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12.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Charles Clarke): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on securing the debate; I had not realised that this is the first time that the affairs of Bury alone have been debated in the Chamber.

Everyone in the House knows of the personal commitment, energy and expertise that my hon. Friend brings to bear on behalf of his constituents and the children in his constituency's schools. As he said, I was fortunate enough to visit a school in his constituency where I met people from the local education authority and many teachers and discussed many of the issues that he has raised. I know that he has accurately reflected the feelings of his constituents and I congratulate him on continuing to prosecute his case.

The first issue raised by my hon. Friend, and the one with which he concluded, was the Ofsted LEA inspection report for Bury. As he said, that report was very positive. Ofsted held a press conference to announce the report's publication, and to give an example of what LEAs can achieve and how well they can support their schools. Bury's report says that the education service has shown itself to be a highly effective organisation which is providing excellent support for schools and value for money. It is well led and has good relationships with its schools. It provides excellent support for literacy, performance data to support target setting and strong support for pupils with educational and behavioural difficulties.

My hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards wrote on behalf of the Government to commend Bury on that inspection report, so I am happy to associate myself with my hon. Friend's positive remarks about the role played and contribution made by the teachers, governors, pupils and officers of his local LEA in the metropolitan borough of Bury. That outstanding achievement deserves public recognition, which he has secured today.

I believe that LEAs across the country can learn many things from Bury, which is one reason why Ofsted publicised the report. I am not sure that that goes quite so far as taking over the schools of Islington and Hackney, although we will examine with great interest the suggestion that that might happen; it is a new twist on the suggestion that what Greater Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow.

As my hon. Friend will know, our specialist schools initiative, our beacon schools initiative--another of which was announced recently--and our approach show our strong commitment to disseminating good practice in every aspect of the delivery of educational services. I heard what he had to say about Bury's achievement in key stage 2 results, which have been outstanding.

On league tables, which my hon. Friend mentioned, I agree that one should not interpret them too precisely in their various respects. They must be set in context, and we always do that, but the data to which he referred help to motivate target setting and drive educational standards upwards. They should be publicly available, not kept in some secret garden away from the public, so that will inevitably lead to their publication. My only health warning is that the league tables should always be set in context.

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I note my hon. Friend's particular point about the need to develop value-added statistics for the league tables and I agree about their importance. As he knows, the Government are setting about that task. We have introduced a number of pilot schemes to see how that data might best be collected and it is our declared intention to include value-added data, as long as we can be sure that they are reliable. Reliability is a key point, because people rest judgments on league tables and must know the facts.

My hon. Friend made a range of points about funding and resources. He was fundamentally right in his description of the situation; Bury is 130th out of 150 LEAs in funding per pupil--towards the bottom end, as he said. It receives about 7 per cent. per pupil less than the national average, despite, as he rightly says, being nearer the centre of the various tables on socio-economic indices. I therefore accept what he said about the SSA formula, as will my colleagues across the Government as they consider the issues that we are addressing. My hon. Friend's comparisons with London were, as always, interesting; my LEA in Norfolk makes exactly the same point. His comparisons are not only on the record, but will be heeded by Ministers in my Department and across the Government.

Since 1997, Bury's education SSA has increased by £8 million and its primary school SSA has increased by 11.6 per cent. I commend the authority on passing on in full the increase in SSA to education, and we are keen to establish that practice across the country. As my hon. Friend said, the standards fund has made a major contribution to improving the situation in Bury and I was glad to hear about the teachers' welcome for it. I also acknowledge his point about the difficulties that can arise over matched funding.

On class size, since 1997, Bury has received £1.7 million to provide additional teachers and £1.4 million is available for additional classrooms. As a result, Bury has achieved a major reduction in the number of five, six and seven-year-olds in large classes and, from January 1998 to January 1999, that number fell from 3,326 to 460. I congratulate the LEA on a robust plan for reducing class sizes, its speedy implementation and achieving good value for money.

On literacy, as my hon. Friend correctly pointed out, the national target is 80 per cent., but Bury has set the more challenging target of 90 per cent. We have allocated £302,000 from the standards fund to raise primary literacy standards in Bury. On numeracy, the national target is 75 per cent., but the target in Bury is 80 per cent. Again, I congratulate the LEA on driving those targets forward. Bury received £196,000 to raise primary numeracy standards.

On other standards funding, the total amount available to Bury is more than £3 million, including the funding to which I have referred and funding for the national grid for learning, school security and a range of other issues. Those resources are significant and important, and we are delighted that they are being used to such good effect in Bury. I have heard, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will hear, my hon. Friend's remarks about the possibility of using the standards fund to target resources on areas of greatest need. That is precisely what we have done through capital funding.

The new deal for schools, to which my hon. Friend referred, is specifically targeted on schools with the most serious defects to ensure that they are properly addressed.

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That is why Bury has received a total capital allocation of almost £6 million since the Government were elected, £2 million of which is in respect of the new deal for schools. An additional £2.4 million has been made available through advance capital grant and grant to voluntary-aided schools.

I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that that major improvement on past funding has enabled him to set about overcoming, with his characteristic energy and enthusiasm, many of the serious problems that he inherited when he became Member of Parliament for Bury, North.

I understand the points that my hon. Friend has made. I have listened to what he said about the contribution of parents, teachers and governors, and I congratulate the LEA on its work. The Government will continue to support education in Bury with substantial resources, working in partnership with everybody involved to raise standards. We will consider most carefully the specific points that he reported in the debate. I am delighted to have been able to highlight them, because they reveal my hon. Friend's commitment and that of his colleagues to drive forward the improvement in educational standards in Bury. The Government share that commitment.

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Primary Schools (Admissions)

1 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Few things matter more to parents than their child's education. As a parent with a three-year-old child, I well understand parents' concern about the choice of primary school and about the need to get that right. It should be right for the family and right for the child. My reason for securing this debate is my concern that, in their entirely laudable desire, which I share, to reduce infant class sizes, the Government have introduced legislation that has proved to be unduly rigid in its application and that may be to the detriment of some of the very children that it aims to support.

I shall give a specific example, which prompted the debate, and I shall then consider the more general situation in South Gloucestershire council and in other local authorities. I should like to draw the House's attention to the case of Chloe, who is three and will be four next month. Her parents recently moved back to the village of Elberton in South Gloucestershire. Elberton does not have a school of its own: the children of the village walk to the school in Olveston, which is a popular village school. Parents buy houses in the village to make sure that they get their children into the school. I live in Olveston, and in due course I hope that my children will go to that school. To be honest, I do not need to declare an interest, because if my argument is successful I may prejudice my children's chances, but I shall leave that on one side.

The parents of Chloe Wilson applied to Olveston school, which is their local school. They also applied to Almondsbury school, which is another popular local school. Because Olveston school is popular, it is full: 30 children already have their names down to go there. Almondsbury is also full. The local authority wrote to the Wilsons to say that it regretted that their child could not go to their preferred school, and that she could go to St. Helen's school in Alveston.

I do not want to criticise St. Helen's school in Alveston, which is a good school. The question is whether it is the right school for Chloe Wilson. Without going into too much detail about this individual case, I have good reasons for thinking that it is not the right school and that Olveston would be the best school, partly because the children from the village all go to the same school and partly because it is within easy walking distance and the family have an older child with Down's syndrome whom they have to drive to a special school. Those reasons make the case of Olveston school.

Chloe goes to a nursery and she has for the first time begun to talk to other children. She is a chatty girl at home, but out in company she has been reclusive and has only just started to talk to children. The cohort of children who attend the nursery and will go on to state primary school will go to Olveston.

In previous years, the parents would have appealed, and the appeal panel would have made its judgment and may well have decided--we cannot be sure--that a 31st child at Olveston would be of great benefit to the individual child and would not unduly prejudice the other children already there. That is not longer possible, and an appeal is likely to be unsuccessful because of the rigidity of the new rules.

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Chloe's parents have put her on a waiting list for Olveston, and every week they hope that the phone call will come and one of the 30 pupils will have been withdrawn so that Chloe can go to the school of her choice. Her friends from the village are visiting the school to see what it is like, meeting the teachers and buying the uniform, but Chloe can do none of that. Chloe and her family are torn, and the situation has created uncertainty.

I am sure that the Minister would not have wanted that to be the product of the legislation. Indeed, I have had the pleasure of discussing education in South Gloucestershire with her, and I know of her concerns. I should be grateful if she would tell me what to say to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson when I go back to my constituency later in the week. What can I say to them that will persuade them that the legislation was right? Better yet, how can I reassure them that future Chloe Wilsons will not be put in this difficult position? Is there any way in which the desirable goal of lower class sizes can be achieved with greater flexibility?

We obviously cannot overturn the whole of the Government's admissions policy for one child, but there are wider problems in South Gloucestershire. As the Minister would expect, primary and infant schools across the area are setting the standard number for admission at 30 or multiples of 30. That is already creating problems for some schools. The schools that have reduced the standard number to 30 are very popular--Crossways in Thornbury and Raysfield infant schools to name but two--and more parents have applied to send their children to those schools than the 30 that will be accepted.

The director of education in South Gloucestershire provided me with a briefing note for the debate. It says:

He thinks that up to 20 schools could be affected by the new regime. Appeals that might otherwise have been heard and considered on their merits now face a blanket ban. Parents tell me that they have a good case for their child to go a particular school and say, "Surely they will listen to us." I have to explain to them that the authority has a prior claim, and that they may not even have a hearing.

Why do not the schools in the area build more classes? The education department has funded extra classes in South Gloucestershire to enable class sizes to be reduced to 30. However, not all the bids that the authority believed it needed to provide the extra places have been accepted. It has had to put in an extra £600,000 to ensure that it complies with the legislation.

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