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Secondary Education (Skelmersdale)

Volume 589: debated on Tuesday 9 December 2014

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, for this debate on the future of education provision in Skelmersdale.

High-quality education unlocks choice and opportunity for our children and young people. We strive for the best education that we can possibly get for them. Skelmersdale is a town with a population of 36,000. Secondary education provision consists of one Catholic high school and two non-faith high schools. Lancashire county council is consulting on the possible closure of Glenburn sports college, which is one of the two non-faith schools and the only school located in the town centre. The proposal is for a phased closure of the school by 31 August 2016 and for pupils to be offered a guaranteed place at the other non-faith school, Lathom high school.

Glenburn faces possible closure for several reasons. It has only 850 pupils on its roll, and numbers have been falling for several years. The school budget this year fell into deficit, in part because of the falling numbers on roll. Attainment is below the national floor target. Added to that, the school is in special measures, and we await the outcome of the most recent Ofsted inspection on 25 and 26 November.

No one is ignoring that situation, but let us place Glenburn sports college in the appropriate context. Education professionals tell me that the school’s profile is disproportionately skewed towards the lower ability levels, which means that reaching the required national floor target attainment levels will always be a challenge. Lancashire county council’s own report states that

“Glenburn Sports College has more than twice as many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than any of its neighbouring schools.”

Furthermore, in the Ofsted inspection report of March 2014, we find:

“The proportion of students who are supported at school action is much higher than average…The proportion of students known to be eligible for support through the pupil premium is much higher than average.”

Glenburn sports college’s catchment area draws children from some of the most deprived wards in the country. I hear from parents and pupils, however, that Glenburn provides caring, emotional and pastoral support to create a positive environment for many children, including those who have been turned away by other schools and those from vulnerable homes with disruptive family lives, for whom school is their safest and calmest place. Children at the higher ability levels are also supported by Glenburn to achieve and to reach their exam results targets, and they have done well.

The school faces attainment and finance challenges, but it is important to understand the context in which it operates. Lancashire county council appears to have been somewhat opportunistic in the timing of its decision to deal with secondary education provision in Skelmersdale.

Parents are angry that the county council does not appear to have provided the support needed since Glenburn was placed in special measures, nor has it been given the time to improve its performance or for the intervention in years 7, 8 and 9 to show in the attainment levels. Other schools in the county have also faced deficit budgets, but they have been given time and support while addressing the financial position. This is the first year in which Glenburn has had a deficit, but no real help has been available.

That action is required is accepted, but the nature of the action being considered by Lancashire county council is opposed. The council’s approach to reorganising secondary school provision in Skelmersdale is fundamentally flawed. Proposed provision has the potential to fail present and future school pupils of Skelmersdale unless a different course of action is taken. The closure of Glenburn sports college simply appears to be the cheapest and easiest option; it is not necessarily the right option. I believe that it is not the right option.

Falling pupil numbers in Skelmersdale and throughout West Lancashire have resulted in the need to reduce the number of school places. What is shocking is that under successive and different administrations at county hall, the education authority has failed to deal with the impending situation, to deliver a proper structural solution to secondary education provision in Skelmersdale or to address the quality of that education provision. Of the 2,600 children of secondary school age, some 650 are educated outside Skelmersdale. That level of outward migration every day prompts the question of why parents choose to send their children to other high schools in West Lancashire on such a scale. It cannot be a surprise to those who are supposed to have been looking after those pupils and the level of education in Skelmersdale over the years.

It is recognised that Skelmersdale can support only one non-faith high school, but that is where the county council’s approach is fundamentally flawed. Lathom high school, the receiving school, also has a falling roll. In fact, as the education authority acknowledges, in two years’ time Lathom is likely to be in a similar situation to Glenburn, with about 450 pupils on roll.

The proposed closure of Glenburn only works, therefore, if a significant number of its pupils transfer to Lathom high school. If they do not, the viability of Lathom will become questionable in two years or so. The county has already acknowledged that it got its sums wrong when it excluded Up Holland high school from the calculations. If Glenburn parents choose to send their children to schools other than Lathom, it is not inconceivable that Skelmersdale could be without a non-faith school within three or four years.

Allied to that, the Minister knows that if a school is closed, it is a requirement that pupils go to a better- performing school. Lathom high school, however, is a school requiring improvement. Is that good enough for him? Lathom faces its own challenges to improve performance. In fact, had the authority acted in previous years on numbers or finance, Lathom might have been the school under threat.

Imagine trying to integrate pupils from Glenburn into Lathom high school while at the same time addressing existing performance challenges. Then add to the mix moving pupils from a town-centre school to a school right on the edge of town. The Minister should bear in mind that Skelmersdale is a new town, built on Radburn principles, with a labyrinth of subways instead of pavements. Children will face a 45-minute walk each way, with no identifiable safe routes, and many will have to walk to school because bus fares will be prohibitive in price for some Skelmersdale families, while other children will have to walk if they miss the school bus, because the school is not on a bus route. Closing Glenburn will also place uncertainty on the relatively new and popular community sports facilities, which have hosted many groups and users since the borough council demolished the one and only sports centre and failed to provide a replacement.

Some Glenburn parents are already seeking secondary school places other than at Lathom. That is happening now. I have had reports of parents of Lathom high school pupils seeking to remove their children from the school following the announcement of the consultation and the proposed solution. Even before a decision is made, the logic of moving Glenburn pupils into Lathom high school to prop up its falling roll is starting to crumble.

The proposed solution is fundamentally flawed, just as the process for making the decision is fundamentally flawed. From the outset, the management of the announcement and of the consultation process has not built trust and confidence. In fact, it has nurtured distrust and cynicism among parents. I will give a few examples of why parents are not filled with confidence about the process, beginning with the announcement of the consultation. It just so happened that the consultation on the possible closure was announced when parents were choosing their preferred school options, which made them think twice about making Glenburn their No. 1 choice. There was an Ofsted inspection right in the middle of the consultation period. Competitor schools actually took out advertisements in the local newspaper after the options closing date, hoping to sweep up the children from Glenburn. I have heard reports that county council officers told parents at the consultation hearings, to which people could go only if they made an appointment, that they would not be undertaking the consultation if the decision to close the school had not already been made—I paraphrase, but that is what the parents understood that they said. Not enough consultation books were made available to primary schools, families and the wider community.

There were only four questions in the consultation document. It asked the consultees, first, for their category; secondly, for their postcode; thirdly, whether they agreed or disagreed; and, fourthly, the reasons for their view. It was difficult to get the council cabinet member for education to meet the parents. When he eventually met 20 of them, he told them that they would have to come forward with alternative proposals for future school provision if they wanted to stop the county council proposal. That was not stated explicitly anywhere in the consultation document, so the parents did not know that they could offer a different solution.

I understand—this is a recent development; in fact, I heard about it only today—that the concerns about the transport, which I have mentioned and which were raised during the consultation, might delay the decision from March to late spring or early summer. I want the Minister to understand that the decision, which came out of the blue, has caused great instability, has affected children’s health and well-being in some cases, and has increased the pressure on staff.

I say to the governing body, the local education authority and the Minister that we need a pause. The governing body, the local education authority and the Department for Education must to work together. We need time to properly consider how best to serve the interests of Skelmersdale schoolchildren now and in the future. Perhaps the answer is to build a new school—preferably on a town centre site so the children can actually get to school—but, whatever the decision, we need to invest in the future of those children, and not run away or choose the quickest and easiest option. We cannot allow education bosses, whether in county hall or Whitehall, to gamble with the future of the children in Skelmersdale simply because it is the easy option.

I am pleased to have secured this debate. When the Minister wrote to me on 3 December, he declined to meet me because education provision, apparently, is nothing to do with the Department for Education. My constituents—those parents—do not understand that for one minute. The lack of accountability in the education system adds to the confusion and lack of trust when tough decisions have to be made.

I come to the nub of the issue. The Department for Education says that the decision must be made locally, but the local authority tells me that it must act as directed by the Department for Education. The parents and I were told that the governors decided to pursue the closure option, but I was also told that they were presented with a fait accompli and had no real choice because of the pressure from the LEA and the Department for Education. I have made freedom of information requests for much of that information, but I am still waiting. If I carry on waiting, my requests will end up with the Information Commissioner. Somebody is not telling the truth.

I have raced through my argument to try to get in as much as I can, but I will end on a simple message to all the participants in this farce: I believe they are all responsible and accountable. My constituents and I are angry, and the pupils are upset. I cannot believe that this is in the best interests of pupils. Education is about helping pupils to be the very best they can be. It is often referred to as value-added, but what value is added by playing pass the parcel with children’s lives? This is about their future, which is the only one they have got. We need some investment from the county, the Department for Education, the governors and the school. Everybody must get together to invest in those children. Do it now, otherwise a whole generation will be lost, and that is not right or fair.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) on securing this important debate.

I fully accept that the proposed closure of a school can cause great concern among the pupils who attend the school, their parents and the surrounding community, so I fully understand why the hon. Lady has raised this issue today. She set out her concerns extremely clearly. I will make some broad opening comments about the issues that she raised, then I will explain the process that we have to go through and the opportunities that there are to challenge the closure. I will finish by commenting on the situation at Glenburn and responding to some of the hon. Lady’s points.

Through statutory guidance and law, the Department has set out the long-established process that a local authority must follow when it proposes a school closure. That guidance and legislation clearly state that all decisions must be taken locally to allow those directly affected by the proposals to feed in their comments, and to ensure that they are properly considered during the decision-making process. The Government’s role is to agree and set national policy. We then allow local communities to decide how best to implement that policy. That approach allows local communities the freedom to develop the school system to best meet local needs. I can confirm that the Department for Education has so far received no representations from the local authority in Lancashire about this closure.

During this Parliament, we have invested more than £5 billion to help to create much-needed school places. As a result, last year there were more than 250,000 more places than there were at the 2010 general election. Ensuring that every child is able to attend a good or outstanding school in their local area is at the heart of the Government’s comprehensive programme of reform of the school system. In Lancashire, that has meant that the allocation for basic need funding, which was £23.4 million between 2007 and 2011, increased to £65.4 million in the current Parliament, and a further £17.4 million has been allocated for 2015 to 2017.

The School Organisation (Establishment and Discontinuance of Schools) (England) Regulations 2013 set out the process local authorities must follow when proposing to close a school. To be clear, the Department for Education has no direct role in the proposals to close a maintained school. It is a local process to allow local areas to make the right decisions in the light of all the relevant facts.

In January, the Department for Education published new guidance for maintained schools and academies that seek to make changes to their size and characteristics. Following national consultation, the Department set out in the guidance a new fast-track process for schools seeking to make certain changes—for example, expanding their premises or altering their age range by up to two years—without following the full statutory process. The one area that the revised guidance did not speed up was the proposed closure of a school. Ministers were clear that that is always such an important decision that no fast-track approach should be available. It is vitally important that all the elements of that type of proposal are carefully considered and analysed. Effective engagement with all the bodies that would be affected by the proposals should not be rushed through.

There are five stages to the statutory process for a proposed school closure, which I will set out so that the hon. Lady is clear about what the local authority will have to do. The first stage is consultation. The local authority or governing body must carry out preliminary, informal consultations with interested parties to consider a range of options, including closure.

The second stage is the publication of the statutory proposals. The school or local authority must publish the full copy of the proposal on its website, and a notification must be posted in a local newspaper and at all the entrances to the school. A statutory proposal must contain sufficient information for interested parties to make a decision on whether to support or challenge the closure—departmental guidance sets out the minimum that should be included. The proposal should be accessible to the whole community, so it should be set out in plain English.

The third stage is representation. Once the proposals have been published, a four-week statutory consultation or representation period follows, during which comments on the proposals can be made. Anyone can submit comments, which can be objections as well as expressions of support. The consultation period is a formal opportunity for individuals and organisations to express their views about the proposals and ensure that they will be taken into account by the decision makers. The consultation period must not be altered—for example, it cannot be shortened or extended to fit in with scheduled meetings, or to take school holidays into account. Every effort should be made during the consultation period to advise stakeholders of when the notice is likely to be published.

The fourth stage is the decision. All decisions relating to school closures are taken locally by the local authority or, in very limited circumstances, by the schools adjudicator, in order to allow those directly affected by the proposals to feed into the process at a local level. That way, decisions are taken by people who really understand the local area. If the local authority fails to decide proposals within two months of the end of the representation period, they must forward proposals to the schools adjudicator for decision. They must forward the proposals, including any received representations, within one week from the end of the two-month period. The Department does not prescribe the process by which a local authority carries out its decision-making function; however, decision makers must have regard to the statutory guidance when making a decision. All decisions must include reasons for the decision—irrespective of whether the proposals were rejected or approved—which should indicate the main factors and criteria for the decision.

The fifth and final stage is implementation. There is no maximum limit on the time between the publication of a proposal and its proposed date of implementation, but the circumstances may change significantly if too long a period elapses. In general, the implementation date for the proposals, which is stated in the statutory notice, should be within three years of their publication. Proposers may be expected to show good reason if they propose a longer time scale. I thought that the hon. Lady would find it useful for those regulations to be put clearly on the record. If she has any questions about the details, our officials would be happy to give her more guidance.

Let me turn to the particular case of Glenburn sports college. Lancashire county council launched a consultation on its proposed closure on 3 November, and that consultation is due to close on 14 December. Again, I stress that it is a live issue and that no final decision has been taken. The authority is under a duty to listen and respond to all the issues and concerns that are raised. It must ensure that any decision that it reaches addresses all the points that the consultation will inevitably raise, including some of the matters that the hon. Lady mentioned.

As I have already stated, once the stages of consultation, publication and representation have been completed, the local authority has a two-month window in which to make a final decision. Should the process take longer than that, the role of decision-maker will be passed to the schools adjudicator. I understand that Glenburn is a foundation school; as such, should the local authority decide to close it, the college’s governing body will have the right of appeal. Such an appeal would be heard by the independent schools adjudicator. It would be up to the adjudicator to review the statutory process that the authority had followed, as well as to examine the accuracy of the related information that the local authority had published in support of its case, including its impact on the final decision. While demonstrating transparency, the system underlines that the proposal, decision-making and appeals processes are all independent of the Department. It also demonstrates the levels of checks and balances that we have deliberately built into the system to allow schools and their communities to have their voices heard and to be an essential element of the final decision.

Local authorities are under a statutory duty to ensure that there are sufficient primary and secondary school places for all the children living in their area. In doing so, they should ensure that they achieve best value for money to guarantee the best use of resources. To enable them to achieve that, local authorities are not only under a duty to secure new school provision via the academy presumption when facing a shortage, but sometimes face the hard reality of a potential closure when a school may be surplus to requirements. That may be because of a lack of local demand for places, or because a school simply may not be delivering the required quality of education over a sustained period.

It is important that Lancashire county council diligently follows all the stages of the statutory process. It has sought to assure the Department that that is the case. As reflected by the hon. Lady’s comments, some of the difficulties experienced by Glenburn sports college over recent years are a matter of public record, including historical underperformance in GCSE attainment and a significant reduction in demand for school places from the local community, as well as being placed in special measures following an Ofsted inspection in March this year. Glenburn’s recent performance at GCSE is as follows: in 2010, 38% of young people achieved five A* to C GCSEs, including English and maths; in 2011, that figure fell to 29%; in 2012, it rose to 39%; and, in 2013, the figure was 41%. The data for 2014 will be released by the Department shortly, following appropriate checks. However, in spite of the hon. Lady’s comments about the proportion of disadvantaged pupils in the local community, which is a relevant consideration, I can say that, until now, the progress of disadvantaged pupils has been disappointing, which is no doubt why Ofsted has had concerns about the school.

Like other schools in the area, Glenburn has experienced a decline in pupil numbers between the 2005-06 and 2013-14 academic years. While some schools, such as Up Holland high school, have experienced a fall in pupil numbers of about 25%, Glenburn has experienced a particularly steep decline in pupil numbers, as the hon. Lady will know, of 54% over that time, which is no doubt one reason why the local authority is concerned. Nevertheless, none of those issues and factors, taken either individually or together, should mean that the school’s closure should be considered a foregone conclusion. Statutory guidance delivers a clear duty on local authorities to ensure that such proposals are carried out in a clear and transparent way. Local authorities must be measured in their conduct in order to ensure that all those affected are properly heard and able to voice their concerns.

I would urge all the students and families affected by the proposals to respond fully to the local authority’s consultation—as I mentioned earlier, there are still a number of days before it closes. It is only through engaging with that locally driven process that pupils, parents and the local community can ensure that their views are properly taken into consideration and have an effect on the decision-making process. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising her concerns about the proposed closure of the school and securing today’s debate on these important issues. I hope that I have explained to her the limits of what the Department can and cannot do, as well as the rules within which the local authority must operate. I am sure that her concerns have been heard by both her constituents and the local authority.