Schools issues

From 1987, when I was first elected to Leeds City Council, until I won my seat in Parliament representing the people of Leeds North East, I was a member of the Education Committee of the Council which in those days ran the schools and colleges (until 1993) in the city. During that time, the Council only built one new High School - City of Leeds - and that was only because it had to move from Great George Street to Bedford Fields in Hyde Park. Other High Schools were repaired or rebuilt following fires, but there was no major replacement plan to create modern buildings fit for first-class learning. That all changed in 1997.

 

Tony Blair famously said before the 1997 general election victory that Labour only had three policies for government - Education, Education and Education. Using private finance in partnership with the public authorities, Labour has built hundreds of new High Schools up and down the country. The first in North East Leeds was Cardinal Heenan Roman Catholic High School. I remember visiting the old 1960s building when I was Chairman of the Education Committee in 1996 and it was so bad that windows would regularly drop out of the structure onto the playground below: it was a miracle that nobody was injured. The Schools Minister at the time, Estelle Morris, came and opened the new building in 1999 and ever since then the school has been able to concentrate on what is most important: the education of its pupils, rather than site management and the prevention of injury from the rapidly decomposing building.

 

Of course, the system is not perfect and there have been problems and snags with the new buildings, but they have got better and better. Roundhay High School was next to be rebuilt, and was completely redeveloped behind its original 1920s façade keeping the attractiveness of the original building but creating a learning environment fit for the 21st century. Carr Manor High School followed Roundhay and brilliant Headteacher Terry Burgon who did so much to stop the school being closed down was replaced by visionary young Head Simon Flowers. Under his leadership the brand new building replaced the motley collection of 1940s and 1960s buildings on two separate sites. Simon wanted to show the world that the new school meant a new start for the students and asked me to get the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to formally open the new building. He did so in March 2007 to a huge fanfare, massive interest from the media and very strong support from the students, staff and parents. Carr Manor stands as a testament to how the combination of high quality leadership and teaching together with a fit-for-purpose building can reshape the lives of everyone involved and give even the most challenging pupil the best possible start in life.

 

Allerton High School's ageing 1940s buildings from the days of the old girls' grammar school, were next to be replaced. If I had thought Cardinal Heenan, Roundhay and Carr Manor to be excellent, the new Allerton High went beyond anything I could have imagined, so when in November 2008 Gordon Brown decided to bring his Cabinet meeting to Leeds, I asked whether the Prime Minister could formally open the new Allerton High. He agreed, and on an icy morning he and his entourage, together with Education Secretary, Ed Balls, arrived to do the formalities. He was delighted with what he saw and knew, as I and everyone else involved did also, that this was the pinnacle of design and building quality equal to any private or independent school. Allerton High always had good results and now they could be even better out of such a high-class school building.

 

If I thought school design and construction couldn't improve after Allerton High opened, I was wrong. New Head Rick Whittaker asked me to come and see the building site for the new Allerton Grange High School early last year and I could see just how excellent it was going to be but nothing quite prepared me for the finished article. In July, just before it was handed over, I visited again and saw mot only the best school building ever, but also a finish to such a high standard it was clearly going to last. So far, I haven't been able to get a Prime Minister to come and formally open the new school, but I'm not sure the students and staff are really worried. They now have the facilities they need to deliver, and they clearly are delivering. It's a brilliant school, much needed when I remember the buildings which comprised the old school when I first visited it 20 years ago during Dr Derek Haynes's Headship.

 

Don't get me wrong - a school building is not the only important part of a school, though it helps. It's what goes on in the school, how organised and well-lead it is and how good the staff actually doing the teaching are. There are many elements which go to make up a school and I am very proud that a Labour Government has actually delivered on its promises to put education at the top of its priorities, because it's clear that the investment is paying dividends. Publicly-funded schools are very much better in 2010 than they were in 1997, after 18 years or more or under investment in both the people and the buildings. Let's hope that our schoolchildren will never again have to put up with water coming through the classroom ceiling or bits of building falling onto the playground.

 

I am very proud that every one of the high schools in my constituency have been replaced or rebuilt. Now we need to ensure that the investment in education continues and is not threatened by cutbacks, over-centralisation or privatisation. I am not saying that everything is perfect - far from it - just that we have clearly made progress and I am determined that this progress will continue with a Labour Government in power. I have always been committed to education: I spent ten years on the Education Committee, a year as its Chairman; I have had three children education in local authority schools in Leeds and I currently chair the All-Party Education Group.