HC Deb 26 October 1993 vol 230 cc797-804

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

10.41 pm
Ms Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I am taking the unusual step of raising the future of St. Philip's sixth form college in my constituency because I am very concerned that a popular, happy and academically successful college is being undermined by a very small group of trustees who will not listen to parents, students, staff, or mainstream Catholic opinion in Birmingham. I ask the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education and, through him, the Secretary of State to intervene to preserve that fine educational institution, as happened in the case of the school in Stratford in London, which was being undermined by a small faction that had taken control of the governing body of the school and was undermining the education of the children at that school.

I am very sad indeed to have to bring this matter to the attention of the House and to make this unusual request. I myself attended St. Paul's then grammar school, which was a sister school of St. Philip's. One of my brothers and many of my uncles and cousins attended St. Philip's school. Unfortunately, those who are now in control of the governing body seem not to be as wise or as concerned for Catholic education in Birmingham as their predecessors were.

St. Philip's, which was a grammar school, is now a sixth form Roman Catholic college. It is extremely popular. It has more than 900 students, and it has had to turn away students this year and in previous years. Indeed, it has turned away Catholic students. Its academic results are excellent. It recently won a prestigious academic award. It is a very happy and popular college. It is a Catholic college with a Catholic ethos. All students receive Catholic education, but within an ethos that is multicultural and shows deep respect for other world religions. The result is that the parents of students committed to other faiths are keen for their children to attend St. Philip's because there is a religious ethos and deep respect for religions at that college.

I should explain as background that Roman Catholic education in Birmingham, of which I am a product, has had to face up to the multicultural nature of our city. It used to be the case that all Catholic schools in Birmingham were all-white. As our population changed, our black populations came mainly from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent and had very few Catholics. Schools such as St. Clare's, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), which also recently won a prestigious award and at which my sister used to teach, started to be all-white in a multicultural city. Wisely and sensibly, such schools said that they would give priority to Catholic children but invite children from all faiths in the city. They would show respect to all faiths and be a beacon of high-quality Catholic education in our city. Catholic education in Birmingham has been respected for that contribution and has learnt that lesson.

Sadly and suddenly, the oratory fathers have decided to break that tradition. Because one third of the students at St. Philip's college are Catholic, the oratory fathers decided that they must close the college. The first preference announced was to turn the college into a boys' Catholic secondary school. Obviously, that was a ridiculous proposition because we have surplus places in our secondary schools in Birmingham and the demand is for girls' schools, if there is to be any change. There is no demand for a boys' secondary school.

Having failed in that endeavour, having consulted the staff and parents, and having been opposed by everyone who was consulted, they decided, extraordinarily, to hand the college to the Anglican Church and arrange for it to be transferred to another site. That is an extremely odd decision. It is disturbing for the Catholic staff at the college who wonder whether they will be told one day that they must cease to teach in a Catholic ethos and teach in the Anglican ethos. The proposal is extraordinary—it is an argument for those concerned with Catholic education—and is causing enormous anxiety among mainstream Catholics in Birmingham.

That is not the issue that I raise in the House tonight. My concern is to secure the future of this fine academic institution and ensure that current students at the college do not have their education undermined. Because of the way in which the unrepresentative governing body is managing the college, I am concerned that the college might be undermined and might not survive to be transferred to another site under Anglican authority. It seems that those who are managing the college know nothing about education, care nothing about education, and do not have respect for academic traditions and the decent management of such a fine college.

Since the decision was made to move the college, a pattern of ugly behaviour by the governing body has developed. The governing body ceased to act democratically. It would not allow the elected staff representative to be on the governing body—it chose its own community representative, who was part of its faction. It called all sorts of confidential meetings, it would not circulate minutes, and it started to behave in a deeply undemocratic way. It also ceased to meet or consult parents and students.

Since the governing body consulted parents about the closure of the college, parents who are worried about the education of their children have written to the college—there was a massive meeting at which total opposition to the proposed closure was expressed—but have received no response or information. There is an absolute refusal to consult the staff or even keep them informed about plans.

There is an atmosphere of intimidation in the college. Staff are too frightened to speak, ask questions or continue to teach in the fine way that they have until now. There is an enormously sad and immoral, if not illegal, question about the use of public funds. Large sums of money have been spent on parts of the building that are not being used by the college. We know that the plan is to transfer the college elsewhere, so that the way in which public funds which have been raised and given to the college for the purposes of education are being used is questionable.

Most painful of all is the mistreatment of students of other faiths. Recently it was decided that Muslim students, who had been recruited as equal students in the college and who had always been treated with respect, could not pray in private in their classroom. Buildings elsewhere had to be rented at a cost to the college, and Muslim students were told that they had to go elsewhere to pray. The governors and trustees argued that that decison was made because corporate acts of worship of other faiths are not allowed under the trust deed of the college. These are not corporate acts of worship; this is private prayer by Muslim students. That decision is ugly and prejudiced—even racist—in its consequence, and it is disturbing people in Birmingham.

My request to the Minister is simple. For the purposes of this debate, I accept the decision to transfer the college to the Anglican authorities and to another site. However, I am concerned that, if things continue as they are, the college—the staff and students—will be undermined and there will not be a college to transfer.

Part of the problem arises from the Government's reorganisation of the management of education. They devolved power to governing bodies and sometimes, as in the case of the school in Stratford in London and now St. Philip's, a small unrepresentative faction will not listen to staff, students, parents and mainstream Catholic opinion and destroys and undermines a fine educational institution.

This is where the Secretary of State and the Minister have a duty. It takes years to build an educational institution of such high quality; it cannot be created overnight. This college has been nurtured and built. Everyone is proud of it and its academic results are spectacular. It is a valuable institution in inner-city Birmingham. We need fine institutions to give our children a chance of succeeding and going on to higher education.

We need the Government's help. They thought that they were devolving power to local communities, but in this case a small faction has got control of a college and is in danger of undermining the education of current students and the future of the institution. I ask that the Secretary of State use his powers to appoint governors to the governing body and to ensure that the college is run properly and an orderly transfer takes place for the sake of existing and future students.

10.51 pm
Ms Estelle Morris (Birmingham, Yardley)

I wish to add briefly to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short). The college lies in her constituency and my constituency is some miles away. I emphasise that this problem is not just an issue for my hon. Friend's constituents; it spreads throughout the city of Birmingham.

St. Philip's is a success story. These days, when it is difficult for our children to learn in our schools, we should celebrate our successes, build on them and conserve them. It is a great sadness for all of us that one of our great success stories in terms of academic work as well as social and multiracial integration has come upon these problems. I, too, plead with the Government to take action to solve this problem, for two reasons.

First, while all this is going on, a group of young people is trying to continue and to complete their education. They have only one chance. They cannot wait for us to sort out the quagmire and introduce new rules and regulations. As my hon. Friend said, it is the Government's fault and our fault as politicians that we have allowed a structure to exist whereby this kind of abuse can take place. The onus is on the Government quickly to improve the situation before the education of more young people is jeopardised.

The second reason why we need a speedy resolution is that the problem is tainting education throughout our city and not just in the one school. Too much energy is being used to try to solve this problem when it could be better used by Government, Members of Parliament, councillors, parents and the local city council to address some issues that we want to be addressed in Birmingham.

My only reason for intervening in the debate is to emphasise as much as I am able that this problem faces the largest education authority in the country. It does not affect just a few children and parents. We need a speedy resolution to it so that parents, teachers and pupils at St. Philip's as well as the rest of us in Birmingham can get on with what we are trying to do, which is to provide a decent standard of education for our young people.

10.54 pm
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of the hon. Member for Ladywood to speak?

Mr. Rooker

Yes, Sir.

I support everything that my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) have said. Earlier this year I met more than 60 members of staff at St. Philip's college, and I can confirm that there is a climate of fear there. They are fearful about speaking out about what is happening at the college. Fear is rampant throughout the institution. It can only be dealt with by major changes in the governing body.

10.55 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) on her good fortune in securing this Adjournment debate. She has spoken with characteristic passion and concern about what she sees as a matter of public interest and in the interests of the students of St. Philip's college.

I fully appreciate the strength of feeling aroused by the uncertainty surrounding the future of the college. I have seen press reports that raise various issues, including those on which the hon. Lady touched tonight. I am also aware of correspondence from those with a close interest in the matter.

I should, however, make it clear that these are essentially local issues which those at the local level must work together to resolve—

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I should perhaps explain that, until fairly recently, the college was in my constituency. I urge my hon. Friend to recognise that there are two sides to the problem.

First, the trust deed under which the college operates clearly lays down that the college exists to perpetuate and maintain the Catholic religion. I am not a Catholic, but that is what it says.

As for the allegations about Muslims, my hon. Friend should be aware that only yesterday the chairman of the governors received a letter of staunch support from the chairman of Birmingham's Muslim liaison committee: It gives me pleasure to confirm that we are in agreement with the arrangements that have been made for the prayers of muslim pupils at the college. We further confirm that this matter is now settled between yourselves and the muslim community … We re-iterate our gratitude for your cooperation in bringing this matter to a pleasant end and satisfactory conclusion. I ask my hon. Friend to bear those important points in mind when he comes to weigh up the rights and wrongs of the argument.

Mr. Boswell

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I can readily give her the assurance that all relevant matters will be carefully weighed up.

Institutions in the further education sector are autonomous and Parliament has deliberately and properly made it difficult for Ministers to intervene in the affairs of individual colleges. I call on all the parties involved to co-operate with one another to achieve a satisfactory conclusion. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) said, uppermost in our minds must be the interests of the students involved. The Department for Education will have a role to play once the local players have put forward a proposal on the future of the college. The Department will, of course, be happy to offer advice if called upon.

I should make it clear at the outset that the governing body has the right to take decisions about the future of the college. I am aware of its decision to transfer the college to premises elsewhere in Birmingham under the Anglican authorities, and that the transfer is intended to take place by the end of August 1995. I am also aware that if the transfer cannot be accomplished, the governing body intends that the college should close. While this may be an unpopular decision in some quarters▀×including Opposition Members—the governors are acting within their powers.

The governors, as trustees, have a duty to ensure that the aims and objectives of the college trust deed, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) referred, are furthered. The principal objective of the trust deed under which St. Philip's is administered is the advancement and maintenance of the Roman Catholic religion in England. The governors have taken the view that, with the number of Catholic pupils on roll at the college declining over the years, they are not meeting that objective. For that reason, they have decided to close the college. That is not to say that the governors have no responsibilities. Their actions must accord with the college's instrument and articles of government regulating the institution and they also have a duty to act reasonably.

There is no specific mechanism of closure set out in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 which must be followed. The various interested parties, the oratory, the Anglican authorities and the Further Education Funding Council are actively considering how best to proceed.

Ms Short

If there is a duty to promote Catholic education, can it possibly be legal to close a college with a Catholic ethos and hand it over to the Anglican faith? One suggestion is that the Anglicans might run it on the current site. Is that legal under the trust deed?

Mr. Boswell

As I am not a lawyer, I would be reluctant to give the hon. Lady a legal opinion from the Dispatch Box. I shall refer later to what might happen in specific circumstances. If the hon. Lady is not satisfied with that, I shall be pleased to communicate with her later on the issue. She will appreciate that there are important issues of legal process and I am anxious not to give any misleading advice to the House.

Various technical difficulties need to be overcome before any transfer can proceed. Uppermost in our minds —particularly in this context—must be the need to protect the interests of the students. It is important that they be able to complete their courses. Under the transfer option they would be able to do that, and all concerned would need to ensure that that was achieved with a minimum of disruption.

I shall explain what would happen if the proposed transfer did not take place. There is no guarantee that the transfer proposed by the governors would be possible because the process is by no means straightforward, as I believe all parties recognise. It requires those involved in any decision to work together in a co-operative way. Should the transfer not go ahead and St. Philip's closes, a decision will need to be taken as to whether there is a need for alternative provision in the city of Birmingham.

The Further Education Funding Council is under a statutory duty to ensure that there is sufficient provision of further education in that city. It would fall to that organisation to consider, in the first instance, whether there would be a need for additional or replacement further education provision in Birmingham. The Secretary of State has a statutory role in considering any proposal for the establishment of a new further education corporation. I owe it to the House to set out how that procedure might take place within the governing body's proposals.

Issues have been raised, both in the House and in other contexts, about the process so far. There have been reports, which the hon. Lady mentioned, that the governing body has spent considerable sums of money—£100,000 has been mentioned—on the refurbishment of parts of the present oratory buildings. It has been alleged that that work was carried out in the full knowledge that the college was to close. It was argued that, as a result, the refurbishment could only have been for the benefit of the governors themselves, who would use the buildings as a museum to Cardinal Newman or for some other purpose.

To respond to the hon. Lady's intervention, may I say that the property of the trust is vested in the governors in their capacity as trustees. As trustees they have a duty to ensure that at all times they act in the best interests of the trust. It is a collective responsibility and no individual could be deemed to have a personal financial interest.

I understand that the building project has been financed from funds provided by the former maintaining local education authority, Birmingham city council. It is for the city council to satisfy itself that any conditions attached to funding which it has provided are complied with. I believe that some audit process is currently under way.

On various occasions people have raised the issue of public funds which were made available to the college before it joined the FE sector. They have asked whether those funds would be recoverable in the event of closure of the college. As a voluntary-aided sixth form college, St. Philip's has received capital grant from the Department over the years.

There is no current statutory provision for assets which have been provided or enhanced by grant aid to be so recovered. Any assets released in the event of closure would be subject to the charitable trust deed under which they are held and would need to be reapplied for the purpose of the charity. In the case of St. Philip's, the object of the trust deed is the advancement of the Roman Catholic faith. The assets would need to be reapplied for this purpose.

Funds have been provided by the Further Education Funding Council since 1 April 1993. There is in place a financial memorandum between the Further Education Funding Council and each institution in the further education sector. It places upon colleges certain duties and obligations, one of which is to ensure that funds provided by the council are spent for the purposes for which they were given. The Further Education Funding Council could require the college to make capital repayments if assets acquired or enhanced with FEFC grant were disposed of or if the college closed.

As for financial probity, St. Philip's satisfied the Further Education Funding Council's pre-incorporation scrutiny conducted by Coopers and Lybrand. That is on the same basis as the other further education colleges in Britain. In common with all colleges in the sector, St. Philip's is required to have internal and external audit procedures and in due course it will be required to produce a statement from its external auditors confirming that funds are beings used appropriately. The hon. Member may be interested to hear that the Further Education Funding Council is currently conducting a review of the college's audit procedures. However, that is as part of the council's rolling programe for further education colleges.

I turn now to claims, including those by the hon. Member for Ladywood, that the governing body has not conducted itself in a proper manner. Irregularities in the conduct of governing body meetings have been suggested. It has also been suggested that the governors have knowingly withheld information from the college staff.

I am aware that there is currently a vacancy on the governing body for a staff governor. The Department has urged the governing body to fill the vacancy as soon as possible. I should explain that St. Philip's, in common with other colleges in the sector, is also obliged to have a nominee from the local training and enterprise council on its governing body. I understand that that position is currently vacant. I gather that the training and enterprise council nominated an individual who was obliged to resign due to pressure of other commitments. It is for the training and enterprise council to nominate a replacement governor.

Claims have also been made that the governing body has not published minutes and papers relating to meetings. Under the terms of the instrument of government, governors are required to make available at the institution minutes of their meetings as soon as practicable. They are not, however, obliged to include material which they consider to be of a confidential nature. It would appear that where the governing body has not published minutes or sections of minutes, this is because it has decided that the issues covered are confidential. I assure the House that if any evidence is presented that the governing body has acted improperly, the Department will investigate it.

The hon. Member for Ladywood asked that the governing body be replaced. Certainly the Secretary of State has powers under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 to replace any or all of the governors of an institution in the further education sector. He can do this only if he is satisfied that the affairs of the institution have been or are being mismanaged. Furthermore, such action can be taken only on the recommendation of the Further Education Funding Council. No such recommendation is in place. Indeed, there is no evidence of mismanagement yet. Any allegations that are made, including those sent to us in correspondence, will, of course, be thoroughly investigated by us.

I should make it clear to the House that St. Philip's is not a school like Stratford—the case to which the hon. Member for Ladywood referred. St. Philip's will be dealt with under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which I mentioned. The Secretary of State does not have a completely free hand in the appointment of governors at St. Philip's. The Act requires that, in the case of former voluntary-aided schools such as St. Philip's, colleges be conducted in accordance with their trust deeds and that a majority of governors be persons appointed to ensure that the established character of the institution be preserved. If governors were to be replaced, those requirements would need to be satisfied.

The hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) referred to Muslim worship. I should make it clear to the House that for denominational colleges the act of collective worship must be in a form which complies with the provisions of the college trust deed. Governors are not obliged to make provision for acts of worship which reflect the practices of other religious traditions represented in Great Britain.

I have made it clear to the House that the key question —the future of the college—is for the governing body to decide. I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady's concerns. I can sympathise with all those who have a stake in the college's future, although I am sure that the hon. Lady will acknowledge that that they do not all have the same view of that future. I realise that this is an unsettling time for parents, staff and students.

If the airing of the various issues has helped—I have done my best to clarify them for the benefit of the House—the debate, even if it has not concluded the matter, for the reasons that I have given, will have served a useful purpose.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Eleven o'clock.