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2.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) for championing Whitgift and Healing schools and for the work that she is doing for her wider community in terms of the impact on her constituents—and in relation to Grimsby Town football club, which is important to her part of the world. If my experience in this area has taught me anything, it is that local authorities should work with and pay heed to local Members of Parliament, who, like my hon. Friend, tend to have their finger on the pulse of local opinion. From my experience of these kinds of changes in local authorities, we are all in a better position when they listen to local MPs.

In trying to respond to and answer all my hon. Friend’s questions, I will begin by talking about the role of the local authority in relation to decisions that have to be made about the reconfiguration of schools. Local authorities are responsible for planning school places and have a duty to ensure that there are sufficient places for the pupils in their areas and that high-quality education is provided cost-effectively. It is for individual authorities to determine whether, and how, to reduce surplus places, which can depend on local circumstances, including geographical circumstances, and social factors, as my hon. Friend said.

Ministers have no role in decisions on proposals for changes to local school provision or organisation. Such decisions are made locally. It will be for local authorities to take decisions on proposals to close schools when the Education and Inspections Act 2006 comes into force later this year. However, there will be the power to appeal to the independent schools adjudicator in some circumstances.

Decision makers will have to have regard to statutory guidance issued by the Secretary of State when taking decisions on such proposals. That statutory guidance details a range of factors that must be considered when decisions are taken, including the impact on standards, diversity and parental choice; the need for places; cost-effectiveness; the views of interested parties; and the impact on the local community. When considering proposals on closing a school in a deprived area, decision makers must consider the transport arrangements proposed, the quality of the transport links between the communities served by the school and the site of the alternative provision, and the possible effect of the proposed arrangements on pupil unauthorised absence and staying-on rates post-16. It will be for decision makers locally to consider individual proposals on their merits and to balance the weight of all factors, taking into account the particular circumstances of each case.

The Department’s statutory guidance to decision makers makes it clear that they should not make blanket assumptions that schools need to be of a certain size before they can be good schools. Local
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authorities are able to propose the closure of voluntary and foundation schools. If there was a local plan to establish a joint Church of England-Roman Catholic school, it would be for the local dioceses to publish proposals for that school. However, they would need the Secretary of State’s consent to publish proposals without running a competition for the new school.

My hon. Friend mentioned the brain drain and cross-border issues. As she knows, the Government do not support the principle of selection by academic ability. However, although we banned the introduction of any new selection by ability, we left it to parents to decide whether their local grammar schools should continue to be wholly selective. If there is sufficient parental support, the grammar school ballot system gives them a way to change the process and to decide whether the grammar school should become comprehensive. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that there has been only one ballot and that its result ensured that the school remained selective.

Shona McIsaac: The answers that my hon. Friend has given so far have been most helpful. On the brain drain, the grammar schools in question are in a neighbouring authority, but right on the border of North East Lincolnshire. Parents in North East Lincolnshire would never have a say on the future of grammar schools in a neighbouring authority.

Mr. Dhanda: I am happy to write to my hon. Friend about the process for the ballots. I understand that they cover not only those who live in the catchment area, but those who use local schools.

I am well aware of brain drain issues. My hon. Friend talked about children going out of her locality to grammar schools; in my constituency, there are four grammar schools, so many children are coming into the area. However, it also means that many local children have to leave the area.

We want to ensure fair access, and I would have been more concerned if my hon. Friend had told me that children could not obtain admission to particular schools just because they happened to live in a different local authority area. All over the country, but especially in our cities, parents exercise their choice to cross borough and county boundaries to travel to school, and it would be unfair to restrict that choice. However, it creates a challenge for non-selective schools because, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, the most able pupils in the area may go to a nearby
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grammar school. Although the ability profile of their intake is different, non-selective schools are still in the business of providing the best education possible for their pupils, which we have recognised by increasingly putting greater emphasis on value added in schools.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of federations. The Government encourage schools to work together and collaborate, or federate, in a number of ways where it would improve school standards. That can include a statutory federation where up to five maintained schools federate under a single governing body. It is for individual governing bodies to decide whether they want to join a federation.

Schools in statutory federations continue to be individual schools, and admission to each school continues to be determined by the appropriate admissions authority, which is the local education authority in the case of community and voluntary controlled schools and the federated governing body in the case of foundation and voluntary aided schools. Schools also keep their existing category and character, and do not gain, lose or change their religious character through membership of a statutory federation. More informal collaborative arrangements between maintained schools and schools not maintained by local education authorities, such as city technology colleges, academies, independent schools and further education institutions, are also possible, but they may not include federated governing bodies or formal joint committees of governing bodies.

My hon. Friend asked about the size of academies and about the building schools for the future programme—BSF. I can reassure her that no criterion for BSF money is based on size; each proposal is considered individually. The figure of 1,200 is a guide for the average size of new provision, but it is by no means fixed. I hope that is helpful.

The size of academies is not fixed at 900. The statutory guidance makes it clear that decision makers should not make blanket assumptions that schools need be of a certain size before they can be good schools. A number of other factors should be taken into consideration when assessing individual proposals.

I hope I have answered most of my hon. Friend’s questions and I wish her the very best in fleshing out the options locally, working with her local authority, to ensure that local school reorganisation and provision delivers the best for Cleethorpes. That is in the interests of my hon. Friend and I am sure she will continue to champion the issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o’clock.

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