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13 Dec 2005 : Column 421WH—continued

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School Closures (Weaver Vale)

1.26 pm

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab): I am absolutely delighted to have secured the debate because the issue that I am about to discuss is causing great consternation in four villages in my constituency. Under an initiative that it has called "Transforming learning communities", Cheshire county council has introduced a document on which it will base its attempt to tackle what it describes as falling rolls and surplus school places. Several people in the villages of my constituency believe that, rather than transforming learning communities, the title of the document is a sort of euphemism and that the council will close at least two, or possibly three, schools in my constituency. That is why they are very concerned.

The council decided on the basis of population projections and birth rates that it will have a surplus of some 5,000 school places by 2010. It decided on a piecemeal approach to dealing with the problem and has divided the county into eight different areas, three of which it will visit this year, a few of which it will visit next year, and a few the year after.

The first tranche of the review deals with the area that it has called Frodsham and Helsby, which contains Manley village school, Kingsley St. Johns and Norley Church of England school, as well as a primary school. The review also covers Frodsham technology college, which it recommends for closure because it has only 700 pupils, at least 400 of whom are from outside the county council area. Most of them, in fact, come from the Runcorn part of my constituency, which also causes me some concern.

I do not believe that the county council has thought through the implications of closing Frodsham technology college for the other parts of Cheshire, particularly for the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). Young people from the village of Elton in that constituency will be very much affected by the closure, and may be forced to go to a school other than Helsby high school for their secondary education.

The first tranche of the review suggests that Alvanley primary school merges—the council uses the word "amalgamate"—with Manley primary school, and that Kingsley St. Johns and Norley Church of England school should amalgamate. That could result in the closure of all four schools and the opening of two new schools on sites yet to be determined, or it could result in two of the schools closing and the two other schools amalgamating on one of the sites.

Whatever happens, village schools in my constituency will close. When we pressed the county council on the matter, its first argument was that it had to tackle falling   school rolls and surplus places. The four primary schools, however, are full. They have a buoyant intake, they do not face the prospect of falling school rolls and they provide an excellent education for the pupils in their care. The role that they play in their communities is equally important. They are vital to the infrastructure of their communities, and closure of any one of them would be irrevocable.

The first thing that I asked the county council was that this was the first tranche of the review and it did not know what would happen in the other schools in the
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county, so why the piecemeal approach? It said that it would review the area again in 2008, so not only do we face a traumatic review in 2005, but three years down the   track, when the county council has found out the implications of its reorganisation, it will revisit the schools that stay open. I have told the county council that it should adopt a two-stage approach. It should review every primary school in the county and, when it has an idea of the changes it would like, go to the second stage of the process and carry out the statutory consultations required by law. That would give us a clear picture of the effect on the whole county, and we would not have to tell schools that they would be reviewed again. Everyone would see that the process was fair and transparent.

There is a fear that the county council will do the first tranche of work and find out that the temperature out there is so hot that it needs to rethink its views, so that village schools in my constituency will close but a different attitude will be taken to reviewing the rest of   the county. That would be unfair and unnecessary. I hope that the county council will consider that view, but I am not optimistic that it will do so when it makes its decisions tomorrow and on 19 December.

When pressed on the matter of falling rolls and surplus school places the county council has used 2002 statistics. The statistics for 2003 show that the birth rate in the county council area of Cheshire is growing. The county council advised me in a letter that it accepts that the birth rate is increasing, but does not know whether it is a trend. Without waiting to establish whether there is a trend of an increasing birth rate the county council went through an exercise of removing surplus school places across the county. It readily acknowledges that Alvanley primary school, Manley village school and Kingsley St. John's and Norley Church of England primary schools are, all four of them, full. They turn parents away each year because they are popular village schools.

The county council then deploys a different argument. When I first encountered it, I thought that it had carried out an assessment of the education in those four primary schools and come up with specific criticisms about what was happening. It said that the schools are small, with cross-age group classes, that they teach across the key stages, and that the head teachers all have a significant teaching commitment. Of course, that is true for those four schools, but it is not seen as a problem by Ofsted, which has inspected the schools and found them excellent.

On digging below the surface, one finds that the criticism does not arise from observation of the four primary schools in my constituency. It is taken, lock stock and barrel, from a Government document called the toolkit for falling rolls, which mentions the three relevant characteristics as being found by Ofsted in schools with falling rolls; but that is not a criticism that can readily be levelled at the four schools in my constituency. In less strident language, the county council draws attention to its concerns that the four schools may not be able to deliver the national curriculum, and that they may have weak leadership and governance. Those three observations, of course, do not derive from direct observation of the schools, but are taken from the Government toolkit on falling rolls.
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The county council has always said that transforming learning communities is not about saving money. However, the document that it has produced, and of which I have a copy, makes it clear—and draws specific attention to the fact—that educating pupils in village schools is more expensive than educating pupils in urban areas. We all know that, but we also know that it should not be a barrier to pupils' attendance at their village school to get the excellent education that it provides. Those arguments have all been put to Cheshire county council, which has not taken cognisance of the strength of feeling in the villages.

That leads me to a very important issue. If the schools do not have falling rolls and are not facing surplus school places in future, if they are full and buoyant and Ofsted has given them a good report, and if parents clearly want to send their children to those village schools, why does the county council propose to merge them? The county council has come up with a figure; it says that most primary schools should aspire to have 110 pupils, and the fact that those four schools have fallen below that figure is one reason put forward for their amalgamation.

I would refer the county council to another important document produced by the Department for Education and Skills, entitled "Schools organisation changes" which is drawn up for decision makers. Paragraph 52 of that document is specific. It states:

It goes on to say it does not mean that rural schools should never close, but it sets out strict criteria about what needs to be in place should a local authority propose closing a village school and the arguments that it should provide to the school organisation committee. It draws specific attention to transport.

The parents of the children in my four rural schools   can currently walk their children to school. If Alvanley or Manley schools were to close, it would mean a two-mile journey for the pupils. There is no public transport, so the parents will have no choice but to   take them by car. The same applies to Kingsley St.   John's or Norley Church of England primary schools; if they were to close, transport would be a problem.

I asked the county council whether, when making its initial proposals, it had taken account of the impact that closing any of those schools would have on the wider village communities. Quite straightforwardly, it said that it had not but that it would do so when it undertook formal, statutory consultation. Again, the county council is being remiss in not recognising the role that primary schools play in the life of the community.

The document also talks about federation. All four schools have said that they would like to consider that option. I have to tell my right hon. Friend the Minister that the parents in Manley, Alvanley, Norley and Kingsley do not want federation. They all want their village schools to stay open. The governing bodies of the four schools have gone for federation because they think that it is the only way to save their schools.

My view is that if there is a true consultation—one about transforming learning communities, improving education and sustaining rural communities—the status quo must be an option. I accept that the status quo is not an option for the entire county and that things will have
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to change. However, no case has been made for the amalgamation or federation of those four schools, or for the closure of two of them, or even all four. The parents are right. They should have the option of federation.

The volume of opinion in the four villages—what people are saying in support of the four schools and in response to the county council's initial consultation—should give the council pause for thought. It should take stock and reconsider the issue. I would be reassured if, at its meeting tomorrow, the county council decided to consult properly; the decision would need to be confirmed by the executive committee on 19 December. If it put all the options on the table—the status quo, amalgamation and confederation—it would go some way to addressing the villagers' fears.

The county council has not given an educational reason why any of the four schools should be faced with the threat of closure. I hope that when my right hon. Friend replies to the debate, she will be able reassure me about Government policy, because when the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) was shadow spokesman for education he wrote to one of my constituents and tried to blame the Labour Government for what is going on in Tory-controlled Cheshire county council.

I have never wanted to make a political issue of all this. It is not one. It is about what we should do in the 21st century for primary school kids in my constituency. They should still be able to go to schools that serve their villages, and some of those schools have been doing just that for more than 120 years.

1.39 pm

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I thank the Minister for allowing me to speak in the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall). Apart from being an hon. Friend and a genuine friend, he is also my Member of Parliament.

Mr. Mike Hall : I have some troublesome constituents.

Andrew Miller : My hon. Friend gets some awkward letters from me.

Alvanley, one of the schools that he mentioned, is in the village where I live, and my wife is a member of the governing body, so I am accountable through that route as well. The project affects the whole of Cheshire. The county council has split the county into a number of sub-units and intends between now and the end of 2006 to complete its review. I have said from the outset, in respect of the parts of the review that impact on my constituency, including those that overlap with the constituency of my hon. Friend, that it is absurd that they should be dealt with in isolation. My hon. Friend suggested a two-stage approach. I do not think that any irrevocable decisions should be taken until the whole county has been reviewed. That would be illogical; we would create fixed borders between the sub-areas of the county, and if a decision were taken in, for example, Weaver Vale that affected Chester or Ellesmere Port and Neston, illogical decisions might be made in relation to
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schools that were close to the border because they had been dealt with in different blocks. There ought to be fuzzy borders, and a different approach will have to be adopted if that is to work.

I concur with my hon. Friend in questioning the methodology. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will undertake to check whether the approach being adopted by Cheshire in respect of predicted population figures is sound—there are statisticians who would argue otherwise. In my constituency, the review has produced a bit of a curate's egg. There are some welcome parts and some that will cause serious problems, not because of the rural make-up that my hon. Friend described but because no explanation has been offered as to what will happen to schools such as Gorsthill and Mansefield, which have served the community well for a long time, Mansefield with a multiple learning disability unit. Gorsthill has a dangerous fast road.

Mr. Hall : One thing in the review of which I am critical is the lack of any real thought about special educational needs. When I challenged the county council about that, I was told that it will review the special needs of individual pupils. In my hon. Friend's constituency, two schools are affected by the review, both of which have provision for special needs.

Andrew Miller : My hon. Friend is right. That raises a legitimate question against the proposals. There are major implications for the secondary sector. One of the proposals involves two centres for 11-to-14 year-olds and a 14-to-19 academy. That must be reinforced with very substantial sums from central Government. I have not been consulted about my views, either directly by the Government or indirectly through the county council. I   hope that Members of Parliament will be engaged directly with the issue.

My final observation concerns a small school, Dunham Hill. It is a tiny little village school with a unique feature: over the years it has developed a specialist unit to provide education for the children of Travellers. It is unique. The current proposal is that the school should be closed and moved, lock stock and barrel, into Horns Mill in my hon. Friend's constituency. That might be perfectly logical in terms of   numbers, because Dunham Hill does not meet the 100 criterion. However, one has to ask whether it makes sense in terms of broader social policy considerations, because it will jeopardise the effort that has been made over the last 10 to 15 years by successive county council administrations to integrate Travellers' children into mainstream education, which is now showing success in getting some youngsters into the secondary sector. I do not believe it is possible to pick up such a unit and physically move it, and I have concerns about it.

I fully understand my hon. Friend's comments about rural schools, and, like him, I do not want to make this a political issue, but we find it a tad amusing to see signs popping up all around the county that say "Save our schools"—we must remind people that this is all about saving our schools from a Tory county council.

The issue is complex; there must be change in some parts of the county, but I hope that the Minister will use her good offices to intervene to ensure that the changes
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that take place make sense in all the policy areas that my hon. Friend described, which have an impact on children in the communities.

1.46 pm

The Minister for Schools (Jacqui Smith) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) on securing the debate, from which it is evident that there is great interest among local people in Cheshire's transforming learning communities initiative, and particularly on the impact that it may have on primary and secondary school provision in my hon. Friend's constituency and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). My hon. Friends and other stakeholders in the local community should and will have an important role in considering the issues. It is good to see local MPs not only ably defending their constituencies but being willing to see the coherence of the plans throughout the area.

Changes to school provision in a district are essentially matters for local decision, as the local authority has the statutory responsibility for planning school places and for proposing to close schools and open new ones. The local authority has a statutory duty to ensure that there are sufficient places and that high quality education is provided in a cost-effective way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale rightly put great emphasis on the quality of the primary education that will be provided in his constituency, which must be at the heart of any proposals or changes made. The Department's five-year strategy for children and learners, which followed from our primary document "Excellence and Enjoyment—A Strategy for Primary Schools" sets out the success story of primary education, with many schools delivering high-quality education. Impressive strides in literacy and numeracy have been made in recent years, and teaching has improved in every curriculum in primary schools since 1997.

My hon. Friend is right to say that overall primary standards in Frodsham and Helsby are good and broadly in line with the average for all Cheshire schools. In Cheshire as a whole, key stage 1 and 2 results are above the national average. No primary schools in Frodsham and Helsby have been identified as requiring special measures, having serious weaknesses or as under-achieving. The staff and governors at Alvanley, Manley, Kingsley St. John's and Norley primary schools are doing an excellent job in ensuring that the work continues for my hon. Friend's constituents.

Cheshire county council is reviewing primary and secondary school places in Frodsham and Helsby because of the surplus places that exist in both sectors. The county council has informed me it is undertaking public consultations on the proposals for schools in Frodsham and Helsby. It is important that the process allows for the consideration of alternative proposals put forward by local stakeholders with an interest in education. Clearly, both my hon. Friends are concerned about and involved in that. Hon. Members must be involved. We recently changed the guidance on schools organisation to ensure that local Members are fully engaged in decisions. I assure my hon. Friend the
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Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston that he will be   consulted about any academy proposals in his constituency.

Later this month, the Cheshire schools panel will consider the outcome of the consultations and will make recommendations to the executive of the council on which proposals to recommend for publication. The executive will then decide whether to authorise publication of statutory proposals setting out any planned changes. There will then be a formal process, which must be carried out, which I will outline in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale concentrated particularly on the possible amalgamations involving his four primary schools. He outlined the need to ensure that the proposal to close the secondary school in his constituency is dovetailed with proposals for other changes and that considerations of the knock-on effect of any closure on where young people and families will receive their secondary education is important. In the Government's view, any changes to school organisation should focus on boosting 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 education authority to ensure that sufficient school places exist to meet the needs of the local population in order to promote high standards of attainment for all pupils. If an authority decides to reorganise provision, decisions will not be taken by Ministers but will be decided locally, as Cheshire county council is starting to   do. As I indicated, the proposals are at public consultation and have not yet moved into the statutory phase. All interested parties must be consulted before proposals are published by the authority, provided with sufficient information and allowed adequate time in which to respond. If there is a decision to proceed with closure proposals for individual schools, formal notices must be published in a local newspaper, posted at the main entrances of the schools named in the proposals and placed locally in another conspicuous place. There is then a six-week period in which people can submit representations in support of or against the proposals, except in the case of a school in special measures, when the period is one month, although that clearly is not the case in my hon. Friend's constituency.

If the authority publishes the proposals and there are no objections, it may proceed and implement them. In all other cases, such as those for which objections are received and those concerning voluntary-aided schools, the proposals 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, including the diocesan bodies. Each group has one vote and must consider all evidence in line with the guidance issued by the Secretary of State before reaching a decision. If a unanimous decision cannot be reached, the case is referred to the independent schools adjudicator for final decision.

Guidance for those publishing and deciding proposals for changes to local school organisation makes it clear that the Government are committed to
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greater personalisation and choice, with learners and parents at centre-stage, but that must be set in the context of raising standards.

Andrew Miller : Does the consultation requirement extend to proposals for infant and junior schools to merge?

Jacqui Smith : Yes, it absolutely does. The proposals that my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale mentioned on the four primary schools would involve the statutory process that I have outlined. Our guidance on those changes states that decisions must be made in light of a range of factors, including potential impact on local standards, contribution to diversity, views of interested parties and cost effectiveness.

My hon. Friend made some important points about rural schools, which make an important contribution to their local area. They are often at the heart of rural communities, as my hon. Friend said. Closing a rural school can have effects well beyond the schooling of children. That is why we introduced a presumption against closing rural schools in 1998. Before that, an average of 30 rural schools a year were approved for closure. This has now reduced to an average of five. Of course, the presumption against closure does not mean that no rural school will ever close, but it ensures that there must be a strong case for closing a small rural school, and closure must be in the best overall interest of education in the local area.

As my hon. Friend said, the decision maker's guidance on statutory proposals requires local authorities or governing bodies that propose a rural school closure to provide evidence to show that they have considered a range of factors, including transport implications, alternatives to closure and the impact on the community. We also expect authorities to take full account of our proposals on primary education, as set out in the five-year strategy, when planning for primary school provision.

As for the review of primary and secondary schools in the Frodsham and Helsby area of my hon. Friend's constituency, he identified the arguments made by the local authority on surplus places. Surplus places can represent a poor use of resources that could be used more effectively to support schools in raising standards.
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In the light of a downward trend in the number of pupils in primary education and the resultant impact on secondary schools, that is a national and local concern. That is why we have developed, in conjunction with the Audit Commission, a web-based toolkit which offers a range of practical advice and guidance on dealing with falling rolls. Where pupil numbers fall below 150, the guidance states that schools may have to take some difficult decisions to maintain the quality of education, including considering the introduction of mixed-age teaching. However, I emphasise to my hon. Friend that the guidance does not state that a school should not have mixed-age teaching, or that that would be a reason for closure or reorganisation.

Mr. Mike Hall : I think that there are some strong educational merits in mixed-age teaching, certainly in primary schools. I am also certain that, where head teachers of primary schools have teaching commitments, those schools are better for it.

Jacqui Smith : My hon. Friend may well be right. The important point is that there is no central Government instruction; it is a decision that must be taken in the light of the quality of local provision. Indeed, while the latest Ofsted report for Cheshire local education authority states that performance in managing the supply of school places is unsatisfactory, the reduction of surplus places is not a matter for central Government; it is a matter for local decision making and we do not issue instructions on that matter. It is very much a matter 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. That is what my hon. Friend is exhorting Cheshire to do.

Both my hon. Friends made important points about the need to ensure that any changes made locally take into consideration the impact on standards, parental views, coherent provision across constituencies, and the impact on special educational needs. My hon. Friends have provided an important voice for local people. As the proposals proceed, it will be important that consultation, in line with the statutory approach that the Government have set out, ensures that the voice of local people is clearly heard.

Question put and agreed to.

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