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Children, Schools and Families

Volume 467: debated on Monday 12 November 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—


Over the past four years, the Government have introduced new legislation, new guidance and new structures to make children safer and to strengthen the vetting and barring system. The recent cross-government Staying Safe consultation and the new public service agreement to improve children’s safety will ensure that children’s safety is a top priority. We will shortly introduce the children and young persons Bill to improve further the services for our most vulnerable children, including looked-after children.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He is aware that we have been holding parliamentary hearings to try to find better ways of protecting children who run away or go missing. Will he, however, give his immediate attention to the case of the 18,000 children who are being placed outside their local area by local authorities? Many of them are hundreds of miles away from their networks of support. Will he also ensure that a child can be placed away from their family and friends only when it is in the best interests of that child to do so?

I commend my hon. Friend for the work that she has done for looked-after and missing children. The meeting that she held in the summer with colleagues, including the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), and me, was directly responsible for the inclusion of a looked-after and missing children’s indicator in the local government indicator set. She has raised a particular point today and she is completely right to do so. We, too, have concerns about the number of children in care who are looked after out of area. We think that that currently involves about one third of children in care. In the Bill that we will publish later this week, we will require local authorities to secure a placement for a child within their own local authority area unless to do so would be inconsistent with the welfare of the child—for example, because of complex disabilities or because a child needed to leave an area because of domestic violence.

The Minister will probably be aware that Mencap has recently published a report called “Don’t stick it, stop it”. One of its conclusions is that 82 per cent. of children and young people with a learning disability have experienced bullying, and that such children are twice as likely to be bullied as other children. Has the Secretary of State seen the report? If so, what does he propose to do to try to improve this dreadful situation?

I have read a report of the Mencap report. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that all bullying of any kind is completely wrong, and I am keen to work with Mencap to ensure that we give priority to bullying against children with disabilities as well. We produced new guidance on bullying a few weeks ago, and I will ensure that we include Mencap in the current consultations, to make sure that we can eradicate that terrible occurrence.

Fifty-three per cent. of children and young people in Stockport are from other boroughs. There is already advice from the Government to local authorities that children and young people should be placed within their locality if possible, but it is clear that some local authorities are completely ignoring that advice. During the passage of the children and young persons Bill, would the Secretary of State be willing to look again at the registration process and the Ofsted inspection process, to ensure that we can monitor the way in which independent homes that often encourage the placing of children with extensive criminal records in those homes manage the children in their care?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I also congratulate her on the work that she has done in this area. As I have said, the Bill will make it clear that a child should be looked after in their own area unless it is in the interests of the child to do otherwise. We will look at the provisions that will require that of local authorities, to ensure that the proper safeguards are in place.

Key to the safeguarding of vulnerable children is the engagement of dedicated social workers. Key to the findings in the Victoria Climbié report was the failure of health service professionals and others to engage with those social workers and to adopt a multi-agency approach. Why, then, has the National Children’s Bureau today published a report on safeguarding arrangements that reveals that, five years on, 53 per cent. of hospitals do not even have hospital-based social workers, despite the Government’s own guidance in the national service framework for children that was introduced after the Victoria Climbié case? How does the Secretary of State hope to remedy this situation, given the worsening vacancy rates for children’s social workers revealed in the latest work force review? Has he had an opportunity to read the Conservative party’s report on social workers, “No More Blame Game”, in which he might find some of the solutions?

Unfortunately, I have not yet had time to read that particular document, but I look forward to studying it along with the range of other documents that I read in the course of my duties. I will raise the question that the hon. Gentleman has asked with the Secretary of State for Health and we will look at the issue to see what more needs to be done. I have a joint responsibility on this. I met the Secretary of State last week to discuss these issues as part of our consultations on the children’s plan. I will happily have a conversation with him about this and provide a report to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

Educational Standards

Standards have risen over the past decade and the reforms that I have announced to offer more personalised learning in schools and to give teachers more power to enforce discipline in the classroom, as well as our local strategies to tackle poorly performing schools, will all help to drive standards up even further, especially when backed up by the doubling of real-terms per pupil spending since 1997.

Will the Secretary of State take responsibility for the fact that the brand-new £24 million Bishops Park college in Clacton, which was opened by the previous leader of the Labour party a week before the last general election, now faces closure? Does he agree that closure after only two years represents appallingly bad value for public money and appalling failure to raise local standards?

I will not take that responsibility. The decisions to open the school and to plan places in the local area are both the responsibility of the local authority. If the hon. Gentleman has concerns about how those responsibilities have been taken forward, I suggest that he raises them with the local authority rather than with myself.

At the launch of past education policies, the Prime Minister and Ministers rushed down to the flagship private finance initiative Highlands school in my constituency. I appreciate that it is more awkward now that Enfield, Southgate benefits from Conservative representation, but I invite the Secretary of State to visit Highlands school to explain why it should rush to introduce diplomas next year, given that the school has only just decided not to go ahead with the international baccalaureate tests, which failed the school, so it is now setting about reintroducing A-levels. On second thoughts, perhaps the Secretary of State should keep away from Highlands school and let it get on with doing a better job of A-levels.

I am very happy to come and visit. When I do, I will discuss with the school—and with local parents, if the hon. Gentleman would like me to—our policy on diplomas. Let me be clear that we are not going to force parents or schools to teach diplomas, as it will be a matter for local schools and parents to decide, but we will ensure that diplomas are introduced in a comprehensive way. We have added in new diplomas for science, modern languages and humanities to ensure that we have a comprehensive and first-class choice of diplomas, which should be available for all young people by 2011. As I have said, I believe that the diplomas system can be comprehensive and first class and that diplomas could become the qualification of choice, but that will be a matter for the market, parents and schools to decide and not for me to impose.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although standards have risen progressively at secondary level, there is something in the “Teach First” document that is to be published this week about the size of schools? Does he agree with the authors that in the secondary world, small can sometimes be beautiful?

The “Teach First” report is very interesting. It does not say that smaller schools are the way forward, but rather that within schools a case can be made for using house systems or mixed-year tutorial groups to help drive up performance while at the same time providing pastoral care in a more personal form that can be achieved in very large schools. I do not think that the evidence shows that standards have risen either faster or slower in larger or smaller schools. As my noble Friend Lord Adonis said at the weekend, the “Teach First” report definitely deserves study.

The Secretary of State will know that all the research shows that good quality sports facilities and having sport in schools raises standards. Why, then, given the welcome building schools for the future programme, is a school such as Stockwell Park in the most deprived part of Lambeth, which currently has a good 25 m swimming pool, to be totally rebuilt minus its swimming pool? Surely that does not show that we mean what we say when we talk about joined-up thinking, bringing together and tackling obesity in our inner-city areas.

As my hon. Friend will know, a quiet revolution has been happening in school sports over the last few years. In 2002, 25 per cent. of young people were doing the required amount of sport a week; 85 per cent. are doing it now. Just a few weeks ago, I visited the school that my hon. Friend mentioned and met the head teacher—and I know that she did an excellent job. We will ensure that “Building Schools for the Future” provides the flexibility that we need in order to drive up standards and provide the facilities necessary to support the needs of all children in our society.

How can the Secretary of State talk about improving discipline in schools when even the most basic elements of home-school contracts are not legally enforceable and when, in dealing even with the most disruptive pupils, head teachers and boards of governors can be overruled by independent panels?

The fact is that we have implemented the Steer review and given head teachers and governors the powers that they need. I stand ready to give any extra powers that they ask for, so that we have the discipline in the classroom that we need to ensure that we continue to drive up standards in our schools.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we should congratulate the city of Nottingham on the fact that the number of pupils who attain GCSEs at A to C grade has gone up by six times the national average, admittedly from a very low base? Does he have further plans to alter that persistent attainment gap?

I join my hon. Friend in passing on those congratulations. In the figures that I published a few weeks ago of the top 20 local authorities that had the largest improvement in grades in the last year, Nottingham was, I think, fifth on the list and therefore deserves all the congratulations of my hon. Friend, myself and all hon. Members. However, there is more that we can do. The extra funding that we have given to personalise learning to make sure that we have extra help for those who fall behind in primary and secondary schools will do more to ensure that we help Nottingham to do even better in the years to come than it has done already in its GCSE performance.

Coming back to the issue of vocational diplomas, what level of take-up would constitute a success in the Secretary of State’s view?

I am not going to prejudge that now. While the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) continue to call the diplomas “vocational”, I think that they will be both academic and vocational—both practical and theoretical—and can become comprehensive and first class. I disagree that they are somehow a fantasy or second-class qualification. To give the impression that vocational qualifications are second class is quite wrong. As I said, I think that they can become the qualification of choice. That will mean that the majority of them will be taken in schools in the next decade. However, I am not going to prejudge the timetable for that. As I said, I will let the market—parents and teachers—decide. In the end, they will listen not to me, but to universities and employers, which are increasingly saying that these are good, excellent and, indeed, better qualifications for young people to be studying. But of course the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and we will see that over the next few years.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that school standards and child poverty are inextricably linked because if a child’s home circumstances are difficult it is very difficult for them to achieve at school, and if they do not get decent qualifications, that poverty is perpetuated throughout their life. Will he take the opportunity to tell the House whether the Government are still committed to the target of abolishing child poverty? If so, what does he hope to achieve in his role to push that forward?

The answer is yes, definitely. As my hon. Friend will know, because she was with me and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in No. 11 only last week when we met Save the Children, it is the view of the Chancellor and myself that the child poverty goal is essential. We will not be able to deliver excellence for all unless we tackle the causes of poor performance in schools. One of those causes is child poverty. Therefore, if we are to be an “Every Child Matters” Government—if we are to ensure that we tackle all the barriers to poor performance—it is essential that we stay on track to meet our child poverty goal by 2010.

The Secretary of State will have seen the comments by Simon Lebus, chief executive of the Cambridge Assessment exam board, who said:

“There is no doubt that confidence in the value of the A-level currency has suffered in recent years.”

Do the Government accept responsibility for that? Are they not making matters worse by creating academic diplomas in science, the humanities and languages, in direct competition with the GCSE and A-level, thus creating a two-tier system? Does the Secretary of State share our view that we need to retain the A-level, but restore its rigour so that it can once again become the gold standard of the British education system?

I am very confused. [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] One moment the hon. Gentleman tells me that A-levels have fallen in their standing, and then he tells me that I am being accused of undermining the excellence of the A-level. It seems to me that on this issue, as on many others, including grammar schools and diplomas, Opposition Members should sort out their own lives before they start asking questions of me.

The fact is that we are taking steps to improve A-levels, but introducing diplomas at the same time. Geoff Parks, director of undergraduate admissions at Cambridge university, has said:

“I welcome the fact that these new Diplomas will be HE-led and anticipate that many of our academics would welcome a role in their development.”

He has also said that he

“strongly welcomes any moves that will encourage young people to study the sciences, maths and modern languages in particular at a higher level.”

At our press conference, he expressed the view that a diploma in maths for engineering would be a better preparation for studying education at Cambridge university than a maths A-level. I think that rather than lecturing me about Cambridge university reports, the hon. Gentleman should listen to Cambridge university himself, and get his facts right before coming to the House with questions of that kind.

So no acceptance of responsibility there, either.

The Secretary of State just said that the market would decide which exams were taken up, but the market is already deciding. At least 200 independent schools have already adopted the more rigorous international GCSE in maths and science rather than the regular GCSE, but state schools are not allowed to adopt the international GCSE. The Government have been reviewing that position for some months. When will they put state schools on an equal footing with the independent sector, and allow them to adopt the IGCSE?

The reason the exams are not allowed in state schools is that they do not conform to the national curriculum. I think that rather than running down the achievements of our state schools, we should celebrate them. The fact is that their share in A grades in A-levels has been rising, not falling, in recent years.

May I urge the Secretary of State to employ some caution before taking the advice of the privately educated Schools Minister in the other place? Downsizing schools does not necessarily drive up standards. In Leicestershire, the comprehensive system produces schools like my old school, Ashby, a specialist technology and languages college with 1,600 students, which is achieving very high standards. I urge the Secretary of State to visit Ashby school, where I used to be chairman of the governors and am still a governor.

I should be happy to go and look at the school, and I commend its achievements. I do not think we should criticise the Opposition spokesman simply on the grounds that he was privately educated. I am not sure whether that is a fair criticism. It would be fairer to say that he should ensure that he is on solid ground before he makes accusations.


I did not realise that I was so popular.

Our focus is on reducing all forms of unnecessary absence, and in particular on reducing the number of persistent absentees with very high levels of absence. We both support and challenge local authorities in areas where those problems are concentrated. Our success is demonstrated by record low rates of absence last year, and by the 10 per cent. reduction in the number of persistent absentees.

Given that truancy is at its highest level for 10 years, and given the Government’s scrapping of the target introduced by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1998 to improve school attendance, what hope have we that, when the Government eventually insist on children staying at school until the age of 18, those children will turn up at all?

I should have thought that, as a member of the esteemed club of ex-Government Whips, the right hon. Gentleman would realise that we should be concentrating on persistent absentees rather than the quality of the note provided by the person who is absent. The Government are concentrating on persistent absentees, and as a result there are 75,000 more children at school every day than there were in 1997.

My hon. Friend may recall that when we last had a debate about truancy there were seven Members in the Chamber, of whom there was a photograph in The Times. I might add that I was one of the school creeps who were present at the time.

May I ask whether any studies have been undertaken of truancy in other countries, where truancy rates may be much lower, to identify the drivers of truancy and how we might make a real success of driving it downwards?

Far from giving my hon. Friend an ASBO, I will give him a gold star for being here so often. He is certainly not one of the persistent absentees—unfortunately sometimes, I hasten to add. If he looks at the international comparisons, he will find that this country’s record is improving considerably. The reason is that, instead of concentrating on the meaningless and perverse incentive of looking at unauthorised absences, which simply means that schools can decide whether to authorise an absence, we are looking at overall absence. As a result of that, every day we have 75,000 more pupils in school than there were in 1997. Absence among persistent absentees fell by 10 per cent. last year, and 20 per cent. in the schools that we targeted, and it is down overall from 7.23 per cent. in 1995-96 to 6.44 per cent. last year.

Is the Minister surprised that, given that this is in effect Education questions and the Liberal Democrats are so concerned about education, all their Back-Bench MPs are playing truant at the moment?

My hon. Friend the Minister is right to acknowledge that persistent truancy is a major problem, but there is also the problem of peer pressure on younger people to stay away from school, which leads to drink and drug problems and petty crime. What can we do to ensure that local education authorities across the country have the right funding and do not cut back on truancy and welfare officers? Giving them powers to act is important.

It is very important. Through the national strategies and other schemes, we are concentrating on behaviour, truancy, peer mentoring, bullying and all the things that may impact on truancy. My hon. Friend is right to say that we should emphasise persistent absence because about 2 per cent. of pupils are responsible for over half of those unauthorised absences that we talked about earlier. Therefore, it is important that we focus on them. We have done that through concentrating on 400 schools with the most problematic records, with considerable success: there was a 20 per cent. reduction last year in persistent absentees from those schools.

Ten years ago it was announced that school truancy would be cut by one third, and in fact there are now 1.4 million children playing truant every year. That is almost 500,000 more under this Government. Given that failure, how certain can the Minister be of his proposals to increase the number of 16 to 18-year-olds participating in education by fining them up to £200 when they do not turn up? I am sure he will be aware that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, recently said that he felt that that idea was in “cloud cuckoo land”. Is the Minister expecting to quietly drop that proposal, in the same way as he quietly dropped the failed truancy target?

It is simply not right to say that truancy has gone up in the way that the hon. Lady suggests because she is confusing the statistics for unauthorised absence and truancy. They are not the same thing. She does not have to take my word for that. I refer her to Martin Ward, who is the deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He said:

“It is a mistake”—

I hope she is listening to this—

“to refer to unauthorised absence as ‘truancy’ since this figure includes the many holidays taken in term-time, which remains a major problem for schools.”

We could tomorrow, if she really wants us to, say to schools that we want them to reduce the figures for unauthorised absence and they could do that, without having any impact on truancy, simply by becoming stricter on excuses for absence. If she is serious about truancy, she will concentrate on overall absence, not on the figure for unauthorised absence. We will bring in measures to make sure that young people are in employment, education or training up to the age of 18, with training for them all, including modern apprenticeships.

Science Syllabus

5. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the new science syllabuses for secondary schools. (161958)

The new science GCSEs have had an enthusiastic welcome from teachers and pupils alike. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has commissioned research evaluating them.

I am pleased to hear that response. The other day I visited two Bolton schools, where the new 21st century science syllabus was being taught by two extremely enthusiastic teachers to enthusiastic pupils. Will my hon. Friend continue to monitor those courses and compare the different science syllabuses that are being taught? Does he accept the criticism that I have picked up from children that they would prefer more practical work to be built into those syllabuses? However, that would require—I hope that he will accept this—massive investment in bringing school laboratories into the 21st century.

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for championing in the House the cause of science education. I will be talking to the QCA about how it will monitor the different syllabuses—or syllabi; I am not sure of my classics—as they are rolled out. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said about enthusiastic teachers. He will welcome today’s figures from the Training and Development Agency for Schools, showing that the number of trainee science teachers recruited has reached more than 3,000 for the fist time. He will also welcome the increase in the numbers choosing physics, 31 per cent., and chemistry, 32 per cent. Those are good strides forward and what he says about practical work will mean that he, unlike the Conservative party, will welcome the new science diploma that will deliver much more practical learning.

When I completed an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship with Universities UK a couple of years ago, the universities’ concern and despair about having to bring on young science undergraduates who had not had the quality of science education at school that enabled them to keep up even in their first year was noticeable. Does the Minister take note of the concerns of universities and of what they would like to see in the science syllabus? It is all very well defending something new, but unless it is producing the quality at school that we need before university we are not serving our young people very well at all.

We take careful note of what universities are telling us, which is one of the reasons why we have strengthened the A-level—the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the increases in entrance to physics, chemistry and biology A-levels—with the A* and the extended course. We are responding to universities’ concerns by bringing forward the science content in all 17 of the diplomas, but particularly with the science diploma, which has been welcomed by Russell group universities, by Oxford and Cambridge, and by universities such as South Bank university that have been working with us on diploma design.

Youth Services

It is for each local authority to determine its own budget on youth services, but the recent comprehensive spending review settlement for local government included an increase in formula grant of 4.2 per cent., 3.5 per cent. and 3.4 per cent over the period 2008-11 that will enable local authorities to build on 10 years of sustained growth to improve outcomes for children and young people. As well as that continued funding, there are specific areas where we will be allocating new money over the CSR period, including the expansion of the Youth Opportunity Fund in the most deprived areas, and investment in new and improved youth facilities and in positive activities for young people.

My right hon. Friend will have seen the imaginative programmes put together by students and young people from my constituency under the Youth Opportunity Fund. Mr. Speaker, you will be particularly interested to know that one of those schemes was entitled Destination Westminster and involved a group of young people coming here to learn about this place. I thank the staff of the House for their support for that scheme. My right hon. Friend knows that young people such as those and others within the cadet forces and other youth organisations do so much good in our communities. Will she ensure that they continue to have some control over their budgets under the youth opportunities scheme, especially with the expanded amounts of money that she has just described?

Yes. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his support for and interest in the cadet forces and the work that they do with young people throughout the country. It is true that the Youth Opportunity Fund has produced some spectacularly good projects. One of the reasons for that is the fund’s condition for the direct participation of young people in developing bids for projects, deciding how money will be spent and monitoring and overseeing that expenditure. Secondly, voluntary organisations such as the Sea Cadets, which can provide those structured and positive activities and trusted adults that we know are so important for the development of young people, have a key role.

Positive Activities

7. What steps the Government are taking to provide facilities and opportunities for productive activities for young people. (161960)

In July this year, the Government launched “Aiming high for young people: a ten year strategy for positive activities”. Supported by £184 million of new Government investment, the reinvestment of unclaimed assets and £495 million of continuing funding, the strategy will improve young people’s life chances through participation in positive activities, improved youth support services and, over the next 10 years, new and improved youth facilities in every constituency.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response. We all know the good that such positive and structured activities do. I have in my constituency many disadvantaged young people who do not always have the family support networks that enable them to attend such activities. Will the Government be able to give any help to such people in my constituency?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s interest in this important topic—as, sadly, it does not seem to be exciting much interest on the Opposition Benches. There will be additional funding specifically for extended schools to enable children from poorer families who cannot afford to pay for activities to take part in them. Also, the “Positive activities for young people” scheme will be extended, with an additional £82 million over this period specifically for very disadvantaged areas. The youth opportunity fund will also have an additional and separate element of money specifically for the most disadvantaged areas, so we can make sure that all young people can take part in these activities.

Could the right hon. Lady comment on a problem that one of my tertiary colleges has? That college, in Cirencester, has responsibilities that come under her remit—such as the agenda for 14 to 19-year-olds, GCSEs and A-levels—but other responsibilities, such as vocational courses, come under the remit of the other Ministry concerned. Now that such responsibilities have been split up, it seems that the two ministries do not have joined-up government thinking. What is her Department doing about that?

I am grateful for that hastily thought-of question. We are working closely with our colleagues in the other Department. More to the point, it will be the responsibility of local authorities, with support from both Departments, to ensure that, through measures such as their 14-to-19 provision in schools and further education colleges, and bringing Connexions into the local authority arena to support young people with positive mentoring, every young person can get both the flexible package they need to make the best of themselves and the personalised support to make sure they can access the improved provision that the diplomas and other reforms will bring in.

School Finances

As I made clear in my statement of 30 October, schools and local authorities must work to reduce revenue balances substantially over the next three years, making full use of existing local authority clawback powers, because revenue funding is for today’s pupils and capital funding is for future investment. The operation of a modest surplus year on year makes sound financial sense but, at £1.7 billion, the national total is unacceptable, and if balances remain high we will act to release some of the money for the benefit of current pupils.

I am sure that the Minister knows of, and will want to recognise, the high quality of the head teachers in my constituency. Perhaps he would also like to know that when I wrote to them about his proposal, the balance of the sentiment of the replies was that it is “absolutely ridiculous” and “ill thought-out”, and

“will undermine the whole concept of financial independence”


“create a perverse incentive to spend money before the year end to prevent clawback rather than”

prudently to roll money over for the next year for higher priorities. Against that background, will the Minister not take the message that the best thing would be not only to remove the retrospective element of the calculation but to take away the entire scheme and think again, as it is creating disillusion and concern for responsible and prudent head teachers?

We certainly believe that, as I have just said, a modest surplus year on year makes sound financial sense. In the Bromley authority, in the area that the hon. Gentleman represents, the net revenue balance was relatively modest, and I am sure his head teachers are doing a good job and enjoying spending the increased capital money to invest in their pupils, which has increased from £1.66 million 10 years ago to an allocation of £576 million in 2011. That reinforces the point that if schools continue to build up excessive surplus balances, they need to be dealt with so that the money can be spent on current pupils. However, we have now given schools good notice—at least a couple of years—of the need to get their act together, to work with local authorities and to reduce excessive balances, while maintaining a prudent surplus.

Does the Minister recognise how welcome it was to schools throughout the country when this Government introduced money that can be spent at the discretion of head teachers, which has enabled schools to develop transformative projects that are not necessarily part of the national priorities, but that best fit those schools’ needs? Will he reassure head teachers that that approach, which allows them to decide local priorities, will continue?

I absolutely assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue that discretionary approach of allowing head teachers the freedom to allocate funds. In capital terms, we now delegate directly to schools more money than was in the whole capital fund under the previous Government. In the schools funding announcement that I made this morning, the school standards grant, the SSG personalisation element and the school development grant will all increase in line with the minimum funding guarantee. All those funds go directly to schools, and head teachers decide how to spend them.

Specialist Sports Colleges

9. What the criteria are for designating secondary schools as specialist sports colleges, with particular reference to facilities. (161962)

All successful applicants to the specialist schools programme must demonstrate that they have the capacity, including access to the relevant facilities, to take on the challenge of specialist status, to raise standards in the specialism and across the school, and to become a centre of curriculum excellence in their area. That includes raising £50,000, combined with a £100,000 contribution from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, to undertake a capital project to enhance specialist facilities.

Southfield school for girls in Kettering was designated a specialist sports college in 2004, yet three years later it is still struggling to find appropriate funding for its changing room facilities. A recent Ofsted report said:

“Accommodation is poor and a constraint on students’ achievement.”

The school tells me that the provision of the proposed five hours a week of high-quality sport and activity will be impossible unless funds are found. Will the Minister assure the House that when designating schools as specialist sports colleges, he will also ensure that they have the funds that they need to provide the appropriate facilities?

We certainly provide sufficient funds to do that to the local authority. I understand that when that school was designated a specialist sports college there was a sports hall, but it had to be closed after asbestos was discovered. I am pleased to hear that phase 1 of a new sports hall worth £1 million is being opened, with a £100,000 contribution from my Department, £168,000 from new opportunities funding and £250,000 from the county council. We have also just allocated a further £135 million to Northamptonshire—up from £7.5 million 10 years ago—so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will talk to his friends the Tories at county hall in Northamptonshire and get them to fund the next phase.

Education Leaving Age

11. If he will make a statement on the Government's proposals that all young people should remain in education or training until the age of 18. (161965)

We announced last week our intention to legislate to raise the participation age so that all young people can continue in education or training until 17 from 2013 and until 18 from 2015, building on the Green Paper published in March.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that this country needs a bigger and better skilled work force, but nothing can be gained by forcing young men and women to stay on at secondary school. What is important is to increase dramatically both apprenticeships and the appropriate courses in colleges of further education, such as Macclesfield college. Will he make money available to enable those things to happen?

Yes. May I also say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely? If our proposal was to raise the school leaving age to 18, he would be right to criticise us, but it is not: our proposal is to raise the education leaving age. From 2013, we want 16 and 17-year-olds to be in full-time school or college, in work with training or on an apprenticeship. We plan to increase the number of apprenticeships by 92,000 a year by 2013, precisely to achieve what he wants us to achieve. I hope that in tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech debate, when we can go into this in more detail, I will be able to persuade him, and other Conservative Members, that they are wrong to oppose our proposals on this. They should be supporting us in raising the education leaving age so that we can equip young people in our country for the 21st century.

School Exclusions

We back heads when they take the difficult decision to exclude a pupil permanently. The intention must be to intervene early to nip misbehaviour in the bud and so reduce the need for permanent exclusion. Since 1997-98, the number of permanent exclusions has fallen by almost a quarter, from 12,300 to 9,330.

I welcome the improved figures set out by my hon. Friend. Will he say whether any thought is going into getting his Department to work closely with local police forces to deal with some of the antisocial behaviour that results from school exclusions, and to use that as a mechanism to pick up the most difficult young people and get them back into school?

Yes, I can confirm that. Of course, we have also introduced responsibility for parents during the first five days of absence after a pupil is excluded from school and greater responsibility for schools, local authorities and pupil referral units to ensure that those young people are not languishing around the streets, as they were in the past, but are receiving an education, as they should be. We are making significant progress in that area.

Topical Questions

May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the first topical question in this new Question Time slot, as part of our drive to modernise Parliament? As the first Department to take part in this innovation, we will do our best and see how it goes.

This morning, my colleague the Minister for Schools and Learners laid a written statement before the House on school funding for 2008-2011. It, too, is a significant first. This is the first time that three-year revenue budgets have been set for schools. Together with recently announced three-year capital allocations, it means that schools will be able to plan ahead more effectively. The overall level of school revenue funding will increase by 4.3 per cent. in 2008-09, 4.7 per cent. in 2009-10 and 5.3 per cent. in 2010-11, building on 10 years’ strong growth in school funding as we move from below average to what is now above average performance on the road to a world-class education system in our country.

If I had thought this was modernisation, Mr. Speaker, I would not have asked the question! What the Secretary of State has not just said about the announcement today is that he is cutting the guaranteed minimum funding for schools from 3.7 per cent. to 2.1 per cent. Is that not just another way in which bureaucracy steals money from good schools?

I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman should be congratulating us on raising the amount going to schools, including those in his area. The fact is that the minimum funding guarantee, at 2.1 per cent., is consistent with a 3 per cent. growth in overall schools funding over this spending review period, which contrasts with a growth of 1.4 per cent. between 1979 and 1997. So we are still doing more than twice what the Conservatives were doing. He should be congratulating me on delivering for Hampshire over the next three years a 12.9 per cent. increase in funding per pupil for spending in his area, and on the fact that Hampshire is 63rd of 149 local authority areas—in the top half—for the amount of extra money being received in school funding over the next three years. The authorities are getting more money to invest in schools in the hon. Gentleman’s area, and in the areas represented by all Conservative Members.

As a result of an announcement made by my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners last month on capital funding, Derbyshire schools have seen their capital funding increase by almost 480 per cent. But what will happen to revenue funding?

I can give my hon. Friend the figures, which were announced this morning by my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners. The overall amount is a 13.2 per cent. increase, which puts Derbyshire 41st, and it includes £13 million more for personalised learning and £1.9 million for pockets of deprivation in her area. It is an above average increase that will continue the excellent improvement in standards that she has achieved in her constituency.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on dodging so magnificently the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and ignoring the point that he made—that the minimum funding guarantee has been cut from 3.7 per cent. to 2.1 per cent. There has been much debate recently about the extent to which the Secretary of State wants to carry on the reform agenda that was begun under Tony Blair. May I ask the Secretary of State directly if he believes, as the former Prime Minister did, that academies can drive up standards by pioneering new policies where inner-city local authorities have failed to innovate, and in so doing provide a new competitive pressure in the state system that increases parental choice and quality for all?

The answer is yes, of course. That is why we are increasing the number of academies and working with the best local authorities, which are now proposing academies. On the minimum funding guarantee, I have to point out that a 2.1 per cent. increase a year for three years is an increase, not a cut. We are increasing the amount of money going to schools year by year. It is certainly true to say that the rate of increase in the next three years will be slower than the rate of increase in the last three years. There will be a need for more efficiency gains to deliver more spending per pupil and to continue with a rising share of education and school spending in our GDP. I know that the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is not in favour of modernisation, but he must still agree that a 2.1 per cent. increase is an increase, not a cut.

The whole House will be interested to note that the Secretary of State could not wait to get off the question of academies. In particular, he did not explain why academies have lost the freedom that they used to have over the curriculum. There is a real worry that the Secretary of State may not be serious about reform.

In a new BBC film to be screened next week, entitled “The Blair Years”, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) recalls the Secretary of State, when he was a Treasury aide, egging him on to revolt against the Blair education reforms. The Secretary of State apparently said to the hon. Gentleman:

“Gosh, you’ve been on the TV and radio a lot recently, keep going, excellent”.

Can the Secretary of State now put our minds at rest, deny that he said that, confirm that the hon. Member for Norwich, North got it completely wrong, and assure us that when he was at the Treasury—

Order. The Secretary of State is here to answer on his responsibilities for education, and the hon. Gentleman is questioning him about his previous employment. It is not on.

T2. Perhaps I should start by congratulating the Secretary of State on behalf of children in the New Forest as well as children in York. York schools receive less funding per pupil than the national average, and the Secretary of State knows that I have been campaigning on that. We have some real pockets of deprivation in York, so will the new school funding settlement, announced today, give York schools a larger increase in funding than the national average, in order to start closing that gap? (161994)

The answer is yes. I know that my hon. Friend has been campaigning on those issues for some time, and that York is a member of the F40 group. The extra £2.8 million for personalisation for York and the £700,000 for pockets of deprivation, which will deliver an above-average 13.5 per cent. increase over three years, will mean that York is 24th in the list of local authorities in terms of their three-year increase. My hon. Friend’s campaign has clearly worked. We have listened to his concerns, and because of the extra money for personalisation and pockets of deprivation there will be more money available per pupil for spending in York in the next three years.

T3. The campaign undertaken by the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) will work only if this year’s figures are sustained year after year, so that the gap is closed. Will anything in today’s school funding settlement make a significant contribution to addressing the fundamental unfairness that results in a 600-pupil three-form entry primary school in an affluent area of Birmingham getting £1 million more a year—over £1,600 per pupil more—than a primary school of identical size in a less affluent area of Worcester? (161995)

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done, but I pay particular tribute to the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) has done to raise concerns on behalf of the county. If the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) looks at the figures for Worcestershire, he will see that its dedicated school grant is up by 13.4 per cent. per pupil over the settlement period. That is above the average. It is narrowing the gap between Worcestershire and the more highly funded authorities, and I am sure that he welcomes that.

T9. I am sure that Staffordshire and other members of the F40 will want to thank the Secretary of State, first for the stability of a three-year settlement, and secondly for recognising that, as has long been argued, pockets of deprivation are not being acknowledged in the present formula. He will know that the authorities that are always at the bottom of the funding league table do not really argue about their position relative to others, but they do argue about the size of the gap between them and the authorities that receive the most money. Will he say whether in the next three years he expects that gap to stay the same, get bigger or get smaller? (162001)

Again, I should commend my hon. Friend for his campaigning on those issues. As he says, the £2.5 million of funding for pockets of deprivation will help Staffordshire, which will have an increase above the England average—13.4 per cent., compared to 13.1 per cent. There is clearly a narrowing of the gap, and it is right that there should be, but at the same time we need to make sure that our funding reflects the needs of rural areas, as well as deprivation and special needs, and we will continue to make sure that that is central to our thinking on education funding.

T4. What responsibilities does the Department for Children, Schools and Families have for post-16 education, training and funding, and what responsibilities does the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills have for those matters, and which Department has responsibility for further education? (161996)

Responsibility for funding 16-to-18 provision lies with my Department. Responsibility for ensuring that we implement the diploma programme and for apprenticeships for people up to the age of 18 is the responsibility of my Department. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has responsibility for adult education; within that, it sponsors the further education sector. On apprenticeships and further education, it is clearly important that the two Education Secretaries in the Cabinet work closely together, and we will. That is how we will deliver on our ambitions to raise education and skills among people up to the age of 19, which is my job, and among the adult work force, which is the job of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

T6. In the light of the forthcoming Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill and the recent debate on abortion, what plans does my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families have to make comprehensive sexual health and relationship education compulsory in our schools? (161998)

I agree with my hon. Friend that sex and relationship education of a high quality is fundamentally important for many young people, and it is important that our schools, with parents, deliver that kind of education to our young people. However, I have to tell my hon. Friend that whether that education is on a statutory basis is not to the point. What matters much more is how good that education is. We have taken our advice from Ofsted, which, having considered the issue, said in a report this year that too much time and effort had been spent discussing whether personal, social and health education should be a statutory subject. Making something statutory does not ensure that it is provided effectively, or indeed at all, so we are introducing a range of measures to make sure that the quality of that education is driven up, through guidance, continued professional development for teachers, subject association for teachers and a website for them. Through Ofsted, we continue to monitor whether the quality is good, and whether the teaching is preparing our young people for difficult issues to do with relationships as they grow older.

T5. According to the Department’s own statistics, Devon will have to find an additional 3,500 places to meet the Government’s target of raising the school leaving age to 18 by 2013. Can the Secretary of State say what guidance he is giving local authorities so that they can meet those targets? Furthermore, will he speak to his Cabinet colleague about Exmouth community college, the largest secondary school in Europe, and support its plans to expand into the Rolle college site, which is being vacated by Plymouth university? (161997)

I remember visiting Exmouth community college last summer with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families. The issues with that site were pointed out to us, and I have sympathy with the college’s plans.

On raising the participation age, I should say that, as the Secretary of State has said today, it is important that people understand that we are not talking about raising the school leaving age. It is perfectly in order for people to leave school at 16 and go to work, as long as they carry on training. Indeed, it would be in order for them to do voluntary work, as long as they carried on for the equivalent of a day a week in training, which would be provided by the likes of Exmouth college, other training providers and 14-to-19 partnerships. I am sure that there are some excellent ones in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

If my hon. Friend thinks that the fast-track programme for promoting gifted young teachers into headships fast is so good—and everyone who has done it says that it is—why are the Government cutting it back and taking the most expensive residential elements out of it?

Naturally, I listen carefully to the concerns of my hon. Friend, who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, and I shall talk to him further. Fast Track Teaching is an important scheme, as are Future Leaders and Teach First; all work extremely well. We are now expanding Teach First into Manchester and the black country because it has been working so successfully. I look forward to continued conversations with my hon. Friend and congratulate him on his appointment to the new Select Committee.

T7. Why, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, do more children now attend private schools than had recently been the case? Does he think that more parents are trying to buy privilege by sending their children to private schools, such as the ones that he, the deputy leader of the Labour party and I attended, or does he think that, notwithstanding the excellent work done by huge numbers of teachers in our schools, there is a lack of confidence among parents about the standard of education that children are receiving under this Government? (161999)

The opposite is true. A study published today by Keele university shows that nine out of 10 parents are happy with their children’s schools. Peak attendance at private schools, as a share of all schools, was in 1990. It is true that private school attendance has risen in the past few years; that tends to happen when the economy is doing as well as it has been. However, the vast majority of young people are in state schools. As I said earlier, the percentage of A-level A-grade passes obtained by state school pupils is rising, not falling. People will look at that and say that a state school education is not only the majority option, but increasingly the best option for young people.