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Voluntary-Aided And Church Schools

Volume 83: debated on Friday 19 July 1985

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

2.25 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of the funding of voluntary-aided and church schools and especially the problems of two schools in north Oxfordshire, the Blessed George Napier school and Bishop Carpenter school. I am also grateful for the support today of other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Minister for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris).

As I was educated at a Quaker school run by a religious minority, I am well aware of the contribution that religious and church schools make to the richness of education in this country. I have no doubt that Conservatives have a continuing commitment to seeing church schools flourish as a purposeful demonstration of our desire not only that parents should have the widest possible choice in the education of their children but that they should be able to see their children educated in such a way as to encourage regard for Christian values and to instil self-discipline, courtesy and respect for others, and I know of my hon. Friend the Minister's support for church schools.

Church-aided schools depend for funding of building projects on three sources—the relevant church authorities, the local education authority and central Government. Before any building or improvement project can go ahead, the support of all three sources is required. In north Oxfordshire, we seem to be experiencing difficulty in getting money allocated from central Government to provide for necessary improvements at two local schools.

The Blessed George Napier school in Banbury is a Roman Catholic secondary school for children throughout north Oxfordshire. It sets high standards, it is a popular school and it is not suffering from falling rolls. The local population of Roman Catholic children wishing to attend the school is likely to remain stable at least until the turn of the century.

In 1968, the then Secretary of State for Education and Science approved the enlargement of the school by about 150 places and the number of pupils duly increased by about that number. It has not been possible, however, to carry out the building works necessitated by that increase in numbers. The school urgently needs upgrading to meet the standards laid down by the Department of Education and Science guidelines, and I ask for nothing more than that the necessary funds be made available to enable the school to meet the standards set by the Department itself.

There is an urgent need for additional classrooms, accommodation for the sixth form and increased space for science, crafts and art. The need for that work to be carried out without delay is obvious. Architects' plans have been prepared and costings made. The Roman Catholic diocesan authorities are anxious that the work should be carried out as soon as possible. Oxfordshire county council is also anxious that the work should be carried out as soon as possible. In truth, I know that the Department of Education and Science recognises that the case is well made, as officials from the Department who visited the Blessed George Napier school on 27 March readily conceded the need for that work to be carried out.

Yet no money is forthcoming from the Department. Why? The reason is that money has been made available only for schools in areas of population growth or for schemes that are intended to remove surplus school places. It is claimed that this project, the Blessed George Napier, does not fall into either category, so money has not been made available.

I simply make the following brief points to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science and to the House. If these criteria continue to be applied rigorously, funds will never be available for school building works, however urgent they may be, in areas of stable population. In any event, Banbury as a town has a consistently increasing population and is one of the main areas of intended population growth——

It being half past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

in the Oxfordshire structure plan. Furthermore, the building works at Blessed George Napier are needed in any event to accommodate and increase in the school's population that was agreed by the Secretary of State for Education and Science as long ago as 1968. I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to see whether money can be made available for this project now, and certainly to make funds available for Blessed George Napier from the 1986–87 programme for voluntary-aided schools. I would also put this question to the House. Whatever this project might cost now, how much more will it cost the community by being delayed?

Bishop Carpenter school at North Newington near Banbury is a primary school which presents a similar problem. Bishop Carpenter is a voluntary-aided, Church of England primary school. It has about 95 pupils who are drawn from a number of nearby villages. It has a high overall reputation, and a number of parents express a clear preference to send their children to this Church of England school.

For a considerable number of years, the governors of the school have wanted to improve its buildings. While structurally sound, it is an old Victorian school with very limited space which, not surprisingly, restricts teaching and other school activities. Some of the facilities, such as the lavatories, are positively primitive. The teaching area available and the hard playing area are both well below that which is recommended nationally. As the school has no hall, there is very little opportunity for physical exercise and drama productions, and meals have to be taken in the classrooms. The headmaster has nowhere private to interview parents, and the staff have nowhere of their own.

This school is seeking to serve the best educational needs of the local community but its buildings are desperately in need of improvement. The church now has the necessary funds. This project is at the top of the Church of England's diocesan priorities for Oxfordshire. The county council is prepared to meet its share of the necessary funds. Likewise, the project is at the top of the county's application for moneys for church-aided schools. In short, wheher or not these urgent building works can go ahead is dependent on central Government.

For a number of years now, Oxfordshire county council has applied to the Department of Education and Science for such funds as may be necessary to tackle this work. Year by year, these funds have not been forthcoming, and consequently year by year the project has slipped. Year by year the present facilities continue to deteriorate. The parents and governors have drawn up plans to improve the school that will retain all the best features of the present building while ensuring proper facilities for a mixed, three-class primary school.

To fulfil the needs of an active, living village school with high educational standards and a high reputation in the community would, I should have thought, be exactly the sort of objective that the Department of Education and Science would want to meet. Simply to look at this matter local education authority by local education authority inevitably means that well-deserving individual projects are neglected within those local education authorities which overall may have falling rolls, even though some schools within an LEA, such as Bishop Carpenter, may have expanding numbers, in less than adequate conditions, because parents have chosen to send their children there.

I very much hope that the Department of Education and Science will be able to make available as soon as possible the necessary money for its share of the work on Bishop Carpenter school.

2.34 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Bob Dunn)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) on his success in obtaining the debate and on the way in which he presented his case so fully and forcefully. I am grateful for the presence of my hon. Friends the Members for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris) and for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) who both share the Government's concern that the controlled and aided sector should be maintained and supported.

Before turning to the detailed points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, I should like briefly to set the scene by saying something about the role of voluntary schools within our maintained system of education. There are about 25,000 maintained primary and secondary schools in England—maintained in the sense that local education authorities meet their day-to-day running expenses. The majority of these were also provided by the authorities and are known as county schools. However, a substantial minority—just over 8,000 or about a third—of maintained schools were provided by voluntary bodies, principally the churches. These are the voluntary schools.

There are three types of voluntary school. The most numerous are aided schools of which there are about 4,500. Certain capital and external repair work remains the responsibility of the governors of aided schools, for which they are generally entitled to 85 per cent. grant from the Department. In view of that stake in the continued financing of such schools, the foundation concerned has a majority on the governing body, which has significant powers in maintaining the school's distinctive ethos. Secondly, there is the historically closed class of about 100 special agreement schools which, for most purposes, can be regarded as aided schools.

Thirdly, there are about 3,500 controlled schools. For present financial purposes, these are similar to county schools where all recurrent and capital costs are met by the maintaining authority. In view of the initial provision of premises, though, the foundation has a substantial minority on the governing body, which has certain powers to preserve a distinctive ethos for the school.

The great majority of voluntary schools have been provided by the churches, for historical reasons, principally by the Anglican and Roman Catholics. Religious affiliation is not a prerequisite, though, and there are several non-denominational schools.

These voluntary schools were brought into the maintained sector by the dual system of county and voluntary schools created by the Education Act 1944. The Government have said on a number of occasions, and I am glad to repeat it, that they are wholly committed to the dual system. We welcome the diversity that voluntary schools bring to the maintained sector, which enables a wider range of parental preferences to be met.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury spoke eloquently about the case for major building projects at two aided schools in Oxfordshire—the Blessed George Napier Roman Catholic comprehensive school. Banbury and the Bishop Carpenter Church of England primary school, North Newington. Neither has yet found its way into the necessary building programme. Funds for such projects are not, of course. unlimited. One of the main aims of the Government's economic policy is a permanent and sustained reduction in the rate of inflation, because only in that way can we generate the wealth needed to pay for services. Central to that policy is a continuing limitation of public expenditure both by central and local government; education cannot be exempt from the need for restraint.

The available resources have therefore to be allocated carefully to priority projects. Let me explain how we set about that. Each summer, the Department invites local education authorities to submit details of capital expenditure plans for their county and voluntary schools in the following year. In aggregate, those plans inevitably exceed what the country can afford. We are therefore faced with difficult decisions in the face of conflicting priorities. In that process, our priorities have been, first, to meet commitments arising from projects started under allocations made in previous years. This accounts for a large part of the resources available. Account has then to be taken of new projects needed to enable authorities to make sufficient provision for the children in their areas. In areas of population growth calling for more places in local schools, a high priority is given for an appropriate capital allocation whether for new schools or extensions to existing ones. In recent years, we have always been able to meet the bids for such projects.

In addition, when statutory proposals have been published for the removal of surplus places and approved by my right hon. Friend, and when these include a related capital project, we have generally been able to provide a capital allocation so that the work can go ahead to fulfil the new duty created by the Education Act 1980 that the proposers—the governors in the case of an aided school—must implement an approved proposal. Allowance has then to be made for urgent minor capital projects. Only then can consideration be given to improvement projects which, although they may be worth while in themselves, are less pressing than the other categories that I have outlined.

The level of committed expenditure on aided school projects anticipated for 1985–86 is higher than our plans had allowed for. This was for a number of reasons. For example, costs have in some cases risen more than expected, initial estimates may have proved to be too low and work may have gone ahead faster than planned. Even though the provision for all work at aided schools was set at £50·1 million—compared to the outturn of £44·8 million in 1984–85—this has put severe pressure on the new work that could be programmed for 1985–86. Governors' plans for work at aided schools, by contrast, totalled over £90 million. Priority had to be given to projects that were statutorily necessary—that is, basic need projects or projects required to implement proposals approved under the 1980 Act.

In its bid for the 1985–86 programme, Oxfordshire listed three major aided school projects. In priority order, these were the St. Augustine's Roman Catholic/Church of England secondary school and then the two my hon. Friend has mentioned—Bishop Carpenter and the Blessed George Napier.

My hon. Friend suggested that we do not consider individual projects when making capital allocations. He will realise from what I have said that we examine carefully each project which comes to us so that we can decide whether it comes into one of the priority categories. The St. Augustine's project, to which the local education authority gave first priority, came within one of the priority categories and it was then authorised to start. In the light of the representations made this afternoon and in earlier correspondence by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, I readily acknowledge the desirability of the other two projects. I can assure him that there is no lack of awareness of local views on the need for these projects. The fact remains, however, that neither of them could be classified as the high priority needed for inclusion in this year's programme. It will be of little consolation to my hon. Friends, but many other similar worthwhile projects had to be excluded this year. Indeed, many areas had no major projects selected for a start this year.

I might add that, as a normal part of our management of resources, we keep a shortlist of projects that we would be prepared to authorise to start this year if resources became available through the delay or cancellation of a project elsewhere. The project at the Blessed George Napier school has been added to that list but, as my hon. Friends will understand, even if resources are so released, much depends on an assessment of the relative priorities of those projects on the list. Clearly, I can offer no guarantee that any shortlisted project will be able to go ahead this year, let alone those under discussion.

Failing that, my hon. Friend would obviously like me to give some assurances about the inclusion of either project in the programme for 1986–87. Much as I would like to help him, I cannot. All I can say is that, if, in response to the annual invitation made last month, Oxfordshire puts them forward again—as seems most likely—they will be very carefully considered. That consideration will obviously have to be informed by the overall level of resources available and take account of the merits of competing projects in Oxfordshire and elsewhere.

I am, of course, available at any time. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury will appreciate that I cannot go any further at this stage, but I congratulate him on so clearly placing before the House his constituents' needs and interests.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Three o' clock.