HC Deb 15 June 1990 vol 174 cc659-66

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

2.32 pm
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I have a very sorry tale to tell about the fate of two good secondary schools—one in Wickford in my constituency and one in Basildon. I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) is here to support me. It is a tale that exposes some fundamental flaws in the new education legislation as well as a great deal of what is wrong with local government nowadays. It is a nightmarish web of red tape and duplicity, in which the wishes of parents, democratically expressed, were completely ignored by Essex county council.

The story is rooted in the poor academic standards of the secondary schools in Basildon and Essex council's decision to open a tertiary college there to try to improve the standards of tertiary education. In order to justify the expenditure of about £12 million, the council had to look around for more students from further afield to justify opening that college. It lit upon two schools in my constituency—Bromford school and Beauchamps school. Those two schools had flourishing sixth forms, one with almost 100 pupils, and between them they offered more than 30 subjects. They were told that they were likely to be drafted into the new tertiary college. The parents were furious, a petition was raised and 2,500 parents wrote or signed the petition begging the authority and the Government not to close the sixth forms. They could have saved themselves the bother because Essex county council went ahead with the college, even though many of the parents did not want the college to open or at least they did not want their sixth forms to be sacrificed to its creation.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), who is extremely perspicacious, agreed with us that those schools had an excellent case for keeping their sixth forms. He wrote to us saying that he was minded to allow the sixth forms to remain. For whatever reason, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science overruled that inclination and decided that the tertiary college should go ahead and that the sixth forms should be closed. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and I were bemused by that decision and have never been given a satisfactory explanation.

Many disgruntled parents in my constituency are asking why a Conservative Government, a Conservative Member of Parliament and Conservative-controlled Essex county council cannot deliver what the Government promised them—parental choice about the education of their children. They are infuriated by the decision and have looked at alternatives to see what they can do. They contemplated opting out of the control of Essex county council because the council is clearly not listening to what they want. They considered going for grant-maintained status, and that reveals the first flaw in the Education Act. A school that goes for grant-maintained status has to remain the same for five years after being allowed to opt out of the system. That seems patently absurd because even if my schools adopted that course, they would not be able to retain their sixth forms and that is the whole point of the exercise.

The teacher body in my two schools is not greatly in favour of grant-maintained status. It would do nothing to assist the parents in going for that status even though the teachers regret losing the sixth forms—my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon has a happier story to tell and will have an opportunity to tell it. That revealed another problem, because if parents want to adopt a certain course to which teachers and the head teacher and possibly the governing body are opposed, the parents will have all that authority resisting them. That is exactly what happened in my constituency.

It is difficult for parents with no resources to organise letters and to communicate with perhaps 700 or 800 homes, to ask whether 20 per cent. of the parents will agree to ask for a ballot on grant-maintained status. It is the parents versus authority. The experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon has taught me that the local education authority, the unions and Essex county council will write to those parents and urge them not to take that course of action. The parents are completely bewildered and do not know whether what they are proposing is right or wrong. One or two keen parents have the difficult task of organising the ballot.

The second matter to which I should like to draw the attention of the House and which arises from our sorry experience is that there is no point in giving parents democratic rights without the means to exercise them. The Government should seriously consider putting money into an organisation. One such organisation exists—Choice in Education, which was previously called the Grant-Maintained Schools Trust. Such organisations help parents who want to go down the path of grant-maintained status. I approve of that path and think it an excellent idea.

The Prime Minister often talks about grant-maintained status as "independent state schools", but what price independence if one is not free to adopt the type of school that one wants, which means keeping the sixth form, or making other decisions about the future of the school? Therefore, the second thing that I want from the Minister is his assurance that he will consider putting resources behind organisations that help parents, because that help is essential when their will is opposed by the head and the teaching body of a school.

The third factor that has emerged from this unhappy experience is that one of the heads said to me, "We quite like the idea of grant-maintained status, but, quite honestly, it is a lot of work for us. What is in it for us? What are the incentives for us to assist the parents in such circumstances?" My hon. Friend the Minister should seriously consider bringing out literature, or even introducing new incentives, which make it clear to the people who are running the school that there are terrific advantages to grant-maintained status. Even though in this case the schools cannot in the short term retain their sixth forms, such help would mean that there is still the hope that, if they go along that path, at a later stage parents will have the schools that they want. It is no good giving people democratic rights if they are not also given the wherewithal to exercise those rights.

Sadly, the wheels of bureaucracy having ground on and consent for the tertiary college having been given, it will be built but the students in Wickford will not be at it. For historical reasons, Wickford hates Basildon. Its residents are always petitioning for separate district council status. Between Wickford and Basildon there is a barrier that is, for those in Wickford, as high as the Himalayas. A major road, the A127, which has dual carriageway on both sides, which is about to be widened into a three-lane motorway, and which has enormous amounts of traffic flowing from Southend to London all day and every day, divides the two. There are no trains or buses to link the two sides. If young people are to go to the tertiary school in Basildon, transport must be laid on for them. However, they will not make the journey and that college will be an expensive white elephant costing £12 million, but having only a tiny handful of children from the Basildon area. The pupils in my area will go down towards Southend and use the tertiary college there. They may go west and east to colleges at Chelmsford, Rayleigh and Brentwood. They may go to other schools with sixth forms in Billericay itself.

Already, the rot has set in for those two previously good schools. Parents are not choosing to send their children to those schools because there will be no sixth form by the time their children reach that stage, so they are opting for neighbouring schools. Parents whose children are coming up to sixth form age do not want their children to go into a sixth form that will be in decline as older children leave, so they are looking for new schools. The destruction of two good schools with viable sixth forms and an excellent range of subjects is occurring because of a bureaucratic decision of Essex county council that has not been overruled by the Secretary of State.

That is not what the Conservative Administration is about. We won three elections by pledging to people that we would give them freedom from bureaucracy, from having their wishes ignored and from being dictated to by local councils and education departments. Essex council's action overrides those policies; it would be better placed in the 1970s, when the Labour party was in power and such treatment of individuals' wishes was taken for granted. Conservative Members do not think like that.

I cannot understand the attitude of Essex county council; having said that, however, I ask the Government to re-examine the legislation that has allowed those unhappy circumstances to come about, and to give some hope, if not to my students in Wickford, at least to other schools that might decide to opt for grant-maintained status.

Mr. David Amess (Basildon)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Has the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) the leave of the Minister and the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) to speak? I see that he has.

2.46 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) on securing the Adjournment debate. I also congratulate her on the tenacity that she demonstrated so clearly in putting the case of children attending the school in Wickford in her constituency, and that of their parents.

I agree with the general thrust of the arguments that my hon. Friend deployed so skilfully. I would take issue only with what she said, on behalf of the people of Wickford, about my constituency. It will not come as a surprise to the House when I say that I love Basildon: I live there, and our children are educated at the excellent local primary school, St. Anne Line. We are currently running a campaign called "I love Basildon". It is a fine town, and we are proud of our achievements there.

None the less, I understand the feelings of my hon. Friend's constituents about how they are treated by the local authority. In the seven years that I have been the hon. Member for Basildon I have been privileged to see educational standards in my constituency rise; I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in paying a warm tribute to teachers and parents, and to the general commitment of local people to the standards of education that we have enjoyed. However, the reorganisation of sixth forms in my area—and that of my hon. Friend—has not run smoothly.

I am blessed to have in my constituency some excellent secondary schools: Barnstable, Fryerns, Nicholas Laindon and the Catholic school of St. Anselm, which is funded partly by the local education authority. I pay tribute to them all. I come from an era when people preferred schools to retain their sixth forms, but I appreciate that, because of the increase in numbers and for reasons of choice concerning the syllabus, there is a demand for a sixth form college to be included in Basildon college of further education. However, when the reorganisation of sixth forms was discussed, we were—as my hon. Friend said—disappointed and confused by the eventual decision.

The governors at Chalvedon school decided to seek grant-maintained status. Grant-maintained schools are excellent for many reasons. I am in favour of choice, and I believe that we should listen to what parents want from education. We knew that the Labour party would be against grant-maintained schools; indeed its representatives delivered leaflets to that effect through the doors of local houses. However, it was a shock to my hon. Friend and me when Essex county council—prior to the first ballot—delivered a letter to every parent with children at Chalvedon school. It said: The LEA does not want its schools to opt out—we believe there are good reasons for staying within the support and structure of a large LEA like Essex. There should be no duplicity. Conservative-controlled Essex county council—it has been Conservative—controlled only since last May—says clearly that it is against grant-maintained status. I am as shocked as my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay by that statement. Only 36 per cent. of the parents voted in the first ballot, which narrowly went against grant-maintained status. I am proud, however, to be able to say that the second ballot went the other way: 56 per cent. of parents voted in that ballot and the majority, albeit small, was in favour of Chalvedon school being considered for grant-maintained status. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

2.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Alan Howarth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) on her persistence in pursuing a cause in which she believes so strongly. She has already written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science about the issue on a number of occasions and has pursued her campaign with characteristic energy and bravura.

I congratulate also my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) on the eloquence and determination with which he, too, has sought to uphold his constituents' interests. He has represented with great determination the interests and concerns of both Chalvedon school and Barstable school. I pay full tribute to him for the work that he has done on behalf of his constituents. I was pleased to see that he offered an olive branch to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay. Let us hope that today marks an improvement in the relations between the communities of Wickford and Basildon, with their two Members of Parliament fighting shoulder to shoulder.

I, too, am a very strong believer in parental choice in education. That is what the Education Reform Act 1988 is all about. The Act extends parental choice by providing for more open enrolment, which increases the ability of parents to send their children to schools of their choice; city technology colleges—new beacons of excellence; and grant-maintained schools which enable parents to take their school out of the control of a local education authority and run it entirely themselves.

I note in passing that Chalvedon school has decided to exercise the option to apply for grant-maintained status. I welcome the fact that parents with children at Chalvedon school have chosen to exercise their democratic right to vote in a ballot on the future of the school. It would have been open to Beauchamps school to exercise that right at any stage before or after the final decision was made on Essex's proposals. It chose not to do so.

Good education requires however, not just that we provide parents with a range of options. We must do all that we can to ensure that the options on offer are the best possible options.

The exercise of those choices is made within a framework of local accountability and control. We have a 100-year tradition of local education authorities, democratically elected. It is they who are responsible—and accountable to their electorate—for the organisation of schools. It is not for my right hon. Friend to direct authorities in those matters. Local education authorities, as befits locally accountable, democratically elected bodies, make proposals to my right hon. Friend, on which he decides.

Thus, it is not for me, as a Minister, to say what pattern of education should be provided in Basildon and Wickford. It was rightly up to Essex local education authority—with a Conservative majority—to make proposals. It has been concerned for some time about the relatively low post-16 staying on rate in the Basildon and Wickford area. In recent years, the largest sixth forms in the area have contained no more than about 80 pupils on average, and many have tended to drop out without taking A-level examinations. By way of example, only 25 pupils sat A-levels last year at Beauchamps school in Wickford. Inevitably, small sixth forms limit choices for pupils. That militates against wider educational choices for pupils and parents alike.

We are all rightly concerned to encourage more pupils to remain in education after the age of 16. If we are to compete with our EC neighbours after 1992, and if we are to make the most of the technological opportunities that will be open to us in the years ahead, clearly we will need a well-educated work force. I do not believe there is any disagreement about that. In the Basildon and Wickford area there is an added incentive for pupils to stay on. Not far away, on a direct line into London, is the London Docklands development area, and the opportunities there for youngsters from Basildon and Wickford will be particularly attractive if they have shown, by their achievements at school or college, that they are likely to be able to cope with the new challenges that are emerging there.

Essex therefore considered alternative forms of sixth-form provision, with a view not only to persuading more pupils to stay on, but to providing parents and pupils with a considerably wider range of options, including the less academic and more vocationally oriented courses. It was also particularly concerned, as it always ought to be, to make the best use of the available resources, whether in the form of school buildings or teachers.

Essex looked at what had happened in other areas, such as Harlow, engaged in all the required processes of consultation, and eventually proposed that the school sixth forms in the Basildon and Wickford area should be replaced by a new tertiary college, to be located in the existing college of further education in Basildon. In doing so, it decided to leave untouched the thriving sixth forms in the neighbouring Billericay secondary schools.

Clearly, though the schools in Basildon and Wickford had done their best to provide a good sixth-form education for their pupils—I am thinking in particular of Barstable, Chalvedon and Beauchamps—they had only limited success in persuading pupils to stay on in sufficient numbers. The small size in the resulting sixth forms necessarily limits the range of options that can be provided, in a way that puts children at a disadvantage in facing the demands of a modern technological society.

My hon. Friends argued that it would have been possible to retain sixth forms at Beauchamps and Chalvedon schools, and still establish a tertiary college. I confess that my right hon. Friend and I were attracted to the same idea when we first considered the proposals, but after we had consulted the Essex LEA further, as we were required to do under the terms of the Education Act 1980, and looked more closely at the additional data that it provided, we were persuaded that retention of the sixth forms at two of the schools involved would not have been desirable

Fragmenting sixth-form provision in an area in which the total number of sixth formers is currently not much more than 400 would clearly not have made best use of the resources available. Teachers at the schools and the college would frequently have had to deal with very small groups of pupils, and the total number of options available would inevitably have been limited—as would the facilities for any new, less academic courses.

We were impressed by the increased staying-on rate that followed the establishment of a tertiary college in Harlow and of a sixth form college in Colchester in the same county. And we had to bear in mind that a major reason for establishing a tertiary college in the first place was to create a focal point to attract pupils who have traditionally seen themselves as adults at 16—happy, perhaps, to attend college but not to stay on with the kids at school. At a total estimated capital cost of £491,000—much less than half the price of a small primary school—the tertiary college proposal also represented particularly good value for money.

Finally, and very important, we were assured by Essex that places would still be available for pupils who wished to complete their school education at schools in Billericay, Brentwood and Southend—all of which are within manageable reach of Basildon and Wickford. My right hon. Friend and I would not have approved a scheme unless we were satisfied on that point.

Whenever major changes in educational provision are proposed, it is natural that some will be in favour and others against. It is also natural, and indeed desirable—it is a strength of our democratic system of government—that those who are opposed to a line of action should seek to oppose it by whatever lawful means are available to them.

Mrs. Gorman

Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Mr. Howarth

If my hon. Friend will excuse me, I have little time and should like to get through what I have to say.

The opponents of Essex's proposals in Basildon and Wickford have been splendidly served by my hon. Friends the Members for Billericay and for Basildon. I gladly pay tribute to their tenacity and hard work on behalf of their constituents, but I must remind them of the limits of the powers that my right hon. Friend and I have in these matters. As I said earlier, it is not for us to substitute our judgment for that of the democratically elected local education authority. It is outside my right hon. Friend's legal powers—I ask my hon. Friends to understand this—to make substantial changes to proposals submitted by an authority. The options open to us, therefore, were either entirely to reject Essex's proposals, proposals that had the support of many of those affected and had been approved by an education committee in which members of our party were the majority, or to approve them as they stood.

I hope that my hon. Friends and the constituents whom they represent will, now that the decision has been made, and in the true spirit of democracy, do their best to ensure that the new tertiary college is given every chance to succeed. With the right parental encouragement, I have no doubt that the 16 to 18-year-olds of Wickford and Basildon will take full advantage of the many new opportunities that the college will offer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay criticised Essex county council for seeking to influence parents not to exercise their right of choice to hold a ballot on the future of Wickford school. It is for local education authorities to ensure that they do not infringe the terms of the code of recommended practice on local authority publicity. We have repeatedly said that local education authorities should not attempt to obstruct the opportunity provided in statute for parents to ballot on whether they want their school to seek grant-maintained status, and I deplore any attempt by LEAs to dissuade or frustrate parents from exercising their democratic right to vote in such a ballot and so exercise a full measure of control over its affairs.

My hon. Friend also said that we should give more support for parents and schools that want to become grant maintained. We provide booklets which are widely available. The one entitled "Grant-Maintained Status: Questions Parents Ask" is proving popular and has already been reprinted. We have published a factual booklet for governors entitled "How to become a Grant-Maintained School", which is in its second edition. Copies of those booklets have been sent to all schools in England elibible to apply for grant-maintained status and further copies are available on demand so that more people will become aware of the magnificent opportunity that grant-maintained status provides for schools to control their education policy and finances.

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes past Three o'clock.