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Topical Questions

Volume 476: debated on Monday 19 May 2008

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.