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16 Dec 2008 : Column 58WH—continued

1.21 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Secondary Schools (Colchester)

1.30 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I bring fraternal greetings from Colchester: the town’s Labour party is unanimously opposed to proposals by Tory-controlled Essex county council to shut the Alderman Blaxill school at Shrub End and Thomas Lord Audley college at Monkwick. Colchester Liberal Democrats are also opposed to the closures, and even Colchester’s Tory councillors disagree with what the county Tories, who are based 25 miles away at Chelmsford, are proposing. There is not a single person from any political party in Colchester who agrees with Essex county council. Even the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), from whose constituency a minority of pupils attend secondary schools in the town, has publicly distanced himself from his Tory chums at county hall by putting forward his own proposal.

Last week, at a meeting of Colchester borough council, there was not a single speaker or a single vote in favour of any of the three options put forward by Essex county council for the reorganisation of secondary schools in the town. Instead, the borough council voted in favour of an alternative proposal known as option 4, which would merge Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley with Stanway school to form a single school—I have suggested the name “Roman River school”—operating from the three sites under whatever legal definition is required by the Government to enable that to happen.

The arrangement may sound familiar to the Minister because, in essence, it is already in existence and has been for just under a year. It has already been shown that it works very successfully, thanks to the inspirational leadership of Mr. Jonathan Tippett. The arrangement will be familiar to the Minister because it has been drawn to his attention, and that of the Secretary of State, more than once in recent months on the Floor of the House and in correspondence from me.

The Minister will also recall the Adjournment debate that I secured on 22 October last year about the future of Alderman Blaxill school and the then threat to close it, which the community successfully saw off. Another reason that the Minister knows about option 4 is the meeting at the House of Commons on 20 May this year with representatives of the local community. I am grateful to him for agreeing during departmental questions last month to have a further meeting with a delegation from Colchester to discuss option 4.

The Minister need not be alarmed: this is not clause IV. Option 4, a copy of which I have with me, is a joint response on behalf of the governing bodies of Stanway and Thomas Lord Audley schools, and the interim executive board of Alderman Blaxill school. It is entitled, “Raising achievement through the transformation of secondary schooling in Colchester”. The summary states:

The Minister can be assured that option 4 would deliver the academic achievement sought by the Government, as measured by the 30 per cent. minimum examination success formula. It would also remove surplus places for as long as the drop in numbers required it, but would retain the opportunity for the
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extra places, including some 2,000 in the catchment areas of Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill, which will be needed in due course as the huge increase in new housing in Colchester takes place.

The option 4 proposals—the people’s choice—state with confidence:

Further confidence in a better, brighter future for youngsters in south Colchester is shown in this statement in the joint response:

Option 4 thus ticks all the Government’s boxes. It would raise attainment and remove surplus places. It would also keep secondary education provision—a constantly improving education provision—in the communities of Shrub End and Monkwick, which is what the local communities seek and what Colchester borough council has stated is its preferred option. It is a winning formula.

It would also be considerably cheaper—a better-value-for-money option—than the proposal put forward by Essex county council, and it would certainly be better financially for the families involved. Contrary to negative comments from Tory county councillors, option 4 is consistent with the provisions of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and other education Acts.

The Minister will recall that our meeting in May came just 24 hours after the Secretary of State announced on the Floor of the House that proposals for an academy in south Colchester to replace Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill would not go ahead. The Secretary of State said:

Essex county council has clearly broken the promise that it gave to the Secretary of State, and which he in good faith passed on to the House. I do not blame him; I blame the Tories who run Essex county council for breaking their promise.

The Minister will further recall that his officials were present at a meeting with a delegation from Alderman Blaxill school and the community. It was an exceptionally good meeting. In response to a question from the Minister about how long it would take to formalise the existing arrangement between the three schools, one official stated that it could take less than three months, given good will by all involved. We left the meeting in a mood of extreme optimism, and looked forward to the new academic year commencing with the formal establishment, using the necessary legal terminology—hard federation, soft federation or any other grouping of words that the Department required—of Alderman Blaxill, Thomas Lord Audley and Stanway school operating as one school on three sites.

However, there was not good will all round. Essex county council—perhaps more accurately, its leader, Lord Hanningfield—had other ideas. Instead, a proposal that is even worse than the one that had been rejected was drawn up: not the closure of two schools and the creation of an academy on the Thomas Lord Audley
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site at Monkwick, but the closure of both schools and the distribution of children from those two areas of Colchester to other schools in the town, leaving the whole of southern Colchester as a secondary school desert.

The hon. Member for North Essex has indicated that he would like to intervene on me. This may be an appropriate juncture, as I believe that this is the issue on which he wishes to come in.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for so generously giving a little time in his debate so that I may comment. I am a promoter of option 5, which is, I accept, a late arrival in the debate; nevertheless, it may prove to be the most viable option. I am able to place on the record today for the first time that Mr. Jonathan Tippett, whom the hon. Gentleman prays in aid, has said to me, in terms, that the most crucial issue is to maintain education in the south of the town, and that if option 4—which I fear will not attract the investment to Colchester that we all want—is not possible, he would contemplate option 5 as a compromise solution. That option is for a military academy school somewhere in the south of the town that would have the ability especially to serve the Army families of the garrison as well as other children.

Bob Russell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving notice of his proposal. My only regret is that it is one that was rejected by Essex county council in May. The hon. Gentleman included the military component, which is new, but the principle of shutting two schools and creating an academy in south Colchester was positively rejected in May. I would also observe that whereas children from military families constitute between one fifth and one quarter of the pupils at Alderman Blaxill, they would be only about 10 per cent. in a single academy in south Colchester. However, I am grateful for his intervention.

To follow on from that, at the beginning of 2008, Essex education authority stated that there was a need for a 1,200-place secondary institution in south Colchester and produced what it said was evidence to support that position. How can the authority now argue, only a few months later, that there is no need for a secondary school in the whole of the south of the town?

Let me return to what was said at the meeting when the official advised the Minister that the arrangement for the three schools to operate legally need take only three months to bring about. I am sure the Minister will agree that his official would not have given such advice if it were not correct. However, Essex county council now tells us that option 4 is not legal. I cannot believe that the Minister would have been ill advised. Therefore I suggest that it is Essex county council that is being less than correct with its dismissal of option 4 on the ground that it is not legal. I am sure that, given good will all round, the correct legal status can be achieved so that what the community has put forward—a Colchester solution for Colchester’s schools, backed by Colchester borough council—can be implemented without further delay.

The longer the uncertainty continues, the more parents—not surprisingly—are voting with their feet. That is why numbers at TLA and Alderman Blaxill are depressed. It is not an attractive prospect for parents to send their
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children, at year 7, to a school that the education authority wants to shut. It is amazing that so many parents still have faith in the face of such an onslaught by people from county hall who are not democratically answerable to the people of Colchester. If the threat of closure is lifted, parents will have the confidence to send their children to those schools. Only five or six years ago, every year 7 place at both those schools was filled and fewer than 10 year 7 places were available across Colchester. I know that because parents were beating a path to my advice bureau, as parental choice was non-existent.

Colchester is the fastest-growing town in Essex and one of the fastest growing in the country. To shut two secondary schools and remove 1,700 places from the system is sheer folly, shows a total disregard for forward planning and, in the meantime, robs two communities of their local secondary school. It will not be too many years before someone has to pick up the pieces of such ill-conceived proposals, should the closures go ahead. In the meantime, the remaining five secondary schools, excluding the two selective schools and the Roman Catholic secondary school, which have been given protected status, will be forced to expand, perhaps to 2,000 or more pupils.

According to Essex county council, there are currently 10,365 secondary school places in Colchester and, in 10 years’ time, the maximum number of places required will be 10,275, which would be a virtual standstill in numbers despite the fact that the population is growing by 1,000 people a year, meaning that there will be 10,000 more people by 2018. Does the county council seriously believe that none of the massive new housing developments, with the accompanying big increase in population, will result in more children of secondary school age? The town’s already congested road system will become even more clogged as children are driven or bussed across town. The school buses will not be free and hard-pressed working families will have to find money to pay the fares, whereas at the moment many children can walk or cycle safely to school.

Whatever happened to the Government’s promises in respect of Every Child Matters? What about “safe routes to schools” and the clarion calls about “sustainable communities”? Essex county council’s proposals are contrary to all those Government policies. However, option 4 is fully in accord with Government policies. Colchester borough council has produced a detailed sustainability appraisal of secondary school options in Colchester, which looked at the three options advanced by Essex county council and option 4; its seven-page report ends with the following recommendation:

Sadly, Colchester borough council, with a population of 175,400 and growing—one of the largest shire districts in England—is not responsible for education. Instead, it is rural-dominated Tory backwoodsmen from elsewhere in Essex, without any democratic accountability to the people of Colchester, who are in charge of education. Do they care? They are not listening, that is for sure. If Colchester was a unitary authority—it is big enough to be one—the town would not be facing this serious
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attack on secondary school provision in the south of the area, with the domino effects that that will have on the other five secondary schools.

Essex county council’s public consultation is one thing, but I am concerned about the private briefings in which Lord Hanningfield and colleagues are engaged. There is a lack of consistency about what is being said in the public domain and what is being said behind closed doors. I have visited all the secondary schools in recent weeks. I have advised all the heads that, whatever they have been told at private briefings, they should follow up and insist upon written guarantees of what they were told. I also visited county hall, where, using a Freedom of Information Act request, I inspected the files relating to both the current public consultation and the earlier consultation, involving the original proposal for an academy on the TLA site. All the files relating to submissions to that public consultation had been removed. Thus there is no way of knowing what was said by whom and what notice, if any, the county council took of representations.

Many believe that the current public consultation is little more than a box-ticking exercise and that Essex county council will proceed with option 1 regardless. What faith can people have in the democratic process when they are treated in such a contemptible way? I attended and spoke at all four public meetings organised by the county council. Attendances totalled around 1,500. There was no enthusiasm for what the county is offering, but massive support for option 4.

I obviously welcome the promise of capital investment in schools in my constituency, but I am not in favour of wasteful expenditure just because the Government have, we have been told, made money available. Is it true, as claimed by Essex Conservatives, that Colchester will lose £100 million of capital investment if an application is not made to the Government by March 2009? So far, the county council has not been able to say how it has arrived at the conveniently rounded figure of £100 million, from which sources this money will come, and what timetable will apply in relation to carrying out the Building Schools for the Future programme in Colchester.

There seems to be unanimous agreement that Sir Charles Lucas arts college needs a complete new building because its current campus is well past its sell-by date. There are mixed views as to whether an academy or a replacement secondary school is the best way forward in that regard, but there is unanimity that the site should continue to serve the existing communities from St. Andrew’s and St. Anne’s wards. The heads of Gilberd and Philip Morant schools have told me that they do not want their pupil numbers increased, as would be inevitable if TLA and Alderman Blaxill shut. Gilberd already has expansion plans for when 3,000 new homes—I repeat, 3,000 new homes—are built in north Colchester. Philip Morant will top 2,000 pupils if Alderman Blaxill shuts. That site could only accommodate such numbers if adjoining open space were developed, but the borough council would oppose that scenario. There is no room for expansion at Stanway school. St. Helena is also on a site where possible expansion is virtually nil and the head’s wish to build a new St. Helena school on nearby open space would be vigorously opposed.

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Mr. Tippett has, in little more than a year, already transformed Thomas Lord Audley college to the point where last year’s exam results were the best in its history. The Minister knows this, because I sent him the full page article from the Colchester Gazette only last month. The fortunes of Alderman Blaxill school are also improving, as Mr. Tippett approaches the end of his first year in charge. He took over as executive head in January 2008 and has transformed the place in every respect.

I invite the Minister to come to Colchester and see for himself. I also urge him, please, to impress upon Essex county council that it should uphold the promise that it gave the Secretary of State in May and adopt option 4 as the best way forward and access the necessary funds from the Government to implement improvements to the fabric of Colchester’s secondary schools.

1.46 pm

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on securing this debate. As he said, it is the second debate that we have had on related subjects in the past year or two. That, alongside the regularity with which he manages to appear towards the top of the Order Paper in oral questions and is thereby able to ask about similar matters, means that the organisation of secondary school provision in Colchester is never far from the forefront of my mind.

This debate has given the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to air his opinion. Clearly, he has thought the matter through and has been campaigning hard with his constituents. He has advocated strongly for what he describes as option 4, which is not currently being consulted on by Essex county council, as he said. Similarly, option 5, mentioned by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), is not being consulted on. However, I am sure that Essex county council will be listening carefully to what has been said in the debate by both hon. Gentlemen. For reasons that I will explain later, I am somewhat more constrained in commenting on those options than the hon. Gentlemen might like.

This debate gives me the opportunity to congratulate Jonathan Tippett on the work that he does at Stanway school and the assistance that he has given to Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley school in improving their results. I will comment further on that.

In respect of the option that the hon. Member for North Essex described, in the limited time available to him during his intervention, I am not against the notion of involving the garrison in any kind of governance arrangement, if that is what it is interested in doing. Many young people benefit from the aspiration towards, involvement in and discipline of the armed forces. Clearly, there is a strong tradition in the Colchester community, in respect of the relationship with the garrison, that may be positively linked to through some kind of partnership with school provision in the town.

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