Skip to main content

School Places (Bristol)

Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate a matter of great concern to many of my constituents and to parents across Bristol. I thank the Minister for having a meeting earlier today with all four Bristol MPs, the council cabinet’s lead member on schools, children and young people and the council officer who deals with those issues. It was a useful meeting, although, unfortunately, the Minister did not produce a large cheque at the end of it.

As I explained to the Minister this morning, Bristol faces a crisis in primary school provision: there simply are not enough primary school places. The number of four-year-olds—that is the age at which children start reception class—has increased by 20% in Bristol over the past four years. This year alone, we needed an additional 14 reception classes. Demand is projected to rise steeply over the next couple of years, tailing off a little, but then taking off again. It is estimated that Bristol will need a minimum of an additional 3,000 places by 2015.

Bristol has seen the fastest growth in pupil numbers in the country. The council estimates that the percentage change in primary school numbers is three times the rate across England. According to Office for National Statistics projections for population growth between 2008 and 2015, the increase on 2010 levels will be 11 times higher in Bristol than the national average. Judged against its own historical standards and national comparisons, therefore, there has been unprecedented growth in Bristol, and I ask the Minister to consider the city’s special case for urgent funding.

There are a number of reasons for the rapid increase in the primary school-age population. Bristol is a popular place to live for many reasons, including economic and cultural reasons. Immigration is also a factor, although it is not the only cause. This is a city-wide problem, as the Minister will have seen from the map we showed him this morning; it is not a problem just in the inner-city areas, where black and minority ethnic populations are traditionally concentrated.

In areas such as St George, which is in my constituency, the pressure on school places has come about as a result of gradual demographic change, as older people who have lived in these areas all their lives have died or moved to sheltered accommodation, and younger people have moved in because these are cheap places to live. Obviously, those younger people go on to have families.

The recession has meant that parents who might previously have opted for private education can no longer afford it. Equally, improving education standards in Bristol mean that parents might be less likely to opt for private provision or to take their children out of the Bristol local authority area and to schools in north Somerset or south Gloucestershire, which has been a major factor over the years. There have also been major housing developments, and there is an urgent need to build more housing in Bristol, so this problem will not go away.

This year, Bristol city council had to find an additional 250 places to ensure that all reception-age children could start school in September. It has had to resort to adding modular classrooms to already stretched schools. Although those classrooms are an improvement on the Portakabins and huts we might remember from school, they are still not an ideal, permanent solution. One school has had to convert its information and communications technology suite to classroom use, which, again, is not ideal.

The council has had to spend £5.3 million on such temporary solutions. There is no guidance from central Government and no clear view on the way forward to enable the long-term planning we need. Spending money on temporary classrooms, rather than permanent school buildings, is a quick-fix solution, and it might prove to be an inefficient use of scarce resources in the long term.

Some schools, such as May Park in my constituency, have increased from two to four-form entry. Obviously, that does not solve the problem in itself, because the new pupils will move up next year, and so on through the school, creating an additional need for classrooms if each year is to have four forms. Schools such as May Park are doubling in size, which creates additional pressures, because the dining halls and other facilities—particularly the play facilities—are not designed to cope with the numbers. When I visited Air Balloon Hill primary in my constituency last week, I was told that it had to spend £90,000 on a new electricity generator because the addition of a few extra modular classrooms meant that the existing generator was unable to cope with the demand.

The local authority has been quite imaginative, and it has done all it can to put in place temporary quick fixes, but we need more radical and lasting remedies. The task is becoming greater with year-on-year growth in the four-year-old population. By 2015, it is estimated that Bristol will need a minimum of 100 additional classes, which is equivalent to 14 one-form entry schools. Depending on housing development and migration patterns, the 3,000-place shortfall could be quite a significant underestimate, and it is suggested that the figure could be as high as 5,300.

The pressing priority is September 2012. The council has 11 months to find 15 additional reception classes. Legally, it must provide those places, but that is not the only reason why failure is not an option. As all the other MPs in Bristol will confirm, parents are coming to us because they simply cannot get their children into a school that they could physically deliver them to in time each morning. I have met parents who have a child in a school at one end of the city and who are being told that their next child, who is starting reception class, has to go to a school several miles away. However, public transport in Bristol is pretty abysmal; we have the worst traffic congestion of any city in the country. Parents tell me that they will have to give up work, particularly if they work shifts and can no longer use breakfast clubs and after-school clubs because there are fewer of them. Parents are also having their child care credits cut, so it is more difficult to fund child care. Physically, parents are not able to be in three places at once; they cannot get to work on time, get one child to school and get another child to a child minder. Parents cannot manage the logistics of getting their children to their schools. Even though the new term has started, some children still do not have a school place to go to.

On a more positive front, the local authority has a strategy to resolve the crisis, as the Minister heard this morning. Its children and young people’s services have been working with the local education partnership and developers. They have detailed plans for rebuilds and have identified potential sites for new schools. The standardised designs can be constructed quickly and efficiently. Importantly, estimates suggest that they offer a 20% reduction in building bulletin guidance. Unfortunately, the stumbling block is a £110 million funding gap.

To give an example that I mentioned to the Minister this morning, Air Balloon Hill primary school has spent £500,000 on working up detailed plans for the major building works it desperately needs if it is to continue as a four-form entry school. The work must start by February next year if the school is to be ready for a four-form entry 2012 reception class, but it needs £4.5 million if that is to happen. As I am sure the Minister will tell us, the figures will be looked at in November, so it could be into the new year before the school has any idea whether it will get the additional funding it needs. Obviously, other schools across Bristol will be in the same position and will be seeking similar sums.

Capital funding for 2011-12 has been reduced by 20%, and the budget was necessarily strained by September’s pupil increase, leaving the council in a position where it cannot begin to address next year’s shortage. The Secretary of State announced an extra £500 million in July to fund basic need nationally, but the council needs a degree of certainty about what its share of the money will be and when it will receive it.

The methodology for allocating basic need funding also means that Bristol is unlikely to receive its fair share. The Department judges basic need according to the surplus of all primary school places across the local authority. That will change in the next few years as the increased population moves up through the school, but there is technically a surplus in primary school places in Bristol at the moment because there are spare places—classes of 25 or 26 pupils—in years five and six. However, that does not really help someone with a four-year-old who needs to start school immediately. I urge the Minister not to do this netting off of surplus places against shortfall, but to look at how many pupils we need year on year, because children will otherwise be sitting at home unable to go to school.

Bristol has recently—this September—received funding for a new school, but it is not the school that the city desperately needs. Following concerted campaigning from some parents in one part of the city and the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie), Bristol can now claim to have the largest free school in the country. However, it is a secondary school and it does nothing to address need in the city.

Does the hon. Lady agree that, given there is a need for primary school places in the area, obviously there will be a need for more secondary school places in the future and that we have learned the lesson that forward planning goes a long way? Does she also agree that it was most unfortunate that discussions were not progressed more by the city council when it considered having an all-through free school on the St Ursula’s site? That would have been able to attract capital funding from the Department for the primary school places that she is making a good point in saying we need.

The point I am making is that there is a surplus in secondary school provision that is predicted to be in place until 2017. I suggest that the entire movement towards getting a secondary school in Bristol was misguided. The priority should have been solely to focus on the primary school need. I understand that the new free school has a capacity of 150 places and that only 82 children started there this September. The three closest secondary schools—Henbury, Oasis Brightstowe and Orchard—all have a significant surplus of provision. Indeed, the head teacher of Henbury, which already has about 145 spare places, has warned about the impact that the free school will have upon her school.

As I was saying, I do not believe that there was a need for a Bristol free school, particularly a secondary school. We should have focused on primary schools instead. The bizarre thing about what has happened with the Bristol free school is that the preferred site was the former St Ursula site bought by Bristol city council because it represented good value for money for a new primary school. However, it was confirmed last week that Bristol free school will remain on its temporary site on Burghill road, Southmead. It is worth noting that half the parents who supported the Bristol free school during the consultation stated that they would not send their children there if it were located on Burghill road, so not only is there no need for the school, but it may not even have the community support on which free schools are supposed to be based.

The strange thing is that the catchment area of the new free school is based on the St Ursula site that was the preferred location. Some 80% of the school’s places will be unashamedly given to the affluent BS9 community, which is in the top 5% of the most affluent areas in the country. At the same time, access will be restricted for families living directly around the school in the less prosperous area of Southmead. The school is actually outside its own catchment area. There seems to be a strange sense of what the priorities should be. We should be focusing on the need for a primary school instead.

There is now an E-ACT primary academy on the St Ursula site, but it has had to restrict its intake to two forms rather than the preferred three or four-form entry in case the Bristol free school also moved to the site. Bristol free school has diverted much needed resources from Bristol’s existing secondary schools and has enabled the Government to concentrate on the wealthier areas while completely ignoring Bristol’s actual needs.

Does the hon. Lady agree that, given the passionate case she is making for primary school places today, it is a great shame that the Labour Administration and the Building Schools for the Future programme concentrated on secondary schools and completely neglected primary school need? In 2008, it was a Labour council that oversaw a primary review that cut all surplus places in the primary schools. Although I very much welcome her concern for primary school places and for the really upsetting plight of parents in Bristol, does she not agree that it is a great shame that the matter was not sorted out when her party was in council power and in government?

Our party was leading on the council for a very short time, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows. I will not in any way apologise for the Building Schools for the Future programme and the academies programme in Bristol, as they made a phenomenal difference to standards in our secondary schools. She will know that there was a real problem with people taking their children out of schools in Bristol, particularly in years 5 or 6 of primary school, because they did not want them to go to Bristol state schools. We have seen a huge increase in standards in those schools built under Building Schools for the Future. That programme was not about addressing the places issue and the shortage of places; it was about addressing school standards. It is really important that we did that.

The case for investment in Bristol’s primary schools is not only pressing, but urgent. Building works must start within the next few months if we are to have enough classrooms in September. Some schools have been hesitant to commit to additional classes in case that pushes them into debt. We therefore need decisions to be made as soon as possible.

Bristol city council has made several representations to the Department for Education and, as I mentioned, local MPs met with the Minister responsible for schools earlier today. That meeting was originally set up just to discuss the case for extra funding for schools in Bristol West. That is the wrong way to approach the matter. This is a city-wide problem and all four Bristol MPs should be working together to help to resolve it.

It is also unfortunate that the letter from the Liberal Democrat council leader to the Secretary of State making the case for additional funding gives the erroneous impression that the problem is specific to the north of Bristol. As the Minister will have seen from the map that he was shown, the problem is not restricted to any particular area of the city. The issue occurs in pockets across the city and, although it is particularly a problem in the inner city, it affects all four Bristol constituencies.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Dawn Primarolo) is sitting here watching the debate because her post as Deputy Speaker means that she is not allowed to take part. However, she has told me that she has about 30 constituents who were not offered a school place in the local area and that the problem is particularly acute in the Southville and Bedminster wards. As in Bristol East, there are very limited opportunities to expand schools in Bristol South on their current sites, and my right hon. Friend rightly joined us this morning to make the case to the Minister.

There are major shortfalls in the number of primary school places across the city. It is a city-wide problem that needs to be resolved at a city-wide level in the best interests of all families in Bristol, not just a select few. I urge the Minister to work with the local authority to secure immediate and lasting solutions. I look forward to hearing what he has to say today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this important debate. I know she is no stranger to the issues surrounding education provision in Bristol, as she has served the community well in local and national politics for a number of years. As she said, earlier today we met with the right hon. Member for Bristol South (Dawn Primarolo) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) and for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) to discuss the issues facing Bristol in terms of population increase.

I am aware that the hon. Member for Bristol East has been active, as she has been today, in raising the difficulties faced by schools in her area, especially with respect to her concerns surrounding the establishment of the proposed Bristol free school. I hope that, by now, she has received a response from my noble Friend Lord Hill to the letter regarding the Bristol free school. There is overwhelming demand for a Bristol free school from parents in that area. She is right to point out that it was in the BS9 area that the community campaigned for a new school. That community felt that too many pupils had to leave the local authority to receive a good standard of education. In fact, hundreds of parents attended a recent parents’ evening for the September 2012 year 7 intake, which demonstrates that there is significant demand for the new free school.

The hon. Lady referred to capacity issues. She is right: the reception to year 6 primary population in Bristol is forecast to increase from 27,000 in 2009-10 to around 33,500 by 2014-15. She is also right to point out that, at the moment, there are 3,074 surplus places across 70 schools, 15 of which have more than 25% spare places. However, the council is also projecting a deficit of primary places from 2012-13 based on the May 2010 school capacity figures.

The greatest demand for places is in the east central area of the city, but the surplus places tend to be in schools located in the north and south city boundary areas. That is why the hon. Lady is concerned with the methodology of how capital is allocated to local authorities. She made that point powerfully, with other hon. Members, at the meeting this morning. I also understand, and am sympathetic to, the logistical problems. I think that representatives from the local authority said that 94% of parents in the Bristol area achieve one of their first three primary school choices, but that still leaves 6% who do not. Some parents find themselves having to travel significant distances to secure a primary school place.

The Government are aware of the pressures that many local authorities face in light of population increases and the very tight spending review capital settlement for the Department. We must never forget why we are in this difficult position and why we have to make these difficult decisions. It is, of course, due to the difficult state of the public finances that we inherited. That has made it necessary for our top priority to be to reduce the country’s budget deficit, rather than being able to provide significant additional money for capital funding of school projects. We are now paying £120 million in interest every day of the week. Those interest payments could have been used to rebuild or refurbish 10 schools every day of the year, but we are not in that position.

Despite the difficulties we face, we have still been able to announce that the Department for Education’s capital spending will be £15.9 billion in the four years of the spending review period. We know only too well that there are schools in need of refurbishment that missed out on the previous Government’s unsustainable capital programmes. We appreciate fully that some people will feel that they have been unfairly treated. Even though we have had to take some very difficult decisions on spending, we will still be able to continue putting money into the schools estate at an average of almost £4 billion a year. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that that is still a significant sum. More importantly, we believe that it is affordable in the current financial circumstances.

It is essential that we maintain buildings properly to ensure that health and safety standards are met and to prevent an increasing backlog of decaying buildings. However, by stopping the wasteful Building Schools for the Future project, to which we were not contractually committed, we have been able to allocate £1.4 billion to local authorities to prioritise their local maintenance needs. That includes £195 million of devolved formula capital that has been directly allocated to schools themselves for their own use. In addition—the important point as far as the hon. Lady is concerned—we allocated £800 million of basic need funding for 2011-12, which is twice the previous annual support for new school places in areas of population growth.

As the hon. Lady pointed out in her opening remarks, in July the Secretary of State announced that, in addition to that £800 million in 2011-12, he could announce a further basic need allocation of £500 million to provide extra school places where there was greatest pressure caused by the increasing pupil population. That additional funding has been made available thanks to efficiencies and savings that the Department, working with Partnerships for Schools, has been able to identify in the Building Schools for the Future projects that are continuing. Officials in the Department are working on the allocation methodology for notifying local authorities of their share of that additional £500 million. The intention is to use the 2011 school capacity and forecast information that was submitted to the Department by local authorities in August 2011. By using those data, we can ensure that the additional money is indeed allocated to those in greatest need.

Bristol’s capital allocation of the £800 million is approximately £9.36 million in 2011-12. In addition, in 2011-12 it has received more than £6 million in capital maintenance allocations, as well as £1.1 million in devolved formula capital. Therefore, Bristol is already due to receive £17.1 million of capital this year. Once we have allocated the £500 million, based on the 2011 statistics, other sums should be forthcoming to ensure that there are sufficient school places for primary school pupils, particularly in the Bristol area.

We have been working with stakeholders, including local authorities, to understand better their basic need forecasts and pressures. It is clear that some authorities face greater pressures, as the hon. Lady highlighted.

Does the Minister agree that the key point that the four MPs and the city council tried to get across to him in his office this morning is that, while there are several authorities around the country that face population pressure, Bristol’s pressures are more significant than those for the family of core city authorities and indeed outstrip the population growth of inner London? Of all the family of urban centres in the country, Bristol faces the greatest pressure from demographic change, and therefore has the greatest need and perhaps the greatest call on that extra £500 million of welcome resources.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point; it was made strongly at the meeting this morning and I took it on board. A 20% increase is significantly higher than most others. There are one or two areas—such as Plymouth, I think—that have a higher increase. Nevertheless, looking at the country as a whole, Bristol is significantly high in terms of its population increase in that age group compared to other parts of the country. That will be taken into account when we analyse the 2011 data, which will be used to allocate the £500 million.

As the hon. Member for Bristol East knows, last year the Secretary of State commissioned, from Sebastian James, a full and independent review of the Department’s capital programmes. That review has been published and the Secretary of State has commented on—indeed, has already agreed with—some of its recommendations. The recommendations propose a new approach to the future allocation and use of all available capital funding, including that funding continue to be prioritised to the provision of pupil places and addressing condition needs. The Department is consulting on the proposals made in the James review. In fact, the consultation ends today.

Future capital allocations and the management of funding for 2012-13 until 2014-15 will be informed by the outcome of the capital review. That was raised in this morning’s meeting by the local authority and by the hon. Lady. They want a degree of certainty about future capital allocations. The outcome of that consultation and its conclusions will, I think, steer her and her local authority in that general direction. 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 broadly in line with those allocated for 2011-12. I hope that that will help her local authority to engage in a planning process to help to eradicate the shortage of places in the Bristol area.

As well as radically reviewing the way capital funding is allocated and spent, the Government are continuing to press forward with their academy and free schools programme. That includes a focus on funding an academy solution for the weakest primary schools in the country. Bristol has a number of open academies. Indeed, I had a very informative visit to Merchants’ academy in July. The introduction of the academies and free schools programme should be viewed as an additional tool in the armoury of local authorities as they seek to eradicate any basic need pressures that they are encountering. By giving those involved in education the chance and the freedom they need to shape the future of our schools, and by opening up the opportunities for others to enter the education sector, we believe that we are offering an education system that will meet the needs of local communities.

The meeting this morning with the hon. Lady and other hon. Members who represent Bristol was very constructive and helpful. Officials will continue to work with local authorities to find a solution to the basic need problems facing Bristol.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.