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Schools (Bradford)

Volume 535: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2011

Thank you for chairing this debate, Mr Sheridan, and I thank the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), for attending. I would like to begin with a quote:

“Funding totalling £337 million has been secured after an outline business case by Bradford Council was approved by Partnership for Schools (PfS), the organisation which administers the Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF) on behalf of the Government.”

It continues:

“Kath Tunstall, Bradford Council’s strategic director for services to children and young people, said: ‘We are delighted that the final stage of the improvement programme has been given the go ahead.

We will now be able to provide the most up-to-date environment and facilities for all our secondary schools.

Bradford children will be taught in the surroundings and with the technology that their efforts deserve. This is marvellous news.’”

It did, indeed, seem to be marvellous news.

That was the lead story in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus on 7 April 2010, just one month before the general election. What a cruel deceit. It was cynical and mean. At the time, I was a governor of one of the 19 schools in phase 3 of the Bradford BFS programme, and I was pretty sure that it was all too good to be true—I think that many of us felt the same—and so it proved to be. It was an example of the sheer dishonesty of a Government who knew that they were going to lose the forthcoming election, promising the earth in the full knowledge that the new Government, of whatever political complexion, would never be able to deliver the BSF programme. It was shameful.

Unfortunately, the problems that the BSF programme was designed to remedy are still with us today. The reception year population in Bradford is increasing rapidly—in fact, we have one of the fastest-growing young populations in the whole country—which is having a severe impact on school places in our primary schools. Although, nationally, numbers in maintained nursery and state-funded primary schools started to increase in 2010, they have been increasing in Bradford since 2006.

A significant number of our primary schools are now full, particularly in the lower age groups in key stage 1, which will start to impact soon on key stage 2. To overcome the additional demand for places in primary schools, 28 schools—nearly 20% of our primary schools—have increased their published admission numbers. Do not forget that, year on year, we have already asked our schools to increase their numbers, but here we have 28 trying to respond, all in one go, to the increased demand. To accommodate the additional children, the schools have been included in a building expansion programme funded through basic need allocations. Bulge classes had previously been established, but a more permanent solution was required to help schools with their organisation, management of staff and classes, and to enable them to plan ahead. For all schools, an extensive programme of building works to provide additional accommodation incrementally over a seven-year period is required as the larger cohorts progress through the year groups.

The lack of information on capital allocations beyond 2011-12 means that the building programme has to be broken down into phases. Funding is only secured for phase 1, which will provide additional accommodation to cater for the children up to and including 2012-13. It should be pointed out, however, that a number of schools also have a backlog of maintenance issues. In phase 1, the council cannot address many of those issues due to the limitations of available capital. The figure for the backlog on repairs for primary and secondary is approximately £55 million.

Phase 2, for growing other year group capacity and beyond, will depend on available funding. Future forecasts also identify the need for further additional capacity over and above the current expansion programme. Additional problems have been caused by a reduction in pupil admission numbers at Catholic primary schools proposed by the diocese and governing bodies of voluntary aided schools. The reduction in places in certain schools and the desperate need for additional places is a double whammy. This is not simply an inner-city issue, as it is often portrayed. We are now experiencing difficulties in most areas across the Bradford district.

Although plans to provide additional capacity are in place, potential proposals and approvals of free schools in the district—of which the local authority has no knowledge at any one time—give rise to what can be described as tensions in the planning process, particularly where clear expansion programmes have begun to be delivered and there is a need to continue them through the older year groups.

Is it not true that Bradford has taken a very pragmatic approach to free schools? The local authority and all three parties on the council have decided to support the principle. There might be arguments about each other’s schools, but free schools will be members of the family of the wider school population. However, there are issues that affect that wider school population.

I have read some comments to that effect. They are not actually accepted in principle by the Liberal Democrat group, but I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. My point about free schools is about the difficulties they create for a strategic view of school admission numbers across the district.

We are also experiencing significant pressure in the secondary sector, particularly lower age groups. Numbers in secondary schools in Bradford started to increase in 2008 and are forecast to continue rising. As I understand it, that is against the national trend. Recent statistics on pupil projections identify state-funded secondary schools showing a decline since 2004, and they are expected to decline even further until 2016. That is not the case in Bradford.

Previously, there were plans to increase capacity at a number of secondary schools—I mentioned 19 in phase 3—through the BSF programme. However, the cessation of the BSF programme means that that route is not available. Alternative plans are being developed. The current approach, where possible—we have done this with our schools over a number of years with some success, and we have to pay tribute to the head teachers and governing bodies of schools for accommodating it—has been to request schools to admit year 7 pupil numbers above their pupil admission numbers. However, that is not a sustainable solution. It can only be done where there are gaps later up in the school years, and it soon exceeds capacity.

With the basic need allocation for the district fully committed to the expansion of primary schools at this stage, no funding has been secured to implement any plans for secondary expansions. It is estimated that, in addition to any expansions of existing schools, two further 1,000-place schools will be required in the next three to four years. Those two new secondary schools are required in Bradford in addition to the capacity potentially being introduced through known proposed free schools in the district—they are over and above. There is a tension between current place planning and proposed expansion programmes with the unknown quantity of free school places. We now have five free schools in Bradford and we do not know what will become available in the future. That creates the potential—perversely and inadvertently—to develop overprovision in certain areas.

As previously stated, we have information on capital allocations up to 2011-12 only. In the past, we had three-year allocations. The most recent announcement for capital allocations for 2011-12 was for one year only. Failure to be able to plan over a three-year period has led to considerable problems, such as the inefficient use of resources. Capital schemes have been broken down into smaller phases, which are proving more costly than larger schemes. On the ability to complete schemes on time, due to the late announcement of funding—I believe that there were big headlines in the Telegraph and Argus last week—it has proved difficult to contract and mobilise building contractors to complete programmes in time for the beginning of the new academic year. Hundreds of school days were lost recently as a result of schools opening late. On long-term planning, schools are finding it extremely challenging to plan ahead in terms of space, resources and staffing.

The only capital resource provided by the Department for Education for additional accommodation is basic need funding. That is based on the need for additional teaching space and is insufficient to deal with existing inadequacies of accommodation, or the provision of other important spaces required for the successful operation of a school—play space, dining space, space for whole-school gatherings, community space and so on. The indications from the James review are that space requirements are likely to be reduced, which is also a serious concern.

The methodology used by the Department to determine the allocation of basic need funding to authorities is based on the local 2011 school capacity and forecasting information return, which only focuses on a five-year forecast. Basic need pressure across the secondary school estate will only realistically become apparent by the end of that forecast period and will require addressing in the time frame of this funding announcement.

Bradford’s very welcome £7.4million allocation towards its basic needs will, I am afraid, be insufficient to cover the pressure on pupil places across both the primary and secondary school estate. In addition—I have referred to this—there are significant backlog maintenance requirements to bring existing accommodation up to suitable standards across Bradford’s existing school estate. Basic need funding is not provided to address this issue.

Although a new programme, the priority school building programme, was announced in July to deal with the most serious cases, only a limited number of schools in Bradford qualified to bid for that funding, given the criteria that were set. Importantly, none of the primary schools being expanded qualified, while some of the smaller primaries, as well as a smaller secondary school, Queensbury, did meet those criteria but declined to take part because of fears about the affordability of the private finance initiative deal on offer. Should the six secondary submissions to the PSBP programme—Aire Valley, Belle Vue boys’ school, Carlton Bolling, Oakbank and the two new schools—be rejected by the Department for Education, pressure on pupil places throughout the secondary estate will not be dealt with and the authority might well face difficulties in fulfilling its statutory duty.

As an aside, I can comment on one of the schools that I have mentioned, Carlton Bolling, where I am a former chair of governors. Although the backlog maintenance is only 30.71% of the total costs of a new build, the school currently has sections that are structurally unsound. In fact, some areas of the school are roped off and unusable because they are unsafe. Also bear in mind that the other schools were part of the reorganisation programme, which was when they most recently had investment, but at Carlton Bolling the previous reinvestment occurred as the result of a fire. The fire damage, however, was not to the classroom area but to the sports and dining room areas, so the heavy investment during that time was in the non-classroom parts of the school. The classroom area has not therefore received substantial investment and includes the part that I referred to as structurally unsound.

The purpose of the debate is to explain the need for support for Bradford schools, which are in dire need of capital investment, and to emphasise the scale of the issue. It is incredibly difficult to plan strategically for school places in Bradford, not simply because of the considerations that I have presented but because of the enormous difficulty faced by the council in meeting its statutory responsibility to provide the right number of school places in exactly the right areas, given the short-term capital allocations and a highly turbulent and mobile school population.

Recently, in questions to the Secretary of State, I pointed out that 60% of the children in a year 3 classroom that I had visited were not together in reception. Go to many areas, even in Bradford, and 90% of those who come into reception go on to the same secondary school. Our turbulent and mobile school population makes the dynamics of forecasting for future places very difficult. In addition, we have free schools supported in their desire to set up when and where they choose, the freedom of popular schools to expand their pupil admission numbers without having to consult their local education authority and school fears about the private finance initiative. I will welcome the Minister’s comments on such crucial issues.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) on securing the debate. Clarity on how the Government are funding and ensuring fairness and choice for parents and their children throughout the country is important. The debate is particularly timely, as the academies and free schools programmes gather pace and as we announce our additional basic need allocations for those areas deemed to be most in need, which include Bradford.

Bradford is playing an active part in the academies programme, with seven schools already open as academies and another 10 in the pipeline. Bradford has 27 outstanding schools, which offers an excellent basis on which to continue to drive up standards and school-to-school collaboration. Currently, two free schools in Bradford are open, both of which directly support local needs. The Rainbow free school aims to improve education quality for children in central Bradford and to reach out to children in challenging circumstances. The positive local reaction to the Kings science academy was reflected in a high volume of applications for places in its first year.

My hon. Friend mentioned five free schools altogether, and a further three are due to open in September next year, helping to provide new school places where they are most needed. However, I accept his point that the need goes beyond the supply provided by the new schools. What has been achieved is educational transformation, delivering professional autonomy and recognising the expertise of teachers and the best leadership in the country. That is what we hope to achieve through the academies and the free schools programmes. None the less, real challenges face Bradford, with its increasing school population and the capital expenditure needed to repair and maintain its schools.

My hon. Friend was right to point out the political dishonesty of announcing a major piece of school funding one month before there had to be a general election and when everyone knew that there simply was not the sum of money needed to provide such a scale of school building in any part of the country, let alone in one particular area. The Chief Secretary wrote on leaving office that “there is no money”. It was political dishonesty of the worst kind to make those promises in Bradford and elsewhere, writing blank cheques when there was no money to support them.

We are committed to providing practical support to enable Bradford to manage its pressures. On school places, the Secretary of State’s 3 November announcement on capital allocation included a further £500 million for basic need, in addition to the £800 million announced for the same financial year to reduce pressure on school places. As my hon. Friend said, that led to £7.4 million for Bradford, in addition to the basic need allocation of £10.3 million in 2011-12, announced last year. That is on top of the £45.9 million of capital grant for Bradford in 2011-12, which covers capital needs including maintenance.

On school buildings, the priority schools building programme, which was announced in July 2011, targets those schools that are in the worst condition or have severe basic needs. Four Bradford schools have applied, one of which is Carlton Bolling; as my hon. Friend pointed out, parts of that school are structurally unsound and cordoned off from use by pupils and staff. Each application will be assessed fairly on its merits and against the criteria. Once all applications have been assessed, the successful schools will be announced, which should happen by the end of the year.

On disadvantaged pupils, in 2011-12 the Government are providing a pupil premium of £9.1 million for more than 18,000 pupils in schools throughout Bradford. I was taken by the point made by my hon. Friend in oral questions concerning the churn of pupils in his schools—60% of the year 3 pupils had not been at that particular primary school in reception. However, we must still provide a high quality of education for those children. The pupil premium of £488 per pupil this year will increase over the next four years. We are doubling the total expenditure on the pupil premium next year, from £600 million to £1.2 billion, and it will rise to £2.4 billion by 2014-15. I agree with my hon. Friend that at all stages the processes of how decisions are made and how money will be spent to deliver real impact must be clear.

My hon. Friend raised his concern that local authority budgets will be top-sliced to pay for the academies and free schools programme. In the context of the pressures highlighted in the debate, I understand that concern, but I hope I can reassure him that no school, parent or child should be disadvantaged financially by academies and free schools. Far from disadvantaging other schools and breaking up the system, they will improve parental choice and ensure that all schools aim to raise their standards.

LAC SEG—the snappy acronym for the local authority central spend equivalent grant—enables schools converting to academy status to pay for those services that they previously received free from the local authority. To avoid the taxpayer paying twice for those services, the element paid to academies needs to be recouped from local authorities. How that recoupment is calculated and top-sliced from local authority grants is subject to consultation, and the Government will respond to that consultation and make an announcement in due course. The key is to ensure that local authority-maintained schools and academies are funded fairly.

The academies and free schools programme aims to meet demand for school places and to increase choice for parents and children. Our commitment is to ensure that parents and their children have a choice of school places, whether in maintained schools, academies or free schools. On performance, failure to secure high-quality education for pupils will not be accepted. The Government are committed to tackling underperformance. It is unacceptable that more than 200 primary schools have been under the floor standard in their key stage 2 results for five years or more and that more than half of those schools have been underperforming for at least 10 years. A further 500 or so have been below the acceptable minimum standard for three of the past four years. Those schools have let down repeated cohorts of children. We are starting work, as an urgent priority, on turning around the 200 schools nationally that have most consistently underperformed by finding new academy sponsors for them, so that they can reopen from September 2012. We want to work closely with the schools involved and the local authorities to ensure that that happens.

We have collective responsibility to make education provision more effective and efficient within the current economic climate. To do so, we must increase choice for parents and their children, so that they have the highest possible quality of education provision to choose from. Academies and free schools are a key part of that reform, but every education institution has a role to play. The security and predictability of front-line school budgets will be vital to that success.

My hon. Friend spoke about the importance of being able to plan for more than one year at a time. In December 2011, there will be another announcement on capital for future years, to address that planning point. We must ensure that there is up-to-date information, so that funding is targeted to the right areas. We are gathering that data now, so that funding can be targeted as accurately as possible on where the need lies.

We have announced that capital spending will be £15.9 billion over the four years of the spending review period, and I assure my hon. Friend again that no money is being diverted away from other schools to academies. Our commitment within the spending review is clear—to protect school funding in the system at flat cash per pupil—because even when funding is tight, as it is with the current imperative to tackle the country’s budget deficit, we realise that it is essential that buildings and equipment are properly maintained to ensure that health and safety standards are met and to prevent an ever-increasing backlog of decaying buildings that would be difficult and expensive to deal with.

We have learned the lessons of the private finance initiative contracts entered into by the previous Administration, but it is important that in being able to deliver the necessary capital expenditure we transfer some of the risk of maintaining buildings to facility management operations that ensure that those buildings do not deteriorate. That is the essence of the PFI arrangement.

The concern of the smaller schools—five primary schools and one small secondary school—seems to be affordability. Does the Minister have any words of reassurance for such schools?

I do not want to give assurance on a particular proposal, but in general terms schools must maintain their buildings, and when looking at whether something is affordable, the calculations often omit looking at what a school will have to spend on maintenance over the next five, 10 or 20 years. When assessing the value for money of a PFI arrangement, it is important to do just that, and not simply to compare the cost of building a school with a design-and-build arrangement within the PFI arrangements. It is important to take into account those long-term maintenance costs.

By stopping wasteful and bureaucratic Building Schools for the Future projects we have been able to allocate £1.4 billion to local areas to prioritise their maintenance needs, and that includes £195 million of devolved formula capital, which has been allocated directly to schools to use in line with their priorities. On top of that, we have allocated £800 million of basic need funding for 2011-12, which is twice the previous annual support, despite the fact that we are dealing with a very difficult budget deficit. As recent events in Europe have proved, we took the right decisions early on in this Administration to help to tackle that deficit.

Earlier this year, the Secretary of State announced an addition to the £800 million of a further £500 million to provide extra school places where there is greatest pressure caused by the increasing pupil population—that makes a total of £1.3 billion—because we recognise the importance of ensuring that every pupil has a place when they start school, whether primary or secondary school.

Future allocations and the management of funding for 2012-13 to 2014-15 will be informed by the outcome of the capital review, but the Secretary of State has already indicated that local authorities may expect the headline amounts of capital available in future years to be broadly in line with those allocated when we first announced the figures for 2011-12.

As well as radically reviewing how capital funding is allocated and spent in future, the Government have renewed their focus on finding an academy solution for the weakest primary schools in the country. In that respect, Bradford will be supported by the Department for Education in challenging underperformance and securing improved performance in schools that are struggling. The introduction of the academies and free schools programme should be viewed as an additional tool in the arsenal of local authorities as they seek to eradicate any basic need pressures they are encountering. We believe that giving those involved in education the freedom, flexibility and support they need to shape the future of our schools and opening up opportunities for others to enter the education sector will offer an education system to meet the needs of local communities.

Sitting suspended.