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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Phil Hope): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) on securing this debate. She spoke very knowledgably and forcefully on her constituents' behalf, and she clearly has considerable personal experience of the issues that she raised. I am certainly aware of the interest that people living in Swindon are showing in the current review of primary school provision in west Swindon.

The Government are committed to continuing the drive to raise standards in education, so it will come as no surprise that we support the council's stated aims for the review, which are to provide high-quality education, to embrace the extended schools agenda—I will say more about that later—and to provide wide and all-encompassing community provision in west Swindon schools.

The Department's five-year strategy for children and learners, following on from the primary document, entitled "Excellence and Enjoyment—A Strategy for Primary Schools", sets out the success story of primary education, with many schools delivering very high-quality education. I am pleased to say that we have seen impressive strides forward in literacy and numeracy in recent years, and teaching has improved in every single curriculum subject in primary schools since 1997.
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Although we have already made considerable progress, we recognise the need to provide all primary pupils with a quality primary education. I regret that there is an unacceptable variation in performance between schools. Authorities are encouraged to consider this when determining proposals under a review of provision. I am pleased to say that primary standards in Swindon are improving overall and are now moving in an upwards direction. There have been improvements this year of 4 percentage points in key stage 2 English and maths, and of 1 percentage point in science.

As we have just heard, Swindon council is reviewing primary school places across the whole authority, due to surplus places in the sector. My hon. Friend pointed out at the beginning of her speech that the problem of surplus places is recognised and is accepted as being part of the issue that needs to be dealt with. Swindon's school organisation plan projects a decrease in pupil numbers of 4.5 per cent. overall in the next five years, resulting in a level of surplus places of no less than 16 per cent. in 2008 if no action is taken. Following a consultation exercise on improving the education provision in west Swindon, completed in March, the education partnership board agreed to a pre-statutory consultation on the closure of Salt Way primary school and further discussions about the way forward for three other primary schools— Freshbrook, Toothill and Windmill Hill.

As a result of the pre-statutory consultation, the education partnership board will, on 30 June 2005—in nine days' time—consider a recommendation to close Salt Way primary school with effect from 1 September 2006, together with a linked proposal to expand Shaw Ridge primary school from the same date. I am not aware of any meeting or decision taken today to that effect, though my hon. Friend mentioned it in her speech. I understand that there has been a visit from Ofsted inspectors today, and I am not sure whether that might have created some confusion. I am sure that my hon. Friend will find out more when she returns to her constituency. Shaw Ridge primary school is in the same planning area as Salt Way primary school and places will be required to accommodate pupils. Statutory notices will then need to be issued to implement the proposals.

The outcome of discussions about the three other primary schools—Freshbrook, Toothill and Windmill Hill—will be reported to the education partnership board on 22 September 2005, which may lead to pre-statutory and statutory consultation, if appropriate.

My hon. Friend referred to staffing. I understand from the authority that staff are now being appointed at Salt Way primary for one year, in the first instance, pending decisions on the future of the school. I appreciate that there is inevitably a period of uncertainty for everyone involved, as my hon. Friend mentioned, and I would encourage the local authority to continue to give active support to the governing body of the school during this difficult period.

On the issue of school organisation, the Government wish to encourage changes to local school provision that will boost standards and opportunities for young people, while matching school place supply as closely as possible to pupil and parental needs and wishes. The Education Act 1996 places a duty on each local
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education authority to ensure that sufficient school places exist to meet the needs of the local population in order to promote high standards of pupil attainment. If an authority decides to reorganise provision, decisions are not taken by Ministers, but made locally, which is what Swindon council is currently doing. The proposals for the schools mentioned have not yet moved into the statutory phase of the process. In view of my hon. Friend's concerns about the process, I would like to say more about how it is undertaken.

First, all interested parties must be consulted before proposals are published; they must be provided with sufficient information and allowed adequate time. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's comments on how she saw it happening in Swindon. On deciding to proceed with closure proposals for individual schools, formal notices must be published in a local newspaper, posted at the main entrances of schools named in the proposals and placed in another conspicuous local area. There is then a six-week period for people to submit their representations in support of, or against, the proposals, except in the case of a school in special measures where one month applies.

If the authority has published the proposals and there are no objections, it may proceed and implement them. In all other cases, such as when objections are received, they are referred to the school organisation committee, which is made up of five or six groups each representing major stakeholders in the provision of education. Each group has one vote and must consider all the evidence in line with the guidance issued by the Secretary of State before reaching a decision. After that, if a unanimous decision cannot be reached, the case is referred to the independent schools adjudicator for a final decision.

Importantly, as my hon. Friend noted, the guidance for those publishing and deciding proposals for changes to local school organisation makes it clear that the Government are committed to greater personalisation and choice, with learners and parents at centre stage. However, that must be set in the context of raising standards.

Our guidance is that decisions must be made in the light of a range of factors, including the potential impact on local standards, the contribution to diversity, views of interested parties and cost effectiveness. We expect authorities to take full account of our offer on primary education, as set out in the five year strategy, when planning for primary school provision.

On the specific issue of the review of primary schools in west Swindon, surplus places can represent a poor use of resources that could be used more effectively to support schools in raising standards. In the light of a downward trend in the number of pupils in primary education, that is a concern both nationally and locally. We have developed, in conjunction with the Audit Commission, a web-based toolkit offering a range of practical advice and guidance on dealing with falling rolls, as has happened in Swindon.

As I said earlier, I understand that Swindon's school organisation plan, published last year, identified a potential increase in surplus places in the west of Swindon and hence the need for a review. The latest Ofsted report for Swindon LEA stated that the authority was now making good progress in this area
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and that planning was satisfactory. It did, however, mention the high level of surplus places in primary schools in the west of Swindon.

Along with the need to remove surplus places, the 2004 Ofsted inspection of Salt Way primary school identified that the school had serious weaknesses, especially in leadership and management. Although it provided an acceptable standard of education for its pupils, it was not effective enough. As I said earlier, Ofsted inspectors were due to visit the school again today, but it is for individual authorities to decide whether, and how, they reduce levels of surplus places taking into account local circumstances, including school performance as well as geographical and social factors.

My hon. Friend asked about extended schools and their use in these circumstances. I emphasise that extended schools are an important element of the Government's commitment to primary education. In embracing the extended schools agenda, Swindon council is implementing the Government's vision on what schools can offer their communities, as expressed in our publication last week of the extended schools prospectus.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in her announcement, the prospectus sets out how schools can develop additional services for families. We know that schools are at the heart of our communities, and it makes sense to extend the services that they offer beyond the traditional school day.

By the year 2010, all children under 14 who want it will have access to breakfast and after-school clubs that offer exciting activities from 8 am to 6 pm. That will give children the opportunity to keep fit and healthy, to acquire new skills and build on what they learn during the school day, as well as to have fun. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to see that aspiration and commitment implemented in extended schools in her constituency and around the country.

In west Swindon, the LEA proposes that, if a decision is made to close Salt Way primary school, the nursery would remain, with the feasibility of providing services to children and families being considered for the site.

We welcome the signs of positive improvement in the education system within Swindon, and early signs of progress on implementing the every child matters agenda.
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The aims of the west Swindon primary review appear to support that improvement. Swindon's education partnership board has an independent chair appointed jointly by a former Secretary of State and the council, and it has had a positive effect on educational progress in the council area. The latest report from Ofsted, as part of the October 2004 corporate governance inspection, reported continued overall progress in education.

I want to refer to capital funding, which my hon. Friend mentioned this evening. Of course, the Government are supporting the raising of standards with unprecedented investment in schools. Capital investment will reach more than £5 billion in 2005–06, and will increase further to £6.3 billion in 2007–08. Primary and secondary schools receive funding under existing programmes to provide repairs and improvements. In addition, our proposals for strategic investment include a long-term commitment to deliver 21st century learning facilities in primary schools.

The Chancellor announced in the 2005 Budget that the £150 million of new investment in 2008–09—rising to £500 million in 2009–10—will form part of a 15-year programme of primary school funding. Along with other capital funding already in the system, all primary schools will be maintained or, indeed, transformed. That funding has been made available in support of the Government's every child matters and extended schools agendas.

In short, having listened carefully to my hon. Friend's concerns—I am sure that people outside the House will listen to those concerns as well—we believe that the Government have in place a framework that seeks to address her concerns. We have a primary strategy and the five-year strategy for children and learners, which set out our plans for the future of primary education. We have established a framework for local decision making on school organisation that places decision making in the community that those involved serve and know. 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. I hope that, with the commitment of parents, the education authority and, indeed, my hon. Friend, the framework that we have put in place will ensure that the transition process that is happening in her constituency achieves the best outcome for the people who matter most—the children of her constituency.

Question put and agreed to.

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