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Education and Skills

Volume 455: debated on Thursday 11 January 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Youth Opportunity/Youth Capital Funds

1. How many young people have been involved in the allocation of youth opportunity funds and youth capital funds; and if he will make a statement. (114148)

10. What steps his Department has taken to involve young people in the allocation of youth opportunity funds and youth capital funds. (114158)

More definitive data will be available at the end of this financial year. The data that we have so far show that more than 9,000 young people have been involved in making decisions about how the two funds have been used, and that a further almost 24,000 have been involved in developing and submitting bids for the funding. The guidance published on how the funds should be used makes it clear that young people must make those decisions. I expect the numbers involved to grow significantly as the use of funds develops over the next two years.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Tory-controlled Dudley council has just announced that it will cut all grant aid to voluntary youth projects in my constituency, so I very much welcome the youth opportunities fund and the capital fund, which give money directly to my young constituents to manage. So far, 16 projects in Stourbridge have been funded with those resources, including a Cyberbus and projects involving a climbing wall and basketball coaching, while disability and inclusion projects have also been funded in that way. A total of 318 young people have put forward project ideas, all of which have been considered by young people. A big step forward has been made to empower those young citizens and encourage them to make their own decisions, but will the funds be sustained beyond March 2008?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and for her support locally to ensure that the funds are spent as they are meant to be spent. The funding is designed to put decision making into the hands of young people so as to increase their participation and citizenship, and to increase the number of positive activities available for them. I wrote to all local authorities last February to make it clear that the funding represents additional resources made available for that specific purpose, and that it was not a substitute for local authorities’ mainstream provision. I am watching very closely to make sure that authorities in Dudley and elsewhere understand that that is the case.

My hon. Friend was right, however, to say that some exciting projects in Dudley and in her constituency of Stourbridge have been funded. As she said, 318 young people have been involved in submitting applications and the 16 projects include disability and inclusion projects, girl racers, peer mentoring and a Cyberbus. That shows that young people want to grasp the opportunity to decide what is available for them in their local areas.

Order. I note that this question is grouped with Question 10, which is in the name of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra). Can the Minister assure me that he was notified of that grouping? That is significant, because he may enter the Chamber later. Can she tell me that he was so informed?

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but I personally cannot confirm that. I was informed by my parliamentary section that the questions would be grouped.

Thank you. If the hon. Gentleman comes in later, I shall call him, as I have no guarantee at this stage that he has been informed of the grouping.

Adult Learning

2. How many places there were on adult learning courses in 2005-06; how many places there are in the 2006-07 financial year; and if he will make a statement. (114149)

In the 2005-06 academic year, there were about 4 million funded adult learner places. Figures for the 2006-07 academic year are not yet available. As set out last October in the Learning and Skills Council’s annual statement of priorities, funding for adult learners from 2005-06 to 2007-08 will increase by 7 per cent., including an additional £300 million for Train to Gain activity. We are committed to realigning funding to support Government targets, apprenticeships, Train to Gain and free first full level 2, while protecting support for disadvantaged adult learning and securing more resources for those with learning difficulties and disabilities.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but how can we have confidence that only 200,000 places will be lost out of the 3.5 million that were announced last April? Just before Christmas, the Government announced that a change in focus in further education policy meant that as many as 500,000 adult education places might be lost. Will the Minister explain the discrepancy?

I think that the hon. Gentleman refers to a period before the most recent changes were introduced, but it is undoubtedly true that the reprioritisation of funding to support skills for employability has delivered higher-than-expected levels of achievement, both at full level 2 and in adult basic skills. Most of the learners who have been lost were involved in non-priority learning. Up to now there has been a cross-party consensus on this matter, but it is important to bear it in mind that the reduction in adult FE volumes must be seen in the wider context of total adult provision. We expect more than 350,000 adult learners to be involved in Train to Gain by 2007-08. The Foster review, the Leitch review and the Government’s FE White Paper received cross-party support and focused on the importance of skills for employability, which has to be our priority.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to be more flexible in the provision of courses as part of our commitment to lifelong learning? Does he agree that individuals and employers need to follow the Government’s example and contribute more to lifelong learning provision?

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. No one can criticise this Government’s FE funding record over the past nine and a half years. In that time, we have increased funding by about 50 per cent., in real terms. That compares very favourably with the 14 per cent. real terms cut that was imposed in the five years before 1997. On the back of that increased state investment, we have to see a greater contribution from both individuals and employers if we are to meet the skills challenges that Sandy Leitch set out for us.

Does the Minister accept that as well as many courses closing, a number of previously well-attended courses are becoming prohibitively expensive for a number of people as a direct result of the Government’s policy of concentrating resources on 16 to 19-year-old education and qualification-based learning?

Interestingly, the evidence shows that the average hourly cost of an adult education class has increased over two years from £1.42 to £2.05—still a relatively modest sum, with significant protection for those on means-tested benefits. But the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If he supports, as I believe he does, the substantial increased investment in skills for employability, he cannot say that the individual should not have to make a greater contribution towards non-priority learning. It is interesting and instructive that the public back us in this view. Three separate independent surveys have suggested that the public believe that for non-priority adult leisure and recreation, the individual should pay a little bit more.

My hon. Friend is right to say that skills for employability are essential, but what progress has been made in discussions with LSCs in distinguishing between leisure courses and community courses that encourage people back into education who might otherwise not go on an accredited course? They are different, and often LSCs confuse the two.

I know that my hon. Friend takes a real interest in this issue. It is important to focus on level 2—the equivalent of five GCSEs—but it is also critical that the stepping-stone provision that gets people up to level 2 is preserved and maintained. That is why we have established the foundation learning tier. We want to identify those courses that lead to progression. The commitment that we made in the FE White Paper is that over time, as resources allow, we will seek to make that an entitlement.

The Minister is right to highlight the importance of lifelong learning, not least to match the skills required by industry to the courses put on by colleges. Will he congratulate Macclesfield college on the number of courses that it is organising relevant to the needs of local industry and commerce? I recently attended the opening of the European Centre for Aerospace Training at Macclesfield college by the director of the local learning and skills council. The centre is very relevant to the needs of industry and commerce.

I am more than happy to endorse the record of Macclesfield college. I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks up very strongly on its behalf. The focus on skills for employability is key. Sandy Leitch’s report states that our economy is changing. We are going from 9 million skilled jobs to 14 million, while at the same time the number of unskilled jobs is falling from 3.5 million to 600,000. Unless we equip people within the workplace with the skills to face up to that challenge, we and they will lose out significantly.

Does my hon. Friend agree that cuts in funding for training in English for speakers of other languages, effectively ending free tuition for low-paid migrant workers from next September, is rather at odds with statements from Ministers, including the Chancellor, about the central importance of migrant workers learning English?

It is important that migrant workers learn English. Both the numbers and the funding for ESOL have tripled in recent years, but the current funding framework is unsustainable. In some parts of the country there are waiting lists of 18 months to two years for those in the greatest need. That is why we are saying, as we are across the FE system, that the individual and the employer have to make a contribution. Nevertheless, even with the changes, more than 50 per cent. of those currently receiving free ESOL training will continue to do so.

If I understand the Minister correctly, that means that there will be a 50 per cent. cut in funds for English for speakers of other languages. I am grateful for the question asked by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). I remind him of the words of the Prime Minister, who said that, when people come to this country

“as well as people preserving their own distinctive identity”—

it is vital that—

“they integrate with British society. And that is the reason why it is important in my view that people who come into the country and settle here, learn to speak English.”

[Interruption.] The Secretary of State says, “and settle here”, so perhaps that is the answer, but will the Minister explain the logic to many baffled immigrants who seek to learn English and integrate in this country, and tell them why funding for that vital course has been cut?

From the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I assume that he thinks there should be different treatment for people coming to this country compared to British citizens. I do not take that view; there needs to be a level playing field, and where individuals and employers can make a contribution, they should do so. The current position is unsustainable. As I said, in parts of the country there are waiting lists of 18 months to two years for people in the greatest need. Unless the hon. Gentleman is making a commitment to additional public spending for ESOL, his intervention completely lacks credibility.

Music Teaching

All schools already have to teach music to five to 14-year-old pupils, in accordance with national curriculum requirements. The Government are investing an additional £30 million in 2006-08 to back up their pledge that over time every primary child who wants to will have the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument. The distribution of that money gives more to areas of high deprivation.

I welcome the reiteration of that policy, but it was laid down by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) four Education Secretaries ago. What remains is a postcode lottery for schoolchildren wanting to learn to play a musical instrument—the chances are higher in Esher than in many working-class areas. I look to the Labour Government to remedy that wrong and to ensure that some of the poorest and most disadvantaged of our schoolchildren have the opportunity to enjoy and learn to play quality music, particularly—although rock and technology are important—classical and traditional music. That is what is required from the Labour Government. Can we get on with it?

I am glad to hear my hon. Friend talk about rock—he is known as the Robbie Williams of Thurrock in many parts of the House.

I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. I agree entirely about the importance of music for all children, particularly for those in deprived areas, because on many occasions it is music and sport that get children engaged in education, which leads to other benefits. I want to make two points. The first is that we have provided a pot of money—£2 million, weighted for deprivation—to local authorities to buy and repair musical instruments. For some reason in my hon. Friend’s authority—the socialist republic of Thurrock—

Perhaps that is the explanation. For some reason, Thurrock’s £3,254 share of that money has yet to be picked up. It is available for the 2006-07 financial year.

My hon. Friend talked about disadvantaged children, and my second point is that I announced at the Barnardo’s conference in December that as part of our children in care Green Paper and the proposals arising from it, every child in care should have the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument. The philosophy behind our Green Paper is that the state should be a better parent, and just as a parent would try to provide the opportunity for a child to learn a musical instrument, so, too, should the state. This month, we are talking to a range of music experts about how we can ensure that every child in care has that advantage.

I welcome what the Minister said about the importance of music in the school curriculum. Is he aware that in my borough of Bexley there is excellent music teaching and provision across the whole borough, irrespective of the social background of the area? Will he urge other local education authorities to look at the provision in my authority to see whether they can replicate it?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Bexley is excellent at music. Although we have made tremendous progress, I want to ensure that the same quality of provision that exists in Bexley and many other local authorities is applied across the country. One of the important developments is the music manifesto, where we put together independent voices in the music industry. There are 500 signatories and they have made a number of recommendations to us over the year to which I will respond in a speech on 16 January. One of the recommendations is about how we use singing in schools and about ensuring that there is singing in all schools as a precursor to greater music education. There are lots of excellent colleges in the state sector and the independent sector that, in partnership, we can use to achieve those objectives.

My local authority of Sandwell, which historically is in a low income area, has an outstanding schools orchestra, which has reflected great credit on the local authority. Central to that has been the funding stream for music standards in schools, which I believe is to be reviewed in 2008. I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that that central funding stream is maintained so that music provision in authorities such as Sandwell can continue to reflect credit on those involved.

My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to that pool of money. It amounts to £64.5 million this year and will rise to £83 million in 2007-08. The pot for Thurrock is £400,000. He asked me a question that I cannot answer until the end of the comprehensive spending review, but it is quite evident that the focus that we have put on music learning throughout our time in government is going to continue.

Schools

Local authorities are required to inform my Department of their plans for new schools only when they publish statutory notices, so we cannot say how many schools for those aged three to 19 there will be in 2012. There is currently one maintained school for those aged three to 18, one for those aged four to 18, one for those aged three to 16, and one for those aged four to 16. There are two academies for those aged five to 19.

I hope that the Minister will find time to visit Selby Park school in my constituency—it is such a school, in a mining village, and it has been an outstanding success—both to look at its success and think about how that could apply elsewhere in the country, and also to discuss with other schools in mining villages in my constituency whether that model would suit them in improving attainment in future.

I am certainly aware of the successful amalgamation of three schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency to form the new Selby Park school. That is a tribute to the work of teachers, pupils, governors and the Labour-controlled county council. I am also aware that the head teacher, Dave Harris, leads the consortium for all-age schools. I will try to find time to pay a visit to his constituency and have the discussions that my hon. Friend talked about.

We already know that, in the run up to 2012, the Government are going to spend billions of pounds on rebuilding schools or building new schools, which is welcome. However, we also know that by the time we get to 2012 the number of pupils being educated in those schools will have fallen. Do the Government recognise that that challenge of demographic change requires not only that they respond with new buildings, but that they transform the curriculum being delivered within those new buildings so that we drive up attainment and staying on rates at 16?

As we roll out the building schools for the future programme—a £45 billion investment in secondary school buildings and transforming secondary education—we will certainly look to local authorities to make sure that they take proper account of falling rolls and propose imaginative schemes to address that. That will work alongside the most ambitious reform of qualifications, with the introduction of specialised diplomas, for many years. We want to make sure that local authorities, in their vision for building schools for the future, are also accounting for the needs in relation to the 14 to 19 reforms.

There are two systems in the Stafford constituency: some parts have primary and secondary schools, while others have first, middle and secondary schools. Does my hon. Friend agree that whatever the structure, if we give teachers and schools the tools to do the job, they rise magnificently to the challenge? Is that not borne out by the Sir Graham Balfour high school in Stafford, which is strongly improving, as is shown by the latest performance figures? I know from experience that it has become very popular since the two-site school was replaced by a modern private finance initiative building.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments and join him in congratulating Sir Graham Balfour school on its results, which show the benefits of the imaginative work of its head teacher and the commitment of its governors and pupils. They are part of the excellent results that are being announced today, which show that in the past 10 years the proportion of children getting five GCSEs at A* to C has increased from 45 per cent. to 58 per cent. If maths is included, there has been a rise of 9 per cent. over that period. We should all be celebrating that success, and schools and pupils throughout the country should be proud of their results.

In the past 10 years, the number of pupil referral units has increased from 309 to 449. Does the Minister think that that trend will continue?

Pupil referral units perform an important function. I am examining the situation carefully because the performance of PRUs is variable and there is evidence that when local authorities delegate the management of PRUs to partnerships of schools the units become more successful. I am not that interested in the overall number of PRUs; I am more interested in their success.

Autism

The framework for teacher training ensures that all qualifying and newly qualified teachers, including those supporting children with autism, can plan effectively to meet special educational needs. Decisions about further training for individual teachers are for schools to take. However, to help to reinforce skills, we have announced that we will be developing, with advice from our autism working group, a teachers’ pack on effective provision for children with autistic spectrum disorders. That will complement and build on our good practice guidance that was issued in 2002, which included a checklist for an autism-friendly school.

I welcome that answer. I have been working with a group of about 50 parents of autistic children in my constituency. Although those children have varying needs and this is coming from a very low base, Suffolk local education authority has made good progress this year on developing specialist services. Parents tell me that there is a need for more training so that more expertise can be developed among classroom teachers in mainstream schools. I hope that the new initiative will bring results, but will the Minister carry out a national audit of provision for autistic children because I think that he would find that the picture is very patchy?

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has been doing in Waveney, where he regularly meets about 50 parents of children with autism. As part of the initial teacher training process, teachers are equipped to address special educational needs and receive training on that, but he is right that we need to go further. We will be working with the Teacher Training Agency on a £1.1 million programme that will, among other things, help to ensure that more teachers spend more concentrated time in placements in special schools during the training process and that online facilities are used to spread best practice.

My hon. Friend says that work needs to be done with local authorities. I assure him that we are working closely with groups, including the National Autistic Society and local authorities, in our autism working group—there is a meeting with officials this morning—to find ways of providing better resourcing packages to improve the situation and to assist teachers and pupils.

Will the Minister recognise the superb work undertaken by specialist teachers at the Royal School for the Deaf and Communication Disorders in Cheadle Hulme in Cheshire, which takes children from throughout the United Kingdom—some for 365 days a year—and teaches and looks after children with the most severe autism and other disabilities? Do the Government recognise that such centres of excellence must continue? Does the Minister realise that when more able children reach the age of 18, they have extreme difficulties bridging the gap between being in education, with all the support that they get, and beginning to live a semi-independent life in the community?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about the role of staff in centres such as the one that she mentions. We intend to continue to work with local authorities and to provide further funding for special educational needs in the coming years. She will be aware that in the past five years the amount of money that we have given has increased from some £2.8 billion five years ago to £4.5 billion this year. That is roughly a 60 per cent. increase in funding for that area.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although there are many wonderful teachers working in special educational needs across the country, there are not enough of them? Will the whole Front Bench team take another look at the Select Committee on Education and Skills report on special educational needs, and its report on teaching children to read, and will it then track back to the fact that there is something deeply wrong with the training of our teachers, as so many of them have no experience of teaching children with special educational needs or of teaching children to read? I would like to hear a much greater note of urgency in his tone when he responds.

My hon. Friend and I have had in-depth discussions on the issue, and we had a three-hour discussion with the Select Committee just before Christmas. I take on board what he says about the need for greater training and support for the teaching profession, but I reiterate that such issues are a compulsory part of initial teacher training. We need to go further, and we are working with the TTA on that. The appropriate way forward is to work with groups such as the autism working group; that is what we are doing, and I promise him that we will continue to do that.

Given that children with autistic spectrum disorders often have complex needs that go well beyond those that can reasonably be met in the classroom, and given that those needs tend to persist throughout their lives, may I ask the Minister, pursuant to the pertinent inquiry of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), what particular steps his Department is taking to improve services to support the emotional and social needs of such children, particularly post-16, so that they have the equipment the better to lead independent lives?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my noble Friend Lord Adonis has been working on that matter very closely. I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman more information in writing, as I know from his contribution to the Select Committee discussion that we had just before Christmas that he is very concerned about the issue. He is right that the issue is not just about what happens within the school environment, and that those needs do not end at the age of 16. We have to work carefully and closely with local authorities to make sure that there are pathways to support such people for the rest of their lives, whatever they end up doing. We should support them both inside and outside of education, and provide them with the right level of support.

Ensuring an overall framework for special educational needs support is obviously important if we are to tackle the specific area of special needs under discussion. Is my hon. Friend aware that, in Birmingham, a review of SEN provision has caused a great deal of concern among teachers and parents? In fairness to the Tory and Lib Dem-controlled council, it says that it has been misunderstood, that the issue is not about what it is said to be about, and that it will consult properly, but there is still a great deal of concern. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has commented on the matter, but will he and his colleagues on the Front Bench make sure that Birmingham lives up to what it says, and consults and involves the people in that key area who have the most at stake?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point about what is happening in Birmingham. I am pleased to note that our debate is not overly cooked or overheated, as in the past there was talk of moratoriums, but that would not assist local authorities. It is worth putting on the record the fact that from 1986 to 1997, 234 special schools closed. The rate decreased in 1997 to 2005, when there were 138 closures, but a great deal of restructuring by local government resulted in smaller facilities closing or merging, often with mainstream facilities.

My hon. Friend made his point about Birmingham very clearly, and concerns have been raised about Wandsworth, too. His contribution echoes those concerns, enabling them to be heard loud and clear in Birmingham.

But does the Minister recognise that many parents with a child at the severe end of the autism spectrum genuinely believe that they would be better off in a special school? Why are the Government still instructing local authorities that

“the proportion of children educated in special schools should fall over time”?

Has not the time come to withdraw that guidance, putting the views of parents, not politicians, first and, indeed, to introduce a moratorium on the closure of special schools?

I do not think that that is the case. We have made it clear that parents should be able to say what they want as part of the statementing process. If they want their child to go to a special school, they have the right to say so and send them to such a school. Only 0.25 per cent. of families with children with special educational needs make an appeal to the independent SENDIST—special educational needs and disabilities tribunal—because they are unhappy with the choice of school or have not been given what they want. Our position is clear—we support the parents’ choice, whether it is a mainstream or special school or, as is increasingly the case, a special school allied to a mainstream school. With the support of the building schools for the future programme and the £6.5 billion a year building programme, we have been able to improve some of those facilities and achieve greater co-location.

Parents in my constituency have drawn attention to the problem of persuading primary schools to recognise that their children have autism so that help can be provided before those children start to experience feelings of exclusion and behavioural problems. Can the Minister assure me that the matter will receive a high priority, perhaps in the Ofsted inspection, so that primary schools can make sure that all teachers understand and detect the early stages of autism, as that is as important as the provision of specialist autism teachers?

My hon. Friend is right, and that is one reason that we support the National Autistic Society’s make schools make sense campaign—I believe that she attended the launch. We are working with the society to design a pack that will enable teachers to recognise autism and to deal with it, specifically by supporting the teachers that she mentioned in primary schools.

Schools (Northumberland)

7. What estimate he has made of the number of schools in Northumberland likely to be (a) built and (b) refurbished through the capital spending announced in the Chancellor’s public spending statement. (114155)

I have made no estimate of the number of schools in Northumberland likely to be built or refurbished during the spending review period announced in the Chancellor’s public spending statement. This is because, first, detailed allocations to public authorities have not yet been announced for this period and, secondly, because decision making is carried out at local authority level.

The Minister will know from his recent visit to Northumberland of the desperate need for a new high school in Alnwick, the needs of many other schools in the county, the massive reorganisation that the county is trying to undertake and the fact that all its bids under the building schools for the future programme have failed. The Minister and his officials have promised to undertake some work to understand why that has happened, but by what date will we know that some of that money is going to Northumberland so that some of those schools can be rebuilt?

I enjoyed my visit to Northumberland and our constructive discussions about the problems faced by the authority. The right hon. Gentleman will know that it has accepted a repayable advance in 2007-08 of £2.1 million, and I am considering a request for an additional advance of £3.9 million. He should bear in mind the fact that, 10 years ago under the previous Government, the entire capital allocation was only £3.1 million. We have therefore advanced significant sums but, unfortunately for Northumberland, money under the BSF programme is allocated on the basis of deprivation and need. As we discussed, that presents problems for his authority.

One of the problems that Northumberland faces is that on the basis of funding per pupil, it is in the bottom four of all local education authorities in England. As the Minister saw on his visit, the county has to deal with providing education in one of the most sparsely populated counties in England, coupled with dealing with social deprivation in the former coalfield areas of the south-east of the county. When the Minister looks at the funding formulae, will he take into consideration sparsity and the other factors that deprive Northumberland of a great deal of money?

Certainly we take account of sparsity when we consider the funding formula. I would advise the hon. Gentleman to look at the funding figures, including grants. If he does so, he will see that Northumberland is right next to Dorset, the county that I represent, and is somewhere round the 30th worst funded authority, not the fourth worst funded authority out of the 149.

Children's Centres

8. What progress has been made towards the target for a children's centre in every community by 2010. (114156)

We exceeded our interim milestone of 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres by September last year, and there are now 1,051 centres reaching over 850,000 children and their families. The strong engagement of local authorities and other local partners means that we are making good progress towards having 3,500 children’s centres—one for every community—by 2010. The centres are at the heart of our “Every Child Matters” programme. They are a key vehicle for improving the outcomes for young children, reducing inequalities between them and helping to bring an end to child poverty.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, and I am pleased with the progress that has been made. I am also grateful for the excellent Sure Start and children’s centre provision in my constituency, Burnley. Due to our high levels of deprivation, we had a number of centres right from the start. I can personally vouch for the excellence of the service provided, as our family has had occasion to use it recently. Given the progress that has been made in rolling out children’s centres, which my right hon. Friend has just announced, what scope is there to work further with primary care trusts to use them to provide additional essential health services in every community throughout the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and for her interest both in the national policy and locally. She is right to highlight that aspect, because as we move from the experimental Sure Start local programmes in very disadvantaged areas to seeing the centres as mainstream provision in every community, it is vital that local health and employment services are provided through the children’s centres, integrated with early education and children’s social care services. I would like to see more health-led children’s centres, not just an integration of health, but run by PCTs, as is the case in one of the children’s centres in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The evaluations tell us that when the centres are health-led, some of the best practice and best outcomes are achieved, precisely because of the high quality of data that many PCTs have. That is being encouraged at local level both by me and by Health Ministers.

Although I welcome the roll-out of more children’s centres, is not the Minister concerned that the evidence so far suggests that the most disadvantaged families and those that are most difficult to reach are not presenting at children’s centres, and therefore cannot be helped in the way that she has just set out? What policies will she pursue to reach the most difficult families, which can benefit most from state provision?

That is central to our objectives. In the Childcare Act 2006 the Government laid two duties on local authorities—not only to achieve an improvement in outcomes for all young children, but to reduce the inequalities between young children. That provision was robustly opposed by all Tory members of the Committee during the passage of the Act. Reaching the most disadvantaged families is crucial to reducing inequalities. The recent National Audit Office report identified the fact that although many local authorities are doing very well in reaching disadvantaged families, more local authorities need to do better. I have recently taken a number of steps to improve the performance of local—

I was very pleased to hear about the development of the first three children’s centres in my constituency over the coming year. Local people are telling me that it is extremely important to involve parents in the development of those centres at the earliest possible stage if they are to fulfil their role in ensuring that every young child gets the best possible start in life. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

All the evidence suggests that over and above any services, the single most important factor in determining outcomes for children at any age is parental involvement, positive attitude and interest. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is important to involve parents at the earliest opportunity, but centres must also keep their eye on the most important ball—outcomes for the children themselves.

How does the Minister’s Department intend to respond to the National Audit Office report, which said, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) pointed out, that children’s centres are not reaching the most deprived families, particularly parents of children with disabilities. It noted that four out of 30 of the children’s centres were forecasting deficits, which raises questions about the roll-out of future centres and the sustainability of the child care market.

On primary care trust co-hosting, which we would like to see, how will that happen in areas such as North Yorkshire where PCTs are heavily in deficit?

The NAO report was helpful because it found that some local authorities need to do better in reaching the most disadvantaged groups. It also identified local authorities that were doing very well and how they were doing so. I have taken three courses of action in response to the report. First, I have issued strong practice guidance to children’s centres about how they should strengthen their outreach and improve their performance management. Secondly, I am funding, with the Cabinet Office and the social exclusion team, a project to determine how health visitors, who are well placed to identify and work with the most disadvantaged families, can be more strongly connected with children’s centres. Thirdly, we have appointed a public voluntary sector consortium called Together for Children, whose job is to support and, particularly, to challenge local authorities and to improve their practice in this regard.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the third new children’s centre in my constituency, which opened just before Christmas. I am sure that it will provide excellent services for people in the Laurel avenue area. Can she confirm what her Department is doing to support outreach work from the centre so that families who are most excluded and hardest to reach can access not only the benefits of Sure Start but those of other services?

Yes, I can. The NAO report found that centres that are successful at reaching disadvantaged groups showed commitment from the centre manager and staff, used outreach and home visiting in co-operation with health and community groups to reach those excluded families, and provided outreach services on the doorsteps of deprived communities. Those are exactly the elements that the practice guidance has identified, and all local authorities must push that through their children’s centres to ensure that it happens.

International Baccalaureate

9. What plans he has to encourage schools to offer international baccalaureate examinations in place of A-levels. (114157)

On 30 November, the Prime Minister announced plans to enable some schools to offer the international baccalaureate in addition to A-levels, thus widening choice in post-16 education. We are asking each local authority to nominate one suitable institution in their area that could deliver the IB, and we will support at least one institution offering it in every local authority outside London by 2010. Any school offering it must be in a consortium that is successful in passing through the diploma gateway.

When the Prime Minister said that he wanted the international baccalaureate to be an extra examination choice, was not he admitting what we all know—that the Government have let down hard-working, intelligent young people by making A-levels that much easier through devaluing the so-called gold standard? Indeed, he was admitting that A-levels are no longer an adequate test of the hard work, education, intelligence and ability of pre-university pupils.

I am afraid to say that that is complete nonsense. We should celebrate the performance and improvement in teaching in this country, pupils’ hard work, and the support that they get from their parents and that schools get from governors, resulting in vastly improved A-levels. We now have 25 per cent. of pupils getting an A grade in every A-level subject and we are therefore introducing the grade of A* to provide some differentiation and more push at the top end of A-levels. However, the A-level remains the gold standard. The IB will not suit most candidates because of its breadth—it includes English, maths, a science and an additional foreign language. Most people post-16 will not be interested in that breadth.

Does the Minister agree that the preparation for a baccalaureate or A-levels depends on achievement at key stage 4? Will he join me in congratulating the schools in Slough, which get results that are 10 per cent. above average in key stage 4? They include Beechwood school, which suffers from a selective intake, but has moved from being judged “the worst school in the country” in 2001 to one in which one in five of its pupils are getting five A to C grades.

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Beechwood school in Slough on some excellent performance and fantastic improvement in the past five years. Everyone involved in that school should be proud of their achievements. We should celebrate success in our schools throughout the country instead of trying to run it down.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the shadow deputy Chief Whip that the increasing popularity of the international baccalaureate is partly due to concerns about existing A-levels and GCSEs. That is why 200 independent schools decided to adopt the international GCSE in some subjects. Does the Minister agree that, since state schools are allowed to offer the international baccalaureate, they should also be allowed to offer the international GCSE, thus putting them on an equal footing with the independent sector?

At the moment, more state schools than independent schools offer the international baccalaureate. I am sure that some independent schools are motivated by the extraordinarily large number of Universities and Colleges Admissions Service points that now have been offered to the international GCSE. The hon. Gentleman’s comments about the IGSE are predictable. I remind him that it is not compatible with the national curriculum. It is a completely written exam and it therefore fails to offer, for example, French oral for the French exam. That is nonsense. If we offered it in maintained schools, significant changes would have to be made to it.

Does the Minister accept that the array of examinations that is now available—general national vocational qualifications, 14 to 19 diplomas, the international baccalaureate, A-levels—is costly and confusing? Does he agree that it avoids tackling the genuine problem, which is that examination boards or the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, aided and abetted by the unwillingness of successive Governments to maintain standards, have not maintained the rigorous standards that should be applied to the A-level? Does he accept that is now time to re-establish rigorous standards for the content of A-levels and—

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I reject the notion that A-levels have been dumbed down—it is an insult to pupils who have been doing so well in those exams. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority maintains the standard for us and does a good job. On the range of options post-16, we are setting out a three-pronged choice in our 14 to19 reforms, with English and maths GCSE at its heart, as well as the traditional apprenticeship route, the traditional academic GCSE and A-level or IB route and the new specialised diploma route. That will mix the best of academic and the best of work-related learning.