Skip to main content

Education and Skills

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 15 March 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Nursery Services

1. What representations he has received on provision of nursery services free at the point of delivery. (127470)

My colleagues and I have regular meetings with and correspondence from representatives of all sectors, as well as early years providers, including those providing the entitlement to 12.5 hours early education or care for three and four-year-old children for 36 weeks of the year. It is this Government who introduced the entitlement and guaranteed that it is and will remain completely free to all parents who wish to take it up.

Does the Minister share my concern that at a time when we read that one of the leading chains of nurseries is planning to close down 10 of its 13 facilities, this will be repeated across the country? I have had reports of that happening in my constituency, Ilford, North.

If that were the case, yes, I would be concerned. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who speaks from the Front Bench, have stated that that chain has closed. From our information, I understand that that is not accurate. The chain has changed hands, as such businesses do, but we cannot find any reports of intentions to reduce places. That rumour and a number of other comments from Opposition Members are untrue. In fact, there has been increasing stability in the market over recent years, particularly for private providers. That reflects both the investment that we are making and our commitment to maintaining a diverse sector.

As always, there are two sides to the argument. What representations has my right hon. Friend received from parents about their entitlement to free care? Sometimes parents are asked to top up what should be a free entitlement, and they are unaware of their right to an excellent scheme for helping them and their children.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s contribution. It is in parents’ interests that we ensure that providers and local authorities understand that this is a free entitlement. That is the point of it. We do not want to discriminate between parents who could afford to pay top-up fees and those who could not. From my discussions with local authorities and the broad swathe of providers, I am convinced that the £3 billion a year that the Government are committing to this free offer is sufficient. Provided that it is administered properly by local authorities—we are looking at that—there is no reason at all for any provider to ask for a top-up fee, and we will certainly not allow them to do so.

I am delighted to see the Minister back in her place. We are all agreed that we want to see more child care, rather than less, but the Minister must accept that the free entitlement is not free, that in large measure the local authorities are not passing all the costs on to providers, and that the providers are using the extra half-hour over and above the statutory entitlement to subsidise the cost. To a large extent, the Government have had this child care cheap. Does the right hon. Lady accept that there is a mixed economy in respect of provision? Will she come clean and say what will happen when the code of practice applies to the pilot areas, and clear up any confusion? There is great uncertainty on the part of providers about what will happen from 1 April.

I know that the hon. Lady is keen to develop a campaign on the issue, but the points that she makes here and elsewhere are simply not true. They are causing needless concern for parents. The experience over the vast swathe of the country is that the money going through local authorities is sufficient. In some instances the way in which it is being allocated by local authorities should be examined. I am sure she is aware that that is why on 7 March we launched a consultation document on schools, early years and 14-to-16 funding, including specific proposals which, if they are supported, will ensure better alignment in allocation across the sectors in local authorities where that might not be the case. I am convinced that the £3 billion is sufficient and that the provision must remain, as it is at present, free to parents at the point of access. We will not have the kind of two-tier system that the hon. Lady wants. We do not want vouchers and we will not allow discrimination—

Teacher Vacancies

Teacher vacancies in local authority maintained schools went down between January 2005 and January 2006 by 250, to reach 2,230 posts, which is broadly the same percentage as it was 10 years ago. We expect that vacancy figures for January 2007 will be published on 26 April.

Will the Minister accept that the large number of supply teachers in all too many schools, particularly as head teachers, French teachers and maths teachers, is not only very bad for morale in the common room, but harms children’s education? What more is he going to do to make sure that we have more permanent head teachers, French teachers and maths teachers?

We have commissioned a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers on leadership in schools. We are doing a series of things involving the National College for School Leadership in respect of head teachers. Lord Dearing published his report this week on language teaching, and we are addressing some of the recommendations. The statistics on maths teachers are very encouraging, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning launched some new measures for science, technology and maths this week. The overall picture is that we have more than 36,000 more teachers than we did 10 years ago, and we have added 140,000 more support staff so that teachers can concentrate on teaching. The general trend is extremely positive.

My constituency lies right on the boundary with inner London, where there is a significant enhancement for teachers through London weighting. Although the areas and the schools are very similar, my area finds it difficult to attract teachers against that competition. Will my hon. Friend consider the issue to see whether there is any way in which he can make a more level playing field, so that the schools in my area can attract teachers to work in Enfield?

My hon. Friend has been assiduous in raising that concern with the ministerial team. We will continue to look at the success that we have achieved through the chartered London teacher scheme, London Challenge and Teach First. A series of measures is making sure that London schools are getting the leadership that they need and that we are getting the quality of teachers that we need to continue the exceptional improvement in the quality of education in London schools, which is ahead of that in the rest of the country.

We have heard the figures on teacher vacancies. According to the most recent figures, however, 25 per cent. of newly qualified secondary school teachers and 26 per cent. of newly qualified primary school teachers were not in full-time employment six months after they graduated. Does the Minister agree that that is a real concern? What does he plan to do about it? And what implications does it have for the Government’s recruitment campaign for teachers?

We have to get the right balance. I have received a number of letters from hon. Members representing constituents who have trained as teachers and who are struggling to find posts. We have to balance that against the concerns raised by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay). There are particular subjects such as languages, maths and science where we need to improve the supply of teachers. Although the vacancy rate for head teachers is broadly what it was 10 years ago, there is a future challenge in terms of succession planning. We have to strike that balance. The level of supply is broadly in tune with the level of demand, but there will always be some geographical disparities.

Secondary Schools

Since 1997, education has been this Government’s top priority. We have doubled spending per pupil, and there are now 36,000 more teachers and 150,000 more support staff. We are investing more than £1 billion in personalising learning by 2008. The secondary national strategy is improving the quality of teaching and learning with training and support for teachers. Our 14-to-19 reforms, including the introduction of diplomas, will enhance our focus on functional skills. Attainment has increased at all levels in secondary schools since 1997, and the number of schools with fewer than 25 per cent. of pupils achieving five or more good GCSEs is down from 616 in 1997 to 47 this year, and 85,000 more students achieve that standard each year.

Will the Secretary of State explain why in Milton Keynes, where we are having to build new schools, English Partnerships will charge full price to the local authority for a piece of land if a secondary school is being built, but if the same site is used for a primary school, it will transfer the land at zero cost? Why is there an imbalance between the two different types of school? Since the Secretary of State has such commitment to secondary education, will he look at the matter? And will he meet a delegation from Milton Keynes to discuss it?

That does not sound right to me, and I would happily meet a delegation from Milton Keynes to discuss it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that some of the figures that are coming out about the success of extended schools are quite remarkable and should be applauded? Will he begin a campaign to get more Members of Parliament to go out and visit more schools? As I go round the country visiting secondary schools, I see improving achievement, whereas many Conservative Members seem only ever to have been to the independent schools that they were raised in.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am getting to the age when as I look around at the new intake, some of them look as though they have just left secondary school. I think that we would all agree that it is a very fulfilling experience to go and visit our local schools—much more so now than it was 10 years ago.

The Secretary of State is no doubt aware of the decline in the study of languages in secondary schools, following the Government’s decision to relax the curriculum. We all want to see the study of languages prosper, and we now have the Dearing proposals to try to address the problem. Does the Secretary of State believe that following those proposals there will be an increase in the number of candidates in our secondary schools for public examinations in languages at GCSE and A-level?

Lord Dearing has done a valuable task, and his report is full of good sense. We have accepted his principal recommendation that we should make languages compulsory in primary schools, and we will do so at the next available opportunity when we review that key stage. As for children in secondary schools, we need to do much more to encourage schools to go for a much higher benchmark. On Saturday, I was at Wakefield city high school, which is in the middle of a council estate and has a large intake of pupils who have free school meals. The number of students taking languages has not changed since we moved from compulsion to entitlement. That is because of inspirational, very good-quality languages teaching and a method of teaching that enthuses youngsters. That represents a large part of Lord Dearing’s recommendations, and we should ensure that it happens in every secondary school.

I thank the Secretary of State for visiting Wakefield city high school with me on Saturday, when its inspirational head teacher, Alan Yellop, told us how he took a school where just 7 per cent. of pupils were getting five good A to C grades at GCSE in 1994 to one that is not only performing above the national average in absolute terms but is in the top 5 per cent. of the country, in value-added terms, for maths. Will my right hon. Friend urgently consider the need for capital financing to rebuild that school? Following our tour, I am sure that he will agree that we urgently need a significant investment in the school to ensure that its high-quality teaching and inspirational leadership continue.

There we have it. In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), I can say that MPs are not only visiting schools but doing so on a Saturday. [Interruption.] There were children in attendance. My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is a tremendous school with tremendous leadership, great teaching and improved results. The capital spend needs to go in, because the school is in a poor condition. We understand that. That is why we are refurbishing and rebuilding every single secondary school and have targeted the capital funding available to local authorities to deal with schools such as Wakefield city high. I hope that that school will soon have an infrastructure to match its tremendous teaching.

The Secretary of State will know that one of the measures that the Government have taken to improve secondary schools is to allow them to move to trust status. Ryeish Green school in my constituency is undergoing a consultation on closure. It is a much improved school that wants to be a trust school, and it looks as though it has the strong support of a very good local organisation. The only problem is that the local education authority needs some persuasion. Will the Secretary of State meet people from the school, the local education authority and me to bring all parties together to ensure that this opportunity to raise secondary school standards is taken?

I will certainly facilitate such a meeting. If the circumstances are as the hon. Gentleman describes—I have no reason to doubt him—we should include the school among the many that wish to introduce trust status in the next couple of years.

Educational achievement in Hartlepool has doubled in a decade, facilitated largely by a doubling of spend per pupil by the Labour Government. Whereas fewer than 30 per cent. of pupils in 1996 achieved five good GCSEs, 60 per cent. now achieve that. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, following the current comprehensive spending review, which is acknowledged to be tighter than previous rounds, education will continue to be a central focus of the Government’s policy so that pupils in Hartlepool can continue to benefit from rising standards and increasing spending?

The achievement in Hartlepool is truly remarkable. It should be a beacon to other areas of the country, which have similar circumstances but have not managed the same achievement.

I obviously cannot comment on the comprehensive spending review. However, we are locking £66 billion of funding into the Department this year—record amounts are being spent on education and I hope that we will retain that and have a real-terms increase on top.

Despite the record spending on education and the plethora of initiatives that the Secretary of State has described this morning, only 75 per cent. of youngsters this year reached the level expected of them in key stage 2 tests in English, maths and science. Is it not time that the Secretary of State took on the left-wing, liberal establishment, which dominates education, brought an end to all-ability comprehensive schools and mixed teaching classes, and introduced traditional methods of teaching English?

The reference to liberals certainly created a stir on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

The hon. Gentleman talks about 75 per cent. achievement in three subjects at key stage 2. He needs to consider the position in 1997, since when a tremendous amount of progress has been made. That is due not to politicians, educationists or civil servants, but to teachers and head teachers. They do a tremendous job.

Much of changing the culture has to do with building aspiration, especially, as I said yesterday, among working-class boys. That matter is being addressed, but with a teaching profession that is in better shape. There are more teachers and they comprise probably the best cohort of teachers that we have ever had in this country—whether they are left-wing liberals is a matter for them.

My right hon. Friend rightly says that the key to raising standards is good teaching. Yet time and again, the Select Committee in its investigations finds deficiencies in teacher training. Teachers will face far more demands in future with the changing curriculum. When will my right hon. Friend examine the content of teacher training courses for initial training and continuous professional development to ensure that we have a teaching work force that is adequately trained for the demands of the 21st century?

I very much agree with that sentiment. If it were in my gift—which it is not—my hon. Friend would be a Minister. She raised an important point, which the Select Committee has made on occasions. Its distinguished Chair is sitting near my hon. Friend—perhaps another ministerial job approaches?

Both my hon. Friends would agree that we have done much to improve teacher training and the work that goes into that from the Training and Development Agency and others. Much work is going into school leadership and getting teachers to aspire to it. The challenge of introducing diplomas and the various other measures that we are taking requires us to redouble our efforts to ensure that our teacher training and our career professional development is of the highest quality that we can make it. We are working towards that and I believe that we share that objective with my hon. Friends.

Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to the previous question, does he agree that the curriculum is critical to raising standards in secondary schools? Given his comments last week about the danger of the new diplomas going horribly wrong and becoming “secondary-modern” qualifications, will he now rethink and implement Tomlinson in full?

No, I will not, although I understand the balance of the arguments over Tomlinson. Tomlinson himself, of course, is now our diploma champion, to use a terrible term, with the education profession and he says that the report provided 90 per cent. of what he was looking for. I actually think it would be wrong—for parents, for pupils, for everyone—just to throw everything up in the air and get rid of the A-level, which has been our gold standard since the early 1950s, when we have this opportunity for children to follow such diverse routes. They can go down the GCSE, the A-level, the international baccalaureate or the diploma route.

Incidentally, while I have the opportunity to say so, I was giving an honest answer to an honest question. I said that diplomas are so difficult and radical that they could go badly wrong. Short of saying that introducing these diplomas will be a breeze, we have to acknowledge that it could go wrong, but we are determined that it will not, which is why we are putting considerable resources and effort into ensuring that this most radical change takes off and becomes the success that we all hope it will be.

The reference to the left-wing liberal establishment by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who I believe is a refugee from teaching, encourages me to my feet. Does the Secretary of State agree that the sort of genuinely comprehensive schools of which I am a governor—Ibstock community college and Ashby school in north-west Leicestershire—provide very high-quality education and a model for all types of local education authority? Does he further agree that it is no surprise that genuinely comprehensive LEAs outscore and outpoint parts of the country, such as Kent, Buckinghamshire and Northern Ireland, in respect of the quality of education supplied?

I agree that all-ability, non-selective schools right across the country are good schools. Some of them are comprehensive, some are academies and some are trust schools, but what we should focus on is not the terminology, but whether or not the schools are good. Where they are good schools, it is not particularly because they are labelled comprehensive or anything else, but because of good leadership, good teaching and a good ethos in the school. I accept that it is the all-ability, non-selective feature that is important, and we need to continue to hammer home the fact that that is the way forward. There are still some people harking back to a golden age, though not the Conservative party nowadays—[Interruption.] No, not the Front Benchers, and perhaps not many behind them. All our experience suggests that the sort of schools of which my hon. Friend is a governor produce astounding results year after year. We want to ensure that every school is in the same situation.

One of the main focuses of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s secondary curriculum review appears to be to encourage schools to move away from discrete academic subjects towards more joint subject teaching and themes. The QCA’s director of curriculum thinks it would be “lovely” if the PE teacher turned up in the history lesson, and Professor John White, an external adviser to the curriculum review, believes:

“The academic, subject-based curriculum is a middle-class creation”

whose

“rationale has long fallen away”.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that quality and rigour are maintained in our curriculum, and can he reassure the House that the revised curriculum is not being used as a pretext to impose a potentially damaging and untested educational fad on our schools?

It is not too difficult for me to give the hon. Gentleman those assurances. The reason why we are so keen to introduce functional skills, for instance, in English, maths and science is to ensure that we make life more difficult for ourselves by having an absolutely staunch benchmark that we can test against. As to the points that the hon. Gentleman raised, I see the views of educational theorists all the time and some of them are very interesting. I would point out that Lord Dearing made an important point in his report this week—that languages can be introduced to other subjects to make them more interesting. He made the point that it could be helpful if sports or history and geography lessons had a languages dimension.

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but if it is a choice between taking advice from the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) or from Lord Dearing, I would take Lord Dearing’s.

Adult Education

4. What recent assessment he has made of provision of adult education courses at colleges; and if he will make a statement. (127473)

Colleges have benefited from our 48 per cent. real-terms increase in further education funding between 1997 and 2005-06. We have realigned funding to support our priorities and, as I announced today, we have met our interim adult level 2 target, with 1 million more adults with essential employability skills in the work force since 2002. Also, more than 1.6 million learners have achieved skills for life qualifications in literacy, language and numeracy.

I thank the Minister for that response. He will be aware that Cornwall has a low wage economy and very low levels of adult skills. As a result of the funding changes, Cornwall college has had 10,000 fewer applicants for adult courses this year, not only for recreational courses but for technical equipment courses and even for courses for those with learning disabilities. What assessment has the Minister made of the economic impact of the funding changes on deprived areas with low levels of skills, such as Cornwall?

We are continually evaluating the shift in adult provision to ensure that it is having the right beneficial economic effects. The train-to-gain initiative, which offers a radical commitment to ensure that every adult in the work place who does not have the equivalent of five good GCSEs gets a guarantee of that educational training, is a move in the right direction. We are increasing funding, but there is also a shift in priorities away from short courses towards longer provision that will have a more beneficial impact. I announced this morning that we have got 1 million more adults up to level 2 in the past five years. That is a significant achievement that will benefit the whole country, including people in Cornwall.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about more adults coming into employment. Will he also consider increasing key and basic skills training in inner-city areas such as Birmingham, where we need to offer better provision to get more lone parents re-engaged in education and back into employment?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We are absolutely right to focus on the level 2 commitment, because that is the minimum platform for sustainable employment in the work force. However, we also need to ensure that the stepping stone provision below level 2 is protected. I think that that is the kind of provision to which my hon. Friend is referring. The introduction of the foundation learning tier, which we have made clear will be guaranteed as resources become available over time, is the kind of commitment that he and his constituents are looking for.

The Minister will know that Macclesfield is fortunate, in that it will shortly have a virtually new college as part of the learning zone, for which the people there are very grateful. Does he accept that there is a growing need for vocational training, particularly for adults, in order to fulfil the needs of local industry and commerce? Will he come to Macclesfield to visit the college when it opens later this year, to discuss adult education with the corporation and me?

I am happy to accept the plaudits about the capital transformation of further education colleges that is taking place up and down the country. We are spending some £500 million this year; 10 years ago, there was not a penny in the mainstream capital funding budget. The hon. Gentleman has made an important point; we need to do more in the area of vocational skills. The train-to-gain initiative, which guarantees training to adults in the work place who have not reached level 2, is an exceedingly important step forward. Diary permitting, I will see what I can do about coming to Macclesfield.

My hon. Friend will be aware that a key recommendation of the taskforce established to deal with the consequences of the collapse of the Longbridge car factory was the creation of at least a 14-to-19 centre on the former MG Rover site, and possibly a full college relocation to boost skills and regenerate the area. A feasibility study of that recommendation should have been completed and available by now. Will my hon. Friend have a word with the local learning and skills council so that we can get on with this project, which will be vital to skills boosting and regeneration in the south-west Birmingham area?

I will happily look into that and meet my hon. Friend to discuss such issues. I remember visiting Longbridge a year or so ago, talking to the Rover taskforce—

Order. I know that the Minister means well, but if he looks in the hon. Gentleman’s direction when he speaks, he cannot be heard by the rest of the Chamber.

I apologise, Mr. Speaker.

I visited Longbridge about a year ago, met the Rover taskforce and was extraordinarily impressed by the cross-departmental working taking place, which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) has championed strongly. I commit myself to considering the matter and meeting him shortly.

Seventy per cent. of the 2020 work force is over the age of 16 now, so it is vital that we upskill and reskill the adult population. Yet adult education is being savagely cut—it is down 10 per cent. in the past year and below its 1997 level. Not all such courses are on crochet and croquet: many of them lead to further study and work. Given that workplace training is also being cut, and that less than 6 per cent. of employers are involved in “train to gain”, how have the Government managed to spend so much more on FE, but achieved so little and delivered so much less?

Normally, I respect the hon. Gentleman’s views but I will not take lectures about the funding of further education colleges. Under this Government, funding has increased by 48 per cent. in real terms, which compares favourably with the 14 per cent. real-terms cut that took place in the five years up to 1997. According to its evaluation, the “train to gain” initiative, which is still in the first year of its national roll-out, is incredibly highly valued by employers, who are keen on the brokerage element. It is bringing huge numbers of people into adult education and training, and is particularly benefiting the over-45s, who are a key target group. It is in its first year of operation, it is a truly radical initiative, and it is delivering results.

ESOL Classes

5. If he will make a statement on proposed changes to the funding and provision of English for speakers of other languages classes. (127474)

10. If he will make a statement on the proposed changes to fee remission of English for speakers of other languages courses. (127480)

English for speakers of other languages has been a real success, with more than 1.9 million learners since 2001. The current rate of increase, however, is unsustainable. Numbers and funding have tripled, but further increases will adversely impact on other skills for life provision. Therefore, in October I announced changes to ESOL funding involving charging those who can afford to make a contribution and excluding adult asylum seekers from access. Following representations made as part of the race equality impact assessment, however, I have made it clear in the past week that I am minded to consider a range of new measures, compared with the original proposals, to reprioritise funding towards the most vulnerable.

With 29 per cent. of Hackney residents having been born outside the UK, I welcome the Minister’s rethink on the issue. Of the 2,500 ESOL and life skills learners at Hackney community college, an estimated 20 per cent. would be affected by the rules. Will he meet me and representatives of Hackney community college to discuss this matter and its impact on Hackney residents?

I will happily meet my hon. Friend, as I have met many colleagues, to discuss the issue. Let me make it clear that we are not reversing the fundamental thrust of our policy on the issue. The current trajectory is simply not sustainable, and will impact on the budget for other skills for life provision unless we make changes. Under the changes, over 50 per cent.—indeed, over 80 per cent., as I understand it, in the college to which my hon. Friend referred—will continue to get access to free ESOL. As a result of the representations made, we are considering a number of other indicators to ensure that we assess low income properly and that those who genuinely cannot afford to pay continue to get free ESOL.

It may be right to ask for fees from people who can clearly afford to pay, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is most important to make applying for fee remission simple? In particular, we should rely not just on working tax credit as an indicator of low pay, but on other indicators too.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have announced in the past week that I am minded to consider a range of alternative indicators of low pay, at a local level, that would enable a person to access free ESOL. Clearly, the system must be as simple and easy to understand for the individual as possible.

Many people have come into this country from the new European Union states. That has put pressure on courses such as those about which we have been hearing, but also on small primary schools that are being asked to support the children of families who are new to their areas. What action is the Department taking to supply those schools with extra resources?

Additional funding streams are available for schools in those circumstances, but the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to an important issue. It is true that if the challenge of funding ESOL is to be met, we need a significant contribution from the Government—who have tripled funding over the past five years—and it is true that we need contributions from individuals, if they can afford it. However, we also need employers to meet their own responsibilities to train their work forces properly. In the context of the changes that I have announced, we are keen to address that issue, together with the CBI and the trade unions and through the social partnership.

Surely we should focus more on youngsters whose first language is not English. According to a report that I read recently, a young girl was placed with a group of three others who did not speak English as a first language. Everything had to be translated in that science group, and the young girl who spoke English felt that she was being held back because everything had to be translated. When she asked to be moved to another group, she was condemned for doing so. Can the Minister ensure that those who need English language teaching are given the focus they deserve so that their skills can be improved, while those who do speak English are not held back simply because attention must be focused on those who do not?

I respect the intention of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I have learned through long experience that when one starts digging, newspaper stories of the kind that he has related turn out to be far more complicated than they appear. A number of other issues tend to be involved. If the hon. Gentleman gives me the details of the case, I will examine them. However, in primary schools where there is a significant cohort of legitimate migrant communities, it is important for us to ensure through the additional funding stream that all children, regardless of circumstances and background, receive the teaching that they require.

I know that the Minister shares my view of the importance of a grasp of the English language to both social inclusion and community cohesion. I had many concerns about his original proposals, but I am extremely grateful for the concessions and changes that he announced recently, which will go a long way towards allaying my concerns and those of colleagues. Nevertheless, there remains real concern about people on low incomes. Will the Minister’s door be open to representations from Members in the light of experience of the changes and particularly of their impact on people with low incomes, and will he meet my colleagues from Woolwich college to discuss the issue?

I certainly undertake to do that. In recent weeks I have met a number of colleagues to discuss the matter, because although I genuinely believe that the status quo is not an option, I also believe that we must get the changes right. I agree with my hon. Friend that if there is to be real community cohesion we must ensure that people can understand and communicate in English, and our changes are intended to give everyone that opportunity.

This issue is not just about refugees and asylum seekers. I recently went to Kashmir with members of the Muslim community from Banbury, and as a result I appreciate that many young people who have grown up in this country still expect to enter into what we would call arranged marriages with partners from, in many cases, Kashmir. Brides who come to the United Kingdom may still not have English as a first language, and may well be joining low-income families. Is not the ability of those people—who will live here for the rest of their lives, will have children here and will become part of the community—to speak, learn and acquire English important both to community integration and to good race relations?

I entirely agree. I think it is critical for people to live genuinely as part of communities rather than being hermetically sealed in individual areas. One of the changes that I intend to make, which I have announced in the past week, is the reprioritisation of funds at local level to provide free access to ESOL for spouses who are priority learners in hard-to-reach groups, and unlikely to have access to their own money or family benefit documentation. I believe that that will go a long way towards allaying the hon. Gentleman’s concern.

Apprenticeships

6. How many apprenticeship places have been created for 16 and 17-year-olds since 1997; and what plans he has to increase provision. (127475)

According to the latest data available, at the end of 2005 there were 78,900 16 and 17-year-olds participating in an apprenticeship in England, compared with 34,100 in 1997. My priority for the current comprehensive spending review is to offer an apprenticeship place to any qualified 16 to18-year-old who wants one.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. As a former apprentice in the construction industry, I strongly believe in the apprenticeship scheme. One of the ways that we can best encourage youngsters to engage in apprenticeship schemes is to allow them to sample what being an apprentice is like while they are still at school. What progress is the Secretary of State making in involving schools in the scheme that allows pupils a 50-day experience of being an apprentice?

We have made a great deal of progress since 2003 when we introduced work-based learning so that, as part of the 14-to-19 agenda, youngsters start going out to businesses and companies in their constituencies—or, rather, in their area. [Interruption.] Well, MPs are not getting that young. Youngsters therefore experience what work is like, which might give them the opportunity to decide on what their future career should be. That is one of many elements of policy that give choice and diversity to youngsters and ensure that they get a proper grounding before leaving school.

I completely support all that goes on with regard to apprenticeship schemes for those aged 16 and above, but I wish to draw the Secretary of State’s attention to something that is still a big problem in this country: how to tie in young boys aged about 12 and upwards who do not believe that academic routes are the routes for them but who find that schools so specialise in academic subjects that they are left out—so they truant or leave school early. That is one of the major issues that we have found as we go around communities.

I ask the Secretary of State to visit Holland, if he has not already done so. I deeply admire the Dutch for embedding their vocational training in schools, and their truancy levels are much lower than ours. A Dutch educationist said to me that the difference between them and the United Kingdom is that they are just as intelligent, computer-literate and educated, but they also believe that people have to build the houses that they live in, carry out the plumbing work and do the wiring as well, and that they celebrate that rather than make it a second-class occupation.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the problems that we have traditionally had in respect of vocational qualifications. They are particularly to do with the parity of esteem argument, as academic qualifications are seen as infinitely superior to vocational qualifications. That is in large part due to cultural issues, and we can do a lot in schools to address that. Let me say something about the introduction of diplomas, although they come in a bit later—at 14 to 19—and the right hon. Gentleman is right in what he says about youngsters as young as 12, and boys in particular, having to be switched on to learning. That is a general point that applies to both academic and vocational education.

I cannot emphasise enough the significance of the introduction of diplomas. They are not vocational diplomas. There is that mixture of the theoretical and the practical, which is what we have lacked in this country for so long, and those diplomas, along with apprenticeships and work-placed training as accredited training, can provide the kind of choice that our youngsters need. I said a lot yesterday on issues to do with young boys—working-class boys in particular—and trying to close the attainment gap at age 14, especially in English, as in other subjects we do not have that gender gap. All those areas are important and we are looking closely at the lessons that can be learned from what happens in the Netherlands.

Building Schools for the Future

The first local authority projects are due for completion in 2009. I opened the first BSF “quick-win” schools in Solihull in June of last year, and the first BSF school to be procured through a local education partnership is on schedule to be open in Bristol in September 2007.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have an excellent record in the transformation of primary schools—in rebuilding and refurbishing them. It is essential that we now get on with the transformation and that we put the new capital investment into secondary schools. We want that programme, under building schools for the future, to go ahead as quickly as possible. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend would meet me in my constituency and have talks with his noble Friend Lord Adonis, who also has ministerial responsibility for schools, so that we can make sure that each school in my constituency is at the heart of the community, is an extended school, and is able to contribute to the regeneration that is so desperately needed—and which is already under way—in Stoke-on-Trent.

I know that my hon. Friend has taken a keen interest in those matters, and that she has met my noble Friend Lord Adonis and senior officials to make sure that we spend well the £181 million that we have committed to secondary schooling in Stoke. I will, of course, be happy to meet her and to make sure that senior officials are working with her to ensure that we are investing that £181 million on the basis of having quality rather than mediocrity.

Is there not an enormous gap between what the Minister has just told the House and what his Department published in its document “Building Schools for the Future”, which said that in 2007, 100 school buildings would open, and in 2008, 200 school buildings would open? Will he confirm that those figures should be five school buildings in 2007 and 23 in 2008? Will he give the House an explanation for that extraordinary delay, and an authoritative time scale against which we can judge the Government’s performance in the future?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I gave evidence to the Select Committee on that very issue and was extensively questioned on it. We look forward to the Committee’s report. Building schools for the future is a major project on an unprecedented scale and we deliberately started in the most difficult areas, because those are the ones that need the investment the most. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and we have to ensure that we get the quality right.

If, as in Stoke-on-Trent, we occasionally need to reassess the initial plans in order to improve them, and therefore it takes a little bit longer to get them right, that is what we will do. However, 25 authorities have joined up or have completed procurement. Most of the wave 1 projects that have not yet signed up are near to financial close, with more than 50 more schools opening in the next two years.