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3 Mar 2009 : Column 220WH—continued

The bulk of the problem in Merton lies in the Wimbledon end of the constituency because there has been increasing demand for extra places to the north of the Worple
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road. Last year, across the whole borough, I think that we had fewer than 15 spare places in our schools, yet there will be an 8 per cent. rise in numbers between 2008 and 2012. Immediately this year, there is already a demand for three extra forms of entry and the council estimates that there will be a requirement for 12 extra forms of entry by 2012. The problem is quite acute in Merton.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton talked accurately about why there has been surprise about the number of extra places required and why that might have been. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) was right to say that the matter is not the Government’s fault. There has clearly been some element of miscalculation by the Local Government Association, which provides the figures. There is also the issue of retention and people simply staying where they have been moved to or in the boroughs where they are, rather than migrating out of London. Other hon. Members have discussed that. Clearly, the impact of immigration over the past few years on many of our constituencies should not be underestimated. As my hon. Friend said, there has been huge demographic change.

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

That has led us to where we are. In addition, we are now seeing the impact of the recession, with people potentially staying longer in their houses. Indeed, there is also the potential outflow from the independent sector. The dynamics of the situation in my constituency are slightly different from those in other constituencies. The bulk of people move to the independent sector after enjoying the excellent state primary education. That is a reflection of why the state sector has always been relatively full in the borough of Merton—even though there is the expectation that because it is a middle-class area, there might be a number of surplus places.

Merton, and Wimbledon in particular, have been faced with an immediate requirement for three extra forms of entry. As I said, based on current estimates—a number of other hon. Members have discussed whether we take those estimates to be accurate—there is an expectation that we will have to have 12 extra forms of entry. My discussions with our excellent members for education, Councillors Debbie Shears and Krystal Miller, indicate that their concern is that 12 extra forms of entry will be on the low side, rather than being an overestimate. That remains a real concern.

The problem for councils on the ground is not just ensuring that the demand for extra spaces is spread evenly across our borough or, indeed, our constituencies. In Wimbledon, the demand for extra places is arising in areas where for all sorts of reasons there has already been huge pressure on first choices for primary schools. That is happening either because those catchment areas are traditionally regarded as middle class and more independent, and therefore fewer primary school places have been provided, or because the previous Labour administration sold off school sites and, therefore, there is simply not the potential to expand some of those sites in those areas. Such stress factors have resulted in real parental concern about how far children will have to travel, which has particularly been evidenced in relation to the expansion of Wimbledon Chase school.

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In addition, where there is space in schools that already have two forms of entry, going up to three forms of entry will give rise to the prospect that relatively young children will be in a school that might have 700 to 800 children—although I accept that children will still be in a class size of 30. I accept that the evidence on the overall size of a school is equivocal; none the less, there is real parental concern about that. The right balance for councils in relation to what they are, in a number of cases, asking the Minister for is to say, “Yes, we absolutely accept that the influx and increase in the number of places cannot be laid at your door, but the Government could do a number of things.”

A number of parents have raised with me the point that they have consistently heard from the Government that there will be money available for infrastructure projects as a means of fiscal stimulus. We all understand that those moneys are accessed through different pots, schemes and allocations, but, as another contributor has said today, many London boroughs are floor authorities. Merton is, too, so if we compare the situation with last September’s inflation figure, we are suffering a cut in revenue funding in real terms. My local authority has made representations to the Department, but there has been a request for flexibility in terms of accessing the available pots. For instance, everybody welcomes the primary capital programme, but some of it will not be available for immediate purposes. Equally, other capital pots of money in departmental control would—if there were some flexibility, particularly on this problem—remove some of the real pressures on local councils.

All London Members present have, I am sure, experienced broadly the same problems: we have heard real parental concern about the size of schools and whether their standard of education will be affected by the increase in numbers. Ofsted-rated “excellent” schools are expanding, and I am all in favour of that, but such excellence will continue to pertain only if there is revenue funding to support it and the capital funding to allow us to make the transition, so that the environment in which the children learn is excellent, too.

The Government can indicate today that they are prepared to consider a flexible approach to capital requests from local authorities, and I hope that the Minister will address those concerns in her remarks.

12.2 pm

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I apologise for being late, Mr. Pope. I had to attend a meeting with utilities, local residents and traders, which I think has averted a roadworks disaster. I hope that you will forgive me for having gone to that and missed the early part of the debate. I also thank the Minister, who met me and representatives of Richmond upon Thames borough council a couple of weeks ago, because, for the Richmond part of my constituency, the problem is acute.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) will have laid out the challenge that faces the royal borough of Kingston, and north Kingston, the part of that borough in my constituency, has three of this year’s bulge primary classes and is in desperate need of help. The only long-term solution is a new primary school, and to make places available for children we must consult on that permanent solution this spring—ahead of the summer school holidays, so critical is the
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problem with the number of children. My hon. Friend will have presented the picture in Kingston, so Members will understand just what a crisis we face there. We have the children—there is no question but that they are there, unexpected though they would have been two years ago—and they must have schools and provision made for them. That cannot be done, however, without significant intervention by the Government.

I shall address the Richmond problem but leave significant time for the winding-up speeches, which will be so important. In some ways, Richmond was ahead of the game in terms of recognising the explosion in the number of children who would require school places. The borough has a very powerful reputation for primary education. If we exclude the City of London and the Isles of Scilly, each of which have only one primary school, Richmond is the highest performing borough in terms of primary school results. Although we regard some schools as weaker than others, we can fairly say that no school does not fall into the “good” category.

The schools are very popular with local residents, but we started to see the change in the live birth rate at least two years ago and, as a consequence, went to the Department. It attempted to give us support, so Richmond was one of only two councils to receive safety valve money. We needed £50 million to expand seven schools, but the safety valve money, while very welcome, was only £8.9 million. Since then, the problem has been exacerbated as we, like other boroughs, have experienced a significant shift as parents who intended to put their children into the independent sector decide that they can get outstanding provision in the state sector, and that, at a time of economic pressure, it makes sense to do so. The council has, therefore, just invested £12.25 million in expanding six schools to make provision for entry this year, but it has run out of resources that can be diverted to provide a similar number of new places in future years.

Richmond and Kingston are both small, floor boroughs that receive very little of their local government funding through the grant process. They are not considered to be disadvantaged boroughs, and they are not inner-city boroughs, either, even though both take a significant number of children from the inner city for various reasons, including the boroughs’ contours. In those circumstances, there are not many other parts of the budget from which to pull in money: there are neither funds for various other academic purposes, nor pots of money that can be attached and redirected to provide the resource to cope with a delightful but challenging flood of children who require primary school places. I therefore hope that the Minister will recognise that, even though the Government are mid-cycle in their funding programmes, south-west London’s boroughs face a real emergency.

Much of today’s discussion has been about primary school places for the typical child, but there is a significant special needs component, too. Richmond and Kingston have become magnets for families with children with special needs. It is a compliment to the boroughs, but it has a significant impact on many resources, and in Richmond there is a major move to repatriate to the borough the capacity to provide places for many more special needs children, particularly those at the far end—the complex end—of the spectrum. The difficulty is exacerbated by the rapidly increasing demand for
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school places. Those children need our particular attention and care. The provision of funding to enable significant expansion in complex special needs services at primary level and all the way through the education process is an urgent factor that must be brought to the Government’s attention.

It is important that we have a response from the Minister, so I shall sit down. However, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton on securing this important debate in the House.

12.8 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I shall also try to keep my remarks to five minutes or so to give the Minister time to respond. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing the debate, and other hon. Friends and Members on their participation. I hope that if the Minister leaves today’s debate with anything, it will be with the recognition that this is a cross-party matter. In spite of the absence of Labour Members, the problem affects many of their local authorities, so I hope that she will approach today’s debate in that vein.

Members have sensibly set out the main causes of the problem. First, people have migrated to London and there has been an accompanying rise in birth rates. Secondly, there have been changes to London’s housing stock. People who would have moved out of the borough when their children got older are now not doing so because of the state of the property market and perhaps because of improvements in education provision. That has certainly happened in my local authority area. Thirdly, the economic downturn means that parents who would have educated their children in the private sector either cannot afford to do so now, or are worried that they may not be able to afford it in the future. Those are the main drivers.

I hope that the Minister does not say that local authorities should have predicted all that. The Government did not predict what was going to happen in relation to migration or in terms of an economic downturn, so it is difficult to see how local authorities should have been able to predict 12 months ago that that sort of thing was going to happen. It is unexpected and exceptional and I think that the Minister needs to acknowledge that when she responds.

There is clearly a significant problem. London Councils has set out what it considers to be the financial implications. Its figures show a shortfall of £260 million in the current spending review period associated with the additional capital funding that is required and a shortfall of £480 million over the next spending review period from 2011 to 2014. Substantial sums are needed to address the problem.

Hon. Members have carefully set out the impact in their local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) said, the key is how the transfer rate changes and that rate depends on lots of factors, including parents moving in and out of the borough and so on. If there is a 90 per cent. transfer rate—in other words, 90 per cent. of the children born in the borough continue in primary schools when they reach five—some £22 million would be required and if the transfer rate is lower, perhaps nearer the transfer rate of 85 per cent. that used to apply, £10 million
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would be required. Whether the problem is seen at London level or at local authority level, we are talking about substantial sums.

Other boroughs have drawn up figures. Lambeth, for example, has identified a £16 million shortfall in what it needs to provide places, and we have heard about Richmond. There are similar problems outside London, for example, in Kent. So the Minister needs to respond to a London issue and a wider-than-London issue.

In terms of solutions, we and, I am sure, the Minister have received briefings from London Councils that set out how it thinks the matter should be dealt with in terms of additional emergency capital grants. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton made that point in his concluding remarks.

I hope that we will receive a considered, positive response from the Minister, because otherwise we are into Alice in Wonderland politics, with the banks having literally hundreds of billions of pounds invested in them to bail them out of a disaster that they created themselves through their greed and incompetence, for which they are rewarded with pensions 30 times a teacher’s salary, yet schools being starved of funding despite a real need for investment in our primary schools to create new school places and investment that will create jobs and provide a long-lasting legacy for our children. I am sure that the Minister does not want that to happen—I am that she is not in the business of Alice in Wonderland politics—and that she will, therefore, come forward with a concrete response and agree to meet my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton and I to talk about our local issues. I also hope that she will do so, on a wider London basis, with other hon. Members who have been affected by this problem.

12.13 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing this debate and on his accurate analysis of the process of building new school capacity, which is Kafkaesque in its bureaucratic complexity and contradictions. That is something that the Conservative party policy would sweep away as we sought to implement a Swedish approach to bringing in new education providers.

In this country, the school admissions process and securing a place at either a primary or a secondary school for a child has become a fraught, highly stressful annual moment for parents. With one in three primary schools judged by Ofsted to be no better than satisfactory, it is clear why school admissions is such a sensitive issue: it is trying to squeeze a pint into a half-pint pot.

Last week I visited King Solomon academy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) mentioned. It has an excellent primary school and is one of the schools rated by Ofsted as outstanding. However, the problem in Kingston and Surbiton seems to be one of poor forecasting rather than the quality of the primary schools. Plans were not put in place to raise capacity when the demographics were relatively clear that new capacity was needed, notwithstanding the recent trends arising from the recession.

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Mr. Davey rose—

Mr. Gibb: I will not give way because of the time.

In January 2007, there were 678 surplus places in primary schools in Kingston, which is some 6 per cent. of capacity. That reflected a demographic trend that showed the number of five-year-olds in Kingston falling from 1,500 in 2003 to about 1,450 by January 2008, in line with national demographic trends. However, projections also made it clear that by January 2009, in relation to the September 2008 intake, the number of five-year-olds nationally would rise from 530,000 to 552,000 and then to 569,000 in 2010, with further increases in each of the following years. In Kingston, it was projected that primary places would need to rise from 10,400 in 2008 to 10,584 in 2009 and 10,809 by 2010, with further rises in 2011 and 2012. Despite these projections, last year there was a shortage, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said, of about 200 primary school places for rising fives in the borough, which resulted in the emergency bulge classes, or Portakabins as they are more colloquially known. This year a shortage of 300 places is forecast.

Kingston council has said that the number of primary school applications exceeded all expectations and called the increase unprecedented, but local parents, including Vicky Grinnell-Wright, for example, have said that the council’s poor planning was due to negligence. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton blames the inaccuracy of forecasts and high birth rates since 2002, the independent sector not expanding in line with the higher birth rate and the effect of jobs and the housing market on the extent of internal migration to and from London. He also accurately described the problem of funding. My hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster and for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) both pointed out that there are 23 floor boroughs in London.

Parents in the borough are obviously hugely concerned. Nothing matters more to parents of young children than the choice of primary school. All parents want a good local primary school within a short distance that has a safe, happy atmosphere, that has a real focus on early reading using synthetic phonics and that will enable children to gain a genuine grasp of the rules of arithmetic.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telling us about the issues in Kingston, but he is completely wrong. Many boroughs across the capital are experiencing the same problems. I have talked to a lot of parents and when I speak with them they begin to understand the difficulties that Kingston has faced—and no doubt parents in other boroughs do, too. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will think again and join with Liberal Democrats and others to press the Government for support, rather than making inaccurate statements.

Mr. Gibb: Parents in Kingston are concerned and they blame the council. Of course, they take into account all the other factors, but parents’ concerns have also been raised by Helen Whately, who has been campaigning with the parents that the hon. Gentleman mentions to raise the profile of the problem and to put pressure on Kingston council to fix the immediate crisis and put in place plans for long-term solutions.

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The hon. Gentleman is right: it is unacceptable that parents are facing the stress of not having a primary school place for their child. I hope that the Minister will assure parents in Kingston and Surbiton, and those in the rest of London, that these problems can be remedied in the near term.

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