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Children, Schools and Families

Volume 473: debated on Monday 17 March 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Small Schools

Local authorities have legal responsibility for determining the pattern of school provision most appropriate to their areas, taking account of parents’ wishes. Small schools that are popular with parents must have a place in our educational system, and many serve rural communities. We will continue to support small rural schools through the presumption against closure, and by allocating funds to take account of the sparse population in rural areas.

That is all very well, but up and down the country small schools are being closed by local authorities. If the Minister wants his “presumption” to be taken seriously, will he withdraw the guidance that was issued to every local authority in December, which threatened to withhold money for primary school buildings and renovation from authorities that did not close schools or remove so-called surplus places?

The hon. Gentleman should note that we have reduced the number of rural school closures significantly, from a peak of 127 in 1983 to an average of just six a year over the last 10 years. The guidance to which he referred should be read in its entirety: it makes clear that if access for young children is to be preserved there may be a need for more surplus places in rural schools, and acknowledges that it will not always be practical or desirable to remove all such places. Somerset county council’s work on federation of rural schools provides a model for how the situation should be tackled.

Will my hon. Friend give a cast-iron assurance that when it comes to maintaining small schools—rural schools, in many cases—he will not necessarily be swayed by the views of parents, but will take a stance on what constitutes the best solution for the children? Multi-age classes are not always the best solution. They may make it possible for a school to be maintained, but the outcome is not good. Will my hon. Friend give that assurance that he will put children first?

As my hon. Friend knows, we always want to put children first, but I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). These are decisions for local authorities, and although we want them to listen to the views of parents, obviously we also want them to ensure that the individual needs of all children in their areas are met.

The Minister said that the number of closures of small schools in our rural areas—against which the Government made a strong commitment in 1998—had declined to only six a year, but the fact is that we now have some 1,200 fewer small schools in our rural areas than we had in 1997 when the Government came to power. I have the figures in front of me. The Minister shakes his head, but I will happily show him the figures later. They are as plain as the nose on your face.

We need more than just words and the paying of lip service to schools. What about cutting the bureaucracy, initiatives and general messing around that makes small schools so difficult to maintain?

The hon. Gentleman should consider his own bureaucracy when he quotes completely false figures. Statistics of that kind do not relate to the number of schools that have been taken out of communities. They relate to the closure of schools as a result of mergers between infant and junior schools to form primary schools, and to a range of factors that do not feature in the rurality classification used by DEFRA. The statistics that we use are consistent. The hon. Gentleman should remind himself of the trend that we saw when his party was in power, which, as I have said, resulted in a peak of 127 closures of small rural schools in 1983.

Will my hon. Friend commend the track record of Leicestershire county council? It has never been under the control of the Labour party and has only been under the control of any party for the last seven years, but in a generation or more it has never closed a rural school, with the single exception of Tilton on the Hill, east of the city of Leicester. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that enough funds are being allocated to local education authorities in rural areas to allow them to skew their budgets to meet the recognisably higher cost of enabling smaller schools to exist in the medium term?

I am happy to commend the job done by Leicestershire county council in managing its schools against the background of a relatively difficult funding arrangement, although even in Leicestershire funding has increased significantly over the last 10 years, and its dedicated school grant will include funds for sparsity. I do not have the Leicestershire figure in front of me, but Somerset, for example, receives £5.48 million in sparsity funding.

I am reassured by the Minister's emphatic statement that there should be a presumption against the closure of rural schools. Does he accept that, often, the school in a village is the only major facility, so keeping it open is of great importance? Does he believe that federation of some schools is a good way of getting over the problem facing many local education authorities? Perhaps a merger between a Church of England school and a Catholic school to make an all-faith school can help in keeping small schools, village schools and rural schools open.

I never thought that I would say that I hope that local authorities have the imagination of the hon. Gentleman. He is entirely right that we should be looking more at federations. In my own constituency, hard federations have resulted in school buildings remaining open in two villages, but under a single head teacher and a single governing body. That has been extremely successful. In Somerset, as a result of a move towards federation that encompasses all but five of its primary schools, just 9 per cent. of primary school places are surplus places. That is the kind of thing that we want to see, alongside co-location of services, so that a range of children's services and other services can be offered from a village school to keep village communities alive.

The Minister will be well aware of the value of small schools, particularly in his constituency in Dorset, where a view has been taken to keep schools open for the wider community benefit, as he has stated. I congratulate him on reducing the number of small school closures over the past few years. That is absolutely right. Will he help me on Canvey Island, where one of my small schools is under threat of closure from Essex county council because of low numbers, even though much more building will be forced on Canvey Island, which will increase the capacity requirement on the island? What is more, that school is making excellent progress. Will he ask the county council to declare a moratorium on that closure?

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman needs all the friends he can get right now, and I am happy to have a chat with him about what is going on in Canvey Island and about how he can have a constructive conversation with his former friends in Conservative-controlled Essex county council.

Capital Funding (Milton Keynes)

2. How much capital funding will be provided to schools in Milton Keynes local authority area in the next three years. (194064)

Capital funding allocated for schools in the Milton Keynes local authority area in the next three years amounts to more than £75 million, including £30 million for growth. We are now considering Milton Keynes' application for additional growth funding to reflect its exceptional circumstances, which may result in further capital support. Of course I have been informed by the extensive representations made by my hon. Friend.

This morning I was at the start of the construction of the Milton Keynes academy in my constituency, so I am mindful of the money that we have had in Milton Keynes, but I have been making representations to support the bid by Milton Keynes council for the safety valve funding. Will the Minister confirm that, when he considers that, he will not just provide it according to formula but take into account the special needs of Milton Keynes?

Naturally, following the representations that I have received, I will certainly seek to do that. I am glad that my hon. Friend was able to be at the academy this morning to see the results of the excellent investment that is going in, which has risen significantly from the low level of less than £10 million in 2001-02 to the high levels today. I am hopeful that we can make an announcement in the next few weeks about what we are going to do in respect of the application that has been made by her authority for the basic needs safety valve funding.

The Minister is keen to trumpet the cash for Milton Keynes but less keen to confirm that there is now a £50 million shortfall in funding for Milton Keynes—confirmed to me by the Secretary of State in a letter on 4 February. That means that, at a time when the Government are forcing new houses on Milton Keynes, they seem less keen to fund the 10 or 12 new schools that we desperately need to accommodate that new housing. What exactly will the shortfall be for Milton Keynes over the next three years?

Certainly Milton Keynes council argues that it needs another £50 million. As I say, we are looking at the representations that the council and others have made. The hon. Gentleman has also been to see me to discuss the matter, but he needs to bear in mind when talking about that to his constituents that his party plans a raid on Building Schools for the Future that will take £4.5 billion from areas such as Milton Keynes, meaning that two of the 12 secondary schools in his town may not even be rebuilt.

English and Mathematics

As a result of our investment and reform since 1997, there has been an unparalleled rise in primary and secondary school standards in English and maths. Primary standards are at their highest ever, and record numbers of pupils left school in 2007 having gained five good GCSEs, including in English and maths.

I begin with a declaration of interest: I am a product of the international baccalaureate, so I did not do A-levels or GCSEs. As we are talking about raising standards in maths and English, why is the Secretary of State introducing a new form of diploma that has already proved very unpopular with the universities, when we have the international baccalaureate, under which English and maths are taught up to the age of 18, and which is popular not only with schools but with universities and employers? Why is the Secretary of State reinventing the wheel?

I am pleased to hear that the IB did a good job for the hon. Gentleman, as it does for many pupils throughout the country. We have been trying to put together a qualification that can combine academic and vocational learning, and I must say to him—I can get him the detailed information if he would like it—that the diploma has been welcomed by a wide range of universities, including Cambridge university, whose admissions tutor said that a diploma in engineering could be better preparation than A-level maths. The diploma has also been welcomed by a wide range of employers. Conservative Members would do well to reconsider their opposition to our new diplomas, as they are the best chance in more than a generation to break the two-tier system in academic and vocational learning. It is revealing that the Conservatives remain on the two-tier side of the argument when it comes to educational qualifications.

My right hon. Friend will probably agree with me that the evidence taken by the Education and Skills Committee shows that standards have been rising in both English and maths. Will he, however, look at the experiment in Warrington, where five schools are using different forms of information technology to advance teaching in maths and English? Will he also look into whether we can improve the training of maths teachers so that both the teaching and learning experiences can be improved?

My hon. Friend is an expert in these matters, and he knows that 100,000 more young people are now making the required grade at key stage 3 in English than in 1997, and that 95,000 more are making the grade in maths. It is because we want to improve the teaching of maths and teacher training in maths that we asked Professor Williams to produce a report for us on mathematics, and it will be published shortly. Also, our new master’s qualification in teaching will enable teachers to get in-career training in mathematics. I am happy to listen to my hon. Friend’s points, and to look at the Warrington example and see what further lessons we can learn.

I am glad that the Secretary of State is arranging to build on the work on maths teaching of Professor Adrian Smith of Queen Mary college. Will the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers get a list of the relevant secondary schools where A-level maths could be taught, find out which of them has not had a grade A in A-level maths in the past five years, and ask whether none of the pupils would have had the ability or aptitude to achieve that?

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the primary school teachers in my constituency? Over the past five years, there has been a greater than 40 per cent. increase in the children’s English ability and more than a 25 per cent. increase in their maths ability. That is astounding delivery by the primary sector. What are we going to do to improve further primary school education?

My hon. Friend is right, as the facts show. In 1997, only 63 per cent. of children reached key stage 2 level 4 at the age of 11; that proportion has now increased to 80 per cent., and in maths it has increased from 62 per cent. to 77 per cent. That is a real improvement in standards, but it is not enough; we want to get to much higher levels even than those. That requires us to do even more to back the learning of our primary school pupils and to tackle the barriers to learning both in and out of school. One way to make sure that we can do that is to improve even further the teaching of reading in the earliest years. Along with Lord Adonis and Professor Jim Rose, I visited a school on Friday to see how it is using phonics in the curriculum. That is now being done extensively in three quarters of all schools, but we want to get to 100 per cent. and we will do so over the next year.

Speaking of phonics, Sir Jim Rose in his report into the teaching of reading said:

“‘synthetic’ phonics is the form of systematic phonic work that offers the vast majority of beginners the best route to becoming skilled readers.”

However, the Secretary of State, in his press release on Friday, in which he reported that a quarter of primary schools were not using phonics to teach children to read, and indeed in his response just now, does not use the term synthetic phonics. Can he therefore confirm the Government’s policy? Is it that schools should use synthetic phonics, as recommended by Jim Rose, or is it a return to the mix of strategies that was the hallmark of the national literacy strategy?

I know that no one is more keen on taking forward the issue of phonics and synthetic phonics in our curriculum than the hon. Gentleman. I am very pleased, therefore, that he read my press release. He will see that the first quote in it came not from myself, but from Sir Jim Rose himself; it was his findings that I was quoting. He was reporting on the progress on implementing his report and he says that all schools are using phonics, but that only three quarters are using them in the way that he would like—and we would like—which probably means using synthetic phonics in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. That will differ school by school, depending on the needs of different individuals, but Jim and I are clear on what needs to be done. We need to make sure that this is across all schools in the curriculum. The school that we visited was really interesting: 95 per cent. of children did not have English as a first language, and phonics was being taught not just in reading but in PE and right across the whole curriculum. I can therefore assure the hon. Gentleman that we are taking forward this agenda with determination, and we will make sure that the right kind of phonics are taught in all schools for all pupils.

In September 2004, the Government appointed Celia Hoyles as the mathematics tsar to promote mathematics in our schools, colleges and universities. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the tsar’s progress in promoting mathematics in our schools?

Celia Hoyles did a wonderful job, and we are really grateful for her work. She has laid the foundation for the strengthening of maths in the curriculum in primary and secondary schools, and we are taking that forward, including through the Williams review.

Alderman Blaxill School

4. If he will visit the Alderman Blaxill school in Colchester to discuss its future with the head teacher, staff, governors, pupils, parents and representatives of the local community. (194066)

I am obviously very grateful for the invitation from the hon. Gentleman and I am of course aware of the representations that he has been making about the future of Alderman Blaxill school, not least through last year’s Adjournment debate, to which I responded. I know that there is an urgent need to raise standards at that school for the benefit of pupils, parents and the whole community.

I am not sure whether the Minister will visit, but if not, will he receive a delegation from the school? Will he confirm that the latest Ofsted report, which was published this month, says that the school is now making satisfactory progress, which is no doubt entirely down to the inspirational leadership of executive head Mr. Jonathan Tippett? In view of the Minister’s earlier comment that we should be looking more at federations, does he accept that the community resolution of the Roman river federation of secondary schools in south and west Colchester is the right way forward to save the three schools concerned?

I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman thinks that the executive head who has been brought in is doing a good job, and that is certainly what I have been told. However, the reports that I have from what I think was the most recent monitoring visit, in February—there may have been a more recent visit since then—show that progress since going into special measures is still inadequate. I have not been briefed on the Roman river federation, but I am very happy to look at the issue and to meet and talk with the hon. Gentleman, who has met my noble Friend Lord Adonis on a number of occasions to discuss the matter.

IT Projects

5. How much his Department plans to spend on IT projects in the next 12 months; and if he will make a statement. (194067)

Subject to final spending decisions, the Department plans to spend £150.2 million on IT-enabled projects in the 12 months commencing 1 April 2008. That figure covers a wide range of investments in the Department’s internal systems at a cost of £20.5 million, and in major IT-enabled policy initiatives at a cost of £129.7 million.

Despite the Department’s spending millions on its ContactPoint database, the recent report by Deloitte and Touche highlighted the fact that significant data security risks remain with the project. Given that ContactPoint will draw together information on every single child in the country, creating a honeypot effect, what sort of risk does the Minister think is acceptable in relation to those sensitive data?

I would not agree at all with the hon. Gentleman that the report identified significant risks. We commissioned the Deloitte report to look over the ContactPoint project, and it confirmed that ContactPoint has been developed very much with security in mind. The database is very important, and I hope that at some stage the Opposition will look very seriously at why we are setting it up. For example, there has recently been quite a bit of publicity about forced marriage. If we are to be able to identify young people who are at risk, we need to be able to share information between the professionals working with them. I hope that the Opposition will reconsider their position on ContactPoint.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the adoption of open-access IT systems can result in significant savings? Is his Department promoting their use throughout the education sector?

BECTA—the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency—leads for us on that issue, but I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a way of achieving significant savings. As any modern business or any modern constituency MP knows, having properly IT-enabled systems is vital to serving the needs of children in this country and of our constituents.

There is, however, a real and growing concern about IT database overload in the Department. It has three major databases of its own—ContactPoint, Connexions and the national children’s database—and nine other children’s databases feed into ContactPoint. May I take it from the Minister’s response that there is a disagreement between the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government as a result of the recent “Lifting the Burdens” report, which stated that the obsession with multiple databases has diverted attention from the most important task that the Department should have, which is delivering real support for families, or has the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government got it wrong?

As usual, that is a rhetorical rather than a substantive question from the hon. Lady. The point about ContactPoint and the other databases is that they exist to promote the welfare of children and young people in this country. I remind the House that ContactPoint was developed as a result of the Lord Laming inquiry into the Victoria Climbié case. I make no apologies whatever to the House for our continuing to develop that important project, which will enable professionals working with children to identify the other professionals working with them. That is a basic requirement of safeguarding children, and I hope that all parties in the House will support it.

Children in Poverty

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the proportion of (a) disabled and (b) non-disabled children living in poverty. (194068)

I have had several discussions recently with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on a number of aspects related to child poverty, including poverty rates for disabled children. The Government are committed to our child poverty targets and improving the life chances of all children. In addition, over the next three years, a total of £340 million has been set aside by my Department specifically to improve the lives of disabled children and their families.

The Minister will know that the Opposition share the Government’s aspiration to eliminate child poverty by 2020, although I note that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions conceded only recently that the Government were unlikely to hit their target of halving it by 2010. Some 55 per cent. of families in the UK with disabled children are living in poverty. To return to part of the announcement that the Minister has just made, will she update the House on what progress has been made in improving access to child care for families with disabled children, so that they are more able to access work?

There are many reasons why the Government want to support families with disabled children. It is true that in some of those families the children are in poverty, but if the hon. Gentleman had read the excellent document that we produced last week, “Ending child poverty: everybody’s business”, he would have seen that it is not actually the presence of a disabled child that increases a family’s risk of poverty; it is the presence of a disabled adult that significantly increases that risk.

The Government want to halve child poverty by 2010 and eradicate it by 2020, and we remain absolutely committed to that. We have already reduced absolute poverty by half and we will continue to move children out of poverty through the Budget—unlike the previous Government, who were responsible for more than doubling the rates of child poverty. They made Britain the worst place for child poverty and reversed the upward trend in social mobility. We are reversing that legacy.

The right hon. Lady’s boss, the Secretary of State, has made a considerable personal investment in the plight of disabled children, but last year the number of children living in poverty after housing costs were taken into account rose by 200,000. We now have a higher proportion of children being brought up in workless households than any European country, and they stay in poverty for longer. Given the disproportionate effect on disabled children, who are twice as likely to live in poverty and twice as likely to leave school with no qualifications compared with their peers, thus reinforcing the cycle of generational underachievement, is not the Minister embarrassed by the Government’s lack of a truly joined-up approach to disabled children and poverty involving employment, education, transport, health and housing—or is this just another case of so what?

The hon. Gentleman cannot have read the document that we produced last week or have considered the measures in the Budget. Those measures—increasing the rate of child benefit, changes to the child tax credit, and disregarding child benefit—will lift a further 300,000 children out of poverty, and taken with last year’s Budget that is another 500,000. We are committed to reversing the disastrous and atrocious legacy that the Conservatives left children in this country. They said that unemployment was a price worth paying, and they cannot be trusted on the family. They say one thing, but when they have the chance they do—

Teachers’ Pay

The Minister for Schools and Learners made a written statement to the House on 15 January 2008 concerning the latest report of the School Teachers Review Body and our response. Following consultation on those proposals, we expect to make a further statement shortly.

But with one in 10 teachers having been physically attacked in the classroom, with more than 33 knife attacks on teachers, and with 75 per cent. of all teachers having been verbally abused last year, does the Secretary of State agree with Lord Adonis that future pay settlements should include some sort of bonus or performance-related pay that is linked to improving discipline in the classroom?

It is essential that we do even more to improve discipline in the classroom. We have taken substantial action, including in legislation, to ensure that we back teachers and give head teachers and governing bodies the power that they need to confiscate dangerous items and to act in and out of school. We will do more. That is why I have asked Sir Alan Steer to produce a report on the implementation of his report on behaviour and to suggest what we can do to improve behaviour further. When I speak to members of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers at their conference next week, I will tell them that we are on the side of teachers in rooting out ill-discipline in the classroom and will give them the powers that they need. It may be a more serious issue than can be addressed through a bonus in pay: we will give teachers the powers they need to act, so that they can get on and teach.

Employment Choices

8. What steps his Department is taking to encourage male and female school pupils to consider a wider and less stereotyped range of employment choices; and if he will make a statement. (194070)

I expect schools and the external information, advice and guidance services that support them to be rigorous in challenging gender stereotypes and low career aspirations. We have taken, and are planning, a range of measures that make clear our expectations and which will embed good practice. For example, all 14 to 19 consortiums wishing to deliver diplomas have to undergo a rigorous diploma gateway process assessing them against a number of key criteria, including how they will challenge gender stereotypes and raise aspirations.

I welcome that response. The Women in Work commission report and the recently published Select Committee report, “Jobs for the Girls”, identified occupational segregation as one of the major reasons for the continuing gender pay gap. In view of that, will my hon. Friend consider the proposals in the Committee’s report for providing further funding and resources specifically for careers advice and work placements, such as the proposal from the YWCA that boys and girls should have more than one work placement so that opportunities are not limited at too early an age through the assumptions embedded in families and society in general?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s consistent championing of these issues in the House. We will, of course, look closely at the Select Committee report to which she has referred. I pay tribute, too, to the YWCA for the work that it has done. I met representatives of the YWCA before the Committee stage of the Education and Skills Bill, and they found that the lowest paid apprenticeship, hairdressing, is more than 90 per cent. female while the highest paid, the electro-technical trades, pays twice the average and is 100 per cent. male dominated. It is clear that we need to do better as regards careers advice. That is one reason why we have brought in a new quality standard, which all authorities will need to have regard to in the future.

Why does the Minister think that male and female pupils choose stereotypical employment? Is it nature, nurture or neither?

The hon. Lady has raised an interesting doctoral question. I suspect, Mr. Speaker, that you would not want me to expand at any great length on it. I imagine that it is a combination of the two, but I leave hon. Members to reflect on where the balance lies. That does not take away from the need to do more about gender stereotyping. I saw an excellent example in a school that took year 7 pupils and gave them taster sessions of work experience that did not fit their gender stereotype. As a result, interest in such careers increased significantly. If people have access to such taster sessions, which are more nurture than nature, it can only be a good thing.


We are implementing a wide range of measures to help schools tackle bullying. These include reinforcing the power of school staff to discipline pupils who bully and providing them with comprehensive practical guidance on proven strategies for tackling bullying. We also provide support for individual schools through the Anti-Bullying Alliance, support peer mentoring schemes and fund a helpline for parents whose children are being bullied.

My hon. Friend will be aware that because of new technology, bullying now involves the internet and mobile phones. Sometimes, advertising such things makes the situation worse, as can be seen in some schools. What is my hon. Friend doing to try to solve the problem and what discussions has he had with service providers and schools to try to tackle that new kind of bullying?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Bullying takes lots of new forms because of the new technology that is available. I agree absolutely that the virtual world is not a valueless world, and we should ensure that we enforce the same standards when dealing with online bullying or the use of mobile phones as we do when we deal with more traditional forms of bullying. We have taken measures to make it clear in law that schools can confiscate mobile phones when they are being misused and that discipline can be enforced beyond the school gates when bullying takes place online.

Given the finding of the Stonewall school report that no less than two thirds of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have suffered bullying, will the Under-Secretary of State join me in congratulating Stonewall on the magnificent campaign that it is waging across the whole country, working through no fewer than 5,000 secondary schools, on the theme, “Some people are gay. Get over it!”? It is a good campaign that is making progress, and it has elicited a very positive response. We need to see more of that.

Yes; unfortunately, the legacy of section 28 lives on to a certain extent in our system. I commend the hon. Gentleman for his work on equality as a pioneer in his party on the subject. He will be aware that we issued guidance on homophobic bullying last September. In fact, I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State attended an event with Stonewall a month ago in relation to that.

On the legacy of section 28, does my hon. Friend agree that homophobic bullying is not just a matter of victimising pupils who are gay or lesbian, but about the routine use of the terms “gay” and “lesbian” as forms of abuse? Does he recall that the Select Committee on Education and Skills report on bullying last year placed huge emphasis on the role of head teachers and governing bodies in establishing firm anti-bullying policies in schools? Will he incentivise efforts to stress the importance of that to head teachers and the chairs of their governing bodies?

I am happy to do that, and to confirm what my hon. Friend said. We all agree that relationships in our schools should be based on respect—respect between teachers and pupils, respect between pupils and respect between families and parents who use the school. That is why we issue anti-bullying guidance on all forms of bullying. I am happy to tell the House that in the near future we hope to issue the guidance that we have been developing on tackling the bullying of children with disabilities.

Ofsted Inspections

Schools are already able to request an Ofsted inspection, although I understand that such requests are rare. The hon. Gentleman will understand that it is important that the chief inspector of schools has the capacity to target inspection resources where they are needed most. The decision whether to inspect, following a request, is a matter for the discretion of the chief inspector, taking into account factors such as the timing of previous inspections.

I am grateful to the Minister, who is my constituency neighbour and who knows my local schools well. She knows that I have four grammar schools and four non-selective high schools, all of which are excellent. Of the non-selective high schools, three have already been awarded an “outstanding” categorisation by Ofsted. The fourth—Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic college—is confident that it, too, will be found to be outstanding. It is keen to receive that categorisation as soon as possible, so that it can proceed with applications for a second specialist status. I think that it will take comfort from the Minister’s words, and I would be grateful for any support that she can give.

I welcome the finding, in the school’s last inspection report, that parents and pupils hold the school in very high regard and that it performed very well across the piece. For reasons that the hon. Gentleman will understand, schools are now given minimal notice of inspections and so cannot choose when an inspection takes place, but if the school wants to make a request to Ofsted, Ofsted will consider that request for an inspection on its merits. I understand that the school must be inspected by June next year, so an inspection must be on the cards in the near future.

Admissions Process

12. What assessment he has made of the effects of the changes in the secondary schools admissions process in 2007. (194074)

The data that my Department published last week showed that, for the first time, 82 per cent. of families received an offer of a place at their first choice of school, and 93 per cent. of families received an offer of a place at one of their first three choices of school; both of those figures are an improvement on last year. The new stronger admissions code that was introduced last year has been widely welcomed. We are determined to ensure that all schools comply with the code.

In constituencies such as mine, there is enormous stress and upset over secondary school admissions at this time of year. In Hammersmith and Fulham last year, 40 per cent. of pupils did not get their first choice, and 10 per cent. got none of their choices. That is despite the best efforts of the Conservative council in Hammersmith and Fulham to extend secondary school choice, so why does the Secretary of State simply say that parents should “engage in the appeals process”, when the real issue is that there are not enough quality secondary school places?

The hon. Gentleman is right in his figures: about 60 per cent. of parents in his area got their first choice, and 90 per cent. got one of their preferences. I agree with him—in the end, the only way to deliver fairness for all parents is to make sure that every school is a good school. If we do not do so, we will always have some schools that are over-subscribed. I know that in his area there are three single-sex faith schools that are particularly over-subscribed. That is why I hope that he will back my national challenge programme, which seeks to reduce to zero the number of schools where less than 30 per cent. of pupils get five good GCSEs including English and maths. In 1997, that was the case in more than half of all schools—more than 1,600. We have got that number down from 1,600 to 638, and our pledge is to get it down to zero. I would like his support in making that happen.

In Slough local education authority, which is a selective education authority, this year only 41 per cent. of parents received a place at their first-choice school. Some 10 or 11 per cent. of parents were offered places at schools that they had not identified, and there are still 40 parents in Slough who have not yet got an offer of a school place. Given those circumstances, will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss what we can do in Slough education authority, which has improving schools but not enough school places for our local children, and to see what can be done to meet the needs of parents in our area?

I am happy to have that meeting with my hon. Friend and the Minister for Schools and Learners. The situation in Slough is quite concerning; the numbers there are substantially out of line with those in comparable authorities in the south-east. The number of pupils getting their highest preference was 38 per cent. in Slough, compared with an average of 79.5 per cent. in the south-east. As I look at the list of numbers in front of me, Slough seems to be at pretty much half the level of every other area in the south-east. Clearly, that is not acceptable. We need to see what is happening and whether the schooling system or the local authority are not getting it right. We are happy to meet my hon. Friend and see what we can do to help.

Child Care

13. What recent representations he has received from child care providers on the Government’s child care policy. (194075)

Child care providers in the maintained and the private, voluntary and independent sectors all have a vital role in ensuring that local authorities can fulfil their new duties to secure sufficient child care for working parents and parents with disabled children, and to improve the well-being of young children. I am personally very keen to hear the voice of providers, and I take every opportunity to do so. I want local authorities to do the same.

Will the Minister therefore hear the voice of the voluntary, private and independent providers in my constituency? They are concerned that following the full implementation of the code of practice next month, there will be a loss of provision in my constituency. Many are concerned that the Government do not understand that what is effectively a one-size-fits-all approach does not take account of the shortfall in funding.

I would have those concerns, if they had proved to be true. The hon. Gentleman is jumping the gun somewhat. I understand that so far a third of providers have signed the new funding agreement with Enfield council, his local authority, and that the rest of them have almost three months to do so. I am clear that the £3 billion that the Government are putting in for the free entitlement is absolutely adequate.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the amount of money that his council is forwarding to private and voluntary providers. Given the size of its dedicated schools grant, the allocation is less than the national average. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman talks to his council to see whether it is passing on all the money from the Government that it can.

Topical Questions

This morning, my Department put before the House three written statements. The first was on the reform of the funding of 16 to 18 and adult education, and the second was on the steps that we are taking to ensure that we have the toughest ever vetting and barring system for all those working with or seeking to work with children and vulnerable adults. I am grateful for the constructive way in which the hon. Members for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) have discussed those difficult issues in recent months. I have offered them today a further meeting to discuss the detail of that statement in due course.

The final statement was about ensuring proper implementation of the school admissions code. Today, I am publishing regulations to extend the period for referring objections to unfair admissions arrangements. I am also publishing my letter to the schools adjudicator asking him to report on compliance with the code this year, with an update in July and a final report on 1 September. I pay particular tribute to the faith organisations that are working closely with us to ensure compliance with the code, and I welcome their statements today. I hope that the measures will have the support of both sides of the House as they ensure that all parents and young people can have fair admissions through fair compliance with the code.

I look forward to reading the three written statements. The Secretary of State has said that by defending A-levels one is committed to excellence for only a few. Is he seriously telling us that after 11 years of Labour Governments, only a few are capable of taking on A-level study?

I am happy to say that last week in the House I was pointing out the weakness of the Opposition on education policy. Let me say what would be weak of me. It would be weak of me not to take action when I have clear evidence of unfairness in the admissions code. It would be weak of me not to put forward diploma proposals which extend across the academic and vocational divide and which I have said will exist alongside A-levels and will deliver excellence for all. It would also be weak of me not to fight the corner for more investment in education alongside heath and defence—a fight that I fear that the hon. Gentleman has been losing in recent weeks.

T4. When I spoke to the Sure Start team in York today, they stressed that they have health visitor team leaders in their Sure Start children’s centres. Sure Start has given thousands of children a better start in life, and health visitors are part of that. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be wrong—robbing Petra to pay Paula—to take money away from Sure Start to fund health visitors, and will he give me a commitment to retain the funding for both? (194057)

Yes, I can. Leaving aside the gender stereotype and the fact that we want more men in those professions, I agree with my hon. Friend on his question and the points that he makes. To be serious for a moment, it is very dispiriting when we constantly have sniping and undermining of Sure Start by the Conservatives. As the national evaluation has recently shown, Sure Start is making a real difference, which is why we on the Labour Benches will reject any proposals to cut outreach workers—a policy that would undermine Sure Start and hit the poorest families most. Yet again, the Tories’ sums do not add up. They are saying—

Order. When I tell the right hon. Lady to stop attacking the Opposition, she stops—she does not continue after she is told.

Last week, on the day that we discovered that 100,000 families had been denied their first choice of school, the Government named three local authorities in which they claimed that a significant minority of schools were in breach of the admissions code. The Secretary of State said that a disproportionate number were voluntary aided—that is, faith schools. This was not a handful of schools, he said—it was certainly in the tens. He specifically drew attention to schools demanding money for places. However, we now know that the allegations were made after what he has conceded was “unverified desk research”. Was it wise to point the finger at faith schools before the research had been verified?

It was the right thing to do, and I make no apology whatever. Last week, we set out the good news that 80 per cent. of parents—indeed, more than last year—are getting their first choice of school. That is good news, not bad news, and I am very proud of what has been achieved in that respect. As I said in my statement last week, we did an internal piece of work that showed that although the vast majority of maintained schools and academies were compliant with the code, a significant minority, which are disproportionately voluntary aided and foundation schools, were non-compliant. The advice that I received, which I took, was that we should verify the data before making them public school by school, but I felt that it was right that if I was verifying that information around the country I should also make it clear and public what we were doing, and that is what I did. Just to give one example—

It is revealing that the Secretary of State has said that it was his decision to go public with that announcement, because it is important to have one’s facts straight before criticising minority faith schools. This is what head teachers of schools in Barnet have said:

“I do not understand why the allegation of school places for sale was made—the allegation was completely unfounded”.

Another said:

“It was extremely worrying that I was rung up by the press before I had received any letter from the Department”.

Another said:

“I was outraged and insulted to receive suggestions that we were asking for financial contributions to secure places”.

The Secretary of State knows that many of the schools against which allegations have been made receive purely voluntary contributions to pay for the security of Jewish children under threat from extremists. The schools adjudicator has now been told to lead an inquiry into school admissions. Surely it would have been better to wait until that inquiry had reported and verified pronouncements before singling out faith schools in this way.

Not at all. The fact is that voluntary contributions for security or other purposes are entirely legal under the code. What is not allowed is to ask for contributions as a condition of application to schools. The hon. Gentleman should be careful about jumping to conclusions; he should wait for the detailed data that we will publish. The reason why the faith organisations—I could quote the Board of Deputies, the Catholic Education Service or the Church of England—today supported publicly what we are doing is that they know that the credibility of the admissions code depends on dealing with these issues.

Mr. Speaker, may I please give you one example of an e-mail I received from a parent? She said that she was applying to a school where the application

“requires parents to state their occupation, sign a form agreeing to give permission to claim Gift Aid…and complete a standing order. The fees chargeable are stated in the prospectus as £37.50 per month. This must be submitted along with the application form to the school. Before I submit any of this information I would like to know if I am legally obligated to do so.”

The answer is that she is not obliged to sign a form saying that she will pay £37 a month before applying to a school—

Order. Both Front Benchers are saying too much here. Topical questions are for the benefit of Back Benchers, so that they can put brief questions and get brief replies.

T6. Last week, the Chancellor announced an extra £30 million for a science fund for schools. May I ask the Secretary of State how schools in my constituency can access this fund? I invite him to come to my constituency to see the excellent work being carried out at Freebrough engineering college to train future scientists and engineers. (194059)

Naturally, I would be extremely pleased to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency, particularly as he is a consistent advocate for the importance of science. The £10 million of Government funding for Project Enthuse that was pledged by the Chancellor last week will be matched, we expect, by equal investment from business and the Wellcome Trust to make £30 million. Secondary schools will be able to develop the skills and knowledge of their science teachers through professional development as a result of that investment.

T2. If diplomas are to be introduced successfully this September, parents, pupils and employers need to understand what they are all about. The children’s plan toolkit, published today, contains five brief paragraphs on diplomas, one of which says that GCSEs and A-levels can be taken either as part of diplomas or alongside diplomas, which is confusing for people who do not understand the system. What will be done between now and September to explain to parents, pupils and employers, in a pamphlet or brochure, what diplomas mean and what their value is, so that there will not be confusion at the start of the autumn term? (194055)

I will make a written statement to the House tomorrow on the take-up of diplomas in the second of the consortiums. Alongside that, for which there has been good take-up, we will continue our communications campaign. In my constituency, there has been full take-up of the construction and built environment diploma as a result of radio advertising locally and throughout the land. We will continue to try to get the message out to parents, but it will always be a challenge to get people to understand what we are suggesting for a brand new qualification. Roughly, the process will involve the equivalent of three days’ curriculum time and we expect to see people taking GCSE English and maths at level 2 alongside the diplomas.

T7. I know that the Minister answered a similar question earlier, but are there any further initiatives he can take to protect teachers from abuse and violence in the classroom? (194060)

As I have said, we have taken initiatives to ensure that teachers have the authority to discipline pupils, including the confiscation of mobile phones, and to discipline pupils for behaviour beyond the school gate. I know about the concerns about behaviour. We are determined to raise the bar, which includes asking Sir Alan Steer to conduct a review of the measures brought in as a result of his earlier review. There will be a report on an interim basis in the near future, and on a more detailed basis after that.

Last month, the Department confirmed that in the past year it has carried out investigations into two of its contracts with private sector contractors. One of those investigations has led to a referral to the police. Will the Minister tell us what the allegations were, which private sector contractors were involved, and the outcome of the investigations?

The matters that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned have been the subject of written questions from him. Many aspects of those matters are covered by commercial confidentiality. I am happy to meet him if he wants to discuss the issues further, and I confirm that there have been police investigations into some of those matters.

This morning, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced £5 million for GCSE and A-level music and dance at. Will my right hon. Friend ensure positive discrimination in allocating those scarce resources to the most disadvantaged schools, rather than to middle-class schools, which have all the gravitational pull of the high expectations of parents, pupils and teachers? Will he ensure that we act as a socialist Government and allocate the money to the poorest and most disadvantaged in our community?

Of course I can do so, and Lord Adonis will take forward that socialist policy. Evidence shows that dance is an effective way of encouraging especially girls in their early teenage years to keep active and participate in PE and games. We will ensure that that is available for not only some but all schools, and for all young people in every community in our country.

T3. I assume that that is new socialism, not to be confused with old socialism. At a time when we are teaching youngsters to be more environmentally aware of what they can do to help save the planet, we also tell them that they cannot go to their first, second or third choice of school, that they cannot get on the bus that starts in their village to the schools that they want to attend, and that parents have to get into a car and drive some distance to another place. May we have a little more joined-up thinking so that we practise what we preach and let youngsters go to schools that are nearer where they live? (194056)

As the Secretary of State said earlier, it is important that there is a choice of good schools for every parent in the country. That is why we introduced the national challenge. I was pleased that, in Lancashire, 97.6 per cent. of parents got a school of their preference and that 87 per cent. got their first choice. That is better than the national average. Lancashire is doing a good job—incidentally, under a Labour administration—in providing the good schools that every parent legitimately wants.