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10.28 pm

The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge): I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) on securing this debate. I am delighted to hear that he is undertaking a programme of visiting his local schools. I must admit that I am surprised that that is not a regular part of what he chooses to do. Even speaking as one of us busy Ministers, I can say that I make it a point in my schedule to ensure that I regularly visit schools. Indeed, there is never a time when a school has not seen me within about 18 months.

Mr. Waterson: If the Minister had been listening with her usual care, she would have heard me use the word "revisit".

Margaret Hodge: I heard the word "revisit", but I am none the less surprised because regular visits are a feature

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of my constituency duties. I hope that all Members of Parliament show such interest in the educational infrastructure of their constituencies.

I welcome the debate because it gives us an opportunity to put on record our approach to ensuring a framework that provides choice and opportunity for children and their families. I understand and sympathise with the anxieties that the hon. Gentleman's constituents have expressed in correspondence. It is proper to raise them in the House, and I am delighted that he has done that.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that many solutions to the problems that he has raised are in the hands of the Conservative-controlled local education authority and local people. We have properly made it their job to plan for and provide the necessary places so that parents and children can enjoy the choice that he wishes them to have. After the debate, I hope that he will go back to his colleagues on the local education authority and encourage them to get on with planning to ensure that proper bids are submitted to the Department so that we can respond to the needs that he has highlighted.

Tonight's debate allows me to explain the national context in which local decisions about the allocation of school places are made. It also gives me the opportunity to outline our proposals in the Education Bill, which is currently being considered in Committee, and to explain how they will reinforce our priorities and ensure choice in local communities.

Since we have been in government, we have made clear our overriding commitment to improving educational standards. We aim to ensure that parents and children have a choice and the best way of doing that is through equally good schools. That is vital to making equality of opportunity and parental choice a reality.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who is present, is dealing with the Bill in Committee. Its focus is the transformation of our secondary schools, which the hon. Member for Eastbourne mentioned. I want to draw his attention to several proposals in the Bill that will support his aspirations for his local community.

We propose to expand the successful specialist schools programme, which will help to extend diversity, and hence choice, in secondary schools. Schools ready for specialist status will be encouraged to seek it, and we will support those who are working towards it.

Successful schools will be encouraged to excel and innovate. We intend to give the best schools greater freedom—for example, to take new approaches to staffing, or to accelerated learning.

We are establishing a schools innovation unit to work with teachers and heads, and to help stimulate and disseminate new ideas, especially in relation to catering better for pupils' different requirements and aspirations.

We hope that governing bodies in the hon. Gentleman's area will be able to work together to create families of local schools, sharing problems and pooling resources in everyone's best interests. Those proposals will help us to raise standards, which will help to enhance opportunity and create choice.

We are responding to the wishes of many parents who try to ensure that successful and popular schools are able to expand more easily. That is especially relevant to the

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hon. Gentleman's anxieties. The governing bodies of successful schools will be able to appeal to the adjudicator if their proposals for expansion are turned down by the school organisation committee.

In the Bill, we not only focus on how to encourage and support best schools, but recognise the need to tackle low standards in schools. The hon. Gentleman talked about the lack of popularity of Eastbourne technology college. I hope that some of the measures that we are introducing will support improvements in quality and standards in all schools in his constituency.

Schools that face challenging circumstances will receive a programme of support, with the aim of setting a floor and ensuring that a specific number of pupils at every school obtain five GCSEs at grade A to C by 2006. It is to East Sussex local education authority's credit that only one of its schools fell within the category of challenging schools—that is, those in which 25 per cent. or fewer pupils gained five or more GCSEs at A* to C grade. I am pleased to say that that school improved its performance in 2001, with 30 per cent. of its pupils having achieved 5 GCSEs at grade A* to C.

Local education authorities will invite—or, if necessary, be instructed to invite—external partners to help turn around failing schools. None of our plans to improve standards can come to fruition unless we have sufficient well trained, well motivated teachers in place. The one letter that the hon. Gentleman chose to read to the House does not, in my view, reflect the feeling of most teachers, who recognise that we are investing as best we can to ensure that they can focus on the job that they do best, and for which they are trained, which is teaching. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support our proposals to modernise the teaching profession.

Teacher recruitment and retention is a key issue to us. In the lifetime of this Parliament, we will recruit 10,000 more teachers and the crucial 20,000 more support staff who will support them in their administrative work, much of which is necessary if we are properly to monitor the fact that we are raising standards in schools. We have doubled the money given to East Sussex local education authority last year for recruitment and retention of teachers. In 2002-03, it will receive £703,000. How that is spent will be determined locally, and I hope that it will be spent wisely to improve recruitment and retention.

I now want to respond to the specific local concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman. The law gives parents the right to express a preference for the school at which they wish their child to be educated, but it has never guaranteed every parent a place for their child at the school of their choice. I understand the frustration of parents whose application has been unsuccessful. Indeed, in my time, I have shared that frustration. However, if a school has more applications than places, it cannot admit every applicant. In those circumstances, places have to be allocated among applicants according to a local education authority's published oversubscription criteria. Some schools have always been more popular than others.

LEAs have a duty to provide sufficient school places for their area. We believe that decisions about the organisation of school places are best taken locally by the people who know the area. That is why, through the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, we established a new framework for local decision making. LEAs now have a duty to prepare a school organisation

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plan covering a five-year period, and that has to be a rolling programme. The plan sets out how the LEA proposes to deal with surpluses and deficits of school provision, and what provision it intends to make for pupils with special educational needs.

Independent school organisation committees have also been established for each LEA area. Their role is to consider the plans and to take decisions about statutory proposals affecting the local organisation of school places. School organisation committees are independent statutory bodies answerable to their local communities. If any LEA is able to demonstrate an overall deficit in school places, it can apply for funding in the annual capital round. I urge the hon. Gentleman to return to his local education authority and tell it to get on with putting in such an application.

Our officials are aware of the pressures on school places in East Sussex, but finding a solution to those pressures is an issue that has to be addressed by the local education authority, and through the local school organisation committee. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it would be completely wrong of the Government to impose a solution centrally. It must be the responsibility of the local education authority to come forward with its preferred solution. I concur with the figures that the hon. Gentleman put before the House. We have figures showing more than 1,000 surplus primary school places in East Sussex, and a shortfall of around 270 secondary school places.

The LEA has shown in its projections that demand for places will continue to increase over the next three or four years, particularly in the secondary sector. In the hon. Gentleman's constituency of Eastbourne, it also forecasts a continuing increase in demand for primary school places in the next two years, but that will decline.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the growing pressure on secondary schools is a concern, but as he also noted, officers and local head teachers have been working together to analyse the information and consider ways to meet the pressure on them. They estimate that they need about 700 extra secondary school places by 2010, although about half must be available by 2005. I hope that the council will shortly consider the four-year capital programme for the Eastbourne area alone.

I am pleased that the LEA has added capacity through the phased expansion schools, such as the Causeway school, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, has increased its numbers to 600 pupils. It will eventually accommodate 900. We support the LEA's requirement to meet the demand for places through basic need funding.

Throughout the county, including Eastbourne, a large number of new homes are planned or under construction. That is a healthy development in any locality. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman thinks that the Government are not responding to the capital pressures arising from providing additional places in his constituency. This Government, more than any other in my memory, have put more money into capital initiatives and ensured better investment, despite the huge backlog that we inherited. There is no reason to suggest that we have in any way inhibited the necessary expansion of places in East Sussex. The onus lies with the LEA to make appropriate proposals that it can justify in relation to the extra demand.

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To give an example, we have already committed £10.5 million for an additional 292 primary, 1,273 secondary and 49 post-16 places between the 1999–2000 and 2001–02 financial years. We have just committed a further £10.98 million of basic need funding for 2002–03 to 2004–05, to provide an additional 247 primary and 1,012 secondary places. That allocation fully meets the LEA's bid to us for basic need funding for primary and secondary school places, and it shows our commitment to work constructively with the LEA. However, I again urge the hon. Gentleman to ask his colleagues in the LEA to get on with making appropriate proposals to us.

On the secondary sector, I have mentioned the expansion at the Causeway school; Bishop Bell Church of England school is also being expanded for 2002–03. If the council cabinet agrees to the proposals put to it for further capital programmes, more places should be available from 2003. The LEA and its schools must continue to work in partnership to monitor and plan to meet the need for additional provision.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the need to replace temporary classrooms. I fully agree that schools must have accommodation that is fit for purpose, providing an environment in which schools can work effectively and children can learn. That is why we have greatly increased capital investment in schools since we came to office. In the past four years, we have made £5.3 billion available

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and a further £8.5 billion is being made available over the next three years. By 2003–04, annual capital investment will be £3.5 billion.

That commitment will allow LEAs and schools to make real progress in modernising schools so that they are fit for the 21st century. That includes replacing temporary facilities that are no longer suitable, but I stress again that the onus lies with the LEA to put sensible, workable propositions to us.

The Government have made a real commitment to investment in schools. We have made real progress in driving up standards in all our schools. We have set out an agenda for change, especially at secondary school level, that will deliver an education through the years of compulsory schooling that is fit for the new millennium. The cumulative effect of those numerous initiatives will be to raise standards so that ultimately the choice that parents will have to make should be between good schools, rather than between good schools and schools that need to improve.

While the Government can facilitate and support progress, establish an appropriate framework and provide proper funding, the onus to deliver properly for local people must rest with local LEAs. We would expect them to respond appropriately to pressures on demand, and to plan and provide enough places for children in their areas.

Question put and agreed to.

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