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30 Jan 2001 : Column 42WH

Chapel Hill School, Braintree

12.29 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I am very pleased to have the opportunity to bring to Members' attention matters concerning Chapel Hill school in Braintree. Two weeks ago, the parents of the children at the school received a letter from Essex county council's education department and they were stunned to read that it was proposed to close the school. That would mean that the children, who, in the main, live nearby, would be scattered to other schools throughout the town and possibly throughout the wider district. The proposal followed from what would be regarded as a less than satisfactory Ofsted report in the spring of last year.

Chapel Hill school was in a different position when it opened in 1929. It was built by a Chelmsford firm of builders and was part of the progressive expansion of Braintree. It was built to serve a developing council house estate that was based on Bartrams avenue and was being built by the then Braintree urban district council. At that time, Braintree was a market and small industrial town. It had a number of large mills and works. Indeed, well-known names such as Courtaulds, Crittall Windows and perhaps the lesser-known Lake and Elliot's had their factories and works there. It was a thriving town that you, Mr. Winterton, might associate more with the north of England, but markets towns are found in the south and East Anglia, too. At that time, people went to school, worked and lived in the same town. It was a closely bonded community.

The school's degree of permanence is shown by the fact that its first headmistress, Miss Austin, was there for 34 years. She started at the school in 1929 and left it in the mid-1960s. She saw enormous changes not only to the school, but to the town in that period. Indeed, the school welcomed wartime evacuees from London. They moved out from the capital because they believed that it would be much safer to live in small towns surrounded by countryside. Generally speaking, that was true. Braintree did not suffer extensive war damage, but some damage occurred close to where the school is situated.

One frequently meets older citizens who not only went to the school themselves, but have children and grandchildren who have been to it. In the main, most of us have fond memories of our school days; we try to blank out those that are not quite so fond. However, the people to whom I have spoken all have memories of a warm, hard-working, community-based school.

I presided at the annual general meeting of the Silver End friendship club last Friday. Silver End is a village near Braintree and, at the meeting, I met a lady who told me that her first day at school was the day that Chapel Hill school opened. She said, "Now I've said that, Mr. Hurst, you'll know how old I am." Even an arithmetic ignoramus such as I could just about calculate that adding five to the number of years from 1929 to now would enable me to work out her age. She spoke very well of the school and was sorry to hear of its proposed closure.

The school has had its ups and downs. At one time, the school had 500 pupils accommodated in demountables or temporary classrooms in its grounds. The school was bursting at the seams. That is not the position now. It has room for 240 pupils--it is like the

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turn of time--and they are accommodated in good, old-fashioned self-contained classrooms with a door, walls and windows. Such classrooms were terribly out of fashion in the 1970s; it was almost an abomination to have such things.

I recollect that my wife taught at a progressive school in that period, and she was told that one could not possibly have a blackboard and easel. If one used a blackboard, one had to prop it up, because using an easel would make it too formal. The world moves on and, just as one can now use the modern version of blackboards--they are probably called overheads--one can have proper classrooms. It is significant that the newest school in Braintree, at Notley Green, has been built with defined classrooms. The design of Chapel Hill school has come back into fashion and modern usage.

In the company of the vice-chairman of the governors, the Rev. Steven Lloyd, I visited the school last Friday afternoon. I had been to the school in the summer, but this visit had not been pre-planned; I went almost without notice. No one had painted the walls bright green, because of my visit, so I hope that I saw the school as it really was.

The first class that Rev. Lloyd took me into was a reading class. A wide selection of books of all kinds--from modern books to classical novels--was available. I spoke to every child in the class and they were able to tell me what the books were about and what their favourite reading was. They had an enthusiasm for reading and for the feel of books. However great advanced technology may be, there is nothing like the feel and smell of a book to encourage the sense of learning, the wish to learn and the excitement about what lies in its pages.

I was particularly impressed by a young girl in that class. She had a book of poetry, which had not been given to her just because a dignitary was coming. She showed me her favourite poems and they were appropriate to a girl of her age. There is place for poetry in the world in which we live and I was pleased that Chapel Hill encourages that as well as other subjects.

The next classroom provided a contrast; it was the computer class. Virtually every child in the school has access to a computer. I am not able to judge whether the children were doing well, but they were at the computer and showing enthusiasm. Each child has had the opportunity to use a computer from a very young age.

Some things in schools do not change very much. As I went along the corridors, I saw the wall displays. Sometimes one thinks that history does not always find its proper place in teaching in schools these days and one can argue that history is an essential subject. If we do not know where we come from, we shall not have the faintest idea of where we may be going. However, I was pleased that the wall displays showed Braintree in history. To link one's town with the course of history is more pertinent than the obscure descriptions of events in classical times. Those events are fascinating for what they teach us, but they are not as relevant to young children as what they see around them.

The displays also showed events from the 20th century. It makes you feel older than you think when you realise that the everyday events of your boyhood are

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now part of historical exhibits. Again, it is important that the children know their parents' and grandparents' background and how they lived in former times.

My close friend Elwyn Bishop is a county councillor and he is taking an active part in the campaign to save the school. It is being well supported by the local newspaper, the Braintree & Witham Times, and a whole range of parents, teachers and governors. The town is becoming unified in its opposition to the closure, and a great well of affection and emotion is coming from people who want to preserve the school that they went to or have known of and have loved.

Elwyn Bishop faces a particular difficulty in the campaign to save the school. It is shortly to play a football match against the school at which he was headmaster. He faces a great dilemma as to which side to support during the match. I advised him to support one school in the first half and the other in the second half, but that might have been too political an answer.

Chapel Hill school has a playing field. When one considers that the school was built in the 1920s in the middle of a then industrial area, the fact that it has a field at its rear and a further one beyond that makes it a fairly unusual school in an urban environment. The playing field at the rear of the school is surplus to its requirements. It might be possible to exchange it for value, as it were. That might lead to further improvements to the school. A nursery school is also on the playing field.

I do not want to suggest that the area is deprived; that would be the wrong word. However, it has been through difficult times and the great factories and works that I described earlier disappeared 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Crittall Windows remains, but it is very much a scaled-down version of what it once was. The life went out of that part of the town, but, as a result of regeneration schemes, between 250 and 500 new properties are planned to be built within the school's catchment area. Although the number of people in the catchment area has decreased, the arc of projection is rising, and more children will be around to attend the school.

The nursery school was not established by chance. The county council's policy was that those areas that were not as advantaged as others should take priority when such schools were established. It is a natural feeder for the main school. More than half the youngsters who attend live locally; the remainder live further afield, within the town itself. The school also provides an opportunity for other people within Braintree. For example, students at Braintree college are gaining valuable experience by acting as nursery assistants.

There is consistent support for the school. When I was there on Friday, I met Mrs. Joy Mills, a teaching assistant. She is an ex-pupil, as are her two children, one of whom is a chartered physiotherapist; the other is studying medicine at Imperial college. I also spoke to Mrs. Abbott, who lives close to the school. She and her children attended it. Generation after generation have gone there, loved it and are united in trying to save it. The community spirit carries on after school with football, netball and choir practice. The area needs that facility as it comes out of the bad times.

The Ofsted visit in April 2000 was a great blow. The school was labouring under a number of disadvantages. The deputy head had been suspended following an

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allegation that was subsequently proven to be groundless, so she was not present during the visit. A senior member of staff was ill and away from the school for some time. The gaps were being filled by temporary and supply teachers, one of whom had been there for only three days when the inspection took place.

During one day of the Ofsted visit, the school was supposed to be going on a trip to the millennium dome--I hope that my hon. Friend will look favourably on that. Therefore, the inspection was squeezed into three days instead of four. The school applied for a deferment, but that was refused and the visit took place. Problems were found within the school, and those have been accepted. As a consequence of the report, the headmaster became ill and resigned. The effect of Ofsted inspections on school staff, teachers, pupils and governors could be the subject of another debate. The stress, illness, resignations and public humiliation that arise from them are pertinent matters.

The headmaster was therefore absent after the report's declarations in May, and the school has been rudderless since then. I do not criticise the people who stepped in on a short-term basis. The deputy was in charge for a little while; a acting head took over for six weeks; and there is another acting head now. However, they could not achieve what the county council could have achieved had it gone all out to find a new head for the school at an early date.

I recently met the school governors. Mr. Dave Rogers, the chairman, the Rev. Lloyd and Mr. Alan Howard said that they wanted to advertise the post of headmaster last September, but were told that it would be better to hold off until this term. During that time, the school drifted.

The inspectors returned in November and found that the school had not improved, but that cannot have been a surprise. It could not have succeeded without a dynamic commitment to make it work. It is almost as if the closure process is being willed, because that is what will happen without dynamic intervention. No one has been in permanent charge of it since May and it does not have the prospect of salvation that would have existed had another course of action been taken. The school has not been given a second chance.

The public reaction to the decision has been overwhelming. The matter has not been before the county council as part of the democratic process, so there has been no democratic input, but it is not a party political issue. Essex county council is finely balanced between the parties and it is hoped that men and women of good will will ensure that the school is turned around. I do not want to use specific phrases, but we want the school to have a new beginning that is based on united hope and confidence. We are imploring the county council to reconsider the matter and are asking for kind words and inspiration from my right hon. Friend.

12.46 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) on raising this issue. Although the Government will have little to do with the final outcome, I accept that for his community--and certainly in terms of the Government's priorities for raising standards in every school--it is central to the work of the

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Department for Education and Employment. We have a good opportunity to reflect on national policy and how it works at a local level.

Many people have spent a working lifetime in the school. My hon. Friend painted the picture of a school that started in the 1920s and reached this century with a proud history. It is almost a truism, but, if a school is good, the memory of it stays with former pupils for life. When they consider their life chances, they put down their successes to the fact that they had a good education. It is only as we reach adulthood that we realise the importance of a good education. The school has, without doubt, had that effect on his constituents and others for many decades.

I also want to acknowledge that schools are part of communities. They provide more than teaching; they are focal points and often provide facilities that cannot be found anywhere else. They are crucial to the areas in which they are located. However, in the gentlest of terms--I know that my hon. Friend will appreciate my tone--I must emphasise that no one can live in the past. Although the school may have a proud record and have served many generations well, we need to consider how it is performing for current students and what its prospects are for improving its performance in the next few years.

My hon. Friend rooted the issue and the decisions that will soon face the community in the Ofsted inspection of April last year and the six-monthly inspection by Her Majesty's inspectorate of schools in November. He said that he was not surprised that, six months, after the first inspection, progress had not been made because the right mechanisms for improvement had not been provided, but six months is a heck of time in the life chances of a small child. If children have spent half a year in a school that is not providing good quality education, those who have a responsibility for making sure that education services are well run must act as quickly as they can.

I accept my hon. Friend's point that the school is not performing as well as he hoped that it would. Although I have not visited the school, obviously in preparing for the debate I have sought information on it, and it seems that my hon. Friend was right to use the term "drift". There has been a lack of continuity of leadership, and we know that leadership is the key. I fervently believe that if a school gets a poor Ofsted report, it must act immediately; otherwise, drift will get worse.

This is a strange case in that it is unlikely that the Government will have any direct involvement in the school's future, and I shall explain why. We want schools that go into special measures to come out again within two years, or we will take measures to shut them. That is right because two years is a long time for a child to spend in a school where the quality of education is not satisfactory. Often what happens in those two years--although I am not saying that it is happening at Chapel Hill school--is that parents vote with their feet and move their children out of a school that Ofsted deems to be weak. Nobody wants schools in special measures to wither on the vine because they are not seen to improve straight away.

Our first involvement, therefore, would be to say to the local authority, "Get your act together and get the school out of special measures within two years. We

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have powers to intervene if you do not." Clearly, we do not want to intervene. Two years is a long time, and the problems are essentially those that must be solved locally.

Our second involvement, therefore, would be to work with the local education authority in monitoring the school's performance. One of the education advisers from our standards and effectiveness unit will have attended a routine meeting with Essex county council to discuss all the schools in the county which are in special measures and have serious weaknesses. "All" sounds bad--there are not many. As we have said many times, if any school in the country is in special measures and is not providing the quality of education that is needed, we want to know why, and we want that school to be carefully monitored. Our second involvement will come about when the school comes up in monitoring conversations with our officials, our advisers and the council.

I suspect that the HMI visit in November, when it was decided that no progress had been made, may have been a factor that persuaded the council to consult on closure. Closure is not usually the end result for schools that go into special measures. Usually, there is new leadership or measures are taken to raise standards, and schools come out of special measures well within two years. To place that in a national context, the good news is that there are now far fewer schools going into special measures than there were two years ago. There are now 373 such schools, compared with about 515 two years ago, and that is good because once a school goes into special measures that is a problem. The challenge is to get schools to a standard at which they do not have to go into special measures.

Schools are turning themselves round more quickly. Three years ago, it was taking 25 months to come out of special measures; now, it is taking 18 months. In the vast majority of cases, the policy of pressure and support, or rapid action, of setting a target and of working with schools and the local authority is successful. Closure is a preferred option for only very few schools. Sometimes closure is not possible because there are not enough places elsewhere in the locality. Sometimes it is an obvious course because there are many surplus places. It will be for Essex to decide, according to the criteria, whether closure is right for this school.

It will be useful if I set out what will happen now, because that is what parents want to know. One of the difficulties for the local authority is that the minute it begins to consult on closing a school, it is assumed that the school will be closed. I want to assure parents, through my hon. Friend, that there is a process in which they, more than anybody, have a right, indeed almost an obligation, to state their views. My hon. Friend is right to point out that the subject has not yet passed through the council's democratic process.

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Consultation is being conducted now. There will be a parents' meeting at the school on, I think, 5 February. That will be reported to the county council's education panel on 26 March, and the panel will make a recommendation to the executive board meeting on 10 April. If the proposals are agreed, it is only at that point that the council will publish a statutory notice. It will then invite comments from anybody in the community. That consultation period will be four weeks, which is shorter than normal, because the school is in special measures. If there are any objections, and I suspect from what my hon. Friend said that there will be, the proposals will have to be referred to the school organisation committee. If the committee cannot agree, the decision will go to the adjudicator.

I know from my hon. Friend's speech that the issue is important locally. It concerns the life chances of his constituents' children and the future of the learning community in the area. It is therefore right that the decisions should be made locally, and I am delighted that there is now a system that makes that possible.

There are counterbalances within that system. If, after the consultation process, there is no agreement, the adjudicator can consider the final decision before it is confirmed. My hon. Friend may know of the list of criteria that the adjudicator will have to take into account when making his decision. If he does not have that list, I will be delighted to send it to him.

The adjudicator will not make his decision on a whim or because he is instructed by the council. He will take into account exactly the factors to which my hon. Friend has referred. Where would the children go? Would the journey be too long? Could they be guaranteed a better standard of education? What would be the effect of the school's closure on neighbouring communities? Would the council have insufficient places? The factor that will drive the decision-making process above all is the standard of education, which is, I know, what motivates parents, the local authority, my hon. Friend, the Government and myself.

The decisions will be painful and will raise questions in people's minds and provoke high emotions. It is right, however, that they face up to the fact that a school with a long tradition of service to the community is not delivering the education that we want for our children. For their sake, the community must face up to those decisions and find a way forward. That should be done in a spirit of openness. However much people disagree, everybody has the same motivation.

I hope that, whatever decision is made, my hon. Friend can at least say that his constituents had every opportunity to express their view and that there was a full and frank exchange of information. I hope also that it will solve the problems facing education in Braintree at the moment. I wish him well, as I do his constituents, including parents and teachers at the school. I hope that all those adults make the right decision for the children of his constituency. We have had this debate because their education is so important and we want it to take place in the best possible circumstances in the best possible school.

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