HC Deb 01 May 1991 vol 190 cc406-14

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

10 pm

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring before the House the anxieties of parents in the town of Wickford in my constituency. It is fairly unusual for a Member of Parliament to come before the House twice in a year about virtually the same problem. We hoped that the problem had been solved as a result of the debate that we had barely a year ago, but, sadly, I am back here tonight because the parents in my constituency are so upset about what is happening to the secondary schools in their area that they have asked me to ask the Minister to intervene on their behalf.

In the town of Wickford we had two good secondary schools. One was called Bromfords and the other was called Beauchamps. They were nice schools with good. healthy sixth forms. One school had over 100 pupils in its sixth form and the other had over 80. They were happy thriving communities and the parents were contented. Into that community in 1988 Essex education authority tossed a bombshell in the form of a plan to establish a tertiary college in nearby Basildon, to which it decided that pupils from our sixth forms would have to go.

We were given to understand that it was necessary that our pupils attend the college so that the size of the new college would justify the expenditure. Without my two sixth forms, the authority could not justify the expenditure of some £5 million on expanding the tertiary college. But we were told that the change. which was not welcomed, would make a much wider range of subjects available to the pupils, would provide better education all on one campus, in the end would save money and the college would be more efficient. The parents in my two schools were indignant. Almost 100 per cent. of them supported two large public meetings. We had a petition, which was signed by almost every parent at the two schools. That in itself was a remarkable occurrence.

The parents contemplated the option of taking their schools out of the control of Essex, but if they had chosen to do so they could not have kept their sixth forms. They were between the devil and the deep blue sea. So I brought the case to the House, hoping that the Secretary of State would overrule a foolish and unnecessary decision. But the Secretary of State saw fit to decide that Essex county council should have its way and that our children should be used in what was virtually a number-crunching exercise.

The children are not number-crunching material to their parents or to me, but at least we were offered the prospect of something better. That was when the council wanted to get its way. We now know that Essex county council was being told at that time by the chairman of the governors of the college, a gentleman called Mr. Tony Stockley, that the college would not be able to cope with the intake that the council contemplated. But the education committee, on the advice of its director of education, Mr. Sharp, was being told that this was the way forward—that there would be appropriate numbers, and that accommodation would be available.

The indignation and consternation amongst the parents can be imagined now that it has turned out that, for the entry that is currently contemplated, the college is short of 400 places. The duplicity of the Essex county council's education committee is indicated by the fact that it knew all along that it would face some kind of problem. I am sure that other hon. Members, like me, think that it would he logical to leave the children in their current sixth forms while the problem was sorted out. However, Essex county council has other ideas. It wants to furnish temporary accommodation in a nearby school in Basildon—Woodlands school—at a cost of well over £100,000. This is a disgrace in view of the better facilities and better teaching conditions available on one campus. What these young people are being offered is infinitely inferior: empty spaces in a school to be patched up—almost botched up. The young people are to use the same staircases as young children in order to get to classrooms. They will not be in the mature environment of an adult campus. In fact, they are being dumped in unsatisfactory conditions.

Last night the parents held another meeting in Wickford to protest at what is happening to their children. Their protest is quite justified. As a result of the decision made in 1990, these two schools have suffered already. The intake from the feeder schools is down by 50 per cent. That is an indication of the fact that parents in the area want a school with a sixth form. They are now sending their children hither and yon, to towns like Billericay. Some are even looking as far afield as Chelmsford and down towards Southend for a school with a sixth form. Good teachers are being lost, as people of high quality like to have sixth form classes. As I spent 10 years teaching in a secondary school, I know how important the sixth form pinnacle is, not only to urge on the younger pupils, but to stimulate teachers and encourage the quality of teaching that is necessary.

The parents believe that there is demoralisation and that standards are going down. As we now realise, all of this is quite unnecessary because the sixth forms could have remained. I am asking the Minister to ensure that that will happen. The accommodation is there and using it would involve no additional expenditure. The equipment is also available. The two schools were already providing 30 subjects, so there was no shortage of choice. That was one of the reasons given for the closure of the sixth forms, but it was not a real reason. The parents want their children to stay where they are. No travelling is involved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) will confirm, travel to Basildon will mean crossing a very busy main road—the A127. For Wickford people, Basildon might just as well be at the top of the Himalayas. That is how they regard the great chasm that the Al27 creates.

The community, including the young people, would be delighted if the Minister were to instruct Essex county council to leave the pupils where they are. That would be simple logic and common sense. I know that the Minister has a surfeit of wisdom in this field. I have often heard him speak in the House on the subject of education. Before becoming a member of the Government he extolled the virtues of the quality of education, particularly that which is provided in sixth forms. I know that my hon. Friend will be sympathetic to the case that I am arguing. The chairmen of the governors of both schools support my plea that he take that action. Gordon Wright, the chairman of the governors of Bromfords school, is a Labour member of Essex county council, but he, too, supports our case. The chairman of the board of governors of Beauchamps school is standing tomorrow for the district council, so another respected and intelligent gentleman wants to keep the sixth form.

Of course, the numbers in the sixth forms have dropped in anticipation of the changes, but the two sixth forms between them would provide almost, although not quite, as many places as we need to accommodate at least the children who would otherwise be dumped in temporary accommodation. Four hundred pupils have to be accommodated. I learnt today that the message has gone out on the "pink paper"—an agenda which is not usually made public—that the tertiary college is having to squash classes together and add extra pupils. That will overstretch the wonderful new facilities which the children were promised would result from the move. So those children will not get as good teaching as they have been used to in the schools from which they came.

I am assured that there remain in the schools enough teachers with sixth form experience to carry on that work. Everything points to the need for the Minister to act as I know that, in his heart of hearts, he would want to act, in support of the parents. Those parents are bewildered that a Conservative Member of Parliament, dealing with a Conservative Government and ostensibly, I am sad to say, a Conservative Essex education committee, is faced with a situation in which they cannot be allowed their choice of education for their children—a right that we in the Conservative party believe that they should have. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we have let those parents down. It is time to reassure them that we will not allow the situation to continue, that we will no longer defer to the bureaucrats on Essex county council who have made such a botch-up of the whole sad business.

There is another path open to the parents. By great good fortune, the Secretary of State for Education and Science recently announced that schools wishing to opt out of education authority control need no longer wait five years to change their status. If the two schools could opt out now, they could keep their sixth forms—at least, I believe that to be the case. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon once had a similar sad story to tell, but it has had a much happier ending. I invite him to try to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and explain to the House exactly how parents in his constituency managed to solve their problem.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister at least to reassure parents in the two schools concerned that if he can help them in no other way—although I hope that he will be able to help in other ways—he will encourage their growing desire to opt out of the control of Essex county council, which has proved sadly inadequate. He could reassure the parents that if they decided to take such action, he would look favourably and quickly upon their request. Those changes, which are not welcomed by any of the parents involved, are due to take place in September, so we have a relatively short time. The encouragement of my hon. Friend the Minister would make all the difference to their going ahead with the opt-out provision. Anything that he can do to assure them that their children's futures will not be jeopardised by that awful muddle will be greatly welcomed.

I now invite my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon to give his side of the story, which throws light on that sad situation.

Mr. Speaker

I think that I shall invite him.

10.15 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

I was here a year ago when my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) raised this issue. It is sad that she must bring it to the attention of the House again this evening.

When Essex county council first proposed a tertiary college to the Department of Education, I had no doubt that my constituents would benefit more from the college than those of my hon. Friend, simply because of the distance involved. As my hon. Friend said, the A127 appears to form a barrier to her constituents in Wickford and Billericay, and I understand that. Throughout the eight years that I have represented my constituency, education standards in Basildon have been improving. Due to the Government's excellent reforms, local teachers have rallied magnificently to take full advantage of the opportunities provided. My own children go to a local state school, St. Anne Line, which my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) has visited, and she will verify that it is an excellent school.

Basildon has excellent secondary schools, such as Fryerns, Chalvedon, Iaindon, St. Anne Line, Barstable and Nicholas. There is no doubt that the sixth form entry has been dwindling in some of those schools, so they were pleased when the tertiary college was first mooted.

Basildon college is an excellent establishment and I have no doubt that the sixth form college will be successful. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay will recall our battle with Essex county council in seeking to ensure that fair play took place when the governing body of Chalvedon school wished to ballot the parents to achieve grant-maintained status. I am proud to say that that school is now the first grant-maintained school in Essex. My hon. Friend the Minister recently received correspondence from parents of children at Chalvedon school raising the fair point about the possibility of retaining the sixth form.

My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay has been tenacious in representing the views of parents, particularly those of Beauchamps and of Bromfords schools, and their desire to retain their sixth forms. Although the tertiary college is of enormous benefit to my constituents, it is surprising that, although the proposals about the viability of the college were put to the Department and the figures were presented, we now find that it is so over-subscribed that it must use the facilities of the excellent Woodlands school in my constituency. That is rather puzzling. Can it be that the notion of a tertiary college is so attractive that all 16 to 18-year-olds in our two constituencies have suddenly decided that they want to use it, or were the figures presented to the Department unrealistic?

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look kindly upon the sensible points that have been raised by our hon. Friend the Member for Billericay.

10.19 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Michael Fallon)

It is normal form in debates such as this to compliment an hon. Member on securing the opportunity to put forward a constituency case. Tonight I must go further than that and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) on her tenacity in pursuing this matter.

This is the second occasion on which post- 16 education in Basildon and Wickford has been the subject of an Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay. I believe that consistency and persistency are the hallmarks not simply of a good constituency Member of Parliament, but of an effective one. My hon. Friend has written to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and his predecessor on a number of occasions. She has tenaciously pursued an issue about which she and her constituents hold strong convictions.

I must also pay due tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess), who, in his own way, has pursued with great persistence the concern expressed by those of his constituents who favour the recreation of a sixth form at Chalvedon school.

Something has changed since our previous debate on this matter. Thanks to the policies of fostering choice pursued by the Government, and thanks to the new opportunities provided by the Education Reform Act 1988, Chalvedon school has become a welcome addition to the swelling ranks of grant-maintained schools. That school is popular and clearly viable. The head teacher and his governors have at heart the best interests of the children who attend the school.

The existence of a grant-maintained school in the Basildon and Wickford area will provide parents with a wider choice of options for their children than was previously available—thanks to the new opportunities made available by the Government under the Education Reform Act.

The creation of a tertiary college in Basildon will, in its own way, also help to provide parents and pupils with a wider range of post-16 options than was available before my right hon. and learned Friend's predecessor approved, in January 1990, the reorganisation proposals published by Essex local education authority—proposals which are the subject of so much complaint from my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay.

The authority was prompted to reorganise post-16 education in the Basildon and Wickford area because the staying-on rate was so low, the examination success rate was not as good as it might have been and the sixth forms in the school were so small and fragmented that it was becoming difficult to provide a sufficiently wide range of options for their 16-year-olds. Obviously it does not represent good value for money to have small groups of pupils following a limited range of options. By concentrating post-16 schooling in a tertiary college, the range of options available inevitably increases and the education authority is able to make much better use of its teaching and other resources.

On numerous occasions the Government have made it clear that they are concerned to increase the staying-on rate beyond the age of 16 and the figures released only last week show that we are now succeeding. If we are to compete with our European partners in the marketplace, we must ensure that our children are educated to at least the same standards as those in France, Germany and our, other Community partners.

It is partly because we are so concerned about the relatively low staying-on rate in the United Kingdom that we have decided, as my right hon. and learned Friend announced to the House on 21 March, to transfer responsibility for sixth form and tertiary colleges from local education authorities to a new funding council and to give them much greater autonomy. I have no doubt that, just as the introduction of local management and grant-maintained schools will do much to improve standards in schools, so the greater autonomy that will pass to sixth form and tertiary colleges in the future will also lead to improved standards, wider options and increased staying-on rates.

For the youngsters of Basildon and Wickford it is, arguably, especially important to provide a wide range of post-16 options, because they have easy access to the London Docklands development area, where opportunities will abound for those who have shown, through their educational achievements, that they are equipped to cope with the new challenges of the next century.

My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay has sought to argue that Beauchamps school, which lost its sixth form in the reorganisation which was approved as recently as January 1990, should be allowed to reintroduce its sixth form. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon argued similarly in support of the reintroduction of a sixth form at Chalvedon school.

Until recently grant-maintained schools have been discouraged from seeking to change their character during the first five years of their independence. My right hon. and learned Friend said last week that he saw little worthwhile purpose in continuing this five-year rule and that he was prepared to consider proposals for changes in character put to him by grant-maintained schools at any sensible interval after they had been established. In announcing this change, my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out that it was inevitable that grant-maintained schools would want to develop their own distinctive personalities in response to local parent demand and changing circumstances. He gave as an example the possibility that schools might wish to publish proposals for establishing sixth forms.

My right hon. and learned Friend has to judge each application for change of character on its individual merits. Since it might be considered prejudicial to that consideration, I cannot comment on what might happen should proposals be published by the governors of Chalvedon school to reintroduce a sixth form.

Post-16 provision in respect of pupils attending Beauchamps school is a matter for Essex local education authority. If it should, at any time in the future, decide to publish proposals under section 12 of the Education Act 1980 for the reintroduction of a sixth form at Beauchamps school, those proposals, too, will be carefully considered by my right hon. and learned Friend.

I think it only fair to point out, however, in the light of criticisms which have been made by a number of citizens of Basildon and Wickford, that Essex local education authority expects Basildon tertiary college to have to cater for an intake in September, on the basis of indications already provided, of around 1,436 full-time equivalent students, a figure which includes 91 applicants from Beauchamps school, 94 from Chalvedon and 63 from Bromfords, and which is so far above the LEA's original expectations that it has had to make arrangements, to which my hon. Friends referred, to provide additional temporary accommodation for the college in the nearby Woodlands school. I should perhaps stress, since there has been some misunderstanding locally, that this accommodation will only be used temporarily by the college. There is no question of the LEA reintroducing a sixth form at Woodlands school.

By way of comparison, the number of sixth formers, including first and second years, in the nine Basildon and Wickford secondary schools when the decision was taken to establish a tertiary college was about 400, and the number of sixth formers currently at Chalvedon school is 64 and at Beauchamps school 81. It could be argued, I think—certainly Essex LEA would see it that way—that the decision to concentrate post-16 education in the tertiary college has already proved to be a success, in that it has already led to a considerable—some might say dramatic—increase in the number of 16-year-olds wishing to stay on.

I ought also to make it clear—since this seems to have been another cause of misunderstanding in Basildon and Wickford—that the capital costs of establishing the new tertiary college have been nowhere near the figure of £12 million which has apparently gained wide currency. My right hon. and learned Friend has in fact authorised Essex LEA, through its annual capital guideline, to spend in total up to £868,000 on the new college.

I fully appreciate, as does my right hon. and learned Friend, that some pupils will be better suited to the traditional school sixth form. To its credit, Essex LEA also currently maintains a number of secondary schools with large and efficient sixth forms and it has, I understand, no plans to change them. I further understand that it would be prepared to allow pupils in the Basildon and Wickford area who would prefer to pursue post-16 studies in a school sixth form to attend sixth forms in schools in Billericay, Brentwood or Southend, all of which are within reasonable reach of Basildon and Wickford.

We set great store by the breadth of opportunity which is provided for pupils and parents. Pupils in the Basildon and Wickford area now have the opportunity to attend a school maintained by the LEA, or a grant-maintained school. At the age of 16, they have the opportunity of pursuing traditional sixth form courses in Billericay, Brentwood or Southend, or traditional and vocational courses in the tertiary college.

We are also concerned to ensure that local education authorities and schools themselves make best use of the resources available to them. That means, in terms of post-16 provision, that teachers should teach groups of more than five or six at a time, and that the facilities available should not be used by such small groups; and this is not only because tuition on this scale does not represent good value, but because it may not be good for the students themselves.

My hon. Friend is technically asking me to rescind a decision taken by my predecessor. I have no power to do so. However, I have suggested a route forward which she may like to consider.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Billericay and Basildon. They have served splendidly the interests of their constituents who continue to oppose the reorganisation, but I hope, in the interests of all the children in Basildon and Wickford, that those who oppose the reorganisation will at least be prepared to give the college a chance to succeed and to let the schools in Basildon and Wickford—most of which, it must be said, did not object to the establishment of a tertiary college—get on with the task of preparing the children in their care to face the future confidently and capably, whichever course they may subsequently choose to pursue, given the range of options that this Government have now made available to them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.