Skip to main content

Children, Schools and Families

Volume 469: debated on Monday 17 December 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Education Leaving Age

May I take this opportunity, on behalf of my ministerial team, to wish you, your staff and all Members of this House a very merry Christmas, Mr. Speaker, on this cold and wintry day?

We have introduced the Education and Skills Bill to legislate to raise the participation age, so that all young people continue in education or training until 18 from 2015. The Second Reading debate is now scheduled for mid-January.

In my constituency we have a lot of looked-after children, and people who have been in care are disproportionately less likely to stay on in education past the age of 16. Does my right hon. Friend agree that raising the participation age to 18 will ensure that those young people, who do not have the advantage of a secure family background—or of having their name put down for Eton from birth—will get the education, training and skills that they need?

In the cohort of 10 and 11-year-olds in year six, there are 5,000 children in care. On present trends, those young people would be much more likely to be out of education, employment or training when they reach 16 than the rest of the population—about four times as likely. That is why it is so important that we do everything we can between now and 2013, when this legislation kicks in, to ensure that such young people have opportunities for work and training or to stay in school or college. Giving opportunities to them is a key priority for this Department, and for the Children and Young Persons Bill.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is little point in encouraging, let alone compelling, people to stay at school until 18 unless there is adequate tuition and guidance in the crafts? There are many young people who will never have an academic ambition but who can become very fine craftsmen and prepare for a proper apprenticeship.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we will not fulfil our ambitions unless we make sure that school, college or an apprenticeship is an offer available to every young person. That is why we are legislating in the Education and Skills Bill to give every 16 and 17-year-old a right to an apprenticeship, and why we have increased the number of apprenticeships by more than 100,000 and will double them again by 2013. That is why the Conservative party is wrong to call the Bill a stunt, when in fact it will do precisely what the hon. Gentleman wants, which is to give opportunities to the young people who need them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that this is not a “Staying on in Schools” Bill? It is about staying on in training and education, and a whole variety of things that young people can do to get the right skills for the modern economy. It is quite a long time until 2013 and 2015, and my right hon. Friend has just wished you and everyone else a merry Christmas, Mr. Speaker. In the spirit of Christmas, can we not do something for these young people faster than by 2013 and 2015?

But we are, and we will progressively do more between now and 2013, when the legislation comes into effect. A few weeks ago, I extended the availability of education maintenance allowances to young people on entry to employment courses. In our children’s plan, we introduced last week a new scheme called “entry to learning”, precisely to ensure that young people who could benefit from apprenticeships if they had the qualifications to start those courses have indeed got them. That is why it is right that we do more now and in the coming years to ensure that by 2013, when the legislation comes into effect, every young person can benefit from the new opportunities on offer.

How will young people in the Berwick area be compelled to attend courses when the nearest further education college is 50 miles away, when there is only one high school, and when those who stay on at school beyond 16 are charged £360 a year for transport by the Labour council?

The important thing to ensure is that schools and colleges in that area have the support that they need. We will need to look at transport in rural areas, as I have said in past discussions on this issue, to make sure that when we say that there is an opportunity for every young person, those opportunities exist and are real. There will be an obligation on local government to make sure that the opportunities are real and can be taken advantage of. The right hon. Gentleman is right: we will need to look at transport as part of those discussions.

My right hon. Friend will know that in the past three years, in Barnsley the number of students taking modern apprenticeships has gone up by some 167 per cent., and in Doncaster by some 150 per cent. However, can he tell the House what role the new 14-to-19 diplomas will play in improving the vocational education base for young people?

The diplomas will ensure that from the age of 14 young people in schools and colleges can study the combination of theory and practice that they need to move on to an apprenticeship or to university. It is important that we ensure that the curriculum engages and challenges young people, so that they want to stay in school or college and do well by their talents. The diplomas that we are introducing will be a real step forward for those young people’s learning, and will ensure that young people in my hon. Friend’s constituency who want to benefit from an apprenticeship will reach 16 having been given the learning that they need to do so.

International Comparisons

2. What international comparative assessments of school performance he has commissioned or evaluated in the last 12 months. (174105)

England has participated in two recent international comparative studies: PIRLS, the progress in international reading literacy study, which looks at 10-year-olds’ reading attainment; and PISA, the programme for international student assessment, which is on 15-year-olds’ attainment in science, with limited surveys of reading and mathematics. Both enjoyed much higher levels of participation by other countries than previous studies. Independent analysis shows that educational standards in this country continue to improve. We have moved from below average to above average, but, as we said in the children’s plan, we have further to go to achieve world-class standards. We have also recently commissioned a piece of research to benchmark our primary curriculum against high-performing countries in literacy, numeracy and science, the results of which will feed in to the review of the primary curriculum.

The OECD international study, which the Minister mentioned, showed that the UK had fallen from eighth to 24th in the maths league table. Why is that?

The OECD’s study, and a more complete report that it produced a month ago, said that educational performance in England remained very strong. The OECD’s PISA study said that the sampling for reading and maths was too small to use for comparative purposes. The science study, in which England’s 15-year-olds were found to be among the best in the world, should be the baseline for future comparison, not historical comparison.

The English language is this country’s greatest export, but our decline down the international league tables for literacy shows that hundreds of millions of children around the world are learning to read and write English better than children in our own country. Is that not a source of national shame? What is the Minister going to do about it?

Naturally, we are doing a number of things to improve literacy standards in this country, but it is simply wrong to suggest that they are falling; they are continuing to improve. It is great that other countries are improving their literacy standards too, and as I said, more of them are entering the comparative studies. It has been said that one of the studies of literacy should not be used for comparative purposes because the sample was too small, and the basis of most of this country’s fall in the other was the fact that higher attaining readers are not spending enough time reading, and are being too distracted by computer games. Society as a whole needs to tackle that together.

On performance, my hon. Friend probably knows that my county has encountered substantial problems in schools, despite recent improvements. Will he say how he will work with some of the underperforming education authorities to ensure real sustained improvement in schools, so that children can benefit from the increased investment that has been made?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to share responsibility for improvements in literacy with local authorities. National strategies resource is out there working both with local authorities and directly with schools to improve literacy, and to ensure that the findings of Sir Jim Rose’s first review, which promoted the use of synthetic phonics, are used effectively throughout our primary schools so that we can continue to raise standards.

May I urge my hon. Friend to be very cautious when looking at international comparisons? A couple of weeks ago, UNICEF published a report indicating that child poverty in Canada had worsened by 20 per cent. since 1989. Upon investigation, it turned out that a UNICEF official admitted that some of the figures were made up, and further investigation showed that there had been no marked change in child poverty in Canada since 1989. So will my hon. Friend be careful when examining statistics from bodies such as UNICEF?

We do proceed with a certain amount of caution, but we do decide to participate in some of these projects. We need to take forward certain things as a result of the comparative studies—for example, the very large gap in performance between the lower achieving and the highest achieving pupils in this country. Such a gap seems to be more particular to the UK than to elsewhere, and that fact lies behind a lot of the policies in our children’s plan. Concerns about such studies also exist, and we are taking some of those up with the responsible bodies. For example, it is odd that one week’s literacy study shows one country at the top, whereas the following week’s literacy study, carried out by a different organisation, shows that country way below the United Kingdom, in the second division.

How can we ensure that specific science subjects are taught more in our secondary schools by teachers who are specifically qualified in those subjects?

We have had a problem for some time with the number of specialist scientists teaching science, but we are starting to see an improvement. The last time we had oral questions, I announced that, for the first time, we had exceeded 3,000 for the number of new recruits who are specialist scientists. We are also developing a conversion qualification for biologists, because we have plenty of them, so that they can change to physics and chemistry, for which there are shortages. We are doing a number of things, and things are moving in the right direction.

Has my hon. Friend noticed the PISA report on science competencies, which concluded that the governance of schools, especially autonomy, had little effect on educational outcome? What has a real impact is the steepness of socio-economic inequalities. Therefore, will my hon. Friend move the agenda on from school governance to offering opportunity to those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, who struggle so much to attain the educational level of the rest of the population?

My hon. Friend will be pleased that the children’s plan shows that we unambiguously set out to narrow the attainment gaps between those from advantaged areas and those from disadvantaged areas. He is right to highlight that aim. However, that is not to say that governance does not have a role. The most important factor in achieving educational success is to combine the engagement of parents with their child’s learning, high-quality teaching driven by good leadership, and good leadership driven by strong governance. That is the model of school improvement that we want, so that we can narrow the attainment gap that my hon. Friend rightly points out.

May I join the Secretary of State in wishing you, Mr. Speaker, and every Member of the House a merry Christmas?

Among the torrent of Christmas cards that the Department will be receiving, last Friday the Secretary of State received a letter from more than 500 authors, co-ordinated by Channel 4, pointing out that 10 years after the Government came to power, our literacy performance was plummeting. As Ian Rankin said,

“this shouldn’t be happening in the UK”.

They can have 100 per cent. literacy in villages in Kerala, in one of the most deprived parts of India, but here the Government are going backwards. New targets published under our new Prime Minister show that the Government have actually dropped their more ambitious literacy plans and are now happy to accept that one in six children will leave primary school without being able to read ploperly—I mean properly. [Laughter.] It is terrible—it is happening everywhere! Why is the Government’s approach to literacy leaving children unable to read, and the nation’s authors in despair?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is on the Prime Minister’s Christmas card list, but to help launch the national year of reading next year the Prime Minister has commissioned an illustration for the front of his Christmas card from Shirley Hughes, an esteemed children’s author. I am sure that that will set the national year of reading off to a good start. The national year of reading is an important initiative to encourage the whole country to read, and especially to read with their children.

The hon. Gentleman mentions Channel 4, and I was interested to read the Channel 4 fact-check on his claims that standards in literacy are declining, informed by the OECD report that we are talking about. It states that

“the OECD say that the results do not show any evidence of a real decline in standards.”

It also says that he has

“failed his exams”

and that

“a man of Gove’s legendary intelligence really has no excuse for trotting out these obviously misleading stats one more time.”

It is interesting that the Minister is now rubbishing the OECD figures, although in 2000 his own Government used those figures to claim, “We are the stars.” The Government quote those figures liberally when they are convenient, but when they are inconvenient, they run away from the truth. What the Minister did not tell us is that in his children’s plan published last week there is not a single mention of the tried-and-tested method of teaching reading which works—synthetic phonics. There is not a single mention of that, two years after the Government appeared to accept Sir Jim Rose’s report; synthetic phonics has been buried under a torrent of strategies on rusks and gloop from the Secretary of State. Should not Ministers, instead of caving in to the educational establishment by getting rid of rigorous testing, simply concentrate on getting children to read?

Certainly the hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully. I was not rubbishing the OECD; that was the OECD rubbishing him. Researchers from the OECD itself said that

“the results do not show any evidence of a real decline in standards.”

In terms of the other stuff that the hon. Gentleman said—[Interruption.] It really was “gloop”, which is the word that he likes to use. The importance that we place on Jim Rose’s synthetic phonics is embedded in the fact that we have asked Jim Rose himself to carry out the review of the primary curriculum, which will ensure that the work he did on synthetic phonics will be carried out and integrated into a reformed primary curriculum.

Is my hon. Friend aware that what the international comparative assessments agree on is that it is a profoundly mistaken idea to force children to learn to read at the age of five, and even more so to drag them off to primary schools a few days after their fourth birthday? The assessments show that the countries that start formal education at the later age of seven are those that do best in the international comparisons.

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that we should not be too rigid about what we do for every child. We should ensure that every child has momentum in their learning and that we have more personalised learning. For example, he will be pleased to see that on page 71 of the children’s plan there is an explicit mention of phonics. That does not bear out the reading of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who perhaps needs to read paragraph 3.85, which says:

“The review will build on Sir Jim Rose’s review of the importance of phonics in teaching children to read”.

Child Employment

Child employment legislation is set out mainly in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. However, that legislation has subsequently been amended and reviewed and we believe that the current law is more than adequate and not in need of review. But I agree that new guidance is necessary to support employers, young people and those advising them in understanding the law. As the hon. Lady may know, we have undertaken to publish improved best practice guidance next year.

The Minister will be aware that over the past four years, the number of children injured at work has more than doubled. Although having a job while at school is an excellent way for young people to learn new skills and earn money at the same time, much of the legislation, as the Minister said, dates back to the 1930s, and I would assert that it is now chaotic and unworkable. Will she commit to undertaking a comprehensive review of the legislation to ensure that it protects children properly and is not over-bureaucratic for employers?

There is the rub—getting the balance between the two objectives. Of course the safety of children is of paramount importance, and I am satisfied that the law is strong enough and is workable. However, we need to set out clearly for local authorities, employers and parents themselves exactly how to use the law effectively. Clearly it is unacceptable for any child to be injured at work, but very small numbers of them are injured at work compared with the thousands and thousands of injuries to children aged under 16 who are not at work. It is important to keep the issue in perspective. However, I am happy to agree that next year we will produce the best guidance we can, to make absolutely crystal clear to people what the law is and how they can use it effectively.

Unauthorised Absences

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

The Minister will understand that this is a very serious and worrying problem in many parts of the country. Will he tell us how many parents have been fined or sent to jail for persistently not ensuring that their children attend school?

I do not have that figure to hand, but there have been prosecutions, as the hon. Gentleman knows. There is also the provision to have parental contracts and, where necessary, parental orders as well, on attendance at school. The recent figures show that those are being used quite widely by local authorities.

Last Friday, I had the privilege of visiting Pelton Roseberry sports college in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend congratulate the head and staff there, who are taking a zero-tolerance approach to unauthorised absences? Their main weapon is to have tailor-made courses for individual students and exciting vocational training, which is leading to a lot more kids staying in school and not dropping out of education.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on undertaking that visit. By having a stronger policy on unauthorised absence, the principal or head teacher of that establishment may well find that the figures for unauthorised absence go up, because it is not being tolerated. Any Member would congratulate the head teacher on taking that stance. That is why the Opposition should congratulate the Government on doing exactly the same thing, and bearing down on overall absence.

Should a boy who decides to be absent from the school photograph but then turns up four hours later be punished for the unauthorised absence, or rewarded for thinking better of it?

The main problem is that the Opposition deliberately try to use the figures for unauthorised absence as a measure of truancy. I do not think that they actually believe that the two things are the same, but if they do, I wish that they would say so explicitly and publicly, so that they could be subject to the ridicule of every head teacher in the land.

One of the most widely experienced phenomena in primary schools, in particular, is parentally condoned absence at certain times of year. How do the Government intend to respond to that growing problem?

My hon. Friend is correct. It is a worrying fact that many children who are away from school and totting up unauthorised absences are with their parents, or absent with their parents’ permission. It is right for head teachers to refuse to grant permission for unauthorised absence in those circumstances. That is why the Department has decided to bear down on the figures for persistent absence and overall absence. I previously told the House that 75,000 more children were in school each day than in 1997, but I am afraid that that was slightly incorrect: the correct figure is 76,000.

We welcome the fact that resources are being put into ensuring that children take up the educational opportunities available to them. However, as persistent absences continue, despite the additional resources and sanctions available to schools and education authorities to deal with them, how does the Minister believe that those who remain absent from school while they are already supposed to be there are going to be enticed into his plans for staying on at school until the age of 18?

We are having some success with persistently absent pupils—in other words, pupils who miss more than half a term of school a year. We have targeted 436 schools in an attempt to reduce persistent absence. In those schools, persistent absence has been reduced by 20 per cent. Overall in secondary schools in England, it has been reduced by 10 per cent. We are having successes. We are also confident that by the time we raise the education leaving age, there will be pathways available to young people, in school or college or via an apprenticeship or other form of training, that will constitute an attractive offer.

Why should anybody believe what the Government say about truancy given that by any measure, including their own, the figures have mushroomed? If they are so convinced that they have done a good job, why did they quietly abandon the truancy targets in the public service agreement targets published in October? Can the Minister explain why the Government’s so-called effective tool of truancy sweeps saw the number of children being stopped plummet from 20,554 to 11,713 between 2002 and 2006, while the number of children playing truant rocketed over the same period?

Of course that is absolute nonsense. The number of children playing truant has not rocketed. The hon. Gentleman knows that he is conflating unauthorised absences and truancy. I could abolish unauthorised absence tomorrow simply by telling head teachers to authorise all absences, and if I did that, he would rightly criticise me. At some stage, he needs to say at the Dispatch Box that he believes that unauthorised absence and truancy are one and the same thing—and if he does that, he will open himself up to ridicule from every head teacher in the country.

Orphaned Pupils

The Children Act 1989 gives local authorities a duty to provide accommodation for any child under 16 who requires accommodation because no person has parental responsibility for him or her. This is defined as being looked after by that local authority. Local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children whom they look after. For those aged 16 to 19, my Department provides financial support to ensure that finance is not a barrier to learning. Support for living costs for this age group is provided through the benefits system.

The Minister is aware of my constituent Kirsty Oldfield, who tragically lost both her parents in quick succession and ended up being unable to afford to stay on in education. As the Government are preparing to spend millions of pounds providing education for people who do not want it, should not people who find themselves in Kirsty’s situation be given direct support by his Department, rather than having to navigate the complicated benefits system, being advised to get pregnant, or relying on the generosity of the general public to fund their education?

I suspect that there are not many things on which the hon. Gentleman and I agree—but one of them is that if his constituent has been advised as has been reported, that is completely and utterly unprofessional and unacceptable.

We are looking at ways of reviewing the support for young people in the position of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent—and I extend my sympathies to her for the personal circumstances in which she has found herself. Of course, during the process of developing the extension of the education leaving age from 16 to 19, we will be looking even more closely at how we can do that.

Sex Education

As part of the children’s plan, we have given a commitment to reviewing best practice in effective sex and relationship education and how that is delivered in schools. We have listened to young people, principally through the Youth Parliament, and recognise that many feel that they do not currently have the knowledge that they need to make safe and responsible choices about relationships and sexual health. We will involve young people fully in the review, to ensure that future sex and relationship education meets their needs better.

When half of young women report that they know of at least one girl who has been pressurised into having sex with her boyfriend, surely the Minister agrees that it has never been more important for every young person to have access to high-quality education about sex and relationships. The review is welcome, but if he agrees that that is important, will he make it statutory?

I have listened carefully to the arguments that have been put to us, principally by the Youth Parliament and also by others, on making personal, social and health education—the piece of the curriculum through which sex and relationship education is delivered—statutory. Sex education is statutory, but the relationship side is not. Ofsted has told us that too much time and effort have been spent discussing whether PSHE should be a statutory subject. Making something statutory does not ensure that it is provided effectively—or, indeed, at all. The focus of the review must be the quality of what is delivered and ensuring that there is consistency. Once the new secondary curriculum is in place—it starts in September 2008 in England—we might be able to revisit the question of the statutory nature of PSHE. For now, however, our focus must be on what both the hon. Lady and I want: better and more consistent sex and relationship education for every child in this country.

Does the Minister agree that sex education should include awareness-raising for young children and young people who are at risk of being groomed for prostitution and the internal trafficking trade? That should be part of the curriculum in every school in this country.

I find myself in the surprising position of agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. It is important that we raise awareness of those serious issues among young people, through relationship and sex education and through citizenship. Recently, I was privileged to attend an award ceremony that came on the back of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade; it followed a competition that we part-sponsored to encourage schools to do work on subjects relating to abolition. One of the subjects that was talked about was human trafficking, particularly of children and sex workers. I was pleased to see that in some cases—through citizenship, in that case—awareness of those issues is already being raised.

Respite Care

Our plan is radically to transform the provision of short breaks for disabled children and their families over the next few years. We are setting aside £280 million of revenue funding for short breaks between now and 2011. Last week, under the children’s plan, we announced a further £90 million in capital to provide additional equipment, adaptations and buildings to support short break provision.

I know the passion that my right hon. Friend brings to this matter and I wholeheartedly welcome what he has said, but may I bring to his attention the work of the Family Holiday Association, which takes hundreds of families every year on short breaks to seaside and coastal towns? I suggest that now is the time to consider the 2.5 million children in families who cannot even afford a day trip, and to consider whether some of the measures could be extended to include the FHA and co-operation with other Departments.

I know that my hon. Friend brings a passion for Blackpool to the Chamber. The local authority in Blackpool—a destination for short breaks and day trips—has been working very hard to improve its provision for disabled children and their families. That is exactly what we want from local authorities, and that is the sort of leadership that we are looking for. In the first year of our funding—more than £300 million over three years—we will seek in pilots to support innovative approaches, such as those that Blackpool is taking, to provide the support and respite opportunities that disabled children and their families so badly need.

With respect, the Secretary of State slightly ducked the question asked by the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden). The money has to be spent; charities such as the Family Holiday Association do brilliant work and they are already there. Will his Department work with organisations such as the FHA, which do brilliant work to help families who are experiencing social exclusion, on spending some of the money to make sure that those families get the short breaks that they need?

Of course we will, and we will encourage local authorities across the country to make sure that, in using the money, they work closely with the voluntary sector to ensure that families get the support they need. Last week, I also announced an extension of the work of the family fund to 16 and 17-year-olds, with £8 million of extra spending. That will enable those young people to get support, often from the voluntary sector and organisations such as the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Whether it is a day trip, one day off a week, or more extensive, longer breaks, it is important that we provide disabled children and their families with the tailored support they need. In many parts of the country, the voluntary sector is taking a lead in providing that, and we must make sure that it is properly supported, including with funding, so that it can carry on that important work.

Following on from that answer, the Secretary of State will be aware that there are many good examples of short breaks for families with children with disability, but there are also instances in which parents do not feel reassured that the individuals who will be looking after their children have the necessary training. Will he look into the training of those who will be looking after children with disability and ensure that there is a variety of settings, so that the family can be reassured and the child can be looked after in an appropriate placement?

My hon. Friend is quite right. Under her leadership, last year’s consultation with disabled families, which took place before the conclusion of our review, highlighted the fact that, particularly for families with a child with multiple disabilities, often the problem is not the availability of care and respite breaks, but the ability of the respite care setting to meet the needs of the child. Sometimes the issue is capital needs, which is why the extra £90 million will help us to provide the kind of hoists and the support needed for particular children. However, the issue is also the quality and training of staff. It is vital that parents have confidence that the respite care will genuinely give them a break. They can have that break only if they are confident that the staff can do the job for them while they are away. That is why training will be an important part of our work for the next three years.


Local authority day nurseries play an important role in our diverse child care market, including delivery of the free early education entitlement and securing sufficient good-quality child care. The Department’s annual child care and early years providers survey collects information from providers, including local authorities, on the number of places, staff characteristics, qualifications and income. The 2006 survey showed that there were 700 local authority day nurseries providing a total of 30,600 child care places.

Parents in Milton Keynes value the council’s eight day nurseries so highly that they have just mounted a successful campaign that forced the Liberal Democrat-controlled council to withdraw its proposals to close some of them. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the parents on their campaign, and confirm that it is entirely for Milton Keynes council to decide on the future role of those nurseries and on the priority that it chooses to give them?

I do congratulate the parents, and my hon. Friend on her role in supporting them. I find it extraordinary that the council considered that. As she knows, from April next year every local authority has a duty to ensure that there is sufficient child care of different types to meet the needs of parents in its area, so every authority should be assessing its supply and the demand from parents for additional supply and working towards matching demand and supply. It is extraordinary to be thinking about closing provision when the council should be assessing whether it has enough.

Children's Plan

Supporting parents is central to the children’s plan. Building on the recent expansion of parent support advisers in school, we announced funding for two expert parent advisers for each local authority and made the commitment to introduce personal progress records for parents on their child’s development from birth right through primary education. The plan includes new work to support fathers, to help families through breakdown and to encourage parental involvement, including expanding family learning. For families with the greatest needs, there is also £90 million capital for short breaks for disabled children, which we have just heard about, and provision for more outreach work from Sure Start children’s centres.

That is a very welcome answer. Some support for some parents is available from a wide variety of private, voluntary and independent organisations, as well as the statutory sector. In Staffordshire, the county council and I are trying to join all those together to make an offer of a universal service, available to all parents. Does the children’s plan encourage that? Is there any help that the Department can give us as we try to achieve that aim?

I thank my hon. Friend for the incredible work that he does to support the needs of families and make sure that they are included in Government policy, both nationally and in his own area. It is precisely that approach that we want to encourage. It is important that services for parents are universal, so that there is no stigma attached to a parent who says at one time or another that they want some support. We all need support at some time as parents. Through a universal offer, everybody will get the help that they need, but through a universal offer more help will be able to be given to parents who may be struggling and whose children need it more. I would be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about Staffordshire’s proposals.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of the most astonishing support for parents in Luton comes through the family workers attached to our children’s centre, who offer one-stop support to families, often in crisis situations, and encourage family learning and increasing literacy? Will she consider extending the use of family workers across all schools, as I saw, for example, last week at Hart Hill nursery children’s centre—

I am very aware of the work done by family workers, not only in Luton but in children’s centres in various parts of the country. It is an important type of provision because it enables relationships to be built up with parents, as my hon. Friend rightly says. That means that parents are more likely to come in and ask for support when they need it, and that benefits the children as well as the parents. I am happy to support the work that Luton is doing in that regard.

Schools (Swindon)

Planning investment in schools is a local matter. In October, we announced the allocation of £52.8 million to Swindon borough council from 2008 to 2011 to support improvement to its school buildings and facilities. That included £14.9 million to start the primary capital programme. We will in due course discuss with Swindon its primary school plans and those for its secondary schools when it is prioritised in the building schools for the future programme. The Government will, of course, deliver in full on that programme to my hon. Friend’s constituents.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government will not suspend the building schools for the future programme? I am particularly concerned about Commonweal secondary school in my constituency —an excellent school that is struggling in difficult buildings that have twice been condemned by Ofsted. Will my hon. Friend give that school some comfort?

The Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), visited that school recently. He has told me not only about the good work going on there and the value placed on the school by the local community, but about the state of the buildings. That is why it is of particular concern that the Conservative party plans to cut the building schools for the future programme by £4.5 billion. That, of course, would put the development of such schools at risk.

Order. We come to topical questions to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. May I point out that two Members on the Opposition Front Bench have put down their names to intervene in these topical questions? In future, I shall expect only one to do so. However, this time I shall let the matter go, given that it is Christmas.

Topical Questions

This morning, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and I laid before the House a consultation document on our proposals for a new independent regulator of qualifications and tests and on reform of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. The regulator will report directly to Parliament, not through Ministers. We intend to legislate following the consultation. We will establish an interim regulator in the spring, prior to legislation.

In addition, this morning the Minister for Schools and Learners published an evaluation report on the building schools for the future programme, and I announced in a written statement to the House details of about 200 school building projects that will benefit from an additional £100 million in the next three years for energy efficiency. The intention is to reduce carbon emissions on the way towards our goal, announced in the children’s plan, for all new schools to be zero-carbon by 2016.

All too often, vocational skills are not awarded the same respect as academic skills are, despite their value to the British economy. I hope that our new diplomas will help to bridge that divide, but what more does my right hon. Friend think we can do to tackle prejudiced opinion and downright snobbery from people who seem to think that vocational skills are inferior to academic ones?

There is a lot more that we can do. Tomorrow, the Minister for Schools and Learners will make an announcement about diplomas. It will be very significant and put diplomas on an even stronger footing for the future.

We have been working hard with business and universities to make sure that diplomas are, for the first time in our history, able to bridge that academic and vocational divide. Indeed, the CBI said that it welcomed the diplomas because they were designed to bridge theoretical work and the world of work in a rigorous fashion. However, at the same time we are told that the diplomas are designed to subvert A-levels and that instead of weakening the academic gold standard, we should concentrate only on diplomas for vocational learning. That is exactly the sort of two-tier thinking that has held our country back for too long. Under the Labour party, it will be made a thing of the past.

T2. To promote reading, the Government produced a booklet called “The Family Reading Adventure”, which advises parents to read in any language they speak at home. Given the number of schools in Bradford that have a problem with pupils unable to read or speak English to a reasonable standard, will the Secretary of State explain why it does not ask people to read in English? The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is forever banging on about the importance of people reading in English. (174094)

The good news is that test results in Bradford are up by 54 per cent. since 1997. It is important that parents read to their children, which they will sometimes do in their first language, but brothers and sisters, too, should be encouraged to read to children in English. One Front Bencher from the hon. Gentleman’s party might need some help with reading, given his failure to read the children’s plan, which we saw a moment ago.

I understand that a review is being conducted of the future programme of academies. Can the Secretary of State tell me to whom I should send evidence on that subject and when he intends to publish the outcome?

I have received a great deal of evidence from my hon. Friend in recent weeks at a number of meetings. I am always happy to receive further evidence from him at any time, and I will ensure that it is passed on to the relevant powers that be.

Mr. Speaker, may I wish you and other hon. Members a happy Christmas? I do not like to be gloomy on this occasion, but will the Secretary of State explain why the figures last week showed that Britain is bottom of the league table for social mobility? Why has the situation become no better in the past 10 years?

The fact is that the reforms that we have been putting in place over the past 10 years are designed to ensure that we bridge the gap between poverty and educational achievement in our country. Children who receive free school meals have seen their results rise faster in the past five years than the average child. That shows that reform is working, but there is a long way to go. It will be taken forward only by a Government who are determined to break that link—and such a Government will be found only on the Labour Benches.

T3. When the Secretary of State announced the brave new world of stage not age testing, why did he fail to admit that one in seven schools in the pilot pulled out because excessive bureaucracy? (174095)

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to a survey carried out by The Times Educational Supplement. I gather that a number of schools declined to take part in the survey, so we should treat the figure of one in seven with a degree of caution. The only one in seven figure with which we are familiar is the threat to one in seven secondary schools posed by the Conservative party’s plans to cut the building schools for the future programme by £4.5 billion.

T6. May I ask the Secretary of State when the Labour Government will end the cultural impoverishment of the hundreds of thousands of children who never experience a live performance of opera, ballet or classical music? Is it not important—particularly for a Labour Government—that that should be remedied swiftly? I would like to think that the Government will deal with it expeditiously, with at least one performance for children at primary school and one in each of the three arts for those at secondary school. (174098)

As we stated in the children’s plan, we will work towards ensuring that, no matter where they live or what their background is, all children and young people can get involved in top-quality cultural opportunities in and out of school. We intend to run a series of pilots to look at different approaches in different parts of the country, and to establish a youth culture trust to run the pilots and to promote cultural activities more widely. In the new year, of course, the Government’s response to Tony Hall’s dance review will be published. I am sure that my hon. Friend looks forward with interest to that response.

Free nursery access for two-year-olds in deprived areas was a welcome announcement from the Secretary of State last week, but he will be aware from the recent report received by his Department from Hedra that up to half of private, voluntary and independent nurseries in some areas still cannot provide the free entitlement for three and four-year-olds, because the money that they receive from Government is simply insufficient. Why does the Secretary of State think that so many nurseries are still finding it impossible to make ends meet, and what work has he done to ensure that the situation does not become worse as he extends the entitlement?

If the hon. Lady had read the Hedra report properly, she would have seen that it stated that the £3 billion that the Government have put into the free entitlement is sufficient. The hon. Lady is right to say that some private nurseries in some parts of the country are experiencing difficulties, and there are two reasons for that. First, local authorities need a better way to distribute the money. However, Hedra also said that most private providers need to be more sophisticated in equating prices with costs. They charge the same amount for under-twos as for three and four-year-olds, but if they were to price according to the cost, taking into account the reduced staffing they would need, they would probably be able to pay for their provision with what the local authority gives them. There are tasks for both sides—for local authorities and private providers—but the total quantum of £3 billion is sufficient.

T4. Healthy youngsters have a better chance of getting a good education, and school nurses play a vital role in that. As the Royal College of Nursing has pointed out, school nurses are not just about sick bays and nits; they also deal with drug abuse and child abuse, and even give advice on obesity. With all the pressures that children will face over the next few days, having a school nurse to advise them on obesity will be important. Will the Government give the House an assurance that sufficient funds will be not only made available but actually spent to ensure that all youngsters have access to a school nurse? (174096)

It is a manifesto commitment of ours to deliver that. The money has gone to primary care trusts, and I am working closely with the Secretary of State for Health to make sure that that money gets through. We will ensure that we address the matter in detail in our child health strategy in the spring, and I hope that we will do so to the hon. Gentleman’s satisfaction.

T9. What have the Government done since 1997 to improve literacy rates in the west midlands, nationally and, in particular, in Coventry? (174101)

In my hon. Friend’s constituency, the investment that we have put in has delivered a 43 per cent. increase in per pupil funding and resulted in rising standards in English, maths and writing. In Coventry, and in his constituency in particular, maths standards are up to 74 per cent. from 58 per cent. in 1997, and in English they have risen to 71 per cent. from 55 per cent. in 1997. That is not because of what the Government have done; it is because of the hard work of the teachers and of the pupils working hard for their tests. They have shown through their actions that standards in Coventry are rising.

T7. In 2005-06, 58,000 school appeals were rejected. All hon. Members will know the heartache that such rejections can cause for the children and parents involved. How can good schools be encouraged to expand, particularly when they have the space to do so, so that they can become more accountable to parents, and not just to politicians? (174099)

It is important that we allow good schools to expand. We believe that such expansion should be carried out on a managed basis, unlike the Conservatives, who want surplus places to emerge willy-nilly at the expense of rebuilding much needed schools in certain parts of the country, including the hon. Gentleman’s own area. We have a policy for the expansion of successful and popular schools. There is a presumption that we will allow that even when it creates surplus places, but it is important that the local authority also has a role in removing surplus places in time.

T10. When a primary school is the worst performing primary school in a local education authority year after year, does the Secretary of State believe that it is his role to intervene directly to sort that school out? (174102)

In the final resort, the answer to that question is yes. First of all, however, it should be the responsibility of the governors—or if not, the local authority—to use their powers to intervene to tackle such failure. If, in the end, the local authority does not do that, I have the powers to intervene and I am happy to use them.

T5. May I take the Secretary of State back to the plummeting standards of literacy that were identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove)? Notwithstanding the excellent work done by huge numbers of teachers, increasing numbers of parents are choosing to send their children to schools in the independent sector. Does the Secretary of State not realise that that has nothing to do with prosperity, and everything to do with the declining standards of literacy and other subjects in the state system after 10 years of this Labour Government? If he does not believe that, he should have been listening to the questions that have been asked in the Chamber in the past hour. (174097)

This is a question for the Secretary of State. From September next year, every 14-year-old will have the right to study for the society, health and development diploma if they wish to do so, and from 2009 they will have the right to study for the hair and beauty diploma. Apart from those achieving level 6 in science, however, no student will have the right to study the three separate sciences—physics, chemistry and biology—at GCSE. Does not this confirm the comment by the Nobel laureate Sir Martin Evans that the Government lack an understanding of science and underestimate its importance to society?

We entirely reject that. We have a cross-Government strategy in respect of improving science learning in this country. It was published by the Treasury following last year’s Budget. As a result of that strategy, we are now increasing the number of specialist science teachers coming into the profession, and we are seeing improvements in the numbers taking science A-levels. At level 3 in schools we have seen, for the first time in many years, increases in the number of pupils taking physics as well as good increases in the numbers taking chemistry and biology. The results are there. We are seeing significant improvements in science learning and the latest PISA––programme for international student assessment—results show that we have the third highest achievement of any country in Europe in science learning for 15-year-olds.

T8. During 2008, the Government are to make changes to key stage 3 and GCSE courses in key stage 4, and to AS levels and AS syllabuses, as well as introducing diplomas. Is it right to cut the budget by 1 per cent for efficiency savings? (174100)

It is very important that we deliver efficiency savings to release resources to support teachers delivering these reforms. I ask the hon. Lady to join me in congratulating the Joseph Rowntree school in her constituency, which has today benefited from the £110 million that I have allocated to support zero-carbon schools. I hope that the school spends the money well.

The Secretary of State will be aware that a disparaging reference was made earlier to homes in which English is not spoken. It is extremely desirable that all our residents should learn to speak English, but it is worth noting that some of the best achieving children in our schools are those for whom English is not their first language, and that some of the worst achieving children are those from homes in which nothing but English is spoken.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why we put in more money to help schools provide extra help for those children. When I spent a year looking into reading in a London primary school, I found that it was often the case that children could not read at home because English was not their first language, but they received extra help through the support of brothers and sisters. My hon. Friend is right that this is a priority, which is why we are investing extra money to give extra support to today’s children.