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St Ives First School

Volume 596: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered plans by St Ives First School to become a primary school.

My constituents are fortunate in being able to choose from some of the best schools in the country—primary and secondary in the southern part of the constituency and first, middle and secondary in the northern part. They also benefited from the previous Government’s emphasis on driving up standards while promoting parental choice—policies for which the Minister deserves much credit, and which I am delighted he is taking forward in his new post in the new real Conservative Government.

Today’s debate centres on St Ives First School, a one-form entry first school, with a reception class, situated on the Dorset side of the Dorset-Hampshire border. It is rated outstanding by Ofsted, and has been for seven years. As a recognised national teaching school, it provides school-to-school support to other schools that seek improvement. Its head teacher, Mrs Laura Crossley, who has come to Westminster for today’s debate, is also an accredited national leader of education.

On 24 September last year, the Secretary of State agreed in principle to St Ives becoming an academy, and it has now been confirmed that the school will be a leading member of a multi-academy trust with five other schools, with effect from 2 November this year. For some time St Ives has suffered from turbulence and instability, because although it is geographically in Dorset, the nearest secondary school is about 1 mile away in Ringwood, Hampshire. Because Hampshire has a two-tier system, parents with pupils at St Ives have often opted to move into the Hampshire system early, to secure a Hampshire primary school place from which a transfer could be made to the Ringwood academy at the age of 11. Indeed, there are currently 141 children from the St Ives catchment area in years 7 to 11 at Ringwood academy. That shows how parents have been voting with their feet in recent years.

Prior to the new flexibilities introduced by the previous Government, the school could do nothing about that problem, but last year the governors decided to increase the age range, so that St Ives would become a primary school whose pupils could transfer directly into secondary education at age 11. After initial consultation going back to the autumn, a full proposal document was put forward to all relevant stakeholders on 24 February. I submitted a letter of support referring to the fact that 98% of the parents supported the proposed changes, which would also increase parental choice. A public meeting was held at the school during the four-week consultation period. Dorset County Council attended in the person of the cabinet member responsible for those issues, who did not say anything specific at the time. However, on the last day for written responses the county council put in its objection.

The governing body looked carefully at the results of the consultation and decided unanimously on 16 April, as it had the power to do, to increase the age range by one year in September 2015 and by a further year in September 2016. That reflected the finding that the parents of 19 out of the 23 pupils currently in year 4 would prefer their children to stay on at St Ives in September than to transfer to a Dorset middle school or a Hampshire primary. The St Ives governors recognised that that would mean that some children—perhaps as many as seven—who would normally have transferred to West Moors Middle School would no longer do so.

The local authority had suggested, wrongly, that 18 children were due to transfer from St Ives to West Moors Middle this September. The school’s records show that there are only 11 in that category. Two are going to West Moors Middle in any event and four have accepted places in Hampshire should St Ives not become a primary school. That means that if St Ives were to have its extra form from September, five children would no longer go to West Moors Middle School.

From the local education authority’s objection, one would think that the sky will fall in as a result. It talks about a middle school in Dorset having to close and about tens of millions of pounds of extra expenditure, and so on. That is complete hyperbole and an indication of how out of touch the education authority is with things on the ground. Indeed, we are now told that West Moors Middle School will be oversubscribed this coming September; parents of pupils who still show allegiance to St Ives are being warned that if they do not do something now, it will be too late for them to get into West Moors Middle in any event.

What was the response of the county council to the decision of 16 April? To begin with, the education authority tried to find fault with the proposed accommodation, site security, financial planning and the impact on the pre-school. It even threatened to issue a notice to improve. That led to a meeting at the school on 12 May when most of the grounds of objection were shown to be without foundation. Most fundamentally, the local education authority had to accept that St Ives was constructed as a primary school and operated as one until the county boundaries changed in 1974. It is also a strong school financially.

On 18 May, Mr Minns, head of learning and inclusion at Dorset, wrote to the chairman of the governors concluding that, following the discussion of the local authority’s concerns about the school’s management of the process to convert from a first to a primary school, those concerns had been satisfactorily addressed. That was subject to three caveats, one of which was to ask a local authority officer to

“undertake a new assessment of the space in potential readiness for September 2016”.

That was an implicit acceptance that the year 5 accommodation for September 2015 was readily available, as indeed it is. Understandably, the school believed that the education authority was, albeit reluctantly, accepting the decision, particularly when the 28-day period for objection laid down in the school organisation guidance for maintained schools expired. At page 10, the statutory process guidelines say that

“Any appeal to the adjudicator”—

in this case, the Secretary of State—

“must be made within 4 weeks of the decision.”

The Dorset County Council cabinet considered that issue on 8 April and concluded:

“The local authority will retain its right to refer to the Secretary of State should the decision by the Governing Body of St Ives First School, after consultation, not address the concerns raised by the local authority”.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I, of course, accept the principle and benefits of parental choice, but does he agree that the St Ives proposal should be properly co-ordinated and consulted on, as he was outlining, so that neighbouring schools that are affected, such as St Michael’s in Colehill, can make the necessary consequential arrangements in a timely fashion?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on being elected. He is absolutely right: we obviously need to have proper consultation, and that is exactly what happened. I have a letter dated 20 March from the head of Allenbourn Middle School, on behalf of the Dorset Association of Middle Schools, thanking the governing body of St Ives for ensuring that an effective consultation process took place within an appropriate time span and providing all stakeholders with the opportunity to express their views. Therefore, there was a full consultation, despite the county council’s reluctance to provide the pupil number data, for which the school had been asking for many months. The school was eventually able to obtain them only through a freedom of information request. There has been good co-operation with other schools, but I fear that the breakdown has been with the local education authority itself.

After the four weeks expired, people thought the local authority would have to go along, however reluctantly, with the proposal. On 5 May, I wrote to the leader of the council, Robert Gould, attaching a letter from a parent of a pupil at St Ives that was typical of many others I received. I drew attention to the Conservative principle of promoting choice in education, and I reminded him of our Conservative manifesto, which states:

“We believe that parents and teachers should be empowered to run their schools independently.”

It also states:

“We will continue to allow all good schools to expand, whether they are maintained schools, academies, free schools or grammar schools.”

Indeed, St Ives wishes to expand by increasing its age range.

After referring to the enthusiasm of the parents, governors and staff at St Ives about the introduction of a new year group from September, I sought the assurance of the leader of the council that the education authority would not seek to restrict the ambition of the school to extend educational opportunity further. In his response, the leader of the council referred to the lack of physical space for extra classes and raised questions about future finances. However, he said:

“Officers at the Council are keen to keep open discussions with the School”.

The meeting at the school on 12 May, to which I have referred, flowed from that, and I followed up the matter with the council leader with a further email on that date. Having heard nothing further, on 26 May I asked what was happening, repeating my earlier suggestion that it would be better to have a meeting to discuss things than to engage in an adversarial situation.

On 27 May, the council leader wrote to me expressing his continuing concerns. He relied on a note from somebody called Jackie Groves. The content of that note was in stark contrast with the letter from Mr Minns. I was going to refer to its inflammatory remarks about the quality of education at Ringwood School, the criticism of St Ives school governors and the school authorities for being

“extremely difficult to work with and reticent to provide information”.

Fortunately, Mr Minns confirmed this morning in an email to Mrs Crossley, the head, that the document was merely an internal memo and did not represent the official view of the authority. However, that is the document on which the leader of the council was relying when he objected to the proposal.

On 27 May, a letter was sent to the Secretary of State objecting to the proposal, but it did not arrive with the Secretary of State until 3 June. A second letter of objection was issued a couple of days later. Those letters of objection raise fundamental issues relating to the ability of a school such as St Ives to increase its age range. They ask for the Secretary of State effectively to go back on the “School organisation (maintained schools)” guidance.

I hope the Secretary of State will make a quick decision on this matter. The quickest decision would be to say that the objection is out of time, which would enable the school to get on with planning for the future. It would also enable other middle schools that might be implicated to make decisions as well. We are now in the second half of the summer term, and a new school year is starting in September. The education authority has said it is concerned about the implications for everybody else, but it has been dragging its feet over the whole issue.

If the Secretary of State is not prepared to reject the objection on the grounds that it is out of time, I hope she will make a decision quickly on its merits and conclude that the county council’s case is unfounded in fact, is contradictory within itself and would run counter to all the new Government’s principles relating to expanding choice in education and ensuring that good schools—in this case, an outstanding school—are able to expand, where that is the will of the parents and governors.

The proposal enjoys the support of 98% of the parents of pupils at St Ives school. I hope the Minister will help them to have a happy weekend by giving them some warm words of encouragement.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this new Parliament, Mr Streeter. This is the first Westminster Hall debate I have had the pleasure of responding to. It is an important debate. I should begin by explaining, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) mentioned, that the Secretary of State received a formal request from the director of children’s services at Dorset County Council to use her intervention powers in this case, under section 496 of the Education Act 1996. I will therefore have to be a little circumspect in my response to ensure I do not cut across her decision.

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for his supportive opening remarks. He is right to point out the last Government’s success in raising academic standards in our schools. Some 100,000 six-year-olds are reading better today than they would have done but for our reforms, and there has been a 70% increase in the number of students taking the core academic GCSEs that are so important for widening opportunities in later life. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) to his place. He is clearly keenly interested in issues of education, which are vital to our country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has taken a keen interest in this proposal. In the previous Parliament, the Department for Education brought into force a package of new legislation and guidance for maintained schools and academies that want to make changes to their size and characteristics. A national consultation broadly welcomed the Department’s proposals, which introduced a simpler, less bureaucratic process for schools seeking to make certain organisational changes—for example, expanding their premises or altering their age range by up to two years—without following the full statutory process.

The changes delivered two important objectives. First, they gave more autonomy to maintained schools by enabling them to propose their own changes, without having to look to local authorities to make changes on their behalf. Secondly, they allowed new school places to be created quickly in response to local demand.

St Ives First School published a proposal to become a full primary school for pupils aged four to 11 in February 2015, and on 16 April 2015, following a period of consultation, it announced its decision to become a primary school from September 2015. As my hon. Friend said, that change will involve the school extending its upper age range by two years, which will mean that its year 4 pupils will remain in the school, if they wish to do so, for years 5 and 6.

The governing body of St Ives First School stated that its main reason for proposing the change was to increase parental choice and respond to the wishes of the vast majority of the parents and carers whose children currently attend the school. As an outstanding school, St Ives is clearly popular. The school, which sits on the border between Dorset and Hampshire, also claims that many parents would not wish their nine-year-old children to travel to a middle school in Dorset if they could remain at St Ives First School until they were old enough to attend a secondary school in Hampshire. The school serves broad communities with diverse needs, and proposals for organisational changes to schools’ characteristics are often met with different responses from different parts of the community.

On one hand, St Ives First School is exercising its autonomy to make a change that it believes will benefit pupils and parents, and parents seem to agree. On the other hand, there may be wider concerns about ensuring an appropriate supply of school places throughout the local authority area. Value for money is clearly an important consideration, as is the need to plan change in a way that avoids impacting negatively on children’s education—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole.

We are aware that Dorset County Council has voiced concerns about the impact that St Ives’ proposed change might have on the wider system. The local authority believes that the changes proposed by the school will place it under significant organisational and financial pressure. It also believes that there is a need to operate a co-ordinated system in which children progress through its family of schools at the same time, and does not want to run a mixed economy. West Moors Middle School, the closer of two middle schools in the area, has expressed its fears for its future viability. The school believes that the change at St Ives may result in fewer children taking up places at the school, leading to financial pressures for the school.

It may be helpful if I describe the process that maintained schools must go through to effect a change of age range. Under the regulations that came into force in January 2014, this particular category of change is not subject to a statutory process. The governing body of a school is responsible for making a decision on its proposals and implementing them. The Department for Education has no role in the decision-making process, although it does ensure that certain requirements are met through its statutory guidance.

Before making any changes, governing bodies have to ensure that they have engaged in effective consultation, secured the capital funding, identified suitable accommodation and sites, and secured planning permission. They must have the consent of the site trustees—or the landowners when the land is not owned by the governing body—and of the relevant religious authorities in the case of faith schools. The admissions authority has to be content for the published admissions number to be changed, when that forms part of expansion plans.

Although governing bodies are no longer required to follow a statutory process for such changes, they are nevertheless required to adhere to the usual principles of public law: they must act rationally, take into account all relevant considerations and follow a fair procedure. The Department expects that, in making organisational changes, governing bodies will liaise with the local authority and the trustees to ensure that, where possible, a proposal is aligned with wider place planning arrangements, and that any necessary consent has been gained.

The Government are champions of school autonomy and will continue to support good and outstanding schools that seek to grow and expand to offer more choice to parents, which is why 1 million more children are in good or outstanding schools today than in 2010. However, we also expect that where change is proposed, it is planned carefully and ensures the minimum disruption to pupils’ education.

As I explained, the decision taken by St Ives First School is not subject to a statutory process. The Department has no direct role in the process. The decision was made as the result of a local process that officials and Ministers have no power to influence or prejudice. Additionally, the Department does not prescribe the process by which a school carries out its decision-making function, but decision makers must have regard to the principles of public law.

Would the Minister extend some of his words of wisdom and advice to education authorities? He has put the emphasis on schools that are coming forward with these proposals, but would he emphasise that there is a need for the education authorities to engage constructively and in a timely fashion so that, as far as possible, such issues can be resolved by consensus, rather than in the adversarial way in which this application has been dealt with?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Local authorities have to take into account the wider impact of such proposals on schools, but they should not refuse the local discretion of a school’s governing body to expand if that school has conducted a proper consultation and believes that the expansion will have a beneficial effect on educational standards. I do not want to make any further comments on this proposal, because the Secretary of State has to conduct a section 496 determination.

May I come back on one other aspect of what the Minister said? He referred to West Moors Middle School having raised an objection, but as I pointed out, that school is over-subscribed for the coming year, which reflects the fact that it is improving. Its latest Ofsted inspection resulted in a change of status from being in need of improvement to being a good school, which has added confidence. The consequence of St Ives First School’s decision is that people who have children there would still be able to opt into the middle school system in Dorset if they wanted to. The decision is not closing down choices and options, but expanding them.

My hon. Friend makes a compelling case on behalf of his constituents and St Ives First School. I will ensure that the Secretary of State and officials see the transcript of this debate before they reach a decision on the section 496 determination. One issue that will be taken into account is any delay by the local authority in deciding whether it is appropriate to intervene in these circumstances. All those matters will be taken into account.

May I press the Minister a bit further on the timescale? We are now in the second week of June and people need to know the decision of the Secretary of State sooner rather than later.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The letter from Dorset County Council was dated 4 June. I think that we received it on 9 June, and we will ensure that the Secretary of State responds as soon as possible. It is unfortunate that these matters have dragged on for so long, creating an element of uncertainty for pupils and parents at that school and surrounding ones.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.