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Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Jamieson: Will I give way? Oh no.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar asked whether the Secretary of State was bound to choose his own proposal. As set out in the legislation, the decision to approve any transfer scheme suggested by the administrator must be taken by the Secretary of State. I hope that that clears the matter up for the hon. Gentleman. He asked about European Union competition laws. I assure him and the House that the successor company to Railtrack will be selected in compliance with EU laws.

As always, the hon. Member for Bath made a thoughtful contribution. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar stops interrupting and allows me to do so, I may get to some of his other questions. I have not finished with him yet and I assure him that the sting is in the tail of the debate.

The hon. Member for Bath rightly said that the order allows the smooth running of the company. That was ignored in the debate, so he was right to make the point. It would be in nobody's interest if things did not run smoothly and properly. He asked specific questions about Railtrack's Spacia company, which deals with advertising signs. It is not in administration, but all its dealings will lie with the administrator until Railtrack's future is decided.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the dips in performance. Those are generally expected at this time of year, as performance is lower. Obviously it is too early to say whether going into administration—

It being Seven o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

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Temporary Classrooms

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

7 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the replacement of temporary classrooms. Indeed, I have raised it before. I cast my mind back to June 1998, when I introduced a Bill that would have placed a duty on the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on the number of temporary classrooms in current use, and to lay plans for their replacement. I would not say that, had that Bill found sufficient parliamentary time to progress, it would have by now cured the problem across the country, but had there been a five-year renewal plan, as I envisaged, we would at least be substantially along that path.

I raised the matter in 1998, when I had been in the House for only a year. I had clear recollections of my time as a county councillor. For the previous 12 years I had tried desperately to wrestle with the problems of funding for education, and it seemed to me that this problem should have been high on the in-coming Government's list of priorities.

At that time, 25,000 temporary classrooms were in use across the country. I should be most grateful if the Minister gave me the up-to-date figure. I suspect that it is slightly lower now, as there have been some welcome changes in capital funding that will have had an effect, but I am sure that it is still a substantial number.

I know the number of temporary classrooms in use in Somerset. Even after the new deal for schools, we still have 618 temporary buildings in use, which represents 818 teaching places, as the jargon has it—or classrooms, in other words. So 818 classes of children are being taught in temporary classrooms. Although the county council is still making progress with replacement, it is desperately slow. I am advised that this year the total of 618 temporary buildings will be reduced by six: five classrooms and a toilet block will be replaced with permanent build.

Some people would have us believe that this is not a genuine problem, and that children prosper. Clearly, they often prosper even in temporary classrooms, because some of them are well kitted out, if not by the basic structure of the building, then by the efforts of the teacher and the children. I have visited many temporary classrooms that are a joy. The children's work is on display, and a pleasant environment has been created.

People also argue that it is necessary to have temporary classrooms because of fluctuating school rolls. I agree that a small number are needed at the margins to cope with fluctuating rolls. Some say that it is not the environment in which children are taught that is important: it is the quality of the teaching, and there is some truth in that. A good teacher is the first component of a good class in a good school. However, I still believe that the environment in which our children are taught and in which we ask our teachers to work is important.

The problems with temporary classrooms are manifest. They are cold in winter and hot in summer. They often have windows or flat roofs that leak, and they are subject to structural failure as they get older, whereas purpose- built, masonry construction usually is not. They put

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constraints on the children and on the teaching, because they are remote from the main school buildings. Some things are inherent in good teaching practice, such as allowing children to circulate freely from their base classroom to other classrooms, to other parts of the school and to resource centres, without having to go through the rigmarole of putting on their coats and hats and going out into a cold winter's day. That is an important consideration.

As for local education authorities and, indeed, governing bodies, it is important to bear in mind that they are expensive. It is very expensive to run temporary buildings. Heating and maintenance must be paid for, as must keeping the buildings in an adequate state of repair. There is also the problem of vandalism: wooden huts seem to be a magnet for every teenager with a grudge against the local education establishment. Such establishments are easy targets. All those factors make temporary classrooms more expensive to run than their purpose-built equivalents.

We should not neglect the aspirations of governors. We ask people to give up an enormous amount of their time, and to put enormous effort into building school communities—building schools of which communities are proud. They have aspirations for their schools, and their aspirations will not normally include seeing substantial parts of those schools accommodated temporarily in a sort of shanty town. That does not give a good impression of a school, and does not help it to attract pupils. I share the governors' aspirations for permanent, proper, purpose- built accommodation.

We need only think of our own working lives to realise that we would not put up with such arrangements. When there was a lack of accommodation for Members of Parliament, there was no suggestion that we erect a camp of portakabins across the road. No: we had Portcullis House built, at enormous expense—and very good it is too, but what is good enough for MPs is surely good enough for our teachers and children. We ought to have a sense of proportion.

We speak of temporary classrooms as though they were there for a couple of terms and then disappeared. As the Minister knows, the reality is very different. Classrooms described as temporary have been there for more than 40 years, and are well past their design life. In Somerset, 75 per cent. of our temporary classrooms are beyond their design life.

There is a strange nomenclature—a strange jargon—relating to temporary classrooms. "Horsas" have a design life of 10 years. "Elliotts" have a design life of 20 years. "Post panel"—usually "Prattens" in Somerset's case—have a design life of 25 years. All those design lives have being exceeded. The "Horsas" are probably the oldest of the lot, with the shortest design life. Children are being taught in classrooms which, although described as temporary, were used by their parents and, indeed, their grandparents.

Some of these very old classrooms are in a parlous state. Somerset recently conducted a survey of 150 of the oldest and poorest-quality temporary classrooms, and found that 25 urgently needed massive treatment if they were to remain in use. Replacing them with permanent accommodation would cost between £2 million and

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£2.5 million—but that is not available, and the local education authority will be unable to provide such accommodation. As usual, it will be a case of "make do and mend". There comes a point, however, at which that can no longer be done. I am told that 14 temporary classrooms in Somerset will need what is described as "propping or scrapping" if they are to keep going. That in itself will be expensive: it will cost £23,000. But what does that mean in practice?

I have visited the North Cadbury school many times and know it very well. It is a delightful school in a delightful village and is doing wonderful things with its children. However, 100 per cent. of its pupils are being taught in its four temporary classrooms, one of which is among the 14 that I have just described. Although all the classrooms are elderly and past their lifespan, that one classroom is more than elderly: it is at the point of dropping dead. It is an Elliott classroom and its central beam is collapsing. To make it safe, so that the school can continue operating for the rest of this winter, a hydraulic beam will be installed.

Can hon. Members imagine teaching a group of children in a classroom that has a hydraulic beam supporting the centre? It does not sound conducive to good teaching practice, and I do not know how the school will deal with it. If I were facetious I might say that the teachers may be able to disguise the beam as a Christmas tree for the next month or so, and then perhaps to paint it to resemble a maypole. It is not a proper way of providing an education for those children, but the alternative would be to take the classroom out of use entirely, the consequence of which would be that 25 per cent. of the school's available teaching space was gone. That clearly cannot happen. Moreover, one of the other classrooms is shipping water. The school governors tell me that they do not blame the local education authority, but they desperately need something to be done to solve their plight.

The school governors are doing a marvellous job of investing in information technology, as the Government want them to do. However, they have to place those computers in which they have invested heavily in wooden classrooms that have very little effective security. Even if they were in perfect order, the classrooms would be almost an invitation for someone to take the computers in the next school holiday. The school governors feel let down by a system that does not allow necessary capital investment, and they are not alone in that. I could cite schools across my constituency that are in the same position.

Milborne Port school, for example, which I visited a few weeks ago, has argued for years about the proportion of the school that is in temporary accommodation. Its governors would dearly love to do something about that. Trinity school, in Frome, is one of the most effective schools in my constituency, winning plaudits all round for the quality of its teaching. It has some new building in progress to extend its classrooms, to meet the requirements, but it also has four or five temporary classrooms. I could cite many other examples.

Do those facts suggest that Somerset county council is a bad education authority? I do not think that it is, and no objective test shows that it is. Somerset county has always prioritised education spending, sometimes with great difficulty given the formula against which—not with which—it works. The Government's current distribution

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formula ensures that every child in a Somerset school receives £1,500 less per year than every child in a school in a leafy London suburb. I think that, in terms of the value that we place on our children, that is a continuing crime.

Somerset county council does it best, but it has simply not had the latitude in capital spending to enable it to make a difference. The Government have made a difference since they were elected; I shall not disguise that fact. When I was chairman of the Somerset education authority, which covers the whole county, we had authority to spend a maximum of £750,000 on the replacement of building stock. There was no way in which we could properly replace building stock with that laughable sum.

Then we had the new deal for schools, and in subsequent years the capital programme increased to £2.5 million, and then to £5 million, which was extraordinarily welcome. However, there is a £25 million backlog in essential repairs and maintenance. I am sure that a similar situation prevails in many other local education authorities.

The Government also introduced the asset management plan process, which is wholly welcome. It is a significant improvement in the way we identify need and the Government attempt to address it. Let me say in parenthesis how grateful I am to Ministers for recognising the concern of LEAs when designing the sufficiency element of the asset management plan in respect of so-called doughnut schools—schools based on the 1970s doughnut design—which would have faced extraordinary difficulties had the Government kept to their original plan.

Looking at the situation nationally, the Local Government Association contrasts the £174 million in 2003–04 to achieve suitability of classrooms with the £500 million requirement for both 2003–04 and 2004–05 identified from the asset management plans. The basic problem is the incompatibility of so many of the Government's policies, some of which are their own and some of which were inherited. Emphasis is correctly placed on class size reduction—I have absolutely no quarrel with that—but trying to manage that within the framework of a limited capital programme, with the exigencies of parental choice on top, means that policy collisions will be inevitable. There is a policy of IT investment, yet there is a lack of suitable premises. There is a policy of encouraging sports education, but again a lack of premises that would allow schools to put that policy into action.

There is heavy reliance on the private finance initiative, yet I am not convinced that it can deliver in this matter. The Minister may tell me that I am wrong, but it is extremely difficult to envisage a lot of disparate sites spread across a local education authority being dealt with by a single PFI programme that would provide for the replacement of temporary classrooms. Even if it did, it is inconceivable that an LEA such as Somerset would be able to make the necessary revenue payments to make a PFI scheme of that kind work effectively.

We have made progress and I am grateful for it. I am not taking credit for it because of what I said in 1998; I know that it has been a priority for the Government, but a lot more needs to be done. I urge on the Minister a national programme of renewal of the temporary classrooms because, in my view, the teaching

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environment matters. It is something that we owe our teachers, our children and our school governors. However, it is not the only requirement. We need good teaching, a good curriculum and an adequate environment—whereupon, as has been shown time and again, the children will respond. We should do our best for our children, and at the moment many of our school buildings can be described only as second best. I ask the Minister to consider what he can do in order to further these very necessary plans for renewal.

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