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Topical Questions

Volume 489: debated on Monday 9 March 2009

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.