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All Saints National Academy, Walsall

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2016

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

I welcome the opportunity to have this Adjournment debate about the school in my constituency that is now called All Saints National Academy. On 1 February, I took a deputation to see the Schools Minister, who will reply to this debate, at the House of Commons regarding the condition of the school. In August last year, the Secretary of State wrote to me stating that what was known as Bloxwich Church of England Primary School, run by the local authority, was immediately to become an academy.

When the deputation met the Minister on the date that I mentioned, he was informed that a bid had already been made, in time, to the Education Funding Agency, under the condition improvement fund, for essential work to be undertaken. The deputation, which included the new management of the school from the diocese of Lichfield—Church of England, of course—and the head of the primary school, explained, as I did, the dilapidated state of much of the building, and how necessary it was for the work to be carried out at quickly as possible.

During the meeting with the Minister, as he will no doubt recall, a video was played where the pupils explained that they were happy to be at the school but urged that the work should be done. I was very impressed, to say the least, as I think he was, by the way in which the pupils participated. The disappointing news, hence this debate, is that the bid—that is, the bid for the financial year 2016-17—has been unsuccessful. One can imagine—at least, I hope he can imagine—the effect on the staff, parents, and of course the children. The current number at the school is just under 300—298.

The school was originally built in Bloxwich in 1862, and further sections were added on over time, mainly in the 1920s. Anyone who saw it would not be surprised that the school was originally built in that year. The documentation sent with the bid included a comment from a visiting building professional, who said that

“the internal environment is without doubt one of the worst I have seen in almost 30 years of looking after schools”.

One can imagine the number of schools that that building professional would have visited and seen, many of them in a state of disrepair, and yet he made that comment.

So what about the condition? Why did the building professional make that comment? Why was the bid made? I have made a number of visits very recently to look at the situation to make sure that I had it clearly in my mind. There is damp virtually everywhere in the building, including classrooms. Indeed, it is difficult—as the Minister knows, because he has visited—to find somewhere in that building, constructed as long ago as 1862, that is not damp. Apart from the damp, in three classrooms it is simply not possible to open the windows. That is bad enough in many months—except, obviously, during the winter—but it is unsettling when, as is to be expected, the weather turns very warm in the lead-up to the summer break. It is impossible to open the windows, which means that the ventilation is awful.

What about the toilets? They are unsuitable and cracked, and the girls toilets are totally unsatisfactory. One of the female teaching staff said that she would not want her daughter to use such facilities. Anyone who looked, as I did, at those toilets would understand precisely what she meant.

The cloakrooms are damp and mouldy. The gym, which should play an important part in a school, is an illustration of the state of the whole building, with damp walls that are full of holes and covered in peeling plaster. That would have been seen as unacceptable 100 years ago, let alone in the 21st century. When I asked, as one inevitably does, what could be done in the meantime—whether some temporary work could be done—the response was that patching it up would be simply money wasted. That goes for the whole building.

Yesterday, I received a letter from the man who was headteacher from 1970 to 1991. He said that when he saw photographs of the school in the local press, he was horrified by the present conditions. He went on to say—this shows the extent to which the school has deteriorated over the years—that the school was not fit for pupils or staff. How right he was.

What now? The bid has been unsuccessful, so what will the Government’s response be? The Education Funding Agency is, after all, very much part of the Department for Education. It is at arm’s length, so Ministers can say, “It is all a matter for the Education Funding Agency,” but it is made up—I am not criticising the staff or the chief executive of the organisation—of civil servants. It is simply not acceptable for any Minister or Secretary of State to say that bids are made and decided accordingly by the organisation. The Government must take responsibility. Academy or otherwise—however much there is a controversy at the moment; I will not enter into that tonight—the fact is that the funding of all that is involved, such as the school building and the staff salaries, comes from the same source. That is not in dispute. It would be unfortunate if the Government’s response was simply to say tonight that another bid could be made for the next financial year. That would not give much satisfaction to those involved, to say the least.

I invite the Minister to visit the school and see the position for himself. I hope that he will accept that invitation and that, although I have no doubt that he has a busy schedule, he will be able to do so in the near future. He would certainly be welcome at the school. If that visit occurs, he might wish to bring with him senior officials from the Education Funding Agency.

Let me make this point, so that there can be no misunderstanding. Despite the conditions that I have described, which are certainly unacceptable, fine work is being undertaken by the teachers at All Saints National Academy. I have only the greatest praise for the way in which, day in and day out during the school week, such dedicated work is carried out by the teachers, the head and all the other staff involved in the school. However, let me simply say that no member of the Cabinet or, indeed, of the Government as a whole—or, for that matter, any Member of the House—would wish their children to be educated in a school that is as dilapidated as the subject of this Adjournment debate. The inevitable question is: why should my constituents be in a position where their children go to a school that cries out for such work to be undertaken?

It is simply wrong that such a building can be allowed to continue in such a dilapidated state. Despite all the documentation—the photographs, the quote that I have read out and everything else—the bid, which was certainly in on time, was unsuccessful. I therefore hope that the Minister can provide some reasons to be optimistic about the possibility that the essential work will be undertaken. I should explain that the bid, which is for only half the work, was for some £1.3 million. All the details will of course be known to the Minister who is replying. We shall hear what he has to say, but as far as I am concerned, I shall continue to raise this subject at every opportunity until the work is undertaken. I consider that I have a duty and a responsibility to the children, the parents—my constituents—and the staff involved.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on securing this debate on the building condition of All Saints National Academy in Bloxwich in Walsall. His dedication to the schools in his constituency is well known. We met and spoke about this school earlier in the year, as he has mentioned. He spoke today with the same clarity and passion about the condition of the school as he did during our meeting in February. I recall watching the video that he and teachers from the school presented at the meeting.

The condition of school buildings is vital for our education system. It is not enough for buildings just to be safe; pupils should be educated in smart, well-furbished environments that reflect the value that we, as a society, place on their education. By 2021, the Government will have invested some £23 billion in school buildings, targeting funds where they are needed most.

Our priority is to ensure that the capital maintaining the school estate is delivered with the best value for money possible. To this end, the property data survey completed in 2014 has given us an improved understanding of the condition of school buildings in this country. The survey, the most comprehensive of its type ever undertaken, has provided us with consistent, independently assessed information on the comparative condition of 18,830 schools and colleges. This information can now rigorously inform our allocation of condition funding, ensuring that funding is much better aligned with maintenance needs across the school estate. We are now looking at options for gathering and maintaining usable data about the condition of the school estate over the long term, building on the successes of the property data survey.

Five academies in Walsall have successfully secured funding for their maintenance projects from the condition improvement fund, including Goldsmith Primary Academy in Walsall North, which secured funding for a roof replacement. In addition, Walsall local authority has been allocated over £2.2 million in 2016-17 to improve the condition of its own maintained schools, and almost £700,000 has been allocated to voluntary-aided schools in Walsall.

In 2015-16, we funded a number of projects in the west midlands that have now been successfully completed, such as the Aldridge school, a science college in Aldridge in Walsall. At this school, we funded a project to replace approximately 1,400 square metres of roofing on an existing building to improve the roof coverings, which were failing. That included making roof areas watertight to prevent water ingress into teaching areas, and providing additional roof insulation to improve the thermal efficiency of the building.

At Hamstead Hall Academy in Handsworth Wood in Birmingham, we funded the refurbishment of an existing block, re-roofing the building, replacing existing windows and repairing concrete elements in the façade. The project has enhanced the thermal performance and watertightness of the structure, and it will reduce energy costs and maintenance costs and create an environment conducive to teaching the schoolchildren.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the condition of the All Saints National Academy school building. I was pleased to meet him and school representatives on 1 February, and I would be delighted to accept his invitation to visit the school in the near future so that I can see at first hand what I saw on the video in February.

In December 2015, the school applied to the condition improvement fund. Following an assessment against the published criteria, the application was unsuccessful because there was, as I understand it from officials, insufficient supporting evidence to demonstrate significant condition need.

Did the officials actually visit the school? As I understand it, they did not: it was done on the basis of paperwork. If I am right—if not, the Minister will correct me—would it not have been appropriate to have visited the school, bearing in mind the condition outlined in the documentation?

My understanding is that many hundreds of applications have to be processed. Data from the property data survey inform the decision, and officials look at the information supplied as part of the bid.

Yes, they do visit schools. When I come to that issue in my remarks, I will make some recommendations about what can be done in the future.

The total sum of national funding is, of course, limited—that is the issue we are debating—so the Department has to employ a rigorous prioritisation of funding projects to ensure that all schools are safe and in good working order. For that reason, applications are expected to include independent condition surveys and detailed photographic evidence to demonstrate the urgency and extent of the need for their proposed project, as set out in the guidance to applicants. I recall discussing that at our meeting.

In this instance, the supporting case for investment did not provide enough evidence to allow the bid to be funded, including suitable evidence that a well-developed and deliverable solution is in place, which represents good value for money. Of course, that is disappointing for everyone involved with All Saints National Academy—I understand that it is disappointing for the parents, children and staff—but we need to ensure that all bids are assessed against the same standards. I hope that the feedback will be helpful to the school in preparing a future bid. We expect the bidding round for the next condition improvement fund to open this autumn, for the following financial year.

All applicants from the last round have been provided with feedback on their applications. If All Saints National Academy feels that it would be helpful, an Education Funding Agency adviser can visit the school to provide additional feedback and advice on submitting a bid next time. If the academy considers that due process has not been followed, there is, of course, an appeals process, which will close at 12 noon on 10 May.

First, I am pleased that the Minister has accepted the invitation to visit the school. I hope he will be able to do so in the very near future; perhaps he will indicate whether that will be the case. We are now at the end of April, so will he be able to do so by June? Secondly, do I take it that, between now and the submission of bids for the financial year 2017-18, there is no possibility whatever of finance of any kind being given to try to improve the situation?

That is my understanding. The funding available for the last bid round has been allocated. It is allocated in a very strict order and in accordance with all the criteria—the hon. Gentleman is aware of those criteria. Failing an appeal over process, that will be the position.

As I said, I am very happy to visit the school. I think I can give the hon. Gentleman a commitment to do so before the end of the summer term, so before the school rises for the summer break.

I know the hon. Gentleman said June, and he drives a hard bargain, but I am meeting him halfway. I will commit to visiting the school before it breaks for the summer holidays.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to air this debate. He is certainly fulfilling his duty as a conscientious Member in bringing this issue to the House. I am happy to visit the school and to discuss the matter further.

The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) will pursue this matter over and over again, until his school building is refurbished to his satisfaction. This much I think we know.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.