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Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise in this Adjournment debate education issues that are of great concern to my constituents in west Swindon. The big issue for primary education in that area is surplus places and the need to demonstrate that action is being taken to reduce them. That there is a problem of surplus places is not in dispute; parents, teachers and the local authority accept the fact. There is, however, a dispute over how much of a problem exists and what action should be taken.
Swindon borough council is a small unitary authority with responsibility for education. Recently, the local education authority received the good news that it was no longer in special measures, and that there were no schools in special measures in the authority. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the LEA, its officers and the schools and teachers on that achievement. It represents a significant step forward and will undoubtedly mean better education and life chances for all the children in Swindon, including those in west Swindon.
Reorganisation of schools is always difficult. I have personal experience of this in my previous career as a local education adviser, and in my political career as vice-chair of Berkshire's education committee in the 1990s. While I was a chair of governors, I oversaw the successful merger of an infants school and a junior school into a primary school. That was difficult to achieve, even with the support of the staff of both schools and of the majority of parents, with several issues continuing to resonate 18 months later at the new primary school's Ofsted inspection. All this experience has led me to the understanding that school reorganisation can destabilise even seemingly robust school communities. In more fragile communities, it can be a disaster.
My experience has also led me to believe that a number of principles need to be in place for successful reorganisations to occur. First, the educational reasons must be absolutely sound and honest for the current intake of children, and for future intakes. Secondly, the figures must add up, and must command the confidence of the wider community. Thirdly, there must be no hidden agenda on anyone's part, including that of local councillors, and nothing should be said or done to encourage the belief that there is. Fourthly, the confidence of the majority of parents must be maintained throughout the process and consultation must begin at an early stage.
TeacherNet, the widely respected Department for Education and Skills website for teachers and education providers, outlines best practice in reorganisations. A successful primary school reorganisation involves a number of factors, it says. First, the ground should be prepared and a set of guiding principles should be developed to underpin the approach, covering preferred size of schools, maximum travelling time of pupils, triggers for school review based on admission numbers, and criteria for demanding action at one school rather
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than another. Secondly, options should be identified and all the options should be examined before decisions are made. They might include a reduction in accommodation, alternative uses of accommodation such as extended services, changes in admission numbers, and amalgamation or closure. Lastly, partners should be involved. Key partners include parents, housing departments and trusts, planning and environment, transport, dioceses and many other groups.
The west Swindon consultation involved several public meetings, six of which I attended. My experience of the meetings did not fill me with confidence that the consultation was being conducted in an unbiased and open way. At two of the meetings, local Conservative councillors reassured parents that the school where the meeting was being held would be "all right" and that they had nothing to worry about. As these were public meetings, there were parents present from other schools who did not receive the same assurance at the public meeting on their school site. Naturally, that did not fill my constituents with confidence, and word quickly spread throughout the community that it was a paper exercise and councillors had already made up their minds about which schools would close.
The outcome of the consultation was that one school, Salt Way, was earmarked for closure from January 2006 and further discussions were to be held about three others, Toothill, Freshbrook and Windmill Hill. The decision on Salt Way was leaked to the local paper, so parents and teachers discovered that the school was likely to close during the Easter holiday break. That is not a good way to find out about the future of one's child's education or one's job. At Salt Way, most of the permanent staff have understandably found other jobs and will be leaving at the end of this term. I gather from discussions last week with the director of education that only two permanent members of the teaching staff remain, one of whom is on long-term sick leave. It has also become apparent that the closure of the school by January 2006 looks unachievable because there are no places in nearby primary schools for most of the children who currently attend Salt Way.
The current solution is to bring in teachers from other schools on secondments to teach the children. The process has resulted in plummeting staff morale, disruption to children's education and a question mark over when and if the school will close. Only tonight I was told by one of the parents that the LEA had announced at a meeting this afternoon that the school would close in August 2006 and that an extension would be built at Shaw Ridge school to take the extra pupils. There has been no exploration with parents of the alternatives to closure. On behalf of my constituents, I am genuinely disappointed by the high-handedness of the approach and sad that I learned about it through a parent.
The school has been left dangling, and as its representative I must do all that I can to ensure that the children's education is protected. I ask the Minister to
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look into the issue for me as it has ramifications for the other three schools whose future is also under discussion. The situation must not be allowed to happen twice.
I hope that, from my description, the Minister will understand my concern about the robustness of the surplus place figures used by Swindon LEA. To announce a school closure consultation and then discover that there are not enough places for the existing children to go to is not best practice, and I ask the Minister to examine the figures that have been produced. One of the difficulties may lie in the net capacity figures. Over the years, temporary classrooms have been added to west Swindon schools to accommodate expanding pupil numbers. They contribute to the net capacity figures, but many of the classrooms are past their sell-by date and could easily be taken out of commission.
In addition, many schools, including Salt Way, have done what the local education authority and the Department for Education and Skills asked of themconverted surplus classes to IT suites, pre-school groups, libraries and parent and community rooms. All those are needed, particularly in our more deprived wards, and all are good practice, but it strikes me and the schools as unfair that those spaces are then used to calculate how many children a school could and should accommodate.
The reality is that the schools cannot take up to the pupil numbers required by the DFES calculations. The situation that the Salt Way pupils are in demonstrates that. In theory, there should be room in neighbouring schoolsafter all, the figures demonstrate thatbut in practice there is not because the spaces are not classrooms.
Moving on to the other schools under threat of closure, I will first refer to Toothill. Toothill is the most deprived ward in west Swindon and Toothill school serves that community. It has the third highest proportion of children in the borough with English as an additional language. Its unit for children with moderate learning difficulties has been integrated successfully into the main stream. It has a successful buddy mentoring scheme that has reduced bullying and made the playground a good place to be for all children. There are strong links between the school and the local community, with the school seen as the centre for community activities, including the west Swindon family centre. TeacherNet advises that local authorities should investigate the impact of the loss of such an institution on communities, but there was no mention of that in the consultation. I wish to be reassured that the LEA has considered that issue.
The local community in Toothill feels under attack because of the threat to the school. From my own knowledge of the area, I believe that significant numbers of vulnerable children would be at risk if the school were to close or to merge on another site. Because of the design of the estate, it would mean a difficult journey to reach another school.
The school governors and parents have worked with the LEA throughout the consultation and are aware of the falling rolls issue. They have a number of old and decrepit temporary buildings that could be taken out of commission, reducing the space, but they also have
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accommodation problems in their main building and desperately need a new school building. They tell me that they are "up for anything" in terms of the Government's extended schools and child first policy initiatives. I hope that Swindon borough council will be able to work proactively with the school to ensure its continued future in serving a vulnerable community.
Now I come to the most difficult aspect of the whole reorganisation. I do not envy the LEA's task as Freshbrook and Windmill Hill schools are round the corner from each other, yet face very different issues and, despite being neighbours, serve very different communities. Freshbrook's rolls have fallen, while Windmill Hill's are robust and show no surplus places. In fact, the school is slightly over-subscribed and parents are passionate in their support of the school, as was demonstrated in the large numbers of Windmill Hill parents' responses to the consultation, but the school is in temporary premises and was built when pupil numbers on the Freshbrook estate exceeded those planned. When I say "temporary premises", those are the Rolls-Royce of temporary classrooms, having been lovingly maintained and improved over the years.
Freshbrook school has recently come out of special measures, on which I congratulate the head teacher and staff. However, a significant number of parents removed their children from Freshbrook during its recent difficulties and placed them in Windmill Hill. Therefore, we immediately have a problem in that those parents' memories of Freshbrook are of a school where their children failed. Fair or unfair, that is the situation. Suggestions by the local authority to close Windmill Hill, an over-subscribed school that has been successful for many years, or to merge it with Freshbrook, a newly successful school, have been met with great fear by the parents. There is such a feeling against those options that the LEA needs to reconsider them and meet its obligations to consult parents in detail on the proposal.
Another solution must be found. DFES guidance suggests alternative avenues for reorganisation such as federation, collaboration and co-operation. The main rationale of those is to raise standards and to address some of the problems of falling rolls, but under them a school maintains its separate identity. A wide variety of different arrangements for schools working together are available and it is right to ask whether all the options were considered by the council.
There are two other issues that I ask the Minister to consider. Throughout the consultation, parents were presented with arguments that Government policy is for two-form entry schools. I can find no reference to that anywhere. In fact, the DFES position is that the responsibility lies with local government. DFES guidance says that primary schools of about 420 pupils, which are two-form entry, or of 210 pupils, which are one-form entry, are the most efficient and offer a critical mass that promotes more efficient teaching and learning. I hope that the Minister will agree that one-form entry schools offer choice for parents and should be encouraged. One size does not fit all and we need a diverse mix in Swindon. Keeping one-form entry schools could remove the need to close schools.
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Parents were also told that the Government's extended schools initiative means that some schools in west Swindon need to close. I hope that the Minister will tell me and parents that this is stuff and nonsense. My postbag has been full of letters from concerned parents who think that one of our flagship proposals will lead to the closure of their school. An email that I received from a parent at the weekend stated:
"My concerns are around the need to close successful schools in order to raise the necessary funding to build new extended schools. I don't believe this was the intention behind the government's proposals. If insufficient funding has been made available to the council for implementing extended schools without these drastic measures then I don't support their implementation. Otherwise the council is using the extended school proposals as a way of closing schools for economic reasons."
Some of the issues that have arisen in the council's consultation on primary education in west Swindon are the direct result of interpretations of Government policy and initiatives. There is a case, therefore, for us to explore and answer, and there may be action that we in this place need to take, as well as action that Swindon borough council needs to take in my constituency.
I hope that I have made the Minister aware of my great unease at the way in which this consultation process has been carried out. I ask him to look at the decision to close Salt Way and at the consultation with the schools and the LEA. I ask him to remember that our education policy of extended schools and one-form or two-form entry schools needs to be explained properly and thoroughly to the LEA. I want to reassure my constituents and the LEA that I intend to work proactively with them to find a solution to this problem. I hope that they will meet me and my constituents halfway. It is my constituents for whom I have the greatest concern, along with their children's education.
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