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4 Nov 2008 : Column 70WH—continued

I will come back to the issue of pupil projection in a moment. However, falling pupil numbers, which result in surplus places in schools across the city, is preventing schools from making the best use of their resources,
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from providing a consistent standard of education across the city and ultimately from driving up standards and pupil attainment.

Real change for children and their families sometimes involves radical decisions by local authorities. We cannot shy away from those decisions. Last month, I visited James Brindley high school in the north of Stoke-on- Trent and I saw a school where the standard of accommodation—the quality of the buildings—was frankly not good enough for the generation of pupils that is currently there, let alone for future generations. That visit convinced me of the urgency of getting on with things in the city. I suspended the BSF project there some time ago, to try to see whether or not further discussion and consultation locally would help to achieve a consensus. However, I am convinced now that we need to get on with things.

The council has made a number of proposals: reducing the number of secondary schools from 17 to 13, as we have heard; opening five new academies, and new buildings funded by BSF will make schools more accessible to children and their families. None the less, I understand that there are geographical constraints in the city, which makes achieving that accessibility more difficult in some areas than in others, and the council will need to address those constraints. There will be greater strategic direction and leadership through the academies model, and real local commitment to the children of Stoke will be demonstrated.

I am pleased to say, although I know that it will not be universally celebrated, that yesterday I approved the Stoke-on-Trent “Strategy for Change” part 1 document, which outlines the local authority’s aspirations for change, and I look forward to the sequel, part 2. I am keenly aware that the decision to close schools is a difficult one that is unpopular in parts of the city and certainly with my hon. Friends. That is particularly acute in relation to Trentham high, where results have risen in the past two years. I congratulate teachers, pupils and the head teacher, Sue Chesterton, in particular, on progress there. However, the local authority faces a significant challenge with the fall of pupil numbers in the south of the city. In common with its clear legal duties, it has taken the decision to reduce the number of schools in order to rationalise places.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South talked about pupil number projections. In January 2008, there were 13,113 pupils aged 11 to 16 in Stoke-on-Trent’s mainstream secondary schools, which have a net capacity of more than 15,500. The mainstream secondary school population in Stoke-on-Trent is projected to decline, over the next 10 years, to 11,790 at its lowest point, in 2013-14, and rise to 14,642 by January 2019.

Mr. Flello: I suspect that those figures are a little disingenuous given that huge volumes of pupils are leaving the city—indeed, they have been encouraged to leave—because of the council’s appalling behaviour in recent years. A school on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent currently has only about 50 per cent. of its pupils from Stoke-on-Trent. The figures that my hon. Friend has quoted relate to the number of pupils currently in the city’s schools, and are based on the assumption that the flow out of the city will continue.

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Jim Knight: I am certainly aware that there is a migration to neighbouring authorities. However, our delivery body, Partnerships for Schools, has confirmed that the methodology being used is sound and in line with national best practice. The council has taken into account, among other factors, live birth data from the local primary care trust, and the migration of pupils to secondary schools in neighbouring authorities. The PCT’s figures are cumulatively greater than those from the Office for National Statistics, which my hon. Friend quoted. Such differences are quite normal and are generally acknowledged by the ONS as being due to local knowledge. The figures are more up to date. I have had to consider this issue, and we have had discussions about the council’s earlier ideas, so we have challenged some of the projections, but I am now convinced that the projections are right. They have therefore informed the decisions on school organisation that the council has had to make.

Mr. Flello: If I heard correctly, my hon. Friend just said that the PCT’s figures are more accurate because they are more up to date. According to those figures, we should expect there to be about 15,000 11 to 16-year-olds at the 10-year projection point, which is the point for BSF. Is he saying that the funding going to schools in the area outside Stoke-on-Trent will be increased because they are getting pupils who should be being educated in Stoke-on-Trent? He is obviously acknowledging that 15,000 young people will require schooling in 10 years’ time, at the age of 11.

Jim Knight: I am saying that the methodology, based on national best practice and in line with that practice, says that the high point will be in just more than 10 years’ time, when there will be 14,642 pupils across the city. That is the high point on which the planning has had to be based.

The local authority feels that the new site at Blurton school, because it is more centrally placed, will allow more pupils in the south of the city to benefit from high-quality educational provision. Statutory responsibility for school planning rightly lies with local authorities. It would not be right for us to impose central solutions to local problems. My job as a Minister is not to judge school organisation matters. Under the Education and Inspections Act 2006, that is a matter exclusively for the council. My responsibility, as the Minister for Schools and Learners, is to ensure that the huge investment in Stoke’s schools that my hon. Friend talked about at the beginning of his speech will raise standards, particularly where they are patchy, as they are in the city. I am satisfied that the plans pass that test.

BSF’s success will be measured not in bricks and mortar, but in community improvement, pupil achievement and brighter prospects for all. Clearly, the nature of the public debate in the city on BSF means that there is a lot to be done on community cohesion and bringing people together when decisions have been made. As the report of the Select Committee on Education and Skills on BSF said, we must make sure that its impact is sustainable and that it continues to inspire long after the smell of fresh paint has faded.

BSF is not a facelift to make schools look 10 years younger. It has to be a permanent solution to make them last for decades. For the pupils of Stoke-on-Trent, great buildings, strong leadership and renewed direction
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will bring an impact that I am confident will last long into their futures and will build a strong platform for success now and for generations to come. I know that it has been difficult locally to get to this point, but, as I have previously discussed with hon. Friends, now that it has been necessary to make the decisions, I hope that we can urge local people in the city and their representatives to move forward and get behind the plans, rather than continue to oppose them and create that sort of division.

Mark Fisher: Will my hon. Friend take up the opportunity offered by last week’s referendum, in which the elected mayor, who has pushed through the plans, was hugely rejected? The plans, which are very much the mayor’s creation, have been rejected by parents at almost every school in the city—in my constituency and in those of my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, South and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley). Now, the mayor who pushed the plans forward has been rejected by the general population. Is not this a moment to spend a little more time considering the plans and to see whether a plan that has the support of parents, teachers and governors can be shaped? That would not require a great deal of alteration, but it would be a constructive move and would be widely welcomed across the city.

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Jim Knight: I have noted the decision in the referendum on the principle of whether to proceed with the mayor. People who have more local knowledge will judge whether that was a referendum on the personal performance of the mayor who was in post or an answer to the question of whether to proceed with the principle of having a mayor. As I have said, decisions about school organisation, such as which schools should be where and what capacity they should be, are, by law, decisions for local authorities. It is not inconceivable that the local authority will, given the referendum result, listen to what my hon. Friend says.

I should like to underscore my impatience that we should proceed. I would not want anyone listening to the debate to take any comfort from any of my remarks in feeling that I want any more delay. I was struck by my visit to the north of the city, and if I have an opportunity to visit the south, I shall do so. I have a responsibility to all the pupils in the city to allow them to gain from the investment and for it to go ahead. As long as the council is coming forward with plans that improve school standards, I will approve them and allow the city to move on. I hope that everyone understands that and accepts my impatience for the children of the city.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.

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