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There is a widely held belief in Colchester that the county Tories want to sell the Alderman Blaxill school site, with its extensive playing fields, for residential development. I have little doubt that the Ministers briefing from his officialsably assisted, I am sure, by officials from Essex county councilwill paint a bleak picture of Alderman Blaxill school. However, I suspect
that the county has been quiet about its role in how the school got into its current position. To put it simply, Essex county council is culpable. It is largely responsible for what has happened, and now it is seeking to shift the blame on to the school, and looking to the Government to help it out of the situation that it helped create by shutting Alderman Blaxill, leaving it with a prime site to sell.
As I have already stated, we are now talking about the closure of two secondary schoolsAlderman Blaxill at Shrub End and Thomas Lord Audley on the Monkwick estate. The county wants to build a huge academy on the Monkwick site, which, presumably, it expects pupils from Shrub End to attend. But will they? I shall say more about the proposed academy later.
For the moment, let me deal with Alderman Blaxill school. It is named after a highly respected Colchester business man and educationist, who served the town with great distinction for most of the first half of the 20th century; a former mayor who was granted the freedom of the borough, he lived in Colchester. In those days, councillors and officers lived in the community that they sought to represent and serve. Unfortunately, education today is in the hands of Essex county council. I believe that, had Colchester borough council been a unitary authority, the proposal to shut Alderman Blaxill school would not have been made; nor would the town have lost its record office and adult community education college. There is no way that a unitary borough council would have allowed Alderman Blaxill school to get into the position that the county Toriesby deliberate actions and neglecthave permitted. That is a further reason for calling on the Minister not to support the Tory-controlled county councils closure proposal for Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley schools.
Until about three years ago, none of the towns six comprehensive schools was in special measures. I could proudly claim that all of themwe also have two selective schools, plus a Catholic collegewere good schools. I visit them all, and speak well of every one. However, first one, then two and finally three of the schools were placed in special measures. Only six secondary schools in the whole of Essex were in such a position. So how was it that, almost overnight, half the towns comprehensives found themselves in special measures?
Essex education authority bears collective responsibility for that. There has been a failure to monitor what was going on and neglect to the point where the charge of dereliction of duty must be levelled at the education authority and its political rulers. In the case of Alderman Blaxill school, there has been what I can describe only as a deliberate attempt to undermine it so that the county could proceed with its dastardly proposals to close itas it had tried to do in the past.
There is something going wrong somewhere with education in Colchesterand no-one seems prepared to say what it is.
I urge the Minister to hold an inquiry into the competence of Essex education authority and its politically motivated actions involving Colchesters
secondary schools. Perhaps the education authority should be put in special measures.
I also urge the Minister to step in and halt the closure proposals. At a stroke, that would lift the blight on Alderman Blaxill schoola shadow that discourages some parents from sending their children to a school whose future is in doubt. Such a positive move by the Minister will give parents the confidence once again to choose Alderman Blaxill school, and give the school the encouragement to continue its programme under its new head, who has been in post for little more than a year, to restore its good name and reputation, which it had enjoyed for the best part of five decades.
innovative ways to bring about improvement.
That positive endorsement from Ofsted needs to be matched by ministerial support for the school and not the destructive behaviour of Essex education authority. Incidentally, at a packed public meeting for parents, as reported in the Gazette on 2 July, the head
was handed a resounding vote of confidence
We think this school, and the unique support it offers to Army families and children with special needs, should stay open for the people of Colchester.
Alderman Blaxill is the smallest of Colchesters secondary schools. That should be cherished, not destroyed. Not every child is happy in a large school. Another special characteristic is that between a fifth and a quarter of Alderman Blaxills pupils are children who have a fatherand sometimes a motherserving in Her Majestys armed forces and based at the Colchester garrison. The school has years of experience in helping such youngsters, which I witnessed for myself when just about every soldier from the garrison was deployed in the Iraq war. A further special characteristic is that Alderman Blaxill has the only child dyslexia unit in the north of the county, which was opened by five-times Olympic gold medal winner Sir Steve Redgrave.
There is one characteristic, however, for which Essex education authority should hang its collective head in shame. It has deliberately used Alderman Blaxill school as a dumping ground for dysfunctional pupils whom Colchesters other secondary schools do not want. Gazette features editor Iris Clapp observed in an article on 5 July:
Alderman Blaxill School doesnt only teach children from Shrub End and Colchester Garrison. It provides desk space for all those teenagers expelled from the towns other secondary schools, has a very high proportion of special needs children, and crucially, houses the only child dyslexia unit in North Essex.
Incidentally, the importance of Alderman Blaxill school in the welfare and education of children of Colchester-based soldiers was highlighted in a report by the Select Committee on Defence published on 6 September last year. Indeed, the Committee took the extremely rare step of coming to Colchester, on 24 April 2006, for a formal evidence session at the school, interviewing teachers, service families and service children. In a spirit of joined-up government, perhaps the Minister will invite his officials to read the Committees report, the 11th of the 2005-06 Session. I would also direct him to an Adjournment debate that I secured on 25 October 1999, in which I highlighted the special pressures facing schools with a large number of children from service families.
For how long has Essex education authority been secretly plotting to close Alderman Blaxill school this time around? Has that been done with the knowledge and connivance of county councillors? It is obvious that discussions long pre-dated the Ofsted inspection in May, but I have not been able to establish when they started or, most crucially, at what point it was decided that the closure of Alderman Blaxill should be pursued and who was involved. Can the Minister throw any light on the sequence of events? Either officials of Essex education authority had deliberated without the knowledge of councillors or councillors were part of the discussions and had known for some time. If they did know, they kept that secret from residents of Shrub End before this Mays crucial borough elections in what is Colchesters most marginal three-way ward, for fear that it would be electorally damaging to the Conservatives in fighting the defending Labour councillor, who lost his seat.
About five years ago, the popular head of Alderman Blaxill school left to take up an appointment at a bigger school elsewhere in Britain. Long-serving governors tell me that, despite their objections, they were forced by the county education authority to appoint a head in whom they had little confidence. He did not last long, and quit in 2005 following undisclosed allegations. Former chairman of the governors, Mr. Ray Norris, was reported by the Gazette as saying that the county had failed to support Colchester schools. In the issue of 27 June, he referred to what he described as the countys
poor performance and lack of investment in Colchester schools.
We feel that the County Council has invested in education in South Essex and neglected Colchester.
Some months ago, the head of Thomas Lord Audley school left following a critical Ofsted report. That clearly helped the county with its intentions to close both schoolsin effect, to merge them and create a new school, albeit one outside the traditional local education system, namely a so-called academy on the TLA site.
This morning, I visited Thomas Lord Audley school, which is well on the way to coming out of special measures. A few weeks ago, I attended a special evening for potential year 7 pupils at Alderman Blaxill school.
Bob Russell: While it is true that the number of year 7 pupils in Colchester has fallen in recent times, it was not that many years ago that parents were beating a path to my door because there were seemingly no vacancies at the towns secondary schools. Parental choice was something of a myth for hundreds of parents. History tells me that the numbers will rise again in due coursewithin the next few years, in fact. Therefore, we should not be talking about reducing the overall number of secondary school places, particularly in a town where there is a huge amount of house building going on.
In his briefing, has the Minister been told that about 2,500 dwellingsyes, 2,500 homesare to be built on the site of the former Colchester garrison? All of them fall within the traditional catchment areas of Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley schools. Does anyone believe that such a huge housing development will not have children of secondary school age? On Fridaythe very day on which the schools broke up for half term, which is perhaps why that day was chosen in an attempt to bury bad newsEssex county council published its proposals for an academy on the TLA site to accommodate 1,200 pupils. We can safely assume that the countys so-called consultation will be a sham, and nothing more than a box-ticking exercise. It is deaf to reason and blind to the obvious. Our only hope is that the Government will realise that the countys costly plans do not add up.
The current combined authorised admission number for TLA and Blaxill is 1,700, so the academy proposal would result in a reduction of 500 places in south Colchester, totally ignoring the 2,500 new houses being built at the former garrison. I acknowledge that the current number of pupils is well below the published authorised figure, but the number of pupils currently in year 11 at the two schools totals 300, indicating that, even before the population growth resulting from new housing at the former garrison, south Colchester requires a minimum of 1,500 places in the age group 11 to 16school years 7 to 11. Evidence that I obtained this morning shows, from the number of children born in recent years, that, by 2015, the number seeking year 7 places will match the number currently in year 11 at Colchesters secondary schools. That is before we take into account the number of children who will move into Colchester to live in the thousands of new dwellings that are being built.
Can we trust Essex education authority when it comes to forecasts? No, we cannot. Just look at the monumental £24 million blunder of the Bishop Park school at Clacton. It opened only five years ago, yet it is now under threat of closure because it has too few pupils. I suggest that the education authority is so traumatised by its incompetence, following its overestimate of the projected numbers at Clacton, that it is now deliberately underestimating the numbers in Colchester for fear of repeating the financial consequences of what happened at Bishop Park.
In relation to value for money, I suggest that, instead of spending some £27 million on a new academythe average cost according to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee inquiry into the academies programmeit would cost the public purse considerably less if money were invested in upgrading
both Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley. This would maintain each as a community-based school serving its distinctive local community.
Let me now deal with the consequences of shutting Alderman Blaxill School and requiring youngsters to travel from Shrub End to Monkwick. Although they are in neighbouring wards, there is no community of interest between the two; indeed, they are separated by the largest super-garrison in Britain. Building work on the second phase is currently taking place; it is a massive complex. There is only one road linking Shrub End and Monkwick. For much of its distance, it is a narrow country road, and an extremely busy one at that, with large stretches without pavements and street lights. There have been several fatalities. It is not a safe route to school. There is no bus route linking Shrub End with Monkwick. Roads on the St. Michaels and Montgomery Army estates are not public thoroughfares: they are maintained by the Ministry of Defence and can be closed whenever required for security reasons. Access by the civilian population is not encouraged. It has been suggested that transport will be provided for children from Shrub End to Monkwick. Will the Minister confirm that free transport is available only for those who live more than three miles from the school?
Yesterday, I drove from the front gate of Alderman Blaxill school in Paxman avenue to Thomas Lord Audley school. The distance to the entrance into the school playing field, off Monkwick Avenue, is precisely three miles. The main entrance, however, is a quarter of a mile further away in School roada narrow cul-de-sac that the TLA shares with Monkwick infant school, Monkwick junior school, Berechurch community sports and youth centre, and the Ormiston centre, a sports complex. It is already a traffic nightmare. For Shrub End parents, I can foresee lots of disputes over who is entitled to free travel and who will have to pay. At least two thirds of pupils from Shrub End will not be entitled to free transport, thus adding a financial burden on families, many of them on low incomes.
A second issue is that of the additional traffic that would be drawn into the Monkwick estate to reach the greatly enlarged education establishment, using narrow residential roads not built for such heavy traffic. That is not something that local residents will welcome. What is guaranteed is increased traffic chaos and more road safety dangers for everybody. Incidentally, today has the been the first day of half term and the roads in Colchester were free of traffic. I suggest that the education authority and the highways authority engage in some joined-up thinking, as much of the traffic congestion in the mornings is caused by school-related traffic.
It is worth observing how differently Essex education authority has treated the governing bodies of the three secondary schools put into special measures. Those at Sir Charles Lucas and Thomas Lord Audley were allowed to remain in place, and given time and encouragement to turn their schools around. The governing body at Alderman Blaxill, however, has been sacked. Why? Governors had drawn up an action plan to tackle the problems and, as already mentioned, Ofsted has praised the new head for the steps that she has already put in place. The sacking, I submit, is pure
spite by the county Tories who resent the determination of the governors to make a success of Alderman Blaxill school.
I discovered today that the interim executive board has already met twice in secret. Nobody knows who sits on the board; the chairman is a mystery man; all parent governors have been removed. What I can say is that, even though there is unlikely to be any confidence in a governing body that has been imposed on the school, the campaign to save Alderman Blaxill school will not be silenced by such an anti-democratic manoeuvre. There are weekly meetings of the parents and community forum, which is made up of people determined to resist the schools closure. Last month, they organised a successful fun day. They have unveiled a tree of hope in a town centre shop, launched by the town crier. Will the Minister promise that he will, at the very least, insist that the democratically elected parent governors should be restored to the governing body?
Let me now turn to the prospect of an academy, as disclosed officially for the first time by Essex county council last Friday. What the public announcement does not mention is the prospect that the academy may be sponsored by the Chelmsford diocese of the Church of England. Several weeks ago, in conversation, a clergyman based at Chelmsford casually told me that the diocese had hopes of taking over the then rumoured academy in Colchester. I decided to check that out. Confirmation of such a possibility has been given to me by the chief executive of Essex county council. Although I was assured that
no specific agreements have been made in respect to the Diocese and Essex County Council sponsoring an academy in Colchester,
Although I have a Christian upbringing, I am not an Anglican, but come from good nonconformist stock. I have serious misgivings about two of Colchesters local secondary schools being shut down and their replacement academy handed over to the Chelmsford diocese. If the diocese wants to have a secondary school to promote Anglican teachings then let it, like the Brentwood Roman Catholic diocese, organise its own school in Colchester to serve the whole of north Essex for those parents who wish to have such a denominational schoolnot impose itself on a particular geographic area of the town whose parents may not necessarily wish to have their children taught under a religious regime. What parental choice will there be for those in Monkwick and Shrub End who do not want their children to attend a religious academy? Will other secondary schools in Colchester have places available to accept them?
Academies have a less than impressive track record and are widely opposed by, among others, many Labour MPs and the National Union of Teachers. At a public meeting in Colchester, Mr. Alasdair Smith of the Anti-Academies Alliance observed
An academy is owned and controlled by its sponsor and is a law unto itself.
We elect Councillors to a local education authority and parents elect the Governing Body of a school, but at an academy the democratic involvement of the community is removed.
Will the Minister confirm that Mr Smith's statement is correct? Will he confirm that an academy sets its own
admission policy, and that it is not subject to national agreements on staff pay and conditions? Will he also confirm that the proposed academy in south Colchester would not have to guarantee a place for every child from Monkwick and Shrub End whose parents sought admission?
Will the Church of England have competition? The prospect of a Church of England-sponsored academy contrasts with a statement made in June by an Essex county council spokesman who was reported in the Gazette as saying:
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