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I listen to local people at every opportunity through surveys, public meetings, visiting residents and people coming to me. They were crying out for someone to
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listen to their views and concerns, and then do something about them. I spoke to many worried parents who were very concerned about the effects of the closure of John Lea school. As part of my listening campaign, I started SOS"Save Our Secondary Schools." I could see, like many others, that the closure and demolition of a local secondary school would have a hugely detrimental effect on secondary education in Wellingborough.
We campaigned against the demolition of the school. We went door to door seeking the views of local people, and we distributed numerous leaflets informing local residents of the proposals. The then leader of the Conservative party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), and the shadow Secretary of State for Education at the time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), both came to Wellingborough to give their support to the SOS campaign. Chris Heaton-Harris MEP petitioned the European Parliament on behalf of parents from Earls Barton, a community in Wellingborough, whose children were being denied a secondary school place. Yet despite all our efforts, the decision was made by the Labour-run county council to demolish John Lea school, and in 2001 the school was no more.
One of the biggest oversights that was made in this case was that no one took into consideration just how much Wellingborough was due to grow in the coming years. The oversight has had a devastating effect on school provision and school choice, and the effects are still being felt.
Daniel Kawczynski: My hon. Friend describes the problem in Wellingborough as acute, and I am grateful that he has brought it to the attention of the House. The problem is also significant in rural areas, particularly in some of the villages near Shrewsbury. One such case is Grafton school
Mr. Bone: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I accept his general point about the provision for rural areas. Many people think of Wellingborough as an urban area, but Earls Barton, for example, is a rural village from which children have to travel miles to get to a school.
When John Lea was closed, it was noted by the local authority that although there would be enough secondary school places for pupils transferring from primary schools, there could be further difficulties ahead if extra children were to move into the area. In fact, after the closure of John Lea school, all the remaining secondary schools in Wellingborough were oversubscribed and crowded.
Some children had to be bussed outside the county to go to school. Some parents paid for their children to go to a private school. Some parents started to educate their children at home. Some families even moved away from the area to get their children into a school. Most worryingly of all, some children were left at home without any education at all. In April 2001, there were 21 pupils who were forced to stay at home because of a
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lack of school places. Some of those children had been without any education for up to six months. In short, although many children were not getting the education that they deserved, a worrying number were not getting any education at all.
Some of the children denied a school place were at a critical stage before their GCSE examinations. How could an education authority and a Government leave children at home with no education at all? Had it been the other way round, and had parents been deliberately not sending their children to school, the LEA would have come down on them like a tonne of bricks. Sarah Robertson, who was 15 at the time, was at a critical stage in her education, with exams imminent, yet she had been without a school place for almost six months. I met many worried parents who did not know which way to turn because of the failure of the Labour-controlled local authority, and I met pupils who were bored and frustrated by being stuck at home. If that had been a one-off incident, it would have been bad enough, but it has happened time and again because of the closure of the school. In a subsequent year, another large group of children were left at home for weeks on end without any education at all.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this afternoon's debate. As the Member of Parliament for the neighbouring constituency of Kettering, may I say that I share his concerns? I put it to him that one of the major themes in our combined local area is that we face the prospect of 52,000 new houses being built in north Northamptonshire by 2021, while existing educational provision is not sufficient for the current population.
Mr. Bone: I know how hard my hon. Friend works on behalf of his constituents. I feel a little guilty that secondary school children from Wellingborough are being bussed into Kettering because provision in Wellingborough is insufficient. I shall address his second point later in my speech.
What was the solution proposed by the local authority and the Government? They decided to force already overcrowded schools to take even more pupils, which damaged the education not only of the pupils forced into those schools, but of all those already there. That should not have been allowed to happen, but unfortunately some children still do not have a school place. Since 2001, there has been a huge amount of growth in my constituency with many, many new families, whose children require secondary school places, moving into the area.
Over the past four years, there has been an explosion of new development in my constituency, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) has referred, and it is set to get much, much worse, with thousands of new homes being built on the order of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The Milton Keynes south midlands sub-regional strategy will see 13,000 new homes being built in Wellingborough by 2021, with another 10,000 homes planned for east Northamptonshire, large parts of which are in my constituency. Yet despite the knowledge that those new homes will be built, the Government have not indicated whether the infrastructure will be in place to support new and existing Wellingborough residents and their children.
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Turning to the problems that we face at the moment, there are currently four secondary schools in Wellingboroughthree are foundation schools and one is a community school. I have been told that in Wellingborough between nine and 10 children a month find themselves without a secondary school place and must go through a lengthy process in order to get into a school. For example, a parent came to see me at my surgery last Friday. Mr. Hussein moved back into Wellingborough after being away for two years. He has two children, one of 17 and one of 12. The 17-year-old had previously been educated at a secondary school in Wellingborough, but that school could not re-admit her because it is now over-subscribed. The other child could not get into a secondary school near where they live, and both children were told that they had to go on a waiting list, so they are currently at home with no education at all.
I have spoken to the local education authority, which will do its best to get those children into a school. However, the process that it uses to place nine or 10 children a month involves a meeting which occurs only once a month and which can only occur after the LEA has been made aware of the situation. It is quite possible that such children will be without any education for three months. Do the Government think that that would be the case if one of Wellingborough's secondary schools had not been knocked down?
The LEA claims that some secondary school places are available in Wellingborough, but those places are all at the only school in Wellingborough that is in special measures. For many families moving into Wellingborough, there is no choice whateverno matter where they live and no matter how far away they are from the school, they must go to the school that is in special measures. That situation is unacceptable, because there must be choiceparents should have some choice in what school their children go to. I note with interest that the Government's education White Paper advocates parental choice, which is welcome, but unfortunately it is just not happening in my constituency.
Even those pupils coming from primary schools in Wellingborough are limited for choice. At the Wrenn school last year, there were 280 applicants for 250 year 7 places. Twenty-six people appealed, but only three of those appellants were able to get a place at the school. That means that the school is already, in year 7, three pupils over the number that it considers to be its maximum admission level. The admissions system allows parents to put down a first, second and third choice of schools in Wellingborough, but if their children do not get their first-choice place, they are extremely unlikely to get their second choice, because those will already have been filled.
It is natural that every parent wants their child to go to the best possible school, and inevitable that some schools are better than others, but the most popular schools in my constituency are constantly oversubscribed and struggle with the limited capacity of their school buildings. Let me take one as an example. It is extremely popular and high-achieving. Only
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208 places in each year group are available because of the restrictions of building capacity. In fact, the school now has to operate a one-way system on the stairs because the corridors are so full. It is having to use up its reserves to pay for essential maintenance. There is damp on the walls in some of the classrooms and condensation on the windows. This popular and high-achieving school needs Government funding to allow it to remain so. It is simply not big enough, and parts of it are literally falling down.
When I asked the Minister whether provision was being made to build a new secondary school in Wellingborough, I received a written answer stating that as part of the building schools for the future programme, Northamptonshire schools are due to be refurbished or rebuilt over the next six to 14 years. Six to fourteen years? This work needs to be carried out now.
In response to a second question that I asked about a new secondary school in Wellingborough, the Minister said that the Wellingborough area of Northamptonshire is prioritised towards the end of the building schools for the future programme. Apart from the obvious paradox that nothing is prioritised if it is at the end of a list, that means that, three times over, year 7 students could start secondary school and go through the whole of their secondary education before the existing Wellingborough schools are refurbished, yet those schools are in desperate need of repair now.
There is currently no real choice for parents and children in Wellingborough. If children are not granted their first choice of school, they are rarely granted their second choice. The only pupils who seem to have a real choice of school are those with special educational needs. That is most welcome, but although it is important that statemented children should be able to go to the school that parents believe will cater best for the children's needs, it is equally important that the right funding and resources are put into these schools to help facilitate SEN pupils throughout their schooling. I do not believe that that is happening in Wellingborough.
Schools in Wellingborough are oversubscribed and some have been forced to take on extra pupils over their maximum intakes. At Wollaston school, years 7 and 9 are over the 240 maximum. At the Wrenn school years 7, 8 and 10 have more pupils than the 250 maximum. Last year, Sir Christopher Hatton school was oversubscribed by more than 40 pupils who put it down as their first choice.
It is clear from what I have said today that Wellingborough needs a new secondary school, and given the huge increase in development over the next 15 years, we need it now. I ask the Minister to be good enough to deal with the following points. First, what are the mechanisms necessary to get a new secondary school built? Secondly, when can we realistically expect a new secondary school in Wellingborough to be opened? Thirdly, in the intervening period, will he undertake to look at providing more funding so that existing schools can expand for the benefit of all the pupils in Wellingborough?
I believe that the demolition of John Lea school may have been a genuine mistake, but it is essential that the Government, working with the local education authority, take urgent action to correct the situation.
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