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Schools (Stoke-on-Trent)

1.29 pm

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. I applied for this debate amid great sadness, and it is a tragedy that it is necessary—a £250 million tragedy, to be precise.

When I rose in Parliament on 24 November 2005 to ask the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills about the huge investment in education in Stoke-on-Trent, hon. Members on the Government Benches turned in amazement on hearing that so much money was being made available to my city. Looks of jealousy were all around me, but now we are in a sorry state. Stoke-on-Trent council, Serco and, sadly, even the Department for Children, Schools and Families have turned that good news into disaster. Why? Because the council thinks that it knows best and does not trust residents with a genuine say in how Building Schools for the Future funds are used. In that question three long years ago, I asked that the council engage with local people in spending BSF money. Those three years have passed with a lamentable absence of engagement, as I will illustrate in the time available to me.

We had three or more false starts with laughable activity, such as the council issuing draft plans only to withdraw them quickly and pretend that nothing had been issued. In July last year, the city’s Members of Parliament discovered by chance that the council had briefed the local media that it intended to close all 17 high schools in Stoke-on-Trent, as well as—almost as an afterthought—the special schools. I found out about the closure of schools in my constituency during a chance conversation in the Library corridor. At that point, the council said that it would open just 12 new high schools, with a reduced number of co-located special schools. After a speedy intervention, we managed to buy time last summer for the council to engage in proper dialogue not only with city residents but with specialists, educationalists and health professionals—indeed, with all who have a stake in the future of our great city.

Despite that, we had a summer of inactivity. A token event held on 12 October last year was nothing more than a sham. It was to some extent a gathering of interested stakeholders, but it by no means included all of them. Ironically, we witnessed a presentation about the importance of engaging with all stakeholders that gave no opportunity to hear the views of those gathered, let alone those not invited.

I will not detain those present with a blow-by-blow account, but suffice it to say that at every turn, fellow Members of Parliament and I were told one thing while the council did another. We were told that discussions with head teachers would take place at the start of this year, but we then found out that those meetings were held without our input and that head teachers were simply told what was happening to them, with no dialogue taking place. As a result, Stoke-on-Trent, South, which currently has five non-faith schools, will have just two if these hare-brained plans go ahead.

Let us look at what is planned for my constituents. The council, aided and abetted by its henchmen from Serco—I will turn my attention to that lot in a moment—
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plans to close Edensor, Longton, and Trentham high schools. Blurton high school is to be rebuilt, which is good news. Sandon has been rebuilt and, at my invitation, was formally opened last week by Lord Mandelson. That school is to be extended to take even more pupils. A new school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) is planned for the Park Hall site. Incredibly, the Park Hall site is currently occupied by the hulking mass of an old gasometer. It is on a busy traffic island and opposite a main bus garage, with buses pulling on to and off a busy main road. So much for safe routes to school.

Pupils from the Meir North or Weston Coyney areas of my constituency will now have a choice. They can travel to Sandon high, which is a good school, but the journey will involve crossing the very busy A50, which has an average of one serious accident every week just in the stretch that runs through my constituency. Or they can journey some miles to the Park Hall site, with all the problems that I have mentioned. Why? Because local Longton high, which head teacher Jan Webber has successfully brought out of special measures to be a nationally recognised specialist arts college, is reckoned to be surplus to requirements.

Pupils from Sandford Hill and Meir Hay will have to travel along the narrow, congested, dangerous Anchor road, which has a narrow pavement on one side and no pavement at all on the other to the aforementioned Park Hall site. Alternatively, they can travel through Longton town centre, avoiding all the traffic, cross the A50 as I have mentioned and go down into Blurton to their new school. Pupils in Trentham or Hanford will have to travel along Longton road, over the west coast main line railway track, over a canal and on to the bottom of the Trentham Lakes industrial park. There, no doubt, they will have to compete with the lorries that use Sir Stanley Matthews way to access the major distribution warehouses on that site.

Those listening to this debate may be wondering by now how the council chose the sites. That is a good question, especially considering that Serco and the council did not even bother to visit at least half the schools before announcing their plans. The next thought might be, “Why reduce five non-faith schools in Stoke-on-Trent, South to just two?” The council has projected that the city will have about 12,000 pupils by 2014. That is an easy equation—12,000 pupils divided by, let us say, 1,000 is 12 schools—but it is supposed to be a plan for our children’s future, not a primary school maths lesson.

Let me unpick those figures a little. According to the BSF guidance for pupil place planning, the council should be using the number of pupils forecast for 10 years in the future, so we should be looking at the number of one-year-olds in the city, as they will be the pupils entering high school at age 11. According to Stoke-on-Trent primary care trust, there were 3,181 one-year-olds in the city last year, and in the first nine months of 2008, 2,852 babies were delivered. That suggests about 3,000 children each year or, for a five-year high school, 15,000 children aged 11 to 16.

According to the House of Commons Library, Office for National Statistics figures show that this year there are around 14,100 under-fives in the city. It is projected that by 2018—that, not 2014, is 10 years’ time—that may have fallen to 13,000, so between 13,000 and 15,000 children in Stoke-on-Trent will need a high school place
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in 10 years’ time. But the council is looking at 2014, which is not in 10 years’ time, and it has not taken account of the increased birth rate in Stoke-on-Trent, which even it admits has risen noticeably.

The BSF funding guidance for pupil planning goes on to say that where rolls will have fallen at the 10-year projection point but a BSF school opens in advance of that, BSF will fund the extra places up to 5 per cent. Even if we take the lowest figure of 13,000 and add 5 per cent., that still gives us 13,650 pupils compared with current pupil numbers of about 15,000. The council in its gross simplicity said, “Okay, let’s call it 13 schools,” without any rational thought. We should have places for at least 13,650 pupils, or more likely 15,000, based on current birth rates.

Let us turn our attention to the other part of the Mickey Mouse equation, the 1,000-pupil schools. Where does that magic number come from? Put bluntly, the figure was come up with simply to maximise the funds available to individual schools, without any regard for the effect on pupil well-being and the challenges faced by my city. It also ignores collaborative working, which even the council, with its travel to learn partnerships, suggests that it wants to engage in. A pupil in an intake of 250 can never be an individual, but must be an element of a teeming mass. So much for Every Child Matters. Again, the council has ignored Government guidance that local authorities should use local needs when modelling projects.

All the way along, Serco and the council have said that the programme is not about buildings but about improving education, but all their attention so far has been on buildings. All that we have heard from them is closure, closure, closure. To look more closely at Serco, the company says on its website that it designs innovative solutions. Really? Serco told parents of pupils at Longton high that to get children to activities outside the normal school day, it would provide taxis or buses. Well, that is innovative.

Serco states that

So why has it run a programme of misinformation, division and information control? Why has it failed singularly to engage with schools, parents or teachers in any other way than by taking an arrogant “We know what’s best for you” approach? Perhaps it is because Serco also runs everything from the Atomic Weapons Establishment to the Woolwich ferry.

Serco’s website also says that if

in the context of BSF, it might be

Those of us in Stoke-on-Trent, South know that that is true—Serco just gets on and does it—because it certainly has not listened to the needs and wishes of local people.

There is no dispute that we in Stoke-on-Trent, South, like the rest of the city, need to improve how our young people are educated—no one has ever disputed that—but let us not pretend that it is a complete disaster at the moment. Longton high used to be a failing school, but instead of being helped, it has been cut down at every
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opportunity. It has been said that the Department’s role, through the national challenge programme, is to support the efforts of schools that are improving from a low starting point. Who said that? It was my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

Jan Webber and her team at Longton high have done a fabulous job of improving the school, despite the death sentence that has hung over it for the past three years or so. Longton high had a proud history, but council bully boys have seen an end to that.

Trentham high school is the second-best performing school in Stoke-on-Trent and the best performing non-faith school. The head teacher, Sue Chesterton, was brought in by the local authority to bring the school out of special measures. The results that she has achieved speak volumes about how effectively she has done that. But how are she, her team and her pupils rewarded? Well, the school serving the Trentham and Hanford communities is to close. How pathetic.

Because of schools such as Trentham high and Longton high, Stoke-on-Trent is now in the top 20 most improved school authorities. My right hon. Friend the Minister will know that there have already been demonstrations, a walk to Westminster and numerous fundraising activities to fight the madcap ideas that I have described. In his letter dated 20 October, the Minister asked me whether I will now support Stoke-on-Trent authority with its plans for reshaping their schools under BSF. I must say to my right hon. Friend that the answer is no. Those are not the authority’s schools; they are the parents’ and pupils’ schools; they are future generations’ schools; and I will only support plans that are in the best interests of current and future generations, not plans that serve the convenience of Serco or council officers.

I facilitated an alternative proposal for Stoke-on-Trent schools. It involved a plan drawn up by teachers and parents based on educational needs rather than mathematical simplicity. I did what Serco and the council should have done, but in their ignorance failed to do. I am not an education expert, but as a local MP my role is to pick up the pieces when people are let down by those who are paid to serve them. That alternative proposal could have formed the basis of a more sensible plan to improve education in my city, but it was dismissed out of hand. I then had copious meetings to find compromises to find a way through our difficulties, but of course Serco and the council were never interested in anything other than their supposedly innovative bulldozing schools for the future plan.

Indeed, I have a copy of a glossy booklet produced by the city council, which is called “Our Vision for a Learning City”. It is fascinating reading. In the introduction, it says:

Well, I agree with that. Instead, it says that it is a vision that has been

I do not know whether the Trade Descriptions Act applies to a document such as this, but if it does then the document will be kicked out.

The council’s “vision” goes on to outline key principles. It says:

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It talks about “‘travel to learn partnership’” and also, amazingly, about:

If that were true—sadly, it is not—why not have a ranger of smaller schools, or a school that is spread over several sites?

Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): My hon. Friend has referred to the Park Hall site, which is in no community whatsoever. It is a gasometer site poised between his constituency and mine, and it has no population around it whatsoever. It is the antithesis of a community school. My hon. Friend’s critique of the local authority and Serco has been so devastating that anyone listening to it might feel that it was overstated. I would just like to put on record that I share every single one of his reservations and criticisms. He has put a very intelligent and comprehensive case. The plans, as they are at the moment, will damage both communities and education in his constituency and in mine in a devastating way.

Mr. Flello: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for those words.

Moving on through the so-called document—I can think of better uses for it—it states that

So far, I have seen no evidence whatsoever of that happening. In fact, I have seen quite the opposite; I have seen places such as Longton high being abandoned just to get on with things.

The document goes on to talk about

That is a further joke in this supposedly serious document. It continues:

Quite how the Park Hall site or the site at the bottom of an industrial location can be considered to be “safe and accessible” beggars belief.

The document continues on the subject of parent choice, talking about

What parental choice? How can there be parental choice when a popular, well-performing school, one of the best schools in the city, is closing and one of the most improved schools in the city is closing? I fail to see how parental choice comes into that context.

The Trentham parents action group is now pursuing the excellent idea of forming Trentham high school into a co-operative school. After all:

Those are not my words; they are the words of my right hon. Friend the Minister in his article in The Times Educational Supplement on 24 October.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the time for warm words is over and that the game of ping-pong is over. No longer can the council say that its hands are tied as the Government are dictating the number of schools, and no longer can the Minister say that the
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matter is all in the hands of the local authority. We now have a newly appointed, very excellent and capable acting chief executive officer at the council, who I hope will see the sense in our proposals.

In conclusion, I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister a question. If the council proposes allowing Trentham to become a co-operative, parent-promoted school, will he allow them to do so? Furthermore, if proposals come forward for a school to serve Longton, Meir North and Weston Coyney, will he allow that too? A simple yes will suffice.

1.45 pm

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) for raising this important debate. It is particularly important for his own constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher). I know that they have both been involved in this issue, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, and in a series of discussions that we have had. We have met on a number of occasions, including with the Stoke MPs as a whole. I have always been grateful for his ideas and those of the other Stoke MPs, and I can assure him that they have never been dismissed out of hand. From the tenor of what he has just said, he accepts that we need to get on with realising the benefits of this substantial investment in education in the city.

Nothing could be more important than making sure that every child in every area is able to go to a good school. The landscape of our communities is dramatically changing, with regeneration seeing a transformation in public buildings, services and homes. New health centres are springing up, as are Sure Start children’s centres, libraries and schools.

Schools are at the heart of their communities and they are intrinsic to this process of change. It is right that they are at the heart of their communities, because children and young people should be the focus of our communities and at the centre of everything that we do. Building Schools for the Future is the biggest Government investment in school buildings in five decades.

In September, tens of thousands of pupils started term in new buildings or new schools, with the highest number of new or refurbished schools for at least 30 years; more than 20 of those schools across the country were BSF schools. After decades of under-investment in school buildings, we are saying to children, “Your learning environment matters, your communities matter and your future is worth investing in”. We must achieve that investment in a consistent way for every child.

In Stoke currently, education provision is not consistent; some schools are working well and improving in their pupil attainment, but others are not. Seven schools in Stoke-on-Trent are currently achieving below the 30 per cent. threshold for GCSE pupils gaining five higher level grades, including in English and maths, or are in danger of falling below that threshold.

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