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Topical Questions

Volume 467: debated on Monday 12 November 2007

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.