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School Places (Finchley)

Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011

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

Thank you for granting permission for this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I must first apologise for delaying the House prior to the recess.

Education is at the heart of the Government’s agenda, as is allowing good schools to expand. On Monday the Secretary of State for Education said in The Guardian that he was going to change the admissions code to help to meet parental demand for good schools. He said:

“We hope the new admissions code allows the possibility of increasing planned admissions numbers so good schools can expand, and there will be underperforming schools that have fewer and fewer numbers.”

That is spot on, but it assumes that the popular schools are able to expand. In Finchley there is no shortage of good schools at primary and secondary level. We even have schools with the space to expand; what we do not have are the capital grants to fund the expansion. The schools in Finchley are part of the family of schools in the London borough of Barnet, and Conservative-controlled Barnet is consistently one of the best local education authorities in the country. Barnet is enthusiastically pursuing many new academies and free schools.

Before turning to the lack of capital support from the Department, I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Minister that the council has not sat by and done nothing about the shortage of places. Several years ago, it recognised that there would be an increase in demand for primary and secondary places and, in the absence of Government support, it embarked on its own £250 million primary school expansion programme. Starting in 2004, using a mixture of prudential borrowing and capital raised from asset sales, the programme set about rebuilding, expanding and refurbishing the primary estate. Barnet is forecasting that pupil numbers in the maintained secondary sector will continue to grow, and that they will grow by 22% by 2015-16. That is the second highest growth rate in the UK. The situation is not helped by the Greenwich decision. LEAs are unable to put their own pupils first.

The factors combine to create a demographic shift that Barnet council cannot cope with—certainly not without help. Hitherto, enough help has not been forthcoming. This outstanding LEA has not been rewarded for its education record. Having delivered new schools on time and on budget, however, the authority was invited to join the last phase of Building Schools for the Future. I hold no affection for the BSF programme, as I saw Barnet council being forced into a process it did not need and could not afford, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds. The promised £83 million under BSF would have allowed three schools to expand and be refurbished—and two of those schools are in Finchley. The schools lost out when BSF was cancelled, so good schools and a good local education authority were penalised again.

I am sure that the capital division of the Department will argue that Barnet has received capital that it should use for expansion. I know that, because it wrote to me in forceful terms to tell me, but Barnet has received an average of just £14.6 million over the past few years for non-academy, non-children’s centre spend. That is money earmarked for new boilers, new toilets, roof repairs, rewiring and so forth—simple basic maintenance. With more than 120 schools in Barnet, that is just £122,000 per school. To put that into perspective, the cost of rewiring one secondary school alone was £1.9 million. The allocation does not go far. It is true that the council could have diverted that capital for school expansion, but is the capital team really expecting a first-class local education authority to tell parents that their school’s broken boiler or leaking roof cannot be fixed because the money has been spent on expanding another school in a different part of the borough?

The council cannot simply borrow the money. I would like to stress that borrowing approval, supported or otherwise, is no help at all. Barnet council has been on the funding floor for several years and borrowing approval is useless if the debt servicing cost is unaffordable because it falls on the general fund paid for out of general council tax. The capital allocation formula appears to need a complete overhaul. The increase in demand for state places has been seen across every borough in London. It is inequitable that London accounts for 64% of pupil place shortages and yet receives just 26% of the capital allocation.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the plight of Barnet, and indeed for the whole of London. Does he agree that we are talking not only about issues related to expanding schools, but about allowing parental choice, so that faith-based schools are an important part of the equation? We have identified the need for a Hindu secondary school located between Harrow and Barnet, and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend to secure support for it from the Department.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The expansion of the Hindu faith school somewhere between Barnet and Harrow would not only meet parental preference but relieve pressure on the remaining schools in the maintained sector.

To return to the iniquity of the shortage of places and the capital funding allocation, that discrepancy between 64% of places and just 26% of funding means that London is short-changed by more £300 million in the existing allocation.

The current shortage of primary places has been met by providing additional classrooms in portakabins, by changing information technology rooms and libraries into classrooms, or simply by making children travel much further to an available school space. That is not a sustainable solution.

Things are no better in the secondary sector. The area is served by the Bishop Douglass mixed Roman Catholic comprehensive school, which is over-subscribed with 383 applications for 180 places, and by the Compton mixed comprehensive school, which is also over-subscribed—and every applicant from Finchley N2 was rejected; not a single pupil could get a place there. Mr Speaker went to the Compton school—or the Finchley Manorhill school, as it was then called—but he would not get in today, as he lived too far away from it. Then there is Christ’s college, a boys-only school—again over-subscribed, with 424 applications for 150 places. St. Michael’s Catholic grammar school for girls has 370 applications for just 96 places. We also have Henrietta Barnett, a highly selective girls school, grossly over-subscribed with 2,000 applications for 180 places. Then we have Copthall, a girls comprehensive. It too is over-subscribed, and 100% of applicants from N2 were rejected simply because they lived too far away.

In the past fortnight alone I have received 200 emails from worried parents. Let me report just some of what they have said. Mrs Catherine Atkinson wrote:

“I have lived in East Finchley for 28 years. My son got into Fortismere by the skin of his teeth 8 years ago and I remember the stressful wait for the letter saying he had the place. Those not so lucky because they lived maybe 200 yards farther away from the school were offered either Bishop Douglass school or…Christ’s college.”

That would more difficult today, because those schools too are over-subscribed and full.

Mrs Carey wrote to me:

“I live in Long Lane. My daughter is in year 5 and my son is in year 4. Our position is as follows: Fortismere—we’re not in catchment and are unable to afford property prices in Fortismere catchment. Wren Academy Church of England—we are not churchgoers and we are not close enough geographically either. Compton—not in catchment. Christ’s College—we would be in catchment for our son, but that is not much help for our daughter! Bishop Douglass—it is at heart very much a Catholic school”,

and they are not churchgoers.

“Henrietta Barnet is highly selective.”

In Barnet, first preferences granted stand at just 62%, and once second preferences have been allocated, just 85% of parents secure their first or second preferences. That is well below the national average of 85% and 96% respectively. I appreciate that capital is scarce, and I appreciate the difficulties that the Minister is experiencing. I am not asking him to issue a cheque this evening, although I am pretty sure that we would name a school after him if he did: the “Gibb Academy” does have something of a ring to it.

I hope the Minister will accept my view that we must seek to overhaul the capital allocation formula, reward good local education authorities, fund good schools so that they can flourish and expand, help parents to secure their preferences, and give pupils the best possible education and start in life. All that I ask this evening is that he agree to meet me, along with the chief executive and leader of the council, to discuss what targeted support he is able to provide.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) on securing the debate. Let me say at the outset that I will accede to one of his two requests, and that I will reveal which it is at the end of my speech.

I know that my hon. Friend is no stranger to the issues surrounding Finchley and Golders Green, as he has served the community well in local and national Government for a number of years. The Government are well aware of the pressures faced by many local authorities in London, including Barnet, in their attempt to provide enough suitable places to meet higher demand arising from the increase in birth rates and other demographic changes. I am also familiar with the argument advanced by London Councils—which my hon. Friend mentioned at the beginning of his speech—about the inequitable levels of funding received by London boroughs. The figures are not in line with our data, but I have asked officials to meet councils to discuss theirs in more detail.

The Government ascribe considerable importance to meeting the Department’s priority of ensuring that every child has a good school place. Responsibility for balancing supply and demand rests with individual local authorities. We look to members of those authorities —as the people with the best and most relevant local knowledge—to ensure that there are enough places and that local schools meet the needs of local communities. They are in the best position to know how many schools are needed, and where those schools should be located to serve local populations.

For its part, the Department for Education supplies capital funding directly to local authorities to help them to provide school places. Through the recent spending review and this year’s Budget, the Department secured £15.9 billion of capital funding over the four-year period starting in April this year. By taking early action to stop the wasteful Building Schools for the Future programme, the Secretary of State has been able to ensure that funding is available for the most pressing needs. He has allocated £800 million to local authorities for pupil places in 2011-12, and has indicated that he expects that level of support to continue for the other years of the spending review. That is twice the previous annual level of support that was given for those needs. It has been targeted on the areas of greatest demand, based on forecasts of pupil numbers provided by each local authority, and in addition to allocating the £800 million for additional pupil places the Secretary of State has informed local authorities of their overall share of capital funding for 2011-12.

Local authorities have been asked to prioritise spending to provide new places in areas experiencing severe demographic pressures, as well as to address the needs of the schools in the very worst condition. The London borough of Barnet and its schools have been allocated almost £17 million of capital funding for 2011-12, which includes £9.4 million for the provision of basic need places. Local authorities are also able to use money allocated to school maintenance to address basic need and vice versa. They have that flexibility. Barnet has also benefited from a substantial contribution from Government to JCOSS, or the Jewish Community secondary school, which will over time provide an additional 1,300 places in the area.

Forecasting future pupil numbers cannot be an exact science. That is why the Department has used the school census returns of the number on roll for 2010 as the starting point for basic need funding. As well as giving actual numbers on roll, the census collects information from each local authority on forecast growth areas for the three years to 2013-14. That information was used by the Department as the basis for the basic need funding calculation for 2011-12.

By using that informed approach, the Department has been able to target funding to where growth in demand has been forecast by the local authority. However, it must be stressed that, as a result of the actions taken, we have been able to allocate all of the basic need funding to the local authorities as the providers of places in their local area, and as a consequence I am afraid to say that no unallocated or additional funds are available for local authorities to call upon during 2011-12. Alas, we are therefore unable to make an exception for Finchley. I think I have now answered one of my hon. Friend’s two requests.

We are serious about getting education funding right in the future. I agree with my hon. Friend that the current capital allocation system is overly complex and unfair, which is why the Department is taking steps to ensure that future capital expenditure delivers greater value for money for everyone involved in the education sector, and that the maximum number of children benefit. We have already made changes to the allocation system to address one of my hon. Friend’s main concerns. I recognise that some local authorities were in practice unable to use supported borrowing. That is why for all schools we have allocated capital funding in 2011-12 as capital grant. That means authorities at the floor receive real funding to address their need for school places.

Last year, the Secretary of State commissioned Sebastian James to conduct a full and independent review of the Department’s capital programmes. That review has now been published, and the Secretary of State is currently considering its recommendations. They include the proposal that there should be a new approach to the future allocation and use of all the available capital funding. The Secretary of State hopes to respond to the recommendations shortly.

Future capital allocations and the management of funding for 2012-13 until 2014-15 will be informed by the outcome of the capital review. However, as I have said, the Secretary of State has already indicated that local authorities can expect that the headline amounts of capital available in future years will be in line with those of 2011-12. As well as providing funding to meet basic need pressures and radically reviewing the way in which capital funding is allocated and spent in future, the Government are pressing forward with their academy and free school programmes. I am aware that my hon. Friend’s constituency contains two open academies, the Wren academy and the Compton school, both of which he mentioned. By giving those involved in education the freedoms to shape the future of our schools and by opening up the opportunity for others to enter the education sector, we believe that we are offering an education system that will meet the needs of local communities.

I hope that the House will acknowledge that the steps the Government have taken and continue to take to ensure that future capital investment benefits those in most need represent the correct approach. By tackling the areas of greatest need first and then developing a new approach to future investment that delivers value for money, I believe that we are making the best use of limited taxpayers’ money to improve the fabric and quality of our schools. I know that my hon. Friend is aware of the very difficult fiscal situation faced by the country, but I would be pleased to meet him and his colleagues from Barnet council to discuss these issues further. On that note, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I wish you and the House a very fruitful recess?

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.