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Children, Schools and Families

Volume 471: debated on Monday 4 February 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Educational Options (16 and 17-year-olds)

1. What steps his Department is taking to provide a range of options for 16 and 17-year-olds when education and training becomes compulsory up to the age of 18 years. (183678)

The Education and Skills Bill sets out our plans both to raise the compulsory participation age in education to 18, and to provide new options for young people alongside our new diplomas and enhanced advice and guidance. We will introduce a foundation tier for those not yet at level 2 and expand the range and number of apprenticeships, so that by 2013, 90,000 more young people will do an apprenticeship each and every year, compared with today.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Apprenticeships are a key option for young people, but there is evidence of considerable gender bias. The male options that are taken up tend to be better paid and lead to higher qualifications. In fact, in Salford, Connexions found that 100 per cent. of young women took health and child care, but skilled construction apprenticeships were 100 per cent. male, so that bias is evident locally. What initiatives or extra steps can be taken to tackle that considerable bias in apprenticeships?

My hon. Friend is quite right on that point. Across the country, 99 per cent. of apprenticeships in construction are taken by men, and in engineering, the figure is 97 per cent. In child care, however, the number of apprenticeships taken by women is 97 per cent., and in hair and beauty it is 91 per cent. The new national apprenticeship service must make a priority not only of expanding the number of apprenticeships but of ensuring that they are available to both men and women. Through taster courses, better advice and guidance, we must make sure that the opportunities that we are expanding are available to men and women across the widest range of careers.

I very much welcome the 90,000 additional apprenticeships, but will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what he is doing to make sure that there is proper workplace-based training for those new apprenticeships? What incentives will he give employers to ensure that those young kids get real experience on the job, as interns would if they came to work in the House?

I am not sure whether interns or young employees always get on-the-job experience. On the point made by the hon. Gentleman, we will only include in the 90,000 those young people who have a contract of employment with an employer. It will not simply be people on a training scheme—they must get work with an employer, as well as structured training. If it is an apprenticeship, that will be done in a particular way, and that will be dealt with by the national apprenticeship service. If it is a full-time job, under our new legislation there will be one day of training a week for every young person doing more than 20 hours. The important thing is to make sure that there is proper structured training to a qualification and, at the same time, the kind of on-the-job experience that will help those young people to be ready to move on to a full career. I can guarantee that that is very much part of our thinking, not just on the apprenticeships programme, but on the new diplomas, which combine learning and the practical experience that the hon. Gentleman wants to see more of.

We are very pleased indeed with the steps that my right hon. Friend has taken to raise the compulsory age of participation. To make that a success, however, we must greatly increase the number of apprenticeships throughout the system in a relatively short time. His proposals for a national apprenticeship service could play a key role, provided that we get the organisation, the relationship with local government and the financing right. Would he therefore be prepared to meet a group of us who are concerned about all those matters, so that we can discuss them with him and the key people on his side?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. He has a great deal of experience in these matters: when he was chief executive of Jaguar, the company offered an important apprenticeship programme. He has a lot to teach us all about how to drive work-based learning in society, and he is absolutely right that only by expanding apprenticeships and providing better advice and guidance, and by making sure that barriers to learning are addressed can we achieve our objectives in raising the participation age to 18. We have been careful: we have not said that the measures will come in tomorrow; we have given ourselves five years and 10 months to prepare, and we will use that time to make sure that the legislation genuinely delivers the revolution that we need, including the revolution in learning in the workplace, which he supports.

It is proper that we should give effective vocational education to young people, whether in colleges or on work placements. However, the Secretary of State will know the shocking statistics on how many people leave school who cannot even read and write properly. Will he give a guarantee that he will redouble his efforts so that nobody leaving full-time education at age 18 will be illiterate?

I am redoubling my efforts and those of the Government; I am also putting in place substantial funding increases year on year to deliver on that. The hon. Gentleman’s words and those of other Conservative Members would have more credibility if they had supported our investment in education rather than opposed it in the past 10 years. We will do more to make sure that every child does well at school and that at 11 and 16 they get the qualifications that they need. Our Every Child a Reader and Every Child a Writer programmes are there to give the personalised one-to-one support that is needed. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the situation today is not good enough; but it is a hell of a lot better than it was 10 years ago, when we came into power.

I was very pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend said about trying to ensure that more women get into apprenticeship programmes. However, has he reviewed the programmes that he has already established for older women? On that basis, does he have any words of comfort for organisations that would like to see more such schemes to ensure that more women access higher-paid jobs?

My hon. Friend has great credibility, as someone who has practised lifelong learning throughout her life and who has shown that women can go in and become experts across the widest range of professions. I listen to her words very carefully. As she knows, we now have not one but two Education Secretaries in the Cabinet. The funding of apprenticeships to adult women is a matter for the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. I shall raise the issue with him; together, we are driving forward the revolution in apprenticeships that our country needs and I shall ensure that my hon. Friend gets a proper reply from him.

The first tranche of diplomas—in subjects such as construction, IT and engineering—are coming in this September and they are very welcome. Will the Secretary of State explain who is meant to be engaging with employers in our constituencies? Do the Learning and Skills Council or the sector skills councils make sure that as many small and medium-sized employers as possible get signed up?

Secondly, will the Secretary of State in due course—

In the case of apprenticeships, the new national apprenticeship service will have teams around the country to drive the number of extra apprenticeships that we need for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds. At the moment, the issue of 16 to 19-year-old learners taking up diplomas and engaging with employers is taken forward by the Learning and Skills Council as part of the local consortiums for driving forward the take-up of diplomas, and we now have that in most parts of the country.

In the next few weeks, we will publish a consultation on how to move the funding of 16-to-19 education to the local authority level. When local authorities are at the centre of the local funding partnerships, the issue will be their responsibility, although they will work closely with regional development agencies and sub-regional employer skills partnerships to make sure that employers are engaged in the widest possible way. Without the support of employers, we will not be able to make a success of the diploma scheme. So far, the employer reaction to our diploma programme has been very positive indeed.

I strongly support the Government’s policy in this area and their efforts to improve education at every level. However, the fact is that a significant proportion of young people, mostly low achievers, become alienated from school and education at a very young age, and that carries through into the teenage years. We are in stark contrast to some other countries in this respect. Will my right hon. Friend look carefully at ways of overcoming that alienation and demoralisation among young people? That would make the Government’s policy for 17 and 18-year-olds much more successful.

Our policy for compulsory education to 18 will first affect the young people who today are 10 and 11 at school. What will motivate them will not only be the support that they get from teachers and families, but whether the curriculum is motivating for them in the period up to age 16. That will determine whether they want to stay on in education or training after that. It is certainly true that we have a lower staying-on rate at 16 than other countries, although the rate has been rising. However, the reforms that we are putting in place to the curriculum at key stage 3 level, and our diplomas, are more likely to achieve the kind of mix of theory and practice that will engage young people.

Sports colleges, for example, today have the fastest increase in results, including in English and maths, because they use the motivation of sport to get young people learning across the range of different subjects. That is a great success story for the Government and shows the way forward for other areas.

Youth Services (London)

2. What plans he has to fund youth services in (a) Leyton and Wanstead and (b) London in the next three years. (183679)

In addition to funding that local authorities can choose to allocate to youth services from their own budgets, over the next three years London will benefit from direct investment from my Department of £226 million for Connexions services, £64 million for Positive Activities for Young People and £34 million for youth opportunity and capital funds. The corresponding figures for Redbridge and Waltham Forest local authorities combined are £13.9 million for Connexions, £3 million for PAYP and £2.1 million for youth opportunity and capital funds.

I very much welcome that answer, which shows the Prime Minister’s and the Minister’s commitment. Indeed, the Mayor of London is keen to put money into youth facilities as well. In London, those better youth facilities are very much needed to stop the drift towards gangs and gun and knife culture. Will the Minister ensure that the money is spent as intended and that some local authorities—for example, Conservative ones—do not siphon the money away from youth facilities?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his continued interest in ensuring that his local authorities invest in youth services. He is right to say that the Mayor of London has added £20 million to our money over the next two years to constitute a dedicated London youth offer. A relatively large proportion—about two thirds of the £679 million in the 10-year youth strategy—will be ring-fenced so that we can insist that local authorities spend that money in conjunction with young people themselves. It is important, however, that local authorities maintain and, if possible, increase their contribution to their youth services from their own area-based grants to continue to drive up improvements. My hon. Friend is aware that Redbridge local authority was judged to be inadequate for youth services and value for money, and it is important that he keeps monitoring it to ensure that it puts the money where it is needed.

The Government’s strategy, “Aiming high for young people”, is a worthy commitment, but it is rather vague. Will the Minister clarify what sort of places she envisages young people will be looking for in boroughs across London?

If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the specific amount of money in “Aiming high for young people”, which was £6 million and which was increased by a further £160 million in the children’s plan for refurbished and new youth facilities—the capital part of that offer—we are very much open to local authorities working in conjunction with young people to come forward with ideas for what is needed in their areas. We want them to use the opportunity to work in partnership with voluntary organisations and with the private sector. I have seen some innovative projects putting youth facilities in place in which the private sector has come on board to provide not only money but expertise, motivation and leadership. There are excellent examples around the country, including in London, and we want the best practice to be emulated everywhere to get some really exciting places for young people.

I very much welcome the additional money that the Mayor of London and the Government are putting into youth services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when youth service investment is matched with extended schools, that can make a real difference to tackling antisocial behaviour and improving academic performance and attendance? Does she also agree that it is bizarre that youth services are often closed on the nights of the week, such as Fridays, when the demand is greatest and the need to get young people off the street is greatest? Will she work with local authorities to ensure that youth services are delivering when they are needed most?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. As she knows, I have been leading something of a campaign on this. We did some research in eight local authorities and discovered in a spot check that in none of them were youth facilities open on a Friday and Saturday. It is time that we got away from providing services that suit the hours of the people who want to work in them rather than those who need the services. As local authorities come forward with their plans for using this money, we will press hard to ensure that, conditionally, these places must be open at times when it makes sense for young people who want to use them.

Teenage Pregnancy

3. What steps he is taking to tackle teenage pregnancy through the Every Child Matters agenda; and if he will make a statement. (183681)

The teenage pregnancy strategy is based on the Every Child Matters principles of integrated working, early identification and prevention, and draws upon the best available international evidence on reducing teenage conception. Since we launched the strategy, there has been a steady decline in England’s under-18 conception rate, and it is now at its lowest level for 20 years. However, as we discussed last week in an excellent Adjournment debate, that progress nationally masks a wide variation in progress between local areas. We have identified what is working in the best areas, and we are now pushing all areas to incorporate those lessons into their local strategies.

The Minister mentioned a decrease, but she will acknowledge that there have been local increases—particularly in Southampton, which has been dubbed the teenage pregnancy capital of the south. Does she agree that many young people have unprotected sex after alcohol, and what is her Department doing to ensure that children realise that there is a clear link between the overconsumption of alcohol and unintended pregnancy? They may go home with more than a hangover.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Alcohol contributes to a significant proportion of unwanted teenage pregnancies, which is why it is important that the strategy adopted locally by local authorities, primary care trusts, youth services and schools—all working together—addresses a comprehensive approach to young people. Those bodies must offer all the support they can in relation to alcohol and the other factors that make young people vulnerable.

As I explained, although some areas are not doing well and need to do better, the areas that have done well have reduced their unwanted conceptions by up to 40 per cent. If all areas performed at the rate of the best 25 per cent., national progress would be double what it is at the moment. It is a comprehensive local approach, addressing all those factors, that makes the difference.

Will my right hon. Friend do what she can to encourage local authorities to aim their strategy at preventing first-time pregnancies? In my experience, too many strategies concentrate on young girls’ second pregnancies, and we want to ensure that the first baby is prevented. I hope that she will encourage local authorities to use programmes that concentrate on that issue, including provisions to ensure that nurses work in those schools where early pregnancies are most prevalent.

My right hon. Friend is expert in this area because she spent a lot of time in her previous position in the Cabinet Office striving for progress. She is absolutely right; about 80 per cent. of teenage pregnancies involve first-time mothers. It is right that we address that matter in every way we can, and it is also right that schools play their part in a clear way by providing, where appropriate and with the agreement of governors and parents, good advice centred on young people, on school sites where necessary. That includes sexual health advice, as well as other advice relating to young people’s problems.

However, it is also important that we address second pregnancies because it is a really serious failure when 20 per cent. of teenage pregnancies are second or subsequent pregnancies involving young women who are still teenagers. If services cannot capture women who have already had a baby, and help them to avoid a second or third, they need to do a lot better.

The Minister is right to talk about integrated working, but she has no reason for complacency. If the Government have done so much on sex education, why did the UK Youth Parliament reveal that almost half of teenagers rate their sex education lessons as “poor” or “very poor”? The World Health Organisation said that more children in this country have sex than those anywhere in Europe, and there has been an alarming 43 per cent. increase, not in second pregnancies, but in the number of children having abortions for the second time. If everything is going as well as she claims, why has her Department halved the number of staff in its teenage pregnancy unit? Does that not show that the Government’s 2010 target for halving teenage pregnancies is another failed ambition?

I really welcome the hon. Gentleman’s indication that he supports much more systematic, rigorous and consistent sex and relationship education in schools. Frankly, that is not the message we get from many of his hon. Friends.

In relation to the teenage pregnancy unit, the focus is now on local areas. We cannot command strategies from the centre. Having developed the strategies and given local areas the tools they need, we need only a small team at the centre. We need local areas to improve their focus on and investment in local activity because we will make the difference there, not through command and control from Whitehall.

Holocaust Education

4. What assessment he has made of the contribution of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s nationwide Lessons from Auschwitz project to teaching of the holocaust in the national curriculum. (183682)

More than 1,500 students have now had the opportunity to visit the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau as a result of the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust and to build on the learning that they have received through the national curriculum about the horrors of the holocaust and the lessons that we should learn from it. I can announce today that we will allocate £4.65 million for the next three years to ensure that that work can continue. I can also reassure my hon. Friend that a proper evaluation of the funding on those trips, as well as of their impact on young people’s citizenship and their understanding of the world, will be built into the HET’s work as part of that three-year funding.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that welcome answer. I have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau with school pupils from my constituency, and I stress to my right hon. Friend the importance of urging the devolved regions of the UK to put funding in place, too. Will he do that whenever it is appropriate? Will he also take this opportunity to dispel the rumour that the holocaust will be removed from the curriculum, for which my right hon. Friend is responsible?

On my hon. Friend’s first point, I have not had the opportunity to go on one of those trips although my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners has. In my constituency, I ran a competition in which young people had to write an essay and the prize was to go on one of the trips. I have seen first hand, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), the great impact that such trips can have, not only on those young people but on the whole school when they report back about the horrors that they saw. Our young people are learning lessons about tolerance and mutual respect for 21st century Britain from those visits.

I hope that all the constituent parts of the UK will use the funding available. The £4.65 million for England clearly has Barnett consequentials in this area for the devolved countries. I hope and expect that they will ensure that such visits are available for all young people across the four constituent parts of the UK.

As for my hon. Friend’s final point, let me take this opportunity to dispel that internet myth. The teaching of the holocaust is compulsory in the national curriculum for all young people at key stage 3 and it will remain a compulsory part of teaching in the national curriculum under this party—and I am sure that it would remain so under all parties in this House. The holocaust is an issue that must be learned about, studied and reflected on by all our young people. It will stay in the national curriculum.

I am pleased to be a council member of the Holocaust Educational Trust, and I commend the Government for their support for this important programme. The incident at the King Fahad academy shows that anti-Semitic messages of hate are still circulating in our schools. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to deal with that important issue?

The fact is that bullying and any other kind of exploitation of difference, whether that happens on racial, religious or gender grounds, is wrong. Schools have a duty to act to stamp it out. That includes that particular school. Like all schools, it should take action when necessary. We have an inspection regime that is designed to ensure that that guidance on schools’ obligations is put into action. My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners has raised the issue with the inspectorate. We will consider the issue carefully when we see the results. Bullying of any kind, including anti-Semitic bullying, is wrong and should not be tolerated in a society such as ours.

Foreign Languages

Research carried out in 2006 found that 70 per cent. of primary schools are teaching languages. That figure is up from 44 per cent. in 2003. The hon. Gentleman will know that I visited Surrey Square junior school in his constituency last December to see the excellent language teaching that goes on there. I am sorry that he was unable to join me on that occasion, and I look forward to his next question.

Southwark has a very good record of about three quarters of our primary schools teaching modern languages. Given that there has been a genuine increase in primary schools teaching modern languages, but that the number of pupils in England studying modern languages in secondary schools up to GCSE has dropped below 50 per cent., and that we are genuinely short of modern language teachers, how will we ensure that we have enough qualified teachers to give the interest and expertise at primary level that lead our youngsters to do modern languages at secondary level, too?

On the day that I visited Surrey Square junior school, I also announced a 20 per cent. increase in funding for language learning. Part of that is to continue the initial teacher training in specialist language learning for primary schools. We have trained an extra 3,000 primary school teachers in language learning in the past three years. We need to continue that as we build up to the compulsion that we announced for primary language learning in the children’s plan, which comes into effect from 2011.

Would the Minister accept that the alarming illiteracy figures suggest that the one language that is not necessarily taught as rigorously as it should be in schools is English?

No, I would not accept that. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the number of young people leaving primary school and reaching the national standard in literacy and numeracy has increased by 100,000 a year. I am sure that he welcomes that improvement.

Small primary schools with small teaching staffs often cover widespread responsibilities and areas of the curriculum. In smaller schools, French may be pushed to the periphery. Will the Minister tell the House whether, in small primary schools, French is less likely to be taught, and whether there is an underlying problem with the future of small primary schools in this country on the scale that press coverage in the past seven or 10 days suggests?

My hon. Friend will have noticed that I am extremely enthusiastic, in the light of such press coverage, to stress that small, especially rural, primary schools should explore the potential of federation. Nowhere is that needed more than in increasing language specialism in primary schools. The ability of primary schools to come together under a federation not only saves money through allowing them to share perhaps a head teacher, but enables them to share specialist teachers, such as language teachers, and tackle the problem.

The Minister has given the global figures for modern language teaching in primary schools. However, is he not worried about the report from the National Foundation for Educational Research, which reveals that, for each year group at key stage 2, only half of primary schools provided foreign language teaching and only a third provided it for all year groups at key stage 2?

Obviously, we examine in detail what the NFER tells us about its research—it is a reliable research organisation—as we continue with our strategy. However, the overall figures speak for themselves. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) last asked the question in 1990, when the Conservative party was in power. Then, only 20 per cent. of primary school students were learning a modern foreign language. The trend is undoubtedly in the right direction.

Unaccompanied and Trafficked Children

6. If he will take steps to prevent unaccompanied and trafficked children from going missing while in local authority care. (183684)

The Government take that issue very seriously and we are therefore taking steps to address it. Existing statutory guidance for local authorities about children going missing from care applies regardless of immigration status. Last week, we published proposals to improve services for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, including better procedures for identifying and supporting the victims of trafficking.

In December, we published specific guidance, “Safeguarding Children who may have been trafficked”. That includes action for local authorities and all practitioners who work with children to take when potentially trafficked children enter care to protect them from further exploitation.

Since local authority safe houses are anything but safe, hundreds of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children go missing each year because the provisions are insecure and it would not be acceptable to lock them up. Will the Under-Secretary ensure that children trafficked into the main London airports and those elsewhere in this country do not go to local authority care homes and safe houses close to the airport, because the traffickers know that that happens? They wait in cars outside those homes to pluck the children out of them within hours of their being placed there.

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman does in this area. He is quite right: it is a problem that trafficked children can go missing from care, often returning to those who trafficked them. He is also right to identify the problem of keeping them secure. He may be aware that the Border and Immigration Agency published its response to the public consultation exercise last week. One of the measures announced was a response to exactly the point that the hon. Gentleman made; in other words, there is a need to place unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in a network of specialist local authorities, to ensure that they receive the expert services that they need.

But are those local authorities going to be given the support that they need to ensure that they can keep tabs on the children concerned? It is an absolute disgrace in the 21st century that children who are at such risk cannot receive that support from the United Kingdom.

Yes, and my hon. Friend is quite right to describe the trafficking of children as an absolute disgrace. As I mentioned earlier, the Home Office published the results of its public consultation exercise last week, which include better procedures to assess the age of children, ensuring that adults and children are not accommodated together, and putting in place better procedures to identify and support asylum-seeking children who are the victims of trafficking, while paying particular attention to those who are at risk of going missing or suffering further harm or exploitation.

Engineering

7. What steps his Department is taking to promote engineering as a career amongst 14 to 16-year-olds; and if he will make a statement. (183685)

We are funding a new communications campaign to provide advice on subject choices and careers in science and engineering, and to dispel narrow stereotypes about engineers. We are supporting activities to excite young people about engineering, such as the science and engineering after-school clubs, which will double in number to 500 by September, while the new style of teaching and learning delivered by the new diplomas from September should attract significant numbers into engineering from the age of 14.

I am very happy to hear what my hon. Friend has said, but is he aware of the recent study carried out by the Royal Academy of Engineering, “Public Attitudes to and Perceptions of Engineering and Engineers”, which found that young people were least aware of what engineering is all about? I am happy that he is making such efforts to promote engineering in schools, but will he monitor the situation closely, because we do not want to be in the same situation in a year’s time?

My hon. Friend is an effective champion on the issue in the House, and I know that he takes a great interest in the future of engineering. We will certainly continue to monitor things. He is right that the survey to which he referred showed that young people felt that they knew little about engineering or what engineers do. The reality is that engineering covers a wide range of interesting careers, including music, electronics and space. I hope that our communications campaign will open up young people’s eyes to the exciting world that he champions so well.

My hon. Friend might be aware that Enfield has a long and proud history in engineering. I recently met north London employers, who told me that they have trouble attracting good-quality candidates into engineering. The view of an engineer as someone who wears a boiler suit, has an oily rag and is themselves covered in oil is the one that predominates. Really good careers advice is needed to reflect what the profession is actually about. Ensuring that young people have a true vision of engineering through good vocational education is also crucial, so I am pleased to hear what the Minister has said. I, too, hope that he will monitor progress on the matter.

We certainly will. Last week I announced £140 million of spending on science, technology, engineering and maths-related issues, which underlines the significance that we place on them and is also a doubling of the funding over the previous three years. The points that my right hon. Friend made about careers advice and work-related learning are correct. I am sure that she applauds the work that we are doing to develop diplomas and, as part of that, to improve careers education. Indeed, there are measures in the Education and Skills Bill, which is currently in Committee, that address all those things.

Further to those questions and answers, I welcome what the Minister has said. Does he agree that it is vital that specialised engineering skills should be taught in schools as early as possible, particularly in the light of our decision to go ahead with new build in the nuclear industry? We are very short of engineers in that field.

It is because we are responding to employer demand, including in the area that my hon. Friend has mentioned, that we have focused so doggedly on the STEM subjects. I am confident that, as the strategy rolls out, the cross-government focus with our ministerial colleagues in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the Treasury and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will enable us to respond to the skills needs of employers up and down the country.

A-level Examinations

8. What plans he has for the future of the GCE A-level examination; and if he will make a statement. (183686)

A-levels are long-established and valued qualifications. Their future should be decided not by any pre-emptive Government decision, but by the demands of young people and schools. We have said that, in 2013, we will review the evidence and experience following the introduction of all 17 of the new diplomas to see how the range of post-16 qualifications meets the needs of young people and supports their progression into further study and employment. We will consider the future of A-levels in the light of that evidence.

Before going down the road of the Government-introduced A-level-style qualifications to be offered by companies such as McDonalds, Flybe and Network Rail, does not the Minister think that we should tackle the root problem of the failure of literacy and numeracy, particularly among school leavers? The problem was highlighted in a recent CBI survey.

We have made clear gains in literacy and numeracy, both at primary and secondary level, as I was saying to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) earlier. That does not mean that we should be complacent, however. We need to make further improvements pre-16 in order to make the post-16 options work, particularly as we introduce compulsion as part of the Education and Skills Bill. The accreditation of employers’ own training for qualifications has been welcomed by the Opposition as a sensible step forward in raising the value of employer-based training.

Does the Minister share our concern that too many sixth-formers in comprehensive schools are being poorly advised on their choice of A-levels, and that the admissions director at Cambridge university says that their opting for softer subjects “essentially rules them out” of Cambridge? If the Minister shares our ambition of getting more state sector pupils into Oxford and Cambridge, what measures is he taking to ensure that bright sixth-formers study the meatier academic subjects to prepare them for the top universities?

We simply do not accept that some A-levels are harder or softer than others. Indeed, in 2004 we commissioned the Independent Committee on Examination Standards—chaired by Dr. Barry McGaw, the director of education at the OECD—to look into A-levels. The committee’s report concluded that no examination system at school or any other level anywhere in the world was as tightly or carefully managed as the A-level. We are also establishing a new regulator, who will continue to monitor the standard of the A-level to ensure that it is well respected by all our higher education institutions.

Children of Separated Parents

10. What steps his Department is taking to provide relationship support and services to children of separated parents. (183688)

The children’s plan contains a commitment to improve support during and after family breakdown, including helping children to maintain contact with both parents. My Department promotes strong families and seeks to minimise the impact of breakdown on children. Families can access services via children’s centres and extended schools. We fund marriage and relationship support through grants, and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service—CAFCASS—safeguards and promotes the best interests of children in family court proceedings.

The Children’s Commissioner for England has said that the most important cause of unhappiness in children is the threat of family breakdown. Will the Government therefore look sympathetically at the family relationship centres in Australia, which have bipartisan support and help parents to reach agreement on post-separation parenting? They also do a lot to strengthen intact family relationships and marriages.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is very keen on the Australian model and that he has long taken an interest in that subject. I am sure that that has nothing to do with the fact that he had an Australian mother. The Legal Services Commission has recently finished piloting the family advice and information services, known as FAINS. These are aimed at encouraging the development of a more holistic approach, including clients working with their solicitors to develop a personal action plan to identify the actions that the client and other agencies will take, and the support that the client will need, in addition to that of a solicitor. So there is already a FAINS pilot in place, and we will evaluate it in the near future, perhaps before we go on to consider the hon. Gentleman’s preferred native solution.

School Buildings (Battersea)

All secondary schools in Wandsworth, including two in Battersea, will be modernised under Building Schools for the Future. Wandsworth’s proposals are for Battersea technology college to undergo a major rebuild with some refurbishment, and for Salesian college and John Paul II school to become one new Roman Catholic school, located in new buildings on the current Salesian site.

I thank my hon. Friend for that assurance. Will he ensure that the building starts first in those two schools given priority in the Wandsworth bid, which also happen to be the most improved secondary schools in the borough, having improved their GCSE scores from five to 60 and 18 to 67 respectively?

I certainly congratulate those schools on their excellent results. We will monitor extremely carefully how the £250 million indicatively pledged to Wandsworth will be spent under Building Schools for the Future and I will remain in touch with my hon. Friend, who continues to lobby me hard on ensuring that we achieve best value for money and that standards continue to rise for the young people in his constituency.

Topical Questions

This morning, I put before the House a written statement on progress in respect of 14-19 diplomas. In addition to setting out that UCAS is recognising that the advanced diploma will be worth three and a half A-levels, Leeds university is announcing that it will accept the construction and built environment diploma for entry to its civil engineering course, and Newcastle, Southampton, Sheffield, Warwick, Nottingham and Liverpool are all announcing that they will accept the engineering diploma—and, indeed, the chair of the 1994 group of universities is confirming that all its members will accept the diploma—the written statement confirms that more than 800 schools and more than 150 colleges will be offering diplomas from this September. It also sets out a regional breakdown, area by area, for Members of the House, and estimates that from September 2009, two thirds of secondary schools and three quarters of colleges will be offering diplomas as part of their curriculum.

We hear from the Opposition routine and vacuous charges of a continuing widespread decline in academic standards at GCSE level, which can be swiftly and confidently rebutted for almost every subject—save GCSE mathematics, which is widely recognised as a totally inadequate preparation for almost all higher education courses. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that he will respond positively and rapidly to last Friday’s concerns of the advisory committee on mathematical education that those otherwise welcome new diplomas, to which he has just referred, could worsen an already most unsatisfactory mathematical position for future students and future employers?

I can. May I say how pleased I was that my written statement bore some relation to my hon. Friend’s topical question T1[Interruption.] Or, indeed, vice-versa.

On the issue of diplomas, I can first assure my hon. Friend that functional maths is a core part of every stage of every diploma. Secondly, Geoff Parks, admissions tutor at Cambridge university, said in a public statement before Christmas that he believed that the mathematical part of the engineering diploma would be a better preparation than the maths A-level for engineering at Cambridge. I share the concern to ensure that our maths curriculum and maths teaching is of the highest quality, which is why the Williams review is currently looking into the teaching of maths at primary school. We will ensure that, in mathematics as in all other aspects, diplomas are not viewed as a gimmick, or second-class, or only vocational, but as truly world-class excellent qualifications. That means in mathematics, too.

T2. I am sure that Ministers are aware of the struggle undergone by many parents of children with special educational needs to secure statements for their children. However, once secured, a statement is applicable to only one local education authority, which is particularly frustrating for armed forces parents, who are regularly posted around the country. Will Ministers consider, if not the situation more generally, the possibility of making such statements portable? (183669)

The Defence Committee’s inquiry also raised this issue, and I shall discuss with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence how we can do more to increase portability. That does not mean that when armed forces personnel go abroad they will be able to carry the statements with them, which would be a more complex process, but we should be able to make re-entry easier, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will discuss that with my MOD colleagues.

I was pleased to hear about increased and continued funding for holocaust education, as was my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks). Last year I was privileged to accompany a group of Dudley pupils to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I have witnessed their work since then. I know that they have learnt much more than facts and figures about the holocaust. They have learnt about intolerance, victimisation, and how ordinary people can do extraordinary things in the face of adversity. Will my hon. Friend ensure that that opportunity is widened beyond students of history? It is very much part of the citizenship education programme, and should be made available to all pupils.

My hon. Friend is right: the Holocaust Educational Trust, led so ably by Karen Pollock, does a fantastic job in organising not only the trips themselves, but the preparation for them and the work that takes place afterwards. My hon. Friend is also right to say that holocaust education of this kind is not purely about history, important though it is in the context. It has significant citizenship effects, and it also helps to combat bullying. We have problems with homophobic bullying and bullying of people with Gypsy or Romany background, as well as anti-Semitic bullying. If young people can understand where that can lead to, they can learn a significant amount from history.

The Secretary of State knows that the future of some 2,500 primary schools across the country has been put in doubt by the guidance issued by his Department in December. If the Government really believe in localism, can he tell us why the money that is to be distributed for the building of new primary schools in the future should be conditional on the taking of 125,000 surplus places out of capacity?

It is not. Let me take this opportunity to lay that claim to rest. Once again, a Liberal Democrat press release has proved to be very misleading. On page 25 of the guidance, we say that we want local authorities to take

“decisive…early action to ensure that no school has more than 25 per cent surplus places”.

We say this as well:

“It is also accepted that in order to preserve access for young children, there may be more empty places in schools in rural areas than in urban areas”.

We are absolutely clear about the fact that there is a presumption against closing rural schools. Of course, given that resources for local authorities are increasing, it is essential for budgets to be managed properly through collocation of services, through federations and through school budget managers. Local authorities can take a number of measures to avoid the closure of small schools. The idea that we have set out in guidance a plan to close 2,500 schools is simply wrong, and I am happy to put the record straight.

T4. What can the Government do to improve educational provision for young people over 16 with special educational needs? There is a new Disability Discrimination Act code for post-16 providers, but given that the Connexions service is being transferred to local education authorities without guaranteed ring-fencing, can the Government ensure that that will result in improved rather than reduced information, advice, guidance and support for young people over 16 with disabilities? (183671)

Yes. Our initial impact assessment is that the code has greatly influenced the quality of provision. It has raised the level of awareness required; it has also improved the sector’s provision for young people with special educational needs, and the way in which it discharges its duties and responsibilities. Nevertheless, we realise that much remains to be done if we are to achieve the target of true equality.

Last week, the Department gave the Association of Muslim Schools, a group of independent Islamic faith schools, a new right to establish its own separate inspection arrangements, and according to its own website, the association has also received £100,000 in Government funding. But the association’s deputy chair, Mr. Ibrahim Hewitt, the head of the Al Aqsa school in Leicester, is on record as saying that

“the word integration doesn’t even belong in a true democracy”.

He has also called

“political zionism a threat to world peace”,

and said of

“zionist control of the media”

that there is no smoke without fire. He has objected to Holocaust memorial day, and he is the UK chairman of Interpal, an organisation under investigation by the Charity Commission following a “Panorama” examination of its links with Hamas. Against that background, does the Secretary of State not think that we need to be more, rather than less, rigorous in policing the growth of separatist Islamism in education?

Of course we do, and that is why the inspectorate the hon. Gentleman mentions will itself be inspected by Ofsted and come under the tough rules in the Bill now before the House. It is revealing that when we published our children’s plan in December, the hon. Gentleman did not make a single reference to any of the issues raised in it, and also that, although he is now publishing his own children’s plan, he does not raise the issue of children’s policy in the House. That shows what his priorities are.

I am disappointed by the Secretary of State’s partisan tone on this serious issue. We have faced the problems that I have described before. The King Fahad academy, which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) referred to, has used textbooks that describe Christians and Jews as pigs and monkeys, and Ofsted has acknowledged that it did not study the details of all the textbooks concerned. Indeed, of 606 visits by inspectors to Muslim faith schools, only 94 have been made public. The Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee has pointed out that we just do not know what is being taught in many Muslim schools. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that we have proper inspections by independent figures who are fluent in the relevant languages and aware of the ideological challenge posed by separatist Islamism?

That is what our legislation is doing, and the Ofsted oversight of all inspection is the right way to achieve it. We cannot have different rules for different schools; they must all come under one legislative framework. On the instances raised of particular problems in recent months, we have taken action, and so has Ofsted; where action needed to be taken, it was taken. That is what independent inspection is all about. As I have said, it is very revealing that on the day that the hon. Gentleman publishes a flimsy document on children’s policy, he and his colleagues have made no reference to it whatever.

T5. What support does the Department provide for families when a baby is born, and what affordable plans does it have to continue such support in future? (183672)

What we are learning through the work that the Government are doing is that we cannot support the most disadvantaged mothers with a quick burst of support in the first week after a baby is born, as has been suggested today—particularly if we also cut maternity grants to pay for it. In contrast, the family nurse partnerships will start working with first-time mothers when they are pregnant and stay with them until the child is two years old, if necessary, to make sure that the most disadvantaged children really do get the best possible start in life.

T6. I have seen that the most successful primary school in the country requires its parents to read to children. I am the literacy governor of Studham lower school in my constituency. Does the Secretary of State think that giving home school contracts more strength might be part of how we could encourage that practice more widely? (183673)

The most successful primary school in key stage 2 tests at age 11 is in Salford, and I visited it only two weeks ago. Its head teacher stresses the importance of every child being read to every day in school, and also the important role parents play in supporting their children’s reading. That is why all Members should use this national year of reading to encourage all parents to read to their children from the earliest age. I do not necessarily think that that should be put in a contract; every parent should be doing it from birth. I want to encourage that to happen, but I am not sure whether legislating for it is the right way to achieve it.

T7. The Secretary of State will know that in answer to the Select Committee’s report on special educational needs, the Government said that they would set up an expert group under the chairmanship of Brian Lamb to look into increasing parental confidence in the system. Does that group have any timetable to come back to the Government with proposals, or is the commitment open-ended? (183675)

We set out our intention to ask Brian Lamb, who, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is an acknowledged expert in this area, to examine the issues raised in the Select Committee report. We will publish written terms of reference and a timetable for his work in due course. We are doing this partly to examine best practice across the country, but also because experts on different sides of the debate have different views about the best way to approach statementing. We decided that rather than rushing to a conclusion, the right thing to do was to ask an expert to examine the matter. That is what we will do, and we will set the timetable in due course.

T8. May I take the Secretary of State back to employer-sponsored diplomas, which I am sure we all think are an interesting and valuable step forward? What genuine independent assessment will be made of such diplomas, so that McDonald’s, or whoever is involved, will not be selecting students for our top universities—or, indeed, for Keble college, Oxford? (183676)

The introduction of the McDonald’s qualification has been widely welcomed; it has been welcomed not only by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) but by the CBI, which has said:

“Today marks a significant milestone on the road to reforming qualifications so that they better reflect the skills and competencies employers and employees need. Flybe, McDonald’s and Network Rail deserve recognition for trail blazing this initiative and making it easier for companies wanting to follow in their footsteps.”

The CBI is supporting us, as is the chairman of the Federation of Awarding Bodies. The independent standards regulator that we are setting up will ensure that higher standards are maintained and employers’ needs are also met. It is the Labour party that will ensure that the training needs of employers continue to be met.

T9. May I tell the Secretary of State that 3,395 children in Middlesbrough benefit from free nursery education? What sort of future support can he provide? May I also invite him to visit Middlesbrough to see this great success for himself? (183677)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and for his support for the development of early years learning that the Government are putting in place. He will know that Middlesbrough is a pilot area for extending the free entitlement to two-year-olds. We can also expect the extension to 15 hours to take place there from September, as we progressively develop the support and the options available to parents of young children. I shall happily come to Middlesbrough to see what is going on there.