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School Closures

3.30 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I should like to start a brief debate on what I consider to be one of the biggest problems facing the schools sector or the education sector as a whole—school closures, particularly in the primary sector. Any inspection of demographic trends will tell any sane person that many primary schools will be emptier places in future, that some closures are inevitable and that those closures will affect large parts of the country. The process of school closure is extraordinarily painful. It causes distress to staff, who often have to wait some time to ascertain whether they have any job security, to parents, who wonder where their children will be schooled next, and to children, who are obviously upset by uncertainty about their future schooling.

The process causes strain between local education authorities, which often have to administer it, and schools, which are affected by it. The process also causes strain between schools, because obviously if a range of schools all suffer from falling rolls, the closure of one can indirectly benefit another. That strain can be coupled with quite strong budgetary pressures. Shrinking schools often put pressure on the entire school finance system and can lead, through things such as the formula shares and the minimum funding guarantee, to one school feeling that it is losing out because another school is being rewarded even though its rolls are falling.

There are solutions to these problems, and this is the second debate that I have initiated along these lines. In the previous one, the Minister said that Ofsted and the Department for Education and Skills were examining how procedures could be implemented a little more painlessly. The Government are a key player in that because, in so far as they can offer various capital grants and new building schemes, they can to some extent ameliorate a process that is otherwise very tough. The modernisation funding, the targeted capital grant and similar funds can sugar the pill. Currently, however, the Government building programme is largely secondary-centred, although our portfolio of primary schools throughout the country is fairly aged. There are many new fine primary schools, but there are a good number of aged schools without adequate play facilities and so on, or without adequate green fields.

I slightly disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who recently criticised the Government for reneging slightly on their promise to renew every secondary school within a fixed period, because in doing that the Government may deprive themselves of some flexibility when it comes to addressing some of the needs of the primary sector. I suggest that an adequate capital fund for the primary sector is one way in which the school closure process can be a little better accomplished, if it must be accomplished at all.

The Government, to their credit, have published quite precise procedures for school closures. They are detailed, involving consultation, a process of LEA decision and a process whereby the school organisation committees reach a final verdict. If that is not good enough or not unanimous, the matter goes to an
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adjudicator. So in a sense there is a detailed set of procedures, but within them are quite substantial hidden flaws.

One flaw, which I recently picked up on and which I do not think is dealt with, is that often people making the decision at council level are school governors. If that issue were referred to the national Standards Boards, it would say that in those circumstances school governors need to declare an interest. However, if the bulk of the council are school governors, that can almost disable the whole council, unless they beg for special release. That problem has been encountered in certain places but is not covered in the procedures.

Probably the principal flaw in the procedures is that although they lay out, very ably, a set of factors to be taken into consideration when deciding how a school will be closed—for example, educational quality, distance to be travelled, denominational factors, community support factors and so on—it is not made clear how those factors are to be weighted in the final analysis. It is not clear how an LEA should balance them out or how Ofsted would do so if it were taking the decision. Lurking under the heading "proper procedure" may be both good and bad practice. My key question to the Minister is: is there such a thing as good practice? Can he identify it? If there is such a thing, can he promote it?

The Government cannot entirely step aside, even though the process is set up to release them from taking hard decisions about school closures, as in many ways they are a key player. Historically, the Government were deeply implicated because the capital programme for primary schools was often linked to the removal of surplus places. However, even now, they are a sort of facilitator because they provide a modernisation fund, which can be equally useful on these occasions. They also have an impact via their policy positions. The announcement of the abolition of the surplus places rule and the ability of popular schools to expand could legitimately be taken by some local authorities almost as an encouragement to adopt a laissez-faire policy and leave everything to market forces. The Government could be seen as encouraging local authorities to move in that direction, or not to move at all but simply to stand back and see what unfolds.

The LEAs also have a duty to ensure the efficient use of resources. To some extent that conflicts with the laissez-faire principle. The approach of leaving things to governors is also complicated by the fact that the process by which a school may close itself and simply decide that it is not viable can often be a long drawn-out and painful process, and a responsible local authority may not wish simply to stand by and watch.

I want to use the example of my local authority, Sefton, to reinforce some of my points. Sefton LEA has an excellent record, as shown in the local authority rating for its junior schools. Given the pupils' backgrounds it has done extremely well. It was beaten by very few other local authorities, but largely those from the leafy outer-London suburbs. It has a talented team of officers and rational and thoughtful leadership. The leader of the council, Tony Robertson, is as rational and thoughtful a man as one would wish to meet. He puts up with the circumstances of his job, and somewhat mercurial and, at times, irascible MPs.
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Nevertheless, the council had a difficult job; it had a number of dilemmas and historically it had followed the usual path, which is politically fairly unproblematic, of taking out surplus places, encouraging consensual mergers often linked to refurbishment, and closing the odd school that everyone agreed should be closed because it was severely short of pupils. However, rolls fell rapidly throughout the 1990s and promised to fall even further throughout the next decade. During that time some schools increased capacity but there was a consensus among head teachers and elected members that something needed to be done.

Uncannily, it was in June, after the local elections, that they actually decided what had to be done. Closures were promoted rather than simply the removal of capacity, because the latter was regarded as a cosmetic manoeuvre, a term used in many of the Sefton documents. In essence, a cosmetic manoeuvre might take out surplus capacity or remove a block of a school but it would not fundamentally alter the on-costs that small schools incur, which have implications for all schools in general.

However, an essential step was missed out, and I would not applaud this as good practice. The authority moved from agreeing that there should be closures to the position of suggesting which schools should be closed. I would say that there was a missing stage, which is present in other local authorities, of agreeing how schools will be selected for closure once such a programme is in mind. That led to what I think was poor practice, when a rather heterogeneous list of schools for closure was put into the public domain.

Some schools on the list were certainly half-empty and heavily subsidised. There were three distinct subsidies in the Sefton system: a subsidy against a sudden reduction in pupils over a year; one for small schools; and one for ghost pupils. All of that is permitted in guidelines suggested by the Department for Education and Skills. However, although some schools on the list were heavily subsidised with a considerable number of surplus places, others were relatively or partly empty but not subsidised to any appreciable extent. More bizarrely still, others on the list were entirely full and had no surplus places. Additionally, there was the complication that many problematic schools that appeared non-viable were omitted from the list.

Sefton was pressed for the guiding rule in the process, and it was this: the authority had to close what it could. If a school's pupils could fit in another denominational or community school somewhere else, it might become a candidate for closure, whether or not it was heavily subsidised, or full or empty. That is a morally objectionable approach because it entails a good number of prejudices. One is that it is necessarily prejudiced against small schools—I have made that point in a previous debate—because small schools can be fitted into large schools but not vice versa. Secondly, there is a prejudice against schools that exist in the middle of a conurbation, because their pupils can be reallocated more easily than pupils at a school on the edge, regardless of subsidy or the number of surplus places.
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There was also a prejudice against quality in so far as the process was not sufficiently weighted for it. One school in my constituency that was scheduled for closure—Kings Meadow, under the able leadership of inspired head teacher Alison Watson—has recently received two accolades. It came top in The Times list for performance at level 4, and the Basic Skills Agency awarded it a quality mark. A small infant school, St. Theresa's, is completely full and in the top 5 per cent. in its category, again led by an able headmistress, Anna Gavin. Another, Shoreside school, performed just below Kings Meadow in the same table in The Times. When I raised the issue of those schools in a previous debate, the Minister for School Standards agreed that the presumption was that full and successful schools that received praise from Ofsted should not be closed. None the less, schools like that are on the Sefton list.

The Sefton list took no real account of parental preference, although perhaps that is inevitable, as no parent likes to see their child's school closed. It also took no real account of investment and buildings, which creates problems. When local authorities start to close schools, most of them suddenly find that the buildings are not adequate for whatever schemes they had in mind. The list also took no real account of future Government initiatives, in particular the possibility of children's centres and the effect that they may have on the local authority and primary provision as a whole.

The local authority position was essentially that a school could be closed if it duplicated provision. I suggested the contrary—that schools should not be closed other than in a consensual way, unless they were not viable. That is a narrower and fairer criterion, and one which Ofsted itself would wish to see used. However, it is possible even for a local authority to try to alter funding regimes to get rid of the schools that it does not want, and the DFES needs to be mindful of that. None the less, there is a general need to have an appreciable degree of fairness and transparency in the process.

The consultation process was not easy. It was relatively infertile and it did not lead to a change of many minds, at least at officer level in Sefton. However, through a chapter of accidents, the LEA has recently closed the seven least viable schools. I say "through a chapter of accidents" because I do not believe that that precise effect was by the political design of anyone on the council. It happened as a result of negotiations between the political parties. The entire process was agony for the staff, who needed support throughout. They faced six months of not knowing whether they would have jobs in the future or where the jobs would be. It was agony for the parents and it was distressing for the schools. I pay tribute to all in the borough who fought for their schools, whether or not they did so successfully. They engaged in what was an important fight for them and for the community.

The net effect is that such action damaged the relationship between the LEA and the schools and, to a lesser extent, probably that between the schools. There is almost a sense of relief when school closures are mooted that it is not one's particular school that is chosen. Some of the schools that were chosen certainly thought that they were unfairly chosen. Members were
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also bruised by the experience and probably felt a little marginalised. I do not know whether the protocol or performance was appropriate, but they were not allowed to speak until the end of the proceedings.

I shall return to my theme. There is good and bad practice in school closures. It will be a learning curve for many local authorities throughout the country. This is a big issue. Ministers cannot stand idly by, leave everything to the system and pretend that they are not part of it. One observation is that the less primary schools see themselves as clusters and a primary network, a seamless service that is linked to delivery across the area, the more problematic the issue will be. To manage the process effortlessly, we must acknowledge that there is a conflict with what we are trying to achieve and the high degree of institutional autonomy that is being given to schools at the moment. I would not suggest that we should simply leave it to the market, but if we go down the road of marketisation we will change for ever the culture of primary schools, without reducing appreciably the pain of parents, teachers and schools. If there is good practice in such action, can it be identified? Should it be spread? Can the Government stand aloof, and do their current policies help? Are the Government aware of the scale of the current problem and the scale of the problem to come? Do they have a workable solution that will cause less grief all round?

3.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg) : I shall endeavour to respond to the speech of the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), but if I cannot cover all his points in 10 minutes, I shall write to him. I congratulate him on securing this important debate, in which he has had the opportunity to raise issues that are of national significance and to illustrate them with an example from his constituency, thereby raising again in the House the review that has taken place in Sefton.

I concur with what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his speech about the falling primary rolls in most parts of the country. There is an enormous challenge, which can give rise, as he said, to serious stresses and strains within and between schools and in communities, which affect staff, parents and children. I accept, in a sense, his central point that the Government have a role to play in getting the framework right in order to minimise unnecessary stresses and strains.

At the beginning of his speech, the hon. Gentleman raised an issue about the financial strains. We have sought to strike the right balance to provide a minimum guarantee in the system that can at least give some protection to schools that are suffering falling rolls. I sense that the vast majority of schools and of people involved in education accept that as a sensible reform, even though he is right to say that had we not instituted it, some schools that are not suffering falling rolls would have got a little more money. Generally speaking, in my experience of visiting local communities, schools and local education authorities, there is an acceptance that it
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makes sense to have at least that minimum protection in the system for those that have falling rolls.

As the hon. Gentleman said, he was involved in an earlier debate in which my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards set out the responsibility of LEAs to manage the supply of school places in an area and to ensure that local schools meet the needs of local people and provide high-quality education in a cost-effective way.

Dr. Pugh : The Minister has touched on the problem of the minimum funding guarantee. There is no objection to it per se, provided that it is not superimposed on other local authority guarantees that do exactly the same thing. I think that there is currently some flexibility at the Department for Education and Skills on the subject. Am I correct?

Mr. Twigg : The hon. Gentleman is correct. It is important that we maintain the flexibility so that there is a basic protection for schools, particularly those that are facing quite significant falls in their rolls.

I will not rehearse all the facts and figures about Sefton, because the hon. Gentleman knows them and the House has had the opportunity to consider them before. However, the total number of surplus places is considerable and there would be no disagreement about the need for a process to examine how that high level of surplus capacity is best dealt with for Sefton. In a sense, that is the process that has been going on and to which he referred. Clearly, he is much closer to the detail of that than I am, and I must take on trust what he has said today. However, I would like to make some observations.

In the previous debate that the hon. Gentleman secured, my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards mentioned that we are working with the Audit Commission on a project that we hope will help LEAs and schools to tackle falling primary rolls and to deliver the primary national strategy. We are drawing together a portfolio of best practice and developing a toolkit of practical approaches. They will be available on the DFES website from February next year. The toolkit will explore all the different options that are available—collaboration, sharing of best practice, federations and extended schools, as well as school closures and amalgamation.

In his peroration, the hon. Gentleman rightly challenged me about the role that we will play, particularly in respect of identifying and spreading best practice. We are doing that, and the information that I referred to will be available in February. It will be an important addition to the tools that are available for all who are engaged in these debates in our communities, be it at school level, wider community level or LEA level.

I will not rehearse again the procedures that are followed. We believe that they are sensible and make sense. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, a number of factors—which we set out—need to be taken into account when the debates are happening at local level. Most obviously, and perhaps most importantly, consideration must be given to the potential impact on educational standards in the area as a whole, as well as to the availability of alternative provision, travel implications, cost-effectiveness, the diversity of
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provision, issues around denominational education to which he referred, the impact on the community and the views of local parents and schools.

The hon. Gentleman set out the challenge clearly: to give some kind of framework, which is what the categories seek to do, while providing a degree of local flexibility. I accept that in any system that relies on local flexibility there will be inconsistencies in the practice that occurs in different parts of the country. I am happy to take away the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised in the light of his experience in Sefton, so that we can consider whether the guidance that we provide to authorities and school organisation committees is the best.

Dr. Pugh : The Minister mentioned extended schools and children's centres. It is difficult for a local authority to rationalise its provision if it does not know quite what will happen with extended schools, children's centres and all the other positive initiatives of that nature that the Government have in mind. Does the Minister concede that it would help the process if it was clearer to the local authorities at an earlier date what the Government expected of them? I am anxious that school buildings might be abandoned, mothballed or sold off when they might subsequently be required for other purposes, such as children's centres.

Mr. Twigg : The hon. Gentleman raises a perfectly legitimate point. We are in a period of considerable change. The demographic situation leads to falling rolls, but at the same time the various Government programmes such as children's centres and extended schools provide opportunities that have not previously been available to communities and schools. The hon. Gentleman therefore makes a reasonable challenge in saying to me that we need to put those programmes in place sufficiently speedily so that those options are realistically available to communities, including his own. He does not need me to remind him of some of the benefits that can come from programmes such as the extended schools programme and the facilities that they can make available.
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In his closing remarks, the hon. Gentleman mentioned tensions between an approach to primary education based on autonomy and school independence, and an approach based on networks and clusters. I agree with him that the more networked schools are, the less they will face challenges. That is why in "Excellence and enjoyment: a strategy for primary schools", which we published last year on the primary national strategy, we placed much emphasis on the opportunities for schools to work together in a range of different ways, including the primary leadership programme. We also emphasised the impact that the national college for school leadership is having in giving support to primary schools.

I do not accept that there is a contradiction between saying that a school should take more control of its day-to-day affairs, have a greater sense of its own identity as an institution and make choices about its curriculum in order to personalise learning, and saying that it should also be part of networks. In fact, I believe that that combination makes particular sense for primary schools, and that approach lies at the heart of the primary national strategy. The existence of that strategy, through "Excellence and enjoyment: a strategy for primary schools" combined with the emerging resources for children's centres and extended schools, means that areas with falling rolls have some opportunities that they did not have in the past.

None the less, there will still be cases in which closing schools will be the most appropriate course of action for a local education authority to take. I return to the hon. Gentleman's main challenge to us. Clearly, as a Government, although we no longer get involved in the specifics of such decisions—it is right that we do not—we must get the framework right. Broadly speaking, I believe that we have done so, but I am happy to take on board the points that the hon. Gentleman has made in the debate today, and particularly the specific example of the handling of those matters in Sefton, to see whether lessons can be learned for our national guidance and national policy. I will write to the hon. Gentleman setting that out. I congratulate him again on securing this important debate.
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