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Free School Meals

Volume 491: debated on Monday 27 April 2009

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.