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Secondary Schooling (Sevenoaks)

Volume 515: debated on Thursday 9 September 2010

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of secondary schooling in Sevenoaks. Parents in the northern part of my constituency have a choice of existing secondary schools in Swanley and Hextable. They can choose the Leigh technology academy and the new Longfield academy, and they also have access to the Wilmington and Dartford grammar schools further north. I am sure that all those schools are looking forward to the package of reforms that is coming from the Department for Education, giving head teachers and their governors more freedom to decide for themselves about the education they deliver.

So I shall focus on Sevenoaks itself. It is particularly appropriate to do so in the week that the new Knole academy opens its doors. There is always something exciting about the launch of a new educational venture and the promise that it holds for a whole new generation of pupils, and I know that the Minister will want to join me in wishing the new academy well under the leadership of its principal, Mary Boyle. It is also right to pay tribute to the enormous personal contribution of the lead sponsor, Gordon Phillips, and to the commitment and hard work of Mike Bolton and his team from Sevenoaks school, the co-sponsors, as well as to the support from Kent county council.

The Knole academy replaces two single-sex schools, the Bradbourne school for girls and the Wildernesse school for boys, and their replacement has involved much discussion and consultation over the past couple of years, not least with parents who, initially of course, supported single-sex schooling. One of the major reasons why those parents were in the end won over to the concept of a new academy, however, was the promise of a new building.

The Bradbourne site was already inadequate, even for the girls’ school that was sited there; it became too small. The Wildernesse site consists of a series of buildings, some of which are more than 60 years old. In fact, the school opened its doors 60 years ago this very month, and its buildings are certainly well past their fit date and need renewing.

Operating the new academy, which is supposed and aims to coalesce two previous schools, is much more difficult on two separate sites that are well over a mile apart. Operating on two sites adds considerably to the costs and management issues and involves the duplication of a whole range of functions that simply would be unnecessary if the school were on a single site. While the site is still split into two halves, it is also difficult for the new management team, educationally I suspect, to build quickly the new ethos and purpose that they seek for a single, all-ability, co-educational school.

The new building was originally promised for 2012, and I must press my hon. Friend the Minister on how much longer it will be delayed. We must bear in mind that the academy has already been delayed, with its launch being about a year later than originally envisaged. That is nothing to do with my hon. Friend; it is down to the long delay in getting Ministers in the previous Government to sign the revenue funding agreement. What will give parents real confidence is a commitment by this Government to the principle of a new building and some indication of the likely timetable. I have pressed the matter several times with the Secretary of State, and as my hon. Friend the Minister knows I have written on the subject to his colleague Lord Hill. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that parents are now entitled to a firmer indication of when a new building will be started, and when they are likely to be able to move to a single site.

I want to raise one adjacent issue. Despite the arrival of the new, all-ability academy, a significant number of children in Sevenoaks will continue to choose the grammar school route that the selective system in Kent offers. It is right that they continue to have that choice, which has, in recent years, become more restricted owing to the pressure on grammar school places across west Kent. We face an increasing birth rate and the development of some significant new housing. It cannot be right for children in Sevenoaks who succeed in passing the 11-plus then to be allocated grammar school places as far away as Folkestone or Ashford—or indeed, allocated places at non-selective schools, or told to continue to fight for a grammar school place through the tortuous process of waiting lists and appeals. That is especially unfair when so many places—more than 300—are given by Kent schools to out-of-county applicants.

These are currently matters for the adjudicator, who is considering a number of appeals to the existing admissions schemes, and I would not expect the Minister to comment in any detail on that. I am sure, though, that he would sympathise with my view that grammar schools that recruit some numbers from outside the county, as they are entitled to do, need to remember that they are Kent schools paid for and supported by Kent council tax payers and supported by parents who have chosen to live under a selective system.

My main purpose tonight is to mark the launch of the new Knole academy, to wish it well as the first new secondary school in Sevenoaks for a generation, and to ask the Government, in the shape of the Minister of State, to make the commitment to the new building that is desperately needed if the academy is to be a success.

My hon. Friend has made a very powerful case for funding for the new Knole academy. He will be aware that the secondary schools in Sevenoaks, including Knole academy, are a major source of secondary education for my constituents in Edenbridge, which sadly lost its secondary school some years ago. I want to say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I support most warmly and strongly the case that my hon. Friend has made for the funding of Knole academy, which will be of great benefit not only to his constituents in Sevenoaks but to my constituents in the Edenbridge area.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. He reminds me that the new academy expects to draw pupils from a wider area than my constituency—indeed, from right across west Kent, as Bradbourne school for girls did before it was merged into the academy.

The point I am making—I will not labour it further—is that for the academy to be a success in the short, medium and longer term, it needs to be established in modern, fit-for-purpose buildings on a single site rather than spread across the two sites of the two previous schools. With that, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give me some comfort.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) on securing the debate. As a former Education Minister, he has a passion for raising standards in our schools and ensuring that good schools have the autonomy and professional freedoms to deliver high-quality education. He was himself instrumental in the reforms that led to local management of schools: a seminal educational reform that has resulted in huge benefits to schools—I hesitate to say this—over the past 20 years. It is the coalition Government’s ambition to raise academic standards in our schools, particularly for children from poorer backgrounds. Education is the main route to social mobility, and closing the attainment gap between those from the wealthiest and poorest backgrounds is a key objective of this Government.

The Academies Act 2010 will enable us to expand the academies programme, and 100 new academies have opened over the past two weeks. It will also enable primary and special schools to become academies and enjoy the freedoms that that status brings. My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the Knole academy, which is one of the new academies that has opened this week. We are currently examining the national curriculum, with a view to restoring it to its original purpose—a core entitlement built around subject disciplines—and we are empowering parents, teachers and other educational institutions to establish free schools so that parents have a genuine choice for their children.

School buildings need continuing investment, of course, but it is vital that future spending represents the best possible value for the taxpayer. Building Schools for the Future was a flagship programme of the previous Government, set up for the purpose of rebuilding or refurbishing every secondary school in the country by 2023. Indeed, some impressive new buildings have been built, and it must be true that a good working environment can only help academic achievement and improve behaviour. However, the BSF programme was not the most cost-effective way to deliver new school buildings. Rebuilding a school under BSF was 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, out of 3,500 secondary schools just 211 benefited and only 112 were completely rebuilt. The budget rose from £45 billion to £55 billion for a variety of reasons, and the time scale of the programme from 10 years to 18 years. Of the £250 million spent before building began, £60 million was spent on consultants or advisory fees. In effect, BSF became hugely bureaucratic, with process within process and cost upon cost, and it represented poor value for money.

Nobody comes into politics to cut public spending, but the Government are faced with a £156 billion deficit, the largest among the G20 countries. It is our responsibility, difficult though it may be, to sort out the mess that we have inherited. Failure to do so, as my hon. Friend knows, would put our economic recovery in jeopardy. Although we have announced that the BSF programme will end, that does not mean the end of capital spending on schools.

I know that my hon. Friend is a tireless advocate for educational excellence in his constituency, and that he has invested a great deal of energy in the future funding of the Knole academy. As he said, the academy, which opened this month, was formed by the merger of the Bradbourne school and the Wildernesse school. It is sponsored by Gordon Phillips, chairman of the Glen Care Group, and co-sponsored by Sevenoaks school and Kent county council. It specialises in languages, and everyone is optimistic that it will increase opportunities for young people in the Sevenoaks area. I add my thanks to those of my hon. Friend to all those who have put in so much work to deliver the opening of the academy on time this September.

As my hon. Friend said, the academy is based in the existing premises of Bradbourne and Wildernesse, which means that it is currently operating on a split site. I know from experience in my own constituency that that is far from a satisfactory arrangement, with teachers and pupils having to travel between the two sites. In my constituency there is far less than a mile between the two sites, and I know how inconvenient that is. If the distance is as much as a mile in the Sevenoaks case, it must be hugely inconvenient and time-consuming.

As my hon. Friend said, the proposed new school building would be based on just one of the sites, the Wildernesse site, and it was hoped that it would be ready by 2012-13. I share his belief in the importance of high-quality school buildings, because although it is undoubtedly true that a school’s primary assets are its teaching and support staff and its educational ethos, it is equally true that it is vital to give children and teachers a well-maintained working environment.

The natural depredations of the climate, and the wear and tear suffered by any building that is used by hundreds of people on a daily basis, mean constant investment in our school infrastructure, so I am extremely sympathetic to my hon. Friend, and indeed to all hon. Members who have schools in their constituencies that are in need of rebuilding or repair, but the inefficiency of the BSF structure and the parlous state of the public finances meant that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State friend had no choice but to suspend the programme and announce an urgent review of schools capital spending.

In determining which projects would go ahead and which would cease, the Government developed a single set of criteria and applied it nationally. Projects that would continue would be those that were part of their area’s initial BSF schemes and that had reached financial close; the so-called sample projects that were part of their area’s initial BSF schemes where financial close had not been reached but where a preferred bidder had been appointed at close of dialogue; and some planned school projects in addition to a local authority’s initial scheme that had outline business cases approved before 1 January.

As part of the BSF announcement, the planned new build for the Knole academy was put on hold pending completion of the capital review. The Knole project was in the feasibility stage at the time that it was paused, and an outline business case had not at that point been approved. As my hon. Friend knows, capital builds were put on hold for five academies in Kent other than the Knole academy. However, capital was allocated for two: the Isle of Sheppey academy and the Skinners’ academy.

The Secretary of State announced a complete review of how capital will be allocated and spent in improving the fabric of school buildings. The review, which is now under way and led by Sebastian James, will look at how best to meet parental demand, make design and procurement cost-effective and efficient, and overhaul the allocation and targeting of capital. Over the next few months, officials will work with all 75 projects that are for decision after the spending review to discuss their capital needs. Those discussions will focus on the most appropriate and cost-effective way to deliver the sponsors’ educational vision. In the case of the Knole Academy, that will include a site visit involving partnerships for schools, the Department for Education and the Young People’s Learning Agency, as well as Kent county council and the academy trust.

We hope to be able to make final decisions on capital allocations towards the latter part of this year. I assure my hon. Friend that the Department will continue to make capital allocations on the basis of need, and in particular on the basis of the level of a building’s dilapidation and deprivation, and that his representations today and in recent weeks will be taken seriously by the capital review team. However, as I am sure he understands, I am unable to make any commitments today or until the review has completed its work.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s energy and tireless work in promoting the case for the rebuilding of the Knole academy. He makes a compelling case on behalf of his constituents, which I have taken on board. I hope that in some measure he will be reassured by my promise that all future decisions on capital spending will be made in a transparent, straightforward and above all fair way, which puts the needs of children and parents first. In today’s economic climate, we have a duty to ensure that we continue to invest where investment is needed, to get the best possible value for taxpayers’ money, and to achieve a right balance between spending and other means of school improvement.

Change will not be delivered by spending decisions alone. It will be delivered by creating a system that places more trust in the professionals working within it. The Government believe that head teachers should have more control over how money is spent, that teachers should have more autonomy over how they teach their students, and that parents should have a real choice on which school they send their child to. Future spending must support those aims and ensure that money is directed at those who need it most.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.