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Children, Schools and Families

Volume 489: debated on Monday 9 March 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Myplace (Blackpool)

1. What assessment he has made of the potential contribution of his Department’s myplace programme to supporting young people in Blackpool; and if he will make a statement. (261289)

Myplace will transform the lives of thousands of young people in Blackpool, as it will those of tens of thousands of other young people across the country. Through £272 million of investment from 2008 to 2011, myplace is delivering world-class facilities for young people, driven by the active participation of young people themselves. Last week, I announced the second tranche of £180 million for 41 superb projects across the country, including £4 million for the Blackpool youth hub.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a splendid example of the way in which Government initiatives from children’s centres to myplace are transforming prospects for young people in towns such as Blackpool? Will she congratulate with me the council officials, the Blackpool young people’s council and all those involved in school councils in Blackpool who have been involved in putting the project together and, as importantly, continue to be involved in voluntary work that makes a practical link between Government initiatives and day-to-day life in the Blackpool community?

Yes, I will. It was a superb bid. It was strong in two respects, which is particularly important. The first strength was the partnership behind the bid, which means that a strong and secure revenue funding stream supports future work through the involvement of the primary care trust and the police. The second strength was the central involvement of young people that shaped the bid and decided what it would provide, including a mixture of exciting activities as well as a range of advice, information and support for young people from the various agencies involved.

I very much welcome this exciting initiative in Blackpool, South. While we are waiting for something in Blackpool, North, will the Minister please liaise with Blackpool council to ensure that young people who live in the north of the town can access this new facility and all the other facilities that are available on the Palatine school site?

That is very important. The partnerships putting in the bids—Blackpool’s bid was strong in this respect—had to demonstrate how they would seriously involve young people from a range of communities, in particular those from the most disadvantaged communities. We know that the young people who cannot get these opportunities routinely through their family are the ones for whom the opportunities offered by the centres of participating in such positive activities with good, mature adults who are good role models will make the most difference. My hon. Friend’s point is a very important one.

Schools (Capital Funding)

Capital spending on schools and children’s play areas of £919 million will be brought forward from 2010-11 to the coming financial year. Of that money, £390 million has been devolved directly to all schools to invest in smaller projects such as new science labs or gyms and £490 million has been allocated to the 116 local authorities who responded to our invitation to accelerate larger-scale spending to the benefit of pupils and local businesses alike.

My right hon. Friend will know that Bristol has been well ahead of the curve in terms of the Building Schools for the Future programme, which has made a real difference to schools in east Bristol in particular. Will he confirm that this new tranche of investment will benefit not just schools in Bristol but local companies, and construction firms in particular?

I can confirm that that is the case. In fact, Bristol brought forward a total of more than £2 million plus a further £500,000 for voluntary aided schools out of a possible £4.2 million, so there is still space there. If Bristol wanted to make a further bid to bring more money forward, that would mean even more contracts for local small businesses as well as more benefits for pupils. Bristol is one of the authorities to have bid and that is very welcome indeed.

Will the Secretary of State confirm again that some of that money will be used for science laboratories in schools? Will he also ensure that they are of dedicated design so that teachers can do the sort of experiments that excite young people into learning the individual science subjects? Will he also consult on risk so that teachers have the courage to do something that goes “Bang” occasionally?

I can confirm that the money is available to schools so that they can make their own decisions, in part. If their decision is to refurb science labs, that is all to the good. Surprisingly, the hon. Gentleman’s authority asked to bring forward only 30 per cent. of the total that it could have brought forward, so it has not brought forward over 85 per cent. of the money that it could have done. There are 33 authorities that have turned down the invitation to bring forward any money at all to 2009-10. That seems to be letting down the small businesses that need the contracts very badly.

My right hon. Friend is right: capital funding is highly valued, and will transform the quality of education. That said, does he understand why I, like my colleagues in Stockton, was disappointed to read that we would lose £5 million from our Building Schools for the Future funding? Can he explain why that is happening, and why it is based on something called the location factor?

The position in Stockton is very odd indeed. We asked the local authority, on more than one occasion, to bring spending forward from 2010-2011 to 2009-10, and it turned down that invitation entirely. I know that the Conservative party has issued a national injunction on bringing forward spending to benefit local businesses, but I would have thought that the right thing for local councils to do would be to ignore central political injunctions, and to do the right thing by local pupils and businesses. The fact that the 33 authorities concerned are disproportionately Conservative authorities is no surprise at all.

On the issue of schools funding, ever since Tony Blair was Prime Minister, there has been a pledge to increase each year the share of the national cake that goes on education funding. That has been honoured since 1998. Does that pledge persist beyond the current spending review?

It does persist for the Labour party. We have made clear our commitment that a rising share of national income will go on education over the course of this Parliament. That is the commitment that we made. It takes forward our goal, which is steadily to close the gap in funding between state schools and independent schools. That is our commitment, but it would not be delivered on if there were a £5 billion cut in public spending and a commensurate cut to the Department for Children, Schools and Families budget. That may not be what the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) wants, but there is a clear commitment to that cut from the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. David Cameron.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the very welcome announcement of Building Schools for the Future investment in Plymouth’s schools; that will be good for education, jobs and small businesses. Can he give me advice on how we can make absolutely sure that the investment is secured? Is there any risk at all that the investment might not be made?

Order. Before the Secretary of State answers, he will understand that there are conventions in the House, and he will keep to those conventions.

I apologise wholeheartedly for that mistake, Mr. Speaker. On Plymouth, the answer is that the authority has asked to bring forward just 3.2 per cent. of the total that it could have brought forward—a matter of a few hundred thousand pounds, when it could have brought forward millions of pounds of extra investment to 2009-10. As for the wider commitment to Building Schools for the Future, we are clear that we will keep this record investment in school buildings moving forward, so that we rebuild or refurbish all secondary schools in our country. It is the Conservative party that is committed to a £4.5 billion cut, which would mean that hundreds of schools around the country would not get the go-ahead if—

Order. It is not good that the Speaker keeps coming in during Question Time, but the Conservative party is well able to put its own case. It is not necessary for the Secretary of State to put its case; that is not what he is here for.

New Schools (Croydon)

3. What recent progress has been made on the establishment of proposed new schools in the London borough of Croydon. (261292)

The local authority in Croydon has consulted on transformational plans for its educational provision, which include the establishment of three academies to replace National Challenge schools. My Department is working closely with the authority on those plans. There are also plans in the borough to amalgamate an infant and junior school; that is currently being considered by the schools adjudicator. London challenge advisers are supporting school improvement in six secondary schools and 13 primary schools in Croydon through the Key to Success programme.

I thank the Minister for that answer. On academy plans for Croydon, what attention will he pay to the capture and continuation of the best of the predecessor schools, and to transferring any good traits to succeeding academies? I am thinking especially of Haling Manor high school, which has just been named the most improved school in London by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. What consideration is given to minimising disruption, for example in the case of Ashburton junior and infant schools, which have already been subject to a destabilising merger with another primary school? There were also three different succeeding plans and proposals for amalgamation on the Ashburton community school site, creating an all-the-way-through, four-to-18 school. That is an important issue for my constituents—

I met my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks) and the leader of the Labour group who, in a pithy way, made the same sort of points to me last week. Haling Manor school has shown improvement generally over the past few years, but there is still a lot more to do in respect of English and maths. Given the comprehensive performance assessment rating that Croydon council has recently received, I am not confident that that is the right body to provide the support that that school needs, which is why I have approved the move to academy status with one of the strongest sponsors that we have in the academies movement, the Harris Federation.

Education Maintenance Allowance

4. What recent assessment he has made of progress in the delivery of the education maintenance allowance; and if he will make a statement. (261293)

Education maintenance allowance processing rates are now operating at normal levels. All applications are being processed within two weeks of receipt and, as of 27 February 2009, more than 558,000 unique learners had received an EMA payment, compared with 550,000 for the entire academic year 2007-08.

The administration of the scheme has been a nightmare for sixth-form colleges. At Scarborough sixth-form college, more than a third of the 1,100 students have applied for EMAs and there have been problems. The college has tried everything. It has brought in additional admin staff on a Tuesday, the payments day, and staff have even worked in the evenings and at night to try to get on the website. Despite that, they have had to advance over £1,000 each to 20 students, and the allowances for four students are still outstanding. May we have an apology from the Minister to the staff who have had to deal with the scheme and, more particularly, to the students from lower-income households, who are just the people whom the scheme was meant to help?

I am sure that we are all very grateful to members of staff who stayed to help those students who missed out. As I said, we are currently processing applications within two weeks of receipt and we have more or less cleared the backlog. If there are any cases that the hon. Gentleman is aware of, I will gladly look into those if there is still a problem.

Is the Minister aware that in Rotherham alone 3,040 EMAs have been awarded? Yes, there have been teething and administrative troubles, but EMAs are most welcome. Is it not the case—I am not sure whether I may say this—that the Conservatives have consistently opposed efforts to help working-class kids get higher education? They should be ashamed of themselves.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. I will use the opportunity to emphasise Labour’s commitment to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds to stay in further education. We can see that the policy has worked, because the most recent analysis has shown that EMA increased attainment at levels 2 and 3 by 2 or 3 percentage points.

EMA and adult learning grants are there to provide incentives and support to those on low incomes who wish to pursue their studies. Will the Minister therefore please explain why there is no equivalent support for young people with learning disabilities who wish to continue their studies? My 19-year-old constituent Emma Frost is studying for a level 1 qualification—[Hon. Members: “Reading!”]—and is not entitled to education maintenance allowance or adult learning vouchers—

Order. I see hon. Members getting very grumpy today, but the hon. Lady should not be reading. She has been in the House a long time now and she should not be reading a supplementary question. She did not know what the reply to the original question would be, so how can she have a prepared question?

We are committed to ensuring that all young people between the ages of 16 and 18 have the opportunity to go on to further education and get the qualifications that they can. We are certainly committed to helping young people with learning difficulties and disabilities to do that, too.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the education maintenance allowance has helped people who would otherwise not have stayed on at school and college to remain there during the current economically difficult period, and that it is important that we find ways of facilitating access to the education maintenance allowance when families suddenly lose their income and their children may be forced to leave education or college before they reach the end of their course?

I recognise the problem that my hon. Friend mentions. At present, the assessment system for the education maintenance allowance is annual, but when a particular difficulty has occurred during an educational year, we have the facility of learner support grants. We will look further into how we can use them.

Does the Minister accept that there needs to be more flexibility in the means-testing criteria? For example, the circumstances of a household on an income of £30,000 with a single child in full-time education are entirely different from those of another household on the same income but with five children in full-time education. Such issues have an impact on whether some children fulfil full-time education.

The problem is that the more flexibility we put into the system, the more complex it becomes. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but there will not always be the same number of young people in the 16-to-18 age group. It is that particular age group that we are trying to attract with the education maintenance allowance.

Some 4,000 young people in Enfield have benefited from the education maintenance allowance in the past year. That means young people staying in education and getting the qualifications that they need in both academic and vocational courses. It is interesting to note that the number of young people going to university from Enfield has doubled in the past 10 years; in recent years, the education maintenance allowance has made a significant difference. Will the Minister give a commitment that, unlike the Conservative party, we will guarantee the future of the education maintenance allowance?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. Her constituency is testament to the good work that the EMA has done in enabling young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to continue their education. I am proud to say that we are, I understand, the only party committed to continuing the education maintenance allowance.

School Standards (Secondary Schools)

5. What his most recent assessment is of trends in educational standards in secondary schools; and if he will make a statement. (261294)

Secondary school standards have never been higher. A sevenfold real-terms increase in investment in school buildings and technology since 1997 has supported rapidly improving learning environments. The 25,900 extra secondary school teachers and more than four times as many teaching assistants mean more individual attention to pupils. That is why standards are improving, as reflected in record results at GCSE and A-level.

As the Minister will know, schools in Hammersmith and Fulham get well above average GCSE results and are improving, and some 62 per cent. of parents there get their first choice of secondary school. However, we also have an important, dynamic and forward-looking academy programme, including a proposed new Mercers’ school in Hammersmith. May we have a commitment from the Minister that the academies programme will not be watered down further and that councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham can continue to innovate and deliver in their secondary school provision?

There has certainly been no watering down of our commitment to academies; indeed, the pace of their development has increased. Just today, I was looking at issues to do with the Hammersmith academy that the Mercers’ Company and the information technology company are both sponsoring. I am continuing to be as helpful as I can to ensure that the improvement needed for that school is secured through the academy process.

There are, of course, many ways to measure improvements in schools. One has come to my notice today; it is the massive improvement in the number of young people from my constituency who go to university. Government Front Benchers are to be congratulated on the policies that have led to that. There has also been dedicated teaching, leadership and parental involvement. That result has been achieved in my constituency by really hard work, and without the assistance of one academy or trust school; in fact, it has been impeded by selection in other schools.

It is with great pleasure that I am able to agree with my hon. Friend—that does not always happen—about the take-up of higher education in Wolverhampton, which has been a huge success. I know that many attend the local university. Wolverhampton university does a good job and is doing a good job in supporting schools in the black country. As my hon. Friend says, that sort of school improvement is down to great teaching, great leadership and good involvement with parents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) and I represent inner-London seats. As the Minister is aware, there is a big initiative—Aimhigher—to try to encourage children from such areas to go to our top-flight universities. Can he give us some indication as to how successful that has been?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the letter of congratulations that he sent to King Edward VI school in Stafford for being in the top 100 most improved schools in the country last year. Another school in Stafford is in the National Challenge programme. I want to assure him of my full support for the improvement programme and ask him to reassure me that the Department will give its full support, too. Does he agree that that programme holds out the prospect of achieving the aim, long held by Labour, of making every school a good school?

My hon. Friend is right. This is a good opportunity to reinforce my congratulations to King Edward VI school in Stafford on its great improvement. National Challenge provides an investment of £400 million in order to ensure that every school gets above the floor of at least 30 per cent. of pupils achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE, including in English and maths—a figure that more than half could not achieve when the Conservatives were in power.

Is the Minister happy that there is no requirement to study any foreign literature in the foreign languages syllabus at A-level? Is he also happy that there is no requirement to translate directly from one language to another at GCSE?

I remain happy with the standard of foreign languages GCSEs and the programme of study. I want to see greater take-up of foreign language learning, which is something that we were developing with the late Lord Dearing. This is an opportunity for me to pay my personal tribute to the work that he did with his language review.

We all acknowledge the debt that we owe to Lord Dearing. However, it is also the case that the catastrophic fall in the number of students taking modern languages at GCSE has followed this Government’s policies.

The Minister will be aware that last week Manchester grammar school became the latest school to abandon the GCSEs for which he is responsible to opt for the independent international GCSE, or IGCSE. The Minister says that he is satisfied with exam standards, but clearly those with the freedom to escape his strictures are not. In GCSE biology, candidates are asked, “Which is healthier, sausages in batter or grilled fish?”, while IGCSE science is rated by the Government’s own officials as broader and deeper, with content comparable to an AS-level. Why will he not fund state students to do these rigorous exams? Is he happy with educational apartheid?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is wedded to wanting a two-tier system, but we want a GCSE system that caters for and properly assesses people of the full range of abilities. We are implementing the Dearing review on languages in full; that is why we are moving from five years to seven years of compulsory language learning by starting that learning at the age of seven. In respect of science, the GCSE tests the full range of ability. When he was on the radio, John Dunford from the Association of School and College Leaders rightly said that young people who need to be stretched at the top level may not need such assessment, because they can be engaged with and stretched through, for example, the Young Gifted and Talented programme and, if desired, starting AS-levels and A-levels early.

School Standards (Primary Schools)

7. What recent assessment he has made of educational standards in primary schools; and if he will make a statement. (261296)

As in secondary schools, standards in primary schools have never been higher. In 2008, provisional key stage results show that 81 per cent. of 11-year-olds achieve level 4 or above in English and 78 per cent. achieve level 4 or above in mathematics. There have been consistent and significant improvements in our primary schools over the past decade. This year, over 101,000 more 11-year-olds achieved the target level for their age in reading, writing and mathematics than in 1997.

I note the Minister’s response. However, there are real concerns about the move away from traditional subjects in the primary curriculum to softer options. When will the Minister accept that these changes—moving away from facts, knowledge and rigour—will lead to an erosion of standards for our young children?

Jim Rose is currently conducting a review of the primary curriculum, and it is quite clear from the interim report that he is certainly not advancing soft options. The use of cross-curricular studies in order to broaden and deepen children’s understanding does not mean that they will not be studying traditional subjects discretely.

The Minister who is about to answer me is the one Minister in her Front Bench team whom I have not nobbled on this issue. Primary schools and secondary schools in Slough are popular because parents are opting into the Slough system. As a result of that, combined with increased migration, the fact that the Office for National Statistics cannot count the population of Slough and a 10 per cent. increase in the birth rate, we do not have sufficient places in our schools. Even at primary level, children have to travel a very long distance. Can the Minister offer me any comfort about extra investment in our primary schools, so that excellence is available to parents in Slough?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question; it echoes the Westminster Hall debate that we had on certain schools in London which are facing similar problems. I would be happy to offer to meet my hon. Friend and her local authority to discuss how we can take this matter forward. The problem arose because in the past, local authorities requested certainty about their forward funding, and we gave them three-year certainty on capital funding. We do not hold funds back, because those authorities asked for that consistency and certainty. Some local authorities have been able to manage within that and some have not. If there are exceptional circumstances, I would be happy to discuss them with my hon. Friend.

Will the Minister accept that many of us are extremely concerned about the Rose proposals? We believe that there should be real rigour in teaching in primary schools. Will she assure me that there is no question of the Government telling primary schools that they should no longer teach subjects?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to Sir Jim Rose’s interim report and to the comments in which he clearly states that it is not a question of discrete subjects not being taught. However, they will be taught within areas of learning, to give young people a deeper understanding of how those subjects fit together. The final report will be published at the end of this month, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be looking forward to what is in it.

We should all congratulate the staff and students in our primary schools for the extra success they are achieving year after year, but is the Minister satisfied that the assessment at the end of primary school is the best one we can make? Does she not find that the hot-housing and coaching for standard assessment tests, which can result in young students falling back in the first year of secondary school, might place them at a disadvantage? Is there not a better way of making an assessment of the progress that they make in primary schools than SATs results?

I assure my hon. Friend that our testing and assessment regime at the end of primary school is not set in stone, which is why we have an expert group to advise on our assessment processes. We are piloting single-level tests, testing when children are ready. The best schools achieve without having to hot-house or “teach to the test”, as people say, which is why we have asked our expert group to look at this matter, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested in its report.

Given that one in five 11-year-olds are leaving primary school still struggling with reading and that 40 per cent. are leaving without having mastered the basics in reading, writing and arithmetic, why does the Minister think that it is beneficial for primary schools to be told by her Department to teach the curriculum through six areas of learning, or through cross-curricular topics and themes, as recommended by the Rose review that she referred to—an approach to education that failed so badly in the 1960s and ’70s? Why does she think that the review managed to consult only eight parents during its consultation process?

I shall take the last point first. Jim Rose consulted very widely, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that in his recent online surveys, nearly 1,000 parents were consulted, not just eight. Secondly, in the interim report that Sir Jim Rose produced, he made it very clear that we have to concentrate on literacy and numeracy.

I am getting a bit fed up with the idea that somehow there was a golden age of literacy. Some research by the National Foundation for Educational Research has shown that standards of literacy stayed broadly the same from the end of the second world war to 1996. Only this Labour Government have improved standards of literacy.

School Funds

I reported to the House last month that net surplus balances across schools totalled £1.9 million in the past financial year. My officials have held a number of discussions recently with local authority representatives, head teacher and teacher associations and other interested parties. Local authorities have powers to claw back excessive surpluses, and I expect them to use those powers.

Thank you.

Does the Minister share my view that with some 8,500 schools—nearly 40 per cent. of the total—holding excessive surplus funds, it is no wonder, considering the present allocation of school funding, particularly to rural areas, which are significantly underfunded compared with the average, that school governors and heads are more or less obliged to hold back surplus funds to ensure that they have money to fund their schools for the full school year?

I have had discussions with the hon. Gentleman about this matter. There is a debate to be had, but the case about the underfunding of rural areas is not helped when in an area such as Shropshire, 44.6 per cent. of schools have excessive surpluses totalling £2.2 million.

It is difficult to understand why the Government should choose to criticise school governors for being prudent with school money at a time when we all wish the Government had been a bit more prudent with our money. If the Minister still believes in autonomy for schools, will he assure the House that there are no hidden plans for him to come in and plunder school reserves?

We have always been perfectly clear that a small level of surplus is prudent for schools to carry over, but excessive surpluses of the sort that the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) mentioned comprise £1.9 billion that was given to schools to spend on this generation of children, not to save for some fictitious moment in the future. That is not acceptable. We have said that local authorities need to manage that, and if they do not, we will look at it again in 2011-12.

Disabled Children (Family Breaks)

9. What recent progress has been made in developing schemes for short breaks for families with disabled children. (261298)

We have allocated £430 million to the “Aiming high for disabled children” programme, of which £370 million is to transform the provision of short breaks over the period from 2008 to 2011. As the House will know, the child health strategy allocated an additional £340 million over the same period, which takes the total funding for the provision of short breaks and other services for disabled children and young people to £770 million. Progress in our 21 pathfinder areas is going well, and all areas will receive funding from April.

When I questioned the Secretary of State on this matter last year, he said that primary care trusts would be expected to match the funding from his Department. He said that Members would hold them to account, and I have done so. I have written to every PCT in England, and two thirds have written back. All of them confirm that they have had no specific money from the Department of Health to pay for short breaks for disabled children, and because of that, almost half of them have not provided any money for that purpose. What is he going to do to put that right?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to Mr. Speaker’s comment a moment ago that it is wise for hon. Members to listen to the answer before reading out their supplementary. As I said in my answer, the Department has allocated £370 million, which has been matched by £340 million from the Department of Health. In the child health strategy, indicative allocations for every primary care trust were announced. It is now for PCTs and families to ensure that that money goes towards short breaks. I have written to every PCT, along with the Secretary of State for Health, to ensure that that is happening. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s survey is somewhat out of date.

Further to that point, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that parents of disabled children are aware of how much money their primary care trust has from the Government for that purpose? Although I have done my best to publicise it in Milton Keynes, I do not have a hotline to the local press, and I am fearful that the money will disappear into the general PCT budget.

The child health strategy made clear not only the overall total, but the allocations to every primary care trust. It is important now to ensure that the money is spent. With Contact a Family, we are funding a parents forum in every area to ensure that parents are consulted about how the money—DCSF and Department of Health money—is spent. The best way of ensuring that the money is spent is to maintain our commitment to budgets in 2009-10 and 2010-11. To be honest, the £300 million planned by the Conservative party would mean cuts in that budget.

The announcement of £370 million investment in transforming short breaks for families with disabled children was warmly welcomed by hon. Members of all parties, and the Secretary of State can take his share of the credit. However, the announcement was made in January 2008, and £20 million of the money was supposed to be used to set up projects in the 21 pathfinder areas before the end of the current financial year in a few weeks’ time. Mencap reports that, far from things going well, not one of the families with children with profound and multiple learning disabilities that it follows in the pilot areas has had any increase in their package of short breaks—14 months on, and there has been no transformation at all. Why is it taking so long and when will families at breaking point get the help that they were promised?

The total spending in the next three years, including this year, is not £370 million but £770 million. It will mean a transformation in the provision of short breaks. The work was put together through consulting widely the consortium of children’s charities, including Mencap and Contact a Family. Those organisations expressed a clear view that we should spend a small amount of money in the first year while we piloted how to spend the money well. A substantial amount of investment—indeed, record amounts—will be made next year and the year after. I met the people who are running the pathfinders a few weeks ago and their advice to me was that the pathfinder areas are all going well.

To destabilise and demoralise families with disabled children when we are a third of the way into what will be record investment in short breaks seems exactly the wrong approach. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) shouts across the Dispatch Box that I promised investment for short breaks and that I have not delivered. That is absolute nonsense. I have campaigned personally, as all Labour Members have done, along with hon. Members from across the House, with some exceptions, to ensure that the money is well spent on short breaks. The provision will be widely welcomed by parents throughout the country, and I commend to the House the £770 million for those families.


10. When he next expects to meet representatives of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to discuss its work. (261299)

Baroness Delyth Morgan, the Under-Secretary responsible for the matter, holds regular quarterly meetings with CAFCASS to review the progress of its work. Her last meeting with the organisation was held on 10 February.

Does the Minister agree that, although the chief executive of CAFCASS, Mr. Anthony Douglas, is doing an excellent job, one of the biggest problems facing the organisation is the lack of a proper complaints procedure? What does she plan to do to tackle that problem?

I greatly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the chief executive, who is rigorously pursuing performance improvement at CAFCASS at every level. People can complain to CAFCASS, which is a non-departmental public body, with a board that monitors how it works and that will receive those complaints. If he has a specific case in mind or a suggestion for strengthening the process, I would welcome the opportunity to talk to him about it. I have not had any complaints, apart from his, about the lack of a complaints structure in CAFCASS, but if there is a widespread concern, we will clearly be happy to take it up with the organisation.

Education (Parental Involvement)

11. What steps he has taken to encourage parents in the most disadvantaged areas to participate in the education of their children. (261300)

Parental involvement in education has increased overall since 2001. Almost 3,000 Sure Start children’s centres are now open, providing support in the early years. Access to extended services will be provided by all schools from next year, including parenting support. Personal tutors, online reporting and home access schemes have also improved the home-school relationship in all areas, and many of the 2,300 parent support advisers who are now in place are targeted at deprivation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. He is well aware that the internet is now being used to educate parents on their children’s education. The Government should be congratulated on the schemes that they are running to aid low-income families in getting that internet access. Can he tell me how the projects are going, and can he also assure me that they will continue and that the families will be looked after, including those parents who need educating on the process?

My hon. Friend is right that good use of technology with a connection at home can be important in assisting learning. Indeed, academic research showed five years ago that that adds as much as half a grade at GCSE. That is why we are rolling out the home access schemes. I look forward to visiting Oldham on Wednesday, which is one of the two pilot areas, along with Suffolk, where the home access initiative has started. In Oldham, 2,000 families have already applied for the money. I look forward to meeting them and talking to them about how they are going to use it.

Last week I visited Oakway school in my constituency, whose catchment area is, shall I say, more difficult. The headmistress put it to me that she had 21 new pupils whose first language was not English. She was frustrated that those children were just sitting at the back of the class learning nothing. What can the Minister do to help encourage her and to ensure that there will be a solution to that problem?

The comments that the hon. Gentleman has made cause me some concern. Those pupils should not be left at the back of the classroom; they should be getting the attention and the language support that they need. I referred in an earlier answer to the around 100,000 extra teaching assistants whom we have now deployed in classrooms in secondary schools alone. In many areas they are being used, alongside others, to give individual attention to exactly those sorts of pupils and to give them support with their language. I remember visiting an excellent primary school in South Swindon, where a range of teaching assistants were being used with an intake with well over 30 different languages being spoken at home. Those teaching assistants were being deployed excellently. The money is there; it just needs to be used properly.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is that if a child’s capacities and potential are largely determined by 22 months, we have got to get parents involved when children are aged from nought to three? What new strategies does he have to get to the nought-to-threes as early as possible, in order to stimulate those children as quickly as possible?

We set out a range of strategies, both in the “New Opportunities” White Paper earlier this year and in “The Children’s Plan: One Year On” at the end of last year, on parental engagement, including for the nought-to-threes. The expansion of children’s centres, which is ahead of schedule, is at the heart of ensuring that in every community we have a children’s centre that is engaging with parents to ensure that children are prevented from being disadvantaged by deprivation at home.

Topical Questions

Faith schools play an important role in our education system, in both the maintained and the independent sector. I have today asked Ofsted to carry out a survey of independent faith schools to ensure that the 2003 regulations for the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils which independent schools are required to meet are fit for purpose in preparing children and young people for life in modern Britain. I am confident that the vast majority of such schools are exemplary, but it is important that we work with the sector to achieve high standards in every school.

In addition, I can tell the House that we have today approved 10 new national challenge trusts, which will raise standards in 11 schools, in Bradford, Essex, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, north-east Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire, and five new academy projects, in Liverpool, Rotherham, Somerset, Medway and Outwood Grange school in Wakefield. That brings to 101 the total number of academy projects approved since the DCSF was created.

The House might have missed this weekend’s leap of faith in Harrogate, which was forced on the self-confessed agnostic leader of an obscure political sect that has called for more state-funded Church secondary schools. Damascus, eat your heart out! How will my right hon. Friend reform the unacceptable admissions criteria used by far too many such exclusive institutions? As the recent Runnymede Trust report found, those criteria tend to preserve privilege rather than fulfil their claimed role of challenging injustice.

That research reflects the position before our survey last year and the strengthening of the code. We now have a fair admissions code that will apply to all maintained schools, including all faith schools. We are supported by the faith schools in achieving that. I am grateful to have the Liberal Democrats on side now; if only we had the support of the Conservatives as well.

T2. Despite record local government settlements, class sizes in my constituency have been rising recently. What advice can the Minister give to Torbay on reducing them? (261315)

I am sure that problems relating to class sizes in Torbay have nothing to do with the reputation of the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) here, despite the comment that was just made.

The council needs to look hard at how resources are being spent in schools. As the hon. Gentleman has said, resources are rising and it is notable that the number of adults now working with children in classrooms across the country is higher than it has ever been. That kind of individual attention is at the root of the improvement in standards in this country, and I hope that the council in Torbay can ensure that that will be delivered for the good residents of Torquay.

T4. Because of this Labour Government, Boldon school in my constituency has been rebuilt incorporating state-of-the-art sports facilities. In the light of that, and of the expertise of its teaching staff, it has submitted a bid to the Secretary of State for specialist status in sport. Will he tell me how favourably he will look at that application? (261317)

My hon. Friend will have to wait just a few days for the answer to that question. We will make an announcement on the new specialisms in the next few days. The reason why the school in his constituency is right to want to choose that specialism is that for the third year running, sports specialist colleges have seen the fastest rises in their maths and English results of all the specialisms, because of the way in which they use the aspiration and achievement of sport to motivate their pupils to learn. I cannot give him an answer today, but I very much hope that his school will be successful.

T5. A number of head teachers and other teachers in my constituency have asked for it to be made easier to get rid of poorly performing teachers. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the number of poor-quality teachers in our schools, and what is he doing to ensure that schools can get rid of them, so that they do not damage the ethos of the school or the education of the pupils? (261318)

The assessment that we have of the quality of teaching in our schools comes from Ofsted, which reports very favourably about it. It has said that we have the best generation of young teachers that we have ever had in our schools. As I said earlier, we now have an extra 23,000 of those high-quality teachers in our secondary schools alone. We are always looking at ways of attracting new teachers, and I am pleased that we have had a 30 per cent. increase in the number of people applying to become science teachers. That is an extremely positive development. The hon. Gentleman might also know, if he reads The Times Educational Supplement, that there has been a bit of a debate about the number of head teachers who have been dismissed recently. As I commented in that article, the most important thing when teachers or head teachers are moved on is to ensure that the right ones are moved on, and that we hang on to the vast majority who are doing a really good job for the children of this country.

T7. More than 10 per cent. of children applying to secondary schools in Hammersmith and Fulham have not been offered a place in any of their six choices of school, and 38 per cent. did not get a place at their first choice. The education authority is using Building Schools for the Future money to restrict choice, rather than increase it. Community and single-sex schools are being closed or amalgamated, academy catchment areas are drawn to exclude socially deprived neighbourhoods, and only faith schools are being allowed to expand. Will my hon. Friend look into the misuse of public funds and the admissions procedure in Hammersmith and Fulham? (261320)

We are continually updating our admissions code in the light of information we receive. All maintained schools have to comply with our admissions code, including maintained faith schools, and with the judgments of the independent adjudicator.

T6. Is it not important for pupils to have a sense of identity with and a loyalty to their school, and cannot that best be achieved not just through good discipline and good teaching, but by the wearing of a school uniform and by having a daily assembly that includes an act of Christian worship? (261319)

All schools must provide a daily act of collective worship for all registered pupils unless they have been withdrawn by their parents. A school can, however, apply to the local SACRE—standing advisory council for religious education—for a determination to have the requirement for collective worship lifted if it is not appropriate for its pupils.

T9. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that bullying in schools is insidious in all its many forms. Indeed, it has been reported that nearly half of all trans-gendered pupils attempt suicide before their 18th birthday. Will she tell me what the Government are doing to protect this very vulnerable group of young people? (261322)

I certainly agree that this is a very vulnerable group of young people and that any bullying in schools is a cause for great concern. We recently committed to extending guidance on homophobic bullying to include trans-gender pupils. In addition, now that we have considered the many responses we received to consultation on the 2007 discrimination law review, I am happy to announce that we will extend the discrimination provisions to include trans-gender pupils in the forthcoming Equality Bill.

T8. I know that Ministers are keen to improve the uptake of school meals in our country, and the campaign has focused on increasing the variety and diversity of foods available. Would the Minister care to look at an experiment taking place in Hinderwell school in Scarborough, which has succeeded by doing precisely the opposite? It has determined the five favourite menus and repeats them every single week, so the kids know what to expect. The Secretary of State might like to join me on Friday, which, incidentally, is fish and chips day. (261321)

There are many schools that do fish and chips on Fridays, and do so successfully. The schools that have done best at improving the uptake of healthy meals are, in fact, those that have listened to pupils and taken their views into account. We are actually trying to go even further by piloting in respect of the potential for free school meals for all pupils—a proposal that was tried just down the road in Hull by the Labour council, but was then dropped by the Liberal Democrats.

May I take the Secretary of State back to the issue of pupils in disadvantaged areas, particularly in Tilbury in my constituency, which had two failing schools that we were proud to have replaced by the Gateway academy? Now, children from Tilbury cannot get into the Gateway academy: it was created and built for them, but now that it is a successful school, more than 40 applicants are being excluded. Does he have any powers to intervene in this nonsense, whereby we are disadvantaging those who are most deprived, for whom this school was primarily planned?

The reason why we are expanding the academies programme is that academies have been set up disproportionately in respect of the most disadvantaged communities. The facts show that they actually take more disadvantaged pupils than their catchment area would suggest and they still achieve faster-rising results year on year. If they become more successful, then of course they become harder to get into, which is why we need to keep expanding the programme to ensure that every school can be a good school. [Interruption.] I would be happy to look at this particular instance, but I do not think that simply forcing schools to become ever larger is always the best way to do the best for the education of pupils.

T10. On a recent visit to Eagle Bridge health centre in Crewe, I met a number of local health visitors who were at pains to point out to me their chronic case work load, with a single health visitor having to consider as many as 200 families overall. What action are the Government taking to address that problem, so that health visitors can be freed up to spend more time with each family and to provide more intensive support within the home environment? (261323)

I had a meeting with health visitor representatives a week or so ago, and met health visitors in Derby on Friday. In the child health strategy, the Secretary of State for Health and I set out our intention to take forward, expand and support the health visiting profession. That will be an important theme in Lord Laming’s report on progress on safeguarding, which will be published to the House on Thursday, and on which I will make a statement in the House.

Given that approximately 6,000 children a year exclude themselves from school after suffering extreme bullying, approximately 50 per cent. of whom have contemplated or attempted to commit suicide, will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and a delegation of interested parties to consider the case for funding the network of Red Balloon learner centres across the country? They are doing fantastic work in restoring the self-esteem of those damaged children, and getting them back into school, into further education, on to university or into employment. They need a bit of help.

I had the opportunity two weeks ago to meet a group of young people from Norwich and Harrow who were being given chances to get back into school through the support of Red Balloon. Such decisions are made by local authorities, and I urge all local authorities to support Red Balloon and such new opportunities for children. I would love to meet the hon. Gentleman and a delegation again, so that I can hear further inspiring stories of young people getting back into education because of this important voluntary organisation.