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12 Dec 2002 : Column 509—continued

Colin Burgon (Elmet): I pay testimony to my hon. Friend's commitment to the local community. Does he agree that, just as we suffer in Leeds from the two-speed economy, if we have a two-tier education system that ignores the needs of the inner city and the estates, it will be bad news for the city of Leeds?

Mr. Mudie: I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. It is an important matter. We face a great challenge. There are great problems and change is needed. Thanks to the funds coming from the Labour Government, for the first time in my political career there is a real prospect of delivering a decent education to inner-city youngsters and of giving them real opportunities. That is why we must be careful to ensure that partnerships continue. We have a one-off chance in a generation to do something for those youngsters.

As I was saying, it is proposed to rebuild Shakespeare primary school on the site of Ebor Gardens school. To the absolute fury of parents, staff and governors, that property manipulation is being described as Xsurplus place adjustment". If the Minister cares to peruse Education Leeds school organisation booklets for the past two years, he will see that there is no hint that there might be a problem with surplus places at Ebor Gardens. Only last year, Education Leeds completed a #1.1 million refurbishment of Ebor Gardens—the very school that it proposes to knock down to make way for another primary school. Surprisingly, however, in this year's booklet, there is a specific reference to Shakespeare's figures as worrying.

All those points would be sufficient to raise public concern as to the genuineness of the consultation on surplus places even if the Department for Education and Skills had not re-entered the picture. Last Thursday, as the consultations were coming to a close, Education Leeds held an open day for any developers who were interested in private finance initiative packages for a group of primary schools, and yes, sadly, the rebuilding of Shakespeare on the Ebor Gardens site was on the list. How can we persuade parents, teachers, staff and the community that those consultations are valid when, before they have even ended, developers are being invited to make bids to rebuild the school?

So we bring together those three projects. Education Leeds, in the knowledge that it needed resources to help to deal with the real problems in the inner city, made bids to the Department for Education and Skills. It has had three successes: the academy, the young person's

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academy and the primary school PFI. It has spent time and money developing those three schemes during the past few months. It fitted them into the framework of the high school review and the primary surplus places review and then proceeded to consult.

As the consultation exercise comes to a close, it is fair to say that the educational objectives have been accepted, but a consensus is growing for a different package. There is genuine concern that Education Leeds, conscious that it is very tightly strapped for resources, fears that, if it wavers from the various parts of the consultation that it has already agreed with the Government, it will lose the money and any reorganisation will be in difficult, if not totally damaged.

I want to plead with the Minister publicly to assure Education Leeds that, so long as the educational objectives are met, the differences and even delays that may result from listening to people in Leeds will not cause the city to lose resources. I hope that the Minister will assure Education Leeds along those lines, or the whole consultation process will be seen as an insult to the hundreds of genuine people who turned out in the evenings to give their views at those consultation meetings.

If the Minister can assure Leeds that this is a mature Government who listen, there is a chance of a real partnership being pulled together to succeed in giving those inner city youngsters the chance of a real future—something they have been denied in the past few decades.

7.41 pm

Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) on obtaining this debate and thank him for allowing me to say a few words. I want to back up what he has said about Braim Wood high school, which is in my constituency. Braim Wood is a boys only school. Its exam results have been somewhat better than many schools in the area and, as my hon. Friend said, certainly better than Agnes Stewart Church of England high school, which has had a poor Ofsted report and is likely to close.

I want to back up some of the points that my hon. Friend made about the #18 million for the academy that has been promised to Agnes Stewart high school on the understanding that it will relocate to the current Braim Wood boys school. As the local Member of Parliament, it seems to me that Braim Wood, as my hon. Friend said, is in a very pleasant area of the city, but it has a catchment area among a very mixed social group.

If that school were to become an academy outside the Church of England and a mixed school, it would attract a very big social mix from an area that includes very wealthy areas of housing and some poor and deprived areas to the east of the school. So my plea to the Minister is to look very carefully at what has been proposed and to create a school that would have a far better social mix and achieve far higher standards and results than what is currently proposed.

I wish to make a point about the other part of Education Leeds's proposal that affects my constituency, and it also relates to the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary

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Benn). The City of Leeds high school is very small, but has had a good Ofsted result, and it could well attract many more pupils were it to be allowed to continue as a school. The consequence of Education Leeds's proposal to close that school is that it would also close a perfectly viable and highly successful school in my constituency: Carr Manor high school, which has achieved a considerable improvement in its results thanks to a dedicated management team and an excellent head teacher.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East has referred to the public meetings that have taken place as part of the consultation exercise, but he may not have known that, on Thursday last week—just seven days ago—550 parents and pupils turned out to say that they did not want that school to close, merge with the City of Leeds high school and reopen as a new school on that site. That seems the best way to guarantee that all the achievements of the past few years would be wiped out. The excellence and improvements that have been achieved at that school can continue, and it would be far better if that school were rebuilt, offering new facilities for all the pupils.

7.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) on securing this important debate. I am well aware of the amount and strength of interest being shown by people living in Leeds in the reviews of school provision that are currently taking place there. Clearly, that is reflected in the presence in the Chamber this evening of most if not all of the Members of Parliament for Leeds, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton), who spoke briefly, and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn).

First, I congratulate the heads, teachers, other staff and, above all, the pupils of Leeds on some of the results that they have been producing in the key stage tests in recent years. The results at key stages 1, 2 and 3 have been consistently good and improving in recent years, and it is important, in the context of this evening's debate, that that is recognised and commended. At GCSE, progress has been made, but, on average, the Leeds schools lag somewhat behind the national average, in contrast to their performance at key stages 1, 2 and 3. I agree with my two hon. Friends who have spoken that the focus of any changes to schools provision in Leeds should be on educational objectives, educational priorities, and, above all, educational standards. We have common ground in saying that.

These reviews are being undertaken by Education Leeds, a company that is responsible for many of the city's local education authority functions, although it is owned wholly by the council. First, it is important to state clearly that any decisions on whether an authority should proceed with proposals for closures of schools, arising from the review, must be made by the council through its executive. Those are not matters to be dealt with directly by Ministers. I shall return to that point in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East in particular raised a number of issues focusing on the provision of secondary education. He sought a number

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of assurances from me in relation to the educational objectives that are being pursued, and particularly in relation to the genuineness of consultation. I am well aware that there is considerable interest in this consultation, which has been reflected in the public meetings to which both my hon. Friends referred in their speeches.

Education Leeds, in its consultation document on secondary schooling, explains that its vision is that all secondary schools in Leeds should be able to offer excellent teaching and learning, and high-quality educational opportunities, with an expanded programme of vocational and academic courses linking to opportunities in colleges and universities and work-based and advanced training. It also recognises the need to increase the popularity of inner city schools among staff, young people and their parents, setting targets to deliver higher levels of achievement for all the pupils in Leeds schools, and guaranteeing a post-16 place in school or college for all those who wish to continue with their learning. All of us who have spoken in this debate would agree on that statement of objective.

As we have been told, Education Leeds is now consulting on its proposals to create new facilities to replace a number of schools facing challenging circumstances. It is therefore important to look at what Education Leeds plans to develop as well as what it plans to close, and to make a judgment as to whether those facilities are likely to provide the standard of education that all children and young people in the city deserve.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East focused on three of the issues that are being considered as part of the consultation. First, he referred to two schools: Agnes Stewart and Braim Wood. The proposal from Education Leeds, upon which it is consulting, is that the two schools should work together to form a city academy. I emphasise that no final decision has been taken on this at a ministerial level, and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will be asked to approve any plans for an academy. I am acutely aware that both my hon. Friends have made alternative suggestions and that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East expressed the possibility of a mixed academy being established at Braim Wood. I urge them to put those proposals to Education Leeds, so that they are considered as part of the consultation and debate on the future of secondary provision in Leeds.

The second issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East related to a young persons academy. Again, I see that constructive alternative suggestions have been put forward, and it is important that they are first considered at local level. I do not believe that any decision has been taken at ministerial level that prevents Education Leeds from looking again at this aspect. If a viable alternative is put forward by the local community or by hon. Members, it has the opportunity to consider it as part of the outcome of its consultation. That also applies to the primary school reorganisation that is proposed for Leeds. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friends that decisions have not been reached here in London by ministerial colleagues and that there will still be opportunities for the alternatives that my hon. Friends have constructively put forward in this debate to be considered as part of the consultation.

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It might be helpful if I explain the procedure that education authorities have to follow if they are considering the closure of a school, and I shall consider where Education Leeds is in that process. The Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998 places a duty on each local education authority to ensure that sufficient school places exist to meet the needs of the local population. The Government encourage authorities to avoid wasting resources and we urge them to remove empty places when doing so supports the basic agenda of raising school standards. They must review the position regularly, and take action when a significant imbalance between supply and demand is identified. They carry out this responsibility through the annual preparation of a school organisation plan.

If an authority decides to close a school, it must by law consult all appropriate parties by providing sufficient information to enable all those being consulted to form a considered view. Education Leeds is currently at this point with most of its proposals. The authority should then use any views received during that period to inform the decision as to whether to proceed. In Leeds, the decision must be made by the council's executive, and I understand that Education Leeds intends to put a paper on the outcome of the consultation exercise to the executive in January.

If the council's executive decides to proceed with the closure of any school, statutory notices must be placed in the local press and in a prominent position at the school or schools concerned. A copy of the notice and other supporting documentation must be sent to the local schools organisation committee. The committee will usually comprise five or six groups with local involvement in education and representatives of the local council, school governors, Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, learning and skills councils and sometimes a further group at local discretion. For two

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months after the publication of the notices, or for one month in the case of a school in special measures, objections may be submitted in writing to the authority. Should no objections be received, the authority may then implement its proposal. If there are objections, they must be referred to the school's organisation committee, together with the authority's comments on the points raised. Each group on the committee has one vote and should consider all the evidence before reaching a decision. If a unanimous decision cannot be reached, the case is referred to the independent schools adjudicator for a final decision.

I said that school closure decisions are not a matter for Ministers. The structures for local planning and decision making that I described allow for the concerns, objections and interests of local people to be fully considered. It is clear that Education Leeds and Leeds city council are at an early stage in the process that they must follow as they consider how best to meet their important responsibility for the appropriate provision of school places.

I urge everyone in the city to think carefully about the proposals that Education Leeds is making for school provision in their areas, to participate in the consultation exercises, and to consider whether they wish to express views as statutory procedures are followed. My hon. Friends made constructive alternative proposals on behalf of their constituents. I urge them to submit those to the consultation process so that they are fully considered by Education Leeds. I reiterate that it is an open process. No decisions have been made about any aspect raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East. What we have in common is the desire to get the best possible deal in terms of the provision of education for the children and young people of Leeds.

Question put and agreed to.

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