

I have read the council’s school organisation review document, which states that such a change is necessary for four reasons: to raise standards in schools, particularly at GCSE; to address growing support for change within the borough; to address the declining number of middle schools nationally; and to use investment from Building Schools for the Future and the primary capital programme to produce an education system that will remain fit for purpose for the next half century. In the document, the local authority states that children aged 13 who change from a middle-tier school to an upper-tier school do not have sufficient time in upper school to adjust to the effects of changing schools before having to choose their options for the 14-to-19 routes to qualifications.

Being in a secondary school from the age of 11 allows children to become accustomed to their secondary school, their teachers and the specific style of learning that will enable them to make more reasoned and personalised choices in their options. The local authority also states in the document that upper school head teachers and governors believe that they would be able to deliver better GCSE results if they admitted their students at the age of 11 rather than 13.

That may be the view of head teachers and governors, but there is no evidence to back up that view. On the contrary, we are doing very well with our GCSE results as things are. They are improving year on year. There is no evidence for the position that they take; it is just a view.

Let me come on to that, if I may; the hon. Lady has raised an important point. On the merits and relative disadvantages of the three-tier and two-tier systems, there seems to be a certain logic to the idea that there is naturally a degree of disruption when a child changes school, although that argument is not in the school organisation document. That disruption would be minimised if a child changed school only once, at the age of 11, as happens in a two-tier system, as opposed to twice, as happens in a three-tier system, in which a child goes to middle school at the age of nine and to upper school at the age of 13.

Let me touch upon a fundamental part of the two hon. Members’ arguments. There is no clear link between a particular system of school organisation and educational attainment. It would be wrong for me to stand at the Dispatch Box and state, for example, that in all cases a two-tier system automatically lends itself to higher educational success. There is no evidence for such a causal relationship, because the situation is more complex than that, taking into account historical and cultural attitudes to school organisation, the calibre of leadership, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, and close engagement with parents. Local people and agencies know best what is most appropriate for their area, based on an acute understanding of these complex factors, and can make judgments on school reorganisation accordingly.

It is on that basis that I say that my Department has no prescribed view on any particular pattern of school provision. Both two-tier and three-tier systems can be successful and effective, so we think that it is up to the local agencies, in close consultation with affected local parents, to decide how school provision is organised in their area. We have no plans to phase out middle schools as a matter of national policy or to remove support from three-tier systems where they exist.

That brings me to the second fundamental point that the hon. Gentleman made, which relates to funding. The school organisation review document that I mentioned acknowledges that the Building Schools for the Future and primary capital programme streams provide an unprecedented opportunity to transform secondary and primary school provision. The document states:

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to access this level of funding from Central Government and the Borough Council is determined that the money should be used wisely to achieve a transformation of its schools so that we have an education system in Bedford which is fit for the 21st century in state of the art accommodation. The Council must be able to demonstrate its ‘readiness to deliver’ with a clear vision for the future”.

We would all agree with those sentiments.

It is important to dispel the notion that the substantial Government money available through Building Schools for the Future and the primary capital programme is somehow conditional on the local authority changing the manner in which its schools are organised—that we would not provide the money unless it changed to a two-tier system. Let me reassure the hon. Lady that that is categorically not the case. I have already mentioned that my Department does not take a view on school reorganisation, and this policy position is reinforced through BSF and PCP funding.

In answer to the argument put forward by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, I can say that we have funded, through Building Schools for the Future, a number of local authorities that have middle schools in areas such as Hertfordshire, Kent and Staffordshire, and, closer to my patch, in Newcastle upon Tyne and North Tyneside. A far greater driver towards securing funding is pupil place planning—the projected numbers of secondary age pupils to be accommodated in the schools covered by the project. It is therefore vital that any plans that Bedford brings forward are predicated on responding to the educational needs of its pupils, and not on how much funding it gets. If a change of school organisation is proposed, the educational rationale for doing so must be clearly established.

In respect of Bedford, I point out to the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman that the local authority is at a relatively early stage in developing proposals for its Building Schools for the Future project. Bedfordshire was included in wave 6 of BSF, before the outcome of the local government review and local government reorganisation. However, because of specific local issues and concerns, the project was delayed. Partnership for Schools is ready to hold a remit meeting—the point at which programme time scales are set—as soon as a date can be arranged with the local authority.

The third element of my response is the consultation process—

Before we leave the subject of funding, may I come back to a point that I made earlier? If the Department agrees that the proposal put forward by Bedford, whether for a three-tier or a two-tier system for the improvement of schools, is appropriate, does all the money arrive up front before the election and before the clamps come down, or is the future funding in doubt because inevitably it will be funded year by year post-2010, and none of us knows how much money there will be in the kitty then?

The hon. Gentleman will know that I cannot possibly comment on, or answer, that point about future waves. I do not know the specific proposals that Bedfordshire local authorities will bring forward or the agreements that will be made with Partnerships for Schools. A whole range of different factors is in play, notwithstanding the complex area of public finances post-2011. However, I can say that school reorganisation is based not on funding but on educational rationale and attainment.

I have already mentioned the key part of my response: it is up to local people to determine what schools need and what schools should look like. Given the importance of local buy-in to any proposed changes, the consultation is vital, and in May 2007 we put in place new arrangements that must be followed whenever a change in school provision is proposed. For school closures and alterations to school organisation, there are five clear stages in the process. They include, first, consultation, whereby the proposers must consult all interested parties before publishing their proposal, allow adequate time and provide sufficient information to consultees; secondly, publication, whereby a notice detailing proposals must be published in a local newspaper and posted at the main entrances of the schools named in the proposals and at some other conspicuous place in the area; and thirdly, representations, whereby local people have six weeks from publication to submit their representations for or against proposals.

That is the situation in Bedford. The consultation runs to 24 July, and I strongly suggest that if necessary, the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman encourage all affected parties—particularly parents—to have their say. Following representations, a decision will be taken by the local authority and then implementation will take place.

I hope that that clarifies the Department’s place in the process. We have set the framework and put in place arrangements to allow people affected by school reorganisations to have their say. However, I hope also that in my response I have stressed that local people should decide how schools are organised locally. We do not prescribe a certain model, and we certainly do not influence decisions by making funding conditional upon operating under a certain model. Local people should decide what provision should be like in their area. In the case of Bedford, local people have until 24 July to have their say, and I encourage all those concerned to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.