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Primary School Places

Volume 567: debated on Monday 9 September 2013

2. What steps he is taking to ensure a sufficient supply of primary school places; and if he will make a statement. (900159)

We are spending £5 billion in this Parliament on creating new school places—more than double the amount spent by the previous Government over the same time frame. We have worked closely with councils on the reforms to school place funding, so it is now more accurate than ever before, targeting money to the places where the demand is greatest.

The Department for Education will be well aware of the concerns of parents in Walthamstow about the lack of school places, 400 of them having written to the Department. The only new school which has opened on its watch, a free school, has no outdoor play space. Are the Government happy, especially given the previous comments about sport, that this is good enough for kids in my constituency?

We are very proud of our record, not just across the country, but in the hon. Lady’s area. I looked at the figures in preparation for today’s session, comparing the amount of basic need funding under the Labour Government with the allocations during this Parliament. Under the previous Government the allocations to her authority were £1 million, less than £1 million, less than £1 million, and so on—£11.2 million in total over the previous Parliament. Under this coalition Government the allocation will not be £11.2 million. It will be £126.7 million.

Does my right hon. Friend think the policy of uncontrolled immigration pursued by the Opposition has led to some of the pressure that we see on primary school places in areas such as Rossendale and Darwen?

There certainly are pressures from immigration, and there are other pressures on the birth rate too. These pressures have been known about since 2003, and in spite of that the Labour Government took 200,000 places in primary schools out of circulation, notwithstanding the warnings from those now on the Government Benches.

We have heard an incredibly complacent answer from the Minister. In 2010 the Secretary of State promised a new generation of good small schools with smaller class sizes. Since then we have seen a trebling of the number of very large primary schools, and in the past year a doubling in the number of infant classes of more than 30 children. Does the Minister not regret the decision in 2010 to cancel Labour’s primary school building programme?

The hon. Gentleman needs to acknowledge, in fairness, that this Government are allocating more than twice the amount his Government allocated for basic need. He needs to acknowledge that his Government made a mistake in withdrawing 200,000 places from primary education in the period from 2003. If he really is concerned about our capital expenditure on schools, perhaps he can tell me whether the Labour party is planning to increase it.

It is time that this Government took some responsibility for their own decisions. They have been in power for three and a half years and we have a crisis in primary school places. Last week the Secretary of State told us that free schools would solve this. Next year only one in three of the free schools that will open will be primary schools. How does that solve the problem? Will he change course even at this stage and give top priority in capital spending for new school places in areas that need extra school places?

If the hon. Gentleman were doing his homework, he would know that the vast majority of new free schools are in areas of basic need and that almost half the free schools that we have just announced are in places such as London. I gently say to him that I did not hear an answer to the question of whether he is really suggesting that we need additional capital expenditure. What many in the House and outside will detect is the Labour party, in the same way as it did over Syria, offering criticisms but no serious policy solutions.

Further to my right hon. Friend’s answer concerning the impact of free schools, can he assure me that those that are planned in areas where the need may not be as acute will remain under review, so that any further capital investment can be prioritised to deliver the places that we need?

I can absolutely guarantee that we will continue to prioritise areas of basic need for free schools, and that we will make sure that we have the allocations of money to deal with the basic need problems left to us by the previous Government.

Will the Schools Minister welcome the willingness of Rotherham council to add to the money that the Department is providing under the basic need funding to allow Cortonwood infants school and Brampton the Ellis junior school to expand their places? Why is it that half the free schools open already are in areas where there is no need for extra places?

The second statement is simply wrong. The overwhelming majority of free schools are in areas of basic need. On the first question, I would be very happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss his specific proposal. We want to be as pragmatic and helpful as possible to councils that face these pressures.

Following the recent Public Accounts Committee report, it is clear to me that we have pressure on primary school places because Labour was obsessed with building landlocked expensive private finance initiative schools and decided to remove a quarter of a million primary school places during a baby boom. What is the quickest way for local communities to respond?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that from 2003 onwards, the Office for National Statistics was pointing to one of the biggest increases in the birth rate for many generations. Those who are now on the Government Benches were warning the Labour Government that there would be a real crisis in primary school places. In spite of that, 200,000 places were removed between 2003 and 2010. Labour Members will be pleased to know that almost all the 200,000 places have been replaced by this coalition Government.