Silvermere School, Sheldon

– in the House of Commons am 12:00 am ar 19 Mehefin 1978.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper.]

10.8 p.m.

Photo of Mr Sydney Tierney Mr Sydney Tierney , Birmingham, Yardley

The subject of this debate is the future use of Silvermere School, Sheldon, which is in my constituency. Silver-mere School was originally a three-form entry secondary modern school. The school was closed about 10 years ago and it became an annexe to the Birmingham Teacher Training College. When the premises became surplus to the college's requirements, they were used temporarily to house the Small Heath Secondary School pupils, but these pupils moved away from the school to new premises in 1976, and since that date the building has been vacant.

The Birmingham education authority decided not to retain the Silvermere premises or re-use them for county secondary school purposes in the Sheldon area. It claimed that there was no reason to do so because the Cockshut Hills School and the Sheldon Heath Comprehensive School had sufficient accommodation to meet their needs.

In April of this year the Birmingham authority decided to lease Silvermere School to the Solihull authority for 10 years. That decision by the Birmingham authority caused an uproar in the locality and local residents mounted a strong campaign against it. They were backed by the local residents' associations, local councillors and myself. A petition was circulated and signed by hundreds of residents.

As early as September 1977, when the negotiations for the lease began, a public meeting was held on the issue and several hundred residents attended, as did the chairman of the Birmingham education authority. At that stage the residents were convinced that the decision had already been made by the local education authority and that the meeting was merely a public relations exercise. They also believed that real consultation never took place and that Silvermere School would not become part of the parental choice process in the education of their children.

It was evident that there was little hope of the school being returned for the use of the local children. Every suggestion made then and since by the parents about the future use of the school has been turned down flat.

At the meeting a proposition was carried unanimously that the residents of Sheldon reject the decision of the local authority to lease Silvermere School to an outside education authority. With reference to Section 13(4) of the Education Act 1944 they agreed to ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science not to approve the lease. Unfortunately for the parents, the lease was eventually approved by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I shall make some reference to that later.

Silvermere School was built for the use of Sheldon children and Mapledene School, Stanville Road School and Elms Farm School, which are all junior schools, were built around Silvermere School with a view to feeding it with 11-plus children. For some years, and for reasons that I have mentioned, the school has had various uses, but Sheldon children have been denied the right to use it for many years. Over recent years parents have expressed concern that their children could not use the premises.

The local authority, through local councillors and the local residents' associations, has given a number of reasons for its not being possible to make the school available for local use. A frequent excuse was that the premises were no longer suitable to meet present-day standards. It is no surprise that local parents become incensed when they read reports in the local Press of statements made by the Solihull education authority, contrived, no doubt, for the consumption of parents in the Solihull borough, whose children are being asked to travel to Silvermere School, that the school is as good as any in the Solihull borough and that there will be no deprivation because of the fine facilities that exist at the school.

Naturally, anger has increased with the excuses over the years that the school could not be used for local children because it was not up to the required standard. Sheldon parents have always recognised that and resent the efforts of the Birmingham authority to mislead them to believe otherwise when excuses are the order of the day. The children in the area affected pass the doors of Silvermere School to bus or walk between one mile and two and a half miles to other schools in the area. Some children in the area travel much further than that.

Sheldon is part of my constituency and I have had many letters from parents and a number of meetings with parents about the distances that their children travel and the costs involved in bus fares for many of the children who attend the various schools in the area. For many families it is a financial strain, especially when more than one child in the family is involved. I have listened to their complaints and made representations on their behalf. I have been involved with the local authority over the usual arguments on demarcation issues about where free bus fares apply and where they do not. Anyone with any interest in local affairs will know what these arguments are all about.

Another problem exists when parents have to meet the full adult fare when children's bus travel cards are withdrawn at 15 years of age, and in some areas 14 years of age. Of course, some children continue travelling to school beyond 18 years of age and have to pay the full adult fare. Bus fares in the area, which comes under the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority, went up by 30 per cent. in 1977. There are proposals for them to increase again by up to 25 per cent. in August this year. Parents in the area see the transportation of children from Solihull authority to the Silvermere School as a cynical and costly contradiction of the claim made by the local authority that transport facilities must be cost-effective and fair in their application to all school children.

There have been many instances of parents moving into the area who could not get a place for their children in the existing 11-plus schools. There is a Catholic junior school in the vicinity which sends most of its 11-plus pupils to Archbishop Williams School on the outer edge of the constituency. The Archbishop Williams School is seriously overcrowded in some of its teaching areas and would have welcomed the use of the Silvermere premises. A housing scheme, comprising 170 houses, is being built not far away from the Silvermere School. When the families move in, and children look for places, no doubt existing 11-plus schools will be squeezed again in order that the children can be accommodated.

In the dispute which exists over the lease of Silvermere School to an outside authority, the most regrettable aspect is the way in which the Birmingham education authority has underestimated, and then totally disregarded, the community value placed on the amenities of Silver-mere School by the parents and families living in the area. The decision to deny local children the use of this school has set parent against parent in what has become a fight over territorial rights. Local parents have picketed the school when parents from the other authority have visited it. Of course, this has caused upset between both sets of parents.

The parents of children coming from the Solihull area see the facilities offered at Silvermere for the next 10 years as being uncertain and of a temporary nature and would naturally prefer facilities in their own community. It appears that the only people satisfied with the situation are the members of the two local authorities and the Secretary of State for Education and Science, who raises no objections to the transaction—and transaction it is. It is a typical example of two Conservative-controlled authorities using a profit-and-loss approach in their use of local amenities on a short-term basis, aided and abetted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Yet the long term demands the eventual use of Silvermere School, not only for the reasons that I have already mentioned but because it must become an integral part of local facilities if the area is to progress over the next 10 years with regard to smaller classes and more specialist teaching.

At the present time we read in the local Press of parent protestations about the closure of Moat Junior School and Wells Green Infant School within the Solihull borough. Also, the National Union of Teachers is at present taking industrial action against the Solihull authority because of the conditions in its schools. The union accuses the Solihull education authority of having a penny-pinching attitude. We in Sheldon are anxious not to encourage this attitude in any way by giving up amenities on a short-term convenience basis.

Figures are quoted about the long-term needs, about falling birth rates and about the facilities available in the area. Such figure are confidently presented by the local authorities as being realistic.

It has been put to me quite fairly, I think, by the Sheldon parents, what happended to the Solihull authority's estimate of future place requirements? Why is it 500 places short? Why does it need to come into the Birmingham area to take up those 500 places? Why does it have to seek facilities wherever it can get them? Most of all, why does it have to be in Sheldon?

I asked my hon. Friend to ask her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to review the arrangement entered into by the two local authorities with this lease, to show some response to the overriding wishes of the parents in the vicinity of Silvermere School in the interests of their children, to give some consideration to the parents and children being sent from the Solihull authority in their desire to have sufficient places at schools in their own community area, and, finally, in all this consideration for the children, which is all important. If we were to give true consideration to the children, it would demand a justifiable review of what I call this reactionary educational and antisocial transaction.

My own view is that, whether or not there is a further inquiry into this situation, Sheldon children ought to be able to attend Silvermere School, which is a Sheldon school, now and in the future. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees.

10.21 p.m.

Photo of Miss Margaret Jackson Miss Margaret Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Education and Science)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Tierney) for raising this issue, which I know is of real concern to his constituents. I hope that he will forgive me if for a moment, like him, I look at the background to the present situation.

The Birmingham local authority closed Silvermere Secondary School as long ago as August 1967, but this is, after all, some 10 years during which the authority has not used this school as a secondary school. At that time, the proper procedures were gone through under Section 13, and the approval of the then Secretary of State was given to the authority's proposal for closure, full consideration having been given to the relevant factors. The main reason for the Birmingham authority's decision to close the school was a difficulty in filling it. The school required 90 new pupils each year, and the number of children in the area was declining. It was decided that the school was becoming unviable and that it was in the interests of the children to close it, a decision which was endorsed by the then Secretary of State.

As my hon. Friend says, since closure the premises have been used as an annexe to the college of education and to house temporarily another secondary school from the area which has now been re-accommodated. I understand also that the buildings are being used at present by residents of Sheldon in the evening for adult education and for some community purposes.

My hon. Friend asked why the Solihull authority wished to use this school. It is my understanding that over the next 10 years Solihull has calculated that it will have a short-term deficiency of secondary school places in the extreme north of the borough immediately adjacent to the Sheldon area of Birmingham which my hon. Friend represents.

My hon. Friend asked why in this case Solihull had not made provision. In fact, its intention had been to build a new 1,200 place comprehensive school in the Castle Bromwich area. But when it was realised more recently that the forthcoming increase in pupil numbers would be followed fairly rapidly be a decrease and that the peak was only a temporary phenomenon, the authority began to examine alternative ways of meeting this need in an educationally sound but more economic manner. I shall return to the point about economics in education later in my remarks.

The authority at first concluded that this might best be achieved by the temporary enlargement of four of its own comprehensive schools in the area. But this still left it with a deficiency of some 500 places in the peak year of 1982. It was at this stage that it was decided to approach the Birmingham authority to consider leasing the redundant Silvermere premises for 10 years from September 1978. Agreement in principle was reached by the two authorities and, in October 1977, a proposal was put to the Secretary of State to establish this school in the autumn of 1978—this year.

The authority as it is required to do under the 1944 Act, gave notice of its intention, and a number of groups and individuals submitted objections to the Department before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made her decision on the proposal. As my hon. Friend said, objections came from Birmingham and Solihull parents.

My hon. Friend has associated himself from the beginning with the strong objections which we have received from residents in his area who perhaps understandably felt that, if a school were to be re-established in the Silvermere premises, their children should be allowed to attend it. However, the Birmingham authority has demonstrated clearly to the Secretary of State that the existing comprehensive schools maintained by it in the Elmdon consortium—Cockshut Hill and Sheldon Heath—could easily accommodate all anticipated pupils over the next few years. The two schools can together receive around 570 new pupils each year. There was thus no need for the Birmingham authority to reopen the Silvermere buildings, either as a separate school or as an annexe to an existing one.

However, Birmingham has allowed the premises to be used in the evening for adult education and community purposes. I hope that it is realised by local residents that these arrangements will continue. Not only will the arrangements be allowed to continue but arrangements have also been made for the Sheldon Heath Residents Association to use a common room bar during the daytime. So, although residents did have some facilities it is not proposed that they shall lose them.

My hon. Friend made the point, quite correctly, that parents are concerned about transport problems. But the Birmingham authority, has undertaken to review its secondary school transport provisions to try to ensure that wherever possible no child travels more than two miles to a secondary school. My hon. Friend made a pertinent point about travel costs, but he will be aware that this is a general problem and one to which we are hoping to propose some more general solutions which will be of benefit to his constituents and those of other hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Tomlinson) forwarded representations from residents of Marston Green, Solihull, which would be the main catchment area for the proposed school. The majority of these were in favour of the proposal but sought assurances of the kind to which my hon. Friend has referred—about educational provision in a school of limited life and size, and again about transport arrangements. Before any decision was taken, these issues were thoroughly investigated by the Department in conjunction with both the Solihull local education authority and with our professional educational advisers in Her Majesty's Inspectorate, locally and nationally.

Solihull authority has given unequivocal assurances that free school transport will be provided for Marston Green Secondary School children. In addition, it has assured us that the special characteristics of the school—with a roll building up year by year—were fully considered by the authority and would be reflected in the quality and number of staff employed. It intends to employ a staff throughout the school's 10 years appropriate to a school of four-form entry, that is, 120 pupils. This should compensate for the limited size of the school and should enable a full curriculum to be offered.

Solihull authority has also indicated that it will make any other arrangements for minority subject options that cannot be offered at other schools within the area. Thus, my hon. Friend will see that all the aspects of this proposal, from the point of view of Birmingham residents and also of Solihull residents, were fully considered before by right hon. Friend the Secretary of State came to her decision.

My hon. Friend has said that he feels that economic issues have been paramount in this case. Obviously that is a judgment to which each of us must come individually. It seems to me it is not entirely unfair that local education authorities should have some consideration for the economic circumstances, although I fully accept his basic point that these should not override educational considerations. As he will see, before approving this proposal put forward by the two authorities, my right hon. Friend and our staffs and officers went to considerable pains to see that the pupils involved would not suffer educationally. That is our fundamental responsibility. My right hon. Friend ultimately approved these proposals in January of this year and admissions will begin in September.

I turn now to the question that my hon. Friend raised about local residents who wish their own children to have the opportunity to go to this school. It is my understanding that this autumn there are 100 places available and that Solihull already has 105 firm applications from its area. Therefore, it is unlikely that in this first instance pupils from other authority areas could be offered places at the school. Quite apart from the fact that if they were the question of extra district charges would arise—and these would have to be settled between Birmingham and Solihull—Birmingham would argue that it could not accommodate the pupils adequately in its own schools, which is why this school has not been used for secondary purposes for such a period of time.

Photo of Mr Sydney Tierney Mr Sydney Tierney , Birmingham, Yardley

Some children cannot get into existing schools because of the squeezing-in process that would be necessary, and it would be very useful if some local children could get into the Silvermore School. The only excuses the parents have been given from the Birmingham authority are the administrative difficulties and the costing and charging out against the Birmingham pupil as opposed to the Solihull pupil. I hope that this would not stand in the way if it were possible for local children to go to the school.

Photo of Miss Margaret Jackson Miss Margaret Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Education and Science)

My hon. Friend is referring to the principle of the payment of extra-district charges between two authorities. Usually the authority that has to pay claims that such a scheme is much too difficult to arrange, while the authority that is due to receive the charges is much less worried. As a matter of principle, before the arrangements for the school were settled. I can imagine that the discussion was conducted on this basis. However, the question does not arise at present because Solihull already has a greater demand for this school than it is able to fulfil.

However, spare places may be available in later years and I do not doubt that the Solihull authority will give sympathetic consideration to requests from local parents who wish their children to attend this school. At that stage, it would be for the Birmingham and Solihull authorities and perhaps, ultimately, the Secretary of State to consider what arrangements should be made. But, if the school is already over-subscribed, this principle will be difficult to establish.

I recognise that my hon. Friend and his constituents are rightly concerned and feel deprived at not being able to use school premises in their area and feel aggrieved that the premises will be used by others. However, if the school were not established, there would be no question of parents having access to it. The Birmingham authority has no use for it as a secondary school, and has not had a use for it for more than 10 years. In a sense, the two authorities are combining in an experiment in the use of this school which we may see repeated in other parts of the country as falling rolls affect what is happening in other areas.

I recognise the problems that my hon. Friend has outlined and the feeling of his constituents, but I hope that they will accept that there understandable concern and reservations were very much in the Secretary of State's mind when she reached her decision earlier this year to allow the school to be established. She felt that on balance, taking into account the interests of all the pupils in the area—in Solihull as well as in Birmingham—this was a use for the school which she was unable to reject, particularly as the community use which has been available within the Birmingham area will persist.

My hon. Friend asked me to review the interests of parents and pupils in his constituency, and I have covered that point. It is not open to my right hon. Friend to reconsider a decision given in a matter such as this. Once given, it cannot be withdrawn. I am sure that my hon. Friend hopes, as I do, that, despite all the difficulties, the pupils who are to attend the school will thrive and that it will be a success for their sake, if for no other. We have considered and weighed the problems outlined by his constituents, but in the end we felt that this was a reasonable use of the school premises which we ought to permit.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock.