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Topical Questions

Volume 487: debated on Monday 26 January 2009

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.