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Lastly, I wish to make a brief point about funding. Building Schools for the Future is an imaginative initiative, but I am afraid that Conservative Members feel that it falls into the same trap as a number of Government initiatives: it talks about very large sums of money projected into the future, and there is scant evidence that there can be delivery of those sums. If Bedford unitary council is to make a decision on the structure
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and future of schools, it is essential that it understands what future funding will be. Can the Minister say that if a decision is made to go two-tier and the council comes to the Government in the next few months, the indicative funding of £340 million will be made available, there and then, up front and banked? If that it not the case, what will the funding be in 2010, 2011 and 2012? Can the Minister honestly say that the funding will be there in successive years? If it is not there up front, as all the indications are that Government finance will be under heavy pressure, I do not think that those sums can be sustained in the future.

Accordingly, what I seek is for the council to be able to make its decision understanding absolutely clearly what Government funding will be. So I look to the Minister to tell us what the funding is likely to be post-2010. Does he take the Prime Minister’s view that all is well and rosy, or does he take the Chancellor’s view that, in fact, no one can predict what Building Schools for the Future funding—or indeed any other Government funding—will be post-2010? None the less, it is essential that that before the councillors decide whether to have a three-tier or a two-tier system in Bedford unitary council and Central Bedfordshire, they should really know what the facts of the funding will be. I am very grateful for the time that has been allowed to me in this debate.

10.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Iain Wright): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) on securing the debate, and having heard her contribution to the Opposition day debate earlier today, I congratulate her daughter on securing her degree. The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) advanced their arguments in their usual style, and I appreciate the manner in which they did so. The last time I responded to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire in an Adjournment debate, the subject was the proposed eco-town in Marston Vale. I think that I reassured her on that matter; I hope that I can do the same again tonight.

In responding to the arguments advanced by the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, I want to do three things. First, I shall discuss briefly school reorganisation and the merits and disadvantages of the two and three-tier systems. I shall also mention my Department’s policy on the three-tier education system, which is linked with that subject. Secondly, I shall discuss funding and, crucially with regard to this debate, the links between school reorganisation, departmental policy and funding. Thirdly, I shall mention the consultation for schools in Bedfordshire, with which both hon. Members and their constituents are engaged.

I can well understand the emotion as regards schools and their reorganisation; I have seen it myself in my constituency. I think that the whole House would agree that schools are a vital part of the community, and it is fair to say that people feel an ownership of them, and possibly hospitals, that it is difficult to apply to other institutions. The education of their children is rightly of major concern to parents. They want a school system that allows their children to enjoy learning and become equipped with the skills that will allow them to fulfil their potential and realise their ambitions. As we have heard tonight, it is in that context that Bedford borough
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council is carrying out a public consultation on the proposal to reorganise its school system from three tiers to two tiers.

I have read the council’s school organisation review document, which states that such a change is necessary for four reasons: to raise standards in schools, particularly at GCSE; to address growing support for change within the borough; to address the declining number of middle schools nationally; and to use investment from Building Schools for the Future and the primary capital programme to produce an education system that will remain fit for purpose for the next half century. In the document, the local authority states that children aged 13 who change from a middle-tier school to an upper-tier school do not have sufficient time in upper school to adjust to the effects of changing schools before having to choose their options for the 14-to-19 routes to qualifications.

Being in a secondary school from the age of 11 allows children to become accustomed to their secondary school, their teachers and the specific style of learning that will enable them to make more reasoned and personalised choices in their options. The local authority also states in the document that upper school head teachers and governors believe that they would be able to deliver better GCSE results if they admitted their students at the age of 11 rather than 13.

Nadine Dorries: That may be the view of head teachers and governors, but there is no evidence to back up that view. On the contrary, we are doing very well with our GCSE results as things are. They are improving year on year. There is no evidence for the position that they take; it is just a view.

Mr. Wright: Let me come on to that, if I may; the hon. Lady has raised an important point. On the merits and relative disadvantages of the three-tier and two-tier systems, there seems to be a certain logic to the idea that there is naturally a degree of disruption when a child changes school, although that argument is not in the school organisation document. That disruption would be minimised if a child changed school only once, at the age of 11, as happens in a two-tier system, as opposed to twice, as happens in a three-tier system, in which a child goes to middle school at the age of nine and to upper school at the age of 13.

Let me touch upon a fundamental part of the two hon. Members’ arguments. There is no clear link between a particular system of school organisation and educational attainment. It would be wrong for me to stand at the Dispatch Box and state, for example, that in all cases a two-tier system automatically lends itself to higher educational success. There is no evidence for such a causal relationship, because the situation is more complex than that, taking into account historical and cultural attitudes to school organisation, the calibre of leadership, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, and close engagement with parents. Local people and agencies know best what is most appropriate for their area, based on an acute understanding of these complex factors, and can make judgments on school reorganisation accordingly.

It is on that basis that I say that my Department has no prescribed view on any particular pattern of school provision. Both two-tier and three-tier systems can be successful and effective, so we think that it is up to the local agencies, in close consultation with affected local
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parents, to decide how school provision is organised in their area. We have no plans to phase out middle schools as a matter of national policy or to remove support from three-tier systems where they exist.

That brings me to the second fundamental point that the hon. Gentleman made, which relates to funding. The school organisation review document that I mentioned acknowledges that the Building Schools for the Future and primary capital programme streams provide an unprecedented opportunity to transform secondary and primary school provision. The document states:

We would all agree with those sentiments.

It is important to dispel the notion that the substantial Government money available through Building Schools for the Future and the primary capital programme is somehow conditional on the local authority changing the manner in which its schools are organised—that we would not provide the money unless it changed to a two-tier system. Let me reassure the hon. Lady that that is categorically not the case. I have already mentioned that my Department does not take a view on school reorganisation, and this policy position is reinforced through BSF and PCP funding.

In answer to the argument put forward by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, I can say that we have funded, through Building Schools for the Future, a number of local authorities that have middle schools in areas such as Hertfordshire, Kent and Staffordshire, and, closer to my patch, in Newcastle upon Tyne and North Tyneside. A far greater driver towards securing funding is pupil place planning—the projected numbers of secondary age pupils to be accommodated in the schools covered by the project. It is therefore vital that any plans that Bedford brings forward are predicated on responding to the educational needs of its pupils, and not on how much funding it gets. If a change of school organisation is proposed, the educational rationale for doing so must be clearly established.

In respect of Bedford, I point out to the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman that the local authority is at a relatively early stage in developing proposals for its Building Schools for the Future project. Bedfordshire was included in wave 6 of BSF, before the outcome of the local government review and local government reorganisation. However, because of specific local issues and concerns, the project was delayed. Partnership for Schools is ready to hold a remit meeting—the point at which programme time scales are set—as soon as a date can be arranged with the local authority.

The third element of my response is the consultation process—

Alistair Burt: Before we leave the subject of funding, may I come back to a point that I made earlier? If the
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Department agrees that the proposal put forward by Bedford, whether for a three-tier or a two-tier system for the improvement of schools, is appropriate, does all the money arrive up front before the election and before the clamps come down, or is the future funding in doubt because inevitably it will be funded year by year post-2010, and none of us knows how much money there will be in the kitty then?

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman will know that I cannot possibly comment on, or answer, that point about future waves. I do not know the specific proposals that Bedfordshire local authorities will bring forward or the agreements that will be made with Partnerships for Schools. A whole range of different factors is in play, notwithstanding the complex area of public finances post-2011. However, I can say that school reorganisation is based not on funding but on educational rationale and attainment.

I have already mentioned the key part of my response: it is up to local people to determine what schools need and what schools should look like. Given the importance of local buy-in to any proposed changes, the consultation is vital, and in May 2007 we put in place new arrangements that must be followed whenever a change in school provision is proposed. For school closures and alterations to school organisation, there are five clear stages in the process. They include, first, consultation, whereby the proposers must consult all interested parties before publishing their proposal, allow adequate time and provide sufficient information to consultees; secondly, publication, whereby a notice detailing proposals must be published in a local newspaper and posted at the main entrances of the schools named in the proposals and at some other conspicuous place in the area; and thirdly, representations, whereby local people have six weeks from publication to submit their representations for or against proposals.

That is the situation in Bedford. The consultation runs to 24 July, and I strongly suggest that if necessary, the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman encourage all affected parties—particularly parents—to have their say. Following representations, a decision will be taken by the local authority and then implementation will take place.

I hope that that clarifies the Department’s place in the process. We have set the framework and put in place arrangements to allow people affected by school reorganisations to have their say. However, I hope also that in my response I have stressed that local people should decide how schools are organised locally. We do not prescribe a certain model, and we certainly do not influence decisions by making funding conditional upon operating under a certain model. Local people should decide what provision should be like in their area. In the case of Bedford, local people have until 24 July to have their say, and I encourage all those concerned to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

11.1 pm

House adjourned.

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