Previous SectionIndexHome Page

17 Jan 2006 : Column 193WH—continued

17 Jan 2006 : Column 194WH

School Closures and Surplus Places

11 am

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): We have just had a tranquil period and I am sure that that will be typical of the next debate.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): It is a pleasure to see you in your place, Sir Nicholas. The new environment for these debates strikes me as somewhat funereal in comparison with Westminster Hall.

The debate is a timely one, because the Government are proceeding on an agenda that has little resonance or connection with circumstances that prevail throughout most of the country. As I understand the Government's forward-looking educational agenda at the moment, they think that choice of schools is a serious issue for a large number of parents, that there is not enough choice and that there is a need for an ever-new variety of providers and an ever-increasing number of them. They seem to feel that choice between schools—competition of a direct kind—is the main mechanism through which quality in education will be driven up and pupils will get a better deal.

The Government also seem to feel that schools and parents are crying out for greater independence for schools. That is reflected in the proposals that schools   should have charge of their own admissions arrangements and, in some cases, control over the land, which alienates public assets in the process. In addition, the Government are fairly relaxed, unlike many people to whom I speak, about the increase in traffic and travelling around that will follow on from the proposals.

In looking at the matter and trying my best sympathetically to understand where the Government are coming from, I have decided that they are fixated by what I can only call a London perspective. I understand that in London there are pressures on admissions and that there is a mix of schools; some are quite poor and some are heavily oversubscribed. There is sometimes competition for the best ones and there is also a mixed pattern of local education authorities, some of which perform well whereas others are distinctly unpopular or are rather ideologically driven.

London has the luxury of much better transport infrastructure than is available in most parts of the country. If parents need to move their children around or children need to move around to get to schools, the transport infrastructure will support that, despite its flaws. Other places do not have the advantage of the London bus and tube system or the like.

Most people would accept that London is different from the rural environment, where the problems that schools face and the problems that parents have in choosing them are quite different. We must also accept that the situation is distinctly different in parts of the north. In fact, my research for this debate has shown that the problems are distinctly different almost everywhere outside the London fringe. There are severe problems as close to London as Essex.

The big problem is falling rolls. There are simply more places than there are children to fill them. Projections show that the problem will not diminish but will increase, in the short term at least.
17 Jan 2006 : Column 195WH

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. He mentioned Essex and falling rolls, so this is an apposite moment to state that in the Thames Gateway area, in which my constituency lies, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is planning to build another 124,000 houses. Some communities in that area that have schools with falling rolls will get thousands of new houses, bringing along hundreds more children. Does he agree that it is premature to be considering closing schools in such communities?

Dr. Pugh : The hon. Gentleman makes a sound point. It just goes to show that sometimes education policies and other sorts of policies do not dovetail in the way that we hope.

Traditionally, when we faced such problems, local authorities endeavoured to balance out the situation by controlling admission limits, by sometimes forcing amalgamations and mergers through, and by using what was then their considerable power to put gentle pressure on management who simply were not performing. That was the traditional recipe in the 1970s, 1980s and before. Falling rolls are not a new problem; numbers fell by about a third in the 1970s and 1980s, but picked up a little later. Although it is not a new problem, it is now a severe one.

I believe that falling rolls are the major problem facing educational planners. A survey in The Times Educational Supplement showed that 54 per cent. of local authorities think that they will merge or close schools in the coming year. The birth rate in 2001 hit a historic low for modern times. The Audit Commission says that two thirds of council areas will have more than 10 per cent. surplus places, and so it goes on. The Government clearly recognise that because they are cutting back on training places, except in areas where shortages have already been identified, such as in science and maths.

If we consider specifics, some drastic statistics can be found. One in 15 schools in Cumbria is scheduled to   go. A 47 per cent. surplus in places—almost half—is predicted in Nottingham by 2009. Two thirds of Gateshead primaries have too many surplus places and, in Derbyshire, there will be a considerable fall in the roll of between 10 and 15 per cent. in the next four years. According to answers provided to me by the    Department for Education and Skills, about 250   schools close per year, and that has been the picture for the past five years. The picture is a dramatic one and the problem is severe.

I will address the specific issue of my own LEA, comment on what I know happens there and on how we have tried to approach the matter. I will also point out why the current Government policies are of no real assistance and have no resonance. They seem to be formulated on another planet, although it is merely down here, in the DFES.

Most people would accept that Sefton LEA is a good one, and has been for many years. It is popular with its schools, has statistically had good results and has funded its schools for many years above the average level. The schools may be caught out by the new national formula. An indication of the tenor of the educational environment in Sefton is that no school opted out of LEA control when it was possible to do
17 Jan 2006 : Column 196WH
so. There were two votes; one was lost miserably and the first vote was lost—I campaigned to ensure that it was lost—by persuading parents that an opt-out by one school would disadvantage others. That shows something about the parents. They were offered the opt-out, but they declined on that basis; they did not see themselves as the adversaries of the other schools. Hon. Members will recall that in those days funding for opt-out schools was top-sliced from the LEA in a rather generous and inequitable fashion.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that parental views are paramount in education policy, given that he valued the views that they expressed in the two votes to which he refers?

Dr. Pugh : Parents' views are very important. I am not sure what stress the hon. Gentleman wishes to place on the word "paramount". One must accept that in addition to parents' views there are the views of the community at large, in respect of the utilisation of its resources. The community—the council tax payers—ultimately funds facilities as well and its views are also an issue.

Mine has not been a backward-looking authority. We introduced local management of schools—or independent finance for schools—long before we were obliged to do so. The LEA was democratically accountable, and I am not flattering myself because I served on it. I want to pay tribute to the quality of the other members. I was impressed with their knowledge and involvement and with the standard of the debates that took place. The level of understanding of educational issues on the council was far higher at that time than I believe it to be now. In addition, most parents got their first choice.

If I were a Government ideologue, I would say, "Well, the snag with that sort of system—a local authority managed system—is that it is too secure an environment for schools that are underperforming. Although they get the numbers, they may not also get the results". However, we were mindful of that even in those days and pressed for comparators between schools so that their performance could be judged. We insisted—again, we were ahead of the Government—that those be value added.

We therefore have a history of school rationalisation, and it has not been half as contentious or difficult as the current process. In those days, to be fair, we could cushion some of the effects of school rationalisation by increasing nursery provision, abandoning old buildings that were past their useful life, proposing reorganisation that seemed popular and using local authority capital funding to ameliorate the effects of the process. There was, however, still a lingering issue of surplus places, and the Audit Commission repeatedly reminded us that allowing the situation to persist would not be the most effective use of public resources.

However, those were the old days, and I preferred them in some respects, although not in an absolute way, because they had certain advantages over the current education environment. I say that because the Government have said several times that the surplus places rule has been dropped. Indeed, they have had to
17 Jan 2006 : Column 197WH
say that several times because hon. Members did not take up their comments straight away or did not take them at their word. However, the Government are quite genuine, and the existence of surplus places is not a consideration when deciding whether to encourage other schools in the same community to expand.

The net effect is that we risk massive expansion in one place, while schools in a similar place not too far away topple over. The local authority's role is no longer to manage the process, but to deal with the fallout—clearing up when one school goes down because another has come up. In the Chamber, I told the current Home Secretary, who was Secretary of State for Education and Skills at the time, that the local authority's residual role was to be the undertaker for unsuccessful schools and that it did not have much of a strategic role beyond that. That is certainly how things look at times.

In Sefton, we have been through a process of painful primary school reorganisation. It was preceded in other places by unplanned expansion that was not terribly well thought through. The net effect for parents and children in the schools that were targeted for closure was pain, upheaval and a sense that time and resources had been wasted. Indeed, appreciable amounts of investment had been put into some of the schools that became vulnerable.

The free market in education was cross-grained with some of the more imaginative transport plans that were being drawn up to reduce traffic to and from schools. As has been mentioned, it also cut across community strategies. Indeed, one of the vulnerable schools played a pivotal part in reinvigorating a community that had been through some hard times.

To be honest, the process was not well handled, although that was not entirely the Government's fault. It was also partly the fault of the local authority, which released a plan from on high—suspiciously, it was immediately after the local elections—and with a lack of agreed criteria. It has now learned a little and agreed a matrix of assessment for primary schools and it is considering how it can better conduct any future reduction in surplus places.

The process was also dogged by difficulties and anomalies with the formula. There were difficulties with the funding of smaller as opposed to larger schools and there was a sense that some schools were being set against others. It will interest hon. Members to know that, whereas we previously had a knowing LEA that would have seen the problem coming and been part and parcel of the solution, councillors—apart from the cabinet member—were fairly baffled about their role in the process and about what they could and could not say. Many were governors of schools that would be adversely or positively affected by the closures of other schools and had to get a special dispensation from the standards board to get round the declarations of interest that they would have to put in if they were still to cast a vote. At one stage, there was a serious danger that practically nobody on the council who had not previously declared an interest would be able to vote at a full council meeting.

The second point that should be made at this stage is that the local authority promptly proceeded without a clear idea of where the Government were going on
17 Jan 2006 : Column 198WH
initiatives such as extended schools or children's centres, and that problem probably dogs many a closure proposal in many a place.

Even under the current circumstances, things could be done better if there was the prospect of new building or of better use being made of facilities that were relinquished for direct school use. However things are done, the mantra of calling for new providers, more independence and greater competition is relatively meaningless. Private providers of education in my constituency are currently failing, although I do not mean that they are not performing very well. The Birkdale school for hearing-impaired children, which is a private school, was performing exceptionally well, but it could not sustain the course for financial reasons. Another private school recently closed down for precisely the same reason. There is no flood of private providers trying to get into the market. That is a hard case, but let me give hon. Members a harder case still.

Currently, the problem in my constituency is most manifest at Ainsdale Hope high school, which is earmarked for closure. It has seen a sharp fall in rolls, and a horrendous financial crisis is looming as a consequence. In business terms—I hate using them—we would say that it has lost market share and is starting to suffer. It is the only co-ed, non-Catholic school in the southern part of my constituency, and of the two schools up the road—they are not very near—one is an all-boys school and the other is an all-girls school. If Ainsdale closes, there will be a sharp reduction in choice, which will have been brought on by competition between schools. Ainsdale provides a distinctive special needs environment, for which it is highly commended, but that, too, may go, resulting in a fair reduction in choice. Ainsdale has had its problems academically and in terms of numbers, but that has not always been the case. In my observation of schools in my neck of the woods, the reputation of schools hinges very much on factors as transitory as who happens to be the headmaster.

However, it gets worse. Ainsdale was taken over and became a Church school only last year. It has received capital investment and the parents have gone out and bought new blazers for their children. I have spoken to the Church about its capacity to help, and it has told me that if capital is needed, the Church can find it—or, rather, it is legally allowed to find it. After all, the same diocese is opening an academy in Newsham Park in Liverpool. What the school needs, however, is revenue to tide it over, but charity law forbids the Church from providing that revenue. Furthermore, the Government have arranged the funding external to the local authority in many respects.

We now have the danger of implosion, which is offset only by the authority leaning on other schools not to take in pupils who want to find themselves a more secure education environment. That is legally contestable and is probably the wrong strategy, but it shows the difficulties that arise when a school faces such a severe problem. Leaving the education market is not like leaving the retail market—there is an awful lot of human damage involved in the process.

The solutions involve increased travel and reduced choice. Ainsdale is a victim of a market philosophy in education, and the effect of its closure will be traumatic. The local authority and the Church, which are the
17 Jan 2006 : Column 199WH
school's sponsors, cannot help. If the Government are confronted with the problem at some point, they will undoubtedly wash their hands of it and say that it is all down to local decision makers.

I do not want the Government to tell me what I know—that it is all down to local decision makers. If the notes are already written, I suggest that they be hurriedly revised. I do not want them to give me the criteria for school closures. I have read them and I know that they say things about community involvement, travelling distance, alternative schools and so on. That does not help Ainsdale Hope high school to deal with a massive financial headache.

The Government would be right to say that they have repeatedly told local authorities that they must take community needs into account. They have also repeatedly given them a slightly different message—that they need to make efficient use of public resources. However, I do not want them to say that for two reasons. First, I know it already; it is perfectly true. Secondly, however, I do not want them to say it because it is evasive. The Government set the rules for this game. They fix the finance, define the objectives and micro-manage the process. In the past the LEAs would have managed the process in a benign way. They would have set admission limits and replaced failing management. They would have used LEA capital funding and they would have intervened early—at least, the best would have done. I accept that not all of them would have done; there are some poor LEAs. They would have inspected often. That is what I should like to have seen.

I should like the parents of pupils at Ainsdale Hope high and lots of other schools across the country to be spared some of the agony, and not to be drawn into the political debate. I had an interesting political debate about primary school closures with my Conservative opponent during the general election campaign. I think that the then Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, Mr. Tim Collins, came down and said that schools would never be closed under a Conservative Government. Sadly, he is not here to deliver on that promise. However, I checked out what was happening in Cumbria, and I found that he had precisely the same problem as I had. He was trying to deal with a difficult human problem and a difficult problem of resources.

To get to the main point, the White Paper lays down a new strategic role for the LEAs—I have spotted that. However, it is not for the LEAs; I do not want to talk about LEAs any more. Let us talk about the "Cabinet member for education", whoever that is, because LEAs are a thing of the past, and it is silly to dignify them with the old description. There is a strategic role, and there is talk about early intervention and so on. Perhaps anybody who has difficulty believing me will believe the Audit Commission, which observes that analysis of the detail of the role is limited. In its most recent report it says that

It finds that

17 Jan 2006 : Column 200WH

What we have instead is a view of the educational world from the more salubrious dining tables of Islington and Notting Hill. In the real educational world, outside Islington and Notting Hill, we are not clamouring for more choice. Again, these are not my words but those of the Audit Commission:

We are not calling for more independence. In fact, we are attracted by the White Paper's concept of federation; co-operation; a learning and sharing community. We are not really calling for more travel—we do not want our schools to be further away. There may be special reasons for travelling further at times, as there are reasons why one might make a trip to the Trafford centre, but in the vast majority of cases, people prefer good, local facilities. We are not calling for more providers, we are not calling for the end of the LEA provider role, and we are not calling for cut-throat competition.

However—this comes not just from me but from the main body of the educational community—we are calling for the intelligent management of public resources and less waste; for the recognition that schools are not supermarkets and that the effects of closing them are not like the effects of closing a supermarket. We are calling for the problem of poor local provision to be solved by improving local provision, making schools beacons in their communities, not deserted by their communities. We very much welcome the capital investment proposals in "Building Schools for the Future", which would ameliorate the situation, improve the process and sugar the pill. However, if they are linked to suggestions such as that the price of receiving the investment is to have an academy, they are not such an obvious solution. In addition, we are calling for   proper, local, accountable control. If that is not available, perhaps because a council is composed of just one party, there are remedies that can be considered. We can introduce a better electoral system if that is the price of getting a better, more accountable educational system.

If LEAs did not exist, it would probably be necessary to invent them. I fear that one day we shall have to do that. We all want children to achieve their best. If we disagree, it is on how to enable them to do it. It is manifest in the language of the White Paper that the Government are poised between two incompatible strategies. They can either go down the competition-led, free-market line of the think-tank ideologues, or they can listen to the voices of educational experience. I am pleased to see that an increased role has been found for the former chief inspector of schools, David Bell. He will provide that voice.

The White Paper faces both ways, and that is not sustainable. It certainly offers no solutions to the problems in many parts of the country outside London.

Several hon. Members rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I tell hon. Members that I intend to start the winding-up speeches at midday. Particularly, I would say to those winding up for the Liberal Democrats and for Her Majesty's official
17 Jan 2006 : Column 201WH
Opposition that I think that it is good to allow the Minister a little longer than the time allocated to the other Front-Bench speakers so that she can make a proper response to this important debate.

11.29 am

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Thank you, Sir Nicholas. It is a pleasure to appear in front of you again.

I want to speak about my part of the world, Blaydon, which is part of the Gateshead local authority area to which the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) referred. We have no debate in Blaydon about governance, letting private companies run our schools or the failure of the LEA because we have good shared governance. We have accepted a local academy that has produced some good results. We have a well-respected, well-run LEA that has helped us to deliver good services to the children of Blaydon with good standards and improved results against any checklist. The real educational debate is about two issues, particularly in Blaydon—the need for additional money to upgrade the buildings at some of our schools and the future of our primary schools in a time of falling numbers, which is the subject of today's debate.

In Gateshead as a whole there has been a review of primary provision, and the figures speak for themselves. People have taken lifestyle choices, and responsibilities come with those choices. Between 1995 and 2005, 1,991   fewer children went to school across Gateshead. Without any changes, the figure of at least 847 fewer has been projected for the next five years. At a time when the aim of the LEA is to have no more than 10 per cent. surplus capacity, 35 schools have between 10 per cent. and 25 per cent. surplus places. Without a change, that will increase by 23 more schools by 2010. At the moment, 17 schools have more than 25 per cent. surplus places and, without a change, there will be 26 such schools by 2010.

The local authority has taken a positive view of the problem within the parameters laid down by central Government and sees it as an opportunity rather than a problem. It is trying to improve the quality of children's education and wants to improve the learning environment and accessibility. It wants to develop and extend community use of schools and to make best use of the limited resources, but it also has no choice but to reduce the capacity by 2,000 places.

Stakeholders across the community have been involved. During the summer there was a general consultation and awareness-raising exercise with people in the schools and parents. In November and December there were consultations on detailed options, area by area, and every home in the area was given leaflets about what was going on. This month formal proposals will be brought forward and statutory consultations will take place.

In the review, a number of options have been suggested. First, the size of schools could be reduced and alternative uses could be found for the buildings. Secondly, the schools could be reorganised and amalgamated with other schools. In most instances, two schools would become one. Thirdly, schools could be developed or replaced altogether and existing schools could be improved.
17 Jan 2006 : Column 202WH

The review also considered alternative uses such as expanding children's centres, extending activities within the school, developing more special educational needs provision and allowing more use by the community and by health services—a key area of expansion. Other people were asked whether there were other ways in which their school could be better used in out-of-school hours. Finally, people are being asked to give other options and say what they think. Nothing has been set in stone, except that the capacity has to be reduced by 2,000 places.

As the hon. Member for Southport said, there are issues raised in the wider education debate that come out in the White Paper. I know that the White Paper is specifically about secondary education, but the people concerned with primary education are asking where their role is. How do we square the foreword in the White Paper, which is written by the Prime Minister and states:

and the Secretary of State's statement that we will deliver

with the fact that the parents affected by the proposals in Blaydon tell me that their choice would be "Leave our schools alone"? They want the schools developed on site, not closed. I realise that that option is probably obvious to parents, and that it may be costly, but if the Government are serious and want to respond in a positive way to parental choice, they should address the key issues.

We could reduce class sizes at primary level. That would be the radical choice for education in this country and would give young people in their formative years the opportunity to develop in the way provided by private education, which would be a step change in people's lives. It would make them much better equipped to go into the secondary system and help to fulfil the diktat of Government in a way that is both radical and bold. To quote someone not many miles away, we are best when we are bold. My Government proved that in the first term and when they reduced class sizes to under 30, despite howls of protest from some people. Reducing class sizes would also provide parental choice, removing the confusion between the rhetoric and the reality of education policy.

The local authority in Gateshead will do its best to square the circle within the parameters in which it has to work. Those parameters will, inevitably, leave some parents less than happy. If we as a Government are serious about parental choice, about improving children's education and about being radical, we should seize the opportunity.

Dr. Pugh : I asked the previous Minister of State, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), a direct question and he replied that he would not consider lowering class sizes. Does the hon. Gentleman think that a firm presentation of the evidence is required to show that smaller class sizes get results, particularly in deprived areas?
17 Jan 2006 : Column 203WH

Mr. Anderson : It is quite clear that they do get results. It is obvious. One of the things argued for in the White Paper is more personalised individual learning. If a classroom is full of too many people, children will not get that. I accept that we should consider the matter and take on board what the hon. Gentleman said about the previous Minister. Rather than a problem, there is an opportunity that we should grasp with both hands. We should commit ourselves to small class sizes with more personalised learning and provide a real base for the next generation to move on from.

11.37 am

Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate and to bring to the attention of the House the situation in my constituency, where the Conservative-controlled council plans to close two schools, Highfields and Sycamore Green. I want to focus in particular on the unsatisfactory consultation undertaken by the council and the thin case that it has presented for closing the schools.

I wrote to the council in October objecting to the proposed closure of the two schools. I enclosed letters and petitions that had been sent to me by parents and children, which demonstrated the strength of feeling. I received no response to those letters, to the proposals and suggestions that were made in them or to the questions that I raised. More important, parents told me that they received no response to their letters, questions or petitions. The local authority also failed to ensure that people were properly notified of the statutory notices that it has since issued proposing the closure of the schools and has not set out properly how parents can respond.

Parents should have been told in writing exactly how they could respond to the notices. At the very least, the council should have written to all who wrote to it during the initial consultation period and set out the details of the statutory notices, inviting a response. I am sorry to say that I and many parents believe that the consultation process has been deeply unsatisfactory. Other proposals suggested by the schools, the governors and parents should have been properly considered and they have not. The council should halt the process, think again and look carefully at the alternative suggestions.

I object to the proposals because I do not agree with the council's premise for changing the pattern of primary school provision in Dudley. It has failed to answer entirely legitimate criticism and questions about the projected birth rates. I have looked at the figures from the Office for National Statistics and the data suggest that birth rates could be increasing, not falling. It is true that birth rates in 2001 were very low, but they have subsequently risen from 1.63 in 2001 to 1.77 in 2004. Research by the House of Commons Library shows that the council's underlying assumptions do not take into account the fact that trends may rise further in the future. They do not consider the impact that policies such as child tax credit, increased support for child care, better maternity and paternity pay, and the child trust fund could have on family size in future, nor do they take account of issues that could result in an increased population in Dudley. For example, one of the objectives of the black country study is to increase the black country's population by 100,000 and it is not clear
17 Jan 2006 : Column 204WH
whether that has been taken into account. The council cannot show that it has taken account of the impact that the increased housing development planned for sites close to both schools could have.

It is not clear that rolls are falling so dramatically at the two schools that closure is the only option. The council's policy, as I understand it, is to have no school with more than 15 per cent. surplus places. Pupil numbers at Highfields are not far below that at the moment, and meeting that requirement could easily be done by other measures, which I will set out briefly later. Dudley council's policy is also to have 7.5 per cent. spare capacity in each locality and it is not clear in its proposals where that spare capacity could be found under the present proposals.

Even if the council's case that surplus places have arisen and that the birth rate is falling is correct, I do not accept that closing schools is the only way of addressing the matter, and I do not accept the council's assertion that small schools with fewer pupils would find it difficult to sustain high-quality education. It would be better to provide extra facilities, and both schools would be ideal for Sure Start centres. Both are in deprived areas that would qualify for such provision, both have the necessary space and such provision would generate increased revenue to help to meet the cost of running the buildings. Governors at both schools have drawn up proposals for extended school provision and have plans for new nurseries. Highfields has already applied to Ofsted, with a target date of January 2006, and governors at Sycamore Green are in discussion with the local authority about early-years provision.

There are many other ways in which local authorities have reduced surplus places without closing schools—for example, by combining schools with other community facilities, providing wrap-around child care, educational support facilities, libraries, extended schools and so on. Both schools—Sycamore Green in particular—serve areas of high deprivation where children need more support and stability, not less. Results at both schools are improving. Sycamore Green is achieving 82 per cent. in literacy, 63 per cent. in maths and 82 per cent. in science. Standards are also increasing rapidly at Highfields. Facilities at both schools are of high quality and have improved with extra investment recently. Those facilities, combined with the ethos of the schools and the support that they receive from parents and the wider community are serving the children well. I am worried that their education will be destabilised by the changes.

At the very least, the council should respond to the questions, criticisms and suggestions properly. It should think again and bring forward proposals to prevent the closure of the two schools. What power do the Government have to examine Dudley's proposals and the process that it has adopted?

11.43 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing this debate. It is incredibly timely for two reasons. First, the debate on the education White Paper frames much of our discussion today. Secondly, we have recently seen the Audit Commission's submission to the Education and
17 Jan 2006 : Column 205WH
Skills Committee, which deals with many of the issues, particularly surplus places. Many of the points from his constituency and his wide experience were particularly apposite, and I want to build on his comments.

In the White Paper the problem of falling rolls in the secondary school system is mentioned once, but the number of secondary school-aged children in England will decline in the next 10 years by 500,000. Every English region will see a significant decline. In London, where everyone believes that there will be lack of capacity, the number will decline by 40,000, or the equivalent of around 40 secondary schools. I am not suggesting that that decline is spread evenly throughout the capital, but it is large, even in London.

When I have asked questions about that, the Minister has tried to hide the extent of the problem in the way in which the Government set their base years and final years and the way in which they make the different definitions. However, it is difficult to hide the large fall, so they try to make other little points in parliamentary answers. For example, they say that they hope to increase the number of people staying on post-16. I hope that they do, but still the numbers would nowhere near make up for the certain fall. The children have already been born and we know how many places will not be taken up.

The hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) talked about an upturn in birth rates in the last year, but that will take some time to feed through to secondary school education, even if it is maintained. I do not suggest that the White Paper should be based on one year's increase in birth rate last year.

There is a huge problem in the demographics. The Government admit that on the one hand—one hon. Member said that they were cutting the number of teacher-training places—but, on the other, they refuse to admit it in their provision for the future. I would have thought that a White Paper on English schools would have had that at its centre. This is such a major problem for local authorities, schools and education finance that I would have thought that the White Paper would have had at least a section on it, not half a sentence. That is a major dereliction of duty. I have made the point on the Floor of the House and to the press about how significant the problem is, but some people just do not get it.

How can we manage the problem? There are two basic choices—a market-based system and a system with strategic management through the local authority. The White Paper, as we all know, moves towards the market direction, with parental choice deciding which schools stay open and which close. The Minister may say that chapter 9 of the White Paper proposes that local authorities should have extra powers to close failing schools immediately. She would be right, but note the word "failing". In the White Paper, that means failing academic performance, not financial viability or whether there are too many surplus places. The White Paper is clear and it is not a solution to the problem.

The White Paper's focus is very much on a market-led reduction in the number of surplus places. Will that be efficient? Will it involve parents? Will it ensure that it happens quickly? My answer is, of course, no. It is the most expensive way, the most delayed way and the
17 Jan 2006 : Column 206WH
least consultative way of dealing with this major problem . Indeed, the Audit Commission's response to the Select Committee report on the White Paper is absolutely devastating. On page 5 it argues in a slightly underplayed way, which is typical of bodies such as the commission, that

local government—

they have been downgraded by the Department—

That may be a way forward. I am not saying that it is the only solution, but we could debate it and discuss the level of spare capacity that is sufficient to provide parental choice. I am not against that. Spare capacity is necessary, but the question is how much. That should be the debate and the figures used may help that. Spare capacity costs council tax payers money and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southport said, council tax payers, the wider community and parents want to know that public resources are being efficiently managed. They want some guidelines on how many extra places they are being asked to pay for. Will the Minister tell us whether her Department has some guidelines in mind and whether it will publish them? If not, what is the Minister's estimate of the cost of a surplus place today? How much does an empty place in a secondary school or a primary school cost the taxpayer? Obviously, there are various assumptions about that. If she cannot give an answer to the question today, I hope that she will confirm that she will write to me with one, as the question is germane to this debate and to the debate that we will have during the next few weeks.

We have done a few sums. In 1996, the Audit Commission took an authoritative stab at an estimate in a document called "Trading Places". If that figure is augmented by the extra amount that the Government have allocated per pupil, by the increase in surplus places and by inflation, it starts to approach £600 per surplus place. That is a huge amount, given that surplus places are increasing.

Let me give an authoritative notion—a feel—for the number of surplus places. Again, I quote from the Audit Commission's submission to the Select Committee. It states:

That is half a million at perhaps £600 each. The report states that that

Perhaps that is value for money in terms of parental choice, but let us at least have a debate about it.

The Audit Commission also looks forward to what will happen. Worryingly, despite the increase in the birth rate in Dudley, North, the report states:

That will be a massive problem in the primary sector.
17 Jan 2006 : Column 207WH

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of pupils entering the secondary sector, but we are about to have 10 years of year-on-year decline in every region. In 2004, there were 22,000 surplus places in the secondary sector—6 per cent. of capacity. According to the Audit Commission,

That is in just seven years' time. With a 10-year planning horizon, it will be significantly more.

The extra capacity will have a huge cost. Are the Government saying that they will fund local authorities and schools to meet that cost? I do not think so. Therefore, they ought at least to have a strategy. They ought to tell us today what they will do. I would like the Minister to tell us whether the Department for Education and Skills commissioned any research or reports on the issue from anybody, be it the Audit Commission or anyone else, this year, last year or the year before. If it has not, it has been negligent. If the Minister cannot answer the question today, I hope that she will write to me and to other Members with the information.

There is a real issue about value for money and about the future of our schools. At present, we hear nothing from the Minister that suggests that the Government are at all on top of the issue.

Dr. Pugh : I suspect that many hon. Members who have spoken will disagree, when it comes to practical cases, on the most benign way of keeping surplus place figures down, but, surely, we are confronted with a Government strategy that is, in fact, likely to increase the problem—not only not address it, but make it much worse.

Mr. Davey : My hon. Friend anticipates exactly what I was about to say. We can see a little of the future. The Government may say that their plans are not like those for the grant-maintained schools of the past, and they are right—they are not identical. However, there are some lessons to be learned, as the grant-maintained school system was based on more independent decision-making by governing bodies and head teachers.

London had more than its fair share of grant-maintained schools, and what happened? In London, more than in any other region, there was a decline in planning for future places and a reduction in the spare capacity that was needed for youngsters. London has had more problems because of the Tory experiment with grant-maintained schools. Bizarrely, the Government have looked at London and said, "Let us find a solution for the whole country based on London's problems. In fact, let us give the rest of the country the Tories' solution for London and all the problems of London." That is bonkers.

My hon. Friend is right to say that we can debate the best way to manage the problem and how much surplus capacity we are prepared to pay for—the right amount of money to put into maintaining some capacity for parental choice—but we surely cannot think that the proposals in the White Paper are the way to deal with the issue. They are chaotic and non-strategic and would not involve parents in the way that the hon. Member for Dudley, North wishes.
17 Jan 2006 : Column 208WH

Those who talk about parental choice as if it is the only thing that matters have some questions to answer. We may all want parents to be involved, but should that be the first-order issue when we are considering the management of schools? When parents do not choose choice because they want a good local school, should policy makers force choice down their throat or spend taxpayers' money in other ways—on smaller class sizes, on improving the supply of teachers and on improving the curriculum choice for young people? There are many reforms other than the ones on offer that would improve standards in our schools. There are many other ways of dealing with the surplus-place problem that is hitting English schools, and I hope that the Government, even at this late hour, will change their strategy.

11.56 am

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I should like to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing this important debate. There is no more important issue in today's world than education, and all of us in the House who take an interest in education matters set out with the objective of improving the quality of education in our schools and raising standards.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is always tragic when a local school is forced to close. It is deeply unsettling when rumours abound that a school is about to be closed. Falling school rolls over the years present real challenges to many local education authorities, as exemplified in the speech of the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin). As the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) said, 17 schools in Gateshead have 25 per cent. or more surplus places, and that is due to rise to some 26 schools by 2010. The parliamentary answer that the hon. Member for Southport received recently shows that, on average, 25 secondary schools have closed every year for the past five years.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) spoke eloquently about the problems caused by falling rolls, but I listened and waited in vain for his proposed solutions. He is surely not putting forward the proposition that no schools can ever close in this country.

Mr. Davey : The hon. Gentleman is right. I should have been more explicit about my party's solution. I believe that democratically accountable local authorities with a leadership role in their communities working with parents, schools and the Department is the way to manage the problem. That has been done in places such as Knowsley, where there are many education challenges. That authority is moving from 11 to eight secondary schools and taking the whole community with it. That is good local authority leadership, and that is what we should be promoting.

Mr. Gibb : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's explanation, but such an approach is not mutually exclusive of parental choice.

I listened carefully to the passionate defence of Ainsdale Hope high school by the hon. Member for Southport, who, clearly, is far better placed than most of us to know the truth about how good the school is. I do not question his judgment or his passion, but he said
17 Jan 2006 : Column 209WH
that parental opinion could often be influenced by transitory factors such as who is the headmaster. Issues such as the leadership of a school are not transitory matters. They are fundamental to the success and reputation of a school, and it is wrong to dismiss such factors as airily as he did.

Dr. Pugh : I hope that I did not give that impression. The point is that there is a rotation of head teachers and we have observed in our own constituencies that the reputation of a school can hinge on its head teacher, even if they are there for a decade. We are talking about institutions in which millions of pounds are invested over many years—several decades—and if a school is needed in the community it should not go under simply because there is a switch of resources from one school to another, which may not be sustained.

Mr. Gibb : The hon. Gentleman is right, but that shows the paramount importance of governors in selecting heads. The issue becomes increasingly difficult when there is a massive shortage of potential heads, and the number of applicants to schools is very narrow in some instances. In general, parents get things right.

Parents to whom I have spoken about local schools have very well informed views. They may or may not take much notice of league tables or Ofsted reports. Some regard such information as irrelevant, but some regard it as very important and will read the website and pay close attention to the facts and figures. However, few parents, even those who scrutinise the website in detail, rely solely on such information. They base their views on years of local knowledge about the school. I am not talking about Ainsdale Hope high school, but more generally.

Issues such as the behaviour of pupils when they walk to and from the school, how smart they look, the number of incidents of poor behaviour reported in the local newspaper and the number of Oxbridge places that pupils gain are often an influence on the reputation of a school. Word of mouth, the general view of parents of pupils at a school and how happy they are with the quality of teaching, the level of discipline, the prevalence of bullying and the amount of homework that the children take home are all factors. I trust parents' views, and if they dislike a school, I take the view that they are likely to be right. That is why the Conservative party supports the notion of parental choice in selecting a school.

Mr. Davey : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that all the different factors that he listed can apply now and there should be no bar to parents reacting to them. However, the notion that everything should be decided by parents misleads people. The idea that parents can choose absolutely everything in their local education system is not true and cannot be. Is there not a danger that some of that rhetoric is not telling parents the full truth?

Mr. Gibb : The hon. Gentleman makes very valid points, which I shall deal with in a moment.

Choice is important. In this modern, consumer age of transparency where information on all things is widely and easily available, the idea that choice can be reduced
17 Jan 2006 : Column 210WH
or eliminated is not of the real world. The hon. Gentleman attacks the concept of choice—[Interruption.] He is either saying that he will increase or reduce choice. Leaving aside the practical realities and considering the legal basis of allowing parents to have choice within what is available, if he is implying by his criticism that choice should be reduced, that is a huge mistake and wrong in principle.

Mr. Davey : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given me a chance to clarify. I am absolutely not saying that. Indeed, one of my concerns about the proposals in the White Paper to give schools control of admissions, which his party supports, is that it will reduce parental choice. In many ways, by opting for the approach that the Government are taking, those in his party have become the enemies of the parental choice that exists at the moment through a fair admissions system decided by local admission forums.

Mr. Gibb : I am often amused by the concept that increasing choice somehow reduces it, but we shall leave that aside for the moment.

In many cases, as the hon. Gentleman said, such choice is limited, given the shortage of places at good schools, and there are other practical realities that limit choice. However, that is not a reason to limit choice. It is a reason to do more to expand the number of places at good schools. The hon. Member for Southport is right to say that the situation is very different in rural areas, or in suburban parts of Britain outside London, where the reality is that choice is limited. Again, that is not a reason for limiting choice by law where it is possible.

The fact that there are surplus places in an area is not a bad thing in itself. If every surplus place were to be driven out of the system, parental choice would be limited further still. We need a sizeable percentage of surplus places to oil the system to enable the choice mechanism to work, which is why, during the lead-up to the last election, we proposed allowing 10 per cent. of places to be surplus. As the hon. Member for Southport said, the Audit Commission has said that falling school rolls are likely to mean that 10 per cent. of places will be surplus. That carries a cost, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said.

The Schools Minister in a recent answer to a parliamentary question said:

She said later:

The Minister is right. Surplus places should be removed in unpopular schools, and as I have said, we should trust parents' assessment of the quality of local education provision. However, I would not want the Minister's views as expressed in that answer to be interpreted as
17 Jan 2006 : Column 211WH
meaning a complete eradication of all surplus places. There was a report in last week's Southport Visiter. Is that a weekly newspaper?

Dr. Pugh : Bi-weekly.

Mr. Gibb : It is a bi-weekly newspaper. Its report said:

I am not sure what percentage that figure is of the total number of places, but if the drive behind Sefton's school closure plan is to drive out all surplus places, it is not an efficient way to marshal resources.

For a long time, our party has claimed the existence of a surplus places rule, according to which a local authority would refuse to allow a popular school to expand on the grounds that there are surplus places in the area. I know from correspondence that the director of education in West Sussex council says precisely this, but the Government have consistently denied the existence of such a rule. In the five-year strategy published in 2004 they say:

Lord Filkin said, in another place:

Such denials were blown out of the water in October last year when the Prime Minister said, in a speech on the White Paper given the day before it was published:

The Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee:

So there we are. My party agrees with the Prime Minister, but I am less sure whether Labour Back Benchers agree with him. The Government will certainly have our support for measures in the Bill, when it is finally published, that genuinely enable good schools to expand and give genuine autonomy to schools.

The recent National Audit Office report, "Improving poorly performing schools in England", revealed that 23   per cent. of secondary schools in England are underperforming. All of us in the House have to work together to tackle that problem, and the Opposition will do all that we can.

Dr. Pugh : One final nagging doubt about the hon. Gentleman's stance afflicts me. He will accept that most parents would choose a very good local school and that parents do not willingly choose to send their children any further than they have to, because that is expensive and, although travel broadens the mind, most travel to school does not. If the net effect of that is that the local
17 Jan 2006 : Column 212WH
school is in financial difficulty and goes under, is that the best long-term solution? Might not a better long-term solution be to ensure that a good local school is there for everyone, because that must be ultimately what everyone would choose?

Mr. Gibb : Of course the hon. Gentleman is right. We want more local schools delivering high-quality education. Parental choice is not the be-all and end-all; it is not the only mechanism for driving up standards. I am thinking of a range of other measures, taken by the local authority, the Department for Education and Skills and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. All those bodies have a role to play in trying to drive up standards, so that we have more good schools in more localities throughout Britain. Ultimately, however, parents should have a say, and if parents do not want to send their child to a school because they are worried about its reputation, standards and quality of teaching, they are perfectly entitled not to, and consequences follow from that.

The Opposition are concerned about facts in the National Audit Office report and we will do all that we can with the Government, or by opposing the Government, to ensure that the problem is tackled as soon as possible, because in this global world, where high values of education are vital, we can no longer allow 23 per cent. of our secondary schools to be regarded by Ofsted as under-performing.

12.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on obtaining the debate, which has been excellently conducted by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. The hon. Member for Southport perhaps raised more local issues about his experience in his constituency and with his local authority, but hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have connected to the wider debate. We might consider today's occasion to be some of the opening skirmishes of the debate on the education White Paper, but it has been a thoroughly enjoyable and excellent debate. In the time available, I shall try to deal with as   many of the points raised by hon. Members as possible, but given that the debate was initiated by the hon. Member for Southport, I shall also try to deal with some of the specific points that he raised about his constituency experience.

I am pleased to acknowledge—this fact is incontrovertible—that hon. Members on both sides of the House have the interests of children and schools very much at heart. We are all engaged as politicians in the game of trying to ensure that we improve standards for children; that children can, as they grow up, meet their full potential and that they have the best possible choices in life, which only a thoroughly good education can bring. By achieving that, they can perhaps overcome disadvantages that they may have in life. That is the core of all the policy thinking and all the interventions and speeches that we have heard today from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, so I am happy to acknowledge it.

The hon. Member for Southport did not specifically mention this one way or the other, but Sefton council, his local authority, has received significant funding
17 Jan 2006 : Column 213WH
increases aimed at improving and assisting in the running of schools in his constituency. Since 1997, its funding has increased by £1,270 per pupil in real terms, which is a 46 per cent. increase and is over the national average. In the current financial year, Sefton will receive a just over £3,500 guaranteed unit of funding per pupil. We are having this debate about standards and organisation of schools in the context of increasing resource levels and of a debate about how best to turn that money into real value and excellent outcomes for as many children as possible.

Of course, schools' organisation is primarily a matter for local authorities. The hon. Member for Southport suggested what I should not include in my speech. It is quite interesting to have the hon. Gentleman who called for the debate tell the Minister in advance what he does and does not want to hear. None the less, he will have to listen to a little of what he perhaps does not want to hear. There is no doubt that organisation of schools is a matter for local determination. That is just a matter of fact since the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, and I for one, as a Minister in the Department for Education and Skills, am happy that I do not have to sit at my desk and try to work out which schools in the constituencies of each hon. Member in England ought to stay open and expand, or close. To be perfectly honest, if I had to do that, I would have no time to do anything else and I would almost certainly be one of the most unpopular people in the country, whether or not every decision that I had made was perfect.

These matters have to be determined at local level, are sensibly determined at local level and should not land on the desks of Ministers. The hon. Member for Southport has to accept, although he did not want me to say it, that it is incontrovertibly the fact that these matters are dealt with, and are best dealt with, by local authorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr.   Austin) said that he would like to see more consultation, discussion, information and openness about the way in which the decisions in respect of the two schools in his constituency are being made. I support him in that respect. He needs to ensure that he continues to press the council, as I am sure he will, to be as open, honest and transparent as possible, not only with him but with local parents, about the way in which that reorganisation should be pursued. If he is even disputing the facts about the birth rate, a lot more clearly needs to be done to ensure that there is a shared understanding locally of what the needs are in his constituency. However, I am sure that, like any hon. Member, he is perfectly capable of making that point to the relevant people who need it to be made to them, without too much assistance from me.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr.   Anderson) made specific points about surplus places. Not surprisingly, that was a strong theme running through the debate. It was flagged up by the hon. Member for Southport, who referred to the situation at what was Ainsdale high school and is now Ainsdale Hope high school. He will know that I know his constituency well, being a Member of Parliament from a not-too-distant place. He might not know that
17 Jan 2006 : Column 214WH
I attended for the whole of my secondary education one of Sefton's excellent local schools—Formby high school—so I have personal experience not of Ainsdale high school, but certainly of Sefton schools. That leads me to accept his assertion that it is a good local authority in respect of the way in which it carries out its duties to schools. Certainly, Ofsted reports do not indicate anything other than that, and it is grappling with this issue.

The hon. Gentleman did not quite mention what has happened in terms of numbers at Ainsdale Hope. My understanding is that it has gone from having 628 pupils in January 2005, which meant that there were 171 surplus places in the school, to having 366 pupils this January, so it is clearly moving in the wrong direction in terms of parents sending their kids to that local school. I am happy to accept that the local authority has been doing what it can to support the school, not only by closing it as a community school and reopening it as a voluntary-aided school, but by putting investment into the site. For example, a learning centre has been placed, I believe, in a building on the site. It is not, perhaps, in the school itself, but it certainly makes the school a centre of all kinds of educational opportunities in the area. The hon. Gentleman will have more insight into the subject than me, but from the numbers it seems that local parents have not been convinced. We know from constituency experience that we can run into difficulties. If local people feel that the school will inevitably close, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as people move their children before the school closes.

There is no doubt that the local authority will have to handle the issue, as it seems determined to do. However, I should make one or two points about falling school rolls and surplus places, because it has been a theme of the debate. We know that nationally the number of children in primary education is falling—the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) made the point—and that that impacts on secondary schools.

In Sefton, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Southport, 15.2 per cent. of primary school places are surplus, which amounts to 3,911 places. Some 4.6 per cent. of secondary school places are surplus, which amounts to 1,013 places. As the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) said, it is not sensible to run a system without any surplus places; there have to be enough places to take account of people moving in and out, the needs of looked-after children, who may move from school to school, and people who move home between the usual rounds of admissions. We cannot be silly about that; there must be at least some surplus places. None the less, the point can be reached at which the inefficiency of a local authority operating at such a level means that action must be taken. If the level of surplus places is too high, it can represent a poor use of resources. Those resources could be used more effectively to support other schools in raising standards. In such problem cases, the local authority must take action.

Mr. Davey : Surplus capacity is not just about in-year transfers and a little bit of slack; it is necessary for parental choice and preference. That is why my party believes that there is some value in paying for surplus places. The question is how many.
17 Jan 2006 : Column 215WH

Maria Eagle : I was not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman thought otherwise. Nor do we seem to disagree that if there is to be any choice, there must be some surplus and slack in the system to enable that choice to be made. I doubt that we would agree on the precise percentage, or that we would even have time for such a debate. I have no doubt that it will feature in our discussions about the White Paper and legislation arising from it.

The problem of surplus places was not created by the White Paper or by any policies introduced by the current Government. In any system, there must always be a question over what to do with surplus places. The problem did not suddenly appear with the White Paper; it is an issue with which every system must cope.

With the Audit Commission, we have produced a web-based toolkit, of which hon. Members may be aware and with which they may be familiar. It offers a range of practical advice and guidance to local authorities facing such issues. We encourage imagination. My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North suggested some imaginative ways of dealing with the issue, and he mentioned his local authority's need to close two schools. There are ways—less brutal than school closure—in which we can encourage the local education community to deal with such issues. However, I am not saying that school closures are not sometimes necessary.

Mr. David Anderson : The Minister has laid out exactly what we in Gateshead are trying to do. The options include extra community use and use by the health service. Reality clashes with parental choice, however. The parents do not want to see the schools close, and the only way around that is not to close them, and to reduce class sizes and provide a better education. That would be a win-win for everyone.

Maria Eagle : It is tremendously important that in such debates, all local implications are thoroughly discussed. That is why I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North will get back on to his council to be a bit more open. When there is a thorough local debate, local parents are not totally selfish, nor are they interested only in their school; they are interested in all local facilities. There are other ways forward, including amalgamation, federation and collaboration, and the extension of schools to include public service facilities, such as health facilities. They are local solutions that may be appropriate.

I agree with the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that parents are not daft. They, much more than somebody in Whitehall or in a council chamber, know what is best not only for their children but for their local community. It is important that parents are involved. Parents will not always be rational locally; they may sometimes do something that is not sensible. However, the essential arguments and
17 Jan 2006 : Column 216WH
discussions must take place locally. Through the school   organisation committees and, eventually, the adjudicator, there is a mechanism for resolving any local disagreements.

The system is designed to attempt to ensure some kind of agreement—unanimous, preferably—among local stakeholders, so that such matters can be taken forward sensibly, without dictation by Whitehall, guided by good practice and toolkits on our website, of which people can make use in order to deal with the local situation in Sefton, Dudley, North or Blaydon.

Dr. Pugh : I am very much in favour of the benign solutions and the consultation of which the Minister speaks, but in trying to anticipate what will befall the local authority, one factor is knowing precisely what it needs to do about children's centres and extended schools, and precisely when "Building Schools for the Future", for example, will come its way. Early indications can turn problematic situations into almost beneficial situations.

Maria Eagle : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Those decisions must be made with the maximum information, via the DFES, not only for the big, capital programmes such as "Building Schools for the Future", but for other public services, such as health or children's centres. It is not necessarily easy to obtain all the information when it is needed, but locally we must try to ensure the availability of as much information as possible in order to make the best possible decisions. I do not resile from the fact that those decisions ought to be made locally. The hon. Member for Southport did not want me to say that, but I have and it is now on the record.

Surplus school places and falling primary rolls will form a key part of the debate about the White Paper. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton asked me several specific questions about the cost to a local authority of paying for its surplus places. He will not be surprised that I cannot give him a figure, because it varies and one might choose to use many different parameters in order to work it out. Statisticians get excited trying to work out such figures. Although I cannot respond specifically to his points, I am happy to drop him a line to deal with the points that we do not deal with today. There is no doubt that surplus places provide a way of ensuring that schools can respond to the movement of pupils. Surplus places are not always 100 per cent. bad. It can become difficult if their level becomes too high in a particular area. I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Derek Conway (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but I think that she has fairly well finished anyway. We must now move on to the next debate on Darfur and the threat to security in Sudan, in the name of Mr. David Drew.
17 Jan 2006 : Column 215WH

17 Jan 2006 : Column 217WH

Next Section IndexHome Page