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School Places (Thurrock)

Volume 549: debated on Thursday 6 September 2012

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

This year, all over the country there has been a shortage of primary school places. I wish to highlight the issue of pupil place provision in the Chafford Hundred area of my constituency and address the human consequences of the state failing to deliver against the legitimate expectations of parents for a local school place. Before I do, I must welcome the Minister of State, Department for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws). It is his first time at the Dispatch Box for some time and I think that I speak for many hon. Friends when I say that it is good to see him back as a member of the Government.

In theory, we have a system for managing school place allocations in which parental choice is the guiding principle, but for too many parents in my constituency there is, frankly, no choice. The changing demographics of the area have led to insufficient capacity in the west of the borough, where the population is increasing, and over-provision in the east. The result is that parents, far from choosing schools, too often are expected to take what they are given, as inevitably the most popular schools are over-subscribed. This has been a particular problem in the Chafford Hundred area for a number of years.

To put the problem in context, Chafford Hundred is a settlement of modern, high-density housing that started to come together only in 1989. It is an attractive suburb, especially for families, and a self-contained community hemmed in by major roads such as the A13. It is widely accepted locally that when the modern housing was built insufficient attention was paid to ensuring satisfactory public service provision for the area. Complaints about inadequate GP provision and insufficient school places have been a common complaint ever since. This year the problem has been particularly acute.

The area’s changing demographics have been accelerated by the fact that rising property prices and inward migration have led to families occupying less space than would have been expected in the 1980s. Flats in Chafford that were intended for young single people are now occupied by families with children, which has led to increasing demand for school places. Taken together, these factors have made it a considerable challenge for the local education authority to ensure that the provision of school places keeps pace with demand.

This year the three primary schools in Chafford offered some 270 reception places between them. That number was short of the demand by 51. What has made that particularly difficult locally is the fact that many parents had no awareness of the under-provision and the news that they could not send their children to any of the three local schools that serve the suburb came as a real shock and caused considerable distress. Many of the parents have accepted the alternative places offered by the local council, but as of today there are six children without a place.

Thurrock council argues that reasonable offers of alternative places have been made to the parents. I would like to explore with the Minister what constitutes a reasonable offer. The parents object, in particular, to the fact that some of the school places they have been offered are more than 3 miles away from their home, distances that are clearly not walkable for five-year-old children. The area is also not well served by public transport. Furthermore, five of the six children had attended pre-school at the schools where they were seeking a place. Again, the parents had every expectation that their demands to stay at the schools would be met.

The parents are chastising themselves for being so naive as to assume that their children would automatically get a school place locally, but it really should not be too much to ask. All the families work hard and pay their taxes. The only things they expect from the state are to have their bins emptied, to be able to go to a local doctor and to have a school to send their children to. This seems to be one of the occasions when those who work hard, do the right thing and do their best for their families end up being poorly supported.

One of the worst outcomes is the degree to which this pits parent against parent in the scramble for a place when all are equally entitled. Indeed, one of the parents was told that the LEA cannot discriminate against people who are less articulate than they are, as if being one of the unfortunate ones who missed out on a place was not itself an injustice.

I have been impressed by the spirit that the parents have shown in continuing to press their case. Earlier this year, the children themselves went to Downing street to present a petition to the Prime Minister. The image of the children chanting “Walk to school” as they marched up Downing street will stay with me for some time. I am sad to say that the parents have largely been seen as a nuisance by the LEA and are very bruised by their attempts to press their case. They should not be made to feel that way. These people have not failed; they are victims of a failure by the state to deliver against their expectations. All they want is the best for their children, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In failing them, the local authority should not be causing further distress.

All of us, as public servants, need to be more honest about where we fail, because we will undermine trust in politicians and the state if we are not. Good leadership is acknowledging when something has gone wrong and doing something constructive about it, not shooting the messenger and hoping they will go away. I am sorry to report that members of the council have been more interested in debating the potential replacement of the GCSE than in exploring practical responses to this problem. It is incumbent on all local councillors to realise that it is their job to ensure that the authority delivers on its obligations rather than debate matters of national policy.

For my part, I am not satisfied that the offers made by the council are reasonable given the circumstances of these children. There are very strong reasons why parents are relying on a local school place. For example, Madison Horwood has a little brother called Mason who requires regular treatment at Great Ormond Street hospital, and her mother relies on her friends and neighbours to get Madison to school while she is taking Mason to hospital. Hayden Agambar has a little brother called Tommy who is attending pre-school at one of the local schools the children wish to attend. When his mother asked the council how she could be in two places at once, she was advised that as there was no legal requirement to attend pre-school she should remove Tommy from his place. That is not an acceptable response at all.

The appeals process should overrule the LEA where there is a strong case for doing so, and understandably the parents have gone through this process, but they report to me that the system lacked integrity. For example, Hermione Williams’s paperwork was lost twice. I am also advised that Thurrock council did not run the appeals process in line with the current guidance issued in February this year. Parents are meant to be given 20 days to prepare and lodge their appeal, but they were given only 14 days. Appellants are supposed to be given 10 days’ notice of their appeal hearing, but one parent received one day’s notice. Panel members overseeing the appeals were often not presented with papers until the day of the appeal. Another parent felt that the admissions officer made comments regarding her dealings with the council that were prejudicial to her getting a fair hearing. Furthermore, the rules say that an authority should not limit the grounds for appeal, but I am advised that Thurrock council’s letter to appellants tried to imply that they could appeal in only two areas. As a result of all this, the parents do not feel that they have had a fair opportunity to appeal against the decision made by Thurrock council and believe that the process was run in a way that would have only one outcome.

In the meantime, five of the parents of these six children still have no school place. The parents are considering developing ways of home educating rather than accepting the offers made to them, which they continue to argue are unreasonable. At the same time, they are worried that removing their children from school may not be the best thing for them. They are wrestling with a very distressing conflict that I am having to witness.

In the longer term, we can deal with these problems. We obviously need additional school provision in Thurrock and in the Chafford Hundred area, and I am pleased to say that the local community has got behind a proposal for a free school. I hope that the Minister will look on that bid with sympathy when it is ultimately submitted. I think that lessons have been learned from this episode. Certainly, as the population of Thurrock grows there will be much more focus on ensuring that we have satisfactory school provision in future.

In the meantime, we have to think about these six children. We are not talking about numbers but individual people: Hayden, Ava, Hermione, Madison, Holly and James. They deserve a school place. I am not generally in favour of forcing schools to take more children against their will, but we have nine reception classes in Chafford, and I would like to make one final appeal to see whether we can make every effort to get a school place locally for these children.

I look forward to the Minister’s observations on a very unhappy episode that I know has been repeated elsewhere in the country. I also invite his observations on how LEAs should ensure that they meet their obligations under the Education Act 2011 to ensure that there is adequate provision, particularly against the backdrop of free schools. Bids for free schools will be more forthcoming in some areas of the country than in others, but local authorities still have a responsibility to make sure that there is an adequate supply of school places. I would also welcome the Minister’s observations on what he expects of local authorities when they handle an appeals process and on what constitutes a fair hearing.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) for her kind words and congratulate her on securing this extremely important debate for her constituents. I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you and the hon. Lady will indulge me by allowing me to say that this is the first time since the recent ministerial changes that an Education Minister has appeared at the Dispatch Box, and I want to place on record my tribute to those who left the Department as part of the recent changes—my hon. Friends the Members for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) and for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes). They all made an enormous contribution to education policy, and many hon. Members will have benefited from the work that they did during their time at the Department.

I know, from my own time as a Member of this House, about the tireless efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock on not just education issues, but a range of things that are of great importance to her constituents. She has worked tirelessly on behalf of her constituents to raise the issue of school places in Thurrock. She has written to the Prime Minister, and I believe that she has received a response from the Education Secretary. She has also forwarded the local community’s petition on this matter. It is understandable that she is very passionate, as are her constituents, that children who live in Chafford Hundred should be educated in accessible local schools.

I will respond to the specific questions raised by my hon. Friend. I am grateful to her for giving me advance notice of her particular points. That has been extremely helpful for the departmental officials, who have contacted the council to get more detailed responses to them. I am grateful to those officials for engaging in that process over the past week and, indeed, for resolving some issues today after we discussed the matter this morning.

I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to start by setting out the national picture, which is relevant to the circumstances in her area and to the requirements placed on councils and the ways in which the Government are seeking to address her concerns. I will then address directly the specific local issues that she has understandably raised about her constituency circumstances.

It is unfortunately the case that currently there are simply not enough places at good and popular schools in some areas of high demand. The Government have shown that they are determined to tackle that problem, whether by addressing underperformance in our schools, by expanding the academies programme, or by making additional capital available in the areas of greatest demand. The Government are determined to give more parents a real choice, and that can only happen when every local school is a good one. Let me say a bit more about the steps that we have already taken to tackle the issue.

On funding, we are facing, not just in the hon. Lady’s constituency, but in particular parts of England, a sustained increase in the number of children of primary school age. Since 2002, there has been a continuous rise in the number of births in England and some areas are facing significant pressure on places, as she described effectively. We as a Government have inherited a serious challenge in the problem of growing numbers and we are determined to address it.

That is why, despite the very difficult economic circumstances that we inherited when we formed the coalition Government in 2010, we have prioritised funding to support the provision of additional pupil places where they are needed. We have doubled the rate of annual spending on primary school places from the levels that we inherited and, in addition, we have allocated a further £1.1 billion over the past year, bringing to £2.7 billion the total that we have made available to support basic need. That funding is provided directly to local authorities to help them meet their statutory duty to provide sufficient schools to meet pupil need. As my hon. Friend pointed out, so far under this Government, Thurrock has received £8.7 million in basic need funding, which is more than double the £4.1 million that the local authority received over the entire period of the last spending review under the previous Government.

Local authorities should be best placed to decide how to use that funding and will deploy a range of solutions to create additional places, from reconfiguring existing space to finding temporary or permanent solutions. Where necessary, they will provide transport to ensure that children can attend a suitable place. We are working closely with local authorities and will continue to work to reduce costs so that every single pound goes as far as possible in providing long-term solutions.

Obviously, as my hon. Friend will understand, the Department’s capital funding is limited and it is crucial that we target it effectively. That is why the methodology that we now use to allocate funding is focused increasingly on the number of spare places in the system, rather than more bluntly on the growth in pupil numbers. We are going further. For the first time this year, we are collecting information from local authorities that will provide a greater understanding of the more localised place pressures within a local authority, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. That approach will help us direct our limited capital funds to the local authorities where the demographic pressures are greatest, as she would expect.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of parents having a choice of good schools for their children. The law states that, where possible, parents will be offered a place for their child at their highest preferred school and have the ability to nominate at least three preferences. The Department for Education does not collect preference data on primary admissions. The 2012 secondary data showed that nationally 85.3% of parents were offered a place for their child at their first preference school, and 97.6% were offered a place at one of their preferred schools. In February this year, we published revised admissions and appeals codes that removed much of the bureaucracy that schools and local authorities previously faced in the admissions process. We have also ensured that they are easier for parents to navigate and understand.

It is, regrettably, a regular feature of the correspondence that the Department for Education receives from parents that they are unable to get their children into their choice of a good local school. The problem is that there are simply not enough places at good and popular schools, especially in areas of high demand. That means that local authorities need to make difficult decisions. It is essential that they do all they can to make reasonable offers to parents.

I am aware that many parents are offered the option of transport for their children when the school is a distance from home. Local authorities are responsible for ensuring that suitable travel arrangements are made for pupils who live further away from the school than the prescribed statutory walking distances, which are 2 miles for children under the age of eight and 3 miles for those aged eight or over. As my hon. Friend hinted, parents are of course nervous about using transport for young children, which is why we seek to increase the supply of places in local schools, as our constituents want.

As hon. Members are aware, regulations limit the size of an infant class during an ordinary teaching session to 30 pupils per school teacher. We have no plans to change that law, as the evidence shows that smaller class sizes can have a significant positive impact on the progress of pupils in that age group.

Parents can be given a real choice only when every local school is a good school. We are determined to tackle underperformance where it exists. This month, we are opening 282 new academies. International evidence shows that a more autonomous school system helps to drive up standards. We are also creating a system of school-to-school improvement. We expect all schools that are performing well and that apply for academy status to partner a weaker school.

Up and down the country, as my hon. Friend mentioned, free schools are being set up in response to parental demand for a school that meets the specific needs of the local area. They respond to a need for greater choice and better educational standards, and many of them are providing pupil places in areas with a shortage of school places as well as in areas of high deprivation.

I am aware that my hon. Friend is a strong supporter of the Gateway academy in its bid to open a new free school in the Tilbury area of Thurrock, and I congratulate all those involved in the successful Gateway primary free school development, which has opened as scheduled this week. I heard her other points and representations on the subject and will ensure that we keep the situation under close review. I believe that my colleague in the other place will lead on the free schools programme, but no doubt officials will note and pass on the comments that my hon. Friend has made.

On the other specific local issues that my hon. Friend raised, particularly those relating to the community in Chafford Hundred, I will address the concerns that she sensibly expressed in advance of the debate to enable me to look into those matters in more detail.

As I said, departmental officials have spoken to officers in Thurrock local authority to seek further information on the arrangements that they have put in place. They have told my officials that a significant proportion of the basic need funding that the council has received has been spent on providing additional places in Chafford Hundred. Some £2.6 million was spent on expanding Tudor Court primary school in time for the new academic year, and I understand that Thurrock council has undertaken a detailed piece of pupil planning work to examine demand over the next three to five years. It intends to publish it shortly for consultation, with the outcomes informing its spending plans. I fully expect it to engage with my hon. Friend in an early and constructive way to seek her views about those plans and ensure that they are informed by her views and her understanding of local priorities.

Of course, as we have heard, the priority for parents and children is securing a suitable place right now. I am certainly concerned to hear about the circumstances of some children who are not able to access schools. I am assured that all children in the area have been offered places to start school this September, although not necessarily in Chafford Hundred itself, as my hon. Friend indicated. Such decisions are always incredibly hard and must take into account local issues and circumstances, so it would be wrong to prescribe from the centre precisely what constitutes a reasonable offer. However, there is clearly a legitimate concern about what is reasonable in a local context, and it is absolutely right that she should have raised that issue today and that it should be a matter for debate. There should not just be an assumption that, provided a place can be offered within a particular area, that meets the definition of reasonableness.

I am concerned to hear that the parents of children in Chafford Hundred do not believe that they have had a fair opportunity to make their appeal. When parents believe that their appeal has not been heard in a fair and lawful way, there is a clear process for them to challenge the outcome on the grounds of maladministration. My hon. Friend mentioned the issue of parents getting only 14 days’ notice, which the Department’s officials have raised with the local authority. Our officials have been assured that the local council sent out letters offering the full 20 days of consultation, but I understand that council officials believe that the letters may have been held up in the post. I am sure the local authority will want to improve that situation in future following her powerful points on behalf of her constituents. As she said, it will now be for the local government ombudsman to investigate any outstanding complaints in this particular instance. The authority has stressed to my officials the steps that it has taken to comply with the statutory duties placed on it by the admissions and appeals codes.

In the case of documentation being issued late—another matter that my hon. Friend raised—the local authority has assured departmental officials of the steps that it has taken with affected parents to resolve the issue. Furthermore, the local authority has confirmed that checks are, or will be, in place to ensure—as far as possible—that such a situation does not happen again. The authority remains committed to engaging with the Department and with communities to ensure that best practice on admissions and appeals is fully incorporated, and to continue to improve the service that is delivered to communities.

I hope I have responded to some of my hon. Friend’s concerns. The key locally is to secure a proper, long-term solution that meets her reasonable expectations and those of her community. That is why the current detailed planning work is so crucial, and it is important that my hon. Friend engages fully with it once it is completed so that she can speak on behalf of her communities and express whether the work undertaken by the council meets expectations.

I assure my hon. Friend that I will take a keen interest in this issue, and I hope that she will contact me again if she feels in any way dissatisfied with how things progress.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.