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Education Expenditure (Coventry)

Volume 515: debated on Tuesday 7 September 2010

I look forward to serving under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I know that you will be fair; in fact, you may be lenient with us. I thank Mr Speaker for granting my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) and me the opportunity to raise concerns about education in Coventry, and the effects on Coventry’s economy.

Coventry has been widely identified as one of the areas hardest hit by the Government’s recent spending cuts. In fact, the BBC described it as the first big victim of the cuts. So far, cuts applied to Coventry have resulted in a £5.2 million loss of funding in several different areas. That translates into a cut per person of approximately £11.17, which is higher than the national average of £8.97. The recent recession has also hurt the broader region to a great extent.

Coventry had already suffered devastating blows to its economy. During the 1980s and 1990s, manufacturing declined sharply. The city has worked hard and is working hard to rebuild its economy and create jobs, many of which are now based in the public sector, but that is being undermined by the Government’s programme of arbitrary spending cuts. The leader of Coventry city council estimated that there is a possibility of losing between 1,000 and 10,000 jobs in the region, some of which obviously could be lost in the south of Coventry.

The largest proportion of the cuts is a 24% reduction in our annual allocation from the Department for Education. Today I want to focus on cuts made by the Department in Coventry which will have extremely adverse effects on the city. The Department announced recently that the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency are to be abolished, but so far we have received no clear rationale from Ministers as to why.

BECTA works to obtain the most cost-effective information technology equipment for schools and colleges. Between 2002 and 2010, it saved schools and colleges £275 million on the costs of computer equipment. It employs nearly 240 people in Coventry.

An important part of BECTA’s work is its home access programme, which is part of a Labour Government initiative that seeks to provide children from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds, and those with special needs, with computer equipment and internet access at home. As of July 2010, BECTA had provided equipment to children from more than 200,000 low-income families. However, the funding for that programme is secure only until March 2011, and the Government have given no assurances as to what will happen after that date.

The decision to close BECTA could result in increased costs to the taxpayer over the longer term. For example, a BECTA agreement with Microsoft which greatly reduced IT costs to schools will not be renewed in December 2010 when it runs out. How will the Government be able to create such large economies of scale after that central agency is closed? It will be more difficult for schools acting individually to achieve the same high standard of information and communications technology provision that is currently provided through BECTA.

The QCDA employs more than 500 people in Coventry, having recently relocated there from Piccadilly, London. The Department announced that it, too, would be abolished, but no date has yet been set. The QCDA develops and maintains the curriculum, improves and delivers assessments such as standard assessment tests and reviews qualifications. Its work is of vital importance to the wider education sector. The Government themselves admit that some functions will need to continue after the agency is abolished; for example, work supporting SATs. There is total uncertainty about which functions and, more importantly, which staff will be retained, and which will be absorbed into the Department.

A parliamentary question that I tabled on the subject received an unsatisfactory and vague answer from the Government. There is no clear strategy as to how the functions the agency carries out will be continued, which suggests that the decision to scrap it has been rushed. That is entirely unfair to staff. There is no clarity from the Government on what their future jobs may be.

The cuts are clearly arbitrary and, I suspect, ideologically driven. There has been no consultation with hard-working staff on the matter. As a result of the cuts, nearly 1,000 public sector jobs in Coventry related to education could be, or will be, lost. That will have knock-on effects on the regional as well as the city economy, yet the city desperately needs growth following the recession.

Aimhigher may also come under fire from the Government. This Government-funded service, which provides support for individuals from under-represented groups to enter higher education, makes, on average, 1 million interventions each year. Evidence shows that its work creates more motivated and committed learners. Learners are 70% more likely to look forward to going to school. However, its funding of approximately £83 million is guaranteed from 2010 to 2011 only. Approximately £10.4 million of that is allocated to Aimhigher partnerships in the west midlands, including Coventry. There has been no indication from the Government that the funding will continue.

In answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled on the subject, the Government stated that the need to attract more students from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education is written into the coalition agreement. So why are the Government not supporting such bodies?

Cuts to the biggest Government investment in improving schools for more than 50 years have had devastating impacts for many communities up and down the country. Coventry has been particularly unfairly treated, as every one of its 20 school projects—it had been earmarked to receive £325 million for new buildings and £30 million for ICT—has been cancelled, despite the fact that its bids were just weeks away from the close of dialogue stage, which is the stage at which projects in many other local authorities have been allowed to proceed. We are one of only two wave 4 and 5 local authorities that have had our whole programme stopped.

The sample schools in Coventry—President Kennedy and Westwood—have also been stopped, whereas sample schools in some other areas have been allowed to continue. Coventry city council had already spent millions on getting bids to the closing stages, but that money has been wasted. In addition, there is uncertainty among faith schools such as Blue Coat and St Thomas More in Coventry. They do not know what will happen to their capital programmes and are expressing extreme concern.

Coventry’s projects also included progressive plans for special school provision in the area. Three special schools were to be combined into two new broad spectrum schools, which were to be co-sited with the secondary schools President Kennedy and Ernesford Grange. The current special school buildings are not suitable for the wide range of educational needs of the children who attend them. Therefore, cancellation of the project is detrimental to their education.

Coventry city council has obtained independent advice that many of the school buildings across the city are uneconomic to maintain and therefore in desperate need of refurbishment. Many of those schools are located in disadvantaged areas. Pupils in Coventry deserve a first-class education in first-class facilities, but that has been put at risk by the Government.

The Government claim, as part of their cost-saving measures, that the BSF programme was too bureaucratic and took too long to produce results. However, in 2007 the Conservative party committed itself to cutting £4.5 billion from the Labour Government’s school building programme to fund the capital costs of their proposed new free schools. Could the improvement of educational facilities for the majority be being sacrificed for the benefit of the few? This is grossly unfair. There are many unanswered questions about the axing of the BSF programme. Why was such a one-size-fits-all approach used to stop a phased scheme? Will an exception be made for special school provision in Coventry during the capital allocation review? How soon will a decision be made on capital allocation? Parents, pupils and teachers need to know.

The Secretary of State for Education met a delegation from Coventry to discuss this issue, including representatives from the council and all three city Members of Parliament. The Government undertook to review the capital allocation and send a review team to Coventry. I understand that that team has visited, but we do not know the outcome yet and we are looking forward to hearing it. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us.

The decision to scrap the BSF scheme in Coventry will also have negative consequences for the construction industry in Coventry, the recovery of which would have been hugely helped by these projects, following the recession. It also has a knock-on effect for job creation and apprenticeship opportunities in the area. It is important to note that BSF has cross-party support in Coventry, indicating how much it is needed.

I want to say a word or two about possible future cuts. The Government have already cut 10,000 extra university places, but made no impact equality assessment before doing so. Future cuts to university funding are being discussed, notwithstanding the outcome of the tuition fee review, which may mean that universities in Coventry—Warwick and Coventry universities—will have to manage 25% funding cuts. These institutions are major employers in the city and are of great economic importance to the regional and national economy. Cuts in funding will therefore have a negative effect on not only on the city’s economy but the regional economy.

In conclusion, I hope the Minister will consider seriously my submissions and those that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West will make in a minute or two, because the Government’s policy will have a major impact on jobs, training, education and, importantly, the construction industry in Coventry. I hope the Minister will at least give us some encouragement.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am pleased to see the Minister here today. I have a few questions to put to him, following the comprehensive account of the situation in Coventry given by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), whom I congratulate on securing the debate.

The Minister is a decent man whom I had the pleasure of getting to know during three Budgets in the early days of the Labour Government a few years ago. The problem is not just that BECTA and the QCDA have been closed—that is the right of the Government, if they mistakenly think that that expenditure on those organisations is unnecessary—it is the manner of their closure. If the Minister cares to turn it up, he will see that the letter from the Secretary of State, whose signature I was surprised to see on it, was disgraceful in its tone and terms. It was written in haste and the decision had been taken in haste. There was no consultation, which is, to some extent, understandable, but no thought was given to what would be transferred and what would be done in the Department and how some of the work, which the Government recognised that it was important to continue with, would be continued. Having looked at that letter, the Minister will see how not to proceed in a difficult situation. It really was a great pity that it was done in that way. The Government are in danger of losing a lot of good will among people whose help they will need in due course.

I endorse the criticisms made by my hon. Friend and I should like to focus on the Government’s tone and the manner in which the policy is being carried out in specific cases, particularly in respect of the QCDA. Many of the 900 QCDA staff had just moved up to Coventry, taken on mortgages and committed themselves to the city, only to receive a letter out of the blue. I do not think that the Department or Ministers can be proud of that.

Turning to the BSF programme, we spoke to the Secretary of State after he met the delegation in the House. At that meeting last week, he undertook—he was as good as his word on this occasion—to send a delegation to Coventry, but nothing really came from that. We still are none the wiser about whether the schools will go ahead, when that will happen or to what extent that will happen. I shall mention certain schools in a moment. A further meeting is intended, from which I hope that we get something. I hope at least that the matter is settled by 20 October, when the comprehensive spending review will be completed. This situation cannot go on indefinitely, leaving people, buildings and children in limbo in the way that they have been left at the moment.

I shall mention three schools, two of which are in my constituency: President Kennedy, a sample school for total rebuild, and Woodlands, which is a sample for refurbishment. In respect of Woodlands, we have worked hard—the Minister will probably be aware of the file—to get English Heritage agreement to deal with certain Hills buildings, which were the original concrete system buildings and are most unsatisfactory. Most have been pulled down now. There is also the CLASP system— consortium of local authorities special programme—to which, for some particular reason that escapes me, English Heritage attaches particular architectural significance. We have reached agreement there. I do not know why it was so difficult, but it was. The Minister may also know that we are having a terrible fight with English Heritage about Coventry market. Once agreement is reached with English Heritage, gosh, it feels like one has gone through the mangle and the last thing that anyone wants to do is reopen the matter, have it deferred or see it lapse.

The specific point, which is worth underlining, is that we have English Heritage agreement and all the planning consents that we need. In the case of Woodlands, those have been available for two years. [Interruption.] I see that the Minister is making a note of this. Woodlands was ready to go ahead, because rebuilding its central part is essential. Imagine trying to attract children there, even under the academy programme, which Woodlands has applied for, when the central building is covered in scaffolding to keep it up and has been covered for the past 18 months. What sort of message does that send out to parents? That school has improved its standards for the past three years, despite the buildings, not because of them, and is keen to be known as a good school in the area. Indeed, it is. It is a great sporting academy and has a long list of outstanding rugby players, some of whom, as you probably know, Mrs Main, have played for England. I think that Woodlands specialises in producing particularly tough forwards. The school has a dynamic head who is keen to push it forward. Questions need to be answered. Will the Minister please ensure that the permissions are not allowed to lapse or will be renewed and that any ministerial action that needs to be taken in that respect will be taken? We would be grateful for that.

There was to have been a total rebuild of President Kennedy, which is a Hills system building put up 56 years ago in the 1950s and 60s, a generation ago. Fortunately, as coincidence would have it—I do not want to say “luck”—the delegation from the Department visited that school when it was pouring with rain and they saw the water dripping into the classrooms and saw just how unfit the school was for purpose. I believe that that school was within weeks of closure. I had thought that that was so near that, although the signatures were not fully secured, it would have been agreed to. However, it was turned down, as was Ernesford Grange, which is not in my constituency, but is one of three schools in Coventry that urgently need proceeding with.

Will the Minister please get behind the new delegation coming up to Coventry—the second delegation—and ensure that, whatever the dates are and however much money will be released, we get those things finally pinned down, so that the insecurity is removed?

It may interest some hon. Members listening to the debate today to know that the word we had from the meeting was that, under the Government target, BSF is to be cut by 50%. That is a terrible blow to young children who are looking forward to going to school in a new building with all the motivation and encouragement that that may bring. They will be disappointed indefinitely if only half of the buildings are proceeded with, and there will probably not be many more if cuts are made to the programmes involved.

I am aware that the Minister wants to reply and that we are under tight time pressure, so I shall confine myself to those comments, and look forward to hearing his response.

It is always a sign of age when the Chairman is younger than oneself. Having celebrated a significant birthday last week, that has been brought home to me in stark terms, but it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this debate. On behalf of his constituents, he is an assiduous advocate on these issues in written questions, on the Floor of the House and in the debate.

The Government’s ambition is to raise academic standards in our schools and to ensure high-quality education for all children, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. Education is the key to social mobility and the Government's key objective is to close the attainment gap between those from the wealthiest and poorest backgrounds, so we put the Academies Act 2010 on to the statute book to enable us to expand the academies programme. During the past two weeks, 100 new academies have opened, one of which is the Sidney Stringer academy in Coventry, which is where the former Education Secretary, Lady Morris, was once deputy head.

The Academies Act 2010 enables primary and special schools, for the first time, to become academies and to enjoy the greater freedoms that academy status brings. We are considering the national curriculum with the intention of restoring it to its intended purpose—a minimum core entitlement built around subject disciplines. We are enabling parents, teachers and other education providers to set up free schools so that parents have a real choice for their children.

School buildings, of course, need continuing investment, but it is vital that future spending represents the best possible value for money. The Building Schools for the Future programme was a flagship programme of the previous Government, of which the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) was a prominent and distinguished member. The programme aimed to rebuild or to refurbish every secondary school in the country by 2023. Where it has delivered, some impressive new buildings have been built, and no one would deny that a good working environment can only aid achievement and help to improve behaviour. But the BSF programme was not the most effective way to deliver new school buildings.

Rebuilding a school under BSF is three times more expensive than constructing a commercial building and twice as expensive as building a school in Ireland. During the five years of the BSF programme, a scheme that was intended to improve the entire stock of the nation's 3,500 secondary schools benefited just a 175 schools.

The important point for my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr. Robinson) and for me is what will replace BSF, because we badly need those schools.

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. If he will be patient for a few minutes I will come to exactly that point.

Just 103 schools have been completely rebuilt under BSF. The budget bulged from £45 billion to £55 billion for a variety of reasons, some of which were legitimate, but the projected time scale rose from 10 years to 18. Of the £250 million spent before building began, £60 million was spent on consultants or advisory costs. In short, because of its structure and the way in which it was put together, BSF became a vast and confusing edifice of process within process and cost upon cost. It represented poor value for money. No one comes into politics to cut public spending, but the Government were faced with a £156 billion deficit, and it is our responsibility, difficult and painful as it may be, to tackle that problem lest we delay our economic recovery and cause further economic problems. We announced that the BSF programme is ending, but that does not mean the end of capital spending on schools.

I come now to the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Coventry South. When determining which projects would go ahead and which would cease, the Government developed a single set of criteria and applied them nationally. Those school projects that were part of the initial BSF schemes and had reached financial close would go ahead. Of the so-called sample projects that were part of an area’s initial BSF schemes and where financial close had not been reached—the sample schools to which the hon. Gentleman referred—only those with a selected bidder after close of competitive dialogue in the relevant local authority went ahead. Coventry had not reached close of dialogue in those sample schools. Some planned school projects, in addition to a local authority's initial scheme, were all allowed to continue. Unfortunately, the BSF projects in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and in Coventry as a whole, were not additional projects, had not appointed a preferred bidder, and had not reached financial close. As none of the criteria applied, the projects in question could not go ahead, with the exception of the Sidney Stringer academy.

In a meeting during the summer with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, the Secretary of State indicated that he is keen for the Department to learn from Coventry's experience with BSF, and capital spending outside that review. The Secretary of State has made it clear that the end of BSF does not mean the end of capital spending on schools. Money will, of course, be invested in school buildings in the future, particularly with a rising birth rate and increasing demand for school places, but it is imperative that money is spent on buildings and not on process. To that end, a group headed by Sebastian James, and with other professionals, began a comprehensive review of all capital investment in schools—early years, colleges and sixth forms—and will consider how best to meet parental demand, to make design and procurement cost-effective and efficient, and to overhaul the allocation and targeting of capital.

The hon. Gentleman will know that officials working for the review team visited Coventry on 26 August and explored in depth the capital needs of the city's schools and the plans for tackling those needs. A further visit is planned for later this month when the capital review team will meet councillors, representatives of schools and city council officers to discuss the needs of the city’s schools including, in particular, the requirements of the city's special schools. I have taken on board the comments of the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West about the state of those schools, particularly issues such as scaffolding holding up a building’s roof. Such issues will be taken into account by the capital review team, and I assure both hon. Members that the Department will continue to make capital allocations on the basis of need, particularly based on dilapidations and levels of deprivation. However, I am sure that both hon. Gentlemen will understand that I am unable to make any commitments today about how much money will be allocated, or exactly when. That will depend on the outcome of the spending review and the capital review.

I understand that the Minister cannot give a commitment, but will he at least say that by the comprehensive spending review on 20 October we will have a decision about those projects that have priority and can proceed, and to what extent?

The capital review will report by the end of December, so it will not coincide exactly with the end of the spending review. The hon. Gentleman will have to be a little more patient. There will be an interim review before that, but the answers to his specific question will not be available by that specific date.

When the capital review has been completed, and when the Minister has met the councils and so on, will he meet the MPs again to discuss the outcome?

The capital review team will be delighted to hear from the hon. Gentleman—now is the opportunity to raise specific issues regarding the fabric of school buildings in his constituency and in Coventry—but it will not be able to report in public until it reports finally at the end of December.

In the time remaining, I want so speak briefly about the planned closure of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, which employs some 446 staff in Coventry, with another 43 staff working from home. The QCDA's remit is inconsistent with our vision for school improvement driven by school leaders and teachers, with as much of the education budget as possible going to schools. That is why many of the QCDA's centralising functions will be stopped, and others will be made more clearly accountable to Ministers. We are considering how vital work such as the national curriculum tests can best continue when the QCDA has been abolished. It is too early to assess the scale of any job losses, but we are working with QCDA carefully to plan the winding down of its functions, and the proper and sensitive handling of the implications of those changes for QCDA's staff.