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11 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward) on her passionate speech and on the compelling vision that she set out of a primary education system that caters for all children and offers them an education that is broad and balanced in every way. I shall try to address some of her key points. Thanks to her intensive lobbying, I am aware of the interest that people in Watford are showing in the review of primary school provision. Thanks to her efforts, I am aware of the concerns that exist. I do not want to make her blush, but she has been an outstanding tribune for the cause of primary education in her constituency, always reminding me of the excellent work being done in Watford schools as well as the issues that are raised in the current consultation. She is absolutely right to say that nothing that any of us does at any level of government should put at risk the outstanding progress made in Watford schools over the last few years.

I understand that Hertfordshire county council is reviewing primary schools in north-east Watford and, as the first phase, is putting forward proposals for the possible closure of Leavesden Green and the possible amalgamation of Alban Wood nursery and Alban Wood juniors. I understand that the council aims to be able to make judgments on the way ahead later this year, and I shall address the process for that later.

Before I turn to the specifics of how we go about school organisation, I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in paying tribute to the outstanding progress made in Watford primary schools over the past few years. The figures are striking. In English, 76 per cent. of 11-year-olds now achieve level 4. In maths, the percentage has increased from 64 per cent. to 80 per cent., and in science it has gone up from 69 per cent. to 86 per cent. That is testimony to the hard work of teachers and head teachers in Watford, and to the hard work of pupils and parents.

Labour's election manifesto in 1997 said that we should put primaries first, and what has happened in Watford is a good example of that. Nationally, the percentage of pupils achieving below 65 per cent. has been roughly halved since 1998. Everything we do, from teaching the curriculum to school organisation, must be designed to sustain and develop that record of success. Whether nationally or locally, we need to support the agenda set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the document "Excellence and Enjoyment—A Strategy for Primary Schools". It shows how primary schools can deliver the broad and balanced education to which we aspire. I hope that the agenda described by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, which I support, will be shared by all parties, so that children in all parts of the country get the opportunities they deserve.

On school organisation, the Government wish to encourage local school provision that boosts standards and opportunities for young people, matching school place supply as closely as possible to pupil and parent needs and wishes. The School 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 in order to promote high standards of attainment. It is for LEAs, not Ministers, to decide on the organisation of provision. If an authority decides to reorganise provision, decisions will be taken not in Whitehall, but locally. It may help if I set out in some detail the procedure that needs to be followed.

I understand that my hon. Friend's LEA is currently consulting all interested parties on the proposals. It should then use any views received during consultation to inform the decision as to whether to proceed. If the authority decides to proceed with reorganisation of provision, statutory notices must be published in a newspaper, posted at the gates of the schools affected and placed in other prominent places locally. There is then a six-week period for objections and comments. The notice and other supporting documentation must be sent to the local school organisation committee.

If no objections are received, the authority may proceed and implement its proposals. If objections are received—my hon. Friend's campaign is relevant here—they are referred to the school organisation committee, which is made up of five or six groups representing major stakeholders in the provision of education. Each group has one vote and must consider all evidence in line with guidance issued by the Secretary of State before reaching a decision. If a unanimous decision cannot be reached the case is referred not to me, but to the independent schools adjudicator for a final decision.

We recently issued new guidance for those publishing and deciding proposals for changes to local school organisation. It makes it clear that the Secretary of State wants to see LEAs organise provision so that places are where parents want them. We are clear that the removal of surplus places must always support the core agenda of raising standards and trying to match places with parental choice. The LEA will need to bear that in mind when deciding how to proceed, as will the school organisation committee in reaching a decision if proposals eventually go before it.

My hon. Friend raised the important point that reducing surplus places will not always mean closure. It can be achieved, for example, by removing temporary accommodation, by consolidating split-site schools or adapting accommodation for alternative use by the community, such as by playgroups, an issue raised by my hon. Friend in relation to the extended schools programme at Leavesden Green. We all hope that every school has extended provision, before 9 o'clock in the morning and after 3.30 in the afternoon, but obviously there are special circumstances when the capital investment in a school site can offer a much wider range of provisions. That may be relevant locally.

It is vital for the whole school community to be involved at every stage of that difficult process. It is incumbent on LEAs to bring schools, heads, parents and, indeed, MPs, with them. I was obviously concerned by what my hon. Friend said this evening. There is good practice around the country and although the decisions are always difficult, we urge local government to follow that good practice, as that is the way to build local consensus for the changes.

My hon. Friend referred to national practice. It is very much a matter for individual authorities to decide whether, and how, to reduce surplus places. The Department monitors the position closely if significant numbers of schools in an area have surplus places, especially where there is also evidence that the schools concerned are performing poorly. We have looked closely into the position in LEAs where levels appear to be excessively high; that is, where 20 per cent. of primary or secondary schools in an area have a quarter or more surplus places and where we think that further work may need to be done locally to develop strategies to deal with that.

At the last review of surplus places undertaken by the department, in 2001, the overall level of surplus in Hertfordshire was not considered a cause of concern; about 10 per cent. of primary schools and 15 per cent. of secondary schools had more than a quarter of empty places. We are currently collecting surplus place data for 2003 from LEAs. The survey will be completed by August and the results will be available in the autumn. That may be of interest to my hon. Friend.

In short, the Government have put a framework in place to discuss these difficult local decisions. We have launched a primary strategy that sets out our plans for the future of primary education. We have established a framework for local decision making on school organisation, which places decision making in the community the school serves and knows. We have taken robust action to drive up standards in all schools and we have greatly increased the capital available for investment in school buildings.

We have a constitutional settlement, which gives a vital role in school organisation not to me but to local education authorities. It has done so since 1944. There are limits to my role and to that of the LEAs. I hope that we all agree that while local matters always require local governance they also require a local and a national commitment to the standards of education provided for young people. That is our commitment and I hope very much that my hon. Friend will continue to share the passion and vision for education that she has shown tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

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