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Swaminarayan School Closure

Volume 645: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the closure of the Swaminarayan School.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I welcome the Minister to his place. We are all deeply saddened by the news of the Swaminarayan School’s closure after what will have been 28 years of academic, social and faith-based achievements. The school has consistently provided west London’s Hindu community with a space for gathering, education and growth. That is why so many parents have been in touch with me—concerned that they were not consulted, concerned that they have not had a chance to reply, and concerned for their children’s futures.

Pupils have flourished at the school since its founding in 1992, and it has turned out great leaders and thinkers from its fold. The Swaminarayan School has provided an invaluable service to the youth of our country, adding deeper meaning and purpose to their studies. It has nurtured an ethos of cultural diversity, and to this day adds richness and options to the breadth of British education. That diversity is part of what gives our country its reputation for being home to so many top-quality schools.

This academy in particular has met and exceeded the expected standards of a faith-based educational institution. No community, especially this one, could ever delight in the closure of such an institution. The Swaminarayan School has allowed students to receive a uniquely Hindu and British education, which grants them the opportunity to remain in touch with their heritage while getting a top-tier academic experience. There are no other schools in London that are the same, and we are losing an important part of our community’s culture.

As the school moves towards closure, perhaps it is time to recognise what it brought to the community. The students and their families deserve access to an education with the same ethos that Swaminarayan offered. The school had three main aims in its time. First, to provide a high-quality education, which parents are pleased to agree it did. Secondly, the school promoted Hindu values—values that I am proud chime with British values, but are uniquely diverse and tolerant. Thirdly, as an independent school, Swaminarayan was there to make a profit, and I am worried that the closure addresses that rather than the other two aims. There has, I believe, been a failure of communication, and the trustees and governors running the school have failed to fully explain why it is closing. Profit should be the last thing on the minds of those running any school, much less one with such an honourable mission as that of the Swaminarayan School.

I am pleased that on Monday the school publicly appealed to parents, and demonstrated a commitment to helping the children to complete their education. I am concerned about the details of the offer, and that the commitments being requested are unrealistic for many parents, but it represents a positive step forward. The failure to keep families properly informed of their plans to close the school has left dozens scrambling to find a new place for their Hindu children to receive a faith-based education.

Education is not meant for profit, and any organisation that fails to share that sentiment is not fit to run an educational institution. I sincerely hope that after this event, organisations such as the Akshar Educational Trust will prioritise the impact of its decisions on families over monetary considerations. The Akshar Educational Trust has stated that the reason for closing the school relates to regulations introduced by the Government, though I must express my disappointment in the revelation that money may have been a driving factor in the decision.

Closure has left many families and pupils disappointed and feeling left behind by those who should be fighting for them. My colleague, Councillor Ketan Sheth, and my constituent, school parent Parag Bhargava, have been vocal about their disappointment in the handling of Swaminarayan School’s closure. Parag rightly states that the school can and should remain open. Knowing that the future of one’s child’s education is unclear creates great stress for parents and families. Regardless of the dissatisfaction that those connected to Swaminarayan School have been feeling lately, they continue to fight for their children’s education.

I applaud the parents of students and all others who are campaigning to keep the school alive. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) has for many years been a fervent supporter of the school. She has taken great effort to work with the community—first, to oppose the closure and now to mitigate the worst effects. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) has also gone to great pains to work with parents and the community to seek a resolution.

The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) has long been a firm supporter of the Swaminarayan School, and I thank him for his interest in the debate. As leader of the council, he was instrumental in securing the site on which the school sits today. Without him we would not have the Swaminarayan School that we do today. Other councillors in Brent and from across west London have contributed time and effort to the cause of the school and trying to secure its future. I cannot name them all, but I would like to thank them all. I also thank the trustee Dr Mayank Shah, who kindly gave a briefing to me lately.

Parents have taken a stand too, and many have bravely agreed to take on the responsibility of running the school and finding a solution to keep it from closing. That spirit of dedication and community reflects the great respect that people in the local area have for the school. Parents from my seat of Ealing, Southall and as far as Hounslow want to keep the school open. It is worth fighting to keep its doors open. Even though the future seems unsteady for the institution, those who care about the cause press forward.

Whatever happens, we will not forget the achievements of the Swaminarayan School. Its legacy will have a lasting impact on the Hindu community in Europe. As a Hindu school, it was the first and only one of its kind in Europe for many years. Although we welcome the success of other Hindu schools, the Swaminarayan School has offered a unique learning environment apart from the mainstream.

I am sorry that I missed the beginning of my hon. Friend’s well-informed and interesting peroration. He talked about other parts of west London supporting the Swaminarayan School. Certainly in my constituency of Ealing North there are many supporters. The Swaminarayan School was the first school that I am aware of to incorporate yoga as part of its teaching curriculum, and also to be a completely vegetarian school. Does he agree that we can learn much from the Swaminarayan School?

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution, which speaks for itself. I fully agree with him that the contribution that the school has made to society in general is great.

I will fight to ensure that the Hindu community of west London continues to have its needs met, despite the closure of an essential part of that community. The end of the Swaminarayan School is a great loss, but we are not lost. The community will continue to call for what it needs, and the Hindu community in west London is stronger than ever.

Before I call the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), by leave of the mover of the motion and the Minister, I strongly remind him that the Minister has to have adequate time to reply. Bob Blackman.

I congratulate my honourable friend, the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), on securing this important debate. I, too, made a request to the Deputy Speaker to have a debate on the subject. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I was leader of the council when the Swaminarayan School was created, and a large number of my constituents have children educated in the school, so there is a twin aspect to my interest.

We also need to remember the history of the site. Before the school became the Swaminarayan School, it was Sladebrook High School—a notorious school, which was state run. By the time it closed, there were more teachers in the school than children. It had failed dismally as a state school and had to be closed by Brent Council. It was then sold to the Swaminarayan Hindu Mission as a means to provide what was required at the time—as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall mentioned, the first Hindu secondary school in the area and, I believe, in the country. Unfortunately, successive Governments failed to make the school state-aided, and it has been a fee-paying school ever since.

Parents demanded a Hindu ethos to their children’s education—and quite rightly, too. Other Hindu schools have been set up in north-west London, and I am delighted that we will very shortly be celebrating the opening of the first state-funded Hindu secondary school in my constituency, in September, when that site formally opens. Parents now face a choice: they can send their children to state-run schools with no fees at all or send their children to a fee-paying school.

Swaminarayan School has been an outstanding school and has had the best results at public examinations of any school in Brent. It has been an outstanding success. However, in these times, parents find it very difficult to afford the fees and that has led to the need to make decisions. The school buildings are in a relatively poor state of repair and need substantial moneys to bring them up to modern standards.

I have a number of questions for the Minister that I hope he will deal with in his reply. The Swaminarayan School has made a decision to close. It could have closed this month, which would have been a disaster: more than 377 children would have no place in education and their education would be completely disrupted. The governors have made a decision to close the school over a period of time; they are not allowing new admissions and are running the school down.

What help can the Minister offer the parents of those children who want a school place elsewhere—not necessarily in Brent, but in the wider area—in a school that will have a Hindu ethos? How can the Minister work with the Avanti Schools Trust, the trust that runs the state-funded Hindu schools? What can the Minister offer to enable those parents and children to get places in schools?

The site has been a school site forever. I mentioned Sladebrook, which was set up a very long time ago when the Stonebridge estate was built, and it has been a school site ever since. What protection can my hon. Friend the Minister offer to ensure that the site is preserved for educational use? There have been all sorts of rumours about the intentions. My understanding from the trustees is that they wish to retain the site for general use related to the Swaminarayan Hindu Mission and they are not in the position of wanting to profit or make money from the site, but I would ask nevertheless what protections we can ensure are offered. What advice might the Minister be able to give to the local authority in that respect?

Thirdly, various rumours have reached me about the Avanti Schools Trust wanting to set up a Hindu school in Brent. That has been welcomed by parents in Brent who want a Hindu ethos for their children’s education and it would give more parental choice across north-west London. However, it is suggested that there is a surplus of places in Brent schools at the moment and therefore setting up such a school would be resisted. I understand that there is a potential proposal for a school to be set up on what is loosely called the Northwick Park site. That is an opportunity for the matter to be advanced, which would help residents of Ealing, Harrow and Brent to get a Hindu-ethos education, if they so wish.

The governors have made the decision. I ask the Minister what comfort can be given to the parents of children in the school who are asking whether they could advance the idea of a free school run by parents. What would the process be for that?

With that, I will sit down. I hope the Minister will kindly answer those points, which the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall has also raised, so we can give parents some answers at a crucial time for their children’s education.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this important debate and on his opening comments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) is, of course, right that the Government’s academies and free schools programme has enabled a number of Hindu faith schools to be established in the state sector for the first time, as free schools set up by organisations such as the Avanti Schools Trust. He pointed to a new school opening this September under the free schools programme. There is also the Avanti House Primary School in Harrow and the Avanti House Secondary School, which were opened under the free school programme—the secondary was rated good by Ofsted in May 2018. There is the Krishna Avanti Primary School in Croydon and the Krishna Avanti Primary School in Leicester, again set up under the free school programme.

There are more than 2,300 independent schools in England, and between them they provide an enormous variety of educational experiences for our young people. Around 7% of children are educated in the independent sector, which is a significant contribution to our education system. Some schools in the independent sector will close and some will open. The independent sector also has a number of faith schools, which bring their own distinctive flavour. Schools with a religious character also play a strong and positive role in the state-funded sector, making up a third of all schools. They are some of our highest performing schools and are often popular with parents, giving them greater choice and the opportunity to pass on their ethos to their children.

Although the independent school sector as a whole is flourishing, with broadly constant numbers of schools and pupils over the past few years, it is inevitable that there will be changes. Every year, a number of independent schools close—usually about 70 or 80. Other schools open their doors in broadly the same numbers, but the profile of the sector tends to change over time in response to a number of factors, including market pressures. We should not forget that independent schools, whether run by charities or as businesses, operate in the marketplace. The decision to close an independent school is a matter for the owner or proprietor alone, except for the small number of cases when the Government seek to close a school because of a serious and extended failure to meet the independent school standards; that has not been the case for the Swaminarayan School.

Unlike state-funded schools, independent schools do not have to go through an approval process before they close. Although the owner or proprietor is asked as a matter of courtesy to inform the Department for Education that the school can be removed from the register of independent schools, there is no obligation to give the Department any details of the reason for closure. The Department passes what it knows to the relevant local authority, in case the closure results in demand for state-funded school places.

It is, of course, always a priority, whenever an independent or state school closes, to ensure that alternative schools are found for the pupils. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East is absolutely right to raise that important issue. It can be a very difficult time for families, and sometimes there are added time pressures. Families were told about the closure of the Swaminarayan School well in advance. That is not often the case, and it will assist parents who are currently sending their children to the school.

I turn to the closure. Although the school is not in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, it is likely that many children from families in his constituency attend it. Naturally, those families will have found the announcement of the closure disappointing. It is a reasonably sized school: in January 2018, it had 420 pupils, although only 377 are expected to be there this September, and it caters for an age range of between two and 18 years. When it was inspected in 2014, the Independent Schools Inspectorate found that the provision was excellent. The October 2014 report says the school

“enables pupils to obtain excellent standards in their work and to develop outstanding qualities as young people”.

It also says:

“Both at GCSE and in the sixth form, pupils benefit from first class curricular arrangements, and from a wide-ranging programme of activities”.

That reflects what the hon. Gentleman said. As I said, there is no requirement to give the Department specific reasons for closure, but our understanding from statements supplied by the trustees is that the reasons are primarily financial, and that falling pupil numbers are the driver. The closure of all parts of the school is now planned to take place in 2020, to give parents the maximum amount of time to find alternative schools.

The school has a designation as a school of religious character and a declared religious ethos of Hinduism, although not all the pupils who attend are of that religion. It is right to acknowledge that the closure of a school with a specifically Hindu ethos is a matter of regret, simply because at present there are relatively few other schools of that nature in England. There are two primary academies, four free schools and an independent school. Most Hindu children attend schools in the state or independent sectors.

As I have suggested, there is nothing the Government can do to stop the closure now that the trustees have taken the decision. We do not fund independent schools, and nor do we come to arrangements that are designed to help them overcome financial difficulties. That is what being independent is about; it is not just about giving schools greater freedom to operate in the way they want.

I am sure the school will work closely with the local authority and parents to ensure that alternative schools can be found for the children who are still at the school in 2020. I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East about the site. If it had been a state school, there are particular provisions to ensure that the first option is for it to open as a free school. As it is an independent school, I will write to my hon. Friend in technical terms about whether there are provisions in statute that can enable the site to continue to be used for educational purposes, or whether it is free for the owners to dispose of as they wish. I will write to him to confirm that position.

I have listened very carefully to what the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall said. The priority over the next two years must be to ensure that the pupils who would have been at the school in 2020, had it remained open, are found alternative places.

One of the questions I asked—I apologise to the Minister, because they were not necessarily expected—was: what assistance can the Department give to parents who wish to set up a free school, if they wish to pursue that route? There are 377 pupils in the school at the moment.

We give a lot of help to groups that wish to set up free schools. The New Schools Network is the starting point of that help; once a proposal is in play, we will allocate an official in the Department to help it come forth. A number of Hindu free schools have already been established through that process, and I am happy to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), if they want to meet to discuss particular proposals for a Hindu free school to replace the Swaminarayan School.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.