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26 Nov 2008 : Column 262WH—continued

If the city council’s proposals go through, there will not be a single secular secondary school in the whole of Croxteth and Norris Green. The only secondary schools that will remain are two Catholic schools. I believe that the Government have it in mind that one of them, the De La Salle school, should be an academy. A parent who is not Roman Catholic will have to send their children to a Catholic secondary school. There is no other choice in the area, and that cannot be supported. In fact, one of the Catholic schools, St. John Bosco—an excellent school—is a girls’ school. There will not be a mixed secondary school in the whole of Croxteth and Norris Green. That is very sad, and I suggest that it has been overlooked by the Minister, if not by the city council.

Then there is the whole question of transport. Paragraphs 4.39 and 4.40 of the guidelines state:

As I said, many of the young people concerned will be forced to take not one but two buses to Fazakerley. It is not that far away, but it is difficult to get to.

People should consider the vicinity of the school, because the issue is not just about the school itself. The school is at the centre of a deprived community, which needs all the assistance that it can get. It will be denied facilities on which £5 million has been spent in recent years to improve sports facilities, the IT centre and other necessary provision. If the city council gets its way, and if the Government let it go ahead, that will presumably just be wasted.

This is a very sad situation and, as I said, the community is very much alarmed by what is being proposed. I have not received a single letter from anybody to say that they are pleased to hear what the city council is proposing, but I have had droves of letters from parents who believe that the move proposed by the city council will be detrimental. They look on the Government as having done much for education, particularly with school buildings and repairs. I know that has happened in my
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constituency—although not in Croxteth—and people recognise that. Indeed, the spending of £5 million has gone a little way towards the improvement of Croxteth comprehensive school. However, people believe that they are being denied their rights on this matter.

According to the guidelines:

I have had considerable correspondence from the community, saying that to remove the school would be a destabilising influence as far as the community is concerned. The headmaster, Mr. Richard Baker, has proposed a campus school.

We must face the fact that the school is a public asset in the middle of a deprived area. It is no use just looking at the rolls and saying, “Well, they’ve gone down.” They might go up again, of course. The city council says that it is aware that the roll has gone down and that is why it is proposing to close the school. However, the school is a community asset and I know that the headmaster would like to see it used in many other ways on behalf of the community. If the school is closed, that option will no longer be open.

Croxteth is an area that really needs the provision of services, not just for children, but for the whole community. Many of the parents attend evening classes at the school—they give it a good name. The teaching staff are both dedicated and caring; they understand the area. Likewise, the people on the governing board are from the area and they know the area. They know what can be done within the school buildings to improve matters. I hope that the Minister will look at the total environment in which the school is located, and not just at what may well be a passing fall in the student roll.

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has been in communication with me, and I am grateful for that. He has the power to issue guidance, to which the decision maker—the local authority—must have regard when deciding on the proposals. The school has recently received an excellent Ofsted report, and I will pass a copy of it to the Minister at the end of this debate. He has also received from me a letter requesting a meeting with representatives of the teachers, parents and governors of the school. As I said, they will be in the House on Tuesday 9 December. I would like him to think seriously about the matter and to meet them at any time that he can fit into his busy schedule.

I end by referring to a letter I received from Julie Lyon-Taylor, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers in Liverpool. She referred to the dedicated teaching staff at Croxteth, who

I do not think I could have put it better. Knowing the history of Croxteth and Norris Green, I know that the closure would deprive both communities of the educational opportunities those people deserve.

No secular secondary school, long journeys, changing schools twice in two years—that situation cannot be good for the education of our young people. I ask the Minister to consider the matter carefully and perhaps to
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visit the area again, not just the school. He might afford himself the opportunity of speaking to the Home Secretary, who visited the area after the murder of Rhys Jones, and has a good idea about the problems there.

11.16 am

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) for securing this important debate, which is particularly significant for his constituents. His speech demonstrated his commitment to ensuring the very best for those constituents, particularly those in Croxteth and Norris Green. In respect of his latter comments, I will take care to talk to those who know the area well, including him. Before the debate, I was talking to the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, whose husband was born in Croxteth and knows the area well.

I share my hon. Friend’s commitment to ensuring high standards of school provision in his constituency. That is why we are undertaking the biggest Government investment in school buildings in the past 50 years. That investment is helping to address decades of under-investment and sending out a strong message to pupils that their education, well-being and communities are a priority. In his constituency, Building Schools for the Future is already under way and funding has also been invested through the national challenge.

As my hon. Friend knows, Building Schools for the Future will help Liverpool to ensure a consistently high standard of schools across the city. Seven schools are already involved in the programme as part of wave 2 of Building Schools for the Future and the remaining secondary schools, including those in Croxteth, are part of wave 6, which was rolled out earlier this year. However, I know that the latter wave is at an early stage and that work is still ongoing to ensure that the basic strategy is robust, particularly in areas such as pupil place planning, which is crucial in the context of this debate.

The next key milestone will be the submission of the strategy for change by the local authority to the Department. That will provide far more detail of its estates strategy and how Building Schools for the Future will contribute to educational transformation, which is at the heart of that investment, and achieve a step change in standards across my hon. Friend’s city. The strategy for change is due to be received by the Department in February next year and must address the issues in Croxteth.

Three weeks ago, I met parents from Croxteth community school who were clearly very concerned about the future of their school. That was reflected in my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. We talked about the challenges that the community faces, particularly following the tragic events of last year and the murder of Rhys Jones. I was struck and impressed by their drive to move forward as a community. My hon. Friend talked about the people of Croxteth and I was very impressed by their passion and commitment to helping to lift the community from what has obviously been a difficult time over the past year or so.

Those people showed me their interesting ideas and plans for co-located services on the Croxteth site, linking adult skills and early learning with mainstream school provision. I thought that those ideas matched my
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Department’s aims for more joined-up working and co-location of services, but, in the end, any decision to close the school rests, in law, with the local authority. That is stated in the Education and Inspections Act 2006.

The challenge for the local authority is that falling pupil numbers make it difficult to make the best use of resources and to deploy them to provide a consistently high standard of education across the board. My hon. Friend spoke about the Department’s guidance on closing schools and said that he wants to pass the Ofsted report and other information to me. I will be happy to follow up with him exactly what the power in the guidance is and how decisions can be appealed. For example, if he believes that the consultation requirements in the guidance have not been properly followed and that MPs have not been properly consulted, he has an opportunity to represent his constituents and use the mechanisms and proper processes that are in place.

Already there are large numbers of surplus places at De La Salle Roman Catholic school and at Croxteth community school, and we know that pupil numbers in Croxteth are expected to fall even further over the next few years. Also, in standards terms, the school is falling well below the threshold of 30 per cent. of pupils achieving at least five high-level GCSEs, including English and maths. The school had just 54 new entrants this year.

The local authority has a duty to ensure that such issues are addressed and that every pupil has access to the very best facilities and education. It is now in the final stages of the statutory processes involved in closing the school, with a view to closing it at the end of the next academic year, as my hon. Friend said.

The school will be replaced largely by a new Roman Catholic academy based on the neighbouring De La Salle school, which, as my hon. Friend knows, has significantly improved its GCSE results recently. It would take pupils from Croxteth community school. For those who want community places—I hear what he says about the importance of diversity and how it reflects the duties in the 2006 Act—I am advised that the current thinking in Liverpool is that there will still be the option of going to Fazakerley, which has 15 per cent. spare capacity. I am also advised, although obviously I do not know the details on the ground or how the logistics work, that Alsop secondary school is within reasonable travelling distance.

I take seriously the comments about lack of choice and diversity in the area, particularly for non-Catholic parents. Obviously I can look at that, but principally the local authority must look at it. As I said, there is the option of Fazakerley, which is gaining in popularity and improving its results. I am told that the authority’s plans will enable parents in the area to choose between an academy, a single-sex faith school and the community school up the road.

My hon. Friend raised the problem of transport. I am told that the longest distance pupils will have to travel is 2 miles. The council acknowledges that that will be an issue for some and is working to provide a direct service to Fazakerley school from Croxteth. In some cases, it may be able to provide free travel. There are requirements in law that if a local authority considers free travel necessary to secure a child’s attendance at school, it must provide it. If the authority defines it as necessary, it will have to deliver on it.

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My officials have been told that local arrangements are being planned to assist with transportation to maximise choice through diversity for pupils and their parents, and that those plans will be announced next year.

From the meeting in Liverpool, I know that the changes are not what some parents in Croxteth want. I repeat that, in law, these are matters for the local authority—they are school organisational matters. The council has to weigh up future demand for places, the wishes of the community and how to drive up standards.

I am also advised that the council has made it clear that it does not intend to pull the plug on the extended facilities at Croxteth; I am pleased that my hon. Friend paid tribute to them. It intends to ensure that the full range of existing community facilities in the area is maintained and, indeed, expanded.

Beyond the issues for Liverpool’s council around school organisation, there is also the priority of addressing school standards, which I mentioned earlier. The standard of education provision is still too inconsistent in Croxteth, and pupil attainment has not improved sufficiently across the board.

I wrote to Croxteth community school in November to confirm another £114,600 of investment this year through the national challenge, which is designed to support schools in raising standards and ensuring that at least 30 per cent. of pupils gain at least five high-level GCSEs, including English and maths. The support will include funding for a national challenge adviser to help the school to improve outcomes for its pupils across the board. The adviser will help the school to get the best possible package of support and help to ensure that such support has the greatest impact on achievement.

As my hon. Friend knows, the national challenge is designed to raise standards and is part of a £400 million investment in individual schools around the country. The principle behind it is that schools must lead the changes that are needed, but there is also a clear expectation—indeed, a challenge—that local authorities and the Government will support improvements.

I have noted my hon. Friend’s comments and understand the very real concerns expressed by him and his constituents. As I said, I met with parents a few weeks ago and have seen their plans for the school. I noted what he said about their coming to Westminster on 9 December. I will certainly see whether it is possible to adjust my diary to find time for another meeting with them and with him to discuss their concerns further. However, that has to be set against the background that decisions on school organisation such as which schools should be where and what capacity they should have are, by law, decisions for local authorities. I believe that the parents understood that when I met them.

Given the falling number of pupils in the area, I would have to say, up front and on the record, that it is difficult to see how Croxteth can continue to support three secondary schools in future. However, we can consider that further as we discuss pupil projections over the next 10 years, in particular for that part of the city.

The context in which the council must make decisions on school organisation is difficult, but as long as plans are proposed that improve education provision and standards, I have to approve them. My test is whether the plans will improve standards. It is for me to judge
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not school organisation, but only whether the school organisation plans and the investment that we will then fund will improve standards.

I hope that families in my hon. Friend’s constituency understand that if the council decides to close Croxteth community school, that will be done only to ensure that every child can benefit from the very best education possible. I am happy to play my part in working with community representatives to see whether more can be done, but I cannot undermine the legal responsibilities of Liverpool city council.

11.28 am

Sitting suspended.

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Sex Education

2.30 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, and through you I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing this debate, which is important for many people across the country.

I have always thought that, for a parliamentary democracy to work, everybody in the country should feel that somebody is speaking up for them. Sex education is one of those subjects where, for far too long, we have had a cosy consensus of all the political parties and have accepted that a never-ending increase in sex education is the only possible solution to the problems of teenage pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Many people in the country are, like me, rather nervous about that and feel that it is perhaps more the cause of the problem than the solution. I intend to mention some reasons why I think sex education has failed in this country and some examples that we can learn from in other countries, and I want to find out what the Government’s plans are for the future.

My starting point is that I am philosophically against sex education in schools, because in far too many cases we are taking responsibilities away from parents. Being a parent is a responsible position; it is a big thing and with it comes big obligations that parents cannot farm out to the state and things that they have to do for themselves. I am a parent of two young boys. I understand my responsibilities to my children and do not take them lightly. Part of the problem in this country is that we have a culture in which the Government basically say to people, including parents, “These are your responsibilities, but if you don’t perform them, don’t worry—it doesn’t matter, it’s not a problem—because we’ll do them for you. We’ll take these responsibilities away from you.” That is a dangerous, slippery slope for the country to go down.

People say that some parents are not capable of teaching their children about sex education. I have no doubt that some parents find it a tricky subject, but I am equally sure that many teachers do not teach it particularly well, either. Using a minority of people who find it difficult as an example for scrapping the whole thing seems to me to be rather pointless.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I admire the hon. Gentleman’s total confidence in parents, which for the most part we must have, but what about children who are being abused within the family home? Is there not a case for sex and relationship education in such situations?

Philip Davies: There are always children who are taken into care by the state and obviously the state has a responsibility in respect of their parents, but the example that the hon. Lady gives is not a reason for having compulsory sex education for every child, of whatever age, who goes to school. That is the direction in which this Government are taking us. If she thinks that we should treat certain individuals on an exceptional basis, I might be sympathetic to that idea, but I do not have a belief in the universal beauty and desirability of sex education in schools.

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