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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 487: debated on Monday 26 January 2009

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Testing and Assessment

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the educational testing and assessment regime. (250608)

Ofqual monitors standards of qualifications and assessments. It reported in July that standards are being maintained. As a result of the unacceptable problems with the delivery of last year’s national curriculum tests, we set up the Sutherland inquiry, and we expect to respond shortly to Lord Sutherland’s report. We have also established an expert group to advise on improvements to assessment arrangements, and we are trialling new ways of assessing key stage 2 pupils through the Making Good Progress pilots.

Can the Minister tell us what effective contingency plans he has put in place for this coming summer?

The procurement for this summer’s key stage 2 tests has gone well, as has been reported to the House, and it has now been awarded to Edexcel. The hon. Gentleman will know that Edexcel operated the standard assessment tests contract between 2005 and 2007, delivering double the number of SATs that it will have to deliver this summer. I am confident that we have everything in place to ensure that we have a successful round this summer.

Does the Minister understand that a lot of Members of Parliament across the political spectrum have sympathy for the teachers and head teachers who think that the Ofsted regime is run by people who could never hold down a classroom and who have been promoted out of their positions? I am talking about all those people from the chief inspector downwards. They ought to be obliged to return to a teaching situation for a year, every two years, before they can make any reasonable and valid assessment of the qualities of their peers who are struggling in the profession. This needs to be looked at, because some of the assessments that are being made are grossly unfair.

Naturally, I listen carefully to the concerns of head teachers and teachers. I also listen carefully to what the Select Committee says. Ofsted is a non-ministerial department, as my hon. Friend knows, and it is accountable through the Select Committee. I have every confidence in the work of the chief inspector and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just whispered to me, to suggest that she should go back into the classroom every two years would be like suggesting that Alex Ferguson should go back to playing football every couple of seasons.

May I ask the Minister also to consider the means of assessment and, in particular, the use of course work for GCSEs and AS-levels? As a parent of teenagers, I know that many of them regard this form of assessment as laughable. It might be assessing the candidates, but it might also be assessing the work of their elder sibling, their parents or their friends—no one can be confident that it is assessing the work of the candidates themselves. Will the Minister accept that this experiment is failing, because it is not providing fair assessment, and look again at how best to obtain accurate results in these important exams for young people?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that they are important exams. Indeed, my son is currently doing his course work for his second year of A-levels. He is taking the work extremely seriously—I hope—and this is the subject of much discussion. Course work is important, and it is important that it is completed properly. It varies between different subjects, and we have reduced the amount of course work as a component of certain GCSEs. I am confident that we have now struck the right balance in each of the different subjects. For example, as someone who studied geography to degree level, I know that course work is a really important element in that subject, and it should remain so.

My right hon. Friend will realise that SATs for 11-year-olds are not conducted in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland. What is the educational rationale for conducting them in England, when we know how disruptive they are for 11-year-olds? Would an alternative not be better? Will he accept the recommendations and findings of the expert group, including those that head teachers are now putting forward?

Obviously we are looking forward to hearing what the expert group has to say to us. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question about the educational rationale, because it gives me an opportunity to say that it is about success and about what works. He will be aware that the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study—TIMMS—international evaluation of maths and science showed that our 14-year-olds are the best in Europe in those subjects, in part thanks to the test regime.

May I first wish the Minister’s son good luck in his A-levels? I was surprised to hear that he is sitting his A-levels, because the Minister does not look old enough to have a son in the second year of the sixth form.

The Minister mentioned the exam regulator Ofqual, which is supposed to ensure that test standards are robust. Does he support its decision to order an exam board to lower marks in the latest set of GCSEs, and to make the exams easier with a pass mark of just 20 per cent.?

I would dispute the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of that particular debate. There are three examination boards, as I recall, in respect of GCSEs, and one of them had a different view from the other two. In order to carry out its function properly, Ofqual decided that it was necessary to have some consistency across the board. That was what informed its decision. It was not about dumbing down; Ofqual has been very robust about that.

Ofqual was not robust enough. As the Minister knows, it deliberately told one exam board to lower its marks. That exam board did so under protest and said that GCSEs would no longer be comparable with exams taken in the past. The Minister also knows that one of our leading headmasters has said that the new science GCSE has a

“terrifying absence of real science”.

Another leading headmaster said that its content had been reduced so that it was no longer appropriate for intelligent students. One hundred and eighty-seven independent schools now do not take the Government’s GCSEs and they do not bother with the Government’s league tables; they prefer the international GCSE, which the Government’s own watchdog has acknowledged is “more demanding”. We now have a system that has been compared by one headmaster to that of South Africa, where richer students can take more prestigious exams and poorer students are denied the same opportunities. Will the Minister ensure that opportunity is made more equal and insist that state schools can offer the more robust IGSCEs?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that Ofqual has been clear that it is confident that standards have been maintained across the GCSEs. I also remind him that the study and taking of GCSEs in science in single subjects has doubled in recent years. I further remind him—and hope he celebrates the fact—that our 14-year-olds are the best in Europe at science, thanks to the education they receive in our maintained schools. As far as the IGCSE is concerned, the jury is still out. As I recall, the maths IGSCE, which is very popular among certain members of the independent sector, does not have a non-calculator paper, whereas I think it is important that we assess mental arithmetic and give people that sort of rigour, free of the calculator.

Apprenticeships

2. What steps he plans to take to increase the number of apprenticeships for 16 and 17- year-olds. (250609)

In 2007-08, a record 225,000 people started apprenticeships, and 107,000 of those were aged 16 to 18. Provisions in the forthcoming Children, Skills and Learning Bill will guarantee an apprenticeship place for all suitably qualified young people by 2013 and are key to delivering our ambition for one in five young people to be in an apprenticeship by the end of the next decade.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, which is in sharp contrast to what is happening in Scotland. Is she aware that third and fourth year time-served apprentices are being laid off in my East Lothian constituency and throughout Scotland, and are unable to complete their training. Does she agree that the Scottish Executive and the First Minister need to prioritise jobs, training and skills and follow the example of Northern Ireland, where apprentices are guaranteed to finish their training no matter what?

It is certainly a disappointment that the Scottish Executive are not taking the situation of young apprentices seriously. We have recently announced an additional £140 million, which will provide an additional 35,000 apprentice places this year, many of which we hope will be for 16 to 18-year-old apprenticeships. It is a pity about the proposed cuts by the Opposition parties, as if they were to be felt in the apprenticeships—

I am slightly confused, so I want to ask the Minister a question that is genuinely about seeking knowledge. Should I be encouraging youngsters—and employers on their behalf—in towns like Bicester to stay on at school to do a diploma in engineering, or should I be encouraging them to leave school at 16 to try to find an apprenticeship? I am just a bit confused by the overlap between diplomas and apprenticeships in vocational qualifications.

What we want to do is ensure that young people have the information, advice and guidance they need to know what options are available to them. Either of those two options is a route towards a higher-level degree. The route is either through an apprenticeship, which is occupation-specific, or through a diploma, which is wider and more sector-specific. It is important to give the right advice and guidance to young people to enable them to choose the correct route for them. Either route is acceptable to a university: we have already been told by Oxford and Cambridge this year that they will accept the advanced diploma in engineering as a qualification for their undergraduate courses.

I visited TEi engineering in Wakefield this summer. The company, through apprenticeship schemes, is training the next generation of welders to build the next generation of eco-power stations. May I invite my hon. Friend to visit TEi, where apprenticeships have trebled? What assessment has she made of proposals to increase the Department’s budget by just 1 per cent. this year, which would cut 100,000 apprenticeship places nationally?

Unlike other parties, we are certainly not proposing to restrict growth to just 1 per cent. this year and it would be a real shame if we were cutting 100,000 places for 16 to 18-year-olds, which we do not intend to do. We will increase the number of apprenticeships available. I have a number of visits going forward this year, and I always like to visit places where I can see quality apprenticeships for young people.

Given that the Government intend to raise the education leaving age to 18 by 2015, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities have access in terms of apprenticeships and other opportunities to courses that will mean that the change of policy benefits rather than hurts them?

It is certainly my intention that we ensure that children with special educational needs and disabilities are fully able to take advantage of all the pathways that we have on offer. The foundation learning tier that we are developing will enable people to get on to the first level and to get on to those pathways. I am also ensuring in my talks with employers who work in partnership with schools that they pay specific attention to how they will include children with special educational needs and disabilities in those programmes.

Secondary Schools (Bury)

I start by commending all those schools around the country that are this week engaged in activities to commemorate Holocaust memorial day, which is tomorrow. I encourage all Members to sign the condolences book, which is on offer in the House.

On the subject of Building Schools for the Future, in the coming month we will publish updated plans for all areas, including the 70 that are coming into the programme for the first time. I can confirm that that will include Bury.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and for visiting Bury the other week, when he listened so carefully to the case made by the local authority. I thank him in particular for his visit to my old primary school, the excellent East Ward primary. Can he see anything that would put at risk the plans put forward by the local authority in Bury for the rebuilding and refurbishment of its secondary school estate?

I commend the plans, which Bury has submitted, and also commend Broad Oak college and East Ward primary for the innovative proposal that they have put in as part of those plans. I also congratulate Broad Oak college on its acceptance into the trust programme and on the large jump in results in the last year, which has taken it above our 30 per cent. threshold. As we discussed when I visited the school, there is nothing in our plans that would mean those schools not going ahead, because we are not committed to a £4.5 billion cut to the Building Schools for the Future programme, which would mean hundreds of schools not going ahead. I can reassure my hon. Friend that Labour Members will not be taking forward cuts on that scale.

But does the Secretary of State not accept that in Bury and elsewhere there are many concerns about the Chancellor’s plans to bring forward capital expenditure? Just weeks after his announcement in the pre-Budget report in November, the Learning and Skills Council put on hold future college capital building, and we now learn that many schools are affected by the hold-ups in private finance initiative transactions. Will he assure us that he will get together with the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills to ensure that the money that was promised to be brought forward in colleges and schools does actually materialise?

I would encourage local authorities around the country to work with us to bring forward those capital projects in the school building system. That is a vital thing to do to support the economy at this time. On PFI, the evidence, which was set out last week by the Minister for Schools and Learners, is that we have a number of PFI providers coming forward to support the market at what is a difficult time. In the case of the FE sector, there is no freeze on capital projects; in fact, there has actually been an increase in the number of projects that have been coming through. It is important that they are assessed properly, but there has not been a freeze. This party will not be cutting schools building or FE capital building. We will be expanding them, and I only wish we had cross-party support on that.

My right hon. Friend will know that following the Select Committee’s meeting last week, some people in Bury may have been temporarily rather worried about the future of their school building programme. What he has said today has provided some reassurance, but is it not the case that many of the projects involving both further education and schools are aimed at regeneration, and that to stop them now would have an enormous effect on the regeneration of our towns and cities?

That is exactly why it is important for us not to stop the plans but to accelerate them, and that is what we are doing with Building Schools for the Future, with FE capital and with the primary capital programme. It is vital that we provide those programmes, and that we support the PFI market at this time. I hope that the prospect of a loan of £300 million from the European Investment Bank will also be welcomed.

Because the FE schemes are important, they must be assessed properly by the Learning and Skills Council, and the proper finance needs to be in place. However, along with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, we are committed to doing all that we can to proceed with those projects so that we can continue to support our economies and, as my hon. Friend suggests, support regeneration.

I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s detailed reply to the question from the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), but will he give a clear answer to this question? Despite warnings from the construction industry last week that the Government’s plans to refurbish schools through Building Schools for the Future had ground to a halt, and although just two new PFI schemes have been agreed in the past six months, is he sure—and can he give us a guarantee—that not a single one of the 115 PFI school projects that are due to be delivered next year, including those in Bury, will be delayed any further?

The fact is that we are ahead of schedule with Building Schools for the Future. We have already reached the 50th school, which is ahead of the objective that we set. As I said, a £300 million EIB loan is being discussed, and six new lenders are coming forward. The real threat to school building in our country comes not from our plans to expand school building, but from the £4.5 billion cut proposed by the Conservative party. Conservative Members do not like talking about that, but it is the reality on the ground for schools and governing bodies around the country.

Apprenticeships

The young apprenticeship programme for 14 to 16-year-olds is a successful pilot that has been available in selected areas since 2004. The budget for 2009-10 is £31.75 million, and is administered by the Learning and Skills Council. The programme will support some 9,000 learners.

Is the Minister aware that secondary schools in my constituency are aligning their timetables to provide a wider range of vocational opportunities for young people, partly by playing to the strengths of each school? Can she confirm that funding will continue for initiatives of that kind as well as for young apprenticeships, at least under the present Government?

My hon. Friend is a good advocate for her local authority and for young people in her local school.

Partnership working is key to all parts of our education system, but is particularly relevant to the 14-to-19 and 14-to-16 age groups. The young apprenticeship programme brings together employers and young people while they are learning at school. We are also piloting young apprenticeship schemes alongside diplomas, which, as we roll out new lines, will offer even more mechanisms for partnership working.

In her earlier answer, the Minister acknowledged that there were almost 100,000 fewer apprenticeships this year than the Prime Minister had anticipated in his announcement in 2003. If we can only achieve a figure of around 230,000 after the years of boom, how many apprenticeships does she think there will be next year, during the years of bust?

I assure the hon. Lady that we intend to increase the number of apprenticeship places. I remind her that we recently announced investment of £140 million with a target of an additional 35,000 places, many of which we are trying to create in the public sector. There is an untapped opportunity there, which the Government are looking into.

My hon. Friend is much in demand today as I, too, would like to invite her to my constituency to visit the new West Lancashire construction academy. It is a state-of-the-art facility offering training and apprenticeships in the construction industry, and we will need those skills in preparation for the return of demand in the housing market and, of course, for the building of affordable housing, especially in my constituency.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we must look to the future. I also agree with something that was said at a summit I attended recently: the lesson has been learned that after coming out of downturns the biggest regret has always been that people did not invest sufficiently in training. We are certainly not going to make that mistake. If I go on a regional tour, after I have been through Yorkshire I am sure it will not be too far to visit the north-west, and I will certainly try to find time to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency.

On her tour, would the Minister care to call in at Castle Point in Essex? We should all welcome the Government’s apprenticeships initiative. It is important, particularly in the current economic environment, that we invest for the future. Will the Minister be spending any additional funding to try to get employers involved in targeting this particular age group, in order to make sure they understand both that there is relevance in what they are doing and that there is a future opportunity for them with real employees on work-based schemes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Unlike my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners, I did not study geography at A-level, but even I would struggle to think of Essex as on the way from Wakefield up through the north-west. On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, however, getting employers involved is certainly crucial. Just last month we published our building stronger partnerships employer engagement strategy. It is important to get employers involved as early as possible in the education of young people. There are benefits on both sides—for schools and employers. By working closely together, we can get the benefits to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

AS and A-levels

5. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the examination regime for AS-levels and A-levels. (250612)

Changes to AS and A-levels that have been introduced this year will maintain them as highly valued and internationally recognised qualifications. We are establishing Ofqual as a fully independent regulator to ensure continued confidence in the examinations regime. We are also establishing advanced diplomas as a genuine alternative for young people who want a different learning experience.

The Minister talked about “highly valued” and “internationally recognised” qualifications. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said, however, that the coursework for AS-level modules was “laughable”. Even more risible is the fact that if a pupil does not do particularly well, they can take them again and again until they get a good result, and that contributes to their A-level result. Please will the Minister explain why so many top private schools are starting to leave the A-level system because they do not believe A-levels give a satisfactory result, and are choosing the international baccalaureate instead? Charterhouse has done just that this weekend.

I noted Charterhouse’s advocacy of the pre-U, which is an international qualification with a global dimension. It is an interesting qualification, but far and away the majority of schools are still doing the A-level and they should continue to do so. It is also still an extremely popular export from this country, and we should be proud of it. We should note, too, the reforms that are taking place to the A-level, such as its moving from six to four modules, the use of the extended project, and the introduction of the A* and more open-ended synoptic questions with longer written answers—of which I am sure that, during an examination, even the hon. Gentleman might approve.

Is the Minister as worried as we are about the growing divide in achievement at A-level and beyond? In 2007, 264 comprehensive schools failed to enter a single pupil for A-level geography, denying today’s pupils the opportunity the Minister had when he was a sixth-former. Also, 47 per cent. of the A* grades in GCSE French went to pupils in the independent sector, which educates just 7 per cent. of pupils, and 45 per cent. of children qualifying for free school meals failed to achieve a single GCSE above grade D. Are not the lack of direction in the Government’s education policy, the overloading of initiatives and the Government’s failure to understand the core problems in our weaker secondary schools letting down the most disadvantaged children in our society and failing to ensure that education for these children is a ladder out of poverty?

I got a grade A. At that time, the A-level was an elite qualification, taken by a very small proportion of the population. It was taken, disproportionately, by far more people such as myself, who came from private schools rather than the maintained sector. That has radically changed as we have opened up access to education and made the system much fairer. I am proud of the improvement in A-level results that has taken place over the past 11 years. I am particularly pleased to see the increase in the number of entrants for maths, further maths and physics. We have a really good record on A-levels, and I do not want to indulge the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) too much longer in his attempt to rubbish those achievements.

Child Abuse

National data show that 29,200 children were the subject of a child protection plan at 31 March 2008. Children are given a plan where there are concerns about their safety and welfare as specified in the Government’s guidance “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, published in 2006. Some 45 per cent. of the plans arose from neglect, 25 per cent. from emotional abuse, 15 per cent. from physical abuse, 7 per cent. from sexual abuse and 8 per cent. from multiple abuses of children.

I thank the Minister for her reply, sad as it is. Sometimes it appears that the Government operate like a fire brigade when a crisis appears in a particular children’s services department. Does she agree that regular training in safeguarding for the whole of the children’s work force is crucial to ensuring that the number of incidents is reduced and that professionals recognise the early warning signs of abuse? Furthermore, what action will the Government take to give leadership to show our society that hitting and abusing children is wrong?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question—I know that she takes a great deal of interest in, and is very knowledgeable about, these issues. She will know that following the death of Victoria Climbié and Lord Laming’s review, there was a wholesale radical transformation of local arrangements, with a focus on safeguarding. Those arrangements are largely working, but they depend on effective implementation in every local area. She is right to say that that crucially depends on the quality, experience and training of the people operating the system at every level. That is why we published the work force strategy; it is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced today the taskforce that will specifically examine the training needs of, and issues associated with the work of, social workers and their managers; and it is why we announced leadership training for directors of children’s services and managers, to be provided through the National College for School Leadership.

I know that the hon. Lady is alluding to smacking, but I am sure she would not wish to bracket together good parents who feel that sometimes it is necessary to smack with those who consistently abuse children. Although it is good that parents are moving away from smacking—I support that—we have no intention of criminalising the vast majority of parents, who do a very good job with their children.

Will my right hon. Friend refer to the letter that I sent her last week about examining the failures in Birmingham’s safeguarding children services? As was revealed in this weekend’s Sunday Mercury—my local Sunday newspaper —15 children’s lives have been lost over the past four years in the local authority area, and that is wholly unacceptable. Will she intervene to provide good leadership in that local authority in order to ensure that that number is reduced?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. One way in which the 2004 legislation transformed safeguarding arrangements was that it introduced powers for Ministers to act and intervene, and we have recently seen those powers used very publicly. My officials went into Birmingham on 17 December, they have met council officials and they will be reporting to me shortly with recommendations for action in relation to that particular local authority, which, as he said, appears to be in serious difficulty.

Before Christmas, the Secretary of State kindly said that he would reverse the Department’s policy of instructing local authorities not to give me the lists of serious case reviews following the deaths of children from suspected abuse and neglect. I thank him for that, but when will it happen?

As far as we are aware, that instruction has been given, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and clarify the situation for him.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Blackpool council finds that if children are abused in families, those families also often suffer domestic violence and other problems? As a result, the council has developed inter-agency working. Will she ensure that those working not only in children’s services but in other agencies that have dealings with children are aware of the importance of working together to prevent incidents of child abuse?

Absolutely. I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in these issues in Blackpool, which faces particular challenges from people moving in and out of the area. Any issue that impairs an adult’s ability to parent their child, whether it is domestic violence, substance misuse or a mental health problem, should raise questions about child protection or development in the minds of those working with the parent that should be explored. It is important that agencies that work with children work together with agencies that work with children and adults and that both “think family” rather than one or the other.

I deplore any case of child abuse, but on Saturday evening, as president of the Majestic theatre group in Macclesfield, I attended a pantomime production of “The Little Mermaid”, in which many young children took part—something that I greatly encourage. What surprised and concerned me was the number of chaperones that the theatre had to provide so that those children could participate. Is not that overkill, and will the Minister look at the situation to see whether the burden placed on such groups might be reduced?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman enjoyed the performance. Unfortunately, I have not seen that production so I do not know how young the children are or how many are involved. However, I am sure that he would want to err on the side of caution, as would many parents. In the case of very young children—say, under seven—a fair few adults are needed to ensure their safety, not just because of the possibility of molestation but because there are many health and safety risks backstage. I will look at the issue and if there are matters to address, we will be happy to do so.

While the massive extension of children’s centres and Sure Start by the Government must have had an impact in identifying children who are abused, unfortunately many parents still do not access those services. What are we doing to try to ensure that we access them?

Of course, one thing that we are doing is putting in additional resources for outreach workers to knock on doors and develop relationships with some of those disadvantaged families who find it difficult initially even to walk up to a children’s centre. The Opposition would cut the funding for those outreach workers, and if that were to happen, the ability of children’s centres to reach those families would be seriously impaired.

One would have hoped that the Minister would not try to make party political capital when talking about such serious issues.

I hope that the Minister will at least agree that the role of social workers in child protection is critical. How confident is she that the current level of training for social workers is adequate, and that the standard is the same across the country?

In a sense, when it comes to political commitment the proof of the pudding is in the resources that political parties put into particular issues and the focus that they place on them. That is why I drew attention to the difference between the hon. Gentleman’s party and mine—

Order. I am going to give a ruling. Let us not draw attention to the party opposite. It is the job of a Minister to answer for the Department that they represent.

I am grateful to the Minister for her comments about the action that she has taken in relation to Birmingham and for her stress on children and parents in the intervention. In some parts of Birmingham, such as Quinton, where we have a safe haven system, the police and schools work together extremely successfully. Will she therefore ensure that the education authorities where police and schools work together to prevent children coming on to the at risk register in the first place roll out their good practice across the entire authority?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the focus of the children’s trusts, which we will strengthen to ensure the integration and close working together of all those agencies, which should take responsibility locally and together for whatever measures need to be taken to protect children in their area.

Let me bring the Minister back to her own policies. One of the common themes to have come out of the Baby P disaster and other child deaths has been the high level of case loads on social workers, the increasing time that they spend in front of computer screens filling in assessments and the high vacancy rate that a Unison report today described as a “ticking time bomb” that will lead to further child deaths. Today the Government start the £224 million computer project, ContactPoint. Which does she think is more likely to protect vulnerable children: investing in more permanent and appropriately trained social workers and reducing their case load or throwing money at another expensive data disaster waiting to happen, which will further take key professionals away from the sharp end of personal contact and the security of which she has declined to guarantee?

It is not an either/or situation. That is the difference with this Government. We are committed to both those things, not one or the other. It is very important that social workers get the training that they need. Lord Laming is looking at that and the taskforce that we have set up is looking at it in detail. It is vital—this came directly from the Victoria Climbié inquiry—that when different people, such as social workers, health visitors and police officers, are working in a family, they know very quickly who else is involved so they can put their piece of the jigsaw into the whole picture. That has been the failing discovered in almost every inquiry into a child death. ContactPoint will do that—we are funding it, the Opposition will not.

Schools (East Midlands)

So far, eight schools in the east midlands have become trust schools under the Education and Inspections Act 2006. A further 27 are in a support programme and working towards trust status.

The case for trust schools still seems rather unconvincing, in that they create a further level of bureaucracy with which heads and staff have to grapple. They can potentially fragment and undermine school collaboration. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that we are not opening doors for private individuals and organisations to exploit their curricular interests when better resourced local authorities could give the necessary advice and support to community schools to help them improve?

Of course, trust schools remain maintained schools and therefore part of the local authority family. The reality on the ground is that most of the trusts that have been set up are collaborative trusts between schools. The point is that they make it possible in a more effective way for schools to work together to raise standards and use their expertise. I would say to my hon. Friend, who is a Labour and Co-operative party MP, that we are taking forward proposals for 100 co-operative trust schools, which will take the ideals of the co-op movement with extra finance to ensure that we have more co-operative trust schools. I hope that a co-operative trust school might be something that he could support in his constituency and that might help to raise standards.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be wholly wrong for a secondary school in a constituency, whether it was a trust school or another school, to be closed, demolished and not replaced if it was in a growth area?

It would depend on the local authority’s plans. It would also depend on the results that the school was achieving. If councils are making those decisions despite what is happening to standards, that would be entirely the wrong thing to do. If they are making the decisions as part of an overall attempt to improve the school buildings and to raise standards, that might well be the right thing to do. The hon. Gentleman will have to give me more details of the particular case so that I can give him a fuller answer.

Youth Services (Derbyshire)

Local authorities receive funding for youth services from Government through the formula funding. Next year, that funding will increase by 6.4 per cent. In addition, around £1.2 million is also being allocated to Derbyshire next year through the positive activities for young people programme and the youth opportunity and youth capital funds. Over £3 million has also been secured to improve youth facilities in Chesterfield through the myplace programme.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, which is good news for children in my constituency. I only wish that such funding for youth services had been available when I was a member of Derbyshire county council between 1993 and 1997. Then, because youth services were not on a statutory footing, they were especially vulnerable to the savage cuts imposed by the Conservative Government of the day. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that measures are in place to protect the funding for youth services? That funding should be on a statutory basis and so not vulnerable to the sort of behaviour that we had from the Opposition in those years long ago.

I can tell my hon. Friend that, precisely for the reasons that he has identified, this Government have placed significant new duties on local authorities to ensure that all young people can get access to a wide range of positive activities. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 requires local authorities to secure positive activities and facilities for young people in their area, to take into account young people’s views on what that provision should be, to publicise it and to consider alternative third-sector providers. Failure by local authorities to fulfil those duties could result in intervention by the Secretary of State. That is a measure of our commitment to extending the opportunities for young people.

Youth Services (Funding)

9. If he will bring forward proposals for the funding of youth facilities to ensure their long-term stability; and if he will make a statement. (250616)

Through myplace, the Government are investing over £200 million of capital funding to deliver new and upgraded world-class facilities for young people. Each project will be endorsed by the local authority chief executive, so that so we can be sure of its long-term revenue sustainability. The Government already provide all local authorities with significant additional revenue funding to help them fulfil the statutory duties to which I have just referred and provide all young people with access to positive activities and youth facilities.

With regard to the funding of youth facilities, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a difficulty? While the amount available for new projects from both charitable and Government sources is still fairly large, the amount available for core funding is shrinking. The danger is that many very worthwhile projects, such as the Pennywell youth project in my constituency, will find themselves out of business in due course unless some long-term funding arrangements can be put in place.

My hon. Friend is not actually correct to say that the core revenue funding is shrinking. In fact, it has increased: there will be £620 million in resource funding for youth services over this comprehensive spending review period. That is an increase on the same period in 2008 of £125 million, and it shows that substantial new revenue money is going to local authorities. One problem is that, for most of the funding streams, it is largely up to local authorities how they spend the money. I know that my hon. Friend has written to me about a particular project in the north-east and I should be happy to talk to him about it. It receives substantial local authority funding, but I think that it faces some uncertainty because other funding streams outwith the local authority have been withdrawn. I am happy to see whether we can find a solution.

Topical Questions

In written ministerial statements today, I have confirmed that ContactPoint, the online directory recommended by Lord Laming after the Victoria Climbié inquiry, has been activated today. Training has begun, as we prepare for it to be fully operational across the country by the summer. I have also announced the membership of the new social work taskforce, and more details of its reform remit. I can tell the House that I have asked the taskforce, specifically and as a priority, to carry out a review of the effectiveness of integrated children’s systems, as well as of their procurement and the IT systems used in them. The aim is to help social workers to strike the right balance between keeping detailed records of their cases—as they must—and spending more time with vulnerable children.

We will publish Lord Laming’s progress report on safeguarding next month. Alongside that, the actions that I have announced today will be vital to keeping children safe. I hope that we can achieve a consensus on all the reforms, not just between practitioners and children’s experts but on both sides of the House.

The recent Sutton Trust survey found that just a quarter of teachers think that the upcoming diplomas are suitable for academically able children, while only 20 per cent. thought that they were appropriate to would-be university students. After a morning talking to admissions staff at Oxford university, may I ask the Secretary of State how we can avoid the danger of an ever-widening social divide between students of the best state and independent sector schools, who are set on academic paths, and the rest, who never get remotely close to such golden opportunities?

Given the Conservative party’s obsession with private schools today, may I tell my hon. Friend that I am very pleased that Wellington college will indeed offer the engineering diploma to advanced students and that Cambridge university has said the engineering diploma and its maths component will provide better preparation for engineering at Cambridge than doing maths A-level? It will take time to build up the programme—we are taking a careful step-by-step approach—but the fact is that this is our best chance to break the old two-tier divide between academic and vocational qualifications. That is why I hope that that will gain support not only from all teachers and all universities, but from all political parties—again, something that is proving elusive.

T3. The Southend Echo has recently highlighted that truancy in the Southend area is three times the national average in some cases. What can the Department advise Southend, looking at best practices from other areas that have had poor truancy levels and that have turned the situation around? (250669)

Certainly, we look carefully at best practice in respect of truancy. That is one of the reasons why, for example, we have introduced text-messaging software in schools with high attendance problems. That has led to a significant improvements. Sir Alan Steer, who before he retired was in a school in the east of London, perhaps not a million miles away from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, continues to do his work with us on improving behaviour generally. Obviously, attendance and learning best practice are a key part of his work.

T6. Manor Church of England secondary school had the third best exam results for a secondary state school in Yorkshire. Its brand new school, funded with more than £13 million of Government money, is nearing completion on time and to budget, thanks to the leadership of the diocesan board of education and the school itself. When the Tories were in power, they spent less than £1 million a year on capital for schools in York; this Labour Government have been spending more than £10 million a year. Will the Secretary of State come to visit that fantastic new school to see just what that money is buying for pupils and parents? (250672)

I would be honoured to do so, to see the way in which our capital investment programme is improving standards right across the country, including in York, and if my hon. Friend needs to discuss any issues about that school, I will take them up at that time. We will expand capital investment in our schools. We will not cut the Building Schools for the Future programme.

T4. The Minister for Schools and Learners spoke earlier with justifiable pride of his A grade in geography A-level, but is he not aware that huge numbers of academics—not just from private schools, but, for instance, the authorities at Cambridge university—are very unhappy with the devaluation of A-levels, as they see it? Does he not accept that the fact is that the devaluation of exams harms the pupils who take them, who can no longer be proud of getting an A grade, because people no longer hold them in the same regard? (250670)

We are setting up Ofqual as an independent monitor of examination standards to give confidence. We are confident that the standard of the A-level is being maintained, but it is important that that should be independent of the Government. I hope that, using his offices, the hon. Gentleman will ensure that the Conservative party supports the establishment of that independent authority.

T5. Are Ministers aware of the concern about the consultation on the new school admissions policy, which follows the Education and Skills Act 2008 coming into force at the end of November? The consultation deadline is 1 March, and the new admissions policy has to be in place by 15 April, so many schools are finding it difficult to hold a reasonable consultation. More widely, many parents are worried that as there will be every sort of admissions policy under the sun in one area, the system is becoming very unfriendly to parents and pupils who want to find out how to navigate a way through it. (250671)

That was a problem last year, as we discussed in this House, and we strengthened the law last year. It is essential that every school consults properly and makes sure that its admissions arrangements properly comply with the code. It is the local authorities’ duty to make sure that every school does that. We cannot have a situation in which parents are picked by schools; that is what happens in the private sector, where people pay for the privilege. In the state school system, we want parents to be able to choose schools, and that will happen only through fair admissions. That is our commitment.

T9. I heard the Secretary of State give guarantees to Bury about future spending. Nottingham city council is not in the first two tranches for primary school capital expenditure. We have been reassured that the money will still be available when it is our turn, but may I ask the Minister for Schools and Learners whether that is the case? Will he give us that guarantee, and say that there is no possibility of the future capital programme being cut? (250675)

Certainly, we are working closely with authorities such as Nottingham city council to ensure that its primary capital programme is up to standard, in terms of achieving the educational transformation that we want. I am grateful for this chance to encourage local authorities across England to take advantage of the opportunity that we have afforded them of bringing forward spend to invest in primary capital now, rather than having to wait until next year. We are continuing to encourage authorities to take up that offer.

T8. My constituent, Mr. Geoff Blurton, wishes to return to teaching after another career. He has four years’ teacher training experience, four years’ teaching experience overseas and two degrees. Despite the helpful intervention of the Minister for Schools and Learners, who looked at his case, the situation remains unresolved; Mr. Blurton is told that he has to undertake initial teacher training and go through the whole process again. As a result, he is considering taking up a teaching post in the private sector, rather than going back into state education. (250674)

I cannot comment on that particular case, but I hope that we can persuade the hon. Gentleman’s constituent to stay in the state system. I want to make sure that we do everything that we can to bring in all the people who want to do so, and who have the qualifications, to teach in our schools system. I hope that the hon. Gentleman was pleased with his meeting this morning with the Schools Minister—[Interruption.] I apologise; it is happening this afternoon. The meeting is to discuss the teaching of ocarina-playing in state schools. Following popular demand—people had no idea what an ocarina was in our last topical questions—I have brought one along to demonstrate. This is an ocarina.

With regard to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about ContactPoint, is he aware of, and does he give support to, the broad coalition of supporters of that important measure, which includes Barnardo’s, Action for Children, and the Association of Chief Police Officers? Can he give me any indication of whether that support among professionals who work with children and wish to keep them safe will be reflected by support on both sides of the House?

We will invest hundreds of millions of pounds in ContactPoint, which is designed to keep children safe. That is why it was proposed by Lord Laming, and is supported by Barnardo’s, the Association of Chief Police Offices, the chair of the Children’s Inter-Agency Group—which includes the Local Government Association, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health—and the Youth Justice Board. In fact, it is supported by practitioners and voluntary organisations across the children’s world. It is only the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats who are out of step on this important child safety issue.

Will the Government encourage the regular, informal classroom testing of children? It has a good track record in instilling discipline, learning and competitiveness, and gives quick feedback to pupils, teachers and parents.

The answer is of course we will. We do not give formal guidance to schools on how to do informal testing, but we give advice. It is vital that it is done, and done well. It needs to be used to track the progress of every child. It is what good leaders do to raise standards, so of course we support it.

The project to transform special needs education in my constituency, the Thorns learning village, has been delayed owing to the bizarre decision of Dudley council not to apply for Building Schools for the Future money. Also, it has been reported that the council will not apply for money for free school dinners. What advice will my right hon. Friend give to my constituents, who are amazed by that decision—apart from advising them to vote Labour?

I could advise my hon. Friend to advise her local authority to apply again for the money that we have available. She should remind it that under this Government, there will be no cuts to expenditure such as she outlined, particularly on our pilots for free school meals and for special educational needs. Once again, I advise her local authority to reapply. The money is available for the particular constituents about whom my hon. Friend is concerned.

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families referred to youth facilities, which I understand the Thirsk Clock project will benefit from, but it is still left without permanent premises—a permanent home—and I understand that it is always difficult to get volunteers for the project. How can we work together to encourage more funding, long-term premises and a good stream of volunteers for the project, which helps homeless youngsters in Thirsk?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is talking about a youth facility such as a youth centre, or a specialist facility such as a foyer. The local authority should be leading on the project and bringing the agencies together, including, importantly, as she said, voluntary sector organisations with a great deal of expertise in working with disadvantaged young people. If there is an issue with a particular project and she would like to talk to me about it, I am happy to do so, but the responsibility initially lies with the local authority to bring those people together.

In view of the very tragic stabbing in east London last weekend, what are Ministers doing to bring down the disproportionate levels of school exclusions among young black men? There is a clear link between permanent school exclusion and gun and gang crime. We know that giving those boys and their parents the right support early on can bring down the level of exclusions, so what are the Government doing?

It is always important to listen in class, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. I commend to her the work of Sir Alan Steer, who has not only made proposals and recommendations on how to tackle the issue, but in his career as a head teacher was an exemplar in reducing exclusions by motivating and supporting young men, including young black men, in his school in north-east London. He did a brilliant job, so his proposals to take those initiatives forward across the country deserve support, including from my hon. Friend.