HC Deb 22 January 1968 vol 757 cc177-84

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

10.44 p.m.

Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Mahon)

I wish to raise the urgent question of the need for a new primary school at Strensall. I do so for two reasons: first, because of the denial of adequate facilities for education for primary children in my constituency—an inadequacy which will grow much worse in the next few years—and, secondly, because this case illustrates the lack of co-ordination of information within the Ministry, a lack which makes the Department disregard local know-lodge of educational needs in different parts of the country.

Strensall is a village of about 1,000 inhabitants, just six miles north of York. There is a large military camp near the village and the children there would, if conditions were adequate, like to attend the local primary school.

The primary school building is over 100 years old. It was designed to accommodate 100 children, but there are at present in that school about 170 children. The building cannot take that number. Therefore, at some period of the day, 140 of them are crammed into the school—and I use the word "crammed" because, to do this, the teachers have to use a passage room to take one class. That means that the teaching there is constantly interrupted by people going to and fro on their normal business.

For the remainder of the children, for the last six years one class has been taken in the village hall. It happens that the playgrounds here are inadequate. They are divided into three small sections where the children cannot possibly be properly supervised. They are also dangerous. So the P.T. class is taken in the village hall, thereby upsetting the provision of the pre-school training. The nursery school ought to be going into the village hall, but that is interrupted by the school having to be there.

As there is no dining hall at the school, the children have their dinner in a dining hall which is about a quarter of a mile away in the opposite direction. There is, therefore, the position in which the village hall is a quarter of a mile from the school in one direction and the dining hall is about the same distance in the other direction. Again, as the conditions are so inadequate, the dining hall has to be used for a class directly the dinners have been cleared.

That is the present inadequacy of the school. The teachers have to cope with the problem of a primary school dispersed over three separate places, the very point which paragraph 1083 of the Plowden Report brought out as being such a great drawback.

This is a growing problem. The development of Strensall has been delayed because there have been no adequate sewerage facilities. None the less, in the last two years 65 new houses have been built there, and at the moment planning permission has been granted for another 61 houses, making 126 in all. The sewerage scheme will be completed early next year, and plans are being made for the expansion of a village of 1,000 inhabitants to one of, on various estimates, 8,000 to 12,000: it will be expanded by, perhaps, nine or ten times.

In view of these facts, the North Riding County Council, the education authority, in its 1968–69 programme, put Strensall down for a new primary school. Unfortunately, it was struck out by the Minister. North Riding County Council estimated that if the school was in the 1968–69 programme it would be built in time for the new expansion. Not deterred, the county council put the school in its 1969–70 programme. To its consternation it was again struck out by the Minister. The President of the Board of Trade, when Secretary of State for Education and Science, wrote to me on 8th August last explaining this decision. He said: I am told that the new sewerage scheme is not likely to bring more people to Strensall until 1970–71. As the new sewerage scheme is being completed in 1969 and as, already, plans have been made for a large housing estate in the area something appears to have gone wrong with the Minister's information. Even on his own figures, if he admits that there is to be an expansion of this village in 1970–71, he should have allowed North Riding County Council to put the scheme in its 1969–70 programme because a school takes at least a year or 18 months to build.

North Riding County Council, meeting this difficulty, has decided to place, as a temporary measure, a mobile classroom next to the dining hall. This proposal is viewed with a certain amount of suspicion by my constituents. Although they welcome it as an alleviation of the present inadequacy, they fear that it will be used as an excuse for ministerial inaction. One mobile classroom will not meet the problem of the expansion of the village after 1970.

My requests tonight are two. The first is that the right hon. Lady will look into this matter and give us, tonight if possible, a clear assurance that this school will be put into the 1970–71 building programme, and if possible that she will allow the start of the school to be put in hand earlier so that it can be built in time for the expansion. I believe that this school is at the top of the North Riding County Council requirements for the 1970–71 building programme. Secondly, I ask her to look into this problem of the co-ordination of information and her Department's use of local knowledge.

This is the second case I have had in recent years in this area around York where the local education authority has been pressing for the building of a new school because of inadequacy of conditions. The last was at Oswaldkirk, where conditions were very similar. I brought this to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle), then Minister of Education, and I got him to look into it. He immediately authorised the Oswaldkirk new school to be built. I ask the right hon. Lady to follow his example.

10.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Miss Alice Bacon)

I am aware of the poor conditions at the school, which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) has brought to our notice on a number of occasions. I sympathise both with the local parents and with the teachers who are working under such adverse conditions. I agree that it would be to the benefit of everybody if this mid-Victorian school could be replaced on a new site. Our problem, as the right hon. Gentleman will realise, is that resources are limited and that priority has to be given to the projects which are most urgent.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, authorities are invited to submit to my Department proposals for major buildings, and these are considered in the light of the national as well as the local priorities. First and foremost, it is necessary to meet essential basic needs arising out of the rising and shifting population; in other words, providing school places for children who would otherwise have no school to attend. Projects over£20,000 are allocated specifically by my Department. We all know that there are many old buildings which ought to be replaced, legacies from the 19th century, and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, this school was built in the middle of the 19th century.

Since the war, the House will recognise, there have been great movements of population and increases of population. New housing estates have arisen. Even new towns have been built; and as the homes have gone up so we have had to provide schools. Otherwise, there would have been many children without any school at all. So all Governments since the war have had to give priority to these new areas and provide schools for the new populations rather than the replacement of unsatisfactory schools. I wish it had been possible for all Governments to do more in the second direction as well as the first, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will realise that the priority has had to be to provide schools where there were no schools for children to attend.

The right hon. Gentleman raised with me on one occasion the provision of hot water at the school, and it was provided about a year ago. But with regard to schemes of this kind every local authority gets a block allocation annually from which it is free to select its own projects that cost less than£20,000. So the right hon. Gentleman will see that a project of this kind, the provision of hot water in a school, is entirely one for the local authority to deal with out of its minor works programme.

As I said, we have to provide for these new areas, and it is only after the overriding needs of the new areas and the areas with increased populations have been met that improvement projects can be considered. Unfortunately, there are a great many old schools throughout the country which are working under conditions which in their various ways are as had as, and a number even worse than, those at Strensall.

Since we cannot do everything at once, priority in major building programmes has to be given to the most urgent cases.

These include some where adverse conditions in old schools have also been aggravated by rapidly increasing numbers, and some where the children are also suffering from educational handicaps arising out of bad housing, overcrowded urban conditions and other forms of social deprivation.

We thought it right to give some priority in the 1969–70 major building programme to the replacement of very bad old buildings in what are called educational priority areas; that is where the children suffer the double disadvantage of attending very poor schools and of coming from rather unsatisfactory housing conditions. I am afraid that Strensall does not qualify for special consideration under either of those headings.

I am sure that no one who knows the area, least of all its inhabitants, could claim that children are labouring under additional handicaps of the sort encountered by children in some of the most socially deprived areas in our large cities and conurbations. Neither, in spite of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, is there as yet evidence of substantially increasing pressure of numbers.

The number of children on roll this January, 163, is only one more than the number on roll a year ago, and considerably less than the average number on roll for January in the previous four years. It is true that numbers are expected to rise slightly over the next few years, from small housing developments already approved, but no really significant increase is expected unless further housing developments take place. The right hon. Gentleman said that there is a lack of communication and knowledge. We are dependent on the local education authority for our information in these matters.

I understand from the local education authority that these further housing developments are dependent upon the new sewer, which is again dependent upon the decisions on the ultimate size of the village, about which no firm conclusions have yet been formulated. On existing estimates of housing, the local authority has informed me that it thinks that the numbers will rise to about 190 in the summer term of 1971, and drop again to about 180 in the summer term of 1972.

It is true that this school was first submitted by the North Riding local education authority for the 1968–69 programme and was resubmitted for the 1969–70 programme. I make no point about that because I know that every local authority has to have its own priorities within an area just as my Department has to look at the priorities of one local authority against those of another. In the bids that the North Riding County Council made for its 1968–69 programme and 1969–70 programme, this particular school was not high on the projects submitted to my Department.

Although it recognises that this school was particularly bad the authority considered that further projects were more urgent. I make no point on that except to say that I am sure that within the authority's area there were some of these areas that I have described, where children had to have roofs over their heads because there just was no school at all. As the right hon. Gentleman says, the council has given a high priority to this school in the coming year's programme.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to say that I would immediately say that we could put this school in the next year's programme. As he realises, my Department is now sifting through the various bids which have been made by local authorities throughout the country, and we shall be looking at every one, trying to sort out some priority as between one local education authority and another. I cannot go any further than that tonight, except to say that I have noted everything that he has said. The local authority has now given the school a higher priority and we shall be looking at it with all the other very urgent cases that we have to take into account.

Mr. Turton

Would the right hon. Lady consider coming from Leeds to Strensall to check on whether I am right or the local authority is right about the expansion?

Miss Bacon

I cannot promise to do that, much as I frequently enjoy going into the area. This is something that we should sort out with the local authority. This is my information and the right hon. Gentleman will realise that we have to take account of what the local authority tells us.

In the meantime, the authority is doing what it can to ameliorate conditions at the school. As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is providing a mobile classroom which will be sited, I understand, next to the dining room. I know that there has been some apprehension among the people in the village lest the provision of a mobile classroom should in any way militate against the provision of the new school at a later date. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that that will not be so.

I cannot at present give any indication of when we shall be able to approve the replacement of the Strensall school, because we have to look at all the projects, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are aware of the problems there and I shall be very pleased when we can agree to this project, which will be, as I said, when circumstances permit. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the way he has brought the matter to our notice. I know he will understand that we have a great legacy from the past, and I should be only too happy if we could get rid not only of the Strensall school, but of all schools of this kind in the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Eleven o'clock.