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Children, Schools and Families

Volume 497: debated on Monday 12 October 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Care

1. What recent assessment he has made of the sustainability of provision in the child care sector; and if he will make a statement. (292191)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall answer question 1 with question 5.

We monitor the child care market, including the sustainability of provision, on an ongoing basis through regular surveys, and feedback from local authorities, Government offices and partner organisations. Local authorities have substantial Government revenue and capital funding to help to ensure that providers in their areas remain sustainable while continuing to give children the best start in life and provide invaluable support to their parents.

I apologise: I did not hear the Minister say that question 1 was grouped, but if he did I am very grateful to him.

My constituents, like those of others, benefit from a mixed market in child care provision, which includes state, private, voluntary and independent providers. Will the Minister therefore not show some shame for the way his and the Government’s policies have plunged a third of providers into the red and left parents, other providers and the sector as a whole in a great state of uncertainty?

It is lovely to see the hon. Gentleman back from the break as well. In 1997, something like £1 billion a year was provided for child care; now the figure is £4 billion; and 470,000 families now get direct child care support through the tax credits system, at an average of about £68 a week. The long-term viability of nurseries and child care provision has been enhanced as a result of legislative strengthening by this Government, as well as increased and unprecedented resources. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents would thank the Government for that.

Child minders provide invaluable child care for many parents. Notwithstanding what the Minister has said, 40,000 people have left the profession since 1997. What are the Government going to do to ensure that more parents can avail themselves of such provision, particularly because they prefer and rely on it?

People will leave the market and the sector for various reasons, whether personal or otherwise. That is just common sense. However, in respect of free provision for three and four-year-olds and the additional roll-out that we want in order to ensure free provision for two-year-olds, let me say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I respect a great deal, that there is now more opportunity than ever for parents, families and carers to have appropriate, high-quality child care provision. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that, as opposed to sniping at what is a good and enviable record.

My hon. Friend will know that this Government have an amazing record on child care provision, but there is now a worry: at the same time as we applaud reaching down to two-year-olds, how do we guarantee quality under the new arrangements?

My hon. Friend, who is obviously very knowledgeable about the issue through his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, makes an important point. The inspection and regulatory regime that we have put in place with Ofsted will ensure that we can enhance quality and, at the same time, sustain funding and investment or increase them wherever possible. For example, local authorities have more than £1 billion at their disposal in capital and revenue funding to ensure the sustainability of the child care provision available in their areas.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents access child care through the Government’s excellent Sure Start children’s centres, and will he confirm the Government’s commitment to those centres, which provide not only high-quality child care but the necessary support to parents?

Like Blackpool, Hartlepool has benefited enormously from Sure Starts—indeed, I think that every single constituency in the country has. The Government remain committed to ensuring that more than 3,000 Sure Starts and children’s centres are provided in this country. The scheme has provided for a revolution in child care provision, allowing the earliest and best possible start for our children, which will put them on a road of improvement and attainment throughout their lives. I would have hoped that the whole House supported such an important measure, but it is fair to say that the Opposition support the abolition of Sure Start and will not commit to funding for it.

At last year’s Labour conference, the Prime Minister tried to grab the headlines by announcing the extension of the early years free entitlement to all two-year-olds. This year’s conference revealed that the Government will pay for that policy by scrapping the help with child care costs that is given to thousands of hard-working parents, most of whom are basic-rate taxpayers. Are the Government not trying to create an illusion of progress when they are in fact axing one child care policy to pay for another? What further cuts is the Minister planning to make to fund the rest of the Prime Minister’s announcement?

I completely disagree with what the hon. Lady said. The expansion of free places for two-year-olds is fully funded through savings by, as she says, phasing out tax relief on child care vouchers. That is at no extra cost to the taxpayer. I have to say, however, that the savings to the taxpayer are disproportionately given to the more well-off families—the figure is in the region of 6 per cent. We will continue to make sure that we invest in high-quality child care for low and middle-income families because all the evidence shows that that is vital for improving outcomes. If the hon. Lady wants to continue to narrow her focus on the highest earners, that is up to her, but the Government are on the side of low and middle-income Britain.

ContactPoint

2. What recent progress has been made on the roll-out of the ContactPoint database; and if he will make a statement. (292193)

Significant progress has been made on ContactPoint. We are receiving promising feedback from early adopter areas about how ContactPoint is helping people who work with children to identify problems and prevent them from escalating. From late October, local authorities can start training ContactPoint users across England.

I thank the Minister for that reply but, given the Government’s record on data protection, does he not see that ContactPoint risks information on millions of children falling into the wrong hands, fails to protect those children and should be scrapped?

Instead of reading the scare stories in the papers, the hon. Lady should get off her high horse and talk to some of the early adopters who are using the system already. Let me quote one of them to her. A consultant paediatrician working with children at the Countess of Chester hospital in Chester said:

“ContactPoint was a very easy tool to use. It allowed me to rapidly access relevant information about a child in who there was suspected non-accidental injury. This information was invaluable in guiding further management and the whole process took less than five minutes whereas previously a lot of time would have been spent making phone calls and trying to track people down for information.”

The hon. Lady should talk to the people who are using ContactPoint.

I could quote to the Minister several consultant paediatricians who think that their job of dealing with child protection will be compromised by the use of ContactPoint. Will the Minister therefore confirm how many people have applied to have their children’s details shielded on ContactPoint and how many of them are Ministers—including himself, perhaps? If he is completely happy with the security arrangements surrounding ContactPoint, will he now undertake to publish in full the data security review on ContactPoint carried out by Deloittes, which he has declined to publish since February last year?

I look forward to hearing the names of the consultants who, according to the hon. Gentleman, say that ContactPoint will threaten children’s safety. There was a time when the Conservative party, having appropriately opposed a policy going through the House, would not then write to local Tory councillors deliberately to undermine its implementation. This shows why the Tories are not fit to govern.

Academies

3. What recent assessment he has made of the progress of the academy programme; and if he will make a statement. (292194)

This summer’s excellent GSCE results include our open academies once again achieving a faster improvement in the proportion of pupils getting five good GCSEs than the average national improvement rate. I can tell the House that I have today approved four new academy projects in Hampshire, East Sussex and Plymouth. I can also confirm that I approved a further 15 academy projects over the summer recess.

If the Secretary of State is such an enthusiast for the academies programme, why does he not extend it to primary schools, as my party is pledged to do? In fact, why is he going in the opposite direction, with his own Ministers saying that such an extension would send a shiver down the spine of parents?

There are a number of very successful all-through academies that are combining secondary and primary provision, but we have made it absolutely clear that the massive diversion of resources away from our primary and secondary schools in order to extend the cost of expanding academies to primary schools would not be value for money; it would be very disruptive and not the right thing to do if we are trying to raise standards in our primary schools.

Just before the summer recess, my right hon. Friend announced a review of secondary education in Gloucestershire to be conducted by Graham Badman. Should Graham Badman produce a report that encourages the building of an academy in my constituency, will my right hon. Friend give it full support and join me in encouraging the local authority to support a £13 million academy in my constituency as well?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for the review of the national challenge programme in Gloucestershire. Graham Badman has done his review; it will come to me shortly and we will respond to it in due course. I hope that we will be able to accept his recommendations. I fully expect further proposals for academies in Gloucestershire and, if that proves to be the case, I will support them absolutely. My hon. Friend will then be able to join those in Hampshire, East Sussex and Plymouth who have welcomed new academies, which will allow us to continue to raise standards in our secondary schools.

Will the Secretary of State please give an assurance that where an academy is in process, but that process has not been completed—I am thinking of Sheen school in my constituency—funding will remain committed to it and will not be removed under any deficit-cutting programme?

I have made it clear that I am accelerating the academies programme and accelerating secondary school improvement. There is no question of having any cuts in our academies or school improvement funding this year or next. While the consultation is ongoing, there will be no cuts from this party. The question is whether the other parties can make the same commitment, and I am afraid that the answer is no.

As the number of academies increases, is it not particularly important that they all comply fully with the schools admissions code? Is the Secretary of State absolutely convinced that all parties in the House understand the importance of compliance with that code?

I toughened up the schools admissions code last year and changed the regulations. I am very clear that all schools—whether they be maintained or faith schools or academies—must comply fully with the code. When I did so, however, I was attacked by the Conservative Members for my actions, so I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance he mentioned. I will deliver fair admissions, but they will not.

The Secretary of State has already indicated that funding will be crucial to the development of the academies programme. In September, he gave an interview to The Sunday Times in which he said that he was planning to cut £2.2 billion from the schools budget and that those plans had been in train within his Department for several months. Will he therefore, first, tell us when he gave the directive to his Department to look into the cuts; and, secondly, will he now publish the list of the proposed cuts that he went through with The Sunday Times journalists?

It is very interesting to hear that question because on the Saturday before my interview, the hon. Gentleman’s party called for savage cuts and then when a discussion about efficiency took place, he backed off very fast indeed. The fact is that a year ago I asked an expert adviser to help me to find efficiency savings so that I could shift them to the front line. I am clear that I want the budget for education and schools rising year on year, and I would like to see that in real terms. The only way I can guarantee that teachers and teaching assistants are there at the front line, however, is to find savings in procurement and in how schools work together to free up those resources. I want the budget to rise next year, the year after and in future; it is the Conservative party that wants cuts—and cuts now. That is the difference.

I had intended to ask the Secretary of State to speed up decision making on academies in Plymouth, so I am delighted that he has made his announcement today. Will he confirm that as we are ready to go, we can in fact open the academies next September?

I went to visit Plymouth a year or so ago and the Minister for Schools and Learners has been there since. I am announcing today that both the Tamarside and John Kitto community colleges have been given the go-ahead to open in September 2010. In the case of Tamarside, it will be through the sponsorship of the university of Plymouth, and in the case of John Kitto it will be through the sponsorship of Exeter diocesan board of education. These will go ahead in 2010 because we are committed; we will deliver our national challenge and every school will be above the basic benchmark by 2011. That is my commitment—one that time and again I get attacked for making by the Conservative party.

I have now had an opportunity carefully to consider the Secretary of State’s answer. I still cannot understand how it can be that the last time we were here before the recess he told us he was going to resist all cuts to the education budget, but we then discover that a full year ago he had asked his officials to look into cuts. May I ask him about one of the specific proposals he discussed with The Sunday Times—that to axe 3,000 head and deputy head teachers? Does he now accept that that was a mistake?

No, of course I do not. The truth is that it was not I but the leader of the Liberal Democrats, at his party conference, who was confused about the issue of savage cuts. I made it very clear that I want the schools budget to keep rising year on year, and that I want the school education budget to rise year on year in real terms. We are achieving that in the current year, but we must be realistic: real-terms rises in future years will not be as high as they have been in the past, which means that the only way to deliver for the front line is to find savings. I think we can do that through school balances and procurement, and also by ensuring that schools work together and share their leadership teams. Every school should have a head teacher, but schools can share leadership teams in order both to raise standards and to become more efficient.

The hon. Gentleman should be supporting me in this regard, but once again he is not doing so. I—and, I think, he—would like to see education spending rise in real terms; it is only the Conservative party that is advocating cuts and more cuts.

The Secretary of State will be aware that among the very best performers in GCSEs this year were the schools run by ARK—Absolute Return for Kids—and by Lord Harris. They did up to four times as well as other comprehensives. The people running those schools say that their success depends on absolute freedom from local bureaucratic control. Does the Secretary of State agree?

The really interesting aspect of that is the fact that the list of local authorities now co-sponsoring academies includes one or two Liberal Democrat councils, one or two Labour councils and 11 Conservative councils. The hon. Gentleman says that they are wrong to be taking such action, and should get out of the way.

At his party conference, the hon. Gentleman praised Mossbourne. It is clear from the Mossbourne prospectus that the head teacher there teaches, and knows that his success depends on the teaching of vocational subjects such as dance, drama and arts, which the hon. Gentleman says should be downgraded to become second-class subjects. He needs to go back to the drawing board when it comes to his own policies.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for refusing to answer the question and exposing the threadbare nature of his own position. I am also grateful to him for reminding the House that the majority of local authorities are now under Conservative control. That is a welcome reminder of how poorly Labour authorities have done in improving education. I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for highlighting—

Order. I am not interested in hearing about what the shadow Secretary of State is grateful for; I am interested in hearing a question—very soon, I hope.

I am also grateful for your skilled chairing of our debates, Mr. Speaker.

The Secretary of State’s right hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) has said—like us—that academies should become the norm in the state sector. Does the Secretary of State agree with that?

I think that where we are raising standards in under-performing schools, academies are doing a tremendous job. They are doing so because of the partnership that we have with Labour and Conservative local government. That is opposed by the Conservative party, which believes that only deregulation is making the difference, and does not recognise the importance of rising investment to delivering the academies programme.

I read an article in The Times today which says that

“one of the aspects of hitting 40 for which no one prepares you is that your body, like a nuclear power station operating at the margins of safety, develops an override mechanism that simply shuts all systems down at critical moments. Usually after lunch.”

That was written by the hon. Gentleman, and I think that his critical systems have been shut down today.

Land Sales (Schools)

4. What estimate he has made of the amount of land sold by schools for non-educational purposes in the latest period for which figures are available. (292195)

The information requested is not held centrally. Schools and local authorities do not need the Secretary of State’s consent to sell school buildings or land that is not school playing field. However, all proceeds from the disposal of school playing fields have been reinvested in school sports or educational facilities since legislation was introduced, under section 77 of the School Standards and Framework Act, in 1998.

I wrote to the Minister about two excellent schools in my constituency which share a site in Evington, in Leicester: St. Paul’s Catholic school and Leicester grammar school. Leicester grammar school wants to vacate its land and sell it to St. Paul’s school, which wants to buy it but has not sufficient resources. As the Minister must pass Leicester to reach his constituency in Gedling, may I ask him to drop by one Friday and try to resolve the matter? I think that with good will and the support of the Government, both schools can get what they want.

I would be keen and very happy to drop into my right hon. Friend’s constituency in Leicester to see for myself the problem he has outlined. I know that he has been trying for some months to resolve this particular issue. He will know that Leicester grammar school is an independent school, and the Secretary of State and I have no authority to talk to it in respect of the disposal of the land to which he refers, but the local authority does of course have a duty to ensure that St. Paul’s school has sufficient land available to it for school playing fields, and it is on that basis that I hope we can find a way forward.

Of the many thousands of playing fields being sold off by the Labour Government or Labour local authorities in direct contravention of repeated manifesto commitments, some 342 have been sold because apparently they were the wrong shape. Would the Minister care to tell the House what playing fields that were the correct shape before are now of such a strange shape as to have to be sold off forcibly?

I do not quite know what the hon. Gentleman means. Before 1998 there were no controls over the sale of school playing fields. It was the introduction of legislation that required any local authority that wished to sell school playing fields to receive consent from the Secretary of State. Actually, the correct figure is that there have been 203 approved playing field sales since 1997, and I say to the hon. Gentleman that significant numbers of the school playing fields that have been sold have resulted in schools being able to reinvest in their school playing facilities, as I saw for myself at the Lincoln Christ’s Hospital school where a bit of waste ground designated as a school playing field was able to be sold and the sum reinvested into changing rooms, better facilities and improved playing fields for that school. That will have been the case up and down the country, and instead of taking a dogmatic view the hon. Gentleman ought to have a look and see what is actually happening.

Statementing

6. What plans the Government have for the future of statementing for children with special educational needs. (292197)

We have no plans to end the special educational needs statementing system. I know how interested Members are in SEN, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) for initiating the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008. We launched the first annual publication following that Act last week. We have sent a copy to Brian Lamb so that he can reflect its findings in his report on parental confidence in the SEN system.

I am grateful to the Minister, but I did not actually ask whether she was going to end statementing; I simply asked what the Government’s plans were, given that the Secretary of State had indicated in his response to the media coverage of Brian Lamb’s inquiry that they were going to look at taking statementing out of the hands of local authorities because a lot of parents think there is a conflict of interests there. I simply wanted the Minister to set out what specific steps the Government are going to take to put the Secretary of State’s pledge into action, and I ask her to do so now.

Perhaps I should reiterate that we have no plans to end the current statementing system, but we do want all parents to have confidence in the SEN system, and the hon. Gentleman will know that Brian Lamb is currently conducting a report on parental confidence, which will be published later this month. Also, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made an announcement at the end of September on pilots in certain parts of the country to test how assessment could be made more independent of local authorities, and we will of course look at the outcomes from those pilots.

During the recess, I visited a number of schools in my constituency and it became clear that there are still problems with delays in statementing. Will my hon. Friend use her good offices to ensure that local authorities undertake statementing as quickly as possible and provide the proper resources to ensure that those children with special needs get the support they require?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right to say that there are time frames that have to be complied with, and of course we want to ensure that where children need statements those statements are obtained as quickly as possible.

Home Schooling

7. When he expects to issue recommendations for home schooling in Gloucestershire arising from the report of the Badman review; and if he will make a statement. (292198)

We announced our response to the Badman report on home education on Friday 9 October. Home education is an established part of the British education system. The arguments in the report for giving home-educated families better access to public services are strong, particularly when a child or young person has special educational needs, and our response sets out the practical steps we will take to implement these and the other recommendations in the review.

I thank my hon. Friend for what she has to say, but does she accept that there is at least some misgiving about the nature of Badman’s recommendations and that there is a need for proper consultation, particularly in my county, where quite a large number of people have chosen to home educate their children? Will she ensure that her door is open to those of us who want to talk to her about some of those problems, so that we do not have an unnecessary spat over what could be an important way forward?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue. May I reassure him that the consultation on the registration and monitoring recommendations remains open until 19 October? It has been open since June; nearly 1,000 responses have been received, and clearly we would welcome any further such responses.

Given the Government’s general acceptance of the Badman review, have they left themselves enough scope to respond to these important representations, particularly in respect of the conditions attached to registration?

The hon. Lady will know that, as I have just explained to the House, the consultation will have taken place over a considerable period—from June until 19 October. A further response was made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Friday of last week, which set out further areas for consultation arising out of the Badman recommendations. There has been sufficient time for this consultation, and clearly the Government need to consider the responses—we will do so in the next few weeks.

The Minister must be aware of the real worry felt by people who home educate; there is a feeling that this is the beginning of the thin edge of the wedge—I use a cliché—and a move towards the German system of banning home education altogether. Will she give a categorical assurance that that is not the Government’s intention?

May I just reassure my hon. Friend that this Government’s view of home education is one that supports the rights of parents to home educate? However, there is a balance to be struck and the Government need to be sure that children who are being educated at home are receiving a suitable education. I hope very much that the Select Committee that is examining this issue will put forward its own views on the Badman review, and we will certainly be considering all the responses to the consultation.

Standards (Primary Schools)

There has been a significant rise in standards in primary schools since 1997. Compared with then, about 98,000 more 11-year-olds are achieving the target level 4 for their age in English and 98,000 are doing so in maths, based on the 2009 provisional results. We set out plans in the schools White Paper for improving all primary schools, and there will be a package of support in 2009-10 that will enable a range of successful programmes to be expanded.

I note the Minister’s reply, but can he tell me why 500,000 children left primary school in the last educational year unable to read? Will that not lead to their not engaging in secondary school and to their being inclined to add to the already high rate of truancy?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about the 500,000 children. Instead of decrying what is happening in primary schools, he would do well to celebrate—I am sure he does this in respect of his own constituency—the real achievements that have taken place. Since 1997, we have seen an increase in the figures for level 4 plus of 17 per cent. in English, 19 per cent. in reading and 17 per cent. in maths. Are we satisfied with that? No, we are not. Do we want more children to have the correct standard of reading, writing and arithmetic? Of course we do, so we have a series of measures and programmes in place to achieve that.

Does the Minister agree that to achieve a high standard of learning children need to have a place to be educated? Will he tell me what he is going to do about the fact that some 100 children of primary age in my constituency do not currently have a place in a primary school?

My hon. Friend will know, because I have met her and Slough’s director of children’s services to discuss the particular issue in Slough, that we are seeing what we can do to resolve it. Primary school places are an issue in Slough and in some other authority areas across the country, which is why we recently announced a £200 million programme to see how we can address it. We are about to announce, in the not-too-distant future, the allocation of that money, in order to try to address some of the very real problems in Slough and in other local authority areas.

The Minister will know from the written answer that he gave me in July that fewer than half of 11-year-olds in the poorest decile in the index of multiple deprivation achieved the basic standard in reading, writing and maths, compared with three quarters who achieved that in the top 10 per cent. Frankly, whether it is a quarter or a half of 11-year-olds who are failing to grasp the basics, the Government’s record of achievement is dreadful. Is he not ashamed of the enormous achievement gap between those at the bottom of the index of deprivation and those at the top in the very skills—reading, writing and maths—that every child needs if they are to escape a life of poverty?

I am not ashamed of what the Government have achieved with primary schools. I am proud of what the Government have tried to do and are doing to tackle this issue, which we all recognise. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s points. Only recently, we received the results of the pilot of Every Child Counts from Edge Hill university, which showed that one-to-one tuition and small groups made a significant difference with some of the most difficult young people in terms of the educational challenge that they present, the special educational needs that they have and the difficult family backgrounds that many of them come from. We are expanding and developing these programmes—not only Every Child Counts, but Every Child a Reader—as the hon. Gentleman will know. That one-to-one tuition, which has been expanded through the whole primary school age group and will now be rolled out into year 7 in secondary schools over the next year, will make a significant difference. If we put that together with some of the other measures that we are taking to deal with the social issues around those schools, we will see a real improvement.

I remind the Minister that in 1997 only six out of 10 kids in school aged 11 reached the required standard in reading, writing and maths. That figure has now gone up to eight in 10, due no doubt to the doubled investment that this Labour Government have put into kids in schools. Will the Minister defend his budget in the current economic climate and do everything that he can to increase it to give kids from working-class areas the chances that they deserve?

One of the points that I was trying to make in answer to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) is that there have been real improvements in primary schools across the country, including in some of the most socially disadvantaged communities. The difference between our stance and that of the Opposition is that they say that because there are still things to be done—because young children in our schools still do not reach the required standard—everything in primary education is wrong, that the teachers are not teaching properly and that progress is not being made. Our approach is to say exactly what my hon. Friend has just said: there has been progress, but there is still more to be done and the programmes that we have laid out, as well as the record levels of investment, will tackle some of them and will lead to a continuing rise in attainment in our schools.

Independent Safeguarding Authority

9. What recent assessment he has made of arrangements for implementation of the Independent Safeguarding Authority’s vetting and barring scheme; and if he will make a statement. (292200)

Today sees the launch of the first stage of the new vetting and barring scheme. I can tell the House that arrangements are on track for the implementation of ISA registration by individuals from July next year. In advance of that, I have asked Sir Roger Singleton to look again at the definition of “frequent and intensive contact” with children that will trigger the requirement for individuals to register. He will report to me in December.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that before a Member of Parliament visits a school in his constituency for prize-giving he will have to be vetted?

I absolutely refute that. If the hon. Gentleman had looked in his inbox—I accept that 29 July was quite recent—he would have seen the letter from me to all MPs that makes it absolutely clear that when an MP is visiting one of their local schools for prize-giving or whatever else, there is no requirement for them to register. Only if he were teaching a class regularly would he have to register—I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will be, so he will be fine.

My right hon. Friend will have been pleased to hear that Volunteering England has welcomed the introduction of the vetting and barring scheme as a simplification and a sensible step forward. On the question of frequency and intensity, will he answer a question from my local town-twinning organisation? When a group of foreign children is in the town for a week or 10 days at a time, will that cross the intensity threshold for registration? Indeed, are foreign children covered by the scheme at all?

If foreign children are coming to our country to stay with a local family on a school exchange or as part of twinning, yes, the family that is hosting them will be required to be on the ISA list, so that parents in a foreign country can know whether there is any past child-related offence. We have thought about this very carefully and only by doing it in such a way could we ensure that children from our country and those from abroad are safe.

Did the Secretary of State see the admirable article by the inspector in charge of the Soham case in which the inspector ridiculed the excessive bureaucracy, which will mean that many decent, innocent people have to be vetted in this stupid way?

I am very sorry indeed that the hon. Gentleman, who is normally a wise counsel, has used such intemperate and ill-informed language on this issue. The fact is that the person who made the recommendations on the Soham case is entirely behind the changes that we are making. The definition of “frequent or intensive” is difficult, and we need to make sure that we are clear in the way in which we apply it. There has been much misinformation on this issue, suggesting that a parent taking their children to school for a neighbour, or someone helping out once in a while in school is required to register. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at the facts and the reality, and not the nonsense in some briefing papers, before he asks questions in the House.

School Buildings

10. What research his Department has undertaken into the effects on educational standards of the quality of school buildings. (292201)

We have recently extended until 2012 the contract for the independent evaluation by PricewaterhouseCoopers of the impact of Building Schools for the Future investment on pupil achievement. As more and more BSF schools open, this work will include evaluation of design quality. We will continue to publish annual reports from PricewaterhouseCoopers and work with Partnerships for Schools to ensure that lessons learned from this evaluation inform the BSF programme, and design guidance for schools.

It was a pleasure to welcome my hon. Friend to Plymouth in the summer, particularly to Stoke Damerel school, where he saw for himself the best results that it has ever had and, alongside the efforts of students, teachers and parents, the contribution made by investment in the buildings. May I ask him when he expects to announce the next round of Building Schools for the Future, in the hope that Plymouth will feature?

Stoke Damerel community college is an excellent school, and it was excellent to see its design and the improvements that have been made. We hope to announce the next round of Building Schools for the Future in a few weeks, including the six authorities over and above the initial six that we announced a couple of months ago. Part of the purpose of my visit to Plymouth was to look at its readiness to join the roll-out of the programme.

Head Teachers (Retirement)

We estimate that 38 per cent. of current head teachers will have retired by 2015. Dealing with the loss of their skills and experience will be a challenge and an opportunity. We have invested £30 million through the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services succession planning strategy to ensure that this demographic challenge is managed effectively. The national college continues to work closely with schools, local authorities and faith bodies around the country to find, develop and keep excellent head teachers.

The Minister has used the word “challenge”. Other people describe the number of head teachers retiring as a crisis. In that regard, may I ask the Minister why on earth the Government have announced at this stage the scrapping of 3,000 head teachers and leadership posts in schools? Will that not make the situation much worse?

I do not accept that there is a crisis in head teacher recruitment. There is a challenge, and that is one reason why we have given the national college £30 million to help develop succession planning, which is necessary. On the issue of axing 3,000 head teacher posts, that is not a figure that the Department has used. It is right as we develop schools for the future that we look at how schools are organised and managed, and federations are one way forward. Certainly, we have never used the figure of 3,000 head teacher posts to be axed.

There is an increasing number of cases in which schools advertise for heads, but the number of people who apply is small and the quality of the applicants is indifferent. To what does the Minister attribute that, and what does he intend to do about it, because far too many schools have acting heads for far too long a period?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, but the latest figures show that vacancies remain stable at below 1 per cent. As he has said, no school is without a head, but there are schools with acting heads. I have explained what we are doing about it: we are working with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services to seek to identify at an early stage in their career those people who might want to be head teachers and work with them to achieve their goal. We have also tried to ensure that we do as much as we can to support head teachers in post in schools in their administrative and financial tasks. One reason why we have increased the number of administrative assistants and, indeed, of school business managers is so that head teachers can concentrate on their major task, which is teaching and learning in the school.

Class Sizes (Chelmsford)

13. In how many primary schools in Chelmsford there were over 30 pupils in a class on the latest date for which figures are available. (292204)

As of January 2009, no primary schools in either Chelmsford or West Chelmsford breached the infant class size duty by having classes of 31 or more pupils in reception or key stage 1. One class misreported its school census return, but this did not result in a breach of the duty. There were 11 primary schools in West Chelmsford and 21 in Chelmsford with classes of 31 or more pupils at key stage 2. It is for local authorities to consider how their level of provision best meets the needs of local parents and children and to consider any necessary improvements.

What help will be given to schools which, as a result of financial difficulties and possibly going into deficit, are planning to make teachers redundant so as to cut costs, which could adversely affect the size of classes?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the target of class sizes of less than 30 in years 1 and 2 and in reception is a firm target that must be complied with. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take action if schools do not do that. It is interesting to note that in 1997, 29 per cent. of pupils were in classes of more than 30, which compares with just 2 per cent. today.

Topical Questions

May I report on two issues? Although this was not debated in Parliament during the passage of the Childcare Act 2006, I have today written to Christine Gilbert, and I am copying the letter to the House of Commons Library, to make it clear that reciprocal child care arrangements between parents where there is no payment involved should not be a matter for regulation, and I have agreed today with Ofsted that with immediate effect this will be beyond the scope of its child care inspections. We will make this crystal clear by changing the regulations in the coming period.

I should also report to the House that in the early summer I pledged £655 million to ensure a sixth-form or apprenticeship place for every school leaver this September. That would be 55,000 more places. I have to report that the demand for these places has again outstripped our expectations. As a result, I am making a further £11 million available now to pay for a further 2,300 places for school leavers this September. That will be a total of 57,300 places, which will be guaranteed by the Government and would be cut by the Conservatives.

During the recess, I visited a middle and high school in the United States of America. Displayed outside the school and in every classroom and room in that school was a Union flag—that is, a flag of the United States of America. Should we not follow that example, and would not pride in our country thus be part of education?

I have visited the United States a number of times. I know that there are some parts of the southern states where different flags are flown, but I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the stars and stripes, rather than the Union flag. It is important that we fly the British flag, which should be flown on town halls throughout the country—we fly it on our Department. It is a matter for individual schools to decide what flag they fly. We have never mandated that as a matter of law, and I do not think that that would be the right approach to take. It is for individual schools to decide.

Order. I want as many people as possible to get in, so I need short questions and short answers.

T8. Chesterfield college in North-East Derbyshire has seen an increase of 10 per cent. in enrolment figures as a direct result of the recession. What extra financial support is the Department giving FE colleges around the country—Chesterfield college is not the only one—to make sure that young people throughout the country get access to the skills and training that they need to see them through the recession? (292223)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we have provided an unprecedented sum of money—an extra £655 million—to meet that September guarantee. He has just announced an additional £11 million to help another 2,500 learners, because we are absolutely committed, as I know my hon. Friend is in North-East Derbyshire, to ensuring that no one is left behind with this recession. We need the skills to allow our country and our economy to prepare for the upturn and to be prosperous in the future.

T2. The Secretary of State will be aware that in some London boroughs there are not enough primary school places. When can we expect an announcement confirming that a mechanism has been developed and agreed to ensure that local authorities, such as Sutton in my constituency, are adequately supported through the basic need safety-valve funding, enabling those desperately needed school places to be built? (292217)

May I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said in an earlier answer, that we know that there is a problem for some authorities in different parts of the country, including London? We have received representations from authorities, following our announcement that we would make available to local authorities throughout the country £200 million to deal with the problem, and we expect an announcement to be made shortly.

T9. The Prime Minister stated at the Labour party conference that there would be more for schools, not less. Can we ensure that, after the age of 16, most children in Chorley go to the exceptional Runshaw college? However, the colleges gets less funding than a school with a sixth form, so will Ministers ensure that there is more money for those colleges that provide such education? (292224)

That is an important point, and I would welcome a meeting with my hon. Friend to ensure that end. He will be aware, however, that funding has increased enormously over the past 12 years. We are committed to reducing the gap between school sixth forms and comparative further education colleges. We want to do that, and we have had success and made inroads into the issue, but we are looking at it still further.

T3. What can we do to ensure that special schools that are opened for the most difficult and sometimes rather nasty kids in society are opened in proper and suitable locations, not unsuitable locations, and that, for instance, the kids from throughout Essex who are taken to the school that Essex county council has just opened on Canvey Island, go to the school, not to the town centre, where they are causing mayhem? (292218)

I was with the Schools Minister at Huntercombe young offenders institution only last week, and that visit convinced me that we need to do more to intervene early to ensure that children with learning difficulties or young people with behavioural problems get the extra support that they need. That is integral to the way in which we plan our secondary school provision and take forward Building Schools for the Future, and our behaviour partnerships will ensure that such provision is at the centre of people’s thinking, rather than on the periphery or excluded, as it sometimes has been.

No, not all new schools are fitted with sprinklers, but the expectation is that unless they are low-risk schools, they will be fitted with sprinklers. We passed regulations on the matter, and, clearly, when new schools are built, fire safety is of the utmost importance.

T4. Why did only 189 pupils who receive free school meals achieve three A-level passes at A grade last year? Is that not a total indictment of the Government’s education policies, and does it not show the betrayal of the poorest families in our society? (292219)

I am proud of the fact that the local authorities with the greatest concentration of the most deprived pupils have seen the fastest rise in results. I am proud also of the fact that schools with more than 50 per cent. of pupils receiving free school meals have achieved twice the rate of improvement of schools with less than 5 per cent. of such pupils. That has all happened because of the progress made by this Government. I am concerned, however, that in the most deprived schools, the most deprived pupils still do not make the progress that we would like. The only way to do so is through the intensive investment and one-to-one tuition that we are putting in to back those pupils—funding that would be cut in the schools cuts proposed by the Opposition.

Ministers will be aware of the very high percentage of young offenders who suffer speech and language difficulties, so may I welcome the money that the Department has allocated to address the issue? Will Ministers assure me that the screening process that is being devised to identify such young pupils will incorporate the advice of adequate professionals, such as speech and language therapists?

The answer is that it absolutely will. A few weeks ago, I was in Knowsley with my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), and we saw a really good example of alternative provision. We saw schools making sure that young people got extra help and support before they got into trouble through crime. Just now, I referred to my visit to Huntercombe young offenders institution; two thirds of young people in custody have special needs and they often have speech and communication difficulties. The only way to deal with the issue is to intervene early, at primary school, before the young people get on the wrong track and get into trouble with crime. We need to make sure that they get the help, but it is essential that they get that help early.

T5. Following the tragic and well publicised deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca Hardwick in my constituency, has the Secretary of State had any thoughts about how to improve the protection of vulnerable children? Has he had any liaison with other Government Departments to see whether better guidelines can be issued, to make sure that such problems do not occur? (292220)

As the Home Secretary made clear, in that case a vulnerable child and her mother were not properly protected. All the agencies failed, which is a matter of huge regret and shame. It is essential in our society that we pull together to make sure that we do not see a repeat of such a horrific incident. We are actively talking about that issue, so that we learn the right lessons from that terrible case.

York has done well on capital funding for schools, gaining about £12 million a year under the Labour Government, compared with less than £1 million a year under the Conservatives. However, we still do not yet have a date for joining the full Building Schools for the Future programme. Will the Labour Government continue Building Schools for the Future if they win the general election?

The answer is very clear. We will keep investing in Building Schools for the Future; indeed, we are doing so this year, next year and the year after. The Conservative party has pledged a £4.5 billion cut. That, I am afraid, would mean that schools would not be rebuilt or refurbished in my hon. Friend’s constituency or in constituencies represented by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

T6. In a parliamentary answer, the Secretary of State said that he had no idea how many children suspected of having been trafficked had gone missing from local authority care. If any trafficked child goes missing, that is appalling. If the Government do not know how many are going missing, how can they put the problem right? (292221)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, because we have talked about this issue on numerous occasions, a national referral mechanism is now in place to try to help with the identification of such children. There is a real debate, not only about the numbers of such children in local authority care but about how to keep them safe. The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed, rather than debated, this issue; he knows that trying to protect children in local authority care is extremely difficult. Once they are in care, many try to escape because they believe that the authorities are acting against their best interests and that if they escape, the traffickers will look after them. The issue is very difficult. The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to gather more information. However, he knows as well as me that the answers are extremely difficult.

Is my hon. Friend aware that Wandsworth has the lowest proportion of pupils granted their first choice of secondary school in London? Furthermore, there are no secondary schools in an area of 7 square miles in the centre of the borough; parents and children there are uniquely disadvantaged, as they do not qualify—at least on distance grounds—for any oversubscribed school. Will the Minister meet those parents and advise them on how best to start a new secondary school?

I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about that issue. The provision of schools in an area is, of course, a matter for the local authority. However, if he feels that a meeting involving him, the local authority, the parents that he represents and me would help, I would be only too ready to attend.

T7. Recent Government figures show that pupils with special educational needs are eight times more likely to be permanently excluded than those with no such needs. Will the Government kindly tell us what measures are to be included in the forthcoming guidance on dealing with rowdy children, to ensure that such children receive fair and proportionate treatment, particularly as many of them suffer from severe learning difficulties? (292222)

I hate to repeat a point that I made earlier; this is the first day of the new parliamentary term. We published the guidance two weeks ago, and in it we made it clear that the only way to deal with that issue is for the exclusion of a child with special needs to be a last resort and for there to be early intervention, a diagnosis of the problem and extra and special help so that the young person stays on the right track; such measures will sometimes include alternative provision. In that way, we can prevent such exclusions, which are a failure for the system, from happening.

May I commend the work of Booktrust to my right hon. Friend, particularly the work of Irene Mandelkow, the Bookstart co-ordinator in Liverpool? She and her team have increased the number of pre-school children registered with libraries tenfold in the past 10 years.

T10. Will the Secretary of State confirm that capital expenditure in schools in urban areas is higher than in rural areas and that there are possibly more temporary classrooms in rural areas than in urban areas? That obviously impacts on poverty: what is he going to do about it? (292225)

The important thing to do is to ensure that our local authorities manage their capital programmes well, which sometimes means local authorities investing to ensure that rural schools can work together to share facilities, so that even with smaller rolls the money can still go further. The important thing is to ensure that we refurbish or rebuild all our secondary schools and all our primary schools in the next 10 years: a pledge that this Government will make; a pledge that the Conservative party, I am afraid, cannot match.

During the summer my right hon. Friend visited the excellent Neston high school in my constituency, and also released £25 million for the building of an academy in my constituency. In both cases, there are issues about the quality of buildings. Will he look carefully to ensure that moneys released require buildings to be built that are sustainable and environmentally friendly, because that is a good investment for the future?

I congratulate my hon. Friend and all those who have ensured that these new schools are being rebuilt and opened. We had an excellent visit to that school and heard a brilliant orchestra there. We need to ensure that our brand new schools are environmentally friendly, that they are planned well in acoustic terms so that they can cope with the needs of deaf children, and that they have the sports, music and arts facilities that they need. But one can do that only by continuing the investment in our schools—investment that we will guarantee and that, as I have said, the Conservatives are determined to cut.