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7.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (John Healey): I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on securing the debate and I pay tribute to him for his concern, which is well established and based on a very detailed knowledge of the circumstances in his area. I looked at the ten-minute Bill that he introduced in June 1998, setting out many of the problems that we faced at that time. Like him, the Government believe strongly that schools must have suitable accommodation in order to be able to deliver the national curriculum. Teachers must be in a good environment where they can teach effectively and, most importantly, pupils must have classrooms where they can learn.

The hon. Gentleman raised his concerns in 1998 and I am glad that he welcomes the changes that have been made since then and acknowledges that, since the Government were elected in 1997, they really have made a difference. Our strongly held view is that school buildings must be improved, and that has been part of the basis of the greatly increased capital investment that we have made in schools since we came to office.

It is worth reminding ourselves that in 1996–97, the last year of the previous Government, central Government support for schools' capital investments was only £683 million, and it had been around that level for many years. That level of investment barely covered the need to provide additional new school places in response to population growth. It did not meet the repair and condition needs of schools that had accumulated during two decades of neglect and inadequate funding; nor did it address the problems of improving and modernising an ageing school estate to meet the teaching and learning needs of the new century.

As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, in 1997 we inherited a schools estate that was seriously decayed and increasingly unsuited to the task of educating our children because of that underfunding. We have made much progress since 1997. In our first four years in office, we made available a total of £5.3 billion for capital investment in schools. That has allowed us to tackle the worst of the backlog of school repairs, including the replacement of many of the worst decayed, time-expired temporary buildings, which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

In November 1999, as part of that programme, the Chancellor in his pre-Budget report made the then unprecedented move of introducing a capital initiative devoted entirely to removing the worst temporary classrooms. Some £43 million of ring-fenced new deal

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money for schools was made available to local education authorities, specifically so that they could replace temporary classrooms in poor condition with permanent classrooms. That sum was later increased to £150 million. In total, that enabled the removal of 1,500 of the worst temporary classrooms in our schools. In particular, Somerset took advantage of additional opportunities during the four rounds of the new deal for schools to remove some of the temporary classrooms in the county.

As the hon. Gentleman did not acknowledge in this debate, but will know, there have been a number of successful projects in the county, including four in his constituency. At Trinity Church of England first school in Frome, construction work is being carried out to replace a temporary classroom and enlarge three other classrooms. There are similar projects at Wincanton community primary school, Christchurch in Frome and Horsington primary school. The pupils and staff at all those schools are benefiting from comfortable, well designed, permanent buildings.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the Government have given the issue high priority in our first four years in office. Under the capital investment programme for schools, we can do a great deal more nationally. We are now providing £8.5 billion in capital over the next three years to improve and modernise school buildings. This year, the figure is £2.2 billion—three times the total in the last year under the Tories. By 2003-04, the total will be £3.5 billion—five times as much as the Tories invested in their final year in office. That is the largest sustained programme of investment in our schools estate for the past 50 years. That investment will enable authorities and schools to make real progress in modernising their buildings, so that they are fit for the curriculum and student needs of the 21st century.

The hon. Gentleman was right to acknowledge the value that temporary classrooms can have. If they are modern and in good condition, they can be useful in certain specific circumstances. For example, they can allow schools and local authorities to cope with sudden, unexpected and perhaps short-term bulges in pupil numbers. They can also speed up the consolidation of multi-site schools on single sites. They can help schools that are unfortunate enough to be damaged by fire, arson attack or other major disruption. They can enable schools with very poor building conditions to be redeveloped without having to close while that work is going on.

Many schools have found that temporary classrooms have other uses. They are frequently used outside normal school hours for the functions and activities that the schools want to run. Although many schools have had permanent classrooms built, they seem rather reluctant to give up the temporary classrooms. The Department regularly receives representations from schools that have had permanent classrooms built, objecting to our removing the temporary accommodation. Temporary classrooms can be useful if they are in good condition and if they are indeed temporary.

The Government have recently introduced two major changes to the system for allocating capital investment in schools. The first is a move from a programme that was

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essentially bid based to one in which allocations are based on a formula and on a comprehensive survey of the conditions of school buildings throughout the LEA area. The second major change is that most of the decisions have moved from national level to the local LEA. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, at the heart of that new system is the asset management plan prepared by the LEA in close consultation, and normally after detailed discussion, with schools, teachers, governors and others in the area.

The asset management plan is the basis for allocating resources for basic need work. It is based on forecast growth and capacity constraints in a school, and it is also the basis for allocating resources for improving conditions and modernisation work, based on pupil numbers and the priority that the plan assigns to conditions in the school. That is the old new-deal-for-schools bidding programme transferred to the local level and rooted in the asset management plan.

The hon. Gentleman spoke with knowledge and passion about his local schools. I appreciate the problems that temporary classrooms cause, because many of them are shared in my constituency. They make it difficult to move children around the school. They are often too hot or too cold at precisely the wrong time of the year and one cannot use temporary classrooms for certain things, such as creating social areas, in the same way as one can use permanent buildings.

I have two words of advice for the hon. Gentleman in an attempt to help him and the schools about which he is concerned. The principal step that they must take is to raise the issues with the LEA and with the asset management forum in the context of the plan in the Somerset area. No doubt they will do that with the support of the local Member of Parliament, who has strong connections with the school committee chair, Councillor Cathy Bakewell MBE. The asset plan provides the basis for assessing the condition of the classrooms, making decisions on priority, planning the work and allocating resources for all the local area. The Somerset asset management plan promotes the removal of temporary classrooms as a priority, and I know that the LEA is planning to add to the money that we can provide centrally for the programme.

My second point is that, despite the changes, the Department for Education and Skills retains small-scale programmes that are bid based. In particular, the targeted capital scheme may interest the hon. Gentleman. He and the schools in his area may find it worth examining. It allows for building investment to deliver educational benefit; it does not deal specifically with the problem of poor conditions in schools. However, if the hon. Gentleman wishes, I am happy to ask my officials to discuss the details of the scheme with him. After he has talked to the schools, they can determine whether it might be suitable to bid on that basis.

The hon. Gentleman may also want to consider a private finance initiative. Some 33 deals have been signed, with a value of more than £850 million and covering 450 schools. Not one deal has been used for, or has led to, the installation of a temporary classroom. Again, he may wish to discuss that point with his LEA.

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Temporary classrooms in poor conditions simply do not provide a good learning environment. The Government are determined to improve conditions in all our schools and we have made a great deal of progress in replacing temporary classrooms with well designed permanent facilities. The unprecedented planned increase in capital

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investment this year and over the next two years will speed up the process across the country and in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and county.

Question put and agreed to.

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