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Topical Questions

Volume 513: debated on Monday 12 July 2010

As I pointed out earlier, because of the dysfunctional system we inherited, it has been difficult to establish the absolute truth about the number of schools affected by the rules-based announcement I made last week. Today, an hour and a half before the House met for questions, I distributed to the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) and others the latest updated list of the schools affected. This list has been verified by Building Schools for the Future and by my Department, which has contacted every local authority affected. I am looking forward to hearing from the individual local authorities in due course.

May I also take the opportunity to correct the record on one further matter? In last week’s statement, I referred to six schools built under BSF that had suffered from design or construction flaws. On Thursday evening, I was told that three of the schools I mentioned—Carr Manor, Lawnswood and Primrose high—were, in fact, built under a predecessor private finance initiative scheme that sought to renovate the school estate in Leeds. Some of the renovation was financed through BSF; the schools themselves were not procured through BSF, but instead through that predecessor programme. The other schools I referred to in last week’s statement were procured through BSF.

We have also issued a written ministerial statement today, pointing out that we are going to review the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. As I am sure the whole House will appreciate, this is very much a season for ensuring that we get value for money from our quangos.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that fewer than 100 schools have been rebuilt under Building Schools for the Future, none of which, incidentally, are in Tamworth, where we have been waiting more than three years for this labyrinthine process to happen, but not a brick has been laid? Will he confirm that this is yet another example of the former Government failing to keep their promises?

I sympathise hugely with my hon. Friend. Only 97 schools were built under Building Schools for the Future during the period when the previous Government were in charge. Now we know that under this coalition Government, 706 schools will benefit from BSF and more than half of those will be new builds. Where the previous Government failed, this Government are succeeding.

T5. On Friday, I visited Holly Lodge school—one of six in my constituency affected by last week’s announcement. For Liverpool, investment in our schools is crucial to our economic future. Will the Secretary of State undertake to visit Liverpool between now and the end of September to meet schools, the business community, my colleagues and the local council to discuss this crucial issue for the future of our city? (6985)

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who was a distinguished schools Minister, for that question. I know how hard he works for his constituents and, indeed, for every parent, child and teacher in Liverpool. I am aware that the consequences of the regrettable decision we had to take last week will be felt particularly hard in Liverpool, so either I or a member of my ministerial team will commit to come to Liverpool to talk to him and those affected—by the end of the year, I hope, but certainly as soon as possible.

T2. Under the previous Government, 186 special schools closed. On Thursday, I will attend the annual prize-giving at Highview special school in my constituency—one that you, Mr Speaker, have visited. May I take the Secretary of State’s message of support for special education under the new Government as meaning that the school will have a sustainable future and the support it needs? (6982)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. It is a tragedy that the ideologically driven closure of special schools under the last Government meant that so many children with special educational needs did not receive the education they deserved. That ideologically driven closure will end under this Government, and under the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) we will review support for children with special educational needs. Their care should always be our first concern.

T9. The Secretary of State will know that one problem in many of the poorest constituencies in the land is the high level of teenage pregnancy in this country—five times higher than in the Netherlands. Before Government Members start blaming Labour—or, for that matter, me personally—let me tell them that the figures rose dramatically under the Conservative Government and then did not fall sufficiently under a Labour Government. The Secretary of State fought hard in the previous Parliament to ensure that we did not have good compulsory sex and relationship education, for every child, in all schools in the land. Will he reverse the argument that he advanced then, because in countries with low levels of teenage pregnancy, the existence of such education is the big difference? (6989)

The hon. Gentleman is a former vicar of the Church of England; he has been accused of many sins, but contributing to teenage pregnancy has never been one of them, to my knowledge. May I say that I entirely appreciate the importance of proper sex and relationships education? My dispute with the previous Government was simply over a question of individual liberty. I felt it important that parents had the right to withdraw their children from sex and relationships education if they thought it inappropriate. I agree, however, that it is vital that all children have high-quality sex and relationships education, in order to ensure that they make the right decisions later in life.

T3. Further to my right hon. Friend’s answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), is he aware of the situation in Enfield, where increasing housing, migration and birth rates are putting acute pressure on primary and secondary school places? Will he ensure that future capital funding focuses more on increasing capacity and less on increasing bureaucracy, as happened under the previous Government? (6983)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the demographic changes to which the previous Government did not pay sufficient heed was the increase in the number of pupils arriving at primary schools, particularly in London and the south-east. That growth in basic need is our first priority.

T10. The Secretary of State has already spoken of his great concern about special schools. Has he done any cumulative assessment of the impact on special schools of his BSF cuts last week? The programme for all three such schools in Blackpool—Woodlands, Park and Highfurlong—will be affected and stopped, because they were co-operating with other secondary schools. What assurance will he give the House that he will consider the cumulative impact on special schools, and what assurance will he give me that he will look at the problems in Blackpool in particular? (6990)

I am very sensitive to the problems in Blackpool. I had the opportunity to visit one of the schools that the hon. Gentleman mentions—Highfurlong—with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I appreciate the problems on that site and want to do everything possible to ensure that our capital review guarantees that children attending special schools get the money that they need for the facilities that are crucial to their education, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

T4. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, under the overly cumbersome Building Schools for the Future, it took on average 13 months from first meeting to first construction of a site? What can be done under this Government to ensure that that does not happen again? (6984)

My hon. Friend makes a critically accurate point. As a result of the massive bureaucracy that used to exist under the Building Schools for the Future scheme, people in dilapidated classrooms were denied the resource that they needed, as it was going into the pockets of bureaucrats rather than into bricks and mortar for those most in need.

The Secretary of State will be aware that in his announcement to Parliament last week, a special needs school in my constituency of Birmingham, Erdington was listed under two separate titles, “Stopped” and “Unaffected”. Hopes were raised, confusion was then caused, and hopes have been shattered. Will the Secretary of State come to my constituency to meet the head of Queensbury school, which, along with its sister school Kingsbury, has a remarkable vision for a world-class centre of excellence catering for the children of Birmingham with special needs?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and for showing me the great courtesy of calling me before the weekend to explain precisely the question that he would ask. We will have the opportunity to meet one on one later this week to discuss the precise circumstances of the school that he mentions. I or one of my ministerial team will certainly join him in a visit to that school, to provide the head, teachers and parents with all the information that they need to ensure that in future we do everything possible to help to support them and the great work that they do.

T6. I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting St Michael’s primary school in Bournemouth with me last week. If the head teacher of St Michael’s, Mr Bob Kennedy—or, indeed, any other head teacher—were to ask him what excuse could be given for spending £60 million of local authority Building Schools for the Future money on consultants rather than the front line, what on earth would he say in reply? (6986)

It was a pleasure to meet my hon. Friend and the teachers who were doing such outstanding work at St Michael’s. It was a fantastic school, and a pleasure to visit.

If a head teacher were to ask me why the last Government spent so much money on consultants rather than on teachers, for once I would be dumbstruck.

I recognise that there are many pressing issues in Ministers’ diaries, but may I beg the Secretary of State to take seriously the request by Willowfield school in Walthamstow to host a meeting for him, for parents from the Walthamstow area, and for parents affected by the decision to stop all the wave 1 school projects in Walthamstow, including those involving William Morris school and Holy Family college? There could then be a discussion about how we can meet our urgent need for school places in the locality, given that all those buildings have been condemned as not fit for purpose—a bit like the present Government.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for asking a very good question with a nice scorpion sting in the tail. I appreciate that in some parts of the country, because of the way in which Building Schools for the Future was run, the decision that we had to make bites more sharply. Waltham Forest is one of them, Somerset another, and Liverpool a third. For that reason, I will ensure that one of my Ministers or officials contacts the hon. Lady very quickly to see what we can do to alleviate this necessary blow.

T7. Given that last week’s announcement on BSF has had an impact on several schools in Warrington—including Penketh high school, where the need is great—will the Secretary of State tell us when his capital review is likely to report, and what criteria will be used in the review to prioritise schools? Is he willing to meet me and Warrington educationalists to discuss their needs? (6987)

My hon. Friend was good enough to lobby me several weeks ago about the fate of the school that he mentioned, and schools in Warrington overall. He was, as ever, articulate and powerful on behalf of his constituents. I recognise that his constituents have been let down by the fact that Building Schools for the Future spent so much money on bureaucracy, and not enough on bricks and mortar. The purpose of our capital review is to ensure that money reaches the front line more quickly, and that the dysfunctional system that was established under the last Government—which they took no steps to reform or abolish—is transformed. I believe that there will be an interim report in a few months’ time and a final report by the end of the calendar year, both of which will transform school buildings for the future.

Is the Secretary of State aware that figures from his department show that academy schools are, on average, teaching one third less GCSEs in history and geography than schools in the maintained sector, and are often inflating their grades through the use of GCSE equivalents? If that is to be the model for the future, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that academic subjects are protected in academies?

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am committed to academic excellence, so I should point out that he should have said “fewer”, not “less”. However, he has made a good point. I am worried about the use of so-called equivalent qualifications instead of academic GCSEs. When I raised the issue from the Opposition Benches, the then Secretary of State said that I was talking achievements down, but I am glad to note that we can now form a coalition for excellence across the Dispatch Box.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is regrettable that five secondary schools in my constituency which are in dire need of expenditure on the framework of their buildings have received absolutely nothing under the Building Schools for the Future programme, simply because in theory they are in a reasonable area where children are, in theory, receiving a good education?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, which points to one of the many weaknesses in the Building Schools for the Future programme. Because its operation was area-based, some schools which were not dilapidated and which occupied serviceable buildings—not ideal, but serviceable—received large sums of money, while in many other parts of the country children suffered poor education in dilapidated buildings that were not prioritised for investment. That has to change.

Will the Secretary of State or a member of his team undertake to meet the pupils of Westhoughton high school, who will be making an educational visit to Parliament this Thursday, to explain to them why they have wasted the last two years designing and developing their programme for their new school and why they will now have to spend the rest of their school career in a crumbling school?

The hon. Lady is an impassioned advocate for Bolton West, but I have to tell her—and she can tell this to the children and parents concerned—that the reason why this process took so long is because of the bureaucracy her Government put in place. The reason why those children are losing out is because of the decisions made by the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood, and if she is angry, as I am, that children’s destinies have been compromised, that anger—that righteous anger—should be directed at the right hon. Gentleman, the person who presided over this debacle in the first place.

Free schools have the potential to make a massive positive impact on the education of children in my constituency, Cheshire and the north-west as a whole. When does the Secretary of State anticipate that the first free schools will be able to open and begin their vital work?

Order. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that pithy reply, but I am afraid that demand has exceeded supply and we must now move on to the statement.