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Amendments made: No. 88, in page 22, line 21, leave out 'or'.
No. 89, in page 22, line 22, at end insert
(c) participation in a field trial.
(2A) In subsection (2)(c) "field trial" means a competition (other than a hare coursing event within the meaning of section 8) in which dogs
(a) flush animals out of cover or retrieve animals that have been shot (or both), and
(b) are assessed as to their likely usefulness in connection with shooting.'.
Claire Ward: In 1997, and again in 2001, I was elected to represent Watford on a manifesto commitment to improve the educational opportunities of the children in the constituencya commitment made famous by the Prime Minister's reference to the Government's three priorities: "Education, education, education."
Tonight, I want to draw the attention of the Government and the House to a proposal that could do much to unravel the progress made to date, damaging the education of some of the children in Watford. The proposal does not come from the Government, and I accept that they have no direct responsibility, but I am looking to the Minister to give reassurances that he understands the parents' concerns and will exert all the pressure that he can on Hertfordshire county council to think again.
On the Friday before the Whitsun half-term, my office received a call from a worried parent saying that he had just heard that the county council had proposed that Leavesden Green school be closed in July 2004. That was the first that I had heard of the proposal. I called the head teacher, who confirmed the news. The Conservative-controlled council is proposing to close the school at the end of July 2004 and to merge Alban Wood infants and Alban Wood junior on one site, to form a junior middle infants. I was told that Mrs. Pocock, the head teacher of Leavesden Green, had been informed only a couple of days before. She had rightly decided to let the parents know of the proposals immediately, rather than waiting for them to leak out, as they inevitably would.
I rang the county council to seek confirmation and question why I, as the Member of Parliament, had not been informed of the proposals in advance. It confirmed that it would be just the first phase of a review of surplus places in the north Watford area, and admitted that it should have let me know in advance.
The proposals came as a complete shock to the community, staff and parents. There had been no indication that the council was seeking to review surplus places or introduce such devastating proposals. Head teachers had simply been informed of its intention to close and merge schools, with no initial discussion of what might be the strategy for the process.
I am appalled by the way in which the matter has been handled to date, and I would be grateful if the Minister would look at the process and consider whether this is appropriate, in comparison with the way in which other authorities would handle such a sensitive matter and the consultation.
The proposals are now out for consultation, and the council has given assurances that it will listen to the views expressed. I hope that it will, because there is no support at all from the community, parents or staff for the closure of Leavesden Green, a school that recently received a Government achievement award in recognition of the progress that it has made. It has done well in its standard assessment tests and recently qualified for Investors in People, and it is in the process of seeking the healthy schools award and the Hertfordshire quality standard for the foundation stagecertainly not a school that should be the subject of possible closure.
The school is not in deficit, and at a time of falling rolls in many schools, not only in Watford, the intake is increasing. Between January and June this year, there was a 14.6 per cent. rise in the number of pupils admitted. It is a successful school, where children benefit from a good site, with access to excellent green playing fields.
Hertfordshire county council has stated that it is reviewing primary schools in the area because of a large number of unused places. I recognise that it is the duty of an education authority to keep a watchful eye on the number of surplus places in the area, but I believe that the council is seriously flawed in its proposals and in its reasons for them in this case.
The county council has previously stated that Leavesden Green school has a capacity of 420 pupils. That was based on a standard two-form intake of 60 pupils and 14 class bases, but these figures are not the reality. The school does not have 14 class bases, so in practice it cannot accommodate 420 pupils. It does not have 14 class bases for the very simple reason that the county council encouraged it to make provision for a privately run day care nursery that occupies three class bases. Tots nursery provides an important service to the community and has been resident at the school for nearly 10 years. During that time, the county council has not sought to change the nominal pupil intake to reflect that fact.
Furthermore, in 1996 the school was granted a 26-place mornings-only nursery. That effectively removed a further classroom base, and therefore reduced the capacity of the school to 300 places, plus a 26-place nursery. So from that point the school had, on paper, a 420-pupil capacity, but in practice it had only 10 class bases and, therefore, a 300-place intake capacity, plus 26 nursery places. The school asked the county council whether it would be appropriate, given those circumstances, to change the standard number to create a one-form entry school, but it was advised that that was not necessary, as it would be allowed the flexibility to take higher numbers if it needed to do so.
Reduced actual capacity has therefore been both encouraged and facilitated by the county council in the past 10 years. Capacity was further diminished when the council gave the school the authority to use one of its remaining classroom bases to create a computer suitea resource that the Minister will doubtless agree is important in any school, these days. So the final capacity is now 270 places in nine class bases, with a 26-place nursery. Yet the county council continues to quote capacity figures of 261, 360 and 420. The first two of those figures appear in the consultation document. That is confusing for anybody, but what is clear is that the figures make no sense at all.
The county council has set out a number of reasons why it believes that these changes are necessary to meet its vision for primary schools in Watford. It states that it expects to achieve a pattern of schools that will meet a number of criteria, the first of which is to reflect parental preference for schools. That is a laudable aim, but certainly not one that the council appears to be taking very seriously. Parents have chosen to send their children to Leavesden Green school. Indeed, 100 per cent. of nursery entrants for 200304 listed the school as their first choice, as did 80 per cent. of reception entrants for the same period. That is a clear indication that parents want their children to go to this school.
The council says that it is seeking to produce schools with normally not fewer than two forms of entrywith an intake, therefore, of 60 pupils. Yet there are a number of schools in Watford and throughout the county in which single-form intake is deemed acceptable. If it is acceptable for other schools, why should it not be so for Leavesden Green?
Of course, any education authority will wish to ensure that the number of places in schools reflects current demand and possible future growth, including any possible housing developments. The area that Leavesden Green serves is undergoing much change. A new housing estate, known as Huntonbury Village, is being completed and will provide 314 family homes. Indeed, the school already takes some pupils from this area. Other new housing developments, most of which will consist of family homes, have been recently completed or are in the process of being completed. Other sites in the area are already being identified for planning permission. If the school were to close, the land would be sold for housing development, creating even more family homes with even more potential pupilsa point that I shall return to later.
Rather than assuming that the number of potential pupils is declining, it seems more logical to assume that many surplus places in the area will be taken up in due course over the next few years. The county council argues that, as the birth rate is declining, there will still be surplus places. That may well be the case on a national basis, but there is no evidence to suggest that it is the case in this particular area of Watford, which is certainly not suffering a reduction in the number of children. On the contrary, the number of children aged between 0 and 14 years in Watford borough increased between 1991 and 2001 by 1,234. There was also an increase of 1,647 in the neighbouring district of Three Rivers, parts of which are in my constituency.
It would seem that my constituents are a rather more fertile group than the national population. The electoral ward directly served by the school there has seen an additional 21 babies born in the last two years. The county council might say that there has been a reduction in the birth rate nationally, but it does not apply to the specific area for which the closure of a specific school is proposed. Surely the Minister would agree that the education authority must take into account the local circumstances and the potential for increased demand rather than looking simply at a flawed calculation of surplus places.
Leavesden Green benefits greatly from its large playing fields, especially in view of the built-up urban environment surrounding it. Children from the local estates do not have much access to green fields, but at Leavesden school they have a significant sporting area. The Department for Education and Skills, in co-operation with colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, has emphasised over recent years the Government's commitment to sporting facilities and to the reduction in the sale of school playing fields. I congratulate the Government on their success in limiting the number of sales of playing fields, but here we have exactly the sort of school that also needs protection from the plans of the local authority.
This part of my constituency is a built-up environment, so people already suffer the effects of traffic congestion and pollution in the environment, but the location of the school means that many can and do walk to school. If Leavesden Green were to close, the nearest schools for pupils would involve either crossing a major dual carriageway or, should the merger proposal succeed, settling into a new school at Alban Wood. Neither option is satisfactory for parents or pupils. Nor does it meet the county council's stated aim of getting more people to walk to school. Most important of all, it fails to reflect the preferences of parents for having their children taught at a local schoolLeavesden Green.
The second part of the consultation proposes a merger of Alban Wood infant and junior schools. This morning, I went to meet parents at the infant school to see at first hand the circumstances that would result if the county were successful in its proposals. Those parents were very annoyed that the proposals had been sprung on them without any notice that it was an issue in the area. Rightly, they feel that it is inappropriate to consult on the closure of Leavesden Green school at the same time as proposing a merger of Alban Wood schools. The closure of Leavesden Green school would inevitably impact on Alban Wood schools, which would need to take some or all of the children. The rights of parents and staff to discuss the future of their schools should not be determined solely by the success or failure of the campaign to keep Leavesden Green school open.
Even accepting that the consultationflawed as it is in so many waysshould proceed for the next few weeks, there are many objections to the proposals for a merger of the two schools. First, it is proposed that the schools should be merged on to the infant school site. It is significantly the smaller site of the two and does not have appropriate playing field areas for the children. It is located on a busy road with only one main entrance to the school. The prospect of having hundreds more children entering the school through the one access point will increase significantly the risk to children.
Furthermore, the county council has suggested that it would keep the playing fields of the junior school across the road for use by the proposed new school. That means that teachers would have to take young children across a busy road just to use a playing field. That would not be practical on a day-to-day basis for lunchtime play or PE, as it would increase the risk to the children. It is also totally unnecessary. It would be more appropriate if a merger were to take place to locate a new school on the larger of the two sitesthat of the junior school.
Parents have expressed concern that, given the timetable and the fact that parents of pupils at all three schools will oppose the proposals, it is unlikely that any decision to proceed, if pushed through by the Conservative-controlled county council, would deliver new classrooms to Alban Wood in time for the September 2004 intake. Children would therefore be taught in portable classrooms and in a disrupted environment. That is completely unacceptable if children are to be given a good education in the best environment.
In considering every reason that the county council has put forward in the consultation document for closing Leavesden Green school, I can see no genuine educational reason for the proposals. If the county council were interested in the school, it would be proposing not its closure but simply that it change to a one-form intake school. That would leave a small number of surplus places but, with the expected housing developments and the indication of birth rates in the area, those will be taken up over the next few years.
If the reasons for those proposals are not educational, there must be another reason. I believe that the Conservative-controlled county council is seeking to close and merge schools so that it can free up the land to sell it off to developers for more housing. The council has a target to meet of providing more than 80,000 homes over the next 20 years. I know from my advice surgeries and from casework that we need more accommodation, especially affordable homes for families and those on lower or average earnings in both the public and private sectors, yet the county council has fought the proposal that an additional 5,000 homes and possibly more should be built on a greenfield site in the west of Stevenage off the A1, despite the fact that the Government have given approval for such development.
The county council does not want to touch the green fields in the leafy parts of Hertfordshire. Instead, it wants to build on every part of green land and possible site within an already crowded urban environment in my constituency. By building even more homes on existing school sites, it would diminish the quality of life of my constituents, who would not have such ready access to green fields and play areas.
That is completely unacceptable and I know that I have the full support of parents and staff affected by those proposals in saying that we will fight them every step of the way. My constituents are entitled to real vision from the county council, not a back-door scheme to build more houses. They are entitled to a decent education for their children in a good school with proper play facilities. They are entitled to have a school at a reasonable walking distance from their home, should they choose to send their children to it. They are entitled to have their preferences for the education of their children given serious consideration. They are entitled to expect that their communities will be balanced by housing and access to green and open spaces. They are also entitled to have a county council that listens to their concerns.
I want those schools to be accessible to the whole community. If there is surplus classroom capacity in some parts of the area, I expect the council to explore options for greater community use, such as already exists in the use of three classrooms by Tots nursery at Leavesden Green. I hope that the Minister will confirm that it is the Government's desire to see schools opened up more to community use, and not simply providing an education service during school hours. That really would be a vision.
The Tories at county hall have got it wrong. They should go back to the drawing board, scrap the current proposals and change Leavesden Green to a one-form entry school. They could then legitimately consult parents at the Alban Wood schools about a merger and where a new school could be sited. If they do not listen, we will not go away. We shall fight the proposals at every stage, and the campaign has already gained significant support throughout the wider community as parents across Watford recognise that if the county council gets away with it this time, it will rampage through the rest of the town, closing and merging schools.