Previous SectionIndexHome Page

2.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) for raising an issue that is at the heart of the Government's agenda for education, and is important to all of us. We are committed to raising standards of education for all children. In west London, as elsewhere, we are taking action to drive up standards, and we support initiatives that underpin that commitment.

I know where the hon. Gentleman is coming from--I say that not colloquially, but geographically. In the early to mid-1970s, I lived in Hillingdon off Long lane. Our

16 Mar 2001 : Column 1365

first child was born in Hillingdon hospital, so I have some understanding of the patch. I used to teach at Brunel university just down the road from the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Since we have been in government, we have made a clear commitment to raising standards. The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 gave us the framework within which we could accelerate our drive to raise standards in all our schools. Our record since then shows consistent and effective action through all stages of the education process. We need to ensure that every child has the opportunity to reach his full potential.

We shall further reinforce that action. Last month, the Secretary of State published the Green Paper "Building on Success". The proposals in that paper will allow us to pursue the improvements we have already made.

With regard to secondary education, we have set out a challenging agenda. All schools are to have their own mission and ethos. Young people who want a career based on technical skills will be able to choose a predominantly vocational programme from age 14, where it suits them. More schools are to be provided by Churches, major faith groups and voluntary and community groups in response to local demand from parents and the community. There is to be greater autonomy for successful schools--including more flexibility over pay and conditions and the curriculum--and a new source of help for weak and failing schools. A centre for gifted and talented youth will promote provision for gifted children in schools and establish intensive summer schools for them. More attention will be paid to school ethos and education with character for secondary pupils in and outside school.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the problems experienced by parents and children in finding a local secondary school. Our actions and proposals will address those problems by raising standards and enabling new provision.

We are pursuing the development of city academies. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced plans for two such academies in west London. In Brent, a city academy based on the Willesden high school site will have a sports specialism. In Hillingdon, a new city academy at Evelyns community school will have a technology specialism, with state-of-the-art computer facilities linked to high-tech business and to Brunel university.

Equally, we need to ensure that schools are supported by their local education authorities. LEAs have a duty to promote high standards. They must prepare education development plans, which set targets for pupils and for the quality of teaching, leadership and management in schools. Where an LEA cannot provide that support, the Secretary of State reserves the power to secure proper performance of the LEA's functions.

The hon. Gentleman made some valuable points about the availability of school places. I know that concerns have been raised by some parents who have been unable to get children into their first choice of school. I recognise that the position in west London is complicated by the movement of pupils between boroughs, which is in line with parental preference--something supported widely in the House. It would not be right to treat any parent expressing a preference less favourably simply because they live on one side of a local government boundary.

16 Mar 2001 : Column 1366

It is a difficult issue, and I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. He thought that only a few parents in Hillingdon chose to send their children to schools in other LEA areas; knowing Hillingdon as I do, I wonder whether it is a few. However, parents would no doubt object to their freedom to do so being ended.

Mr. Wilkinson: The Minister and I have something in common: my son was born in Hillingdon hospital, too. If there are two applicants of equal merit for a school, should not preference be given to the one who lives in the same local authority area as the school?

Mr. Wicks: Our difficulty is that the Greenwich judgment has put the emphasis on parental choice. It would have to be a matter for the LEA and the school's policies. However, I recognise the difficulties.

Although the law gives parents the right to express a preference for the school at which they would wish their child to be educated, it has never guaranteed every parent a place for their child at the preferred school. I understand the frustration of parents whose application has been unsuccessful. We would like all parents to gain a place for their child in a school that is satisfactory to them.

In my constituency of Croydon, North, I find nothing more difficult than talking to parents who would dearly love their son or daughter to go to a certain school and having to explain to them that, because of the rules of arithmetic, it is not possible. After all, if a school has more applications than places, it cannot admit every applicant. In the circumstances, places have to be allocated among applicants according to the school's published oversubscription criteria.

Admission arrangements for all schools must be published annually by each local education authority in a combined booklet. Information on the number of places available and applications made for them in the previous year must also be shown to help parents assess their chances of obtaining a place at their preferred school.

Parents who are refused a place at a school have a right of appeal. That is important. Under the new admissions legislation introduced by the Government, appeal panels are completely independent of the admission authority that decided the application. Their decisions are binding on the admission authority and can be overturned only by the courts. That is a step in the right direction.

Some schools have always been more popular than others. Our view is that the only satisfactory way to meet parental preference is to raise standards in all schools, so that the choice that parents have to make is between equally good schools. Our policies are focused on achieving that aim. However, as the House will appreciate, that cannot happen overnight.

In west London as a whole, there are enough places to satisfy demand based on current patterns of pupil movement; LEA returns from west London as a whole show that that is the case. However, I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point that, in Hillingdon, numbers are increasing and the demand for secondary school places is expected to exceed supply in future years.

LEAs have a duty to provide sufficient school places for their area. The Government believe that decisions about the organisation and supply of school places are best taken locally--by the main partners in the provision of education. We have established a new framework for

16 Mar 2001 : Column 1367

local decision making. The School Standards and Framework Act introduced a new framework for local decision making in school-place planning.

LEAs must prepare a school organisation plan covering a five-year rolling period. That sets out how the LEA proposes to deal with surpluses and deficits of school provision and what provision it intends to make for pupils with special educational needs. The plan sets the context for proposals to change school organisation in the area. Those might include proposals to enlarge or to establish schools.

A school organisation committee has been established for each LEA area. The role of the committee is to consider the plan and to take decisions about statutory proposals affecting the local organisation of school places.

In thanking the hon. Gentleman for raising this important subject, which has a resonance for all of us in London, I should refer to today's announcement by schools Ministers that LEAs have been given the green light to spend more than £650 million on school capital projects through the private finance initiative. The money, which includes an extra £200 million of PFI credits from the Budget last week, has been provisionally allocated to 21 local authorities to support public-private partnership projects due to reach contract signature in 2002-03. A total of 174 schools will benefit and there will be more than 20 new schools.

The increased amounts available for school projects are part of the total capital investment in our schools. The projects range from building completely new schools to

16 Mar 2001 : Column 1368

sports and information and communications technology facilities to renovations in primary, secondary and special needs schools.

On the plan for a new school in Ruislip, the hon. Gentleman recognised that I might not be able to agree to the proposal tomorrow. That is the case. I can agree to it today. The projects include a brand new secondary school in Hillingdon, located in Ruislip. The scheme is for a five-form entry school to include adult education facilities and a dual-use library.

Mr. Wilkinson: May I express my thanks and appreciation on behalf of my constituents?

Mr. Wicks: I thank the hon. Gentleman, but, obviously, the agreement was made on the merits of the case, which was very good.

Hillingdon local education authority will be invited to develop an outline business case for submission to my Department and the Treasury later this year. Once they have approval, LEAs can start the necessary procurement.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the launch of the new PFI projects, including the one in Ruislip, is good news for local parents and, more importantly, local children in the Hillingdon area. The schemes, together with those already in place, demonstrate the benefits that PFI can bring to our schools.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for introducing the debate and the House for listening. I have been able to announce some good news, and we can all have a good weekend.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page