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Education and Skills

Volume 462: debated on Thursday 28 June 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Academic Boycott (Israel)

We have made our position on this issue extremely clear in recent weeks, including during my recent visit to Israel, when I stated clearly that the Government fully support academic freedom and are firmly against any academic boycotts of Israel or Israeli academics. While I appreciate the independence of the University and College Union, I am very disappointed that it has decided to pass a motion that encourages its members to consider boycotting Israeli academics and education institutions. I profoundly believe that that does nothing to promote the middle east peace process—in fact, it does the reverse.

I am very grateful to the Minister for that answer. He will know from his visit to Israel that its academic institutions lead the world, especially in the fields of medicine, science, engineering and IT. Any boycott would damage higher education in the UK, as well as in Israel. What steps can he take as a Minister to ensure that there is co-operation and dialogue? Even Universities UK has said that such a boycott would be very damaging to us in Britain.

The fact that I undertook the visit to Israel very shortly after the boycott was announced, a visit on which I was very pleased to be accompanied by Professor Drummond Bone, vice-chancellor of Liverpool university, and president of Universities UK, sent out a very strong message on behalf of those institutions. Education must be a bridge between different peoples, and not a subject of conflict. We are currently working on an idea that I put forward during the visit—that we hold a seminar in London involving Palestinian, Israeli and British academics to demonstrate that education should bring people together.

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said, and applaud the fact that Professor Drummond Bone accompanied him on his visit to Israel. May I invite him to consider what it must be like for Jewish students on British campuses? They are facing a mean and nasty campaign by lecturers that could be described as anti-Semitic. Students of all religions and faiths—and none—should be welcomed on campuses. Such a campaign could damage Britain’s universities and students here, as well as our interests abroad.

I wholly agree with my right hon. Friend. The numbers of overseas students on our campuses has grown. At a time of international conflict, having students of all faiths, nationalities and belief systems working, studying and living together can only be a force for good. It is clear that Israeli academics and Jewish students feel that they have been picked out for special treatment by the boycott, whereas academics in countries without democratic institutions but with much weaker records in human rights are not proposed for boycott. We need to be steadfast on the matter, and this Government will be.

Does the Minister agree that, when so many Israeli universities are doing projects and programmes that benefit not only the Jewish people of Israel but the Druse, the Palestinians and people far beyond that, a boycott can only be detrimental and, far from bringing peace, will divide people?

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. During my visit to Jerusalem, I met Israeli academics at Hebrew university who were engaged in giving direct advice to the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The idea that we would want to stop that kind of co-operation bewilders me, and we should oppose it most strongly.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with sweeping actions such as the boycott is that they affect individuals regardless of their personal views for or against the peace process? While we can understand people who take a critical view of one Government or another, they should not use a weapon that hurts individuals who might actually agree with them.

Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. I profoundly believe that in Israel and the occupied territories, there are both progressive and reactionary voices. The problem with an academic boycott is that it makes the job and the position of the progressives much more difficult and it entrenches and enhances the position of those who want to take a hard line.

Child Care

2. What assistance the Government provide to parents who need child care in order to take up training. (146020)

I am announcing £75 million over the next three years so that 50,000 workless families can benefit from free child care, helping parents to gain access to training and move into work. This is in addition to a number of other schemes that help parents pay for child care while training, including care to learn for young parents, learner support funds for adult learners and the new deal for lone parents as well as special pilot schemes in London. Together with the existing schemes, this new funding will help to establish a more comprehensive and coherent system that reaches those in most need of support.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the answer and for the announcement of the extra funding. Will that help the small number of young women in particular who cannot claim working tax credit to support their apprenticeships because they are in non-employed apprenticeships and, if they are over 20, also cannot claim care to learn child care support? If that funding will not help them, can she consider how we can help them?

I thank my hon. Friend for her interest in this matter. As she implies, people on apprenticeships that are classed as employment can apply for working tax credit and, contrary to popular belief, that applies to parents from age 16, not from age 25. She is right that young people on apprenticeships that are classed as non-employed are eligible for education maintenance allowance and, in some instances, care to learn funding. I will take on board my hon. Friend’s comments and make sure that we examine the small number of young people who may fall between those stools. We need to ensure that we have a comprehensive system as a result of the funding and that we can assist all those who need help with child care to get into training or work.

I call the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). If she feels more comfortable, she can address the House from a seated position.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. What assistance is available to parents who are not seeking work or training, but whose children would particularly benefit from good early-years provision, which may help them to break out of the spiral of poverty within the family?

In addition to all the general Sure Start funding that the Government have put in, to the tune of £21 billion, a specific amount—£3 billion per annum—has been made available to fund free nursery entitlement for every three and four-year-old. That is of great benefit, especially for children from more disadvantaged families, in which parents may not be working but can use that entitlement to get into training or work. In addition, we have some special pilots focused on children over two but under three who do not necessarily qualify for the full entitlement. The pilots are focused in very disadvantaged areas to see whether, by getting those children into early education, we can assist their parents into training and work.

History Teaching

We are currently considering final advice on the new key stage 3 curriculum to be taught from September 2008. The advice specifies the holocaust, the slave trade and the two world wars as compulsory. British history will remain as a substantial element of the curriculum, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he agree that a firm grasp of our country’s history is vital for all our children and that teaching segments in isolation does nothing to improve the understanding of the glorious traditions of this country? What plans do the Government have to ensure that children are taught a well-rounded and comprehensive history of these islands?

Order. Before the Minister answers, may I tell Members as gently as possible that I would prefer them not to read out their supplementary questions? Supplementaries should be a spontaneous reflection on what the Minister has said.

I shall try to be as spontaneous as I can, Mr. Speaker.

British history is an important element at all key stages. Our review of key stage 3 will make a difference by ensuring that important elements of British history will be supported; in addition, GCSE and A-level courses will have a minimum content of 25 per cent. British history.

May I suggest another area that should be part of historical education in this country? The history of Parliament. Parliament has played a key role in establishing our liberties and freedoms, so will my hon. Friend make sure that we use all our resources here so that schools have proper access to this place? Will he also talk to the British Museum about using its resources so that people can understand not only British history but that of the wider world, too?

I should love the opportunity to talk to the British Museum, and if I get the chance I am sure I will. My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about Parliament, which is, as many Members are aware, part of the citizenship curriculum. Many Members talk about Parliament and the benefits of parliamentary democracy to pupils who visit and tour this place. Long may that continue.

May I make a plea for room in the curriculum for the teaching of local history and local culture? It is important that young people have a sense of place and identity. I am struck by the fact that when I take children around the House and show them things that relate to the history of Somerset, their teachers tell me that they are never taught about that in history, which seems a great shame.

There is flexibility in the curriculum for that. Last week, I addressed a conference in Cheltenham where we talked about the city curriculum, which affects my constituency. At key stages 1 and 2 in particular, teachers talk about local landmarks and history and incorporate such work. We encourage schools to continue to do that.

The Minister said that the abolition of slavery would be addressed, so in that spirit may I make a plea for the history of black and Asian people in this country? It is also part and parcel of our history, but has never been discussed. Young people would benefit from it in their education.

Those matters were considered recently as part of the Ajegbo report, of which my hon. Friend may be aware. He and I are very much part and parcel of British life these days, but he is right and, following our review, the slave trade, the British empire, the holocaust and the two world wars will all be essential elements of the key stage 3 curriculum. That is the right way forward: to learn about British life and our history, but also about migration and immigration in the context of the slave trade. It is important that we do so.

Literacy and Numeracy Standards

Last year 79 per cent. of pupils achieved the target level 4 or more in English and 76 per cent. did so in mathematics. This represents a significant improvement in the standards of literacy and numeracy in schools compared with, say, 1997 when fewer than two thirds of pupils reached the target level in either subject.

Under this Government, schools in Tewkesbury, the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, have made a 14 percentage point improvement for 11-year-olds and a 16 percentage point increase in maths at the same level.

I thank the Minister for that response, which demonstrates how good teaching in Tewkesbury is. However, is it not the case that the increase in standards over the past few years has rather plateaued, and the children who are losing out are those from poorer backgrounds? Given that the previous Prime Minister was elected on the pledge of being tough on not only crime but the causes of crime, rather than looking to build more prisons, would it not be better to tackle the problems that are experienced by the poorest members of society who fail at 11, go on to play truant and then go on to prison? The prisons are full of people who are illiterate or innumerate so, after 10 years of Labour Government, should they not be doing rather better?

I am not the Prisons Minister—right now anyway. [Laughter.] I will therefore not comment on much of that.

The hon. Gentleman talked about plateauing, but he may not know that, in 1996, the National Foundation for Educational Research reported that there had been no improvement in primary standards for 50 years. We have seen significant improvements in the last 10 years that we should celebrate, and the new Prime Minister in his Mansion house speech last week talked about measures that he wants to see us implement in the future to attack some of the problems regarding the children who still need to improve and the narrowing of attainment gaps around income, ethnicity and gender. For example, he talked about the new learning credit that will mean that those on low income receive the support that they need.

Before my hon. Friend becomes Prisons Minister or something else, will he ensure that further research is done on not only the improved literacy and numeracy results, but on the really troubling problems in some areas of selective education where grammar schools exist and the overall package of education is not very good for the entirety of the population? In fact, many of the struggling young people mentioned by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) do very badly in those areas.

My hon. Friend hits upon a very interesting question. I know that it is the subject of much research in the academic community, and I looked at some from the university of York fairly recently that reinforces the point that he makes. Those in selective areas who are not selected into grammar schools suffer from poor outcomes and that is why the Government remain opposed to any new forms of selection and why some Members on the Opposition Front Bench agree with us.

Who does the Minister hold responsible for the decline in the performance of young working-class white children in our schools? Does he take any responsibility for the policies of the last 10 years that have led to that decline?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a member of the Select Committee on Education and Skills and, from his close analysis of statistics, he should be aware of the fact that, although we have concerns about the white working-class boys whose standards have improved but are still not good enough, their improvement is above the national average. We are starting to see the gap narrowed. With, for example, the measures outlined in Christine Gilbert’s review of personalised learning that we published at the beginning of the year and with some of the measures on personalisation and catch-up and stretch that the Prime Minister talked about in his Mansion house speech, we are confident that we will start to address the problem more effectively.

The Minister talked about narrowing gaps and we have seen a real and steady narrowing of the gap in key stage 2 achievement of boys and girls in writing. I am concerned, however, that the gap in reading is more variable from year to year; it seems to me that boys do better in years in which the books that they like to read are published. Does he have any proposals to do more to engage boys with reading so that they can properly compete towards the end of primary school?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the most persistent gender gap being that relating to boys’ reading. We have the national year of reading next year, the roll-out of the every child a reader programme and the success of the reading recovery programmes. We want to see those things expanded to address the persistence of that gap. Naturally, if people are struggling with their reading, in time they will be struggling with the whole of the curriculum, because it is difficult to learn without the ability to read well.

In spite of the moderate improvements in standards in primary schools over the last decade, which the Minister referred to and which I acknowledge, 40 per cent. of 11-year-olds still leave primary school without having mastered the basics of reading, writing and maths. Synthetic phonics—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] They expected me to say that. Synthetic phonics will clearly help to improve literacy, but the TIMSS—the trends in international mathematics and science study—survey, showed that only 5 per cent. of 14-year-olds in the UK achieved the advanced level in the TIMSS mathematics assessment compared with 44 per cent. of 14-year-olds in Singapore. Does the Minister share my view that, having started to roll back the failed progressive approaches to teaching reading, we need to look closely at how maths is taught in primary schools to ensure that it follows tried and tested methods and international best practice?

The Prime Minister is ahead of the hon. Gentleman. He has already announced the every child counts programme, which involves direct intervention to build on the sorts of things that we have learned have been successful with the every child a reader programme and to apply those same things to maths. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that even one of our harshest critics, Professor Alan Smithers, acknowledges that at primary school level our best improvement is in maths. The hon. Gentleman quoted some perhaps slightly misleading statistics. In maths, the figure is up 17 points, meaning that 76 per cent. are reaching the national standard at 11. That is an impressive improvement given the plateauing for 50 years that I talked about earlier.

SEAL Programme

5. What progress has been made in rolling out the social, emotional aspects of learning programme in secondary schools (a) in Nottingham and (b) elsewhere; and if he will make a statement. (146023)

I was delighted to see the progress made by Nottingham local authority in rolling out the primary SEAL programme when I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency with him earlier this year. It is holding a SEAL launch for all its secondary schools this week, and it has already selected four schools to become leading practice schools to support others to implement SEAL effectively. All local authorities were briefed last month on the implementation strategy for the programme and are currently selecting which schools to support in the first year.

Teaching the social and emotional aspects of learning at secondary level will help to break the intergenerational cycle of educational deprivation in places such as Nottingham by reducing teen pregnancies and helping youngsters to maintain personal and family relationships and responsibilities and to understand life choices. Will the Minister please underline the fact that local education authorities, especially in areas of chronic underachievement in education, do not need to wait for further guidance and instructions from his Department, but should crack on and implement secondary SEAL so that it can have an impact on the life chances of young people who need that opportunity?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his detailed work in this area and for relating that strongly to his constituency. He makes sure that I keep an eye on Nottingham and I will continue to do so in looking at the roll-out. I do think that we can just get on with implementing the SEAL programme in secondary schools. I have made sure that we have increased to 20 per cent. the number of secondary schools that will have support for SEAL in the first year starting in September and I want to see that accelerate as quickly as possible.

Looked-after Children

6. What plans the Government have to promote the improved educational attainment of children and young people in care. (146024)

11. How much he has allocated for the provision of individual tutoring for looked-after children in 2007-08. (146029)

The White Paper that was published last week, “Care Matters: Time for Change”, sets out an ambitious agenda for improving the lives of children in care, with an additional investment of more than £305 million. Its proposals include improving the education of children in care through a £500 educational allowance for each child in care falling behind at school, putting the designated teacher on a statutory footing to improve provision in schools, appointing virtual school heads to oversee the children’s education, and a £2,000 university bursary. In relation to individual tutoring, aside from the progression pilot that is taking place in 10 local authority areas, the HSBC Global Education Trust announced a £1 million allocation for one-to-one tutoring for children in care as part of the White Paper launch.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and congratulate him on the work that he is doing in this respect. I know that he is aware that many children in care say that no one turns up to their parents evenings or goes to their school plays and sports days. What can he do so that those children get the individual care and attention that they need to attain educationally?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the problems for children in care is that the state is not a very good parent. The state ought to be acting more as if it were a natural parent. As we discovered through the most extensive consultation, including with children in care and young people—often in prison—who had passed through the care system, such children did not have a champion. Having a designated teacher and lead professional at every level is key to solving the problem. The production of the White Paper was an extremely important step, but until we actually deliver by changing a situation in which the most vulnerable in our society are treated appallingly, we cannot truly say that we are a civilised society.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that we support carers, especially those who look after children in care? If a child has an unsettled home life, it does not exactly encourage them to study and they feel abandoned.

I agree, but the White Paper identifies the problem that we allow children to slip into care too easily when there are often friends and family who could look after them. Once children slip into care, they are moved around too much. None of these problems is the fault of the fabulous people on the front line who foster children. It is key that the first placement is the right placement so that children are not moved around too often. If they move around too often, they move school too often, which means, especially if they move during their GCSE years, that they fail at education. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. I hope that he accepts that the White Paper includes a way forward.

I welcome very much what the Secretary of State says. However, many children in care suffer from speech, language and communication impairments and have special educational needs. What is he doing to ensure not only that such children who have statements of special educational needs receive the appropriate therapy, but that such children on school action and school action-plus receive speech and language therapy on the scale and with the intensity required so that they are not at the mercy of cash-strapped primary care trusts?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue, as he has done before. When he reads the White Paper, I hope that he agrees with the focus on a care strategy for each individual child in care, including those with such specific difficulties. Things are difficult enough for children with those problems who are in a settled family. Children in care do not have the same support as them and the same champions who can go to school to argue their case. That is why the care strategy and the lead professional are key to resolving that problem for children in care, as well as many others.

Further to the answer that the Secretary of State gave a moment ago to the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) about kinship carers, when the Green Paper was published, the Secretary of State suggested that he would be examining improving the allowances and support for such carers. However, although the White Paper acknowledges the financial pressures on grandparents especially, it is rather vague about giving a commitment to improving allowances and on any specifics of the support that he would recommend. Is he still committed to improving that package and, if so, how will he do that?

Yes, I am. I am sorry that that is a bit vague in the White Paper. I hope that it will become clearer as we take the policy through because it is important. Grandparents in particular have a huge role to play. As, thankfully, people are healthier and living longer, there is a question of how we can use grandparents to greater effect.

None of these problems is really to do with money. As Martin Narey, the head of Barnardo’s says, this is one of the few areas in which the problem is not cash and finance, but the system. We have put in another £305 million. We will put more money in place to help kinship carers through local authorities so that we get this right. We are spending £2 billion already. The problem is the system, so if extra finance is required, we need to provide that.

The White Paper says that nearly 10 per cent. of children in care over the age of 10 are cautioned or convicted of a criminal offence in an average year. Given that, will he tell me what discussions Ministers in the Department have had with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about ensuring continuity of education for children who end up spending a period in custody?

As is the case for so many other issues in the White Paper, local authorities have to accept responsibility right the way through. We propose—this will take legislation—that children should remain in care for longer, instead of being pushed out at 16, and that they should be able to stay with adoptive parents until they are 21. In addition, they will have an individual counsellor looking after them until they are 25. On children who are unfortunate enough to go through the criminal justice system, we are talking to colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about how we can co-ordinate action, but it needs to be joined up at local authority level. That is why I say that we could not have taken any of those measures without “Every Child Matters”; it provides the foundation for us to build on, so that we can properly tackle the issue.

I am sure that the whole House will wish the Secretary of State well, whatever today holds for him. May I say that I, personally, have always appreciated the courtesy and consideration that he has shown to me? I am sure that the White Paper on children in care will be one of the achievements in which he takes greatest pride. Indeed, its words on looked-after children may have a particular relevance to some Ministers present today. I remind the Secretary of State that it says:

“Far too many find themselves in placements which do not meet their needs, resulting in a high level of instability.”

It is also important to them to know

“details about the placements in advance, in order that they can be more meaningfully involved in deciding where they will live.”

May I invite the Secretary of State warmly to endorse those sentiments, and does he perhaps regret that he has spent only 13 months in his most recent placement?

I cannot speculate on what announcements might be made later, but the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know—this is absolutely true—that there was a power failure at the Department for Education and Skills this morning. All the lifts and the lights are out, so the power seems to be seeping away. The hon. Gentleman is very kind. I think that he is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful Members of Parliament anywhere in the House. I see that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who was in the Chamber, has now disappeared, but I think that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) was absolutely right in what he said on selection in his speech to the CBI a couple of weeks ago. All I can say about where we might go is that I have been in three Cabinet positions, and my shadow on every occasion has been the hon. Gentleman, so wherever I am going, I am pretty sure that he is coming with me.

Apprenticeships

7. How many apprenticeship places have been created for 16 and 17-year-olds in Hull since 1997; and what plans he has for provision in the future. (146025)

Some 4,400 young people have started an apprenticeship in the city of Hull since 2001. Figures are not available at local authority level for the years before that. Nationally, the apprenticeship programme goes from strength to strength. We have trebled the numbers in learning since 1997, and 100,000 people a year complete an apprenticeship. The completion rate now stands at almost 60 per cent. We want to expand the programme further so that by 2013 any suitably qualified young person will be entitled to an apprenticeship place.

I thank my hon. Friend for that encouraging reply, and I ask him to join me in congratulating Shaun Anderson from Hull, who was the runner-up in the personal achiever section of the apprenticeship awards. Will he confirm that the investment in our young people and the commitment made to them through apprenticeships is in marked contrast to the sniping and negative comments of the Opposition?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I attended the apprenticeship awards gala evening last Wednesday at which Shaun’s achievements and those of many other young people were recognised and celebrated. It was not only apprentices who attended but the people who trained them, employers from Hull and across the country, and sponsoring companies such as British Gas, BAE Systems, City and Guilds, BT and many others. It is good that we can celebrate success not only in the number of young people taking up apprenticeships but in the commitment and hard work that they and their supporters demonstrate. It would be helpful if the Opposition, instead of running down that successful system, could for once start to show support and celebrate the apprenticeship system.

The complete destruction of the apprenticeship system during the dark ages of the Tory years was an act of wanton vandalism, and it is a great tribute to the Government that there has been a huge increase in numbers. Does my hon. Friend accept, however, that there is still more work to be done to improve completion rates and that part of the solution is to increase the portability of apprenticeships? What plans does he have to do precisely that?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we have trebled the numbers. Five or six years ago, the completion rate was as low as 24 per cent., but I am delighted that a focus on the problem means that 60 per cent. of young people are now completing their apprenticeships. That is an amazing step forward, and it aligns us with our competitors in France, Germany and other parts of the European Union. We have to do even better, however, so we will continue to drive the programme forward, using innovations such as those that he has described to run the apprenticeships system, to ensure that more young people complete apprenticeships. Indeed, we have a target of 400,000 young people a year undertaking apprenticeships by 2020. That is the Leitch ambition, and it is one that we share.

Children’s Centres

8. What assessment he has made of the impact that children’s centres are having on levels of inequality among young children. (146026)

An evaluation strategy for children’s centres is being developed, and the rigorous and independent national evaluation of Sure Start is monitoring Sure Start local programmes as they transform into children’s centres. In 2005, emerging findings highlighted the fact that there were already positive overall effects on parenting and on child outcomes for most families in those very disadvantaged areas. They also identified the need to work harder to reach and support the most disadvantaged families. We have taken steps to ensure that children’s centres do so.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, and I am glad that a proper evaluation of the impact of children’s centres on families is under way. May I probe her a little further specifically on child inequality? Is there any evidence that areas with children’s centres have greater or less child inequality than similar areas that do not have children’s centres?

As part of the series of reports in the national evaluation of Sure Start, four further reports will be published today. Research in one report shows faster reductions in child poverty in Sure Start areas compared with England as a whole. That research looked at local programmes over five years, and identified improvements which, however, we cannot correlate directly with Sure Start, because a number of other factors in those areas need to be taken into account. None the less, that is encouraging because in Sure Start areas, as I have said, there are greater decreases in the percentage of children living in workless households, and improvements in child health, with fewer respiratory illnesses and severe injuries, which reflects the better integration of services in Sure Start areas.

While it is undoubtedly true that Sure Start education centres are popular and successful, does the Minister acknowledge the Birkbeck research in that evaluation programme, which clearly shows that the centres do not reduce inequality, because they do not address the differing language skills of different social classes?

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a high level of satisfaction with children’s centres. In another piece of research, 90 per cent. of parents were very satisfied, and 9 per cent. were quite satisfied with them. Parents certainly believe that they are getting what they need for their children from children’s centres. Language acquisition is an important part of the redevelopment of the early years foundation stage which, as he will know, will be delivered in any setting for an early-years child from nought to five. That focus on communication, literacy and language is a vital part of ensuring that children develop those skills and it will enhance their well-being as a whole.

Although the evaluation is important, I am sure that, like me, my right hon. Friend has talked to parents who think those centres have changed their lives completely. However, I wish to pursue the point about those who are most disadvantaged. While the children’s centres in my Loughborough constituency have reached many of the disadvantaged, the most disadvantaged are probably still not being targeted and extra work is being done to bring them in. Can she explain in a little more detail what measures are being taken to reach out even further to those who would benefit most from the vast array of services provided through the children’s centres in Loughborough?

My hon. Friend is right. In tackling inequality, which is the next big challenge for all public services, not just children’s centres, the crucial question for us is how those public service professionals, health visitors and so on can reach the people who are the most disadvantaged, who will not find their way to services voluntarily or easily for all kinds of reasons. With reference to children’s centres, we have issued clear guidance on how that outreach work needs to be done. Universal services such as health visitors, which are non-stigmatising and go to every household when a child is born, have a key role to play. Building on that role, we have funded the nurse-led family partnerships, which are using specialist health visitors with first-time very young parents, often teenage parents, to work with them not just for the first few weeks, but from pregnancy right through until children are two years old and more. They, too, will work through children’s centres and provide a strong lead as to how we can develop this important outreach approach.

The Minister will be aware of a number of reports out in recent weeks showing that social mobility in the United Kingdom has declined to the point that it is the worst of any developed country where it is measured. Given that there are many advantages to the Sure Start programme, but that a great deal of public money is spent on it, is she prepared to make any claim as to how the Sure Start programme might improve social mobility for our fellow citizens in the future?

First, it is important to put the record straight. In fact, social mobility started to decline in the 1980s and 1990s under the Conservative Government. What we have managed to do so far, which is not enough for this Government, is to halt that decline. That is the first stage in reversing the decline in social mobility, which is our objective. Secondly, the focus on early years, which this—

Local Liberal Democrat councillors have welcomed children’s centres as a part of tackling child poverty, but Tory councillors have said that they would close children’s centres unless they were a proven success. That has caused concern for local parents. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House on what basis councillors would be able to close children’s centres, and give my constituents some reassurance?

Just in case any councils in the future thought they might be able to reverse the trend, we have enshrined the integration of services for the early years though children’s centres in legislation in the Childcare Act 2006, which received Royal Assent in July last year.

Without commenting on the right hon. Lady’s potential for upward mobility later today, may I ask how she responds to the conclusions of the Sutton Trust report, which found that social mobility has declined to its lowest level in the UK for 20 years, and the National Audit Office’s report in December last year, which found that of the children’s centres visited, only nine out of 30 actively targeted the harder to reach? Does she agree that her end of term report will read, “The Government must try harder”?

We made it clear from the outset, which is why we have put all the phase 1 children’s centres in the most disadvantaged areas, that we see that as an essential long-term programme focusing on the youngest children, directly reducing child poverty and improving social mobility. We also know that what happens in practice depends very much on the actions of people in those children’s centres. We have made it clear in subsequent guidance that outreach must remain a fundamental element of the children’s centre programme, and that it must be strengthened. Our consultants are working to ensure that that happens in practice.

Specialist Diploma

9. How many secondary schools he expects to participate in the delivery of the 14-19 specialist diploma; and if he will make a statement. (146027)

Eventually all schools and colleges will offer an entitlement to the diplomas. We will start in September 2008 on a small scale. On 28 March, we announced the first 145 consortiums across the 97 local authorities that have been given approval to offer one or more of the first five 14-19 diplomas from September 2008. Within those consortiums, 800 secondary schools have said that they will be either feeder institutions to other consortium partners or offer diplomas themselves.

In a recent YouGov poll, 65 per cent. of secondary schoolteachers said that they believe that the new diplomas will simply be training programmes leading to low-paid jobs for non-academic students. Will the Minister dispel that view, and does he agree that the prime objective of diplomas must be to bring about a parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications?

My hon. Friend is right that that myth is completely erroneous. I agree with the Edge Foundation, which conducted the survey. It said that

“diplomas should be highly attractive to students of all aptitudes and abilities, including the most able. They should offer a genuine alternative to existing GCSEs and A levels.”

We are investing a lot of money in the new diplomas to allow young people to choose a vocational route that will take them through either to higher education—for example, an engineering degree—or to work. The diplomas will attract talented young people from across the system.

The Edge Foundation also said that

“The current time-scales are unrealistic—some would say dishonest”.

The Education and Skills Committee has considered the matter in detail. It said that

“the development work has sometimes been uncomfortably compressed”,

and it doubted whether those in charge have a clear sense of the diploma’s purpose.

The Minister must know that the doubts referred to by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) are widespread. The House expects him today to give an absolute assurance on the consistency, rigour and capacity of schools to deliver the diplomas—or does he still share the Secretary of State’s chilling view that the diplomas may go horribly wrong?

The hon. Gentleman has moved from slagging off the apprenticeship system to running down the diploma system. He must learn that he is not doing himself or his party any favours by running down the education system and the young people within it. We have implemented a gateway of quality: 38,000 students will start those diplomas, and an extra £50 million will go into work force development. Those young people will study towards high-quality diplomas involving a combination of practical and academic learning, which will be the envy of countries across the world.