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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 476: debated on Monday 19 May 2008

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Academies (Kettering)

1. What assessment he has made of the effect on educational attainment levels in Kettering at the GCSE stage of the establishment of the two academies there. (205964)

At present there are no academies in Kettering. However, statements of intent have been agreed and my Department is in ongoing discussions with the local authority about the possibility of two schools in Kettering becoming academies. Where academies are established the aim is to achieve educational transformation, significantly improving levels of pupil attainment and benefiting the wider community, including neighbouring schools.

The two hoped-for academies at Ise community college and Montagu school will attract additional investment in local education in Kettering and would be most welcome. What steps are the Government undertaking to monitor individual academies’ performance around the country, so as to understand what makes the most successful academies work best and in order to spread best practice to all the others?

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the possibility of the two academies in his constituency. Indeed, we carefully monitor the work of academies and we are not alone in doing so—the National Audit Office regularly looks at it, as do others such as the Select Committee. In 2007, the NAO concluded that GCSE performance in academies had improved compared with that of predecessor schools and that, taking pupils’ personal circumstances and prior attainment into account, academies’ GCSE performance is substantially better on average than that of other schools. Comparisons in this area are always welcome.

Pupils from my constituency have to be bussed to Kettering for their secondary education because under this Government and a Labour county council, John Lea secondary school in my constituency was closed and demolished. Given all the thousands of new homes to be built in my constituency, what plans do the Government have to build a new secondary school there?

It is a bit like going over old ground, but I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has not raised that matter for a few sessions of oral questions—he has done so several times in the past. As ever, I explain to him that his Tory friends who run Northamptonshire county council are responsible for school organisation, and he needs to take the matter up with them.

Academies (Feeder Schools)

2. If he will make it his policy that parents of children at feeder schools and existing secondary schools can vote on whether an academy should be established in their area as part of the decision-making process. (205965)

Proposals to establish academies are subject to non-statutory local consultation, which would normally include all interested parties, including the parents of children at feeder schools and existing secondary schools. When a maintained school is to be closed and replaced with an academy, statutory consultations are required on the proposed closure, which must engage all interested parties. In neither case, however, would there be formal votes or ballots.

On 1 May in Colchester, the Conservatives lost five seats and control of the borough council. The closure of two secondary schools and the imposition of an academy were major issues. If the Government are listening and they really do want to engage local communities, will the Secretary of State give a pledge that he will honour what happened at the ballot box and save Thomas Lord Audley school at Monkwick and Alderman Blaxill school at Shrub End from closure?

I understand that there were five Conservative losses on 1 May. I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on their four gains, and note the Labour gain as well.

I will give no long-term guarantee for those individual schools because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Alderman Blaxill school has not had a good run of results. It is substantially below the target of 30 per cent. GCSEs at grades A to C, including English and maths. During the past three years it has achieved 16 per cent., 14 per cent and 17 per cent. of that target, so we need improvement. Essex county council has explained that its preferred approach is to build on the existing partnership with Stanway school and to pursue a trust. We will support the council in its decision, but only as long as there is genuine improvement in all three schools in the coming year, particularly in Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill. We will keep the matter under control, and if those schools do not deliver, we will consider other ways to intervene to ensure that all kids in the hon. Gentleman’s area get the improvement in standards that they need.

Building Schools for the Future money is welcome in Wolverhampton, and there is a proposal to have two academies there. It has been suggested that that money will not be made available in Wolverhampton unless it has those two academies. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that there is no link between the two and that Wolverhampton could have the money without two academies, if it so chose?

There is no requirement for academies in Wolverhampton as a condition of Building Schools for the Future money—we made that clear to the council and local Members of Parliament. There will be academies in Wolverhampton because the council is proposing them. It sees from results throughout the country that academies are a powerful way to raise standards, especially in areas that have had lower standards and where there is a need for new investment. We support academies in Wolverhampton but we will not impose them on Wolverhampton. The local council is proposing them and we will back its plans.

The Secretary of State will recall Tony Blair’s vision for the academies programme. He said:

“Our aim is the creation of a system of independent non-fee paying state schools.”

We were told that academies were to be freed from the national curriculum and independent of local authority control, but since the Secretary of State took office he has required all new academies to follow the national curriculum and now a third of new academies have local authorities as their sponsor. Why have the Government abandoned those freedoms? Is it not the case that, as last week’s legislative programme makes clear, the Government have run out of ideas on school reform, have no clear sense of direction and, as the chief inspector of schools said today, school standards have “stalled”?

The hon. Gentleman’s facts are incorrect. I have not imposed the national curriculum on academies. New academies will teach the national curriculum in maths, English, science and IT, but retain the wider flexibilities to innovate and tackle lower performing pupils’ needs.

When I became Secretary of State, all new academies proceeded with local authorities’ agreement and I have not changed that. The only change that I have made is to accelerate the number of academies to bring universities, further education colleges and wider sponsors into the academies movement by abolishing the £2 million entry fee. We are using academies as an important way to drive up standards and meet the national challenge of getting all schools above the 30 per cent. target. The Government are using academies effectively to drive up standards, but the Conservative party has a black hole in its plans, which it cannot explain, when it comes to academies.

Children’s Centres

3. What progress has been made towards meeting the target of establishing 3,500 children's centres by 2010. (205966)

There are currently 2,907 designated Sure Start children’s centres offering services to more than 2 million children aged under five and their families. We met our manifesto commitment for 2,500 centres by March this year and we are on track to meet our target of 3,500 centres by 2010—one for every community.

That is indeed good news. I am delighted that there are five Sure Start centres in my constituency. On average, 800 children use them each year, and I am committed to the Sure Start programme. What does my right hon. Friend believe the effect would be on those 4,000 children in South Swindon should the Sure Start programme be closed or not go ahead?

My hon. Friend takes a great interest in the matter and she knows that we are progressively building a new universal service for the youngest children and their families, bringing together health, early years, parent support and employment services, to name but a few. The independent academic evaluation has shown that that is already having a positive impact on children’s development and parents. If anything jeopardised the programme, I am sure that parents, professionals and any sensible person would greet that with dismay.

We welcome the progress on the number of children’s centres, but does the Minister share my concern about the continuous fall in the number of registered child minders, according to Ofsted, in the past year? Has she specifically examined the possible impact of the introduction of the early years foundation stage on the number of people who are willing to undertake that important function?

The number of places for children in early years provision continues to grow. However, we will clearly watch carefully and talk to child minders about any further decrease in their numbers. Having spoken to many child minders, I am convinced that the decline has nothing to do the EYFS, which is simply what good child minders are already familiar doing: having a flexible, play-based approach to children’s development while they are in their care. The early years foundation stage does nothing more than that.

Children’s centres make a big difference in constituencies such as mine. However, a minor problem is that, when they are attached to existing primary schools, with nursery provision extending from nought to five, they can become over-subscribed, as has happened in Milefield school in Grimethorpe in my constituency. Neighbouring Ladywood primary school, on whose governing board I serve, has only three pupils in the nursery unit next year. What more can we do as a Government to try to correct the imbalance that is currently being created in some locations?

I know that my hon. Friend has written to me about the situation in his local area. As I explained to him, the situation is not one that we in central Government can micro-manage. We have laid a duty on every local authority to assess the need in its area, look into the supply and ensure a good match, in order to give parents the most flexibility in affordable child care suited to the needs of the area. However, I would be happy to talk to my hon. Friend further about his local situation if that would help.

Given that the early years foundation stage curriculum becomes mandatory in September and that, as the right hon. Lady knows, communication, language and literacy are an important strand of provision for children from birth to the age of five, can the Minister advise the House what progress has been made in clarifying the guidance to be issued to the Department of Health on the provision of speech and language therapy in those children’s centres and on the financing for it? Further to what has just been asked, will she also do something to try to ensure that the excellent children’s centres are extended to the hardest to reach children in some of the poorest parts of the country?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. I know the premium that he places on communication and language skills, as do I. I will investigate the question that he raises about guidance for the Department of Health and write to him. I can tell him, however, that speech and language therapists are increasingly working in and through children’s centres, which I am very pleased about. We will also develop a programme, which I think we will call Let’s Talk to help people to develop children’s vocabulary, because we know that that makes a big difference to a child’s ability to communicate.

On outreach, we have also funded two additional workers in every children’s centre, to ensure that we reach those families who would perhaps not necessarily find it that easy to come of their own volition. Going out to those families can encourage them to come into the children’s centres.

The director of the national evaluation of Sure Start has told the Select Committee on Health that an integrated and expanded role for health visitors would make Sure Start significantly more effective. We agree. That is why our policies involve health visitors delivering Sure Start’s vital outreach service. I know that the Minister shares our view that outreach support to the most disadvantaged groups is a critical role for Sure Start, so can she explain to the House why the Government’s plans and budget for extending the service, which were set out in great detail last November in this document—“Sure Start Children’s Centres: Phase 3 Planning and Delivery”—have now been slashed, with outreach in the most disadvantaged areas cut by one third? Outreach is a vital part of Sure Start. Why is it being cut and where has the money gone?

Those on the Opposition Front Bench seem a bit weak on correct information today. The hon. Lady is quite incorrect: the Government are investing a total of £4 billion in supporting services through, and developing further, children’s centres over the next three years, which includes an additional £79 million specifically for outreach work. What we are not doing is having a £200 million cut, which is what the Opposition would propose, and neither are we saying that it is either health visitors—

Pupil Transport

4. What recent assessment he has made of the charging policies of local authorities for pupil transport to and from voluntary-aided schools; and if he will make a statement. (205967)

The Department is committed to enabling parents to exercise choice and access the range of schools, including the excellent education offered by many faith-based schools. The Department does not routinely conduct assessments of charging policies for transport to voluntary-aided schools. Local authorities are required to publish their policies on free and assisted home-to-school transport annually and to defend those policies locally.

Many North-West Leicestershire children in faith primary schools have a faith secondary school at such a distance that pupil transport is needed, but Conservative-led Leicestershire county council is introducing an annual £240 transport charge per child in the autumn, which will impose a serious burden on many homes. Does the Minister agree that if there is no consistency of policy across local authorities, we will have in effect a discriminatory, excessive, unacceptable and scandalous Catholic tax on families who ought to have continued free transport, at least until year 11, which is what is available to parents of other faiths and no faith? That will damage access and choice, will it not?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that local authorities should continue to think it right not to disturb well-established arrangements, including free faith-based transport. My authority, in Dorset, appears to be proceeding, without any consultation, with charging for it. We would not advocate that in our guidance. In the Education and Inspections Act 2006, we changed the law to make faith-based transport available, up to 15 miles, to those on low incomes, but local authorities are still locally accountable for decisions beyond that.

Children’s Centres (Ipswich)

There are 11 designated children’s centres in Ipswich, offering services to approximately 8,000 children aged under 5 and their families. In the next three years, Suffolk will have a further £28.7 million to develop an additional 13 centres, including in Ipswich, to provide all families with those services by 2010.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. We are about to start celebrating the success of children’s centres in Ipswich and in the wider county. Staff working in the Wellington centre, in Ipswich, have told me how much they value working in a multi-agency way, because it helps them to address the often complex needs of some of those families with young children. Will she continue to resist proposals to cut £200 million from the Sure Start programme, as that would undermine the high-quality early learning and health interventions and the employment outreach work that are so vital to some of those families?

Yes, the proposals to which my hon. Friend refers would leave a black hole of £120 million and would involve a £200 million cut in the programme. More than that, they are wrong-headed, because this is not about having either health visitors or outreach workers; we need multi-agency teams that include both, as with the excellent co-located services in Ipswich, where health visitors hold clinics and carry out home visits with family support outreach workers. That system is about working together.

Short Breaks (Disabled Children)

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the provision of short breaks for disabled children. (205969)

I meet regularly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to develop the Government’s programme for improving child health and well-being, which includes a transformation in the provision of short breaks for families with disabled children.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. I am pleased with what his Department has done on this issue and with the money that it has given to local authorities. My county, Gloucestershire, is one of the pathfinders. One of my reasons for asking him to talk to the Department of Health is that the Government committed, in the comprehensive spending review, to the NHS matching the funding that his Department makes available. On investigation, I have found that that just is not the case. In Gloucestershire, the primary care trust got exactly the same rise as every other PCT. Gloucestershire is a pathfinder, but has no extra money to provide the necessary services. Will the Secretary of State talk to his colleague the Health Secretary about putting that right?

As the hon. Gentleman has said, we are seeing a transformation. There will be a £280 million increase in spending on short breaks in the next three years from my Department, and a further £90 million in capital spending. Local authority by local authority, that will lead to a doubling, on average, of spending on short breaks, and a fivefold increase in some cases. That will be greatly welcomed by families with disabled children for whom short breaks are often a lifeline in the difficult job that they do.

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of money being matched through PCTs and the health service, and I have talked to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), and the Health Secretary about that in detail. The Health Department rightly takes the view that PCTs have a responsibility, area by area, to find money from their overall budgets to match our spending. Such decisions should be for PCTs, but we are clear, nationally, in our Department and in the Health Department, that PCTs must find the money to fund short breaks. They will be held to account by parents, families and, I hope, by hon. Members on both sides of the House if they do not find the money to do that. Our joint health strategy will ensure that that happens.

At a recent conference in Blackpool, I spoke to parents whose children suffer from various forms of cancer. Children who are disabled because of a life-limiting illness often need respite care—sometimes from health services and sometimes from properly trained social care workers provided by local authorities. Will the Secretary of State ensure, in his discussions with his colleagues in the Health Department, that those families have appropriate, integrated packages to support them through what are often difficult times?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on preparing the way for the Aimhigher plan for disabled children, which we are now implementing. One of the key aspects of the report on this matter was the importance of ensuring that we provide guidance and support for parents so that they can navigate what is often, for them, a complex system, in order to deal with their child’s multiple and complex needs. It is important that we do that for all aspects of a child’s care, including short breaks. In the past, respite breaks have often been seen as providing respite for the parents and siblings. In the transformation of short breaks that we are pursuing, we are also trying to achieve a transformation in the experience for the children themselves, and to make the short breaks genuinely fun and enjoyable. For that to happen, the children must get the care that they need, including the health care. That is why my hon. Friend’s point is so valid. I shall be discussing this matter with the Health Secretary as we take forward our joint child health strategy this summer.

Does the Secretary of State recognise the very special needs of families with children with an autistic spectrum disorder, who are desperately in need of the occasional break? The environment for those children is very specific and must be appropriate to their needs. They thrive on familiarity and often do not respond well to change or to different circumstances, but those breaks are essential, as the Secretary of State has acknowledged, for the parents and siblings as well.

The hon. Lady is quite right. For all children with a learning disability or a physical disability, a short break can work and be trusted by the parents only if they can be confident that it will provide the care and support that that individual child needs, and that the child will be secure. That is true for children with physical disabilities, but it is also true for children with a learning difficulty such as autism. I have visited the TreeHouse school in north London and seen the intense way in which professionals provide care throughout the day. I have also seen how the parents provide that care all on their own in the mornings and evenings, and during the school holidays. For those parents, a short break is vital, but it must be tailored to the needs of the child.

Youth Facilities (Warrington)

Young people, their families and communities in Warrington and elsewhere are united in calling for attractive and safe youth facilities where young people can meet their friends, take part in positive activities and access support services. We are committed to meeting that demand. That is why, last month, we launched myplace, a new national programme of capital investment which will make available £190 million over the next three years to provide new or improved youth facilities.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, but what can he do to ensure that Lib-Dem and Tory-controlled councils take advantage of the money that is being provided by the Government, so that areas in my constituency, such as Burtonwood—which get a youth bus only twice a week and have little access to the town in the evening by public transport—actually get the youth facilities that residents are asking for in every survey carried out, but which are constantly being delayed?

All that we can do is to encourage the local authorities concerned, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will be doing everything in her power—including asking this question today—to encourage her local authority to apply for the funding. It is extremely important that when these facilities are put in place the young people themselves are consulted, along with the local community. May I add that the local Member of Parliament should be consulted as well?

Will my hon. Friend congratulate the friends of Westy park, who are involving local young people in a major project to draw up plans for play, sports and leisure facilities in one of the most disadvantaged wards in Cheshire? Those facilities are urgently needed.

I am happy to do so. It is clear from the research that has been undertaken that, where young people are involved—whether in the design or in the management and running of a facility—the projects are much more successful. That is why young people are an integral part of the myplace initiative.

Notwithstanding the admirable efforts by the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) to improve the lot of young people in her constituency, why did the figures released last week by the Youth Justice Board show a 45 per cent. increase in youth crime in the Warrington area, with crime by girls up by 60 per cent., and a 27 per cent. rise in hospital admissions in Warrington for alcohol problems involving children in the past three years? Chlamydia rates have risen by 50 per cent. in the north-west over the past five years. Those figures are, sadly, replicated across the rest of the country. Are not the Government failing our young people in that, rather than promoting youth facilities with urgent education programmes to encourage responsible attitudes to sex, drinking and youth crime, they seem more intent on demonising young people yet again by staging desperate stunts with fake hoodies in Crewe?

The hon. Gentleman is wandering rather off piste. Nevertheless, let me deal with the issue of Warrington. I think that the whole House would want to join me in expressing sympathy to the Newlove family in respect of what we all recognise as an appalling case that took place there recently. The key is to work in partnership, nationally and locally, to try to solve these problems. That means that there are local responsibilities as well. We are playing our part nationally with record investment in youth facilities and we will soon publish our new youth alcohol action plan. The Government are doing their bit; it is also necessary for it to happen locally.

The Challenge Programme

8. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the London, Manchester and Black Country Challenges; and if he will make a statement. (205972)

Since 2003, our London Challenge programme has brought wholesale improvements in secondary schools, with results rising faster than nationally. Those successes will now be extended locally and across the country. The programme has already been introduced in Greater Manchester and the black country and our proposed new legislation will ensure that every school is a good school, with local authorities using their powers—and Challenge using its powers—to intervene when necessary.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Sandwell schools in the black country have improved their educational performance significantly since 1997, but it is recognised that there is still further to go to meet the skills demands of local employers. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how much money will be targeted on schools in the black country and in what specific ways work will be done with the schools to raise the skills levels?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in praising Sandwell council, which last year had the seventh biggest improvement in school results in the whole country, and the 20th biggest increase over the past 10 years. I am happy to praise local authorities—Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat—that make progress on standards. I refuse to run down the contribution of local authorities in the way that Conservative Members do at every opportunity. It is quite right, however, to continue to work with Sandwell so that results continue to improve in the future. I also support the council in its work in opening academies. We are allocating £23 million to the Black Country Challenge over the next three years, but the money will be well spent only if it is spent in partnership with local authorities rather than in opposition and conflict.

Children's Centres (Crawley)

There are five designated children’s centres in Crawley, reaching 4,500 children. Over the next three years, there will be a further £28.8 million for what we expect to be a further 17 centres in West Sussex, including in Crawley.

I am deeply grateful for that response. Anyone who has stayed close to Sure Start centres will know about the fantastic work that has gone on in them. It was right to concentrate on the most needy children first. Now that the service is going to be universal, what steps can my right hon. Friend take to ensure that county councils do not plead poverty in the future and then fail to use that money for those children that desperately need it?

Of course we have enshrined in legislation the requirement that local authorities, along with other key partners like primary care trusts and Jobcentre Plus, provide integrated services on this model for children under five and their parents. I expect local authorities to abide by that legislation, but I also hope that they will do so enthusiastically, as there is no doubt from the feedback from those working in children’s centres and from the growing and measurable positive impacts on children and parents alike that this service was much needed. It is going to grow and I hope that it will have a positive benefit for every child in the country by 2010.

Does the Minister accept that in Crawley, in Staffordshire and everywhere else the best possible centre is the family? What is she doing as a Minister in a Department that carries that word in its title, to encourage families and not to institutionalise children, irrespective of their backgrounds?

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman, although—the Conservative party has recently recognised this, rather belatedly—some families want some support in bringing up their children. That is part of the services that children’s centres are providing. In particular, those in Crawley have developed an important standard of excellence in the services that they are developing for parents, including services for fathers, grandfathers and male carers, and talking toddlers groups—all those things that are helping parents with what in today’s society is perhaps the increasingly difficult job of bringing their children up well.

School Standards

Since 1997, we have doubled funding per pupil and put more than 200,000 more adults in classrooms. Our children’s plan sets out how we will deliver a world-class education system: personalised learning, progression, Every Child a Reader, Every Child a Writer, Every Child Counts, tutors, curriculum changes, academies, new 14 to 19 diplomas, raising the participation age, work-force reforms and continued investment will continue to transform standards. And we have recently announced £200 million to achieve our ambition to have no secondary school below the 30 per cent. floor target by 2011. And on capital, we are spending £45 billion on the Building Schools for the Future programme to rebuild or refurbish every single secondary school in England.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but will he now answer my question about whether he has any further plans to raise standards in schools?

Well, in among that long list of things that we are doing, my hon. Friend should pick out Every Child a Reader, Every Child a Writer and Every Child Counts, which aim to ensure that every child leaves primary school with the required standard. We have 100,000 more than in 1997 achieving the required standard in English and maths, but we need to go further. The effect of a positive environment is not to be underestimated, and the Building Schools for the Future programme will proceed without the £5.2 billion black hole in its finances that the Conservative party has in its BSF programme.

Last week, the chief inspector of schools, Christine Gilbert, told the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families that standards had stalled. She also said that 20 per cent. of children leaving primary school—one in five—did not have the literacy and numeracy skills to prosper at secondary school. It is hard to square the words of the chief inspector of schools with what the Minister has just told us. Will he tell the House from what date he thinks improvements stalled under this Government?

We always say that we need to do better, but I do not agree that progress has stalled. Key stage 2 results are up 17 percentage points from 63 to 80 per cent. in English since 1997, and up 15 percentage points in maths at that stage. At key stage 3, there are similar improvements. We see that across the board. Indeed, reading is a subject that the Conservative party rightly talks about a great deal, and the hon. Gentleman will have seen the excellent results of the reading recovery programme, which were publicised last week. They show that we are making really good progress in dealing with the most difficult literacy problems in our primary schools.

In that long list of excellent Government initiatives, I do not think that I heard my hon. Friend mention teaching methods and classroom arrangements. Over a couple of generations, misguided teaching methods were damaging to our children’s education success, but there are now demonstrably good methods that are much more successful. Will he use his good offices to ensure that those poor methods are finally eliminated and that the best methods are adopted?

Of course, there was not enough time to list all the many things that we are doing to raise standards in schools. Improving teaching is certainly one of them. Ofsted, which the Conservative party is keen to quote, tells us that we have the best generation of young teachers that we have ever had in our schools. One thing that we are doing further to develop the early years of teaching is developing a masters qualification in teaching and learning, so that teaching can become a masters-level profession. Part of that will involve ensuring that we have proper rigour.

Recently, I was at a school in Calderdale, seeing the progression pilots. I saw real rigour in key stage 3 English and maths teaching; teachers using progression pilot techniques such as the APP—assessing pupil progress—method were able properly to identify the level that each child was at in their class and help them to progress to the next one.

Clearly we could have a long sedentary exchange about the right hon. Gentleman’s grammar, but I can tell him that 80 per cent. of pupils are currently leaving primary school having met the national standard in English, while 77 per cent. are leaving having met it in maths. Obviously we want 100 per cent. to achieve the national standard, and although we are moving in the right direction, we still have some way to go.

Mental Health Services

13. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the review of child and adolescent mental health services; and if he will make a statement. (205977)

The two Secretaries of State have had discussions about the CAMHS review prior to its announcement in the children’s plan, and subsequently during their regular meetings to discuss a range of issues. Both Secretaries of State are closely involved in the progress of the review. Meetings have been held, and further meetings are planned, between the review’s chairmen and the Secretaries of State. They will also jointly attend a forthcoming meeting of the review’s expert group.

I hope that the Minister is aware of the latest report from the Children’s Society in connection with its Good Childhood inquiry, which raises concerns about the rising mental health problems among children and young people. As part of the review, will the Secretaries of State consider the roles that schools and education welfare people can play in helping to identify children who are at risk of developing such problems, and perhaps in helping to prevent the problems from developing?

I can confirm that. I can also confirm that, in addition to the meetings that I mentioned in my answer, at the Department of Health later this afternoon I shall meet the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), along with front-line practitioners and members of the expert group, to discuss the review even further.

As my hon. Friend says, schools have a vital role to play. Only last week I visited St Matthew’s school, Westminster, and in previous weeks I visited Mowlem primary school in Tower Hamlets, where we looked at the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning programme. I hope that Conservative Front Benchers have changed their minds about that programme, because it is having a real effect in transforming some of those problems in our schools.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that in our increasingly complex world, it is very important—probably much more important than in the past—to build up children’s resilience, so that as they grow up they are better able to handle the many things that come into their lives? One of the best ways of building resilience is through the early intervention programmes that the Government have set in train. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the Secretary of State will continue to discuss those programmes, which we know work and have significant effects as children grow older, with the Secretary of State for Health? I believe that that will have a real effect.

Yes. I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend, who was an early innovator of those initiatives, and piloted and introduced many of them to Government. Early intervention and building the resilience of children and young people are vital in today’s complicated world, and I assure her they are at the heart of the children’s plan and the Department’s mission.

Children's Centres (Milton Keynes)

There are 13 designated Sure Start children’s centres in Milton Keynes offering services to approximately 9,000 young children and their families in the area.

I assure the Minister that the centres that have already been built are doing an excellent job for my constituents, but as she knows, Milton Keynes is an area of housing growth. The council has asked me to ask the Minister whether there will be funding for children’s centres for our growing population after 2010-11. Can she give me an answer?

Obviously I can only speak for this Government—who I am sure will still be the Government after 2010. We are committed to continuing to support Sure Start children’s centres, and that will be reflected in the revenue support grant that we give local authorities from that point onwards.

Admissions Policies (Northamptonshire)

17. What discussions he has had with schools in Northamptonshire on their admission policies following the Government’s recent analysis of three local education authorities. (205982)

My officials wrote to the admission authorities of 51 schools in Northamptonshire on 11 March, asking them to verify whether the admission arrangements being reviewed were in fact the correct admission arrangements adopted by their school for 2008-09. Since then, my officials have had discussions and been corresponding with a number of schools involved in the exercise to ensure compliance with the admissions code.

As a result of that analysis the Department issued a badly drafted press release that implied that schools in Northamptonshire were, among other things, taking money for offering places. It later transpired that not one school in Northamptonshire acted in such a way. Will the Minister now apologise to my constituents, and to the wider Northamptonshire public, for that truly disturbing press release?

The press release that we issued did not specify authorities individually in terms of the areas of non-compliance; we were very careful about that. We wanted to make sure that we had gone through the verification process. However, in order to inform the consultation on the admission arrangements for next year, it was important to publicise the levels of non-compliance that our internal exercise had found, including non-compliance in Northamptonshire in a range of other areas that were depriving some of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents of fair admissions to schools. We therefore have nothing to apologise about.

Topical Questions

I have today placed in the Library a letter I have written today to our social partners asking them to consider what more we can do to improve the early years of teachers’ careers, and I have also laid a written statement confirming that I have accepted in full the recommendations that the independent School Teachers Review Body makes in its 17th report, including those on the modernisation of teachers’ responsibilities, enhanced leadership and the conditions of teachers who are not attached to specific schools, such as those in pupil referral units. Tomorrow I will publish a White Paper on how we will deliver improvements in education for excluded pupils. My statement also confirms my full acceptance of the recommended 2.45 per cent. pay rise for teachers from September this year and 2 per cent. per year from 2009 and 2010. I believe that this three-year award will enable teachers and schools to plan ahead, is fair and affordable, and delivers the public sector pay discipline that our economy needs at this crucial time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) reported the chief inspector’s finding that standards have stalled. Whom does the Secretary of State blame for that? Is it the pupils or teachers? Is it himself? Or could it be his favourite scapegoat at the moment for everything that has gone wrong—the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)?

I think that that was a non-sequitur, so we shall move on. The fact is that there has been a substantial rise in school standards over the last 10 years, but as I have said in the House before, the rate of increase has slowed in recent years and we must redouble our efforts. One reason why there has been a slow-down is that we are now reaching the point where it is often children with particular learning disabilities who need extra help in order to increase their learning opportunities and reach key stage 4 at age 11. That is why we are taking forward early intervention with Every Child a Reader and Every Child Counts, to give extra, special one-to-one help to those children so that they can get the support they need so that every child can excel in school, which is our ambition.

T3. It is foster care fortnight. These selfless people play a crucial role in our society, but I am told that 40 per cent. of them are unpaid and 75 per cent. earn less than the minimum wage. What does the Minister propose to do to address this issue, so that we can begin to tackle the shortage in Wirral and elsewhere? (205941)

In our Care Matters implementation plan and in the forthcoming Children and Young Persons Bill we set out a number of measures that we are taking to try to improve matters for foster carers. My hon. Friend is right to say that they play a vital role in the care system. Not all foster care is regarded as a profession or a job in the same way as in other areas, so although we have a national series of allowances, there is no national fee structure in relation to foster carers. Foster care fortnight is an excellent opportunity to raise awareness of the need for more foster carers and of the wonderful, rewarding work that they do.

T2. The Minister will be aware of new plans for parent-driven school inspections. Can he confirm how many parents will be needed to trigger an inspection, in what circumstances they will be able to do so and what he will do to stop vexatious repeat requests from parents? (205940)

The chief inspector of schools has made a statement today, and I fully support it. It is right that the views of parents are fully incorporated into the inspections regime. Our national challenge programme to improve every school will require local authorities to take into account the views of local parents and to consult them actively. The details of how the inspection regime will work is a matter for Ofsted, not for me. I am sure that the chief inspector will want to ensure that we avoid vexatious views and the putting up of obstacles. I think it is right that we make it easier for parents to have a view and to, if not trigger, at least raise the potential for an early inspection of a particular school. I fully support what the chief inspector is doing to enhance parent power in our country.

T4. The excellent reading recovery scheme at Oaktree primary school in Swindon is achieving remarkable results with young people, particularly Kerry, Charlene and Dylan, whom I heard read the other day; they were excellent readers. Would my right hon. Friend congratulate Celia Messenger, the tutor in charge of reading recovery and consider visiting the scheme? Is the success of Swindon’s scheme replicated throughout the country? (205942)

I certainly welcome the opportunity to congratulate Celia Messenger and her colleagues. I can also categorically say to my hon. Friend that the success in Swindon has been matched nationally by an exceptional programme that has an improvement rate of 80 per cent. over 21 months, which is four times the normal age rate. That is why we are moving from pilots to a national programme with an investment of £144 million. I am sure that one of the team will be happy to visit Swindon as soon as we can.

The Secretary of State will know of the shambles that we have seen over the past couple of weeks in the marking of 1.2 million key stage 2 and key stage 3 test papers. What action is he taking over this issue? Will he consider withholding some of the £153 million due to be paid to ETS, which is administering this contract, over the next five years?

This is something that we have taken very seriously, and the Minister for Schools and Learners has himself been in consultation with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which has responsibility for delivering the tests. It informs us that the actions that have been taken are sufficient to get things back on track, but clearly we will keep the matter closely under review, and he will take an active watching brief on the issue.

Further to the answer that the Secretary of State has just given, he must know that ETS has a history of failure abroad. In 2004, in America, it gave 4,000 graduate teachers the wrong marks for their teaching exams and had to pay millions of dollars in compensation. Can the Secretary of State tell us what information he had about the company’s failure in America before it was granted this contract? What steps did he take to avert further problems in this country?

The decision to grant the contract was taken by the National Assessment Agency, which reports to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It made the decision, not me. It is not for me to make individual contractual decisions in these cases, but clearly I am taking the matter very seriously. As I just said, we will keep it closely under review, and I shall talk to the QCA. The most important thing, from my point of view, is to ensure that our standard assessment tests marking goes smoothly for pupils, teachers and parents, and for the markers themselves. We have been assured that things are on track, but we will keep the matter closely under review.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his reply, but is he really telling us that a contract was established with this company to monitor all key stage 2 and key stage 3 tests and Ministers did not know that it had been responsible for failing teachers wrongly in America and for paying out millions of dollars in compensation, and that it had been found wanting in graduate examinations across the United States? How was the company allowed to grant this contract without Ministers having oversight? Who will now apologise to the teachers and markers who are in the eye of the storm?

As I said, this is a matter that the NAA takes forward as part of the QCA. It is something that we are monitoring closely, but the decisions are not made by me. I have no knowledge of the facts that the hon. Gentleman raises. If he had raised them at an earlier stage, I might have looked at them, but he has never done so before. The matter is something that we are happy to keep an eye on, but it is not a matter for me to award these contracts—it is a matter for the QCA.

T6. What progress has been made towards developing an action plan to safeguard runaway and missing children? (205943)

The Government are committed to driving up improvements for young runaways, as we set out in the children’s plan. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that she and her cross-party group have done in that area. We have established a cross-departmental working group, and the action plan on which it is working will be launched in June. In addition, we will develop a new indicator on young people who run away, as part of the national indicator set to be measured from 2009.

T5. Newport high school in my constituency is one of the top schools in the west midlands and indeed in the country, so much so that next year many of the pupils will bypass GCSE maths and go on to AS-level maths examinations. However, as a result of that success, it will be penalised in the school performance tables. Why is the Minister prepared to see high-achieving schools such as Newport high school penalised for their success? (205944)

I am happy to have a look at the individual case, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to come and talk to me, that is fine and I shall have a look at it. Clearly, we want to motivate as many people as possible to achieve high standards in maths. If they want to go on to do AS-level maths, that is a good thing. I am happy to talk to him about how we could reflect that in the tables, but I need to understand whether the pupils have already taken GCSE maths as a stepping stone to the AS-levels, in which case the issue would be straightforward.

T7. The Minister’s decision last autumn to order a review of city academies was most welcome. Could he now tell us when that review will be published? If the findings conclude that such schools do not benefit our poorest communities, can he confirm that the academies programme will be scrapped and successful comprehensive schools, such as he visited in Calder Valley last week, will be encouraged? (205945)

I certainly had a very encouraging visit to Todmorden high in Calder Valley last week, and I was hoping to be able to nip over to Halifax to my hon. Friend’s constituency, but unfortunately I was pulled off in another direction. As I said earlier, the academies programme is being consistently reviewed by all manner of people. Everyone who reviews it concludes that academies are doing a really good job, and I look forward to an academy replacing the Ridings school in her constituency and turning around performance that has been below the standard required for some time.

T9. Oakington Manor is one of my schools of excellence in Brent and it embraces many Government initiatives such as the Kickz programme and extended schools. Its head teacher, Sylvia Libson, says that children should have a safe place to go and structured activities to do. What are the Government doing to expand the Bill on unclaimed assets and the recommendations in it? (205947)

My hon. Friend is right, and that is why we have put great stress on young people having much more access to structured activities with good adults than they have in the past. The Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill is going through the House now, as she knows, and one of the priorities, when the assets come on stream, will be the provision of such activities and places for young people. However, we are not waiting for that, and she will have heard my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary’s reference to the myplace initiative, to which we have given £190 million to start the process before the assets come on stream.

T10. Is the Secretary of State—himself no mean cricketer—aware that tomorrow is national schools cricket day? He recently claimed that 90 per cent. of all state schools were offering cricket, which sounds an excellent figure. But is he also aware that the Cricket Foundation, the Government’s designated organisation for delivering grass-roots cricket, discovered in a survey that only 10 per cent. of children actually play cricket in state schools? Are those figures correct? If they are, what will he do to try to get more young children on to the pitch? (205948)

The hon. Gentleman is well known for his cricketing skills and interest, and for his work on the all-party group. It was a matter of pleasure for me to see him bowled out in the first over of our game last year, even though those from my side of the House went on to suffer defeat. According to my information, nine out of 10 schools do offer cricket to their pupils, and more than half of all schools have strong links with cricket clubs. We support enthusiastically the work of the Chance to Shine initiative and the national cricket day tomorrow, and I am happy to meet him to discuss the matter further. For the benefit of Members on both sides of the House, the current score is that New Zealand are 187 for four.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Hangleton Park children’s centre, which opens on Thursday—the latest of 14 across my city of Brighton and Hove? I have had the joy of visiting the openings of Clarendon Road, Cornerstones, West Hove school, Mile Oak and South Portslade children’s centres. Does she agree that those centres not only provide a wonderful start in life for babies and toddlers, but are a cohesive force in the community, making adults realise the importance of parenthood?

I am pleased that my hon. Friend will have another children’s centre to visit in her constituency. As she rightly says, children’s centres have always had two equally important priorities, because we can achieve the best possible development of young children only if we support parents too. That twofold approach is the right one.