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4 Jul 2001 : Column 128WH

Secondary Education (Bradley Stoke)

1.30 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): It is tempting to begin by observing that a debate on secondary education in Bradley Stoke might set a world record for brevity among Adjournment debates, because there is no secondary education in Bradley Stoke. That will be the thrust of my argument today.

Bradley Stoke is one of the largest—some say the largest—housing estate in Europe. It has 9,000 houses and more are still being built, as anyone driving through the estate will see. A lay person viewing the development would wonder how it was possible that, after 10 years, such an area could have not only no secondary school, but no prospect of securing one for several years to come. As we move through the inevitable technicalities, I hope that we shall not lose sight of the lack of common sense involved in building so many houses with no sign of a secondary school.

Bradley Stoke crosses parliamentary boundaries; it is represented by me and the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith), who will be trying to catch your eye to make a brief contribution, Mr. Cummings. I am grateful to South Gloucestershire council for the brief supplied to us and to the Minister. I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and wish him well in his new job.

I shall start by answering my own question about how a huge housing development could have been built without a secondary school. The dreadful term "surplus places" lurks over much of the period. In crude terms, local authorities are not permitted to build new schools while empty places are available in existing schools. The real position is slightly more complicated, but that is the gist of the problem. Although it has been painfully apparent for many years that Bradley Stoke would need a secondary school, surplus places in other secondary schools prevented the local authority from proceeding with the construction of a new one.

Those surplus places have now gone. For 2002, the local authority predicts a shortfall of 283 places, and for 2003, a shortfall of 459. Thus the argument about surplus places no longer applies. In any case, the notion of surplus places is problematic. It has always been apparent that Bradley Stoke would need a secondary school. The fact that places were available in schools outside the immediate area—I stress that I make no criticism of such schools—could not disguise the obvious need for a new secondary school. It would have been better if work had started on the new school some years ago; it might then have been up and running when places were needed. Instead, there is a lag and a crisis. We realise that there is a problem, and only then do we set about redressing it. I hope that the rules about surplus places can be changed, perhaps for other fast-growing areas, so that these problems do not arise again.

What are the problems in South Gloucestershire and Bradley Stoke as we look ahead to providing a secondary school in the area? The first is that the authority faces a huge backlog in school maintenance and repair. The authority estimates the figure to be £94 million. The figures are inevitably speculative, but the backlog is huge.

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South Gloucestershire came into being in 1995 and started to set about tackling the backlog, but it is an uphill struggle and trade-offs have to be faced. A large capital investment in one big new secondary school could pre-empt much-needed spending on the maintenance of other secondary and primary schools and, indeed, spending on the authority's other capital projects. South Gloucestershire could raise capital and blow it all on a school for Bradley Stoke; many of us would like to see that, but it would pre-empt many of the authority's other urgent capital needs.

The second problem is the lack of capital from developers. The developers made lots of money from building all the houses, so why do they have no cash to put towards the school? The answer is that the predecessor local authority that gave permission for the houses secured sites in the area for schools but no capital contributions for them. In recent years, South Gloucestershire council has been far more effective at obtaining capital contributions, and some money has been found. However, it inherited a legacy of not receiving capital from developers, which is a genuine problem.

The third key problem is that, on revenue, South Gloucestershire council is grossly underfunded. People might wonder about the connection between revenue underfunding and capital expenditure, but it is intimate. I often hear debates in this Chamber in which hon. Members say that their authority is the worst funded. They usually mean the worst-funded county council. South Gloucestershire is the worst-funded local education authority.

As I have said previously, someone has to be at the bottom of the pile. I am not suggesting that we should be at the top of the pile, but the relative ranking of authorities must be fair, and the discrepancy between the amount that South Gloucestershire council receives and the amount that many other authorities receive is huge and unjustifiable. It is made much worse by the population growth that the area has faced. As the Minister may be aware, the statistics used to calculate school numbers are terribly out of date by, on average, about 18 months. I have challenged Ministers on the matter previously, and they have said how difficult it is to acquire up-to-date information. I have offered to type the numbers in myself if it would help the process. In the age of the internet and technology, it should not be difficult to count the number of children in schools at present rather than use out-of-date data. As a result, the authority not only receives less per head per child but does not even receive money for every child in the school. In south Gloucestershire, the difference between the number of children in our schools and the number that the Government use for funding is the equivalent of an entire primary school, whom we educate not for below average but for nil. We receive no money for those children, because the figures are so out of date and the population is rising rapidly. That system must be changed.

Why does it matter that we have a secondary school? There are currently 129 year 6 children in Bradley Stoke's five primary schools, with a sixth primary school coming on stream. This autumn, those 129 children will all go to schools outside their community. There are 140 year 5 children for 2002. As there is no chance of

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a school by then, they will all have to go out of the area. There are 174 children in year 4 for 2003. Almost certainly, all will have to go outside the area.

Bradley Stoke is already a car community, with huge dependence on the private car and a great deal of traffic and congestion. For that reason alone, a secondary school in Bradley Stoke would improve quality of life, reduce congestion and slightly reduce dependence on the car. Far more than that, a secondary school would give much more of a sense of community to Bradley Stoke. Bradley Stoke is trying to build a sense of community, but it has limited facilities that have taken a long time to come, and a secondary school could cement the community like nothing else.

Will we get one? How could we pay for a secondary school in Bradley Stoke? The Government could allow the council to borrow the money, but they would allow it to borrow only about half the cost of a secondary school. The council estimates that it would be allowed to borrow about £6 million towards the cost of about £12 million of a new secondary school. The balance would have to be found from capital resources, which would have to come from wiping out all other capital expenditure in the authority in terms of using capital receipts. It is difficult to envisage how that could be achieved. I endorse one of the authority's pleas: I ask the Government not to give the council money, but merely to allow it to borrow a realistic amount towards the cost of building a school.

People will say, "Well, perhaps they thought that the Government gave the council money to build the school. Well, all right, they can borrow it, but why not let the council borrow a realistic amount, rather than merely half the cost of the school, especially when capital is so tight because of the failure of previous councils to get capital contributions from developers?" A decent amount of borrowed money and, perhaps, some additional capital expenditure by the council could mean that a school could be built relatively quickly, but at the moment that does not seem realistic.

The only other obvious route is the private finance initiative, which would probably involve not only Bradley Stoke but all secondary schools in the authority's area, and possibly some primary schools, too. It means tendering across the European Union and yet more delay.

The critical point about the private finance initiative is that the amount that the Government will let the authority pay the private contractor may not be what the private contractor will charge the council; there may be a shortfall. A well-funded authority could cover some of that shortfall from a generous standard spending assessment settlement, but one that was already spending way above the SSA—it may be crippled by having the worst SSA settlement in the country—could not countenance going into a long-term commitment in which it had to make up a shortfall year in, year out. That is where revenue funding and capital funding come together.

Bradley Stoke has urgently needed a secondary school for some years. We could all see the problem coming, yet for various reasons—rules about surplus places and about capital funding—it will be years before we get that school. During the general election, the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West and I were approached

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by parents in Bradley Stoke who said, "I have a 10-year-old. Surely he and my nine-year-old will have a school in our community." I had to say, "If you are lucky, your eight-year-old might, but by then your 11-year-old will have been sent out of the community to school, so you will be taking your children to two different schools." I did not feel comfortable giving that answer. That is why I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue early in the new Parliament.

I look forward to a constructive response from the Minister. I hope that he will appreciate the common-sense problem. Parents are likely to have to send their children to school out of the area for years to come, largely because arcane rules made under this and previous Governments have resulted in an extraordinary situation.

I hope that the Minister will be willing to receive a delegation led by the two local Members of Parliament, including local councillors and representatives of the local education authority, to express anxieties about the area in more detail. I hope that we shall be able to work together to achieve something that is long overdue and that will benefit everyone in Bradley Stoke: a good secondary school and a sense of community.

1.41 pm

Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West): I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) on securing this timely and appropriate debate and my gratitude to him for allowing me to contribute to it. I support the hon. Gentleman's request to the Government to treat the issue of a new secondary school for Bradley Stoke as a special case.

Bradley Stoke is a large, private housing development that has grown remarkably in recent years, and continues to grow. Unfortunately, as the hon. Gentleman said, some planning decisions taken by South Gloucestershire's predecessor local authorities, Northavon and Avon county councils, were less than inspired. More and more houses have been built in the area, but the provision of essential services has lagged behind. It is relevant to the debate that, when agreements were reached with developers, the former Avon local education authority secured sites for schools but no capital contribution towards building costs.

There is a clear case now for building a secondary school in Bradley Stoke. Projections show that it will be needed in the next two or three years. The only matter that troubles me, apart from securing finance to build it, is its possible effect on surrounding schools, especially on Filton high school, which has high standards and has recently been the recipient of capital investment. It is important to build on and protect that investment and I know that South Gloucestershire council will phase in the new school sensitively.

I make no comment on the general use of PFI, but in this instance it is clear that developing a satisfactory PFI scheme to include the Bradley Stoke school will take far too long. I look forward to hearing any advice that my hon. Friend the Minister has to offer, while somewhat belatedly congratulating him on his recent appointment.

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1.44 pm

The Minister for Schools (Mr. Stephen Timms) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) on securing the debate and on his result in the general election, which no doubt reflects his diligence in promoting the interests of the residents of Bradley Stoke and other parts of his constituency. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) for taking the trouble to raise his concerns with me.

Let me set out some of our ambitions for secondary education in Bradley Stoke and throughout the country. We are committed to raising the standard of secondary education for all pupils. In South Gloucestershire, as elsewhere, we are taking action to drive up standards and support initiatives that will achieve that. The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend referred to the need for additional school places in Bradley Stoke. We have substantially increased capital investment in schools and put in place a new capital strategy based on the development of asset management plans, which will help effective local decision making. I shall outline how that will work in a moment.

We have made a clear commitment to raising standards. The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 gave us a framework within which we could accelerate our drive to raise standards. Since then, we have been taking consistent and effective action at all stages of the education system. We need to ensure that all children, wherever they live, have the opportunity to reach their full potential. We now want to build on what has already been achieved.

The education Bill to be published in the autumn will be a key step towards achieving our ambition of raising standards throughout the system, particularly by facilitating the creation of a more diverse secondary education system, in which every school has a distinct ethos and character and every pupil can take pride in his or her school.

We are supporting unprecedented levels of investment in schools. Over the next three years, we shall allocate about £8.5 billion. That capital investment is needed to create the right environment for children to learn and to ensure that high-quality education is available to all. Capital investment has risen from £683 million in the financial year to 1997 and will reach an annual rate of £3.5 billion by 2003-04—a more than fivefold increase. That reflects our great commitment to improving education. Since 1997, South Gloucestershire district council has received total capital allocations of £43.9 million for investment in its schools. That covers the period from 1997-98 to 2000-01. The allocation for the current year is more than £9 million.

Hon. Members have made important points about the availability of school places in Bradley Stoke, and I am aware that concerns have been raised about whether there are sufficient places to meet demand, given the scale of development in the area. To meet the need, the local education authority plans to build a community secondary school in Bradley Stoke, providing, I think, about 900 places for children aged 11 to 16. LEAs have a duty to provide a sufficient number of school places for their area. Decisions about the organisation and supply of places are best taken locally by the main partners in education provision.

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The 1998 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 they propose to deal with surpluses and deficits of school provision and what provision they intend to make for pupils with special educational needs. The plan sets the context for proposals to change school organisation in the area, including, for example, proposals to enlarge existing schools or establish new ones.

Parents have the right to express a preference for the school at which they wish their child to be educated, but of course we cannot guarantee every parent a place for their child in the school at the top of their list. If a school has more applications than places, it cannot admit every applicant. In such circumstances, places must be allocated to applicants according to published criteria.

A school organisation committee—SOC—has been established for each local education authority area. The role of SOCs is to consider the plan and to take decisions about statutory proposals affecting the local organisation of school places. SOCs are independent statutory bodies answerable to their local communities. If the SOC cannot reach a unanimous decision on the plan or any statutory proposals, they are passed to independent schools adjudicators for decision. The SOC will of course need to be assured that funding is available to enable the implementation of a proposal. Should an authority be able to demonstrate an overall projected deficit in actual, compared with forecast, numbers of school places—looking about three years ahead—it can apply for funding under the category of basic need in the annual capital round, just as South Gloucestershire has done, with conspicuous success.

Where there is a basic need for extra school places, allocations are made with reference to a comparison of the projected demand with the assessed capacity of all schools within a growing area, normally within a radius of three miles for secondary schools. Where an authority demonstrates that it has basic need, the Government provide funding for the required number of school places. Since 1998, we have made available a total allocation of more than £9.7 million to provide additional school places in South Gloucestershire as a whole, including 854 secondary places in the Bradley Stoke area.

Basic need cost factors are based on the averaged cost, taking account of conditions in the area concerned, of providing a school place in a new school or of extending or adapting an existing one. The values are used as the basis for calculating the basic need element of each LEA's annual capital guidelines. We have made an unprecedented overall increase in the level of capital funding for schools, and LEAs will need to consider how best to fund schemes from the various funding sources available to them—including, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West said, capital receipts and contributions from developers, as well as Government funding sources.

I know that South Gloucestershire is considering proposals to provide a new school in Bradley Stoke through a partnership with the private sector. Officials from my Department have met the LEA to discuss the potential for a PFI scheme to build a new secondary school. Guidance to all authorities will be issued shortly in which it is proposed to invite bids by LEAs for the

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funding of PFI schemes. Bids are expected to be received during September. The total capital investment in PFI schemes nationally includes more than 800 new or refurbished schools that are operational or have been given the green light to proceed using PFI. Those projects, valued at over £2 billion, will have the additional benefit of fully maintained buildings as part of the contract and high standard services for the lifetime of the contract. It is important not to discount the significant advantages of the PFI route for such developments, although it is not the only route available.

Mr. Webb : I am sure that many Bradley Stoke parents will read the record of our debate. I am sure that the parents of an eight-year-old or a nine-year-old in Bradley Stoke would want me to say that much of what the Minister said is true. Of course the Government have spent money on education for children in Bradley Stoke: they have to, because there is no school there. They have to find places for them somewhere else. That is not a source of particular credit. The Minister said that there were 854 places in the Bradley Stoke area, but none of them is in Bradley Stoke; that means that 854 more children are sent out of the area. I am not sure that the Minister has said anything that will make parents in Bradley Stoke feel that he has understood that we are still years away from having the secondary school that that community badly needs. Will he say anything that will encourage them to believe that they do not face years of negotiations, contracts and tendering? Must we wait for three more years?

Mr. Timms : The hon. Gentleman will need to await the conclusion of my remarks to find out exactly what I am going to say. I think that he has slightly misunderstood the issue. The 854 secondary places for which an allocation has been provided are specifically for children in Bradley Stoke. It is for the local authority to decide how it uses the funding allocation and where it chooses to provide the places. However, the allocation has been made to the local authority specifically to meet the secondary school needs of the population of Bradley Stoke.

I want to set out the system in full so that hon. Members can understand the context in which our discussion is taking place. We have introduced a new strategy for capital investment in schools, which is based on the development of asset management plans. Those form the basis for the allocation of capital funding to tackle identified needs and provide a transparent local framework within which schools and local education authorities can develop schemes to utilise the capital funds that are made available by the Government and other sources. Under asset management plans, a large proportion of funding will be allocated to LEAs and directly to schools under formulae that are based on relative need. LEAs and schools will be helped by three-year certainty about the allocation of the bulk of the funding.

A key part of the capital strategy is that authorities and schools should identify their priorities using clear criteria. They should address a wide range of needs from within their overall capital budgets and join up separate sources of funding locally to modernise a school's estate. As part of that process, we have committed a substantial

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amount of capital funding on a three-year basis, which gives LEAs greater certainty for their planning purposes. South Gloucestershire has already been given an allocation of £13 million for its schools over three years, including new deal for schools condition support and new deal for schools devolved formula capital. In December, we shall announce allocations to all LEAs, and South Gloucestershire will again feature. There will be more than £500 million of new deal for schools modernisation funding for 2002-03 and 2003-04.

As part of the implementation of effective asset management plans, we recently issued guidance on the sufficiency of school buildings and gave details of a new measure of overall capacity in schools. Detailed guidance on that capacity method is expected to be published later this year. To ease the burden on authorities and to ensure that new capacity is measured in time for assessments to be completed by June 2002, independent surveyors who work directly with the Department will collate a schedule of accommodation for all maintained schools. The new measure is intended to be used to inform policy development on the way in which funding for extra places can be made available.

South Gloucestershire is considering options for the best way forward in meetings its needs in terms of both the sufficiency of places in Bradley Stoke and the condition and suitability of the rest of its building stock—a point to which the hon. Member for Northavon drew attention. In taking forward its plans, the authority will need to consider how schemes can best be delivered with the resources that are available.

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South Gloucestershire has been well supported through capital allocations, which recognise the projected deficit of school places in three years' time.

Dr. Naysmith : Will the Minister receive a delegation including myself, the hon. Member for Northavon and the local authority?

Mr. Timms : I shall come to that in a moment, if I may.

The authority has been well supported. Capital allocations recognise the projected deficit of school places, which will be about 500 places in three years' time. In addition, the authority has its own capital receipts and can explore the scope for using PFI. I recognise that there are calls on the council's resources elsewhere in its estate. However, given the information that I have received and which has been presented in this debate, I see no reason why the authority cannot draw on the variety of resources available to it to meet both those demands and that for new secondary provision.

If there is a difficulty that has not yet become apparent, I shall be happy, in the first instance, to ask officials from the Department to meet representatives of South Gloucestershire to consider the LEA's options and plans for meeting its needs. If that is not satisfactory, I shall meet the hon. Members concerned to discuss whether additional action needs to be taken.

Given those measures and others that we are taking, I hope that we have laid the foundations for improvements in secondary education for the residents of Bradley Stoke. We are, of course, committed to transforming secondary education across the country.

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