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Topical Questions

Volume 469: debated on Monday 17 December 2007

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.