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Primary Schools (Rossendale)

1.30 pm

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate on the future of primary school provision in Rossendale in Lancashire. I say at the outset that I represent only a small part of the borough of Rossendale, most of which is represented effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson). I shall confine most of my remarks to how my constituents in Haslingden are affected by Lancashire county council's review of primary provision and, in particular, by the proposal to close St. Mary's Roman Catholic primary school in Haslingden.

Any responsible Government or education authority need to tackle surplus places. I welcome the review of primary provision in Rossendale that Lancashire county council has initiated. We need a review and I welcome the way in which the council is going about it. The review is open and transparent and, although no final decision has been made, the process is a good one. We need to congratulate county councillor Hazel Harding, the leader of the county council, on how the review is being conducted. I also support the objectives of the review. The review document says that a balance must be struck between providing school places within the immediate community and ensuring that schools are large enough to be educationally and economically viable. I support that. The document says that there should be a vision of schools operating at the centre of their immediate or extended communities. St. Mary's in Haslingden is at the heart of its community. Keeping it open dovetails with the vision outlined in that document.

Lancashire enjoys diverse provision—there are probably more faith schools in the Lancashire LEA than in any LEA in the country. I welcome that. We need to cherish and maintain that diversity. In my constituency there are not only community schools, but Roman Catholic schools, Church of England schools and even Methodist schools. I welcome that diversity. The review document says that Lancashire recognises the

Preserving that choice for parents is at the heart of what I want to say. I contend that the current proposals, which provide for the closure of St. Mary's Roman Catholic primary school in Haslingden, would deny that parental choice to Catholic parents in my constituency.

The document also refers to the Education Act 2002, which enables small schools to flourish by working in co-operation with other schools or, in some circumstances, by federating with them. It is important that the Government recognise the role that small schools have to play at the heart of communities. I just hope that the Lancashire LEA and, importantly, the Roman Catholic diocese of Salford also accept that role.

None of us would deny that there is a problem with surplus places in primary schools in Rossendale. There are currently about 6,700 primary places in Rossendale, give or take a few. Six years ago, the schools were
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broadly full, with 6,500 primary pupils and 6,700 places. It is always good to have a small surplus capacity, to provide for new build or for parents to exercise choice or to move. Now, however, there are only 5,500 primary school pupils in the same 6,700 places. The demographic trends show that, with the birth rate and planned building projects in Rossendale, the number of primary school pupils is set to fall to 5,100 by 2010. If we do not do anything, that will leave a vacancy rate of more than 20 per cent., which is unacceptable.

We know that tough decisions will have to be made, but why, in tackling surplus places, is St. Mary's Roman Catholic school in Haslingden the only faith school to be singled out for closure, with no other option open to it in the review document? If it was a failing school in special measures, all reasonable people could understand the logic. That is not the case. It is an improving school that has been turned round. Ofsted has described it as being the sixth most improved primary school in the country. I went to the school last week and can say that it is a happy, succeeding, improving school.

The school is at the heart of the community. Its history is interwoven with that of the town of Haslingden. Following the famine in Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, many Irish people sought a new life in England. They came through Liverpool and formed a diaspora in Lancashire and the north-west of England. Haslingden has a large Irish community, which came seeking food and work in the middle of the 19th century.

The community established St. Mary's church and wanted to establish a school to go with the church. It is worth bearing in mind that that period was only a generation after the Catholic emancipation Acts. There was still a large amount of anti-Catholic sentiment and anti-Irish bigotry. When people learned of the proposal to open a Catholic school, an angry mob descended on what was to become the site of the school. It was dispersed only when a lone figure fired a revolver in the air. That man was Michael Davitt, the founder of the Irish Democratic Land Federation and a renowned Irish nationalist.

The school opened a year later in the summer of 1869. There are not many schools that can claim to have been founded on a single gunshot dispersing an angry mob. We ought to cherish our history.

The review document has some figures about the school that are not entirely accurate. It says that there are 150 places. In reality, there are more like 125, because one of the classes has been converted into an information and communications technology suite. The review document refers to problems with flooding as though that were a perennial problem that would lead one to conclude that the school had no viable future. In fact, nobody can remember the last time that the school flooded. Flooding is a problem that was solved a long time ago.

The school is much loved by the community and the wider community. I have received letters from as far away as Boston, Massachusetts urging that it be kept open. I have been inundated with letters and have petitions running to hundreds, possibly thousands of signatories, urging that the much-loved school be kept open.
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I have noticed that pupils do not always love their schools, but I have many letters from pupils saying that they do love the school. One letter said that many pupils are not Catholics but they still come to the school because it has kind teachers. Someone else said:

One pupil said:

That is a fair point. Two pupils wrote to say that if the school were closed, they were

I suspect that that referred to a day when maths was being taught.

St. Mary's really is a school that is at the heart of the community. The point that I make to my hon. Friend the Minister is that closure should not be the first or the only option for schools such as St. Mary's. There are other ways of tackling surplus places. It should be possible to reduce the number of pupils on the roll to tackle surplus places. It should be possible also to look imaginatively at co-operation with other schools.

The review document says that, if St. Mary's closes, there are sufficient places, either at St. Veronica's Roman Catholic primary school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen or at other schools in the area. Frankly, that would deny the choice of Catholic education to many of my constituents because there are more than 70 Catholic pupils at St. Mary's but there are only 17 places available at St. Veronica's. There are places available at community schools and faith schools of different faiths but that is not the same thing.

I return to what the document says. It talks about preserving a range of choices for parents. If we are not careful, that will be denied. I cannot understand why St. Mary's is the only school earmarked for closure. All the other schools have been given other options and St. Mary's deserves that choice as well.

Who wants the school to close? The parents do not, nor do the teachers, the pupils, the governors, the local councillors, the local MP, the Catholic community in Haslingden, the wider community in Haslingden, and nor even, I suspect, does Lancashire local education authority. I suspect that the only people who have the school earmarked for closure and who have their hearts set on that are, sadly, members of the Roman Catholic diocese of Salford. I cannot imagine why they should want to close a popular school with a large playing field in a residential area with rising property prices. Those considerations have led some to speculate on their motives, which I would not dream of doing.

The school was born out of adversity in the 19th century, and has the chance to flourish in the 21st century. All that it requires is a helping hand and an imaginative reconsideration of the circumstances. That is not to deny that the problem of surplus places in Haslingden, Rossendale and across Lancashire needs to be tackled—of course it does, but I am sure that we can tackle that problem and find a future for this popular, improving and happy school. I hope that the Lancashire education authority and the diocese of Salford will
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listen, through the debate, not to me but to my constituents and the community I represent, who want to keep the school open.

Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Jimmy Hood (in the Chair): Order. I do not have any information about a request from the hon. Lady to speak in the debate, and I do not have the approval of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), so she is not eligible to speak in the debate.

1.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle) : I shall be more than happy to take a few interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) so that she can make some points.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) on securing the debate and on the way in which he presented his points. He makes a powerful case in advocating some alternative solutions to an issue that he acknowledges needs to be tackled by the local school organisation committee and local council. There is no doubt that issues arise out of the proposals made, but, as both my hon. Friends will know, the Government's role in this matter is not as active as it would have been before 1998, when Ministers made decisions about the local reorganisation of schools. We no longer have that power, and we think it right that such arrangements should be made locally and that final decisions should be taken locally, although we are committed to continuing the drive to raise education standards throughout the country.

Local authorities undoubtedly need to create a pattern of provision that supports raising the attainment of children, and to make sure that it meets the changing needs and numbers of children in any particular area. The Department's five-year strategy for children and learners, which follows on from our document, "Excellence and Enjoyment: A strategy for primary schools", sets out the extensive success story of primary education, with many schools delivering high-quality education. There have been impressive strides in literacy and numeracy in recent years, as well as teaching having improved in every curriculum subject in primary schools since 1997. Of course, we recognise that we need to do more to provide a high-quality primary education to all pupils. There is still an unacceptable variation in performance between schools, and authorities are encouraged to consider that when determining proposals under a review of provision.

Primary standards for 11-year-olds in Rossendale are improving and are broadly in line with the average for Lancashire schools. In Lancashire as a whole, key stage 1 and 2 results are above the national average. No primary schools in Rossendale have been identified as needing special measures, as having serious weaknesses or as underachieving, although eight have been identified as needing additional local authority support to address educational, personnel or financial issues.

As my hon. Friend set out clearly, Lancashire county council is reviewing primary school places across the Rossendale area, because of surplus places. I have the
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same figures as he does for the number of surplus places. There is no doubt that that issue needs to be tackled. The review covers 32 primary schools. The surplus place percentage is almost 17.5 per cent., and it will reach 22.8 per cent. by 2010 if nothing is done, so, clearly, something must be done. The authority and the diocesan body state that falling rolls have had a greater impact on Catholic schools than other schools, although there is significant unfilled capacity in all sectors.

On the option put forward in the consultation document, my hon. Friend made the point that there is only one option for his area of Haslingden, and I understand his concerns on that. I have listened to his points and am sure that the local schools organisation committee will do the same and consider some of them, which I am sure he will also make locally in every possible way. The parents and pupils sound to me like quite an active lot, and I am sure that they will make those points as strongly as he has made them during this debate.

Janet Anderson : I thank the Minister for giving way and I apologise, Mr. Hood, for not having indicated that I wanted to say something.

The Minister mentioned that there was only one option for St. Mary's in the review, and she is absolutely right. I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) has said in welcoming the approach of Lancashire county council, which has indicated that it is willing to listen and think again.

A number of schools in my constituency are affected, but for one in particular—Bacup nursery school—there is only one option in the review document, which is closure. I visited the school on Saturday and I know the strength of feeling locally. We would very much like for that school to remain, and replacing it with a nursery class would not improve the provision for local people in Bacup. In fact, it would make it significantly worse. I just place that on the record. Part of the solution to the problem may be some sort of new build throughout the borough of Rossendale, and I wonder whether the Minister would explain what help might be available from Government to assist with that.

Maria Eagle : My hon. Friend has raised a point that I shall come on to during my remarks.

I congratulate the teachers, parents and, most of all, the pupils of St. Mary's for the impressive achievement of being identified by Ofsted as one of the most improving schools in the country. From my constituency experience, I understand how difficult things can be in a school that is improving and has been turned round from a slightly difficult position—albeit not special measures in this instance—only to be faced suddenly with such a threat to its future, after all the effort that has gone into turning it around. All I can say is that I congratulate the school and all connected with it on its achievement. No matter what happens to the local organisation, there is no doubt that it is a significant achievement to be named by Ofsted as one of the most improving primary schools in the country. That is something of which everyone should be very proud.

I understand that one difficulty is that pupil numbers are quite small, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn referred to that. I am told that the number
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stood at 81 in January and that there are currently 78 pupils. My hon. Friend raised some issues in referring to our 2002 legislation about the way in which small schools might be helped to continue even though the numbers are smaller. That is particularly important in rural areas where schools are centres of the community, and I am sure that all those factors will be taken into account during the current consultation and in the decision-making process thereafter at the level of the schools organisation committee when it considers the points made or whether the proposals should go ahead.

The consultation document was issued in May and open evenings have been held at schools that could be directly affected. I am not sure whether that applies to the nursery, but I am sure that it should. I am sure that it will have had meetings where parents of the children who go there could make those points. I know that there were open evenings at St. Mary's school on 7 June and at St. Veronica's on 6 June. The results of the consultation are to be reported to the cabinet member for education on 13 September, which leaves my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn, and those of his view, the summer in which to campaign. Of course, before making any decisions, those making the decision locally will take into account the views put forward.

Lancashire county council and the Salford diocesan schools commission recognise in their consultation document the important role played by denominational schools. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn about the possibility of removing the option of a Catholic primary education from some parents is important, and I am sure that he will stress it to those who are to make these decisions in due course. I understand that a reorganisation of Roman Catholic churches is being undertaken in Rossendale and Ramsbottom, which may result in an amalgamation of the parishes of Haslingden, St. Mary's and St. Veronica's. I do not know what impact that might have on some of the proposals that have come forward, but I am sure that the two things are not unconnected.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen raised a point about a nursery school in her constituency and asked what, if anything, the Government can do to ensure that funds are available to ensure that schools can continue where that is wanted. I am afraid that I will have to write to her on that point. However, she will be well aware of the increasing resources that the Government are putting in to ensure that pupils attain in their current school buildings and to extend and extensively rebuild our school infrastructure throughout the country. I will have to check at the Department to see what might be available for her nursery school, but she will be aware of our 10-year child care strategy and the concept of extended schools, which may well provide some options that could be considered locally to ensure that valued local facilities can not only continue, but be expanded.

Over the next 10 years, there will be a vast expansion in the availability of child care and extended schools in particular areas, which will offer all kinds of additional support services to parents, families and learners of all ages. I am certain that, in conjunction with the local authority, local diocesan schools commissions can come up with helpful plans.

Janet Anderson : The Minister stresses something important. We feel that one of the ways forward for the nursery school in Bacup would be for it to combine with the local Sure Start scheme to provide wrap-around care for all the families in Bacup.

Maria Eagle : I am interested to hear that local people are already ahead of the game. They will have spotted that there are a lot of resources in extending schools to ensure that they provide services for much longer periods during the day to assist parents who are at work by ensuring that they can have proper child care for an extended time. Such expansions are planned throughout the country.

Sure Start has led not only to services in respect of children and early-years education being put together much more coherently, but, in areas in which it is established, to underachievement being tackled effectively. If my hon. Friend already knows of a Sure Start scheme, that is an obvious way in which services can be not only preserved, but improved in future. I undertake to contact her further in that regard, although I am sure that she is aware that I cannot make decisions about school reorganisations. I am certain that those involved at local level will have the best interests of all the communities at heart and will want to ensure that the proposals that they finally come forward with are fully supported by parents and local people.

My hon. Friend will be well aware, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn, that to the extent that there is not an agreement at the end of the process of consultation, there are procedures by which decisions can be taken by the independent schools arbitrator that will ensure that a resolution is reached to allow the reorganisation to go ahead.

I have heard what both my hon. Friends have said. I am certain that the local schools organisation committee, the LEA and the diocesan authorities will read carefully what they have had to say and that parents, pupils and those with an interest in the local area will be involved in the consultation, will make their views known and will put forward alternatives if they feel that they are viable. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn had one or two points about that.

At the end of the day local decision making, along with the arbitration that is available if there is no agreement, will ensure that, when it happens, the reorganisation of schools in Rossendale will happen to the benefit of all pupils whether they are at community schools, denominational schools or wherever, and whether they are at nursery or primary level. That is the aim of the way in which schools reorganisation is now carried out. That is best done locally and at the end of the process Rossendale will have a plan for the future that will do right by all the children of the area.

Question put and agreed to.

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