Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 478: debated on Monday 30 June 2008

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families has today issued a written statement on the early years foundation stage. In that statement, she has asked Sir Jim Rose to review the literacy goals for five-year-olds as part of his review of the primary curriculum. The small number of parents and child care workers who feel that some specific parts of the EYFS are incompatible with their philosophy will now be able to apply for a time-limited exemption ahead of a review of all early years foundation stages in 2010.

The Minister for Schools and Learners has also issued a written statement today, in which he set out a further package of support for the delivery of our new diplomas, including £23 million to help pupils from rural schools to travel in order to access diplomas, and to provide fair arrangements between independent schools and other schools, colleges and local authorities in consortiums.

I am also pleased to announce that as we take forward our three general diplomas in science, the humanities and languages, about 40 employers have already engaged with them, including AstraZeneca, ITN, G & J Seddon, Lovell, Kier Group, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the national health service, the Eden Project and the Victoria and Albert museum.

Finally, today I placed in the Library a copy of a letter that I sent to the Community Security Trust after it raised concerns that Jewish schools are finding it more difficult than they should to access capital funding for security. In that letter, I confirmed that if the trust can provide evidence that the current system is not working, I shall consider whether there is a case for a different system of central or targeted funding, so that all parents can know that their children are safe at school.

In one instance in a school in my constituency, a little girl who fell over and injured herself in the playground was clearly distressed, but the teacher felt unable to put her arm around her and comfort her as she would have liked to have done. In a second instance, a disruptive pupil went under a desk, disrupting the class entirely, but the teacher did not feel able to intervene until one of the parents had been summoned, which took a couple of hours. Is it not time that we had some common sense in our schools, that we gave some support to our teachers and that we stopped the effective ban on teachers ever touching children?

The common-sense thing would be for the hon. Gentleman to advise that school that there is no reason at all not to provide such comfort and support—whether the issue is about reasonable restraint or comfort. Of course teachers should be comforting children. Rather than raise the matter with me, the hon. Gentleman should go back to the school and tell its staff that they should have given that comfort and that they should do so in future.

T5. Given that citizenship education has the power to tackle issues such as diversity, shared values, ethnicity and community cohesion, is the Minister content that Ofsted’s previously expressed worries have been addressed, that its recommendations for better citizenship education have been put into effect and that the issue is being addressed within and without the classroom? (214244)

My hon. Friend will be aware that we asked Sir Keith Ajegbo to carry out a review of citizenship education, and we are implementing the outcome of that review to improve the standard of citizenship teaching and learning. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that last week was “Who do we think we are?” week, which was an opportunity for more than 500 schools across the country to explore their roots and to celebrate them collectively, as recommended by Sir Keith. I visited excellent examples of that in Bradford, at Guru Nanak secondary school in west London, and when I went back to my very first primary school, Brooklands primary school in Greenwich.

The Government are reducing the amount of literature in GCSE English so that it makes up only 20 per cent. of the examination. One of the questions in the 2006 GCSE English exam was:

“Describe the room you’re sitting in.”

The chief examiner of GCSE English decreed that pupils who began their answer with a swear word—“Expletive off”—should get 7.5 per cent. of the available marks. If they added an exclamation mark, they would get 11 per cent. Does the Secretary of State believe that we drive up standards in English by downgrading the importance of literature and rewarding the use of bad language?

It is clear to me that in this particular case the exam board, AQA, and the Joint Council for Qualifications have already responded by saying that examiners are required to report the use of “inappropriate” material in exam papers and that that could lead to a loss of marks or disqualification. The report that the hon. Gentleman read may have been wrong. Of course it is important that we have creativity in our curriculum, but it does not need to go that far. The people at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority board and Ofqual are there to mark the exams and then drive up standards. It is for them to ensure not only that the proper standards are in place but that there is proper monitoring of examinations and boards. In this case, the QCA board made it clear that this was inappropriate and would be marked down, so I think that the hon. Gentleman has got his facts wrong.

I am grateful for that qualification and for that rebuke to the chief examiner, who has been quoted today. It is also interesting that the use of such language is considered creative by a Government Minister.

In this year’s key stage 3 science examination, pupils were asked the following questions: if a star-shaped fossil is found, could it be the remains of a snail, a slug, a ladybird or a starfish?; where does the power come from for a solar-powered mole scarer?; and what part of the rider’s anatomy does a riding hat protect? Given that it is possible to secure a good pass—a level 5—in key stage 3 examinations having got just one third of the answers correct, is the Minister satisfied that he is providing a rigorous scientific education for 14-year-olds?

We are entirely clear that we are providing a rigorous system of examinations. Standards are rising because we have the best teachers we have ever had, and we can give that assurance because we have Ofqual in place to ensure that standards are being raised in a consistent way across the country. The questions that the hon. Gentleman mentions are very interesting, but I have no more idea what the answers are than he does—perhaps we should discuss that afterwards.

T6. Thornsett school is a splendid small primary school in my constituency. We have recently managed to get Derbyshire county council to place it on the list of schools that are due for replacement, but it was quite a job to get it on the list, because although it has inadequate staff facilities, very poor access up steep steps on to the road, and half the playground taken up by a temporary classroom, we are advised that it does not meet other criteria on the Department’s list. Will my hon. Friend look sympathetically at the Derbyshire list, particularly as regards Thornsett school, whose Victorian buildings need replacing? (214245)

I will certainly look sympathetically, in so far as I am asked to, at the local authority’s plans in respect of Thornsett. I am looking forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency, at his insistence, later this month, when perhaps I can discuss it a little further.

T2. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), does the Secretary of State believe that pupils should be awarded marks for writing expletives on exam papers? Did he see the article in The Times that found that pupils were being rewarded in exams for writing obscenities? It said:“One pupil who wrote ‘f*** off’ was given marks for accurate spelling and conveying a meaning successfully.”Is that not a complete farce? (214240)

As I made clear, it is possible to be marked down for expletives, as well as for not listening in class. It is pretty clear that that is what the hon. Gentleman has been doing, because I answered that question a moment ago.

T7. My hon. Friend will be aware that in the past decade 64 teenagers have died in the workplace and there have been nearly 15,000 injuries. Could he outline what his Department is doing to ensure that health and safety are taught in the workplace and we can reduce the number of avoidable injuries and deaths? (214246)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. In 2002, the Department issued guidance to schools in England on the teaching of health and safety in school as part of personal, social and health education. We are looking to deepen the quality of the teaching in that subject through a new PSHE subject association. Where appropriate, health and safety are taught in other subjects, such as science, in the context of carrying out experiments.

I invite the Secretary of State to congratulate his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who is now Health Secretary, on his remarkable wisdom and foresight in March 2007, when he predicted that the new diploma system could go horribly wrong. Now that the Health Secretary has been proved right, will the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families consider scrapping the complex 17 diploma system, which is clearly not working effectively? Will he consider replacing it with a general diploma that will build on existing qualifications?

It is the hon. Gentleman who has got it horribly wrong. That was not what was said by my right hon. Friend, if I remember correctly. The fact is that our diploma programme is going from strength to strength, and we will continue to take it forward. The vice-president of AstraZeneca said just today:

“We believe strongly that the Diploma’s ethos of applied learning, far from being a distraction as the CBI suggests, will in fact have a real and positive effect in boosting the numbers of young people studying key subjects like science and languages” .

There is another very important quote:

“An over-arching diploma which brings together academic and vocational training into one single diploma which we support…I think would help end this historic gap and this deeply damaging gap between academic qualifications and vocational training.”

I agree with the shadow Chancellor; it is a pity that the shadow Secretary of State does not.

There was a great deal of anger in my constituency when the local media portrayed eight of our local secondary schools as falling short of the national school challenge target. In a selective area, where 25 per cent. of the kids are creamed off and sent to grammar schools, it is extremely difficult to meet that target, no matter how good a school is. Will my right hon. Friend give the head teachers involved an assurance that when the time for judgment comes, they will be judged on added value and the quality of teaching in those schools?

My hon. Friend is quite right. Many high-performing schools that are in the national challenge category will get through the 30 per cent. threshold comfortably. They have our full support, but they are not failing schools at all. It is true that secondary moderns face greater challenges, which is why they need extra support. I have said that we will give extra support to secondary moderns to ensure that they overcome the extra barriers they face because of selection. It is also true that the majority of secondary modern schools are already above the 30 per cent. threshold. We will work with them, use their experience and expertise and, in some cases, partner them with other national challenge schools so that we can ensure that every school and every child gets what every parent wants—a good local school. We will ensure that the extra support is there, and that schools have our full support.

T3. The Secretary of State may be aware that 15 October is global hand-washing day. Given that effective hand-washing has proved to be the most effective prevention of the spread of many infections and diseases, what is his Department doing to mark the day and to ensure that effective hand-washing practices are implemented in the home and at school? (214241)

As part of my departmental duties involving child safety, on Friday I visited the burns unit at Pinderfields hospital in my constituency, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the NHS. I am pleased to say that I washed my hands on the way in, while I was on the ward and on the way out—at least three different times. This Department is hand-washing to ensure that we tackle any problems of lack of hygiene in wards, so that children are safe from burns in my constituency, and in constituencies throughout the country.

May I ask my right hon. Friend what plans there are to increase apprenticeships for 16 and 17-year-olds? Surely that group of young people will be the lifeblood of the future of our skilled work force.

I agree with that. We announced in our document “World-class Apprenticeships” our plans to improve the quality and expand the number and range of apprenticeships for young people. We are introducing an entitlement to an apprenticeship place for all suitably qualified young people who want one, and our ambition is that one in five of all young people will be an apprentice. The expansion of apprenticeships will support our plans to raise the age of participation in learning, so it is a very important part of our planning.

T4. Shortly before the last general election the Prime Minister, who was then the Chancellor, visited Walton high school in my constituency to bask in the reflected glory of a successful, expanding school. The Government claim to support such schools with demand-led funding via the Learning and Skills Council. However, Walton high wants to educate 360 pupils next year but has just been told that it will get funding for only 300. It has the demand, so why not the funding? (214243)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take up that issue with Milton Keynes council, which is responsible for school place planning in his constituency. In the past few weeks, we have awarded an extra £28 million of capital funding to Milton Keynes council as part of the basic need safety valve, to cope with the expansion of demand in Milton Keynes. I hope that the Liberals on the council will engage with the hon. Gentleman and deliver on the needs of his constituents.

T8. Will the Minister confirm that when the Government make high-profile pronouncements on new capital funding, a large number of councils on the grant floor are excluded from the programme because they are restricted to supported borrowing, which does not carry with it supported revenue? (214247)

There are some technical issues in relation to that matter. We have come to expect the hon. Gentleman to raise such technical matters. The big picture should not be forgotten: that we have increased tenfold in real terms the amount of money that we are delegating to local authorities to spend on schools capital, even in Richmond upon Thames, and all to the benefit of his constituents.