Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 473: debated on Monday 17 March 2008

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.