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Topical Questions

Volume 497: debated on Monday 12 October 2009

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.