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11 Jan 2005 : Column 65WH—continued

School Buildings (Medway)

4 pm

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): I am pleased to have an opportunity to talk about schools in the Medway towns and I would like to put it on record that my contribution is supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark) and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). All three of us, representing the Medway towns, have high aspirations for our young people, students, and children, and the schools in which they learn.

Without doubt, Medway schools have benefited enormously from investment under this Labour Government. There was £21 million of capital investment last year; there is the same again this year; and there will be just about the same again next year. That means more than £60 million within a three-year period, which is unprecedented. When I was elected, in 1997, if I were to have forecast those sums of money going in to schools in the Medway towns, people would not have believed it.

The figures are one thing. What matters to children, parents, school staff, heads and governors is what that £60 million does. What happens in the classroom and in the schools is what matters. The money improves facilities for schools and thereby the learning opportunities for our children and young people in the Medway towns.

I used to be surprised when I visited schools and heads wanted to show me their new toilet blocks. I had difficulty in matching their enthusiasm when they described the transformation. They said the same about staff rooms. I should not have been surprised, because the reality was that there was never any money to put those things right; if there was money, staff rooms, loos and so on were the last priority. That has been why there has been enthusiasm and much else, which I will go on to talk about.

Heads have said to me that, at long last, they have got the money, particularly devolved capital, which has proved very popular, to put right and to improve aspects of their schools that they had never been able to consider. That was the picture in many Medway town schools, but those days are going. It is not just a matter of toilets and staff rooms; it is much more than that. I will give a few examples. We are constructing new buildings. A sports hall at Medway community college just recently opened. It cost £1 million and it is a superb new centre. When I visited it recently, a young girl said, "This is the best thing that has happened to our school in years". I am really proud of it.

Seven years ago, when a head teacher at All Saints primary school, Mr. Stuart Kay, and I stood outside his Victorian building, he looked at me and said, "I want a new school for this area in Chatham". Well, he has got it. More than £1 million was involved. There are fantastic new classrooms and there has been a transformation. There are smiles on the faces of all the staff and the children. As the head teacher said, "We are over the moon with what has happened". He did not believe that it was possible.

We can contrast that and other examples of what went before. Perhaps one of the startling examples was Chatham South secondary school, which for 21 years
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did not have a school hall. We are talking about a secondary school that provides education for hundreds of pupils; boys and girls in the Medway towns did not have a school hall. Well, it has a school hall now. Eighteen months ago, a new £1 million school hall and drama and music centre opened.

Close to home, Wayfield primary school, where I am a governor, has a nursery. It was originally built under the urban aid programme under the previous Labour Government. It took the election of another Labour Government for that nursery to be refurbished under the new deal for schools programme. The school had to wait that long. I have said that in a very partisan way because Conservative Members of Parliament vote against that investment; that is the clear dividing line, of which my constituents are very much aware.

The examples of school investment that I referred to are typical of what is taking place across the Medway towns. My hon. Friend the Minister knows that the Medway area is part of the Thames gateway. It is one of the four national growth areas and a national priority for the Government. There can be no question about the priority given to the Thames gateway; the relevant Cabinet Committee is chaired by the Prime Minister himself. We have aspirations for the new communities, and—vitally—for the existing communities in the gateway. If we are to succeed in getting cohesion and dynamism and if we are to grasp those opportunities, we have to ensure that the infrastructure—whether of transport, health or education—is improved.

We have made a good start; recently two new nurseries were built as a result of £500,000 each from the Government. There are free places, and a new Sure Start centre has opened, at a cost of £1.1 million, that provides high-quality support for children and families in Medway towns. It would be wrong to overlook the Government's investment in higher education to ensure the establishment of the universities. Kent university and Greenwich university now share the Medway campus. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway is not here today but, since 1991, he has been an inspiring champion of the cause to establish a higher education institute in the Medway towns.

Discussing school buildings in Medway is relevant to the core purpose of this debate. Institutions for higher education are in place; we need to create the right conditions so that all our young people can aspire to and obtain the necessary standards so that they can choose whether they will attend those institutions. Those two universities have undertaken great work, particularly on the children's university and in reaching out to communities that had never considered higher education. The education maintenance allowances have made a difference by encouraging young people to continue their education post-16; some £500 million has been invested to assist such children and their families. We are only too aware of that investment.

The essential infrastructure, however, has to ensure that there are people with the skills to meet the challenges and opportunities. Some 12 per cent. of residents in Medway towns have qualifications of degree level or higher, compared to a national average of nearly 20 per cent.; on that criterion, we are ranked 66th of 67 authorities in the south-east. That is a poor position from which to benefit from the growth that comes from the knowledge and skills based economy.
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Standards are rising in Medway schools and I pay tribute to the hard work and efforts of head teachers, other school staff, pupils and parents. However, 30 per cent. of Medway's work force do not have any qualifications. In a competitive region such as the south-east, that makes things difficult for us. Our people have 7 per cent. fewer qualifications than the regional average. Given that backdrop, the Minister will understand our determination that Medway schools should be the springboard for our population to reach out and grasp the gateway's potential.

The Department has advised Medway that we will start to receive building schools for the future funding in 2011, and that more will come into effect in 2016. I understand that building schools for the future is a long-term programme. However, if the gateway is to meet its full potential, we need to invest earlier in school buildings in Medway. The Department needs to understand better the gateway and the unique and special circumstances in Medway and the whole of the gateway. Perhaps it should be clearer about the importance that it attaches to schools for the future. I say that because in neighbouring Gravesham there has been an allocation from the 2008 tranche for building schools for the future. I would like to understand the criteria that the Government are working to. I know that deprivation levels are similar in Medway and Gravesham, but what factors are taken into account in terms of growth and the need to improve the personnel infrastructure? The Government must look again at Medway and I ask the Minister to consider my points and to review those decisions.

We have no argument about the commitment to invest in our schools. We know that we are having a share of the £5.5 billion of capital investment that the Government are providing compared with the £650 million that was being spent on schools prior to 1997. I am not just saying that I want more for my schools and I want the Minister to understand that. If we are to grasp the opportunities and realise the ambition, the gateway must meet the challenges and have a skilled work force. We need the schools that will be the springboard to create those opportunities.

Many more properties—some 120,000—will be built in the gateway by 2016, 43,000 of which will be in Kent and Medway. Schools need infrastructure investment and they have had that infrastructure investment. I am a great supporter of the Government's ambitious programme of refurbishing and rebuilding schools. In parts of my constituency outside Medway, rebuilding of two schools will start in March with spending of some £13 million or £14 million. I know that the Government are not just talking about spending money; they are spending money on schools both in Medway and elsewhere in my constituency. However, the point that I am labouring is that if we are to meet the challenges and if my existing residents and constituents are to realise the potential and grasp those opportunities, our schools must be the springboard. Investment is needed so that in Medway we can build those schools for the future before 2011. I hope that the Minister will review that decision.
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4.13 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Twigg) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) on securing this important debate. I put on record my respect for his efforts and, as he rightly said, those of our hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) and our hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark). I had the opportunity last year of visiting the area with our hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham to meet parents and teachers and to visit a primary school. I am aware of many of the challenges and opportunities that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford set out.

It is probably worth starting by saying a little about some challenges that we faced when we came to office in 1997. My hon. Friend set those out with reference to his constituency. It is fair to say that school buildings throughout our country had suffered from decades of under-investment and neglect as well as a chronic and widespread backlog of urgent repairs. A large number of schools that were built in the 1960s and 1970s were passing the end of their design life and many were in much poorer condition than older schools built 50 or even 100 years ago. A huge number of temporary classrooms were in use and many were in terrible condition.

My hon. Friend referred to toilets. Many schools had outside toilets and heating systems that were antiquated, inefficient and inadequate. Very few new schools were built between the late 1970s and the mid to late 1990s. Those that were built were usually a response to necessity caused by rising pupil numbers in certain parts of the country. Schools were not in a position to improve their buildings or to respond to developments in learning and teaching, in particular the challenges of information and communications technology and the new technologies that are now available to us.

In 1996–97, the financial year at the end of which we came to power, direct Government support for capital investment in school buildings stood at just under £700 million for the whole of England. That has been increased dramatically to record levels. This year the figure is £4.9 billion and it will rise over the next three years to £6.3 billion in 2007–08. That significant improvement in capital investment in our schools is designed not only to make up for those decades of neglect, but to address the challenges that the education service faces as we go into the 21st century. We need to ensure that all schools are up to the expected standards, with very high aspirations for all children.

We have done a number of things. We have revised and improved the design and environmental guidelines for schools to reflect the needs of this century, and in particular to capture the benefits of new technology and ICT. An example is the greater availability of interactive white boards and greater expectations in relation to sustainable buildings and good environmental quality. That is in addition to meeting some challenges around inclusion in education, for which my hon. Friend has been a powerful advocate in his role as a constituency MP and on the departmental Select Committee.
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In November, we announced the capital funding for schools over the current spending review period, taking us through to the financial year 2007–08. Taking those three years together, we are talking about more than £17 billion of additional capital support for investment in maintained schools across England. The capital strategy underpins the five-year plan for education, which was set out last summer. It seeks to provide all schools and authorities with funding, allocating it in a way that is fair and meets the needs that exist.

In 2007–08, a typical primary school of 250 pupils will have a direct grant of £34,000 to spend for its own capital purposes and a typical secondary school of 1,000 pupils will have about £113,000. On top of that, depending on local priorities, all schools will have access to about £2 billion through the local authority or the diocese.

By 2007–08, there will be a further £500 million available for exceptional needs that formulaic funding alone cannot meet. By then, we will be targeting about £2.7 billion for the renewal of the secondary school estate through academies and the building schools for the future programme. I will come to the position in Medway in a moment. The ambition of building schools for the future is to renew every secondary school in England. That is a huge task. It has never been attempted before and will take some time—we estimate between 10 and 15 years, and even that must be subject to future decisions and future spending patterns.

I turn to some challenges in Medway to which my hon. Friend referred. First, I acknowledge the important points that he has raised, both about standards and improving quality with respect to learning and teaching, and about some continuing challenges that are faced in the education service in his constituency. I am pleased to echo his points on the role of universities and the great importance of getting that higher education presence in Medway. Like him, I pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway, who has led the campaign on that issue.

We know that part of the challenge with respect to aspiration for those children who come from families that traditionally have not gone into higher education is to achieve more effective co-operation between schools and higher education. The progress that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford described enables those aspirations to be raised—ideally, experience shows us, from the youngest possible age. The greater the links between universities and schools, the more likely it is that we will see the benefits.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, Medway benefits from the general increase in funding via formula and the targeted capital fund. For the next three years, the authority and its schools have been allocated £45 million in capital funding. Much can be done to ensure that that investment has a real impact, but, as he said, Medway has not been prioritised in the first three waves of BSF funding.

Let me say a little about how we chose the areas that would go into the different waves of BSF. As I said, it is a long-term programme lasting perhaps 10 to 15 years. Just two years ago, we invited every local education authority to apply to be included in the first wave of projects or to express an interest in being included in the rest of the programme. We published detailed guidance
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on how we would prioritise investment, and how we would start with the areas of greatest educational and social need. We chose simple, robust and understandable criteria: a combination of schools' GCSE performance and eligibility for free school meals in the area. That meant that authorities could see for themselves whether they were likely to be included in the early stages of the programme.

BSF is a development of the private finance initiative. As such, it deals with procurement of groups of schools rather than individual schools. That clearly brings efficiency and value for money from public procurement. However, more importantly, the real value of BSF is that a grouped approach should mean that we get much greater educational impact from the capital investment. Each local authority has the opportunity to think about its educational vision for all the children in the area covered, including, for example, whether the number and type of pupil places across an area are right. Groupings can consist of an entire authority or part of one. Where it makes sense, groupings can also cross authority boundaries where those authorities wish to collaborate.

Medway did not ask to be included in the first wave of BSF, which was announced in February 2004, but it expressed an interest in coming into the programme after wave 1. However, compared with other groups of schools put forward by other authorities around England, Medway's schools did not have enough need to be included in waves 2 or 3, which we announced in November. The further 20 projects, which will access funding by 2007–08, all have greater overall need than Medway as a whole.

My hon. Friend asked about the comparison with Gravesham and suggested that the two areas are broadly similar in character. It is worth pointing out that because of the sheer size of Kent LEA, the two will come into BSF at different stages. Gravesham was the first priority area. In a broad sense, my hon. Friend is right, but schools in Gravesham have a greater need than those in Medway, according to both the indicators that we used. The percentage of pupils with 5 GCSEs at A* to C for Medway schools is 47.9, whereas for Gravesham the figure is 42.5 per cent. On free school meal eligibility, the figures are 10.2 per cent. for Medway and 16.5 per cent. for Gravesham. That explains the technicalities of how Kent's bid for the project in Gravesham was deemed to have a higher priority than that for Medway.

Jonathan Shaw : I am not disputing the figures; I said only that there are similarities between the two areas. However, without question, the most deprived area in Kent is Thanet. I am trying to understand what importance, if any, my hon. Friend's Department has attached to the Thames gateway and the special circumstances to which I referred.

Mr. Twigg : I was coming to that. We have sought a consistent set of criteria across the country and we decided that, for ease of understanding and clarity, the combined indicator of GCSEs and free school meals was the best. For the reasons set out by my hon. Friend, a particular challenge exists with respect to the authorities that are part of the Thames gateway. There will be opportunities, through basic need funding and the
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targeted capital fund, for some effects of the increased demand for pupil places that the Thames gateway will bring to be met before authorities such as Medway become part of BSF.

We recognise that uncertainty is damaging to good planning by authorities and schools. That is why we wanted in November to give the authorities not in waves 1, 2 or 3 a broad indication of where they were likely to start in BSF. As my hon. Friend said, Medway is likely to join the programme between 2011 and 2016. We cannot give greater certainty this far in advance, but that is indicative planning information, which must be subject to future public spending decisions.

I would not want to mislead Medway into thinking that it has a definite and predetermined slot, but we have made it clear that the Government are committed to completing BSF within 10 to 15 years. Officials will meet local authorities, including Medway, in the coming months to discuss the issue in further detail. That meeting will give the authority an opportunity to put to our officials some points that my hon. Friend has raised today.

We have also announced that authorities, including Medway, that are not in the full programme by 2011 will receive capital to enable them to rebuild or remodel at least one of their secondary schools with the greatest need, either through the academies programme or through additional funding via the targeted capital fund. To support local education authorities in their planning, the meetings that I have just described will deal with capital strategy and consider the investment needs of each local community in greater detail. I sympathise with the fact that Medway's secondary schools will not immediately get the investment that some of them need. Despite the generosity of the education settlement, the scale of the need nationwide is enormous.
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I mentioned the substantial capital support of £45 million that has been allocated to Medway schools over the next three years. That sum can be used for their priorities. In addition, Medway can take up the offer of funding for its neediest school, and I have encouraged it to do so. I am sure that my hon. Friend will do the same. I understand that plans are already being developed locally for an academy: more than one school might be able to benefit from the academy route. It will be for Medway to bid to the revised targeted capital fund for any further priority projects. We hope to publish our guidance on this fund next month.

Direct Government funding is not the only resource available to Medway and other authorities for priority investment in their schools. Medway has the flexibility to decide how to use all capital delivered from the single capital pot, not just that which comes direct from the Department for Education and Skills. Therefore, if education is its priority, Medway can direct further capital towards schools, if it wishes. It should also ensure that it maximises all its section 106 planning gains. I think my hon. Friend will accept that that gives Medway real options, and I hope that it will explore all of them. I give him an undertaking that our officials will give whatever support they can to ensure that that can happen.

I congratulate my hon. Friend again on raising this important issue. I believe that building schools for the future represents a tremendous opportunity to deliver improvement. We must have a system for prioritising, but there are a number of other ways in which we can get the extra capital needed into the schools in Medway. I look forward to working with him and the other two Medway MPs to ensure that that can be done over the months ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

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