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Secondary Schools: Newark

Volume 560: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2013

This is an important debate for Newark and the Newark area, and I thank the Speaker’s Office for selecting this subject. It is a pleasure to be working under your hand yet again, Mr Crausby. I thank the Minister and his assistants for finding time to be here today. Most importantly, I thank my constituents who have come all the way from Newark today to listen to us debate a subject I know is very close to their hearts. I have to rattle through my speech, because I want to leave the Minister at least quarter of an hour to reply to my important points.

This is a long-standing problem. I have campaigned on it three times under two different Governments. We in Newark do not have secondary schools that are fit for our children. It is the most important subject in my constituency. Although siren voices in the town talk about other subjects, this is 100% my first priority and will remain so until the problem is solved.

The difficulty is that although the fabric of the schools leaves a great deal to be desired—I will expand on that in a moment—the schools themselves are absolutely first class in the product that they turn out. The children are well-taught; leadership is exemplary; and the boards of governors are first class. It is desperately important that we build confidence in schools such as the Newark academy, which only recently became an academy, and the Magnus school, rather than simply criticising them, given that the criticism rests on the fabric of the school, not on the product being delivered.

If I undermine confidence in those schools and ensure by the words that I speak in this debate that parents do not send children to them, I will exacerbate the problem of the so-called Lincolnshire drift. I am trying not to get excited about it, but it is terribly difficult when children from Newark seek to have their secondary schooling in Lincolnshire or at schools such as Toot Hill in Bingham or the Tuxford academy rather than in their home town. The fewer children go to our schools, the less money those schools will attract and the more their fortunes will decline.

I must argue about the fabric of the schools, while trying to build confidence in the teaching delivered, in which I have huge confidence. However, there is a problem. For instance, the principal of Newark academy, who is here today, tells me that 180 places are available for the forthcoming academic year, yet only 91 applications have been made so far. The town’s two desperately important secondary schools are under capacity.

Mrs Sue Jenkins says:

“My concern is the environment of my year 7 daughter, who eats lunch squatted on the floor because the building she learns in fails her. Unless the school is rebuilt sooner, she and her cohort will do this for the rest of their time at secondary school. As parents, we do not expect our children to be mistreated in this way. We chose Newark academy because it is a great school in a great area, but the building is letting the school and the community down… Local council money has been used for years on numerous projects to patchily keep the failing structural fabric of the building going, throwing good money after bad.”

The principal, Mrs Karine Jasper, makes the point clearly:

“The Newark Academy, formerly the Grove School, has been seeking a new build for years. Everything has been done and is under way to ensure that all parts of the jigsaw are in place to catapult the school to providing an outstanding education. It is now an academy…a new board of governors is in place…the senior leadership team has been restructured, the students are ready to learn…staff are working hard to rapidly improve lessons and outcomes. One vital piece is missing—the building. This is urgently needed for the community. The final piece of the jigsaw is a building simply fit for purpose, where children are nurtured, success is realised and high aspirations are the norm.”

Those are two desperately heart-touching and important quotes from different parts of the community. The Minister knows that I appreciate that I am not pushing against a closed door—he is completely sensitive to such functions—but he will forgive me if I bring up an issue straight from the heart of my community. We could discuss all the technical stuff. I could talk about engagement, tranches, waves of money and so on. Can we cut through all that? Why is the rebuild of the academy taking so long? I do not know whether the Minister can answer that, but it is not as important as what we can do about it. How can we bring forward the rebuild?

The Minister is fully aware of what a difficult state the school is in. For instance, under the Building Schools for the Future programme, for which I hold no brief and I know he holds none, it was proposed that the Grove, as it was called at the time, would become a sample school. I humbly suggest to him that we might be able to resurrect that plan. I know that the schemes are in place. It might save time and money if we considered it. I ask him, with respect, to address the matter as urgently and carefully as he can in his reply.

That brings me to the fact that last summer, more than £2 million was spent on the academy. As we have heard, it was spent just patching it up. Yes, it is fit for purpose; yes, children can learn there adequately; but by golly, it is sensitive and difficult. For instance, I have recently been told that if more than 2.5 inches of snow falls, kids cannot be taught in the flat-roofed areas of the academy in case the roofs collapse. As a result, the school’s heating is concentrated in those areas to melt the snow. They may as well have a snow sentry standing outside with a ruler saying, “Ay up! We’re approaching two and a half—everybody out.” We cannot continue to lose teaching days at the school. It simply does not answer in the 21st century.

I could spend the whole of my brief time talking about the academy, but I must mention the Magnus school, which I also ask the Minister to consider. What plans does he have for refurbishing it? I understand that the Magnus school cannot be rebuilt—I love it, but that is not going to happen—but I cannot pass on without mentioning it, any more than I can without mentioning Toot Hill school in Bingham, which is not in Lincolnshire but which leaches students away from the academy and the Magnus school, despite being in barely better condition than the academy, from which it tends to take a large number of students. I would be awfully grateful if he shed the light of his countenance on that issue.

Last is the Exemplar free school. I know that the Minister is across the problem and understands it. I have terrible difficulty explaining to my constituents why, when the maintained schools are in such a state and under capacity, it appears that a new and completely separate school is receiving the go-ahead. I appreciate that that is not quite right, as the Exemplar school has been delayed by a year. It is also difficult to explain to people that the pot of money for the free school would never be accessible to the maintained schools in the town. I would be grateful if he referred to that in passing.

Before I conclude, so that we can listen to the Minister in detail, I will quote Mrs Elaine Winter:

“Note that many of the people who campaign hard are not going to have children that benefit from any build now as their children will be leaving before any bricks are laid, but they carry on tirelessly not because of their own self-interest but because they believe in the community at large. They are fighting to keep it from having its heart (the secondary school) left to rot.”

I believe in my community, as I know the Minister believes in his. Such schools are not good enough. The coalition is not delivering on the issue on which I campaigned so hard and for the sake of which, as the single most important issue, I was returned as a Conservative Member of Parliament with a 16,000 majority. The Minister says that he is a Gladstonian liberal. I am delighted and pleased. He will be in absolutely no doubt that the spirit of Gladstone lives on in the place where he was elected—namely, Newark. We would be absolutely delighted, if we cannot insist, for the Minister to visit at his earliest convenience, so that he can talk to constituents such as the ones who have come down to London today, to head teachers and others and see the problem for himself.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on securing this extremely important debate. He has been and clearly continues to be a strong advocate for high-quality schools in his constituency. He has raised a number of important issues today for his constituents and I will seek to address the three major areas during the course of my speech. He has also helped to tempt me to Newark in future by mentioning the Gladstone link that I should have known about but was not aware of, and I would be delighted to visit the constituency. I will be in trouble with those who organise me if I make any commitments to particular dates, but I would like to visit at some stage.

I am grateful for the opportunity to address some of these important issues. It is clearly not right for pupils and teachers to work in buildings in such poor condition that learning is disrupted and staff time is diverted from the necessary focus on teaching. Even if those two things are not happening, having high-quality school buildings sends out an important signal to young people and to those who teach in schools about the importance that we place on education. It can also help to raise the aspirations of many young people, in particular those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, if they are educated in appropriate settings. The Government regard this area as extremely important.

The coalition Government, as my hon. Friend hinted in his opening comments, had no alternative on coming to power but to bring to an end the previous Government’s wasteful, delayed and ultimately unaffordable Building Schools for the Future programme which, remarkably, did not prioritise those schools in the worst condition. That was not the central criterion to allocate funding under the programme. The Priority School Building programme that we have introduced will replace those schools in the worst condition; it will replace the 261 schools assessed to be the greatest priority on the basis of condition. In the majority of cases, those were not even in the previous Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme, which shows the stark gap between the previous plans and the priorities in many areas. In difficult economic times, we have to focus the limited resources that we have where they are most needed—on the repair and refurbishment of schools in the worst condition—and to tackle the urgent demand for new good school places as a result of the rising birth rate in large parts of the country.

Since May 2010, the Government have allocated £4 billion for the maintenance of the school estate to meet the needs of maintained schools and academies, and more than £5 billion to local authorities to support the provision of new school places. On 1 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced an additional £4 billion for the period from 2012-13 to the end of the Parliament. Over the Parliament as a whole, therefore, my hon. Friend can be pleased that the Government that we both support will have allocated some £18 billion for school capital investment, notwithstanding our difficult times.

We invited bids to the new Priority School Building programme from schools in need of urgent repair. We considered every application on a fair and objective basis, which involved officials visiting every school to validate the accuracy of building condition data. Two hundred and sixty-one schools throughout the country, therefore, will be rebuilt, or in some cases have their condition needs met substantively through the programme. As my hon. Friend is probably aware, 15 of those schools are in Nottinghamshire, including the Newark academy in his constituency. Nottinghamshire has more schools in the programme than any other local authority in England.

The Priority School Building programme is being delivered by grouping schools together into batches to ensure healthy competition for the work which will deliver value for money for the public purse. We expect to deliver the school works for considerable savings on the previous Building Schools for the Future programme. We will continue to investigate every option to accelerate the entire programme, but as far as possible the needs of the schools in the worst condition will be dealt with first. We are making good progress on the delivery of the programme. We have appointed contractors to build the first two groups of capital-funded schools, and construction work is expected to start in May. Contractors are currently tendering for the remaining six groups of capital-funded schools. Obviously, the first two groups consist of the schools that we consider to be the highest priority out of the 261 on the measures we used.

We are also working with the schools that we believe will form the first three privately financed groups. Work will start with further groups of schools later this year. We plan to release the first privately financed batch to the market in the spring, and further batches will be released as soon as possible thereafter. The programme is delivering a more efficient, faster and less bureaucratic approach to building schools. We have developed and are now using new baseline designs that are increasing efficiencies, and we have also reduced the regulations and guidance governing school premises.

The Education Funding Agency will commence engagement work with the Newark academy next year. The EFA will work with the school and other stakeholders to undertake a thorough study to determine the best way to address the condition needs, to manage the procurement process and to enter into the delivery contract.

Has the Minister factored in the likelihood of Newark being the subject of a growth point bid? That will give us an extra several thousand houses in Newark, attracting ready-made families and a large number—explosion is the wrong word—of extra children suddenly arriving inside the town over the next 10 years.

We have, and I shall come to that point specifically in a minute, when I touch on another issue that my hon. Friend raised in his speech.

I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that it is important to consider all options available to address the need at the Newark academy and to ensure best value for the public purse. Our current plan is to engage with the school, as I said, at the back end of next year, to ensure that we complete the academy building in 2017.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about spending to maintain the condition of the current school buildings at the Newark academy while waiting for the school to be rebuilt. Of course, all the 261 schools are in the programme precisely because they have urgent expected need—that is how we made the judgment on which schools we wanted to take and put into priority need. They are schools that otherwise we would have had to spend a huge amount on just refurbishing buildings that would eventually have to be replaced. I must also thank Nottinghamshire county council for continuing its support for the academy by allocating funds from its capital refurbishment programme to tackle the most urgent repairs at the site. Furthermore, I believe that we have committed some £170,000 through an environmental improvement grant to help fund some aspects of the works. I will ask officials to work with the school and the local authority on identifying sensible solutions to bridge the gap between now and the date when we are able to complete the school.

I understand that, as my hon. Friend indicated, there are proposals to rebuild the leisure facilities currently located adjacent to the academy on a new site, and funding is being secured to enable that. We are more than happy to work with him, the county council and the school on whether any economies of scale can be achieved in the school building project. In fact, we are already working with other local authorities to deliver facilities on their behalf as part of the Priority School Building programme.

I recognise that many other schools in the area have significant condition needs, and quite a number of schools that bid to be in the PSB scheme were sadly not successful. My hon. Friend expressed concern about the condition needs at Magnus and Toot Hill secondary schools. Although they did not apply to be in the PSB programme, their condition needs could be addressed through other funding that we have made available for maintenance work.

As I said earlier, the Department for Education provides capital funding to local authorities to carry out maintenance and repair work to existing school buildings. Nottinghamshire has received £27 million for condition maintenance in the last two years and will receive a further £9.6 million in the coming financial year 2013-14, with further money after that. In addition, schools in Nottinghamshire have received a further £5.1 million in devolved formula capital in the last two years and will receive a further £2 million in the coming financial year.

Toot Hill school is an academy and is able to apply to the Academies Capital Maintenance Fund for funding to carry out maintenance and repair work. The Department is currently providing capital funding of £392 million for academies to access in the coming financial year 2013-14. I understand that Toot Hill school has submitted an application for approximately £3 million for a new teaching block. That application is currently being assessed against the others that we have received from across the country and we expect to be able to notify the academy on the outcome of its application shortly, probably in April.

In addition we will use the information from the national programme of surveys that we are conducting across the country of every school to ensure that, subject to funds available in the next spending review period, those schools that need renovation will have their needs addressed as quickly as possible. By the autumn, we will have details about the condition of every school in the country—information on the condition of all schools was last collated centrally in 2005—and we are waiting for that survey data before announcing the capital allocations for maintenance for 2014-15 because we want them to be informed by the outcome of that survey.

We are pleased to have agreed with the Exemplar Academy Trust to delay the opening of the Exemplar Newark business academy to September 2014. In this case, both the Department and the academy trust judged that the plans for the free school had not progressed sufficiently for it to proceed to opening in September 2013. The academy trust came to that conclusion after reviewing early feedback from its consultation events. Parents told it they supported its plans to open a free school in Newark, but they wanted to know the precise details of location and the head teacher before requesting a place for their child.

I thank my hon. Friend for the time he has taken to talk to members of the academy trust about the local issues. I know that the trust valued the opportunity to talk to him, and his willingness to take part in local events that it has held to consult properly on the issue. Our priority must be to open free schools with the best chance of performing strongly from the outset. We are in agreement with the trust that opening later will give it the extra time it needs to develop and progress its plans. It will allow more time to identify a head teacher and to secure a suitable site for the new school.

Returning to a point that my hon. Friend made, the free school will help to reduce the number of pupils within the Newark catchment area currently attending schools outside Newark. In time, the school could also help to provide the extra school places that will be needed if the planned housing developments in and around Newark go ahead.

Setting up a free school is not an easy task, and I am pleased that the academy trust has recognised the challenges it faces and shown its willingness to be flexible in resolving them. We want the free school projects to meet local needs, to be realistic about the challenges they face and to take the lead in finding solutions to provide the best chance of enabling them to perform strongly from the outset and to deliver positive outcomes for pupils.

Can the Minister offer any crumb of hope to my constituents and me that the programme for the academy’s rebuild could be accelerated?

I must be straightforward with my hon. Friend. Our challenge is to try to deliver the programme in a sensible and prioritised way. Our current information about the schools in his area suggests that other schools are higher on the priority list. Senior people from the Education Funding Agency have been looking closely at the matter in recent months, and have already carried out some scrutiny, but unless we can change our assessment of the school’s needs compared with those of other schools, and accommodate some change in the batching arrangement—it is incredibly important to take them to market in batches, as he will understand—all we can do is move as rapidly as possible to put in place the plans that we are discussing. I assure him that I will do everything I can to move the whole programme forward—it was always a five-year programme—as early as possible. We want all the buildings to be replaced as soon as possible, but I do not want to give false hope to my hon. Friend.

I have said that I will ask my officials to communicate with the school and the local authority, and to look at the transition issues between now and 2017, which is our current working assumption. If there is any evidence of misjudgement in prioritisation, I will ask for another close look to see whether we can do anything, but that will have to be based on careful evidence because it would be inevitable that if one school came forward, others would go backwards because of our scarce resources. All the 261 schools that we have prioritised regard their challenges as real, and my hon. Friend can imagine their reaction if the dates that have been indicated to them slipped backwards.

I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the funding issues facing schools in his area. I am sure he agrees that it is important to focus our limited resources on those in most need. I hope that I have explained the transparent process to prioritise the delivery of schools in the programme. I congratulate the pupils, staff and parents at Newark academy on last year’s GCSE results which, despite the disruption to school life because of premises issues, continue a four-year upward trend which will, I am sure, continue to improve with the sponsorship of Lincoln college.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.