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21 Nov 2007 : Column 1231

Mr. Slaughter: Civility is prized and taught at Phoenix, and I am sure that, having been there, the hon. Gentleman will follow that example.

The neighbourhood renewal fund gave several million pounds to support the families of pupils at Phoenix, and William would say that that is one of the main reasons why that school, which has an intake from one of the most deprived areas in the country, has come on by leaps and bounds.

Thirdly, I praise the Government on results. I could go through every school attended by children from my constituency, but I will mention just three. William Morris sixth form, of which I have been a governor since it was set up in 1994, has had an outstanding Ofsted report. I was told that if one types “outstanding sixth form” into Google, William Morris comes up on the first page. Phoenix is the most improved school in England over the past three years. Hurlingham and Chelsea school, having been in special measures three years ago, came out of special measures in record time, and its A to C GCSE results increased two and a half times over that period under the utterly inspiring leadership of Phil Cross, who is the new William Atkinson of the borough.

I mention those three schools because they were all, at different times, targeted for closure by the Conservatives: William Morris was targeted in the last three years of the Conservative Government; Phoenix, which was for many years rubbished by Conservative councillors, who said that if they came to power they would close it; and Hurlingham and Chelsea, which, now that the Conservatives are in power locally, they are seeking to close. It may seem parochial to talk about one of my own LEAs, but there are lessons to be learned from looking at the Conservatives in local government, and how they deal with education, that give the lie to what they say when they talk in this House about education policy nationally.

The history of education policy over the brief 18 months since the LEA and the council changed hands in Hammersmith and Fulham is an extraordinary and disgraceful one, which may interest my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, if nobody else. The first move was an attempt to close Hurlingham and Chelsea school, which, as I said, came out of special measures in record time and is fast improving. At the end of a seven-month campaign by the school to avoid closure, the closure proposal was withdrawn, but only because it was clear to the LEA that the school adjudicator was not going to find in its favour.

I always appreciate new administrations learning by their mistakes, but in this case it was quite the contrary. Since then, over the past six months, a commission has been set up under the chairmanship of Baroness Perry. I have nothing but respect for her professional record, but it is unfortunate that she was at the same time chairing the Conservative party’s policy review. Her report was highly critical of the LEA and its poor relations with schools, and called for a full review of 14-to-19 education; both those facts have been ignored. It also put forward two quite extraordinary proposals, which are leading to the misuse of building schools for the future money in the LEA, and to an attempt to use the academy process to introduce selection by the back door—a topic that the hon. Member for Yeovil alluded to in his speech. Such misuse of the academy programme
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is a danger. It will not be misused if Lord Adonis has his way, but it will be if my local Tory LEA has its way.

What were the two proposals? The first is known locally as the French connection. It is the proposal to sell off two propitious school sites to the French Government. That came out through Freedom of Information Act inquiries and investigations by the head teachers of the schools concerned. A proposal to sell off two of the best sites in Fulham to the French Government for conversion to private lycée schools was being made without the knowledge of the schools. I have a letter here from the chairman of governors of one of the schools, who says that in June he found some French people wandering uninvited around his school, asking people at random questions about the curriculum. I have asked for a meeting with the French ambassador to discuss these matters, but the fact remains that neither that school nor Hurlingham and Chelsea school, which is being asked to share its site with a private lycée, was consulted in any way. Hurlingham and Chelsea now faces its second battle in a year to remain open, despite its outstanding achievements.

The second proposal being pursued by my Tory LEA is to close the only secular girls school in the borough, which is the first school of choice for many Muslim families in my constituency. It is a very good and well-respected school, but it is to close, and then share a very small site with a boys school in Fulham. Lest it be thought that I am simply making party political points—

Mr. Graham Stuart: No one would think that.

Mr. Slaughter: Well, they are party political points, but that is because I have a terrible Tory council. There is nothing I can do about that. My electorate can do something in a few years’ time, but there is nothing I can do at the moment.

The principal’s report at our local sixth form college talks about the 14-to-19 strategy in the borough:

That is an understatement. The report continues:

Another head in the borough put it rather more succinctly:

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An unprecedented five head teachers and principals, all affected by these lunatic changes, have asked for an appointment to see my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners. I hope that he will agree to that—I am sure that he will—because the situation is at crisis point.

Angela Watkinson: The hon. Gentleman is painting a picture of vexatious school closures by his local education authority. Most school closures are prompted by Government policy—when there is 10 per cent. spare capacity throughout the borough—and LEAs are in the very difficult position of having to reduce that spare capacity. No such proposals will be accepted or welcomed by teachers or pupils. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that those proposals have nothing at all to do with there being more than 10 per cent. spare capacity in the LEA in Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush?

Mr. Slaughter: I can answer that very straightforwardly. At the same time as the LEA is proposing those closures, it is proposing to open a new academy in my constituency. I know about that only through hearsay, because neither local residents nor the heads have been consulted. For example, the head of the other academy that is less than a mile away, whom I was talking to yesterday, has not been consulted. I have not been consulted. A feasibility study has gone on; it is another fait accompli. I welcome the proposal to open a new school in the borough, but it sits ill in the mouths of people who are trying to close existing good schools. In the moment or two that I have left, I shall talk about why that is happening.

Angela Watkinson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Slaughter: No, I will not give way again.

Why is that happening? The answer is straightforward. Building schools for the future money is being used to move two schools to a single site, so as to free up a site to be disposed of as a private lycée. It is being misused in order to pillory and limit the chances and opportunities for young people in community schools in my borough.

Angela Watkinson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Slaughter: I will not give way.

At the same time, if the LEA gets its way—I shall be talking about this matter in more detail to Lord Adonis—the academy programme will be used to introduce selection in the borough. The scheme is for a selective school in the south, partly sharing its site with a private school, and an academy that takes the best children from the Phoenix and from the existing academy in my constituency, in the north of the borough. It is trying to set up what I might call a poor man’s grammar school service.

When we come down to it, that is why the hon. Member for Surrey Heath cannot answer the questions about grammar schools and selection. They know that they cannot say it publicly, but almost every Member on the Opposition Benches wants a return to full selection and grammar streaming. That is what, by fair means or foul, is happening. I will not allow it to happen in the LEAs in my constituency. With the help of my hon. Friend the Minister and Lord Adonis, I hope that none
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of these things will come to pass for the new academy, which I welcome, or for the existing schools, which are performing under the most extreme duress, and the draconian policies of the LEA. I hope that they continue to thrive, although that will be despite the LEA, rather than with the benefit of its support.

2.58 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The Opposition motion expresses the clear commitment in my party to continuing reform of our schools system, to the encouragement of devolved responsibility in schools and to the provision of greater support to the disadvantaged through greater choice and openness. It is, moreover, a clear commitment that we have in the past honoured in the Lobby by supporting the Government when we believed that they were introducing necessary reforms. Our crucial support for the Education and Inspections Act 2006 proves that we, at least, have the courage of our convictions when it comes to schools reform. But while we were busy reaching for consensus in the Lobby, many in the Labour party were reaching for consensus on paper, and were still not finding it.

It is perhaps unfortunate that next to the Government amendment, some rather more ominous names appear alongside the name of the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. First, there is the Prime Minister, who does not seem to know whether he is coming or going on reform. Secondly, we have the Chancellor, who in all probability, will soon be going. Thirdly, there is the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, who, before his second coming, was busy with an alternative, but sadly not very innovative education White Paper, while on the Back Benches. Last but not least, we have the Secretary of State for Health, who is presumably listed for showing his dedication through taking a hospital pass from the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families when he got himself into a spot of bother in last Tuesday’s debate. When we analyse the Government’s policy on schools reform, it appears that only one principle is at work—random movement, otherwise dubbed as Brownian motion.

I want to focus on one narrow aspect of our motion: the necessity of helping the most disadvantaged with all the resources available to us. It can sometimes be too easy to view disadvantage in a narrow, socio-economic sense. That is the root of a great deal of, but by no means all, disadvantage. Pupils with special educational needs are still some of the most disadvantaged in our schools, as hon. Members from different parties have pointed out.

The Secretary of State was rightly lauded by hon. Members of all parties for his commitment while on the Back Benches to greater support for special needs education and disabled young people. He managed to maintain that commitment when he was Economic Secretary to the Treasury, although he sometimes had to give his support at arm’s length. However, something about the new regime appears to spoil those good intentions.

I was disappointed that the Secretary of State could not use his customary leverage with the Prime Minister to get a commitment on SEN into the Queen’s Speech. It was also unfortunate that, during last Tuesday’s debate, he preferred the attractions of baiting on Surrey Heath to setting out the Government’s agenda
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on education. I have a strong and personal interest in children with SEN getting a better start in life and I do my best to keep abreast of the Government’s stance on those issues. However, that stance is beginning to look shaky. The comprehensive spending review in October announced the availability of an extra £340 million over the CSR period to support disabled children and young people, but the way in which the additional funding will interact with existing provision for SEN remains unclear.

I am sceptical of the utility of additional funding without a root-and-branch review that places children’s needs first and foremost. Such a review is now getting started under my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). Once again, the Conservative party is setting the reform agenda. However, if reform is to be effective, an SEN system must be founded on genuine parental choice. Just as choice should be the decisive factor in driving up standards in the wider school system, so it should be decisive in approving the outcomes for children with special needs.

Meanwhile, the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families was forced to publish yet another report on SEN last month. The reason for the repetition is simply the Government’s intransigence. I am not a member of the Committee, but I hope that I shall never miss an opportunity to pay tribute to its work. Sir Robert Balchin, the chair of the Conservative party’s commission on special needs education, has also produced a fine report, which I recommend to the Secretary of State. Those are only two in a growing chorus of voices that call for a fundamental reform of SEN provision.

Last year’s Select Committee report recommended—to my mind, unequivocally—breaking the link between assessment and funding of SEN provision. The Government have misinterpreted that, though I do not claim that they did so wilfully. However, the response to the report was generally viewed as leaving a lot to be desired. I hope that, when the Minister for Schools and Learners responds, he will commit to giving the Committee’s latest report on the matter the attention that it deserves. I hope that he will also commit to providing a national strategy for SEN, which allows schools the freedom to tailor their provision to the needs of the communities that they serve.

Although our motion calls for greater freedom for schools and an innovative approach to helping the most disadvantaged young people, the Government continue to equate choice with elitism. The Secretary of State parroted that equation last Tuesday, and he did so again today, when he wrongly stated that we support the few and not the many. Nevertheless, SEN provision remains, all too often, both stretched and inflexible for parents and children.

The Government’s amendment ends by reiterating the planned extension of education and training to 18. I foresee a problem in that the Government propose to compel a new cohort of 16 to 18-year-olds to remain in a system that already struggles to cope. The Government should act now to prepare the system of SEN provision to handle a great deal more strain if their proposals to raise the school leaving age are to go ahead.

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In a parliamentary answer, the Government estimated additional costs of £90 million to support those with SEN through extending compulsory schooling to 18. How was that figure calculated? How robust does the Secretary of State believe it to be? Not only extra money but extra staff and resources are needed. Better still, fundamental reform of provision is needed. A significant gap remains between the perception of SEN provision in Whitehall and the experience of parents on the ground. I do not want that gap to widen further because the Government have announced a policy on compulsory education to grab the headlines without doing their homework on special needs.

We need to raise the bar and close the gap. The days of one-size-fits-all education should have ended long ago. Unfortunately, they have not. In so many other aspects of education policy, we are setting the pace of change. It must begin with legitimate choice for parents.

Angela Watkinson: Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the ROSE—realistic opportunities for supported employment—project at Havering college of further and higher education? It is specifically designed to ease students with special needs into employment. They have a job tutor who sees them through the first few weeks—sometimes months, depending on the student’s ability—until they are able to attend a workplace independently. That example of good practice could be followed throughout the country.

Mr. Newmark: I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating that project. Other colleges, such as Edith Borthwick in my constituency, do exactly the same, and I congratulate them on their hard work in supporting their students to move on and get ready to play a productive role in society and the workplace.

Just as SEN provision must be at the heart of our schools and academies, choice must be at the heart of SEN provision, not an inconvenient accessory to it.

3.8 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): In my constituency, I have a school that is similar to Eton, at least in the spelling of its name. Last night, I was privileged to visit Elton high school and join the pupils, staff and governors for their annual awards evening. The school is thriving and is now in the upper 25 per cent. of the most improving schools in the country. It had record GCSE results this year and has a broad and balanced curriculum. It has innovated and is now a specialist art school, where the pupils are committed to their studies and happy and motivated to be there.

I mention Elton school because it undermines the basic assumption that underlies the Conservatives’ attack on the Government’s record. The school is firmly within the local authority system, and is nevertheless one of the most highly regarded schools in not only my local authority but neighbouring local authorities. I pay tribute to the work of the head teacher, Mr. Neil Scruton, his chair of governors, Mr. Jeff Coles, and the staff and pupils of the school.

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