Previous SectionIndexHome Page

London Borough of Sutton (School Places)

1.29 pm

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I am pleased to have secured the debate. The London borough of Sutton is right to be proud of its schools. Class sizes are lower than the national average; £130 more than the national average is spent on each pupil and there is a wide range of schools to choose from. One local school is ranked 13th out of 3,873 in England's GCSE league tables, while another is ranked 21st. However, Sutton has become a victim of its own success.

Sutton's schools are extremely popular because of their high quality and diversity. Decisions such as the Greenwich judgment and the Rotherham case mean that Sutton's schools now attract many pupils from outside the borough. I shall be brief, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) wishes to contribute to the debate, but I want to explain why popularity causes such a problem to my constituents who, understandably, wonder why they pay their council tax for a high quality of education, but then cannot get places for their children at the school for which their taxes pay.

In April, I wrote to the London borough of Sutton asking whether it was providing enough secondary school places for year 6 pupils in September 2001. It said that statistically it was, and that there were currently 2,003 pupils in year 6 in Sutton and that 2,483 places were available this September for year 7--a theoretical surplus of 480 or 20 per cent. However, the reality is no. Last year, 747 out-of-borough pupils were in year 7. Of those pupils, 428 attended selective schools that had only 662 places, making up 65 per cent. of the pupils attending selective schools in the borough, so only 35 per cent. of pupils were from inside the borough.

A total of 318 out-of-borough pupils attended community or voluntary aided comprehensives, which is 18 per cent. of the non-selective places. Therefore, out-of-borough pupils account for 30 per cent. of all places so we can expect there to be 267 in-borough pupils without places in local schools this September, a deficit of 10 per cent. of the places needed. That is before taking into account the desire of local parents to send their children to a particular type of school. One aspect about which the area can boast is a wide variety of different schools. There are 14 local education authority schools, of which five are selective, nine are comprehensive, two are Catholic, five are mixed, five are boys only and four are girls only.

While such a choice should be good for local parents, when there is a shortage of places it becomes a further restriction. If a child does not pass the selective entrance exams, is not Catholic, is female and her parents wish her to attend a single sex school, only one school in the borough matches such criteria. When there are not enough places for local children, the likelihood that the child will get into the school that the parents wish for that child reduces sharply even if they manage to get him into one of the borough schools at all.

The reason for the court decisions was to stop children being unable to attend the school across the road because they happen to live just outside the

2 May 2001 : Column 288WH

borough that runs the school. I agree that that is sensible. If the standard of schools were similar between adjacent boroughs, the court decisions would not cause any particular problems as pupils from within Sutton would attend nearby schools in adjacent boroughs at a similar rate as pupils who come into Sutton from outside. However, when a borough's schools are especially popular and successful, that is not the case. Surplus places are available in adjacent boroughs, such as 9 per cent. in Croydon and Kingston and 15 per cent. in Merton, but places at those schools are not so popular, so the flow of pupils to outside the borough is far lower than the flow into Sutton.

While Sutton does not have to fork out for the additional pupils in terms of the direct amounts spent on each pupil per year, additional pupils have a knock-on effect on what happens to the local council's resources. LEAs have a statutory duty to provide sufficient schools for the children living in their borough. Therefore, even though the reason why there are not enough school places in the borough is that pupils are coming in from outside the borough, the LEA is still required, in effect, to sell off council assets to increase the capacity of the schools for displaced local pupils. The local authority estimates that Overton Grange secondary school, which had to be built recently to accommodate pupils who could not find places at borough schools, cost £4 million to £5 million, which had to be raised through selling off assets. If there were not as many pupils coming in from outside the borough, however, there would never have been a need to provide that school, as places could have been provided for in the existing borough schools. The cost to Sutton council and local people is therefore £4 million to £5 million.

I received a letter from Sutton borough council, dated 3 April, which states:

The borough is a victim of its own success--it is legally bound to provide school places, but it is so popular that demand will always exceed supply. Many constituents have approached me about this matter. How is the local council to explain to taxpayers the increasing amount spent on local education when they cannot get their own children into the schools that their council tax is being spent on? My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam has been approached by an even greater number of constituents, and meetings

2 May 2001 : Column 289WH

have taken place in his constituency on the subject. I have had 34 different cases drawn to my attention in the past 12 months, and have written to the LEA and the Minister on numerous occasions. In her most recent response, the Minister wrote:

The Government's approach seems to be to try to place responsibility for local problems solely on the LEA's back, although the LEA cannot do anything about the system within which it is operating. As the Minister will know, my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) raised that issue in a debate in 1998. He asked what would be done to solve the problem, and was told by the then Minister for School Standards, the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), that the problem would be solved when the School Standards and Framework Bill became law, as it would

In the letter that I received from the Minister yesterday, she informed me that the Government had no plans to reverse the Greenwich judgment and that they believe that it is not sensible that children should be prevented from attending their nearest school merely because they happen to live in another borough. I have already stated that I agree with them about that. However, it is not sensible that local people should see their council's assets being sold off to build schools to which their children are frequently unable to gain a place.

The Government appear determined to keep the Greenwich judgment. If that is the case, they must find a way to make it work. That is their responsibility, rather than that of local authorities. Their last attempt to make it work seems to have failed. During the debate about what became the 1998 Act, the Minister said that the Government must face the challenge of providing for parental preference with a fair, open and transparent admissions framework, and that the Act would achieve that end. However, many of my constituents have complained that they feel that the system is unfair, not

2 May 2001 : Column 290WH

open, and about as clear as mud. Therefore, the Government appear still to be faced with the challenge, and I want to know how the Minister intends to tackle it.

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair ): By leave of the hon. Gentleman and the Minister, I call the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow).

1.41 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I wish to contribute briefly to the debate in the hope that the Minister will be able to address the concerns of several of my constituents who, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), have been experiencing difficulties in obtaining places in Sutton's schools, despite being residents of the borough. I am, therefore, grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate, and for giving me the opportunity to speak.

As my hon. Friend said, Sutton faces a problem with regard to school places. The cause of the problem is not failure. On the contrary, it has been caused by the success of Sutton's education provision. It has a group of popular and well-regarded schools, to which parents in Sutton and beyond are attracted. The group includes both selective and non-selective schools. As well as a successful group of schools, Sutton has a well-regarded local education authority, which has sustained its investment in education at least in line with the standard spending assessment over the past few years, and which has met all of its obligations in respect of the funding of matched funding initiatives. Recently, it received a positive evaluation from Ofsted.

The problem is that one in three of Sutton's school places is taken by children who live outside the borough. That would be fine, if it were one of the local authorities that has surplus school places. My hon. Friend listed several such authorities, such as Kingston and Surrey, but Sutton is not one of them. Consequently, now, several months into the process of allocating places for transfer to high school, 93 children in Sutton have not secured a school place. I checked that figure with the LEA earlier today. Nineteen of those children live in Worcester Park, where residents have felt under considerable pressure as a result of the way that the system has let them down.

Sutton has tried to build its way out of the problem. Substantial additional capital resources have been invested in its schools: new buildings and classrooms have been constructed, and a new secondary school, Overton Grange, has been built. However, although investment in schools and raising educational standards is welcome, they cannot solve the problem. The LEA cannot simply build its way out of the problem. There are, for instance, limits with regard to planning. Glenthorn is a school that has land that could be expanded upon. However, if it were expanded, that would cause anxiety among many of my constituents who live nearby, as the school is on the border of Merton and it already admits many Merton children. Expansion would, therefore, be likely to benefit not only Sutton children who cannot at present secure places at Sutton schools, but also, under the terms of the Greenwich judgment, Merton children. As a result, investment was made for the benefit not so much of Sutton but of others.

2 May 2001 : Column 291WH

One cause of Sutton's problems is the operation of the Greenwich judgment. My hon. Friend and I have often raised that issue over the past four years, and in various ways, not least during consideration of the School Standards and Framework Bill. It has the perverse effect of displacing Sutton children from Sutton schools in favour of out-of-borough children. The Government have made it clear that they are not prepared to pass legislation to remove the judgment and its current effects, and I believe that is also the position taken by the Opposition Front Bench. Certainly, that is my understanding from earlier debates.

I ask the Minister, in considering the representations that my hon. Friend and I are making today and have made over the years, to reconsider how the judgment works in areas such as Sutton. Could some flexibility be introduced into the system around admission arrangements, not to prevent children from attending popular schools such as those in Sutton but to give Sutton children the real possibility of being able to go to Sutton schools? Would the Minister at least consider a meeting between Sutton officers and her officials to discuss how it works in practice? I am sure that the officials would be delighted to have such discussions.

Parents in my constituency who have experienced the problem tell me that in February people receive a letter explaining whether their child is getting a school of their preference. Many are disappointed in failing to get the school of their choice; some get an offer, but many do not . They receive a letter stating that no school place is available for their children and that they will receive more information later. That leaves the parents and children in limbo. Parents and grandparents sometimes come to my surgeries not necessarily in tears but deeply upset by that news. I have to tell them that I cannot do much to help them because of the way in which the system works. We try to navigate the appeal system to discover what can be done to achieve the outcome that they want.

The news that they do not have a school place is crushing for many children, because they feel that they have been rejected by the system. The issue is not one of selection but one of rejection through the process that allocates school places. They are told that some surplus places exist in boroughs outside theirs and that they should apply to those schools instead. But parents in those boroughs have voted with their feet, rejected those schools and come to Sutton instead.

The success of schools in Sutton should not mean that Sutton children are displaced to other boroughs. My constituents, like my hon. Friend's, require action on this matter. They hope that the Government will recognise that a genuine problem exists that will not simply go away, and want the Government to work with the LEA to find the flexibility that will solve the problem.

1.47 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris ): First, I acknowledge the sincerity with which the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) and for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) have spoken.

2 May 2001 : Column 292WH

As Members of Parliament, we all know how important secondary school choice is for parents. The description that the hon. Gentlemen gave of disappointed parents is one we all know from our advice bureaux. It is often the first time that parents feel out of control of delivering for their children. Up to the age of 11 they have been able to deliver for them: they are in their charge, and they can sort out their lives. Suddenly, when their children reach the age of 11, something happens that makes them feel that they have almost lost control of their children's destiny. I understand that well, but there is no easy solution.

Both hon. Gentlemen would probably accept that under whatever system--whether it is the Tories' free schools and selection, or our proposals, under which every parent is guaranteed a first choice--disappointments will happen. The months during which they wait to discover the outcome are necessarily hairy. In my constituency, at the start of May, there are parents whose children do not have places for September.

There is, however, a fundamental difference of opinion between us on the matter. I do not want to give any ground on that, but I wanted to start my speech by acknowledging the achievements of schools, teachers and pupils in Sutton. They are high-performing schools, because of hard-working teachers, a local authority that supports them well and a learning and supportive community.

I am also grateful for the comments of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington about class sizes and achievement. I am sure that he is pleased that, compared with four years ago when 37 per cent. of infants in his constituency were in classes of more than 30, only 125 are now in such classes. That has contributed to the rising standards that we have seen in the borough and elsewhere. I want to place on the record the fact that we have not refused any request from Sutton for money to provide places for children who do not have them. The hon. Gentleman did not imply that, but much was said about the capital that had been put in, and I want to make it clear that we have coughed up the money every time since 1997 that the boroughs have come to us to say that they were short of places. As was acknowledged, we have allocated £10.2 million to provide extra secondary and primary places, too.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam seemed to view the situation in Sutton differently from the Government. Sutton schools are good; that is why parents want to send their children there. I probably should not say this, but my experience is that parents want a good secondary school place regardless of which borough it is in. If both hon. Gentlemen represented boroughs where schools were poor, they would not have parents queuing to say, "I defend my right to send my child to a school in my borough, despite the fact that it's performing poorly." All schools perform well in Sutton, and parents are probably saying, "I want a Sutton school for my child because I'm a Sutton citizen." However, if we explore the matter further, the issue will have more to do with Sutton schools being good than with their location.

In my constituency, we have both highly and poorly performing schools and a greater difference of performance than in Sutton. My constituency neighbours Solihull, and parents there want good

2 May 2001 : Column 293WH

schools, either in Birmingham or Solihull, rather than the right to go to a Solihull or Birmingham school. If they had to choose between sending their children to an under-performing school one side of the boundary and a high-performing school on the other, I know which they would choose. For the Government, the solution is to stop putting parents in the position of having to choose between high-performing and under-performing schools. That will take time, and I will not bore hon. Members by listing the measures that we have introduced to overcome the problem.

I do not wish to accuse schools in neighbouring areas of under-performing, but let us suppose that I said, "Fair cop, all right, I give in. I will ensure that every Sutton child may have a place in a Sutton school." That would mean that other children would have to go to under-performing schools in other boroughs. Whereas it is the task of the hon. Gentlemen to advance that argument, I hope that they will acknowledge that, as a Government, we could never rest on that solution. Some children will end up going to schools that are apparently unpopular.

The long-term dig on the problem is to ensure that we raise standards in schools throughout the borough so that parents do not mind where their children go. I suspect that if the hon. Gentlemen were in a borough surrounded by other boroughs with well performing schools, they would hear no complaints about children going outside the borough for their education. The argument is one of quality of education. Where we have diversity in quality of education--not the rich diversity in provision, which I applaud--parents will do anything in their power to get their child into a well-performing school, and look to the admissions arrangements to help. I can see how the hon. Gentleman's constituents have ended up believing that, if the admissions arrangements ensured their children a place in Sutton, they would get a high-performing school. However, that is not the answer.

It is not just a question of a school on the other side of the road. The nearest school for some of my constituents is in Solihull, although it might be three quarters of a mile away. The boundary makes sense for the local authority, but it is not always easy. Although it is difficult for some authorities, parents should be able exercise a preference for a school in the locality where they live. The over-subscription criteria that we apply must be fair, just, honest and open.

It would not be fair of me to go into too much detail and it may be a touch petty, but an increasingly large percentage of funding comes to schools from national Government rather than local government. If hon. Members rely too heavily on the argument that Sutton parents have paid for Sutton schools, they get into the argument that essentially the nation's taxpayers increasingly pay for the nation's schools.

Mr. Brake : On that specific point, I did not say that Sutton residents paid in the entirety for Overton Grange school. However, I spoke to the authority an hour or so ago and was told that there was a shortfall of £4 million to £5 million that had to be funded by the local authority for a school that would not have been needed had there not been such a significant number of out-of-borough pupils in Sutton.

2 May 2001 : Column 294WH

Ms Morris : I am happy to accept the hon. Gentleman's explanation of the financial arrangements. That will not be the first time that a local authority has used its own resources to contribute to capital or revenue. I am sure that he would equally accept in return that, for good or ill, an increasing percentage of both revenue and capital comes from national funding.

I turn now to the core of the matter, which is how one deals with the admission system. There is an obligation on Sutton to ensure that there are sufficient places for children in its borough. It does not have to promise that all those places can be found in the borough. It should share that information with other boroughs and acknowledge that there is an inflow and outflow from schools. That makes it more challenging for local authorities. It would be simple if a borough had the responsibility to provide only for its own children, but I do not think that that would enhance parental preference nationally. It might be a better deal for Sutton parents because they would get the good Sutton schools, but nationally, if we are trying to ensure that parents are not left with the real dilemma that both hon. Members described of not getting their first preference, building walls around boroughs and saying that the schools within them are first and foremost for the children who live there is not a way forward.

We must ensure when we run over subscription criteria that we do so as clearly and accountably as possible. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to the good Ofsted report that Sutton has just received. One of the things that Ofsted praised was Sutton's admissions arrangements. Although, without examining the details, and I suspect that they are not perfect because nothing is, the Department has no evidence that its admissions system is poor or is failing. I too spoke to the local authority in preparation for the debate. It said that it was at about the same stage as it was this time last year in the allocation of places. It is not more worried than it was then. It expects that by September every child will have a place. I suspect that when one looks at that in total numbers, the number of parents who get their first preference will be roughly similar to the figures across the nation.

We must always look for ways to improve. I looked through the correspondence from the hon. Gentleman. I noted that if one lives in an area, particularly a London borough, where one has to look at schools outside the borough to secure a place, one needs clear access to information about where there are places. I thought that we could both go back to Sutton and neighbouring boroughs and give some assurances to parents about that.

This is one of the issues in Sutton. It is born out of the success of the schools. To ask a Government to change a system where we are doing what we can to give as many parents their first choice of school, regardless of where they live, might satisfy Sutton parents in the short term, but it would not guarantee parental preference in the long term. The real challenge for us all is to make every school an improving or a good school so that parental preference means that--

 IndexHome Page