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The school has vigorously pursued that, but there has still been no progress.

Ofsted inspected the school again last week, so obviously I do not know what it will say this time. However, I will be surprised if it does not commend the school on the very good progress that it has made. I expect some positive features in the report, but I will be equally surprised if the report does not contain condemnation of the school’s buildings and an indication that they are just not fit for purpose. Parents are very exercised by the problem. A recent parents’ questionnaire attracted 400 replies and by far and away the main concern expressed was about the buildings.

As if those problems were not enough, Northumberland is attempting a massive schools reorganisation—from a three-tier to a two-tier system. We have middle schools for nine to 13-year-olds, first schools for five to nine-year-olds, and high schools for 13 to 18-year-olds. The system dates from when the county went comprehensive in stages from the 1970s and it was chosen partly because the most modern buildings that the county had at that time were the secondary modern and technical schools that were built in the aftermath of the Education Act 1944. The reorganisation was largely designed to fit the buildings, but of course those buildings are now very old. The county wants to change things partly to address the sheer number of schools, and the surplus places problem, but the change is controversial and gives rise to a great deal of concern. Educationally, however, the county has another motive. Northumberland is in the top 5 per cent. for key stage 1, but is only average for key stage 2. Pupils transfer in the middle of key stage 2 and again in the middle of key stage 3. That is a system that very few authorities now use.

Strong arguments are advanced against the change from three to two tiers. The proposal is particularly controversial in rural areas where the middle school is the only school within quite a large area. If middle schools cease to take nine to 13-year-olds, children would be completely outside their rural area from the age of 11. The issue applies to the middle schools in
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Wooler, Rothbury, Belford, and Seahouses, and to other parts of Northumberland outside my constituency, such as Bellingham and Allendale.

Many parents and teachers in all kinds of areas think that middle schools have positive value. Both my children went through the system, and middle school was a particularly happy time for them. It is a time in which children acquire more responsibility, and they feel that they are taking a responsible role as they get to the top of the school. That has to be balanced against some of the problems arising from transfer at that age, and the short time that pupils then have in which to prepare for GCSE.

Whatever view one takes of the reorganisation, it will clearly be difficult to achieve unless there is capital for school building. Indeed, we must question whether it can be done at all, even through the phased approach that the county is taking, without substantial extra resources. It will cost money, and it means a lot of school building. Obviously, it is intended that some of the school building will be funded through property deals—by the release of sites. However, the reorganisation should not be shaped by the saleability of sites. That process cannot fund more than a part of what will be required, and it would be distorting if the pattern of reorganisation came to depend on which sites could be sold to release money for new schools to be built.

Against that background, the county’s hope lay in the Building Schools for the Future programme, yet at every stage Northumberland found itself at the back of the queue. It is currently in wave 13 of that programme. Why? That is what I keep asking. The Minister came to a meeting that we held in Woodhorn. There were many interesting people round the table—people from the schools, including pupils, and people from the authority. They asked him a lot of questions, and the questions that we keep asking him is, how does that decision come about? What is wrong? Is the Department making the wrong assessments, or is there something wrong with the bids that Northumberland puts forward?

If you apply for a job these days, Madam Deputy Speaker, you expect to get some feedback if you do not get the job. I am not suggesting that you are applying for any jobs yourself, but you will know of the process. When people bid for a lottery grant or something like that, best practice now is to give them feedback to tell them in what ways their bid was on the wrong lines, or how they can improve it so that they stand a better chance in future. I do not think that Northumberland has ever had that. I have asked repeatedly for that to be done, so that we can have some understanding of why an authority with such obvious needs is constantly at the back of the queue.

The result is that Northumberland has had to fund school developments without BSF help. It has committed nearly £28 million to the reorganisation in the Cramlington area, and £26.5 million towards the £54 million programme in Blyth. Incidentally, both of those projects are outside my constituency. All of that heavy capital expenditure is going to the south-east of the county, and not to any part of the area that I have described in my constituency.

The county has looked into whether academies provide a suitable route. It has followed that route, very controversially, in Ashington and Blyth. In both places, there are huge local arguments about whether the county should be doing that at all. The issue is not just
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about the principle of academies, but about what the effect will be on schools that the authority has already provided in those areas. However, those are not the problems for tonight. Alnwick, which the county was interested in as a site for an academy, did not meet the criteria, despite having a highly deprived ward directly adjoining the current site of the Duchess’s community high school. The academy project went to Ashington and not to Alnwick.

Given the fact that the academy route has not worked and that Building Schools for the Future has not worked for Northumberland, how is the Government’s declared objective and the Prime Minister’s declared objective of rebuilding and refurbishing all secondary schools to be realised in my constituency? I ask the Minister to consider some of the things that he might do. The first is to be ready to support Northumberland over the replacement of the Duchess’s school in Alnwick. There are many people in Alnwick who say to me, “When is the Schools Minister going to come up and visit Alnwick? He said that he would do so, to come and look at the Duchess’s school.”

People have pinned a great deal of hope and responsibility on the Minister, and he should do what he can to assist and support Northumberland in dealing with an urgent problem, the replacement of the Duchess’s high school. A lot of negotiation has been going on, particularly with the castle estates, which are the principal landowners in the area, but it remains a difficult process for which significant capital funding will have to be found. I want the Minister to take a personal interest in that, as he has already indicated willingness to do so.

I pose the question, not out of particular enthusiasm for such a scheme, whether the academy route might be explored for Berwick, bearing in mind a number of special circumstances there. There are deprived wards directly adjoining the location of the school, which are among the 10 per cent. of wards with the highest degree of deprivation. Berwick is also a special case because of its rural character and the area that it serves. It is a special case because there is no parental choice in Berwick, and there is no prospect of parental choice.

The only parental choice is for those who can afford to send their children to the one private school in the area, Longridge Towers. There is no parental choice within the state sector because the nearest school to which parents are allowed to send their child is in Alnwick, 30 miles away. I have just explained what difficulties are faced there. There is no other school. The schools that are 8 miles and 12 miles away are in Scotland, and the border is an absolute barrier. The Scottish system is different, with transfer at a different age. That, too, makes Berwick a special case.

There are opportunities to involve further and higher education in Berwick, which are seriously underprovided there. Getting anyone to undertake further education in Berwick is extremely difficult. Huge travel is involved. We have had major arguments about the denial of rail travel for the long, long journey to Newcastle. Edinburgh is nearer, but that is excluded for most purposes by the border. There are real possibilities with Northumbria university and other
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potential providers. There are even possibilities of co-operation with the private sector in education, which make Berwick a potential special case. It is worth considering whether the academy route is possible for Berwick, despite it not obviously fitting the criteria that have been applied in some other places.

I should like the Minister to look carefully at slippage in the Building Schools for the Future programme. We know that there has been significant slippage. Indeed, the Department’s memorandum to the Education and Skills Committee in its report on sustainable schools stated:

The memo went on to identify some of the problems that authorities encountered, many of which are problems that Northumberland knows how to deal with. Northumberland could meet many of the requirements and has already shown its ability to do so and its willingness to commit its own resources to seeing through major projects. I should like the Minister to consider a bid from Northumberland to use what I refer to as slippage money—money that it is not currently possible to spend on some of the planned schemes—to deliver in earlier waves of Building Schools for the Future. Northumberland could act and could deliver.

I have repeatedly made the request that the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about the funding formula. The Chancellor says that he is making more money available for education than was previously proposed. Unless something is done, all that will do is ratchet things upwards while preserving the huge inequality between Northumberland and many other parts of the country. I would like the Minister to pass on to his colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government, to whom we also make the same points, that the funding formula when applied to education seems to have particularly unjust effects in Northumberland and makes it difficult for the county to meet its obligations on so difficult an issue.

In 2006, the Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor, spoke in his Budget statement about raising investment in state schools so that instead of it being £5,000 per pupil, it went up to the £8,000-per-pupil average of the private sector. I do not think that we are anywhere near that figure; I am not sure how the calculations are made, but I am sure that we are short of it. Again, mechanisms will have to be used to overcome the difficulties that I have described if the Prime Minister’s declared objective is to be achieved in the constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

I have laid out the problems that arise from Northumberland’s character and size, the issues of reorganisation and the age of its schools. I have suggested things that the Minister can do to support the moves to replace the Duchess’s community high school in Alnwick and to consider how to get not only a new high school but a much broader range of education provision in Berwick. I have also suggested that slippage in the Building Schools for the Future programme might present an opportunity and that the funding formula should be considered again. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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9.41 pm

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on securing this debate and on the excellent way in which he put forward his argument—not quite as excellent as Arsenal’s 7-0 victory this evening at the Emirates stadium, but almost as good.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, I had the pleasure of visiting his constituency 12 months ago. I enjoyed the meeting at Woodhorn and remember hearing from his constituents—those from Alnwick in particular—a rehearsal of the debate around reorganisation, which I observed with interest, but in a slightly detached way given that reorganisation issues are for the local authority, not me, to determine.

I accord with the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the two-tier and three-tier systems; there are merits in both. My daughter was educated in the middle-school system and my son largely in the two-tier system, and I am proud of both their educational achievements. Both systems can work well. On my visit, I saw some of the excellent work done in the region of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency and his great concern for the standards of education there and in the north-east in general.

The Government have made a commitment to creating school buildings fit for 21st century teaching and learning. Given the shoddy state of schools that we inherited, that was more akin to climbing up a mountain than strolling gently up a hill. However, the scale of the challenge means that we can be rightly proud to be delivering on it. We made that bold commitment because we want to provide a genuine opportunity for every child, overcoming attainment gaps and eradicating child poverty, ensuring that outcomes are determined by talent and hard work, and building a fair society and a culture that celebrates success.

We also made the commitment because we want every pupil to get a personalised education, responsive to their individual needs and supportive of their individual talents. We want to give each child the best possible start in life by giving them the skills that they need to thrive in the modern world, to live happy and successful lives and to fulfil their potential. A good education depends on many things: teachers, parents, standards and discipline. We need to improve all of those—and we are improving them.

However, well designed buildings, and good facilities where young people can learn and grow, are a vital foundation, so I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration as he waits. A well designed school can make a difference in simple but vital ways, as well as providing the right facilities for teaching and learning: imaginatively designed dining halls—hopefully larger than those he described—can encourage healthy eating; wider corridors can cut bullying; and classrooms with natural lighting and fresh air can help pupils’ concentration and behaviour. Dark, dingy and decrepit buildings need to be condemned to the past, where they belong.

Over the past 10 years, we have increased investment year by year, and we are seeing the fruits of that investment in the transformation of school buildings
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across the country. The shoddy, make-do buildings that we inherited are now, in so many places, a thing of the past. Over the past 10 years, we have built more than 1,100 schools and a further 27,000 new or improved classrooms, as well as 6,600 new or improved laboratories. A total of 2,450 schools have better sports facilities and 2,300 have new or improved kitchens. In the Berwick-upon-Tweed area of Northumberland, about a dozen kitchens and serveries have been refurbished in recent years, and two new science labs have been built, as well as a new assembly hall and a whole new school.

However, the scale of the task has meant that we have not been able to do everything at once. This is as true for Governments as it is for local authorities. We have made a start. We have struck a balance between ensuring that every school has some investment and tackling the worst school buildings. For instance, there are now no schools that have to rely on outside toilets. In our major strategic programmes, such as Building Schools for the Future, we have concentrated on those who most need it as determined by levels of deprivation and educational attainment. I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman does not feel that he has had proper feedback, but that was the foundation of the assessment that we made and the basis on which we asked local authorities to make applications for Building Schools for the Future money. If his constituents need an explanation as to why certain areas have been allocated on a certain basis, it is the combination of our priority in respect of levels of deprivation and educational attainment and how local authorities have then responded to those priorities in their applications.

Mr. Beith: Why has none of Northumberland’s bids been successful, even though it has plenty of instances of deprivation and some instances of lower attainment than should be achieved?

Jim Knight: The other piece of the jigsaw thatI should mention is that there needs to be sufficient scale to construct a cost-effective procurement model. Without knowing the exact detail of the situation in Northumberland, it may be that it could do it in two waves rather than one. The procurement model would have to be got right. Some of the larger authorities can do it in several stages and some of their waves have been split accordingly, with some earlier and some later.

We are now moving ahead. Over the next 15 years or so, we aim to rebuild or refurbish all secondary schools and at least half of all primary schools. Earlier this month, I announced £21.9 billion of capital investment allocations to local authorities to raise standards with state-of-the-art arts, sports and information and communications technology facilities. Our capital investment will mean that by the end of this latest spending period, there will have been a sevenfold increase in investment in real terms since 1997. We will shortly make a revenue allocation announcement.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the clawback of balances. We are consulting on that, and no decision has been made to do it. The consultation closes this Friday, and I will look to make decisions and announcements quickly, certainly in respect of some aspects. People have raised concerns particularly about
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the retrospective nature of some of the proposals that we consulted on, and I would like to provide some certainty on that as quickly as I possibly can, because I know that it is causing concern to schools throughout the country. I have some sympathy in respect of revenue, which is not really the subject of this debate, because I represent a Dorset constituency which also does not have one of the best-funded authorities in the country. Although we will not be able to put everything right in one fell swoop, I hope that we will be able to make some progress when we make the revenue announcement.

As part of our capital funding, we are kick-starting the primary capital programme to rebuild or refurbish half the primary schools in England, with £1.9 billion over the next three years, and we are putting another £9.3 billion into Building Schools for the Future, including academies, to revamp secondary schools. By 2011, 200 new, rebuilt or revamped secondary schools will be opening every year. We are continuing to strike a balance to make substantial funding available for councils not yet in the Building Schools for the Future programme, such as Northumberland, for special educational needs pupils and for 14 to 19 diplomas, providing more money for school kitchens, and with £3 billion devolved straight to schools and over £4.5 billion devolved to councils.

We will continue to provide funding direct to every school to spend on buildings and ICT as they see fit. Schools that have not yet been modernised will receive a higher rate, with modernised schools receiving a standard rate, which means that the Berwick high school in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency will receive funding at the higher rate. I am advised that it will get £90,000 and that the Duchess’s community school that he talked about will receive £126,000.

How the funding devolved to local authorities is invested is for each local authority to determine, not for us sitting in Whitehall. We have given local authorities centre stage with new powers and duties so that they can be the strategic leaders of education in their area and the champions of parents and pupils because they know best what is most needed in their regions and who can best deliver that service. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is continuing to lobby his friends at county hall. We will look to local authorities to focus on the key priorities, to raise standards in the classroom and to ensure that all children have the opportunity to reach their full potential, because that is what most concerns parents.

Northumberland will receive its share of funding, with £65 million allocated for capital over the three-year period, including more than £8 million for the primary capital programme. That comes on top of the £41 million that Northumberland received in the last spending review period. It is worth noting the 50 per cent. increase in funding that the county has been allocated over the spending period. In 2010-11 alone, Northumberland will receive £27 million, which compares to just over £3 million that it received in 1996-97. How all that money is invested is a matter of local decision making to support both local and national priorities. As I have said before, even with the amount of money in question, sometimes difficult choices will still have to be made.

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