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Primary School Places (London)

March 3, 2009

Primary School Places (London)

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I apologise for being a little late in arriving for the debate, Mr. Amess. No disrespect was intended to you in the Chair or to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who has, as other Members have said, rightly introduced an important debate that goes to the heart of thinking throughout the capital. It is an acute problem, as is well known, in his royal borough. The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea has almost exactly the same problem, but it applies across much of London.

The hyper-mobility and diversity of the capital’s population has become ever more prominent, although perhaps that has always been the case. The Minister represents part of the busy city of Portsmouth, and her Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove), represents Swindon—both towns in which I suspect there has been much demographic change in the relatively limited time in which they have been Members of Parliament. The demographic change I have seen in central London and across the capital has gathered enormous pace over the past decade, and that is one of the key facts in the debate, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton rightly said in his opening comments. The predictive forecasting model, on which we have all relied, has to a large extent broken down. Demand for school places depends not only on the birth rate, but on migration, and aspects of the birth rate are linked to migration. In certain communities, particularly Muslim communities, there is a tradition of a much higher birth rate, which has had a significant impact on the issue.

The hon. Gentleman was right to point out that private education is most prevalent in London, which means that the articulate middle class voices that would normally be upstanding in addressing the issue have been quieter than would otherwise be the case, but perhaps that will begin to change, given the economic downturn and stagnant property market. Many parents with young children who might have considered moving out to the country once their children were beyond primary school age or once a second or third child had been born will not be able to do so for some time.

All those factors play an important role in a problem that is quickly catching up with us. It is easy for Opposition Members to criticise the Government for their predictive figures. Without such a high level of mobility, it would be easier to know what the birth rates are in any vicinity, so the number of primary school places that will be needed in four or five years’ time could be predicted. I am not simply saying that the Department is at fault in this issue, because there are new concerns about the effect that the level of mobility and diversity in our population is having on the provision of school places, particularly in the capital. I reiterate the hope expressed by the three previous speakers that the Government will give considerable thought to that problem.

I hope that you will allow me to say a little bit about local issues in my constituency, Mr. Amess, because the issue has come to the fore in the past few weeks. Indeed, I was contemplating asking for a Westminster Hall debate on a similar issue. I was contacted three weeks ago by Farah Baig of Marylebone Mums, who wished to highlight the group’s concern about the provision of state education at primary school level. In her letter to me, she stated that, unfortunately, very little credit was given to the fact that people were long-standing residents of Marylebone and that it was not uncommon for people new to the area to be offered a place before someone who had been a resident for 20 years. On seeking clarification from Westminster city council’s school admissions team, she was advised that that was correct procedure and that, despite being state-funded, it was proper for faith schools in particular to have selection criteria.

The problem in my constituency is that choice is limited, and is often confined to faith-based schools. A significant proportion of parents take their children out of the state sector, and I fear that they often represent that articulate voice that could make a real difference. By the time they have decided to send their children to fee-paying schools from a young age, there is little incentive for them to make the difference that they otherwise might. Westminster has some fantastic local state schools at primary school level, but I am afraid that they are exclusively faith—based schools, either Church of England or Roman Catholic. However, their results are in the very top grade, even at the national level.

Part of the problem is the assumption that those who live in my city-centre constituency are wealthy enough to send their children to private schools if they do not qualify for one of those excellent state faith-based schools. Indeed, Carl Upsall, a leading member of the Marylebone Association, told me: “Either you pay for private schools or you fall at the feet of the church.”

I suspect that that sentiment applies to many parts of London and beyond the capital’s borders. With the worsening economic situation, people are increasingly keen to see a good state school in their area. I hope that that means that some of those parents might have more of an incentive to make the state system work for them in future, but inevitably that will take time. When it comes to the education of any child of school age, time is one thing that parents do not have on their side. They want a good school now, not the promise of excellence four or five years down the line, by which time their child’s education may have been detrimentally affected.

Parents are increasingly turning to home schooling because of their concerns about the provision of primary and secondary education in central London. That issue was raised with me only last week by two constituents, and I hope to raise it in a future Westminster Hall debate. Two concerned mothers, Mrs. Helen White and Mrs. Tina Robbins, both decided to educate their children at home, because they were worried about the quality of education in the state sector, particularly with regard to the restrictive curriculum and the culture of levelling down, rather than encouraging excellence. We have an obsessive approach to equality in the educational establishment, and there is an increasing view, perhaps understandably, given the furore over the baby P case and others, that educating children at home is an issue not only for education departments, but for social services. There is more of a disincentive to go down the route of home education, yet some of our most dedicated parents are deciding to educate their children in that way, which in many ways should be welcomed in relation to choice and diversity. The only downside is that it is often a reflection of parents’ despair about the quality of education offered by the state.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Would the hon. Gentleman like to caveat that comment by accepting that, although children can be educated at home excellently, there are concerns about whether that is monitored in the way it should be, as some children are not getting a good education at home at all?

Mr. Field: That is a legitimate issue for people on both sides of the argument. The issue has to focus on educational needs, rather than just on social and equality needs. An issue that was, funnily enough, raised by the two parents to whom I spoke the other day is that, rather than simply excluding difficult children, it is in fact quite convenient for a local education authority to say to parents, “Why don’t you, notionally, home-educate them?” I accept that an increasing number of children in that category probably get a less than adequate education at home. None the less, I support the idea of diversity and choice. One only wishes that it were a positive choice, rather than one made for negative reasons.

In my constituency, there have been calls to revisit the debate on building new primary, secondary and nursery schools south of the Marylebone road to cater for the large number of young families who have moved into that area. Indeed, it is a strategy of Westminster city council to encourage more families not only to live, but to stay in the centre of the city. I think that all London Members feel that parts of their constituency would definitely benefit from a residential population that was active in the local community and engaged with it. Whether it is Kingston town centre or bits of my constituency, such as Soho or Covent Garden, allowing parts of our constituencies to exist simply for the commercial sector has a detrimental knock-on effect for the community at large.

Many parents in my constituency are keen to have a non-denominational secondary school and nursery. There is a particular concern about provision for boys. As someone who has a 14-month-old son, I have an eye and firm ear to these matters. I welcome the work that the Government have done and I have met the erstwhile schools Minister, Lord Adonis, to discuss the refreshed Pimlico academy. It is early days, but one hopes that the academy will prove to be a great success in the months and years ahead.

Finally, I shall mention the work of the education department at Westminster city council. The excellent local councillor and Cabinet member Sarah Richardson has told me that there is no reason to build a new secondary school, because parents have wide access to a great choice of 10 schools, which provide education irrespective of faith in the city of Westminster as a whole. That does not just relate to my constituency, but that of my Labour neighbour, the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). Just north of my constituency, the brand new King Solomon academy will eventually cater for children from nursery through to sixth form. It is fair to say that many of our local authorities are wise to these facts and are working hard. However, given that the issues of hyper-mobility and hyper-diversity have become profound ones in our capital city, local authorities need some assistance from central Government.

Thank you, Mr. Amess, for allowing me to speak at such length on this subject. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on what is an important matter now, and will, I fear, be an important matter for all London Members of Parliament in the years ahead.