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Penn School

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

11.8 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I am delighted, even at this late hour, to have an opportunity to air the concerns of parents, pupils, governors and staff about the future of Penn school, which is based in my constituency.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who are supporting me here tonight. My hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Sir R. Whitney) and for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) have sent their apologies, but have also been of great support to me. I wish to mention in particular the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) who, together with other Labour Members, has supported the future of Penn school.

I am delighted to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment to the Front Bench and I hope that, in replying to the debate, he will be able to give heart and a definite future to Penn school. Some 18 hon. Members have an interest in the school's future, and that interest extends well beyond this place. Many people will have stayed up tonight to hear what the Minister has to say to us.

Penn school, a designated regional resource for deaf and hearing-impaired children--is under threat. For 76 years, it has met the special educational needs of deaf and hearing-impaired children. Since 1990, its role has evolved to include a unit for language-impaired children. Throughout its history, children have come to Penn from as far afield as the counties of Avon to the west and Cambridgeshire to the east. No fewer than 11 London boroughs place children at the school.

In 1990, Camden local education authority bid, and took responsibility for, the school. However, the LEA now proposes ceasing to maintain it from August 1999. I support the governors and others in their hope of retaining the school as an expanded regional resource for secondary-age children with communication problems who cannot wholly be successfully managed or treated in mainstream schools.

In their own words, the governors and others aspire to continue

As well as providing facilities for secondary-aged pupils, the governors and staff wish, depending on demand, to introduce a primary entry class for pupils aged nine to 11.

As the Minister will know, the governors have made a formal application to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to continue to operate Penn school as a non-maintained special school. I press the Minister on the matter and hope that he will respond positively to that proposal. However, there are some concerns about how the Department will interpret the school's degree of specialism. That has been defined as a "unique combination" and includes the school's provision of facilities for deaf or hearing-impaired and language-impaired children, who also have other, sometimes severe, difficulties.

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The school offers teaching by qualified teachers of the deaf and a high-level signing system. In addition, there are boarding facilities. The school provides a small, homely environment that secures the development of a range of secondary-age pupils with disabilities. It has a successful history of providing a period of restorative care and teaching that enables severely disadvantaged pupils to return to mainstream schools after a spell at Penn. It is worth mentioning, although I am sure that the Minister will have noticed it, that the school received a very good Ofsted report in June 1998.

The governors have succeeded in attracting funding to back their attempt to continue the school's work. I hope that their application will be given every consideration to enable that valuable resource to continue to help young people. I have been to the school on several occasions and met pupils, parents, governors and staff. It is obvious that the standard of education in the school is excellent and that the children respond extremely well.

I urge the Minister to make a decision as soon as possible because, clearly, while there is uncertainty about the school's future, it is difficult for LEAs to come to decisions about whether to place a pupil at the school. The governors also face the problem of retaining the well-trained and highly motivated teachers.

Camden's case for closure depends partly on the argument about the viability of the school, but it could be argued that its policy of stopping residential admissions from May 1997--a decision that I appreciate has been reversed--in itself damaged the school's viability. That has made it more difficult to recruit new pupils. However, following market research, the governors and teaching staff believe that at least seven LEAs are potential new customers for the school.

The school has the capability to provide places for 60 pupils--either for all their senior years, or for some--to enter the school for a relatively short period before they re-enter mainstream education. In addition, the school could take part in the programme of greater inclusion for pupils with special educational needs, as set out in the Department's Green Paper "Excellence for all Children". I do not mean to quote the Minister's words back at him, but, as I am sure that he knows, the Green Paper states:

Penn school fulfils all the criteria to operate as a centre of regional excellence. The Green Paper acknowledged that there should be a "continuum of provision" across the country, and I believe that Penn school has a role to play within that provision.

The preferred option set out in the Green Paper is to encourage voluntary contribution between local education authorities and other providers, including non-maintained special schools. One of the core functions is defined as the planning of places for low-incidence disabilities. That includes pupils with hearing impairments and autism--the type of pupils who attend Penn school.

Another difficulty faced by the governors and the team putting together the bid is Camden's recent decision on the valuation of the site. The estimated value of the site and the buildings, for continued educational use, is £1.6 million. However, in mid-February, Camden stated that it must adopt as its basis for valuation the full market

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price of the site, which would be some £2 million. The argument is that the council has a statutory duty to obtain the full market value on a best-consideration basis.

I urge the Minister to do what he can to persuade Camden to rethink its decision. The governors are prepared to give legal undertakings that, in the eventuality of the school's having to close, the London borough of Camden would be involved in any arrangement for its disposal; but I cannot emphasise too strongly that the team at Penn school see no reason why it should not have a thriving future for many years to come.

Camden's decision about the valuation is one more obstacle put in the way. There does not seem to be any reason why Camden should not accept an offer based on the valuation of the site operating as a school under the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972. When Camden council ratified the closure recommendation in September 1998, the education committee stated in writing:

That effectively set the valuation as the utilisation of an existing use. What has happened since then could be described as a U-turn. If the Minister can wield any influence with the LEA to persuade it to rethink its strategy, my constituents and I--and the constituents of many other hon. Members--will be extremely grateful.

Children at Penn have often been placed once, twice or as many as three times before coming to the school. They eventually find the right school, and start to make good progress. If the school is closed, we shall also have to think about the consequences for pupils who will then have to travel far from home.

A former pupil, Shaun Wiggins, wrote this about his personal experience of the school and the effect that it had on him:

That is a great tribute to the work of the headmaster, Mr. Alan Jones, and his staff, and to the dedication of the school's governors, headed by Mr. John Tripp. Their greatest concern is for the welfare of the children in their care. They want the work of Penn school to continue for many years, as indeed do my hon. Friends and I.

I hope that Shaun Wiggins's eloquent plea will not be disregarded, and that other pupils with hearing or language impairment, or autism, can continue to receive the benefits of the education provided at Penn school.

I hope that, today, the Minister will give the Penn school the future that it desires. It is a centre of excellence. I have been delighted to visit the school, and to see the outcome of the education provided to its pupils. I cannot tell the Minister how dedicated the parents, the governors, the staff and the pupils are to the school's continuation.

The Minister has a golden opportunity today to set at rest the minds of deserving people and their children. I hope that he will grasp the opportunity with both hands.

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11.20 pm

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