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20 May 2009 : Column 423WH—continued

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Lady is right. It is an important area of Government policy on which we place great priority. I do not want to rehearse my disagreements with the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) over his interpretation of the statistics, but basically we are talking about episodes of care within a hospital. Often, if an elderly patient goes into hospital to be treated for some acute problem or other, their initial episode of care in that hospital is not registered as malnutrition and, although there may be underlying malnutrition as well, the acute problem facing that patient is registered. Of course, by the end of their stay in hospital we all hope that the initial, main reason for their being admitted to hospital has been resolved. Often, their last episode of care in hospital is for the
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underlying malnutrition, which was already there. The statistics make it look as if people are becoming malnourished in hospital, but that is not so. We have had discussed this matter at length, both in Select Committees and in other arenas, and I do not intend to spend a lot of time going over it again.

As I was saying, I think that most people would accept that many people die well and are able to exercise choice in relation to where they are cared for and where they die. I accept, however, that not enough people experience a death like this. The Government are committed to improving end-of-life care for everyone. As hon. Members have acknowledged, we have developed an end-of-life care strategy specifically to meet the needs of people for whom end-of-life care is not as good as it could or should be. That strategy, published last July, set a clear direction for the future development of services and showed how we can deliver high-quality, responsive services across all settings for all patients and their carers, irrespective of their condition or circumstance.

The measures set out in the end-of-life care strategy are based on what interested parties, stakeholders and others told us what they thought was needed to bring about real improvements in end-of-life care. Included in those measures is provision, first of all, for all patients and carers to have individual care plans recording their preferences and the choices they would like to make, which should be reviewed as the patient’s condition develops and which should be available to everyone who has a legitimate reason to see them, including out-of-hours and emergency care services.

We are investing an additional £286 million in end-of-life services in the two years to 2011, which will more than meet the commitment on funding that we made in our 2005 election manifesto. Much of this additional funding will go directly to primary care trusts, which will, of course, retain the prime responsibility for commissioning services locally.

The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Eddisbury, the Conservative spokesman, also mentioned the importance of recognising generally that we had better wake up to the challenges presented by our ageing population. There are more people in this country aged over 65 than there are under 16. In the past couple of years, the carers and stroke strategies and, more recently, the dignity, dementia and end-of-life strategies have aimed at starting to improve the care for our most vulnerable older people. We will soon publish our Green Paper, which will look at the sort of care system we want in the longer term. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West is absolutely right: as a society and a country, we are not unique in the developed world in facing an enormous challenge and some difficult decisions to take about how collectively we decide to fund people’s long-term care. I hope that, when the Green Paper is published, we can have a good, open debate that may lead us to the sort of all-party consensus that we managed to achieve on the future of our pensions policy.

If I have not answered satisfactorily any specific question asked by the hon. Lady, I assure her that I will write to her. If necessary, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), will write to her on issues that fall under his area of responsibility. Treating the elderly with dignity and respect when they fall ill and come to the end of their
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lives is about much more than strategies and objectives: it is about what makes a decent society. In this country we can be proud that the NHS is there to help everyone, regardless of their wealth or background, but we can always do better.

10.54 am

Sitting suspended.

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School Places

11 am

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. This debate is important for my constituents. I am here to plead with the Minister, because the allocation of school places is hugely controversial in St. Albans, as is the lack of school places. I want to deal with the issue at both primary and secondary school levels. I am putting myself in the Minister’s hands in the hope that she will consider coming to St. Albans and taking a personal interest in the matter.

On allocation day in the St. Albans district area, 128 pupils were allocated places at non-ranked primary schools, and 80 of those places were in St. Albans parish. The number was reduced to 80 by the time of the fifth round of the continuing interest process, but a significant number of primary school pupils were left in limbo.

I have been contacted by about 50 angry parents, and at the latest of a series of meetings last week, I met many parents from St. Albans who are united in their disappointment about the failure of allocation of school places in our area. My constituents who are dissatisfied with the situation have formed St. Albans Battle for Local Education—SABLE—to press for solutions. The problem is partly the number of people who choose to live in and around St. Albans and partly the inability correctly to predict the required number of places. The problem arises every year, but this year it has become a crisis. The east of England plan proposes an extra 83,000 homes in Hertfordshire by 2021, which will undoubtedly place huge pressure on local schools.

The local authority admits that despite forecasts being produced annually for up to seven years ahead, using live GP birth data, planned housing information and trends in pupil movement between areas, the data for 2007 did not indicate that there would be a shortage of places for that year. An update forecast produced in April 2006 suggested that places might be tight, but that the situation would be manageable within existing provision. Only when the application data were analysed in November 2006 did the shortfall of places in the city centre became apparent, which is when additional provision was made centrally to accommodate that unexpected and unpredicted rise in demand.

Parents were left reeling in shock as they were told that there was nowhere for their children to go. In March, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) raised the problem of the global shortfall of predicted places at primary entry due to the inadequate forecasting system. According to the national press, some 2,250 children in the UK will not have a place in September, and that will rise to 5,000 next year. I have been led to believe that 300 more children may come into St. Albans district attachment area in September. The problem is increasing year on year.

What do we need? Parents in my constituency believe that we need a new school. St. Albans is a small, tight city district, and many parents who have moved into the city centre have expressed the desire for their children to go to local schools. In April, the possibility that a new school could be built in the city centre to solve the deficit of school places in central St. Albans was considered,
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but it soon emerged that there is no budget in the current climate to press ahead with such a major project. Nevertheless, some children in my constituency are still facing an uncertain future, and there is little to suggest that anything major is being done to address that.

In April, Hertfordshire county council's senior planning officer wrote to St. Albans district council stating:

in the light of the under-forecast for the necessary provision

Unfortunately, the provision to expand capacity temporarily has caused a huge knock-on effect. The planning officer continued:

but not at the schools required—

One issue on which Hertfordshire Property is awaiting feedback relates to the possible use of council-owned land and assets. It believes that the need to provide a permanent solution to the issue of primary school place provision to the west of the city has become urgent. The keen interest of the local community is reflected in the interest of its own members, who are becoming closely involved in the need to identify a solution. Three schools in my constituency, Mandeville school, Bernards Heath infant school and Bernards Heath junior school, have agreed to take the additional pupils in September, but that solves the problem for only a small number of additional pupils. Some parents, even now, are uncertain about where their children will go to school.

Those in St. Albans parish were allocated a non-ranked place with an average home-to-school distance of just more than a mile—1629.43 m—compared with a national figure for all children starting primary school in 2009-10 of 1397.11 m. Parents in my constituency believe that it is not reasonable to expect a four-year-old to travel that distance. On top of that, because the additional places are temporary and the three nearest schools that many parents in my constituency were advised by the local authority to put down as their top three choices were already over-subscribed by siblings from that bulge year, those parents who chose their local schools were in the invidious position of being told that there was no availability, and they were put at the bottom of the list.

My constituent, Mrs. Anne Martin, has been allocated a place for her four-year-old son that is 4 km from her home at the 10th-nearest primary school. Since appealing against that decision, she has perversely been allocated the 15th-nearest primary school. I fully support the
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right and desire for her and other parents in the same position to access local schools. Mrs. Martin wants her child to walk to school rather than being ferried by car. An additional problem is that many child minders and carers will not go several kilometres to a school outside their own areas, which leaves parents in my constituency totally in the lurch. St. Albans has followed the Government’s desire to utilise brownfield sites, but that has led to overdevelopment in the city centre and to a crisis for school places.

Many four to five-year-olds in my constituency have been placed in schools that can realistically be accessed only by private or public transport. It has been suggested that parents should place children on the walking bus that operates in six local schools, but many of them believe—I agree—that it is unreasonable for a four-year-old child and a mum, perhaps pushing a buggy with one or two siblings, to walk a mile and a half in each direction to school every day.

Many parents have reported that the sibling rule sometimes has perverse consequences, because it often favours children who live further away from a school when it comes to allocating places. I have been contacted by parents complaining that it allows families to move into the community, gain a place for their first child at a local schools, and then move out of the community. Some children come in from up to 16.8 miles away. That means that local children who cannot follow through may be allocated places at schools that are between ninth and 15th furthest from their home. That discriminates year on year against first-born children and only children.

The schools admissions code of the Department for Children, Schools and Families supports giving priority to siblings of children who are still at the school, but I am sure that the Minister agrees that in areas such as mine, which have suddenly and unexpectedly had to accommodate a bulge year, that causes a huge set of problems. Parents are rightly quoting the admissions code, which refers to giving “priority to siblings” and supporting

But families such as those in my constituency who are members of SABLE find themselves having to trawl more than 3 km with small children to get to school, and the problem is perpetuated to their other children.

At secondary school level, things are little better. Our problem, I am sorry to say, is a school that parents are deeply unhappy with and has been in special measures. The villages experience particular problems. A number of families who live in Colney Heath in my constituency have been allocated a place at Onslow St. Audrey’s school in Hatfield. Potentially, that part of my constituency will soon, as a result of the Government’s wish for more houses in the area, almost be joined to Hatfield. The parents in my area feel that they belong to St. Albans. They would like to have schools that are easily accessed. They have been allocated a place at Onslow despite the fact that a previous independent appeals panel upheld the appeal on the basis that the route to school was illogical. The route involves using an underpass that many residents regard as unsafe, intimidating and isolated. It was deemed unacceptable for a previous constituent, yet now the council, having made some small improvements, is, because of our crisis in school places and the failing
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school that other parents choose not to access, causing my constituents to have to make unreasonable journeys in a way that many of the parents regard as unsafe.

Many parents were deeply unhappy at being allocated places at Francis Bacon school. They expressed concerns not only about educational achievement, but about the whole brand surrounding the school. I would welcome the Minister looking into that and seeing whether any support can be given to a school that is now trying very hard to pull itself up by its bootstraps, although the local perception of the school means that parents are actively choosing not to engage with it.

One parent, who lives exactly 1 mile from Beaumont, their first-ranked school, which is in the Fleetville area, said that their child is the only one to miss out and is now being sent to a school quite a distance away. Only nine boys from Fleetville went to Verulam. This is becoming a merry-go-round of mismatching, with pupils being sent elsewhere and then the sibling rule coming into place.

Parents living in priority areas felt that they might be able to access their preferred schools. However, we have many single-sex and faith schools in St. Albans, and that is causing perverse outcomes. Some people who choose a single-sex school are having to come from a long distance away. As a result, I would welcome the Minister’s view on a “swap shop” to deal with the perverse situation by which a child who wants a single-sex school is allocated a co-educational school, and a parent who desperately wants a co-educational school is allocated a single-sex school. I hope that a scheme can be brought into play in areas such as mine—I know that the position is not unique—so that parents can ask to swap, as people swap social housing tenancies, and there can be two sets of happy families.

Many parents say, “Is there nowhere that we can take our concerns?” The possibility of an independent ombudsman for education has been suggested. My constituent, Cristina Fenn, wrote to me only yesterday evening, asking whether it would be possible to have an ombudsman for education. That would be somewhere to turn for parents who are caught up in a merry-go-round of mismatched desires for schools and have slipped to the bottom because they followed the advice of the local education authority and selected local schools that are already oversubscribed, where sibling rules are causing a perversity of intake. She said:

the authorities—

We must consider these children’s futures and not treat them just as names and addresses. Ms Fenn says that she refuses to send her children to a school almost 2 miles away that is not her third, fifth or even eighth choice, and she is not alone.

Parents are asking what solutions can be put in place. Can guidance be attached to the sibling rule to avoid the perverse situation in which parents are totally unable to access local schools, totally unable to get out of their cars and let their children walk to school and groups of pupils are being split up so that one child is sent 3 km away when all their peer group have managed to access
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local schools? Can there also be support and help with rebranding exercises for schools that have not only fallen below the educational standards that parents choose to access, but have fallen so low in the confidence of residents—many of us in the House will completely sympathise with the lack of public confidence—that they are actively considering home schooling? The parents of two whole entries-worth of secondary school pupils filled the St. Alban’s arena saying that they are not prepared to accept a lower standard of education for their children when the Government promised them, “Education, education, education”. They do not believe that they are given a choice. They do not believe that they are given a fair way of filling in the forms when schools are already full and a local authority or a school itself will say that it is full. How can a parent have choice when their top three choices are totally filled up with siblings?

This is a complex matter. I very much hope that the Minister will visit my constituency and talk to not only parents but the district authority, which is putting together its local development framework, and the county council. I hope that that will offer us a way forward. In my area, some parents still do not know what will happen. The continuing interest rules are causing deep disquiet. People are keeping their options open, having been allocated perhaps a third-choice school, in the hope that they will move up the ranks. Other parents have no school place whatever for their child. I hope that the Minister will deal with some of those issues, and perhaps I can question her on some of her answers.

11.16 am

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), on securing a debate on something that is acutely important in her constituency. She has brought her prodigious energies—

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. I must explain that although interventions are permitted in a 30-minute debate, contributions are not, without prior arrangement. As we have only 14 minutes left, will the right hon. Gentleman please make his intervention brief?

Mr. Lilley: I had understood that my hon. Friend had left a little time for me to speak, so there was an arrangement of sorts. Is that permissible?

Frank Cook (in the Chair): That is fine, but the normal practice is to obtain permission from the Minister and also to inform the Chair. We now have 13 minutes.

Mr. Lilley: I apologise, Mr. Cook, and my comments will therefore be much briefer.

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