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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 491: debated on Monday 27 April 2009

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Dedicated Schools Grant

1. How much dedicated schools grant has been allocated to schools in (a) East Devon, (b) Devon and (c) England for 2009-10. (270732)

The Government allocate funding to local authorities, not by constituency, so we do not hold figures separately for East Devon. The guaranteed unit of funding per pupil for Devon is £3,843. The amount of dedicated schools grant that Devon receives is dependent on the number of pupils on roll. Devon will receive around £359 million for 2009-10. The indicative total of dedicated schools grant for England for 2009-10 is £29.8 billion.

I am most grateful to the Minister for that answer. He came down to Devon recently and gave an interview to my local paper in which he admitted that Devon is still slightly below the average for funding. The reality is that if the average amount allocated to schools according to the Government’s funding criteria were met in Devon, Sidmouth college would be £300,000 better off in 2009 and Exmouth community college—the biggest secondary school in Europe, with 2,500 pupils—would be better off by £900,000. Does the Minister not agree that education in Devon is just as important as education in Birmingham? I have always considered him a fair man; will he therefore undertake today to end that discrimination against Devon’s schoolchildren?

I am looking forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman next month to discuss those issues and the dedicated schools grant review that we are undertaking. The truth is that Devon receives well over £1,000 per pupil more than it did in 1997, as part of the 75 per cent. real-terms increase in schools funding. We are committed to protecting school budgets, as we review the dedicated schools grant. I note that the hon. Gentleman is also meeting the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) to discuss those matters, but I am not sure that he can make the same commitment.

We on the Conservative Benches support the Government’s approach to education. We are totally committed to it—we want more education, we want more jobs; we want all these things—but could the Minister please explain to the House why South Devon college, which is a showpiece in the south-west, has had its funding cut for this year and why Dartmouth college is falling to bits? The people there are ready to rebuild it, but they cannot get the funds.

The hon. Gentleman has come to see me to talk about Dartmouth college. We have discussed how we might be able to take things forward, as we roll out our Building Schools for the Future programme, which is a Government commitment to refurbishing or replacing every single secondary school over 15 years. I know that South Devon college does a fantastic job and I am keen to see it develop as an outstanding provider of education in Devon. However, if there are issues that I need to look at with the Learning and Skills Council, I shall be happy to do so.

National Challenge Programme

2. How many academies and national challenge trust schools he expects to be opened under the national challenge programme. (270733)

Our national challenge programme provides resources to transform up to 70 additional schools into academies and up to 70 schools into national challenge trusts. This September, more than 300 academies will open, and we expect that academies will have replaced more than 200 national challenge schools. So far, we have agreed 16 national challenge trusts and we are expecting to agree a further 34 shortly, of which 30 will open this September and 20 will open in 2010.

In 2006, we opened two new city academies in Mitcham in my constituency, in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Conservative councillors. Those two schools have now doubled the number of pupils getting five GCSE passes. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the sponsors, Lord Harris and the Church of England, as well as all the staff and the pupils at those schools? Will he also warn people that although those on the Conservative Front Bench may have converted to supporting academies, Conservative local councillors on the ground do not want schools in deprived areas?

My hon. Friend makes two important points. The first point is that academies in disadvantaged communities are driving up results faster than the average, which shows that academies work. The second point, which she made about her constituency, but which is equally true of Dudley, is that for all the bluster from the Opposition, it is Conservative councils that are blocking academies round the country.

If the problems with the national challenge programme continue, and if Ministers end up having to hold an inquiry into the matter, will the Secretary of State assure us that the evidence that Ministers give to the inquiry will not be “false”, a “fiction” and “sexed up”, as Dr. Boston suggested of the evidence given to the SATs inquiry?

All the evidence that is given by this side is accurate, and when any mistakes are made, they are always corrected as soon as they come to our awareness. The hon. Gentleman should be supporting the national challenge programme, because it is transforming the life chances of children in schools around the country. He should not join the Conservatives in opposing that part of school improvement policy as well.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, earlier this year, his Department agreed a multi-million pound investment in the village of Maltby in my constituency, which included the rebuilding of three schools, one of which is the secondary school that is going to become an academy. Is he aware that the Conservative opposition on Rotherham borough council have voted against this, and that, on 15 April, at a meeting of the scrutiny committee that attempted to prevent the project from going ahead, the prospective parliamentary candidate for the Tory party, Councillor Lynda Donaldson, voted against the rebuilding of those schools?

I understand the point that my right hon. Friend is making. I think that there is a theme here. Some people believe that the academies programme is right because it takes out the role of local authorities. Presumably that is because they are Conservative local authorities that oppose academies, as we have seen in London and Dudley. We are also now seeing it happening in Rotherham. Luckily, there is a Labour council in Rotherham and it is taking forward the academies policy. It is those Members on the Government Benches, not those on the other side, who believe in school improvement for disadvantaged children.

In the current economic climate, surely education reform is vital to strengthen our economy. Will the Secretary of State now accept that extending bureaucratic interference in education is not the way forward?

I am totally against the extension of bureaucratic interference, but I also believe that it is important that our schools should do a good job by all the children in our country. That is why Jim Rose is producing his primary curriculum review on Thursday to ensure that primary schools focus on the basics, including phonics. I do not support proposals to withdraw the national curriculum from some primary schools. That would set back reading, learning and phonics, and it would be the wrong thing to do. I will stand by parents on doing the right thing by education, and not by Opposition Members.

At the weekend, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), in a widely acclaimed speech, announced a new Conservative policy that would extend the academies programme to include primary schools, freeing those schools from local and national bureaucratic interference. The former Labour education adviser to Tony Blair, Conor Ryan, welcomed the proposals in his excellent, well-written blog, but he expressed shock and disappointment at the response of Ministers to these proposals—particularly the “uncharacteristically sour” response from the Minister for Schools and Learners. He said that the Government’s response would send chills down the spines of “thoughtful Labour supporters”. Is the man who did so much to craft the education policies for the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) and Tony Blair wrong, and, if so, why?

The hon. Gentleman is well known for his support for early reading, for literacy and for phonics. We have introduced a role for phonics and literacy in the national curriculum, and that will be strengthened on Thursday. The idea that he could support some successful primary schools opting out of the national curriculum beggars belief. This is not just about collaboration; it is also totally dishonest to come along with a policy to expand investment in academies while advocating cuts in the schools budget. That is what will send chills down the spines of parents.

Building Colleges for the Future (Barnsley)

4. What assessment he has made of the effects on sixth-form provision in Barnsley of the financial difficulties in the Building Colleges for the Future programme. (270735)

I understand the difficulties being faced by Barnsley college, which is one of the 144 capital projects being considered by the Learning and Skills Council. The additional £300 million of capital funding that was announced in the Budget, including £80 million from my Department, will enable a number of the most urgent projects to start within the spending review period. In line with Sir Andrew Foster’s recommendations, the LSC is consulting on which capital projects can be brought forward in that period.

First, may I point out that I have not changed my name and that the entry on today’s Order Paper is a typo? I am still the MP formerly known as Eric.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. He knows perfectly well the situation of Barnsley college. The fourth element of the college’s rebuilding scheme is accommodation for our sixth forms, because the vast bulk of our sixth-form provision is within the college. Will he add his voice to that of the local Barnsley MPs in pressing the Learning and Skills Council for a decision in relation to Barnsley college—I hope one that will allow that fourth phase of the development to go ahead?

My hon. Friend will understand why it is hard for me to press the LSC at this stage while it is carrying out its consultation, but as I said, in the next two years, £80 million of 16-to-19 funding is being brought forward now to help to deal with the issue. I understand the particularly acute needs of Barnsley college, given the advanced state of the plans and the investment there. The consultation will be done properly. We will also ensure that no college loses out. Like him, I would like the building of that final stage of the Barnsley project to be completed as soon as is practically possible.

I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that all the secondary schools in my constituency have sixth-form provision. On 2 March, they were given their figure for the year. By 23 March, some schools had £90,000 removed from them—within three weeks. Will he meet a delegation of headmasters from my constituency and explain to them why they are losing so much funding and will have to cut sixth-form provision in my constituency?

I fear that the hon. Gentleman may have missed the Budget announcement, which allocated—

No, the hon. Gentleman did not miss the Budget announcement, in which case he will know that in the Budget we allocated £650 million over the next two years, which will guarantee more than 50,000 more learners, and all the learners in 2009-10 and 2010-11, including in his college. I am happy to have a meeting with those headmasters to say to them that they are getting the money. I hope he is not misunderstanding the position and he ought to be pressing his Front Benchers, who so far have failed to match our September guarantee for September 2009 and September 2010. That is what I will say when I meet his college principals: we are the ones guaranteeing the money; the Conservatives are the ones guaranteeing the cuts.

It is not only Barnsley that has these problems. Skem college has outstanding a £41 million development of a new campus—a first and major step in the regeneration of Skelmersdale, which is a town of significant deprivation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that investment in Skem college is vital for the social and economic ambitions of the town and the college, and that a needs-based approach must be the one that is adopted when reviewing these matters?

My hon. Friend is completely right and that is what Sir Andrew Foster proposed. He said that the Building Colleges for the Future programme is a brilliant programme. It is helping hundreds of colleges around the country and it is a record investment, but we have more colleges with plans than we have resources available. That is why this must be based on need. I have to tell my hon. Friend that if she wants to see that investment flowing through, it is vital that she continues to campaign for a Labour Government, because the Conservatives would cut those budgets.

Of that £650 million, will the Secretary of State confirm that some has been allocated to the excellent Telford college of arts and technology? In a time of rising unemployment in Shropshire and the west midlands, the college does a great job in reskilling and retraining people, and indeed keeping young adults in full-time education, yet they have been let down. They were told to think big and plan big, but now they are being told that a large extension cannot go ahead because the funds have dried up. That means that at least £1.6 million from existing funding will have to go into the design costs, let alone the abandoned build costs. Will he commit in the House today to TCAT being allowed to expand to meet the rising demand?

The point I made a moment ago was that we have more projects in the pipeline than we have resources in the next two years and that the LSC is going through a prioritisation review. We will ensure over the coming years that all those projects are completed in time, because we will guarantee the funding, which the Conservative party would cut.

It is also the case that, because of the £650 million allocated in the Budget, the LSC has been able to write to all schools and colleges today to tell them that we will be guaranteeing the funding for September this year and next. We will fund the September guarantee because we want all young people who want to do so to stay in school or college or be on an apprenticeship. However, despite my repeated requests, I cannot get similar backing from the Conservative party because the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) knows that the cuts committed for his budget would not allow that funding to flow. That is the difference. If the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) is honest, he will tell his constituents that fact. I am the one guaranteeing the funding. His party is not.

Excluded Children

5. What recent discussions he has had with local authorities on proposals to abolish appeals panels for excluded children. (270736)

There are no proposals to abolish these panels. This Government are committed to retaining the right for parents of permanently excluded pupils to appeal to an independent appeal panel, which is an established safeguard for pupils and parents.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am particularly concerned about talk, especially from the Opposition Benches, about stopping these panels. They are a particular safeguard for children with special needs, who we know are three times more likely to be excluded. Will she assure me, the Council for Disabled Children and the National Children’s Bureau that this Government and the education system will support these children, rather than let them down, which is much more likely should that despicable policy ever see the light of day?

My hon. Friend is right to draw that to our attention. Certainly, an amendment to that effect was tabled to the Education and Skills Bill by the Conservative party. The Special Educational Consortium said then, and we agree with it, that children with special educational needs were already disproportionately represented in exclusion statistics and the amendment would remove one of the remaining few checks and balances currently operating in the system.

Of course, schools sometimes mistake disability for disobedience. Children with special educational needs are nine times more likely to be permanently excluded from school, and the Government are rightly committed to reducing the incidents of such exclusions. In the light of that, will the Under-Secretary of State consider the merit of amending the law so that a child with SEN or disability may be permanently excluded from school only if a review has taken place of the sufficiency and effectiveness of the reasonable adjustments that have been made under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to seek to accommodate that pupil?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I pay tribute to his expertise in this area of special educational needs, and we certainly share his passion and commitment to promoting improved outcomes for children with SEN and disabilities. I am, of course, aware that he has a private Member’s Bill that is due for its Second Reading on 15 May. I believe that that is one proposal that may be considered in it. We certainly look forward to debating that.

While I accept my hon. Friend’s answers to those questions, and following on from the question asked by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), a few years ago a pupil in a high school in my constituency physically attacked a teacher and other pupils, who required treatment for their injuries. He was then excluded but put back in the school by an appeals panel. Is not the real problem that there is not sufficient provision in publicly provided residential accommodation for young people with serious behavioural difficulties to go into from time to time?

We certainly recognise the difficulties that children and young people with behavioural and emotional problems present in schools. That is why we are looking at the review of special educational needs; we have Ofsted reviewing special educational needs and Brian Lamb looking at how we can improve the experience for parents and young people. Certainly, part of that is how we manage behaviour in schools and how we ensure that there is sufficient provision to enable these young people to fulfil their potential.

Government figures last year revealed that there was a drop of 13 per cent. in permanent exclusions between 2003 and 2007 despite a 50 per cent. increase in the number of children suspended for five times or more— 867 of them excluded for 10 times or more—at a time that saw 4,370 fixed exclusions for serious racist abuse and more than 207,000 serious offences, such as sexual abuse and violence. Yet, in no fewer than 40 per cent. of appeals against permanent exclusions, reinstatement was upheld so that pupils could return to the scene of their offences with impunity, most of them having nothing to do with SEN. Does the Minister think it right that a pupil who has been excluded for violent crime, racist or sexual abuse should be readmitted to schools under any circumstances against the better judgment of the head or the governors?

We are certainly committed to backing head teachers’ authority when pupils’ behaviour warrants exclusion. Last year, the number of successful appeals was just 1.2 per cent. of all permanent exclusions, so we must get this in balance. We obviously recognise, and we have said in response to Alan Steer's report, that repeated suspension should lead to permanent exclusion. We are certainly giving back head teachers authority in that.

Free Nursery Places (Reading)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As he knows, free entitlement to early-years provision for three and four-year-olds is a universal offer that is taken up by almost all four-year-olds and more than 95 per cent. of three-year-olds. In Reading that equates to approximately 3,500 places, helping to give three and four-year-olds the best possible start in life.

There is no doubt that the extension of free nursery education is one of Labour's finest achievements. In order to spread the word to a wider audience, can the Minister tell the House how many extra nursery places have been delivered in all Berkshire authorities since 1997?

I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend that information because the figures before 1997 are not available, but we know that it was not a priority for the Government at that time: free provision was patchy and often depended on whether one had a good Labour council funding it, or whether one could afford to pay. This Government have been the first to introduce and to be committed to universal free entitlement for all three and four-year-olds, and we remain so because of the difference that it makes to reducing inequality, to helping every child to fulfil their potential and to helping families to balance work and family life. Parents want to know whether all that will be in jeopardy if the Conservatives come back into government.

Many nursery providers in my constituency are under considerable financial pressure thanks to the changes made by this Government. A recent survey found that about half have considered closing. Many cannot meet the cost of free entitlement. How do the Government expect a broad range of nurseries to remain in business in Reading and elsewhere if they cannot afford to cover their basic costs?

Frankly, that was nonsense. It is because this Government doubled the number of places for the under-fives that the private sector was able to expand in the way it did under the Government last year; there are now more than 1.3 million places. The funding that we are putting in for free entitlement is enabling those providers to stay in business largely. Certainly our independent research shows that the money that we are putting in—£4 billion a year across all early- years provision—is sufficient for free entitlement. We want local authorities to be more consistent in the way in which they administer that, but it is helping the private sector to thrive.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) is absolutely right. When it comes to nursery places in Reading or any other part of the country, the Minister knows that the sums do not add up. Two out of three nurseries still cannot provide free places for the Government money that they receive. Why, when more than 9,000 families are predicted to see their child care close by the end of this year because of the financial crisis, is the Minister failing to take action to stop the instability that is so damaging for so many families up and down the country?

The £1.3 billion per year for the free entitlement is enabling many nurseries in the private sector to continue. We are committed to continuing that funding, along with the funding for Sure Start children centres and all the early-years provision in our maintained schools. The question that parents want answered is whether the hon. Lady, if a Conservative Government came to power, would be committed to continuing that funding and continuing the provision for the under-fives

Secondary School Expenditure

Separate figures are not available for secondary schools, as funding is not allocated by phase. Revenue and capital combined funding per pupil aged three to 19 in England for 2009-10 is £6,400. The average guaranteed per pupil unit of funding in the dedicated schools grant, which is the core element of school revenue funding, for 2009-10 is £4,218.

I thank the Minister for that reply, and may I say what a vast improvement that is on the situation before 1997? In the context of the financial crisis, does he detect any lessening of the Government’s enthusiasm for seeking convergence in the funding of the 93 per cent. of children in state schools and the 7 per cent. of children in private schools?

There is no lessening of enthusiasm at all; our commitment remains to safeguarding schools budgets. We are committed to the increases that we set out the year before last for this comprehensive spending review period—unlike others, who can make no commitment for the last year of that spending review period—and on the basis of those increases, we are narrowing the gap all the time.

The Minister always seeks to deal with questions in a helpful and sensitive way. Am I right to believe the information that is coming to me from a number of my local secondary schools that there is a problem in the funding of sixth-form education? This deeply worries me, because I believe that, at the sixth-form level, we really do dictate how people will succeed in their subsequent career and life. Is there a problem? If so, what are the Government going to do about it? As he knows, I come from what was Cheshire—now it is Cheshire East.

I shall try to put this as helpfully and sensitively as possible. As we set out in response to earlier questions, in the Budget we announced more than £200 million for this year and more than £400 million for next year so that we can fully fund post-16 places and, indeed, an additional 55,000 extra learners. We are not just saying to schools and colleges, “Plan on the basis of what you had already predicted at the turn of year for post-16 places.”; we are also saying, “If you can stimulate more into learning, we have the resources to listen to what you are saying and to see whether we can do even better than you were expecting.”

We all welcome the increase in the baseline funding for secondary schools, but will the Minister assure us that, once again, he will re-examine the area cost adjustment, in order to take account of children who live in small pockets of deprivation and underachieve, yet are paid less than those in accommodating areas, where schools overachieve above the average and there is no deprivation, simply because they are not in metropolitan areas?

Certainly I can tell my hon. Friend that we are looking at a new formula for the dedicated schools grant for the next spending review period. We have been working and consulting on that for some time, and we expect to be able to make some announcements towards the end of next year on the outcome of that work. During this spending review period, we acknowledge, for the first time, that there are pockets of deprivation in some of our wealthier authorities; we have begun a process of acknowledging exactly the point that he raises.

In the middle of March, Lutterworth college—the biggest school in Leicestershire—which is in my constituency, was told that it would get a certain sum for post-16 education, but at the end of March, the Learning and Skills Council told it that the sum would be less. Now, after the Budget, the Government are saying that they are going to find the money after all. May I say sensitively to the sensitive Minister that the situation is chaotic—to say the least? Can he now guarantee that Lutterworth college will be able to fund every place that it expected to fund this coming September?

I welcome the investment to which my right hon. Friend has referred in earlier answers. Do figures exist to show the funding that is being put into the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics? Is he confident that it is sufficient to ensure that every student who wants to study one of those subjects can do so?

I do not have the figures at my fingertips for the extra resources that we are putting into the STEM subjects, which my hon. Friend champions so passionately, but it is crucial that we sustain the momentum that we have developed in science, technology, engineering and maths for our economy and to enable individuals to prosper in life. Those skills and competencies are hugely important, and we will continue that commitment as we carry out the review of schools funding that I mentioned earlier.

Free School Meals

8. What his most recent assessment is of levels of educational achievement by pupils eligible to receive free school meals; and if he will make a statement. (270739)

The attainment of pupils eligible for free school meals has improved strongly since 1997. An estimated 20,000 more FSM pupils now get the expected standard—level 4 or better—in maths at the end of key stage 2, which is the end of primary education, than 10 years ago and the figure is more than 16,000 for English. Last month the Department published “Breaking the Link between deprivation and low attainment—Everyone’s Business”, a comprehensive assessment of the reasons why children receiving free school meals attain less than their peers at every key stage, and we will say more on that key issue in the White Paper later this year.

Both the OECD and the Rowntree Foundation agree that the great achievement of Labour over the last 12 years has been the widening of the gap between rich and poor in our communities. With 75,000 children receiving free school meals and 45 per cent. of them not getting a grade C or above at GCSE in any subject, what does the Government have to be proud of?

We are proud that standards have risen in every authority and that the most deprived areas have made the biggest gains. We are proud that schools serving the most deprived pupils have made the most progress. We are proud that underperforming minority ethnic groups have made above average progress. We acknowledge that there is still a strong link, at individual pupil level and starting at 22 months of age, between disadvantage and achievement levels. Therefore, anyone serious about a progressive agenda would not cut Sure Start and children’s centres, would not oppose national challenge and personalised interventions such as one-to-one tuition and would certainly not abandon the national curriculum through primary academies, meaning that effective reading schemes such as synthetic phonics would not be mandatory for those who need them most. Those are the policies of the hon. Gentleman’s party.

As the Minister will be aware, I am an evangelist for universal free school meals. In trials of universal free school meals in Hull and Scotland, educational attainment, attendance and behaviour all improved. At a recent conference of the Caterers Association, concern was expressed that the nutritional standards were too stringent. I do not know whether that is the case, but I have had representations from pupils in Gateshead who felt that taking the chocolate off the top of their flapjacks was a step too far. We all want school food to be healthier, but what is the Minister’s response to the flapjack issue and the concerns of the association?

While I am partial to the occasional flapjack, with or without chocolate—in fact, I enjoyed one with plain chocolate, cranberry and macadamia nut over the weekend—I do not think that they would meet the nutritional standard, with or without chocolate. My hon. Friend raises a more serious issue about the importance of free school meals. We are looking to pilot universal provision and we will make some more announcements on that shortly.

All pupils, especially the most disadvantaged, need reliable assessments to ensure that they are making progress. However, I have serious questions about the Government’s handling of assessment and their ability to deliver reliable assessment this year. The Minister said last year that delivering national curriculum tests was a mission-critical issue for his Department. When we warned on 19 May that last year’s tests were going badly wrong, the Secretary of State said that it was an issue that he personally was monitoring closely. On 30 June the Government eventually acknowledged that the whole testing process had descended into shambles. Just how closely did the Secretary of State monitor those tests? How many times did he meet Ken Boston, the head of the agency charged with delivering the tests, between the alarm being raised in May and the end of June?

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was pressed throughout the whole of the debacle relating to the delivery of the SATs for which it was responsible. The QCA was pressed by officials, by me and by the Secretary of State. We commissioned an inquiry into these matters, so serious were the problems relating to test delivery. Lord Sutherland carried out that inquiry and he remains of the view, as confirmed in a statement last week, that no new information has come to light that changes his findings from that inquiry, which said that the responsibility lay squarely with the contractor, ETS, and with the QCA.

The Minister, like the Secretary of State, is once again evading responsibility for the truth. Ministers’ testimony in the Sutherland report depicts them—the Minister has repeated this statement—as having regularly

“pressed QCA’s Chief Executive for answers.”

The Secretary of State told me in this House on 16 December that throughout the critical period, Ministers

“pressed QCA’s Chief Executive for answers.”

He told the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that

“time and again…my officials and Ministers raised questions with the QCA”. —[Official Report, 16 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 996-999.]

Under further interrogation, he insisted, “We regularly asked questions”. However, the QCA chief executive testified to the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families last week:

“I was not asked to meet…the Schools Minister in the months leading up to the delivery failure…including the critical marking period in the final eight weeks. Nor was I being ‘pressed’ by ministers for answers on the telephone or by e-mail.”

Is Ken Boston lying? If not, who is?

The Secretary of State did press three times by mid-June. I have here a whole list of a series of meetings that I, officials and the Secretary of State had with officials from the QCA, including Ken Boston. There was one problem when I recollected his presence wrongly as regards two meetings a fortnight apart. At the second meeting, on 2 July, I met Ken Boston and David Gee. I previously met David Gee and I previously met Ken Boston on all those occasions—[Interruption.]

The records of all those meetings were given to Lord Sutherland. He carried out his inquiry, which was described even by Dr. Boston last week as fair. That inquiry fairly and squarely laid the blame and the responsibility where they should lie.

Fair Admissions Policies

We recently improved the statutory framework, making admissions fairer, more co-ordinated and easier for parents. For 2009 entry, 83.2 per cent. of children got their first choice of secondary school, with 96.2 per cent. securing one of their preferences. Parents must now be consulted on local proposals and the schools adjudicator can examine arrangements without formal objection. Local authorities must now report annually to the adjudicator on fair access, informing his report on compliance to the Secretary of State.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Every year, schools admissions have been a hot topic in my constituency. I can understand the concerns of parents who are choosing a primary or secondary school place. As part of a fair admissions policy, we need quality information. What reassurances can my hon. Friend give parents in my constituency that they will have access to all the relevant information to enable them to make a fair choice?

I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that in Stockport, which covers his constituency, parents’ preferences for school places were met at higher than the national average level. From next year, parents need only to apply to their home local authority for school places, including for applications in year. Information for parents must be clear and comprehensive and choice advisers are available locally to help the disadvantaged. We are requiring local authorities to produce composite prospectuses by 12 September each year.

Last April, we published a parents’ guide to help parents navigate the admissions and appeals system. We will update that in July to ensure that parents have all the information that they need.

Ministers have tried hard to amend the policy to make it better, but is it not still the truth that in local authorities where many or all schools are their own admission authorities it is sometimes very difficult to have a fair and flat playing field for applications? For example, in areas where there are a lot of Church schools, people who go to church get a far better deal than people who do not. What will Ministers do to give all pupils a fair opportunity to have access to all secondary schools?

The first thing we have done is to make sure that all schools, whether they are their own admissions authority or part of the local authority, act in accordance with the current code. They have to abide by the admissions code. Through that mechanism and also in the fact that we are now allowing the schools adjudicator to look into objections from wherever they come, we can continue to update the code and ensure that it is fair.

Topical Questions

I know that parents, teachers and children will be concerned by the reports over the weekend about the flu outbreak in Mexico. As a contingency measure we shall today remind schools and children’s centres of our detailed guidance on planning for a possible flu pandemic, but our clear advice is that they should continue to operate as normal, taking their usual precautions against the spread of seasonal flu outbreaks and viral infections. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will make a detailed statement to the House this afternoon.

We are publishing the Jim Rose review of the primary curriculum on Thursday, and ahead of that we are today publishing Sir Alasdair MacDonald’s review of personal, social and health education. Our expectation, following his review, is that PSHE will become compulsory from September 2011, and we shall consult on the draft regulations alongside Sir Jim’s final report.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The only non-denominational all-girls school in my borough is at the far end of the neighbouring constituency of Wimbledon, which means that a large number of parents have been to see me recently because they wanted a girls school for cultural, religious, social or other reasons but have been unsuccessful owing to proximity being the only criterion. Can my right hon. Friend do anything to look at how we select places for all-girls education to ensure that it does not just favour the most well-off parts of our boroughs?

As we heard earlier, my hon. Friend is a champion for children and parents in her constituency. As she knows, it is the local authority’s job to commission those places, but it is perfectly possible for parents to make proposals for new schools. It is also now the case that under the admissions code parents should be consulted about admissions arrangements. If unfairness and lack of choice are problems for parents in my hon. Friend’s constituency, I encourage her and local parents to make representations as part of the admissions code process for next year.

The Minister recently announced that Lancasterian school in south Manchester had been successful in becoming a specialist school for communication and interaction, so does he agree that Manchester city council’s plans to cut provision at Lancasterian threaten its future and should be shelved to give the school, which was rated as outstanding by Ofsted, the opportunity to become even better?

I am not personally familiar with the Lancasterian school, so I am not familiar with the circumstances and with what Manchester city council has said, although I am sure that I will be able to read the hon. Gentleman’s press release later. I am happy to see whether there is anything I need to look into more thoroughly.

T2. Following the exchanges that we have just heard, can my right hon. Friend tell me how many times he personally pressed Ken Boston about SATs results and tests? (270758)

I can, and I would happily have answered the question directly if the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) had raised it with me. I have nothing to add to the evidence that I gave the Sutherland inquiry, which showed—as I said to Lord Sutherland—that following the exchange we had in oral questions on 19 May, I immediately, between my office and Ken Boston’s office, raised the question with him and asked for reassurances, which I received. Secondly, I had a meeting with him on 2 June where I was reassured. Thirdly, on 6 June I asked Ken Boston to respond to a constituent of mine who had raised concerns, and Ken Boston wrote on 16 June to reassure my constituent that things were on track. As Lord Sutherland shows, Ministers regularly pressed Ken Boston and the QCA. It was only at the end of June that the actual problems arose. As Lord Sutherland says, his inquiry was fair. It had broad terms of reference and it concluded that ETS and the QCA were at fault. I entirely support Lord Sutherland’s inquiry and his conclusions, and we will implement them, as is the proper thing to do.

T3. I am encouraged by Ministers’ comments about the reinstatement of sixth-form school funding. The Coopers’ Company and Coborn school in my constituency faces underfunding of 12 per cent. for its sixth-form pupils, while the Sacred Heart of Mary girls school faces similar underfunding of 10 per cent. They are eagerly awaiting a letter confirming that their funding will be reinstated. Will the Secretary of State confirm irrevocably that Coopers’ Company and Coborn and Sacred Heart of Mary will receive funding for all their pupils in this year and to 2010? (270759)

The answer is absolutely and irrevocably yes. The Learning and Skills Council wrote to all schools this morning to say that its plans as of the beginning of March will be delivered. It will come forward with more detailed allocations in the next few weeks. What happened was the number of those wanting to stay on was much larger than our budgets allowed for, and the LSC—wrongly in my view—committed to schools that such numbers could be met, without the funding being in place. We had extensive discussions about the budget, which led to the £654 million, and that means that we can now meet the September guarantee. It is only when there is money in the budget that a commitment can be made, and we now have the money in the budget and are making a clear commitment. I urge the hon. Lady to ask her colleague, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), to reply to my letters, because he will not match my commitment at the moment.

T4. On Friday, I will visit the STAR centre at Keighley college. The centre, which is for primary and secondary children, promotes science, technology, engineering and maths, and puts an emphasis on aerospace research. Will the Minister assure me that funding for such centres will continue? (270760)

As a former vice-chair of the all-party group on space, and having visited many of our companies and businesses that are devoted to aeronautical and space research, I can guarantee for my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to continuing to support the technological industry, which will create many new jobs in the future.

T9. The Secretary of State is pleased to describe school governors as the largest team of volunteers in the public sector, but they are beginning to feel that they are the most put-upon volunteers in the public sector as his endless review of their role goes on. What plans does he now have for changing school governance, or does he agree with many school governors that as the system is not broken, it does not need to be fixed? (270766)

Although the hon. Gentleman turns his back on reform altogether, there is a case for building on school governors’ strengths. Most school governors would agree that they could do with a better commitment to training to fill any skills gaps in the governing body. Many would agree that a commitment on trained clerks to governing bodies would be helpful to guide their work. There is plenty more that we can do to improve both the challenge and the support that governors offer schools. We are hugely grateful for their work. I am reviewing their role with others, and I expect to be able to produce proposals in the next couple of months that will take school governance forward.

T5. Last week, with a delegation from Halifax, I met the Minister for Schools and Learners to stress the need for Building Schools for the Future funding to cover Calderdale council as a priority. Will he assure me that Calderdale’s case will be considered, and will he visit my Halifax constituency so that he can see our need for such investment, especially as it will be a major consideration for Lloyds when it decides on the security of HBOS jobs in Halifax? (270762)

I certainly enjoyed meeting my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) last week, along with others from Calderdale. It is really important that we continue to consider the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) makes, particularly as regards Castle Hill and Todmorden schools in the authority. The matter is not straightforward, as she knows, but she is making an exceptional case. I just remind her, and anyone from her constituency who is listening, that it is the Labour party and this Government who are committed to Building Schools for the Future and to continuing that funding, rather than cutting it as the Conservative party would do.

That was a recommendation of Lord Sutherland’s that we will seek to take forward in future years. In 2005, the QCA announced its decision not to proceed with online marking in 2006 and 2007, and in 2008, when Ken Boston, then chief executive of the QCA, wrote to me about the testing contract with ETS, he made no proposal for online marking. At no point has Ken Boston ever pressed on me the case for online marking. It is Lord Sutherland who is now pressing that case on the basis of his thorough, effective and independent review.

T6. I note from reports in the media that senior staff of examining boards now sell their services to schools and teachers, advising them how best to prepare pupils for the exams that they will set and mark. Is that not a clear conflict of interest that blurs the boundaries between private profit and public service, and should it not be outlawed if we want to continue providing our children with the high-quality, objectively assessed state education that will benefit them all? (270763)

I was very concerned to hear of some of the practices advocated during one particular course or session that someone associated with one of the examining boards was last weekend reported by the BBC to be carrying out. I know that our independent regulator, Ofqual, and the examination board involved were equally concerned about that, and are looking into the matter. I do not think that I should make any further comment at this stage.

What recent assessment have the Government made of the effectiveness and adequacy of child employment and child performance legislation and regulations, and is it not time that some progress was made with reform, before there is serious injury or damage to children?

I looked into this a few months ago. The legislation is in place; the issue is whether local authorities are properly implementing the legislation and the guidance. We contacted local authorities, and will continue to do so, to press them to take seriously their obligations to make sure that the registration schemes in place work properly. Our view is that it is not right to toughen up the law. The important thing to do is to make sure that the law that applies is implemented. That is the approach that we are taking to the very important issue that the hon. Lady raises.

T7. The Secretary of State will know that one of my local nursery schools has been treated quite appallingly by Ofsted. Is he prepared to meet the headmistress of the nursery school, along with the chairwoman of Ofsted? (270764)

My hon. Friend has kindly corresponded with me on the subject. I think that Ofsted has agreed that the initial report was unsatisfactory, and that the issue now is the rather large amount of compensation being pursued because, for six days, the report was on Ofsted’s website. As he knows, Ofsted is a separate Government department, answering directly to Parliament and not to my Department. I would advise the nursery owner to go to the independent adjudicator, and/or through him to the parliamentary ombudsman, who can perhaps help to resolve this outstanding matter.

Will the Minister take action to stop Essex county councillors selling off Castle Point’s school playing fields for development, and will he accept my congratulations on the Government’s record on protecting our school playing fields?

It has become a bit of a treat for us at topical questions when the hon. Gentleman pops up and has a go at his Tory former friends on Essex county council, as he always does. On his point about playing fields, I am grateful to him for his congratulations. We have certainly made every effort to protect them. In the few cases over the past 12 years in which they have been sold off, it has normally been because the school has closed and the whole grounds were surplus to requirements. I am certainly keeping a careful eye on Essex county council, thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s efforts and those of one or two others in this House.

T8. Is there a better system for assessing pupil performance at key stage 2 than SATs, and if so, what is it? (270765)

As my hon. Friend knows, we have an expert group which is looking at what we can do to improve the system of assessment. My hon. Friend also knows my clear view that objective assessment at key stage 2 must continue. That view is widely supported by the clear majority of parents. The key thing is to make sure that the accountability system improves so that we can reward schools that achieve progress for every child. That is what our report card will do, and we will publish details of that in the coming weeks.