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Topical Questions

Volume 491: debated on Monday 27 April 2009

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.