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Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Houghton Regis

10.15 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I am grateful for the opportunity to present this petition to the House. It has been signed by 658 of my constituents from the town of Houghton Regis in Bedfordshire, which has a population of some 17,000 people but, at present, does not have a bank. That is particularly injurious to my constituents because transport to the neighbouring towns is difficult and slow; a large number of elderly people in Houghton Regis need access to a bank. Bank premises in the town are vacant and available for use. The British Bankers Association is conducting a pilot study to reintroduce banks to areas but, unfortunately, Houghton Regis does not qualify. The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

15 Jan 2002 : Column 267

School Places (East Sussex)

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

10.17 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I cannot help but feel a certain irony in taking part in this debate, as I spoke in last Friday's debate on pensions and annuities. However, Eastbourne is like that; we have a large elderly population but, as I shall describe, we also have a fast-growing population of young people, which is estimated to continue well into this century. As I am sure you do, Mr. Speaker, I have a personal rule of thumb; if I am not getting angry letters about something, it is probably okay and there is not a problem.

Increasingly, in recent years I have been getting letters from disappointed parents who cannot get their children into the school of their choice. In East Sussex, parents are given three choices—the local education authority prefers to call them preferences, but I think that that is a distinction without any difference. On a number of occasions of which I am aware—no doubt there have been others—parents have not got their children into any of their three choices. I am so concerned about resources and the allocation of school places in my constituency that I have recently announced a programme to revisit all its schools in the coming months to see the problems for myself.

There is a problem in the primary schools. According to the briefing that the LEA kindly provided, in the East Sussex school organisation plan—SOP—for 2002 to 2005–06, the number of primary age pupils, which has grown substantially, will decline in the county as a whole. In Eastbourne, however, the total number of primary age pupils is expected to increase by about 100 in the next two years. There is already a problem in primary schools. I believe that Ocklynge junior school in my constituency is the largest junior school not just in the country, but in Europe. Only the other day, I visited Stafford junior school in my constituency, which is being pressured to take a total of 370 pupils, when it was originally designed to take a maximum of 280. I saw for myself the four mobile classrooms—I hesitate to use the word "temporary" as it is often misused in the circumstances—in its grounds.

The problem is therefore widespread at every level of education in my constituency and in other parts of East Sussex. I have reached the conclusion that in the medium term we need another new school in Eastbourne, or at least a major extension of one or more of the existing schools. The SOP shows a continuing marked increase of some 1,200 in the number of secondary-age pupils across the county over the plan period. However, in Eastbourne it is expected that the total number of secondary-age pupils will increase by more than 600, or almost 12 per cent., during the period of the plan.

A working group chaired by the lead member for education, Councillor Rupert Simmons, concluded that taking into account likely new housing that the Government seek to impose on the area, 700 new places will be required. The group concluded that up to 350 new places will certainly be needed by 2005. A number of options have been identified.

That is not to say that there is no good news. We have the £16 million committed by the county council to the new secondary school, the Causeway school, which will

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provide up to 950 places. The Church of England-aided school, Bishop Bell, is about to commence a £2 million project to provide 150 additional places. I should mention in passing that Bishop Bell is the most oversubscribed school in the entire county, largely owing to the efforts of its excellent head teacher, Mr. Terry Boatwright.

I am pleased to say that in only a few short months, the new Conservative administration in East Sussex has got a grip under Councillor Simmons's leadership and is looking at priorities, which was not achieved during the previous eight years of Liberal Democrat control. In particular, the previous administration seems to have ignored the view of the district auditor in his report in 1998, which stated that the margin for parental preference in Eastbourne was very small.

The figures are extraordinary. With the exception of the new Causeway school, which is still in the process of filling up, every secondary school in my constituency is well over capacity, with percentages ranging from 8 per cent. up to 19 per cent. In the case of the Eastbourne technology college, formerly Hampden Park school, the LEA and the governors are allowing for the possibility of it being up to 26 per cent. over capacity. That shows an enormous pressure on school places and on staff and pupils.

It is true that there are vacant places in Eastbourne, but it is also true that, without exception, they all exist at Eastbourne technology college. That is interesting for two reasons. First, ETC is already 19 per cent. over capacity. Secondly, for reasons that may not be fair, may be historical and are beyond the scope of this debate, Eastbourne technology college is currently not a popular school, in the sense of attracting as many first preferences as some other secondary schools.

That causes an additional problem. Despite the excellent work of the staff, and particularly the relatively new head teacher, Janet Felkin, there are parents whose children are assigned to Eastbourne technology college although it was not one of their three preferences, and who are not happy about that situation. That is the only school, as confirmed by the director of education, Denise Stokoe, that has spare places. She states in her letter to me:

Councillor Simmons remarked in an e-mail to me on the matter that the council has set out the basis of a development plan, brought together all the six secondary heads involved, and is seeking to devise a plan. He says:

that is, Willingdon school—

He goes on to talk about an extremely limited capital budget. All those issues will be addressed at a meeting of the council's cabinet on 31 January.

An interesting option that emerged only today in a press statement from the LEA is that of moving the existing Cavendish school to what is effectively a greenfield site at Cross Levels way to give the school up-to-date facilities and, perhaps even more important, to increase its size to

15 Jan 2002 : Column 269

about 1,200 places. As the statement makes clear, councillors have yet to make decisions about resources for the forward capital programme. It states:

This is a question not merely of numbers, however, but of the real human problems caused by the figures. For example, Mr. Keith Martin, one of my constituents, has fought a tenacious battle to try to get his daughter Claire into the school of his and his wife's choice. That has not been possible and they have been offered a place at Eastbourne technology college. Claire is still being tutored at home at great expense and inconvenience to all concerned. There seems to be a state of impasse at the moment as far as her education is concerned.

The other day, a local teacher sent me an e-mail that stated:

She went on to write:

That is a crushing indictment of the current system.

We have a worrying picture of the effect of the current situation on class sizes, the pressures on teachers, the possible prejudice to the education of local children in Eastbourne and elsewhere in East Sussex and the undermining of parental choice. I have three questions for the Minister. First, does she accept the scale of the pressures that I have described and agree that they must be addressed? Secondly, does she accept that, in the short term, the problems of the existing facilities, such as temporary classrooms, must be tackled? Thirdly, does she accept that, in the medium term, my constituents need either another new secondary school or significant extensions to one or more existing schools and that the planning for that development, whichever option is adopted, must start now? I want to be able to go back to my constituents, such as Mr. Martin and many others, and give them reassuring answers to those questions after tonight's debate.

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