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Secondary School Standards

Volume 459: debated on Thursday 26 April 2007

Since 1997, education has been this Government’s top priority. We have doubled spending per pupil, there are now 36,800 more teachers, and figures published today show a growth in the school work force of 17,300 in the past year alone. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in congratulating staff and pupils in his constituency on the consequent improvement of 15 per cent. more 14-year-olds achieving the national standard in English and maths. We will continue to raise standards through more choice between schools for parents, more choice of qualifications for pupils, and record investment in personalisation in staff and in buildings.

With reference to the previous question, I can tell the Minister that even in leafy south Bedfordshire, in one of my local upper schools recently a quarter of the children were unable to read properly. Five million adults in this country are functionally illiterate, many of whom are parents of secondary school children who are themselves struggling with reading. Will the Minister redouble his efforts across Government to address adult illiteracy so that we can break that cycle of deprivation?

Although I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not want to join me in congratulating staff and pupils in his constituency on the improvements over the past 10 years, I accept that we need to focus efforts on adult basic skills. That is why we are concentrating our budgetary priorities in that area to do everything that we can to ensure that adults who, perhaps because of inadequacies in the education system prior to the past 10 years, are not reading and writing well, receive all the help that they can get.

In my constituency, there has been an historical legacy of young people leaving school early to go into industry, so education has not been very highly regarded. Over the past few years, however, there has been a dramatic improvement in the number of young people getting GCSEs and A-levels and going to university. If we are to build on that, it is a question of changing aspirations. What are the Government doing to lift people’s aspirations in constituencies such as mine?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question and I join him in congratulating his constituents on the improvements in education in the past 10 years. He is right to raise the issue of aspiration. The way in which the excellent leaders in some of our new schools, such as academies, have raised pupils’ ambitions is a consistent feature that I note on my visits. That is why we are extending some of the thinking behind academies to trust schools, and getting universities and employers involved so that young people in more disadvantaged areas can see themselves going to universities and into well paid employment, thanks to the involvement of such partners.

Standards are not directly related to resources, but they help. Does the Under-Secretary recall receiving a letter from Mr. Glyn Ottery, the chair of the Somerset Association of Secondary Heads, who points out that, because of the underfunding in Somerset compared with other areas—he acknowledges the increase in funding—his school, Stanchester, receives £254,740 less each year than the English national average? How can that extraordinary differential be justified?

I shall have to dig out the letter from Glyn Ottery, but I will ensure that it has my personal attention when we consider the reply. The figure that comes to mind for the improvement in resources in real terms per pupil in Somerset is approximately £1,000. However, I accept that we do not fund equally on a per pupil basis throughout the country. We are currently consulting on school funding—I am examining closely the way in which we balance the need to achieve stability across the system with any need for redistribution to ensure that areas of deprivation, especially within authorities, get the necessary money.

I was pleased on Monday to welcome the Secretary of State to the city academy in my constituency. He was especially impressed to learn that, last year, it managed to send 43 students to university compared with only seven a few years ago. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has also visited the city academy. What lessons does he believe that schools such as the academy can teach other schools in Bristol so that they achieve a similar increase in standards?

My hon. Friend is right. Bristol academy was the first academy school that I visited and it was instrumental in persuading me of the success of the academies programme in raising aspirations—the phrase of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey). The lesson that neighbouring schools can learn—I hope that academies will continue to work more closely with them—is first, to realise that, in difficult areas such as parts of Bristol that are served by the academy, it is possible for children to envisage themselves going to university and getting highly paid jobs; and secondly, it is to ensure that such ambition is embedded throughout the work force and in our approach to all children.

Educational standards cannot be raised unless there is good order in the classroom. That means that the worst behaved children may have to go to pupil referral units so that they do not disrupt the education of others. Surely those units are meant for children who are badly behaved, not for those who have a medical condition, which has led to a statement of special educational needs. Ofsted has warned that pupil referral units are the least successful setting for children with such statements. Does the Under-Secretary agree that it is wrong for children with such statements to be taught alongside violent and disruptive children in pupil referral units?

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the proportion of pupils with statements of special educational needs in pupil referral units has declined from 22.5 per cent. under the Tories in January 1997 to 15 per cent. in January 2006. It is important that children, regardless of their special educational needs, are clear about the discipline code in a school. If they breach that, heads should be free to exclude, subject to an appeals system in which a small percentage of appeals are upheld. If that means that they need to go to a PRU, so be it, as long as it ensures that it delivers personalised education. Ofsted finds that nine out of 10 PRUs are satisfactory or better.