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Topical Questions

Volume 501: debated on Monday 30 November 2009

Some local authorities, particularly in London, have been facing big and unexpected increases in the demand for primary school places. Earlier this year, the Schools Minister and I invited local authorities to bid for £200 million of extra investment to meet that demand. Following extensive discussions with the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, I can tell the House that we have further increased this funding and we are today allocating £300 million to create an additional 15,000 primary places for four and five-year-olds across 34 local authorities.

I can also tell the House that 11 local authorities are joining our Building Schools for the Future programme. They are Brent, Darlington, Devon, Havering, Kingston, Croydon, Norfolk, Plymouth, Sefton, Wakefield and Warrington. Two more, Lancashire and Tameside, have been able to move forward in the programme faster than expected. That adds up to £1 billion-plus of investment to rebuild or refurbish our schools—investment that would be put at risk by the Opposition’s proposals to cut £4.5 billion.

I am sure that the House is very grateful for that ministerial statement. If the Secretary of State agrees with me that how well we look after children with severe learning difficulties is a measure of what sort of country we are, will he find out why it was that only last week in Wiltshire the local council forced a family to a tribunal because it did not want to pay for the residential care recommended by all that child’s teachers?

I would say first of all that I think that Members on both sides of the House will be grateful for the £1 billion of extra investment that is going into primary school places and new buildings. I know that in Salisbury that is a little further down the track—the hon. Gentleman will have to hope for a Labour Government to be re-elected if he is going to get the new schools in his constituency. On the particular points that he raises, I am happy to look at the details. It disturbs me greatly if any local authority is ignoring advice when a child with severe learning difficulties needs residential care. That should not be happening. These are local decisions, but I am happy to look at the details and see what we can do to help.

T8. Following the previous Schools Minister’s extremely helpful intervention to help save Trentham high school, would the current Schools Minister like to visit my constituency to see for himself the problems associated with the so-called Springfield academy site? At the same time, perhaps he would like to visit Trentham high and my colleagues in other parts of the city to see what is happening in those schools. (302079)

The Schools Minister will be extremely happy to go to Stoke and visit as many schools as my hon. Friend would like on the day allocated for the visits. I am sure the Minister is very much looking forward to it.

T3. Ministers will be aware of the concerns of home educators about the Badman report recommendations. Would the Secretary of State be willing to meet a group of local parents to hear those concerns? (302073)

The Schools Minister has been doing so; we have had a series of meetings. We have responded to some of the concerns and set out the evidence clearly. The legislation will be debated in the House. Although it is important to listen to parents’ concerns, we have a balance to strike. We have a responsibility to the children as well, to make sure they are safe and that they are getting a proper education. When the hon. Gentleman looks at the detail, I hope he will be able to join what I hope will be a cross-party consensus that the proposals are good, sound and fair, and that they are to the benefit of children but respond properly to the concerns of some of the parents.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his announcement on BSF and the further massive investment in new school building in Plymouth. When does he expect work to begin on the ground?

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment, and I again thank her and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) for their work in putting forward Plymouth’s case. We expect the plans between January and March next year, and that building will start soon afterwards.

T4. On 9 July, on Imagine FM, the Secretary of State said that he would love to visit Ewing school—a special school in south Manchester threatened with closure. Apparently, the Secretary of State is now unable to visit. Is this another broken promise from a broken Labour Government, or is the Secretary of State just too embarrassed to visit a local school rated by Ofsted as good with outstanding features, but threatened with closure by a local Labour council? (302074)

I am very happy to visit any excellent school—special or otherwise—and I am very happy to go to Manchester, Withington to see what is happening on the ground. I have been there once and seen new buildings being built, standards rising and great teachers—all delivered by a Labour Government, and I hope at the next election supported by a Labour MP.

May I tell my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the Sure Start children’s centres he has visited in my constituency are extremely successful? Can he absolutely assure me that they will be allowed to thrive under the next Labour Government?

I assure my hon. Friend that the centres will be able to thrive under the next Labour Government. There is a commitment in obligations to local authorities to make that a comprehensive offer to young children. Unlike the Conservatives, we are not proposing to make any cuts at all to the Sure Start budget.

T5. The failure of the Learning and Skills Council capital funding project for colleges has been well documented. I am particularly concerned about its effect on Havering sixth-form college, which invested £3.4 million of its own money, including £1 million that had to be borrowed, on enabling works. That has had a serious effect on the college’s cash-flow stability. In a meeting with the former Minister, now the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), and the college principal, Mr. Paul Wakeling, I understood— (302075)

Order. This is becoming an essay. I gently remind the hon. Lady that topical questions must be brief. I think we have the gist of it.

Very briefly, I expected the hon. Lady to say what good news it was that £42 million had come through for Havering’s Building Schools for the Future, but there was no mention of it—maybe she knows what cuts are on the agenda for those schools. As for school college places, we are funding 55,000 more places. More places will be coming through for the hon. Lady and her college, which would not be delivered by the cuts that the shadow Secretary of State is proposing—[Interruption.]

Order. I just say to the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) that I hope Members accept that there is a particular responsibility at questions to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families for hon. and right hon. Members to set a good example.

As we fast approach the Christmas holidays, a number of secondary school age children in my constituency are still without a school place. I am concerned about the provision that is being made for children who are without a school place for so long, so will my right hon. Friend arrange for someone in the Department to meet me to tell me exactly what the duties of the local education authority are to provide an adequate education for people awaiting a school place?

I understand those very serious concerns, and we will arrange a meeting as soon as possible to hear them and see where the problem lies.

T6. I was very grateful for the Secretary of State’s answer to the first topical question and for the letter that I received from the Minister for Schools and Learners at lunch time about spending in Croydon, because half our emergency primary school places have ended up in temporary classrooms. Why did the Government allow that problem to come into existence? Looking forward to 2011-12 and beyond, will there be money to ensure that primary school places are in permanent buildings? (302077)

Of course, the planning for primary school places is a matter for the local authority, and we have sought to deal with the problems that have emerged in some local authorities with those authorities. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have announced £12.8 million for Croydon to deal with the problem that he mentioned. As he pointed out, Kingston and Croydon, as part of the BSF, will have a further £100 million between them to take these issues forward. As for 2011 onwards, that will be a matter for the next spending review, but I know which party I would rather have in power to take that decision.

I should like to ask the Minister for Schools and Learners what he is doing to ensure that children are taught the importance of reducing waste and of recycling throughout their school career. If we are to give future generations a chance, we should not put so much waste into landfill and we should build far fewer incinerators.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Part of the curriculum review in primary schools will mean that waste, recycling and a general understanding of sustainability will be very much part of what is taught to primary school children. I am happy to have a meeting with my hon. Friend to discuss the issue further and to look at the good practice that already exists in some primary schools.

T7. I have given the Minister advance notice of the concerns of my constituents over the continued uncertainty at the Radcliffe school in Milton Keynes. I understand that he has told Milton Keynes council that he is minded not to award academy status. Can he simply confirm that decision today? If not, will he explain to the parents why he is taking so long to make a decision? (302078)

The position is that no decisions have been made. If the hon. Gentleman would like to make representations, he can do so to me and to the Schools Minister. I am happy to have a meeting so that he can do so. In the end, these matters are for local decision, not for national imposition. I am told that the school in question has seen substantial increases in its results, but it is not too late for the hon. Gentleman to make his representations.

Will my right hon. Friend tell me what extra funding will be made available for new schools as part of Building Schools for the Future in the Darlington borough, part of which falls into my constituency?

My hon. Friend will know that Darlington is part of the BSF announcement that we have made today. I understand that Hurworth secondary school is in his constituency and that he, along with many other Members of the House and many of my hon. Friends, has campaigned for that. I congratulate him on that, and I am sure that the school will welcome these developments.

T9. I hope that I can avoid detention and set a good example with this question. Will the Secretary of State help me with a reply to the chair of the governors of one of my local schools? On hearing about the Government’s proposal for a legal right to a good education, they wrote that schools are heartily sick of receiving one missive after another missive after another, that such a legal right would add to costs and additional time commitment, and that that kind of thinking was out of touch and completely counter to what was needed. Does the Secretary of State share the sentiments of the chair of governors? (302080)

I do not. I take it from that that the hon. Gentleman will not be supporting our pupil guarantee, which will ensure that every pupil who falls behind will be guaranteed 10 hours’ one-to-one tuition in year 7 or in years 3,4 or 5 if they fall behind. In the end, we have to decide whether we want those guarantees to give every child the support they need or whether we want a lottery in education. If the hon. Gentleman’s chair of governors wants a lottery, he had better vote Conservative.

What consideration has the Secretary of State given to having a full assessment of the asbestos levels in schools, and what can we do to eradicate all asbestos from our schools, and particularly the ones in Chorley?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we have been having a series of meetings on this very subject. I recently met the Health and Safety Minister in the House of Lords to discuss it, so it is an ongoing issue. I am happy to have a meeting with my hon. Friend if that would be helpful.

May I express a degree of surprise that the Secretary of State wrote a letter to the chair of governors of Great Tey primary school on Thursday, asserting that the school has failed to follow its published complaints procedures, on the basis of representations from the parents of only one child and apparently without consulting the local education authority, which is responsible for giving impartial advice? Is he aware that the letter is being used in a public campaign against the school, and was it his intention that it should be used in that way?

I contacted the school through my officials in September. I pointed out to the school its obligations in law to make sure that a proper complaints procedure was followed when a parent made a complaint. I wrote to the school last week, two months later, to say how much I regretted the fact that it had not had a proper complaints procedure in this case, and I asked the school to reflect again. I hope it will reflect again. If not, I will have to require the school to have a proper complaints procedure. It is important that it does, because in this case there are some substantial concerns about the treatment of that child, which are not being properly addressed by the school and by the governors.

I was very pleased to hear the Secretary of State announce an increase of £100 million in the funds for extra primary school places, but our difficulty will be to deliver those fast enough. Will he allow Slough borough council to create community primary schools, rather than insisting that new schools must be foundation schools or other forms of school through a competition, so that we can do it fast enough?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments about the money announced today for Slough for primary school places. The extra £9 million will be worth while in Slough, and I know that she has campaigned long and hard for that. On the provision of a primary school, we are looking at how we can ensure that Slough can quickly deliver the primary school that it needs.

Further to the excellent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), the Government like throwing money at divisive and politically correct projects such as Black History month. May I urge the Secretary of State to scrap that kind of initiative and direct the funding at a unifying programme promoting pride in British history?

I am not sure how to respond to that question and stay within the bounds of acceptable parliamentary language. All I can say is that I attended a reception for Black History month in the House of Commons just a few weeks ago. I heard the testimonies of young people from different races and different ethnicities, all saying that by working together, respecting diversity and having unity in our country, we can combat extremism. That is the right way to proceed. Black History month is the right way to proceed. I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on those comments, which do him no justice, nor the Conservative party.