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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 450: debated on Thursday 12 October 2006

Education and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Nursery Education

1. What meetings Ministers have had with representatives of the nursery sector in the last six months; and if he will make a statement. (92857)

Ministerial colleagues and I have held a number of regular meetings with representatives of the early-years and child care sector over the past six months. They have enabled us to highlight the progress that we are making, with the help of the sector, in delivering our commitments in the 10-year child care strategy. Those commitments include establishing, ahead of schedule, the 1,000th Sure Start children’s centre, as the Prime Minister announced last week.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but does she share my concern that the funding that nurseries receive from the Government does not meet their true costs?

No, I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view about that. In fact, the unprecedented funding that the Government have committed to our youngest children—to early-years education and child care—has enabled the substantial growth in the private and voluntary sector, which is contributing not only to full day care, but to sessional care. Indeed, in his own area, in the 12 months up to the end of 2005, the private and voluntary sector contribution to that market share has risen from 74 to 78 per cent. for provision for three-year-olds. As we continue to extend the free offer to all families, I am sure that we will see that proportion grow, and that is important to us because diversity in the sector is giving parents choice and driving up quality.

Has my right hon. Friend discussed the importance of diagnosing in the early years whether a child needs special educational help? Is she aware that the Select Committee on Education and Skills has done a great deal of work on the issue? Indeed, the recently published special educational needs report links into it. Will she take a message to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills that the Select Committee is deeply disappointed by the response that we have received this week to that important and significant report?

I am sorry that my hon. Friend expresses that view, but I think that he knows that we will debate at length his Select Committee’s important report on children with special educational needs.

As soon as the business managers allow us, we will do so.

It is also important, however, to view the issue in the context of the much wider reforms that the Government are making in children’s services, particularly in children’s centres and children’s trusts, as they are requiring all services to work to together to identify at a much earlier stage the problems that children have and to bring those services to bear around the child and the family in an integrated way, so that their problems are addressed comprehensively and early. That early intervention is very important for children with special educational needs.

Can the Minister explain why popular and high-quality nurseries are not allowed to charge top-up fees? There is a particular demand for that in London and the south-east, where my constituency is located. The principle is established in higher education; why not in nursery education?

Because what we are providing—this is a real dividing line between the Government and the Opposition—is a free entitlement to all three and four-year-olds for 12 and a half hours’ provision at the moment, increasing, we hope, to 15 hours and beyond. The hon. Gentleman is asking for that free entitlement to become a subsidy for better-off parents. The private sector could then make higher charges and better-off parents would be simply allowed to use that subsidy. We will not entertain the prospect of discriminating against poorer families. We will not allow the generation of a two-tier system, in which some families can afford a better quality of care, but poorer families cannot. This will remain a free entitlement for all families—

Can my right hon. Friend confirm whether it is Government policy to support a mixed economy in the provision of child care services? The £3 billion that the Government put annually into the provision of free places gives necessary choice to parents, particularly those of limited means.

Absolutely. Diversity is really important because it not only gives parents choice, but it also drives up quality throughout the sector. I welcome the opportunity that my hon. Friend has given me to correct some of the myths that are flying around. It is still the case that private and voluntary settings provide 81 per cent. of full day-care places. They provide 90 per cent. of sessional places. So they have the vast majority of market share, both for full day care and for sessional places. That is good; it is what we want to see. Public sector provision is not driving private and voluntary sector providers into the ground—quite the opposite is true. The money that we have put in has allowed that sector to grow, and that is very important.

We have heard my hon. Friends’ concerns about nursery funding in their constituencies and I am sure that the Minister is aware of the facts. The dedicated schools grant that local authorities receive to fund free nursery places is under £4 an hour. Is she aware that the National Day Nurseries Association gives examples of where, throughout the country, the cost of staff and overheads alone is nearer £5 an hour? Her transformation fund sets the hourly cost of child care at almost £6 an hour. Little wonder that a report from Camden council says that 90 per cent. of nurseries—

Order. The hon. Lady has made her point. I know what she is telling the House, so the Minister will know.

It is up to local authorities to allocate the dedicated schools grant, both across the age ranges and for early years, between the sectors. It is right that they have the discretion to do that, because they take account of the market situation and local circumstances. The Government have put an unprecedented amount of money into early years: more than £20 billion since 1997. If the hon. Lady were to stand up to speak again, I would ask her: is her party committed to continuing that funding so that the—

May I welcome, and draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to, the new children’s centre in Frankley in my constituency, which will be a great asset to a very deprived part of the area, and also the roll-out of the children’s centre programme? However, I draw her attention to the fact that it is important, as there is availability of capital, for there not to be an over-preoccupation with the physical structures. The ethos of Sure Start—bringing together integrated services and ensuring real responsiveness to local users—is equally, if not more, important.

I agree with my hon. Friend. As the second phase of Sure Start children’s centres proceeds—building on the 1,000 that are in place already and moving to 2,500 over the next two years—the issues that he raises will be important. The key issue is the quality of services for children, to improve their development, but there is also the involvement of parents and the local community in the governance arrangements. We know that by involving parents we are not only doing the best for children, but we are helping those parents—many in disadvantaged situations—to raise their confidence and, through their involvement in children’s centres, perhaps to acquire the skills to get into training and work and to improve their quality of life. That is what children’s centres are doing throughout the country. I am pleased that my hon. Friend will see further children’s centres in his area over the next two years.

Science Degrees

More than 40 per cent. of students are taking science-based subjects. Today, there are well over 130,000 more young people studying for science-related degrees than in 1997-98. Crucial to stimulating demand at higher education level is increasing the numbers choosing to study science in schools. We announced a range of new measures to achieve that in the “Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps” document that we published last March.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but he will be aware that, during the years of this Government, the number of students studying biology and chemistry, in particular, and physics has fallen. Will he assure the House that he will attempt to address that problem, not by dumbing down the teaching of science, as has been reported most recently, but by improving, for example, the access to laboratories in schools and persuading young people that there are worthwhile careers in science to be pursued? In my area, for example, the aerospace industry finds it difficult to recruit science graduates. Will he address that problem, rather than trying to dumb down the subject?

As I said, there are 130,000 more young people studying for science-related degrees than when we came to power in 1997. In fact, UK universities produce two to three times more science graduates than the OECD average. Our lead on that, overall, has increased. In 2004-05, there was a higher than average increase of 10 per cent. or more in the number of students accepted to study subjects such as maths, physics and chemistry. There is no question of our dumbing down science. The new science GCSEs maintain the breadth, depth and challenge of the current ones. They provide a sound basis for further study of science at A-level and beyond.

Given that the Prime Minister said recently that we are going to have a new generation of nuclear power plants, what are we doing to ensure that we have adequate science graduates to meet the needs of the nuclear industry in the future?

Some 135,000 students are studying engineering and technology overall, although I do not have the figures for the nuclear industry in particular. However, that represents a good supply of engineers. If the Government were to decide to go ahead with new nuclear power stations—that will obviously be a matter for debate in the House—we would keep the need for additional engineers under review. I might add that Cogent, which is the sector skills council for the nuclear industry, has applied to establish a national skills academy. We will consider that over the next few weeks as a mechanism to ensure that there is an adequate supply of engineers for the industry.

How can the proportion of science students increase when the number, let alone the proportion, of pupils taking A-level maths, further maths, physics and chemistry is declining? Do not the Government accept responsibility for the botched curriculum reform that has led to the decline of specialist science teaching in state schools?

No. Speaking as a former science teacher, I strongly welcome the new key stage 4 science curriculum. I wish that I was teaching it now, but I am fulfilling my educational role at the Dispatch Box by explaining to Opposition Members that which they clearly do not understand. The new science GCSE has the full support of the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Association for Science Education. If that is not good enough for hon. Members, in today’s edition of The Times, the high mistress and head of science of St. Paul’s girls’ school writes:

“we entirely reject the criticisms of Twenty-First Century Science. The approach is challenging, rigorous and, above all, exciting. By linking science to the real world, it embodies the long overdue recognition that science is a dynamic, living subject.”

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to give that lesson to Opposition Members.

As a former science teacher, the Minister will be blindingly aware that science-based degrees require science-based universities, so will he agree to meet me and a delegation of staff and students from the university of Reading, because its physics department is threatened with closure by the university council, despite the receipt of more than £2.5 million of taxpayers’ money last year to establish a centre of excellence for the teaching of physics?

I cannot comment on a possible closure because no final decision has been taken. My hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning will be happy to meet such a delegation. It is not up to the Government to micro-manage the university system in such a way. However, through the Higher Education Funding Council, we try to ensure that the number of physics graduates and others is maintained national and regionally so that we have the supply of such graduates into the employment system that our country needs.

If the new science GCSEs are working so well, why do the best schools, which produce a disproportionate number of the best results at A-level and a disproportionate number of the science entrants to university, still insist on separate GCSEs for physics, chemistry and biology?

The difficulty for Conservative Members is understanding what goes on in our education system. Of course, we want those who have the aptitude to take three separate sciences, so we will be encouraging and enabling more of them to do so. However, in addition, we have been providing the new science and additional science GCSEs since September. Conservative Members seem to be contradicting themselves at every opportunity this morning. They wish to portray themselves as champions of the environment on the one hand, but they now want to reject the new opportunity for young people to debate key scientific topics such as global warming as part of the science curriculum. They cannot have it both ways. I suggest that they put their weight behind supporting our hard work—

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most successful ways of increasing the number of science graduates is through the foundation-degree route? Rather than simply concentrating on schools, we should be examining good examples of colleges and higher education institutions working with industry. For example, at Airbus in north-east Wales, there is a superb example of a foundation degree working excellently to bring us more science graduates.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I had the privilege of visiting Airbus a few weeks ago, I met some of the students who were undertaking foundation degrees. Many thousands of people in the work force are taking foundation degrees. The essence of the value of foundation degrees is that they are tailor-made to suit the needs of employers. At higher levels of study—level 4 and above—for employment that provides support to industries in terms of productivity, profitability, innovation, growth and development, foundation degrees are a real platform for people at work to improve their skills for the benefit of themselves, their companies and the country as a whole.

In spite of what the Minister says, I think that he would acknowledge that 30 per cent. of university physics departments have closed in the last eight years and the numbers studying chemistry have declined by 17 per cent. in the last 10 years. Against that background and in light of what he said earlier, I hope that he will support our amendment in the Lords which would entitle every pupil to triple science. Does he agree that we will never inspire our children to study physics as long as, in most of our schools, 80 per cent. of those studying physics are taught by someone with a degree not in physics but more likely in biology? Does he agree that the situation is a disgrace and needs to be remedied?

To return to the real world, the fact is that we want more of our teachers to have degrees in the relevant subjects, and we are introducing a science diploma so that existing teachers can develop a specialism in subjects such as physics—the example the hon. Gentleman gave—to ensure that our young people get the best possible education. It is our investment in science laboratories, in schools across the piece and in the number of teachers that has resulted in the best ever GCSE and A-level results in this country since counting began; and that is despite the opposition from the Conservative party.


3. What assessment he has made of the number of racist incidents among students in higher education; and if he will make a statement. (92859)

We do not make this assessment centrally. We have, however, established robust legal protection against racism and as a result individual universities should have clearly identified procedures in place for dealing with racist incidents. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 places a general duty on university governing bodies to promote race equality in their institutions.

The Minister has, I know, read the report of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into anti-Semitism, which talks about systematic racism going on in universities. It refers to a brick being thrown through the window of a Jewish student and a poster bearing the words “Slaughter the Jews” pasted on a Jewish student’s front door. This is being done by some extreme Islamic groups. The report’s main conclusion is that the response of vice-chancellors is at best patchy. What can the Government do to try to ensure that there is a consistent approach to combating anti-Semitism and all racism in all of our universities?

I am aware of the report; I gave evidence to the inquiry. I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a great interest in these issues. I urge all vice-chancellors to take anti-Semitism and all forms of racism very seriously. The Government have placed strong legal obligations on all public bodies to tackle racism. The work that the equality challenge unit is doing with universities is the best way to spread good practice and tackle the issue.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. Does he agree, however, that one of the issues, as I have learned from speaking to students, is a reluctance on the part of some students to report incidents in the first place because they are not convinced that they will be dealt with properly by university authorities?

I certainly hope that my hon. Friend’s concerns are misplaced. We have to create a climate of confidence, and the report by the all-party inquiry makes an important contribution. It is important that the Government take the lead and make it clear that we expect universities to take these issues very seriously.

Will the Minister and the House join me in condemning the BNP in Broxbourne who target young people with their racist lies and filth? Will the House also join me in congratulating the young people in my constituency on turning their back on that nonsense and ensuring that we have happy, settled schools in Broxbourne?

I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman. His constituency borders mine. Members of all political parties must challenge the filth and hatred promoted by the BNP. We need to rebut its lies, smears and innuendo, and we need to work at that together. I congratulate the young people who have ignored what the BNP is putting forward.

Educational Attainment

4. What additional measures his Department has considered in order to reduce the number of school leavers not attaining basic standards of literacy and numeracy. (92860)

Since 1997, the number of children achieving five or more A* to C GCSEs, including English and mathematics, has increased by almost nine percentage points. We are determined to ensure that every child masters the basics. From this year we will measure the proportion of children achieving five A* to C grades, including English and mathematics. We are investing £990 million in personalised learning to provide more catch-up lessons in English and maths. The key stage 3 curriculum and English and maths GCSEs are being reviewed to emphasise functional skills.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I welcome the Government’s response and the investment that they are making to improve standards of literacy and numeracy, but does he agree that many school leavers do not achieve the basic standards, and that there is still a genuine problem? Even with the Government’s best efforts, we have to do more about that. Will he consider carefully what additional help he can give to try to alleviate the problem, and will he consult people in schools to find out exactly what is required to bring such children up to standard?

My hon. Friend is right that there is more to do, and I have just described the initiatives that we are introducing. At the heart of the issue there is an expectation of high attainment and absolutely no excuses. If we get the basics right, and if, for instance, we can ensure that children succeed at level 4, that key stage at which they leave primary school with the basics of English and mathematics, everything else in their future education can be built on that platform. All the evidence shows that that is the crucial stage. We have moved from 63 per cent. of pupils reaching that stage in English to 79 per cent. of pupils doing so, but we need to move further. I agree with my hon. Friend that more has to be done, but of course that does not detract from all the excellent work that teachers and head teachers—not politicians—are doing in our schools to bring about the enormous improvements that have taken place in the past nine years.

The Government were quick to require schools to teach phonics, but that was only one area highlighted by the Rose report. Why have the Government not addressed other areas, such as speaking and listening skills, which are a foundation for achieving literacy and numeracy?

We have concentrated on phonics, but that does not mean that we have ignored the other excellent suggestions in the Rose report. Phonics has received coverage, and the issues that the hon. Lady mentions have not, but they are a crucial part of the foundation stage. Jim Rose and his people are absolutely right to highlight the importance of listening and speaking skills. In addition, the “social and emotional aspects of learning” project is hugely successful, and is being rolled out across primary schools. The teachers to whom I have spoken think that it is long overdue and will bring about a huge improvement in those soft skills that pupils increasingly need in the modern labour environment.

Why do we allow children to keep progressing through the school years when they have serious difficulty in reading? Frighteningly high numbers of children in the higher years of our secondary and upper schools cannot read well. The head teachers to whom I speak in my constituency would like the flexibility, within existing budgets, to give intensive remedial reading provision to those children. Why can they not do that?

In my reply to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), I said that £990 million is being invested in personalised learning. We have asked Christine Gilbert to produce a report on the subject, which is imminent. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is right: we should concentrate on catch-up, and on ensuring that children who do not reach the right standard at level 2 and level 3 receive the kind of attention that they need to reach that key stage at level 4. Some 66 per cent. of children who reach the right standard in English at level 4 aged 11 will go on to obtain five good GCSEs, but only 9 per cent of those who do not reach that standard will do the same. Level 4 is a crucial stage. The hon. Gentleman is right, but that is why I spoke about almost £1 billion going into personalised learning and catch-up, which is crucial to improving results.

Millions of Britons, without the ability to read a story to their children or write a letter, feel cheated. One in three employers send their staff for remedial training to teach them to read, write and count; and even if the Government reach their targets in 2020, 4 million Britons will not have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old. With 50,000 school leavers each year functionally illiterate or innumerate, do not the Government realise that they must tackle the skills problem at its root, in primary schools, or is it just that the Secretary of State does not have the skills to do the job?

I shall ignore that barbed remark, which wounded me deeply. It is extraordinary that anyone from the Conservative Front Bench should stand up and make criticisms about literacy and numeracy. The National Foundation for Educational Research published a report in 1996 that showed that for 50 years we had flat-lined on literacy and numeracy. Jim Rose, whom I mentioned earlier, said in the opening paragraph of his review of teaching of early reading—an independent review—

“Over the first nine years of the National Curriculum”—

that is, 1989 to 1998—

“very little impact was made on raising standards of reading. . . That changed markedly with the advent of the National Literacy Strategy in 1998.”

I applaud the previous Government for introducing accountability, introducing the regulator and ensuring that there were standards. However, nine years after they did that, nothing had happened, so we have put a huge amount of effort through teachers and head teachers to give children the skills that they need. We have raised educational attainment in literacy and numeracy massively, which is why people from countries all round the world are coming to the Britain to see how we did it.

Parenting Skills

In personal, social and health education—PSHE— pupils are taught about the nature and importance of family life and bringing up children. They are also taught about the role, feelings and responsibilities of a parent and the qualities of good parenting and its value to family life.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but given the number of dysfunctional family backgrounds and given the fact that nearly every child becomes a parent and that children are necessarily brought up by amateurs, is there not a need for increased focus on this important area?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s point about the need to work with children, and work at an earlier stage. A great deal of work is being delivered through PSHE, as I said, and through citizenship classes in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I am sure, as in mine. Beyond that, in every community in the land we have parenting support programmes for young parents and older parents being delivered at over 1,000 children’s centres—there will be 2,500 of those by the end of 2008 and 3,500 come the end of the decade—and through 2,500 extended schools. That number will also increase. That is a fair indication of the Government’s commitment to children, to parents and to parenting skills.

Does my hon. Friend accept that effective parenting is even more important than good schooling in ensuring educational attainment? In constituencies like mine, Ofsted report after Ofsted report on primary schools states that the teaching is great, the heads are superb, we have a rebuilt or refurbished school, but the kids still do not attain. The reports always give the same explanation: those children cannot speak in a sentence when they arrive at school and cannot recognise a letter or a number.

Will my hon. Friend look again at prior attainment before children get to primary school, so that before those children reach the age of two or five, or even when they are aged minus nine months to two or five years, we give the parents the support that they need to enable those children to take advantage of the great education that is now on offer?

I know that my hon. Friend feels passionately about this topic. He had an Adjournment debate about the SEAL project in his constituency and in Nottingham with my predecessor, now the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), when she was in post. I agree entirely that the focus needs to be at a very young age, and that the SEAL project and continuing work on that, targeting the under-twos, will make a real difference by ensuring that children are school-ready at a much earlier stage.

Does the Minister agree that one key parenting skill, in which school leavers are often deficient, is the ability to prepare and cook balanced nutritional meals for children? Does he think that more should be done to improve the teaching of cooking skills in schools, which would address children’s diets not only for the five meals a week that they eat in school, but for the 16 meals that they eat in the home?

I particularly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question, not least because of comments, with which I fundamentally disagree, made by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) about chips and burgers being passed through the school fence.

The tape says otherwise.

As part of the offer that we announced this summer, we will provide children with the opportunity to learn. As well as the additional money for school meals, the five-point plan includes the objective of children reaching the age of 16 with the ability to cook nutritional, healthy meals. I am looking forward to seeing that being rolled out, and I know that Jamie Oliver and others support it.

Student Finance

6. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the “Aim Higher” programme in informing potential students of the financial support available to them. (92862)

The new student finance package is better and fairer, giving more help to those who need it most. Assessment of our “Aim Higher” student finance information campaign has shown that awareness of tuition fee loans among potential students has increased significantly, and the assessment of other “Aim Higher” promotional activities, such as road shows, has been positive. We will continue our efforts to ensure that all students get the facts about what they are entitled to.

Under freedom of information rules, I have a copy of the media analysis of the “Aim Higher” campaign, which the Minister has referred to. Although he will take some comfort from the finding that his remarks were “consistently on message”, he should be less comforted by the fact that the penetration of the message was highest among social class A and lowest among social classes D and E, which is the opposite of what the campaign was meant to achieve. Will he ensure that this year’s campaign is directed at schools and colleges where participation in higher education is at its lowest?

On the key indicator of awareness of the tuition fee loan, which is effectively the end of the up-front contribution to the tuition fee, awareness has risen from 75 per cent. to 84 per cent., which is significant. I will throw back the challenge: will the hon. Gentleman join us in explaining the benefits of the new system? I get tired of hearing that the Liberal Democrats oppose tuition fees, given that they support them in Scotland. There has recently been a very interesting publication by a Liberal Democrat think-tank—

There is a particularly low rate of going to university among children in care and care leavers. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that help will be given to local authorities in discharging their responsibilities towards children in care and care leavers in the form of “Aim Higher” advisers?

We are examining that issue closely, because we need to ensure that all the information gets across to children in care. In the Green Paper, we announced our intention to give an additional bursary to students who come from care and who go on to higher education, which is a significant step forward.

Does my hon. Friend agree that “Aim Higher” has a complex task in encouraging potential students? Will he applaud an initiative in Derbyshire, where potential underachievers at GCSE maths were taken to Derby university for additional training to get their grades up? Those children were also introduced to maths students at the university and some high-flying groups were shown videos about the jobs that might be available if they were to enter maths education. Will he encourage initiatives to get underachieving and well-achieving children into university, where they can get used to learning in that environment?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we need more such initiatives. One of my frustrations is that too many young people who have the potential and aptitude to benefit from higher education still do not perceive it as an option for them. The “Aim Higher” programme targets young people and plants the seed of an interest in higher education, which is the direction that we should move in.

Student Finance

7. What assessment he has made of the administration of student loans; and if he will make a statement. (92863)

We have reviewed how students in England can obtain financial support for their studies in higher education. From September 2008, we will phase in a new service which will be mainly online and which will bring together applying for a place and applying for financial support. We will also change the Student Loans Company so that it is a national delivery organisation and further improve the collection of repayments through the income tax system.

The Minister will be aware that South Tyneside is part of the pilot scheme for student loans. Let me tell him that it is an absolute mess. Young people have not been paid yet, they and their parents are having to go into debt and they are having to consider whether to take up their university courses because they cannot afford the fees. There needs to be an investigation, compensation and a solution. The solution is to give it back to the councils, who did not make a mess of it, so that student loans do not become another debacle like the Child Support Agency or tax credits.

I take my hon. Friend’s concerns seriously. We are introducing these reforms partly because there was too much variability in performance on the part of local authorities in the administration of the student loans scheme. However, knowing of his interest in the issue, I have looked into it and spoken to the Student Loans Company, which told me that, in South Tyneside, of the 2,100 applications, all but 40—fewer than 2 per cent.—have been paid on time at the start of the new academic year. Of those 40, some were made very recently and others may have been paid part of their loan while the SLC is awaiting further information. Whatever the explanation, we need to get to the bottom of it. Contingency arrangements are in place, and I will work with my hon. Friend to ensure that the situation is sorted out.

It is good to hear that the Minister is going to work with his hon. Friend to get the shambles of the Student Loans Company sorted out. Does he agree that one of the most important parts of student loans administration is the repayment of teachers’ loans scheme? Is he aware that there is a two-and-a-half to three-year delay in producing statements for constituents such as Mr. Chris Dutton of Chippenham, who asked as long ago as June 2005 for a statement of when his loan would be repaid? To date, he still has not got it. Today, the chief executive of the SLC told me that he hoped to get it sorted out by the end of the year. That is not good enough, and the Secretary of State needs to get this shambles sorted.

If the hon. Gentleman gives me the details of that case, I will ensure that it is dealt with quickly. I do not believe that we are dealing with a chaotic system or a shambles. However, there are difficulties—that is why we have conducted a very thorough and rigorous end-to-end review. We are consulting to get this absolutely right. The reforms that I set out earlier are the way forward to ensuring that we have a nationally uniform system that works in the interests of students.

School Building

9. When he next expects to visit Leicester to discuss the “Building Schools for the Future” initiative. (92865)

I would be delighted to visit Leicester to discuss “Building Schools for the Future” and to enjoy my right hon. Friend’s legendary hospitality. In addition, the Department’s officials and Partnerships for Schools are in regular contact with the authority in working to support the development of the project, which is funded to the tune of £235 million, in Leicester.

We look forward to welcoming my hon. Friend to Leicester. As he knows, “Building Schools for the Future” has funded the complete modernisation and rebuilding of two schools in my constituency—Judge Meadow school and Soar Valley community college. What assurances can he give me that the other schools in Leicester, East, and in wider Leicester, will get the benefit of this extraordinarily wonderful scheme?

I look forward to visiting one or two of the schools that my right hon. Friend mentioned. Leicester is in the first wave of “Building Schools for the Future”. There are 16 schools in the project, four of which are in phase 1, so plenty of others beyond the two that he mentioned can look forward to the substantial investment that we are putting into schools.

Has the Minister heard the concerns expressed by Jamie Oliver—or St. Jamie, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) calls him—about the schools building programme? He is worried that they may not be built with the kitchens that are needed if kids are to have hot school dinners. He is also worried that in Leicester and across the country there are not the school dining facilities that would be necessary if we could get more schoolchildren eating hot school meals. Does the Minister agree that it would be absurd if the Government’s schools building programme made it impossible to deliver better hot school dinners for our children?

I passionately believe that it is important to have kitchen facilities in our schools, given that I represent a Dorset seat where the Tory county council closed the kitchens some 20 years ago. We do not have any kitchens in schools in Dorset and I am therefore looking forward to the investment, which will come. When we announced—[Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) clearly has a lot to say about school food. When we announced the five-point plan on school food, it included the commitment to a targeted capital fund for kitchens in schools. That remains a commitment as we go into the comprehensive spending review. We continue to have conversations with St. Jamie about his concerns and we always enjoy addressing them fully, unlike some.

During the recess, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, visited Leicester, as an environment city, and the school on Eyres Monsell estate in Leicester, South. Those involved have erected, with funds that they raised themselves, a wind turbine generator to produce most of the power that is consumed at the school. Will my hon. Friend consider whether there is scope in the “Building Schools for the Future” initiative to encourage admirable projects such as the one that we saw and were impressed by at Eyres Monsell school?

Certainly, we are considering that carefully. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) launched the sustainable schools plan and we are considering whether we can provide capital to assist schools in investing sustainably in their buildings. Obviously, we consider that alongside the design elements of “Building Schools for the Future”.

Education Facilities (Wellingborough)

10. What plans there are for additional educational facilities to serve new housing development in Wellingborough East. (92868)

It is a pleasure to respond yet again to the hon. Gentleman, who is in his usual place, asking me the same old question. Planning for new schools is undertaken locally by local authorities and Ministers have no role in the process. We have not been approached by Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire county council for a new Wellingborough school but my officials have made inquiries and two new primary schools are being considered as part of the development of east Wellingborough.

I think I thank the Minister for that reply. However, he knows that the Government plan to build 167,000 homes in Northamptonshire, with many thousands in my constituency, yet there does not seem to be a proper plan for education. Given that the Government demolished a secondary school in my constituency when we had a Labour-controlled county council, my constituency is concerned about the Government’s plans.

The hon. Gentleman continues to raise the concern; he is clearly preoccupied with it. I think that he needs help from his friends in Northamptonshire who have the power to develop the matter. As the new housing developments are planned, we provide the money that is necessary to educate the children, but the hon. Gentleman’s friends on Northamptonshire county council have to make the plans.

Foreign Languages

11. What measures the Department is taking to increase the number of pupils studying foreign languages at GCSE and A-level. (92869)

With the introduction of languages in primary schools, and the improvement of the quality of teaching and learning at key stage 3, we expect more pupils to want to continue to learn languages at GCSE and A-level. However, it will take time for the effects of our strategy to be realised. I can announce to the House that I have asked Lord Dearing to review our languages policy at key stage 4 and to consider what more can be done to increase take-up.

The Secretary of State may know that, in the past year, only 2,854 pupils in the East Riding of Yorkshire took languages at GCSE—down from 3,471 in 1997. Only 98 students took an A-level in languages in the East Riding of Yorkshire—down from 181 in 1997. I sincerely hope that he will consider reviewing the policy. Does he now regret the decision to remove languages as a compulsory subject at GCSE three years ago? Will he do a proper U-turn?

No. The fundamental question is whether that strategy was right. The hon. Gentleman is right that there has been a drop, but there has also been an improvement in attainment by those students who have continued to study languages. [Interruption.] No, it is not marginal. In two years, pass rates are up 11 per cent. in French and 9.7 per cent. in German.

There is a problem in this country: people who speak three languages are called trilingual, people who speak two languages are called bilingual, and those who speak one language are called English. We need to address that problem. Our strategy to do so is for children to start learning languages earlier—at age seven—and no longer to force kids who are starting their GCSEs to study a language if they do not wish to do so. We have no record of the Conservatives opposing that strategy, and it could be key to solving the problem. We want languages to flourish. Forcing 14 to 16-year-olds to learn a language will not achieve that objective, but exciting children about languages at an early age, and finding new and more inspiring ways of teaching languages, will do so.

Lord Dearing has been asked to look into this issue. He has a tremendous track record and, if he says to us that this strategy is wrong and we should go into reverse, we will listen to that advice; we will do that. But Members in all parts of the House would have to be absolutely convinced that that is the right thing to do, and so would Lord Dearing, because the principles of those changes are right. I share the deep disappointment about the drop that there has been; there has been a decrease, not only in East Riding but across the country, of about 14.7 per cent. this year. That cannot be right, and we must do something about it.

Primary Schools

In January 2006, the average size of a primary class taught by one teacher was 26.3. In 1997, more than 20 per cent. of infant classes contained more than 30 pupils, but now that figure is down to 1.6 per cent. That transformation is due to this Government’s investment, and our belief that every child deserves the best start in life.

My wife is a primary school supply teacher in west Yorkshire and I have been amazed at the number of classes she has taught that have more than 30 children. She tells me that the children who are most detrimentally affected by large class sizes are those who struggle most—and, surely, they are the children whom we should be helping. That was backed up by research in 2003 by the university of London. There are 500,000 pupils in class sizes of more than 30. What will the Government do to bring that figure down next year, so that the most vulnerable pupils are cared for?

Naturally, we take that issue seriously. That is why we made such a priority of it back in 1997, and why we have made such a difference by significantly reducing the numbers of those who are taught in class sizes of more than 30. But we are not complacent. There are circumstances in which, legally, the figure rises above 30—due to a statement of special educational needs, for example, with the stating of a school and that school being most appropriate. But we are drafting guidance for local authorities and schools that will help them to manage compliance with the infant class size ratio more fully, because we want to continue the drive to ensure that the student-teacher ratio, particularly in infant and primary schools, is as low as possible.


The Solicitor-General was asked—


18. What contribution his Department is making to the Government-wide initiative to tackle overseas corruption. (92849)

My Department, and especially the Serious Fraud Office and the Crown Prosecution Service, has contributed to the UK action plan on overseas corruption. We have also provided training and technical expertise in tackling corruption to other countries, such as Romania, Macedonia, Ghana, Kenya and Bulgaria.

When the Prime Minister responded to the all-party group on Africa report on the UK and corruption in Africa he said that the Government planned

“to establish a dedicated unit jointly housed by the City of London and Metropolitan Police Forces to investigate allegations of foreign bribery by UK businesses, and use of the UK’s financial system to launder the proceeds of corruption.”

What use will the SFO make of those investigatory resources to ensure that cases of trans-national bribery are brought before the courts?

My hon. Friend has been pressing for the setting up of that unit and, as part of the national action plan on overseas corruption, the Metropolitan police and the City of London police have formed a specialised unit that will begin operations in three weeks’ time, from 1 November. It will be tasked with the investigation of aspects of overseas corruption, and it will be funded by the Department for International Development. Of course, the SFO remains the lead department on overseas corruption, but the new City of London police and Metropolitan police unit will be a valuable resource that it can use. Clearly, the SFO cannot investigate all matters, but the new unit will be able to investigate those areas that the SFO cannot reach.

The Solicitor-General must be aware of the concern that Romania and Bulgaria are being allowed to join the European Union before they have put their own houses in order. What threat does he believe that they pose to this country in terms of organised crime and corruption?

Clearly, we are watching with care the impact that crime has in a number of eastern European states. We want the European Union to expand, but on the right terms, so we are developing much closer links with Bulgaria and Romania to ensure that we have the facility to work with them and to assist them, where we can, in tackling some of the crime and corruption problems that they obviously have.

Human Trafficking

Last week, I opened the United Kingdom human trafficking centre in Sheffield, which is staffed by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and other agencies and aims to co-ordinate our work in tackling the trade in people. The CPS has developed a network of area prosecutors to deal with trafficking offences, and there is also improved training of prosecutors and CPS staff, who have been issued with national guidance to deal with human trafficking.

The whole House will deplore the abuse suffered by innocent victims brought here against their will, but there are also organised criminal gangs charging illegal immigrants for illegal entry into Britain. What does he say to those of my constituents who want to know that illegal immigrants are removed quickly, and that those engaged in this illegal trade face the same tough penalties as those trafficking drugs and other serious organised criminals?

The Government have improved the removal rates of those who arrive here illegally, and through legislation we are tackling sentencing issues. The key thing is to ensure that we can break up those involved in trafficking human beings. Operation Pentameter, which was undertaken between February and May this year, was very successful at breaking up some of the organised rings in this country. In dealing with the development of human trafficking for prostitution purposes, 84 victims were rescued and 230 people arrested. So we must not only deal with the removal of those who are here and with the proper sentencing of those involved; we must also ensure that they are caught in the first place.

A debate at our party conference last month recognised both the seriousness of this issue and the work already done by Government. But we also called on the Government to get the United Kingdom to sign and ratify the Council of Europe convention on trafficking in human beings, which we unanimously support and which is widely supported throughout the country. Is it now the view of Law Officers and the CPS that we should sign and ratify that convention, and will the Solicitor-General undertake that the Government will make that a priority in the weeks ahead?

The straight answer is, not quite at the moment. We support the convention’s aims—indeed, we played a significant part in negotiating it—but we have concerns about a number of particular aspects. The automatic granting of reflection periods and residence permits for trafficking victims give rise to some concerns. We should remember that trafficking victims might include not just those trafficked for the purposes of prostitution, about whom we have heard a lot in the newspapers recently. There are also those who come here—sometimes voluntarily—for economic purposes who are trafficked, in the sense that traffickers bring them in. A consultation was completed in April on how we might implement the proposals, and we are looking at the results. There are still some details to work out before we can make an announcement.

Is my hon. and learned Friend satisfied that we are still getting this issue right in terms of sentencing policy and the priority given by law enforcement agencies to trafficking? We know that trafficking—certainly the trafficking of women—is very often accompanied by extreme violence and sexual violence. Frankly, the sentences of the courts do not always reflect just how serious the traffickers’ underlying activities are. Can we now see a real determination to ensure that the police and the courts treat trafficking with the seriousness that society expects?

I very much hope that we will. I am particularly pleased that the recent reference of a serious trafficking case to the Court of Appeal resulted in the sentence being substantially increased, to 23 years. The Court of Appeal has thereby sent out a clear message that those caught engaging in human trafficking need to be sentenced appropriately, which means serious custodial sentences. We have recently seen a number of those, following that reference to the Court of Appeal by the Attorney-General.

The establishment of the United Kingdom human trafficking centre in Sheffield, and of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, means that we can focus more closely on dealing with this problem. This is a growing problem as a result of the global economy, and there is still a lot of work to do to address it. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that that work is being done.

Court Papers

Statutory charging by the Crown Prosecution Service should ensure not only that the correct charge is made but that evidence and case papers are available at the first hearing. In addition, in the four pilot areas for the programme known as “Criminal justice: simple, speedy and summary”, the CPS has committed additional resources to quality-assure papers delivered to court and to the defence.

My constituent, Mr. Prokop, had his case dismissed at Milton Keynes court because he failed to turn up for the hearing. However, he claims that he never received notification of the court date. More alarmingly, when he contacted the court, it was unable to provide any evidence that the papers had ever been delivered. What action does the Solicitor-General intend to take to ensure that courts at least record the delivery of court papers?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman’s office for alerting me to this case. We have made inquiries about it, and it appears that it might be a county court case, rather than one being dealt with by the Crown Prosecution Service. If the hon. Gentleman provides me with further details of the case, I will happily look into it for him.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his recent visit to Nottingham, and for the impetus that he has given to our bid for a community court. Will he look further into the “Criminal justice: speedy, simple and summary” pilots and let the House know how they are going? If they are working successfully, as I believe that they are, will he consider extending them to my constituency and to the city of Nottingham?

The pilots are apparently going very well, although they started only recently, so we need to be cautious about some of the results. The improvement in guilty pleas has been quite substantial, however. The key elements that we have seen include papers arriving and being provided early to the defence, so that cases can be ready at the first hearing. The result of that has been that guilty pleas have been running at 80 per cent., as 60 per cent. have been issued at the first hearing. Half of these cases have been dealt with at the first hearing. That is a very good result. The pilots are showing that, if we simplify the process of dealing with cases, ensure that the papers get there early, or before the first hearing, we can speed up the whole criminal justice process.

If the Crown Prosecution Service is now showing itself to be much more efficient in relation to the provision of court papers—and, I assume, unused material—to ensure that trials can take place quickly, would it be worth while ensuring that some of its staff are delegated to work with the Home Office in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission process, to ensure that there is no repeat of an occurrence that we discovered this week, namely that material was not being properly disclosed in the SIAC process, leading to contradictory material being revealed in two cases? That is a serious scandal that undermines the credibility of the entire procedure.

It is the case that a problem arose in a specific case involving SIAC. It is not the case, however, that that reveals a systemic problem. It shows that problems arose in a particular example. The Government are looking into the reasons why those problems arose, but I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s claim that this undermines the whole system.