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"Passion, flexibility, camaraderie, integrity and kindness."
That is exactly what the school exemplifies. He has increased the number of pupils from just over 400 to more than 1,000, and the sixth-form cohort from just 23 to 150. The proportion of five grade A* to C GCSEs achieved when he took over the school in 2003 was 13 per cent. By 2007, he had increased that to 54 per cent. The letters that I was receiving from parents pleading that they should not have to send their children to this failing school have completely stopped; people are now pleased that their children go there. Ofsted rates the school as satisfactory, and it has received awards from Investors in People and the national training centre of excellence.
Significantly, with six other secondary schools in my area and with Kidderminster college, Baxter college is a member of a new trust that started on 1 September 2008-the ContinU trust. People are amazed that that possibly unique example of co-operation between eight educational establishments allows them to share their services and to build up their expertise in one thing and share it across all the senior pupils in my area. When I walked past Kidderminster college recently, I noticed a sign saying, "ContinU transport pick-up point". The trust even has transport to take the students between these schools to receive their specialist lessons. Secondary education is developing with co-operation between the schools and the college in my area.
However, when I made a routine visit on 23 October to see the head of Baxter college-this was not at his request-I was staggered to see that he was not his usual bright, cheerful self. He gave me the news that not only had the college been labelled a national challenge school, because of one slip-I will explain why the results declined for that one year-but that there was a proposal to push it into a national challenge trust. That would mean that it would be abolished in name and would become a trust with another school. At first sight, that appeared to be cut and dried, and hard to contest, but nobody at government level appreciates exactly what the new head, staff and governors have done-as I have said, the improvement in the school has been staggering. I am not criticising the chief executive of the county council or its director of children's services, because they are both relatively new appointments and they did not know what the school was like before all this happened. However, the proposal is an absolute kick in the teeth for the head, the governors, the staff and the pupils, who have transformed the school. Even worse, this inspirational head has been taken by the same education authority to pull round schools in other parts of the county, and he has done so successfully.
I come to the reasons for the blip. A review of education in Wyre Forest took us from a three-tier system to a two-tier one. In the first year of the new
system, Baxter college had two years of children coming from five feeder schools, three of which are among the worst performing locally because of the deprivation of the area in which they are situated. Thus, Baxter college suddenly had to absorb 11 to 13-year-olds largely from poorly achieving schools. In addition, there was a tremendous shortage of maths teachers. Despite all those problems, this year the college has done well in A* to C GCSE results, including in English and Maths, and has got over these issues.
However, the college is still being forced into the educational trust. That has had a devastating effect on morale, staff and pupils, and governors have been sacked. There has also been an effect on prospective parents; I will again get letters from people who do not want their children to go to the school just because it has been labelled as "failing" in this way. Very significant is the effect on the ContinU trust, which, as I have said, is unique in its success. The school is being taken out of that trust, so it will no longer be co-operating in the same way.
There are even rumours and allegations that the school has been forced into this national challenge trust because of the effect, in some way, on the Building Schools for the Future programme-I do not know whether that is significant. I wrote to the Minister for Schools and Learners on 26 October to express my concern, and I also submitted my response to the consultation. I had a reply on 17 November, accepting my concerns but not offering any particular action or help. On 25 November, eight days later, I was staggered to receive a letter from the same Minister, giving me the news that the school would become a national challenge trust school, and asking: was I not delighted that it was going to be transferred into that form? The letter concluded:
"I am sure you will be delighted about this new development for Wyre Forest."
I have never been a Minister, and I do not see many prospects of my becoming one, but I would have thought that even if the Minister could not remember that particular example, at least some of his staff would have realised that one cannot write to an MP only eight days after the last letter, congratulating him on something that he obviously deplored. I was very cross to read that. I have written back to the Minister and have not had a reply.
My aim in raising these issues after the consultation has ended but before the decision is made is to appeal to the Department to reconsider what the head, staff, governors and students have achieved and the consequences if the school is abolished and becomes a national challenge trust school-and even to consider reversing the proposal.
Dr. Richard Taylor: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Any major change, particularly one affecting the morale of teaching staff and of other children, can have a disastrous effect. The college is being paired with a school in a village in another part of Worcestershire. I cannot see that the staff and the governors there have the same experience of coping with a school that takes children from disadvantaged areas.
Let me finish with some of the usual messages. I am very concerned for the children who visit my patch, because they go on the Severn Valley railway and meet Father Christmas, and they go to the safari park to see the white lion cubs and they meet Father Christmas. What do children think about Father Christmas these days when they can meet him everywhere they go?
I started my education right on the top of Ilkley moor and the temperature today reminds me of what it was like at my prep school. Those who were listening to the "Today" programme two or three days ago will have heard that the marvellous carol, "While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night", can be sung to the tune of "On Ilkley Moor Baht 'at". Earlier on, before you took the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) threatened to play her mobile phone ring tone, with the tune from "Lakmé" which is, I think, something to do with British Airways. Until she did that, I was almost tempted to ask whether we could have a go at singing "While Shepherds Watched" to "On Ilkley Moor Baht 'at", but I am sure that you would not approve of that. When hon. Members go home to carol services, it is worth asking whether they can have that tune.
I conclude by wishing a happy Christmas and a happy new year to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, your staff, other hon. Members and, in particular, the staff who look after us in the Terrace cafeteria and-as a Member who does not have a Whip-the marvellous Doorkeepers, who tell me exactly what is going on and when.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), and I want to focus my remarks on issues that have been at the forefront of my constituents' concerns over the past year.
Obviously, the recession has been one of the biggest problems that my constituents have faced, and I am sure that the same is true for the constituents of many, if not all, hon. Members. It has had a tremendous impact: I have spent a lot time speaking to local businesses in my constituency, and I continue to be very frustrated by the stories that I hear from viable concerns-the ones with sound order books that would be able to get through the recession if it were not for the threats hanging over them. Those threats include the possibility that their banks might suddenly withdraw credit, or charge huge interest on overdrafts.
Like many hon. Members, I have made many representations to the Chancellor about those threats, but it seems that the Government are unwilling to use their influence, even with those banks in which the state is a major shareholder, to get the banks lending to viable businesses. Some of the companies in my constituency have gone to the wall, with people made redundant as a result, and I would hate to see more viable businesses that could survive the recession having to suffer the same fate.
I have also been dismayed by the result of the recent court case on bank charges, and I know that that sentiment is widely shared. The banks charge punitive fees when a person goes even slightly overdrawn, and those fees compound because they are charged daily. The result is that a person who goes £1 overdrawn can accrue more than £100 in charges in just a few days.
The charges are not related to the cost of processing spontaneous overdrafts, and are just a way to claw back money. In fact, the overdraft charges make up a large proportion of banks' profits, and they are often applied to very vulnerable people. Given the court decision, I would very much like the Government to bring forward legislation to ensure that banks are able only to levy fair charges that relate to the costs of the additional administration work incurred when people go overdrawn.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): My hon. Friend may be aware that the point decided in the Abbey National case was a very narrow one. The Supreme Court gave a clear steer that the Government and Parliament may wish to revisit the matter, and that the Office for Fair Trading could bring proceedings under section 140 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. Would she join me in making that call for early action?
Jo Swinson: I certainly would, and my hon. Friend makes his point very well indeed. This matter is something that requires urgent action, especially in a recession, from the Government and bodies such as the OFT.
I have mentioned redundancy, which has affected many of my constituents, but the fear of unemployment hanging over many people adds to stress and creates problems in the home. It is something that our constituents all face on a regular basis.
On a slightly more positive note, there has been good news on the unemployment figures in my constituency of East Dunbartonshire: a slight drop has been recorded in the past two months. I hope that that is a trend but fear that it may not be, as we all know that unemployment tends to be a lagging indicator in recessions. There could be more pain to come, especially given that there may be future strictures on the public sector.
A great many of my constituents employed in the civil service have been concerned by the proposed changes to the civil service compensation scheme and how their potential compensation if they were made redundant would be altered. I accept that the scheme needs to be amended, but the proposed changes are causing concern about the inequity between different types of workers. I hope that the Government will listen to the representations that are being made, and come forward with amended plans for the scheme.
The recession is hitting savers particularly hard. The low interest rates may be good for those with mortgages, but their effect is quite the opposite for people who rely on interest payments on their savings for their basic, day-to-day living. That is causing problems for many older people in my constituency in particular.
Many of those older people are also victims of the Equitable Life saga. They put their savings into a well respected institution, and I am one of many MPs to be frustrated in our attempts to make progress in this matter. I have called an Adjournment debate on the issue, and I have attended other Adjournment debates on it, including one secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb). In addition, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has been very active on the matter, as have hon. Members on both sides of the House through the all-party group on Equitable Life.
It seems that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. There is continual delay, and we know that people with Equitable Life policies are dying before getting the opportunity to receive any possible compensation. I urge the Government to deal with the matter and to recognise that, when they have a parliamentary ombudsman and she has given a firm ruling on the issue, it makes sense that that should be followed.
East Dunbartonshire is often seen as an affluent constituency, but that does not mean that there is no poverty. It is often hidden. Pensioners in particular may live in a large house that has been their family home, but they face difficulties with fuel poverty in trying to heat that home, and with large council tax bills because the council tax system is not related to ability to pay and is very unfair.
We have had concerns for other elderly people in my area who require care at home or who are living in sheltered housing. Like some other local authorities, East Dunbartonshire council has tried to introduce charges for sheltered housing wardens, among other things. Wardens are an essential part of living in such accommodation, which helps people to maintain an independent life for far longer and is much better value than going into more supported accommodation. I know that local authorities will have difficulties balancing the budget during the recession, but I hope that some of the most vulnerable people in our society are not seen as the first port of call for savings. That would be very unjust indeed.
It is sometimes said that all politics is local. There have recently been various controversial local issues in my constituency. The Kilmardinny development is proposed for a piece of land between Milngavie and Bearsden in my constituency. Much of the land, such as the old bus station site, has been derelict for some years, although other parts of it have been used for golf and other purposes. People accept that the land should be developed, and the local council's local plan suggested that 330 houses would be appropriate, but a proposal came forward for 550 houses, which is clear overdevelopment. Despite the proposal being overwhelmingly rejected by the local council more than two years ago, the decision will ultimately be taken by one unelected official, the reporter.
I see other hon. Members nodding. They will have had such experiences in their constituencies. In the case in East Dunbartonshire, the community gain is limited and the traffic improvements will probably only counter the increase in traffic problems that would come from the impact of an additional 550 houses on local roads. The £10 million planning gain for a new local leisure centre does not cover the £17 million cost, at least, of building such a centre. If the reporter recommends that the scheme go ahead under those conditions, the council could be put under pressure to accept a development that would leave it out of pocket.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she has had an extremely long day. I saw her very early this morning on television, and she was working late last night. In Wellingborough we have exactly the same issue. People are against the Wellingborough North development, the council is against it, and lo and behold, someone from the Government who knows nothing about it can overturn it. Does she agree that these decisions should be left to local councils?
Jo Swinson: Indeed. We also need some kind of appeals system. I am frustrated by the way the system works at present. It does not serve local interests well when the views of the people who know best-those who represent a local area-are overturned. I firmly believe that the Kilmardinny development as currently proposed should not and must not go ahead.
Elsewhere in my constituency, Tesco, which is well known in the context of planning, has a current application to expand its Milngavie store-to knock down the existing store and more than double it in size, in effect placing one of its Tesco Extra stores, I imagine, right next to the town centre. That is a massive expansion. I have surveyed my constituents on the matter-the 5,500 households affected in the town-and had more than 800 replies. The majority said that the proposed size of the store is far too big, and its location will result in its protruding more than 7 metres above the road, whereas at present it is set below the road and away from it, so it is not an eyesore on the landscape.
As is often the case with large supermarket developments, people are also concerned about the impact on local shops. We are still lucky in Milngavie to have a great range of independent stores, such as a butcher, an ironmonger, a fabulous independent bookshop, confectioners and others. More than doubling the size of a large supermarket in that vicinity could have a very negative impact on those shops. I hope that those concerns will be taken into account when the application is considered, although I must note that, from the experiences of other hon. Members, companies such as Tesco do not necessarily have a great track record when it comes to changing their plans.
In Bishopbriggs, the town centre is also being redeveloped, but again the plans seem to be arranged entirely around creating a Morrisons superstore and a large car park, rather than focused on other aspects that make up a town centre, such as community facilities. In fact, the proposals involve knocking down a sports hall that was built only a few years ago at significant expense-despite a group of volunteers in the community getting together and putting forward a business plan to run the hall for community gain, which is surely something that we should all encourage in our local areas. Nevertheless, that development has not received final approval, either, so I urge developers and the council to take heed of local concerns.
The situation is not all doom and gloom, however, and I should like to share an excellent example of community action in Kirkintilloch in my constituency. In 2003, a group of young people decided that they would like to have a skate park in the town. They got together with like-minded people and lobbied politicians, including me-although in 2003 I was standing for the Scottish Parliament. They lobbied MSPs and the council; they raised funds and managed to secure grants of £500,000; they were involved in community activities such as litter picks and gala days to raise their profile. Just a couple of weeks ago, the skate park opened. It has been well used-a healthy activity whereby young people can socialise and learn mutual respect.
I pay tribute to Susan Murray for driving forward the project, and to Alex Baylis, who is a skater. When he started out on the campaign, he was at school, and in the six years that it has taken to build the park he has gone through university, graduated and set up an
increasingly successful band called the Acutones. Without those people and many other volunteers, the park would simply not have been possible.
I shall touch on a couple of national issues before concluding. I had hoped to raise the first in Prime Minister's questions, but sadly time sped away and we just missed out on reaching my question on the Order Paper. It is the important issue of body image. Some Members will know that today the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint, made through a campaign website that I co-ordinated, about an advert that had been digitally retouched. The advert was for an Oil of Olay anti-wrinkle cream, and it is clearly misleading for such adverts to retouch wrinkles out of the picture.
I am glad that the ASA upheld that complaint, but there is a wider issue. There is a lot of academic evidence showing that the idealised and heavily retouched images that we see in the media damage the health and self-esteem of not only young people, but people of all ages and both women and men. I should like adverts to be labelled to show the extent to which they have been digitally retouched, and I very much hope to return to the issue in the new year and, possibly, to secure a fuller debate about the subject.
I should also like to mention political reform. We all accept that 2009 has been a somewhat difficult year for politics and democracy. Having had the expenses scandal, the public are understandably quite angry about what has happened, but I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that quite a lot of MPs are quite angry about what has gone on, too. I am sure that many of us were unaware of the extent to which expenses were being used for unexpected purposes. We need to grasp this opportunity to rebuild our politics and to make changes that make our politics much stronger in the long run. We must ensure that we make progress on reform of the House of Lords, for example, and the Prime Minister recently said that he was in favour of votes for 16-year-olds. That is Liberal Democrat party policy, Labour party policy and Scottish National party policy, so let us introduce either an amendment to existing legislation or a short Bill and put it into practice.
There have been private Members' Bills on the right of recall, and there is increasing consensus on the issue. We should make such changes so that, if an MP is found to have done something wrong, their constituents have some power in between elections. They should not have to lump it; they should be able to take action and prompt a by-election. I strongly believe that electoral reform should be back on the agenda, as indeed should reform of this House.
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