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Children, Schools and Families

Volume 504: debated on Monday 25 January 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

GCSE Grades

1. Which five schools have shown the greatest increase in numbers of passes of GCSE grades A* to C since 1997. (312577)

We are unable to make a statistically valid comparison of results for all schools individually between 1997 and 2009. However, 45.1 per cent. of pupils achieved five or more good grades—A* to C— in 1997 and that rose to 70 per cent. in 2009.

I know that the figures are now normally given including English and Maths and so no straight comparison is possible with those from 1997. However, on the basis of the figures that are comparable—those for straight GCSE passes—is the Minister aware that the results of Battersea Park school in my constituency have improved by 66 percentage points, from between 4 and 5 per cent. in 1997 to 70 per cent. now? Does that not make it the most improved school over that period in the country?

It certainly makes it one of the most improved schools in the country over that period, and I congratulate all the staff, pupils and parents at Battersea Park school on all the work that they have done. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the improved results in obtaining five A* to C GCSE grades—as he says, the figure for his local school has risen from 5 per cent. in 1997 to 70 per cent. in 2009. He may be interested to learn that 11 per cent. of Battersea Park school’s pupils gained the benchmark of five A* to C GCSEs including English and Maths in 2005, whereas 36 per cent. of its pupils did so in 2009. However one measures it, Battersea Park school has made significant and substantial improvements, and should be congratulated on doing so.

I welcome any improved results, but does the Minister agree that the basic standards of literacy and numeracy in this country are nowhere near good enough for a country that is attempting to compete in a global economy?

I do not accept that numeracy and literacy standards are nowhere near where they should be—a significant rise has taken place in those standards. The number of primary school pupils gaining level 4, which is the benchmark that we use, has risen significantly. I mentioned the GCSE results at Battersea Park school, but the results of other secondary schools up and down the country also show a significant improvement. Are we satisfied with that and do we want to do more? Of course we want to do more, which is why we are introducing one-to-one tuition in primary schools. Such tuition will be carried on into secondary schools and will be backed up by the resources and investment needed.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the number of pupils obtaining five good GCSEs in Westminster has more than doubled since 1997? Will he join me in congratulating Martin Tissot and the teachers and pupils at St. George’s school? That school had a particularly troubled history and the fact that it has just been recognised as the most improved school in London shows what can be done with a combination of excellent leadership and resources.

Of course I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the school in her constituency and Martin Tissot on his work. It goes to show that schools that have good leadership, work with their communities and focus on teaching and learning can, even in the most difficult circumstances, raise standards and improve results. That is what has happened in the school that she mentions, and it is happening in schools up and down the country.

Is the Minister not concerned that nearly half of the 75,000 children on free school meals do not get a single GCSE above a grade D; that fewer than 4 per cent. of those 75,000 children are even entered for a GCSE in biology, physics or chemistry; that the independent sector now accounts for nearly half of all A* grades in GCSE French and achieves more A grades at A-level than all our comprehensive schools put together; and, most damning of all, that the achievement gap in GCSEs between the poorest areas of the country and the richest is widening—from 20 percentage points last year to a staggering 25 percentage points this year? Why, when pupils and teachers are working harder than ever, are this Government generating deeper and deeper inequalities?

The key stage 4 results for children on free school meals are rising faster than the average, and between 2002 and 2009 the number of pupils on free school meals achieving the equivalent of five A* to C grades at GCSE rose by 26 percentage points. It does not do the hon. Gentleman justice to keep pointing negatively at the achievements of those on free school meals. Significant improvement has been made in respect of those pupils, many of whose schools face the most difficult and challenging circumstances. Do we want to achieve more? Of course we do, which is why there has been a focus in those schools on standards and why, over time, we will also see an improvement in numeracy and literacy, particularly through the introduction of one-to-one tuition. As I say, there are things that we need to do and we need to do more, but more will not be achieved by simply decrying the achievements of schools that serve the most difficult areas.

Education Maintenance Allowance

2. What his policy is on the future of the education maintenance allowance; and if he will make a statement. (312578)

The pre-Budget report announced an investment of £8.2 billion in 2010-11 to fund 1.6 million places and meet our September guarantee to school leavers of a school, college or apprenticeship place. We expect to spend about £580 million on education maintenance allowances which will fund a further 80,000 places, and in 2011 we will remove the EMA bonus scheme to ensure that we can guarantee EMA payments to all students who need them.

Many young people in my constituency have benefited from what the Welsh Assembly Government have done in parallel with the Department. They use the money wisely to help young people stay in education beyond 16. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that some people are talking even about depriving young people of such things? For example, the nationalist Government in Scotland have decided to steal the money from the young people who need it most—those who are staying on in school and trying to do the best they can for their futures.

This is rightly a devolved matter, so it is for the Administrations in Wales and Scotland to decide, but the evidence shows that EMA payments increase participation in education beyond the age of 16 for children from poorer backgrounds. Any decision to scale back funding for EMA payments would be a very retrograde step.

My constituent, Mrs. Nicholas, is a widow with twin daughters, Emily and Sarah, who are clever enough to be studying for their A-levels a year ahead of their age cohort. As a result, they have been told that they do not qualify for the education maintenance allowance. Is that not an unfairness? Will the Secretary of State pledge to put it right?

I am happy to look at the details of the case raised by the hon. Lady. If she gives me those details, I shall write back to her. The purpose of the EMA is to ensure that finance is not a barrier to young people staying in school, college or an apprenticeship place after the age of 16 as they go into further study. There would be an even greater barrier if those places did not exist. At least with the Labour party, people know that there will be a school leavers’ guarantee this September.

Does my right hon. Friend agree not only that education maintenance allowances have been a success but that when they are clustered with what we have done in opening up diplomas, which are growing healthily, and with new apprenticeships, they give 14 to 19-year-olds a real alternative for the first time in the history of education in our country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The fact is that we have a higher number of young people staying on in education after 16 than we have ever had, and that is really good preparation for when education to 18 becomes the law in a few years’ time. Whether education takes place in school, in college or through an apprenticeship, it is vital to have qualifications that meet the needs of every student, whether they are more academic or want more vocational learning. It is also vital to ensure that they are not pushed down one route because their family says, “I’m really sorry, but you’ve got to go to work as we can’t afford full-time study.” That is what EMAs deal with. To propose that they should be scaled back or abolished would be a very retrograde step for social justice in our country.

Sex Education (Faith Schools)

3. What recent representations he has received on teaching about homosexual relationships in faith schools. (312579)

We are not aware of any specific representations from faith schools on teaching about homosexual relationships, although we are aware that it is of concern to some. We will be consulting on revised guidance to schools on sex and relationships education that makes it clear that schools have the flexibility to tailor their SRE provision to reflect the ethos of the school, but that teaching should be presented in a balanced way and should include other perspectives.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Do the Government agree with the leader of the Liberal party that schools should be forced to teach that homosexuality is normal and harmless?

Many faith schools are already teaching SRE very well. Schools have to teach within the context of their faith and their beliefs. They must present the accurate facts on homosexuality and do so fairly, and they can then, of course, talk about their faith, ethos and beliefs, too. They must also talk about tolerance, diversity and respect for all people who live in our communities and about the importance of rights and responsibilities.

Integrated Qualifications

Our 14 to 19 reforms are the most comprehensive changes to this part of education policy for more than half a century. They are designed to put in place high-quality qualifications that match a young person’s abilities, talents, interests and aspirations. There are four clear qualification routes: apprenticeships, the diploma, foundation learning or GCSEs and A-levels.

I welcome the Government’s effort to create a more integrated curriculum between the ages of 14 and 19. Does the Minister not agree that the shelf-life of the terms “vocational” and “academic” is coming to an end? The rigid segregation between what people perceive as vocational and academic is not helping to create parity. Do we need a new form of language to describe the curriculum?

I would go further than my hon. Friend. The fixation in certain quarters on categorising people at 11, 14, or 16 as academic or vocational and then labelling them as a success or failure accordingly has hindered our economic progress for more than a century. We need to focus on what is needed in the modern economy. What will success look like? Success will mean students learning to the best of their abilities and deploying transferable skills that can be applied in different settings. That is exactly what we want, and what the diplomas are providing. That is how our wider reform of 14 to 19 education is progressing.

Ofsted

Schools, head teachers’ representatives and directors of children’s services are in regular contact with Ministers and the Department about a range of matters, including Ofsted inspections.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Ofsted has changed the basis on which it inspects satisfactory schools but that that change does not appear on its website? Instead of a 20-day window for re-inspections of satisfactory schools, they are happening from one day to the next. Why is that not published on the website? Why is Ofsted acting as though it cannot trust any school or head teacher?

This is not a change in Ofsted’s powers, but it is a change in the framework for inspection. It started in September, after a long consultation. It is a deliberate raising of the bar to make our pursuit of high standards for all children in our schools even tougher and more demanding. A new framework always takes the first few months to bed down, and we shall see the details of that in a few weeks, when Ofsted does its report. However, I think that it is right that we are challenging all schools to ensure that all children succeed. That will be the basis for the new report card that we are introducing, and of the new Ofsted inspection framework, which I fully support.

Ofsted also has a responsibility to inspect serious case reviews and, when one takes place, to sign off the summary for the courts. I do not agree that we should publish the serious case review in full, but I have some concerns about the guidelines for the summary, which I believe should tell the story and not just present recommendations. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and others who want to express that point of view?

I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend. She joins the widespread consensus when she says that she does not want the full review to be published, but she makes important points about the executive summary. In fact, over the past few months we have been consulting on revising the terms of reference for serious case reviews. That followed the report from Lord Laming earlier in the year, in which he said that we should continue not to publish the full review, but that we should put more information in the summaries. I agree, and that is what we intend to do, but I will have a meeting with my right hon. Friend and others to make sure that we proceed in the best possible way in the coming weeks.

I am glad that the Secretary of State seems to be changing his position on this matter. Most people in this House got the impression last week that the Prime Minister was arguing that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children supported the Government’s existing position, which is to release only the serious case review summaries. Does the Secretary of State accept that the NSPCC changed its mind on this issue in November, and that it does not regard the existing position as sustainable? When, therefore, will we get some change in the arrangements?

The hon. Gentleman needs to get his facts right when he makes a point like that. In May 2009, the Government responded to the report from Lord Laming in which he said that we should revise the guidance to children’s departments on serious case reviews. We published a consultation in July, part of which said that we should have fuller executive summaries, and that is what we intend to do. We have had 146 responses to that consultation: while all but one of them supported withholding publication of the full report, they agreed that we should expand the amount of information in the executive summary. That is what we intend to do, and what we will do. It is also what the NSPCC said. In its statement after Prime Minister’s questions last week, the NSPCC made it clear—and I agree—that we need to have high-quality summaries that give a full, transparent and accurate picture of agency involvement, including errors or failings. However, it also said:

“Full reports should not be made public as sensitive information must be kept confidential to protect vulnerable children.”

I agree 100 per cent. with the NSPCC, and I hope that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) does so. We know that the official Opposition do not.

I do not know what the Secretary of State is making so much fuss about. If all he is saying is that a few pieces of sensitive information and issues of anonymity need to be dealt with, both sides of the House will agree. That is not a reason to keep the vast majority of full serious case reviews secret, as has happened. If the right hon. Gentleman is softening his position, it is merely a question of the degree to which the full reviews can be published. Will he assure us that the Government will table an amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Bill in order to have far greater openness than is currently the case?

No, there is no need for an amendment because within the “Working together” guidance we are clear that although Ofsted expects those executive summaries to be full and comprehensive, and to have all the lessons that need to be learned, the full report should not be published for two reasons. The first is to keep the identity of all affected children anonymous and out of the public domain. The second, as the Association of Chief Police Officers said this afternoon, is to make sure that all lessons are properly learned, which would not happen before publication. That is what Lord Laming said; it is what I said in the summer and it is what we are doing. The NSPCC and 4Children agree with us. The only people who do not agree, I think, are the two Opposition parties, which surprises me. I do not see why they are taking that line.

I welcome the new draft minimum care standards for the inspection of children’s homes, particularly standard 21, which refers to the effective and efficient management of those homes. In the future, that should lead to a more robust inspection framework and stronger sanctions against homes that fail to manage the behaviour of the young people in their care, which can cause distress to the wider community and jeopardise their own safety. Can my right hon. Friend give the House any further information about when the response to the consultation on the draft standards will be issued?

I can. The consultation finished just before Christmas. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support for a very important set of changes that we are putting in place. We shall publish a full response on the guidelines in June, after we have discussed the findings of the consultation in further detail. Our aim will be to make sure that the guidelines are up and running in September and can be implemented in full from April next year, to coincide with Ofsted’s new inspection framework. It is right to take the time to get them right, and that is what we shall do.

As the Secretary of State knows, I wrote to him earlier today saying that I wanted to discuss the Edlington case with regard to this question. Ofsted says that the serious case review in the Edlington case is good. The Secretary of State has seen both the serious case review and the executive summary. Does he believe that the executive summary is a good piece of work?

The judgment is a matter for the independent inspector—Ofsted—which reports directly to Parliament. Ofsted reports that in its judgment it is a good report within the current terms of reference, which we are revising and which, as I have already said, will say in future that we should have a fuller statement of what happened, including the timeline of events and the actions to be taken. Ofsted said it was a good report. I have read both the executive summary and the full report. In both cases, it is patently clear that very substantial failings in Doncaster led to those outcomes, although none of those failings could excuse the terrible acts that were perpetrated by children against other children in that case.

I notice that the Secretary of State is hiding behind Ofsted’s judgment. When Ofsted said that child protection in Haringey was good after baby Peter’s death, the Secretary of State rightly ordered a joint area review, which came up with a very different judgment. Last year, the Secretary of State said that all future serious case review executive summaries should be fully comprehensive. Lord Laming called for a high-quality executive summary that accurately represents the full report, yet in this executive summary the history of what went wrong occupies only two and a half pages while the full serious case review is 150 pages. Will the Secretary of State now accept, as a variety of children’s charities and leading experts on child protection have pointed out, that we must go further? As the NSPCC has said:

“The case for greater accountability within the child protection system is a compelling one.”

In the case of the Haringey report last year into the death of baby Peter, which the hon. Gentleman read in full, Ofsted judged the review and the executive summary inadequate, and I asked for it to be done again. In this case, Ofsted has reached a different judgment—that it is a good report. That is Ofsted’s judgment; they are the people who are asked to make that judgment. In this case, the details are harrowing and awful. I have read the full report.

The issue about more information in the executive summary is important, and we discussed that a moment ago. The issue today, however, which the hon. Gentleman wrote to me about over the weekend and on which I have replied, is whether the full serious case review should be published. I have read the full report, as he read the full Haringey report. The reason why I will not publish the full report is that, in my judgment and those of the experts, and as he will know from the Haringey case, it contains details of the abuse suffered both by other children in the family and the victims themselves—detail which would either reveal their identities to other children in Doncaster or, for those who know that, would show that very clearly.

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that a judgment that such detailed, harrowing, personal information should be put in the public domain would be wholly wrong and damaging to the children’s interests. That is why ACPO, the NSPCC and all the experts agree with me and disagree with him. I know why he is saying these things—

Order. I am extraordinarily grateful to the Secretary of State. This is an immensely important and sensitive matter, but we have a lot of other important matters that I want to get to, so this last exchange must be substantially pithier.

Professor Eileen Monroe, Britain’s leading academic expert on child protection, Anne Longfield of 4Children, Dr. Michelle Elliott of Kidscape and Community Care, the premier social work journal, are all calling for reform. Eileen Monroe stresses the case for full publication. The Secretary of State receives a copy of every SCR report fully anonymised, and so does Ofsted. Why cannot we have publication? After an aviation disaster, all of us know what went wrong, and the black box detail is published so that we can all keep children safer. Why is he standing in the way of keeping children safer?

Anne Longfield of 4Children made it clear to me over the weekend that she does not support full publication, and nor do ACPO and the NSPCC. I know the hon. Gentleman’s motives, but they are not putting the interests of children first. It would not be possible, even with a redacted version, to stop detailed information about the safety of these children and the abuse that they suffered from going into the public domain. It would be quite wrong if that happened. I understand what is being done here, and I think that the hon. Gentleman should reflect on his judgments and think about whether he is actually being responsible. What he proposes is not supported by pretty much anyone because it would be deeply irresponsible and would put children at risk in our country.

Christian Worship

6. If he will bring forward proposals to restrict the circumstances under which schools may apply for an exemption from the requirement to hold a regular act of worship of a broadly Christian character; and if he will make a statement. (312582)

Schools can apply to their local standing advisory council on religious education for a determination under which their daily act of collective worship need not be of a broadly Christian character. We have no plans to change that arrangement which, while still requiring such an act, allows the backgrounds of pupils to be taken into account.

What precisely are the criteria used by local authorities when deciding to grant a determination?

I think that the criteria are fairly obvious. For example, if a school was virtually 100 per cent. Muslim or Hindu, notwithstanding the fact that we are a Christian country, the school’s head teacher, with the governing body, may think it appropriate to say to the standing advisory council on religious education that the school wished to have an act of daily worship, but that it would be more appropriate if that took account of the background, culture and religion of its pupils. I think that most people in this country would think that that was eminently sensible.

Badman Report

Graham Badman’s review of home education collected a limited amount of qualitative and quantitative evidence from local authorities about home-educated children in their area. The data were used to produce an estimate of the population of home educators known to local authorities of about 20,000, which is consistent with estimates produced in an earlier report by York Consulting entitled “The Prevalence of Home Education in England”.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but does she acknowledge that my constituents and many others feel that the data that were pulled together meant that Badman got this badly wrong, particularly when he said that children who were home educated were twice as likely to go on the at-risk register? They believe that that information means that they, as parents, are being scapegoated and that a bad decision might be made. May we have a reassurance that that will not happen?

May I first pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the keen interest that he has been taking in home education and make it clear once again that Graham Badman’s report is about home education?

On the safeguarding data, Graham Badman asked for information from local authorities about child protection plans, because they are the only evidence of rigorous multi-agency processes that show no bias or subjectivity in relation to safeguarding. Seventy-four of 152 local authorities responded, which covers over 55 per cent. of the local authorities in the country, and Graham Badman found a higher incidence of home-educated children in those child protection plans. I reiterate that there are safeguarding provisions in place generally in our law. The report is predominantly about education.

Permanent Exclusion

There were 12,480 permanent exclusions in 1995-96 and 9,330 permanent exclusions in 2005-06. The latest available figures, for 2007-08, show that there were 8,130 permanent exclusions. The reduction in exclusion shows that schools have become more effective at managing behaviour. We have given teachers the powers they asked for to tackle poor behaviour and those figures are an indication of how well schools have responded.

I am grateful for that response, and we all acknowledge that we have to help difficult youngsters in every way we can, but when we put them in special schools we must ensure that we site those schools carefully and sensitively. Does the Minister share my delight that Essex county council now accepts that it sited one of those schools completely incorrectly in my constituency and is prepared to move it? Will he ask the council to get on with the job?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s considerable ingenuity in getting Essex county council into a question about permanent exclusions. I am happy to look into the matter on his behalf and to meet him to discuss it further if he so wishes, but he will appreciate that local authorities are in the driving seat on a range of education matters, and can commission and locate services where they think it necessary.

My hon. Friend says that there has been a reduction in permanent exclusions—I have no doubt that that is due to the spread of inclusion units within schools, which in my constituency have worked extremely well—but is he assured that there are enough places for those who are permanently excluded and have serious behavioural problems to ensure that their difficulties can be dealt with properly?

My hon. Friend has considerable expertise in a range of education matters and he makes a valuable point. Our guidance clearly shows that permanent exclusion, where necessary, should be the last resort for pupils with behavioural problems, and the Department is keen to work with local authorities, schools and others to ensure that behavioural problems can be identified early and that preventive measures can be put in place.

The Minister knows that over the past six years the number of children suspended from school more than four times in a year has gone up from 9,000 to more than 14,000. Is not the real problem the fact that the Government’s target to reduce permanent exclusions has simply pushed head teachers repeatedly to suspend persistently disruptive pupils, who then do not get the specialist assistance they need to help to tackle their behavioural problems and break this destructive cycle?

Is the hon. Lady seriously suggesting that we do not give head teachers considerable powers for their schools? I talk to parents, as I am sure she does, and all the evidence suggests that parents want their children to be educated safely in orderly schools where behaviour is considered important. Head teachers have the powers that they need to drive forward good behaviour. Sir Alan Steer, when he reported on this in September, demonstrated and confirmed that. I am surprised that she does not agree.

Special Educational Needs

10. What steps he plans to take to improve educational outcomes for children with special educational needs. (312587)

In addition to launching the Achievement for All project to improve educational outcomes for pupils with special educational needs, we have commissioned a number of independent reviews: the Bercow review on speech, language and communication needs; the Lamb inquiry on parental confidence in the system; the Ofsted review of SEN; and the Rose review on dyslexia and literacy difficulties. We have already begun responding to all those reviews.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her response, but I am concerned that in many mainstream primary schools, the special educational needs co-ordinator is often overburdened with other teaching responsibilities, and staff assigned specifically to support statemented children are diverted to other tasks, which is not right. Will she agree to meet me to discuss the matter and look into it urgently?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend on that matter. As he knows, the Government have done two things in particular. First, we have issued guidance for SEN on tasks and responsibilities and, secondly, we have increased the status of the SENCO through the development of the work force by insisting that they be a qualified teacher. Thirdly, we have made sure that, for the first time, everyone who takes up the role has special training, which is required as part of their development. If he thinks that there is more that we can do as central Government, I will be happy to discuss that.

One of the least attractive aspects of SEN is the fact that parents have to battle for appropriate statements to secure better educational outcomes for their children, which often ends up with stressful, costly and adversarial tribunals. Witnesses who have given evidence to the Committee considering the Children, Schools and Families Bill have pointed to a missed opportunity which Brian Lamb’s report could have addressed. Will the Government now offer parents a decent mediation system, rather than complex tribunals, so that all families stand a decent chance at appeal for their children?

I agree that parents should not have the task of battling through the system. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we commissioned the Lamb review, which made specific announcements on redress for parents, support to be given to them, new rights of appeal, duties for Ofsted, and the question of proper consultation and other routes. The Government will issue a full implementation plan next month, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will let us know if he thinks that there is anything missing from it.

Last week, I was privileged to see at first hand the work of the ELCISS—enhancing language and communication in secondary schools—project in Dagenham schools, where speech and language therapy is provided and training given to school staff, resulting in enhanced educational attainment and improved behaviour. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the outcome of that project will be examined, so that it can be rolled out in other areas?

As my hon. Friend knows, following the Bercow report, the Government have pursued the issue of speech development. I am more than happy to look at the project to which he has directed my attention, to make sure that all the lessons are learned and acted on, and that good practice is shared across the system.

Secondary Head Teachers

11. What his policy is on the appointment of a single head teacher to take responsibility for two or more secondary schools. (312588)

The Department’s mission is for all children to achieve their full potential. To deliver that, our policy is to make the best use of the very best head teachers. Where and when appropriate, this can and should mean the best heads running more than one school in either or both the secondary and primary phases.

I am grateful for that response. For those who doubt whether one person can run more than one school—that used to be my view—may I invite them to come to my constituency and see the inspirational leadership of one head teacher, Mr. Jonathan Tippett, who has turned around three schools? He continues to turn them around, but regrettably—I invite the Minister to come to see this for himself—two of those schools have been badly let down by the Tory-run Essex county council, which plans to close Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill schools.

I am perfectly happy, if it can be arranged, to go to Colchester again to see what is happening.

My right hon. Friend says that I should, so it looks like I am going.

I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman again on that particular issue. He is right to point out the serious point that good teachers can spread best practice, and can help to improve other schools as well as their own, which is why we are trying to develop the executive head model. With respect to Colchester, as he will know, the crucial issue, with which school reorganisation is trying to deal, is not only school improvement but surplus places.

My hon. Friend will know that, in Leicestershire, the county council proposes to close two out of three secondary schools. Does he agree that closing an outstanding secondary school would be a big mistake, and that, in trying to ensure that that is possible to deliver in a town the size of Loughborough, greater collaboration—not necessarily the removal of heads— and the sharing of best practice by schools is the best way to deliver education for 11 to 14-year-olds?

As my hon. Friend knows, school organisation and the commissioning of school places is a matter for the local authority. It is a matter of great concern to hear that in Loughborough one of the proposals is the closure of an outstanding school. That would require detailed attention. He will need to work, as he is no doubt doing, with the local authority and the local community to see what can be done about it.

Lyndale School

12. What his policy is on the future of the Lyndale School in Wirral; and if he will make a statement. (312589)

Decisions about school organisation are taken by local authorities and are not matters for the Secretary of State. However, I understand that Wirral local authority has recently consulted on reorganising its special educational needs provision, but that no decisions have yet been made regarding the future of the Lyndale school.

Does the Minister agree that children with profound and multiple learning difficulties require tailor-made education in an age range from three to 19, and that an excellent school such as Lyndale, which the Secretary of State visited in 2008, would make a super nucleus for such education?

I know that the Secretary of State visited the Lyndale school and saw for himself the excellent educational provision there. [Interruption.] It is interesting that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), says that I should go and visit that school. That is what the Secretary of State has just said to me as well, so it looks as though I am going to the Wirral. The serious point is that it is important that children, particularly those with special needs, receive the educational entitlement that they deserve. I am sure that those who follow these debates will have read what my hon. Friend said about the Lyndale school and will have taken note of the fact that the Secretary of State has been there and commented on how outstanding it is. Hopefully, all those remarks will be taken into account when decisions are made about the future of special educational needs and school organisation in the Wirral.

Educational Psychologists

13. What steps he is taking to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of (a) trained and (b) employed educational psychologists. (312590)

Educational psychologists are local authority employees. It is for individual authorities to determine the number required and their input in terms of training costs. To support local authorities, the Children’s Workforce Development Council administers a scheme based on employer contributions which funds the training of educational psychologists. The Children’s Workforce Development Council has also developed a work force development model to support future planning.

The funding crisis in training is exacerbated by the lack of guidance as to the number of educational psychologists who are needed to support and improve outcomes for vulnerable children and young people. By what date does the Minister expect the Children’s Workforce Development Council at long last to decide the role of educational psychologists and therefore the ratio needed per child and young person? Will she encourage the Children’s Workforce Development Council to hurry up?

There was a meeting on 26 October with the then general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists and the CWDC, which my hon. Friend attended with my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall). The Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), has written to local authorities with regard to the funding issue. She has a follow-up meeting with the CWDC on the very points that my hon. Friend makes about providing dates, and with Kate Fallon, the new general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will keep him informed.

Severe Weather

15. What guidance he issues to schools on the steps they should take in response to severe weather conditions. (312592)

The Department has guidance on its teachernet website. The guidance had been revised after the heavy snow in February 2009. We sent a message to schools on 8 January this year, stressing the importance of trying to open for exams. We encourage schools to remain open when it is safe to do so, but the decision on whether to close has to be taken locally, by those who know the local conditions.

There are a number of schools in my patch where the teachers were able to get in and wanted to open, but did not do so because there was ice on the path on the way in or in the car park, and they were concerned about the prospect of being successfully sued for any incidents that occurred. Can the Minister give schools some assurance that, if teachers get in and want to open, they ought to do so and that the Government will protect them from such action?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised the topic of snow and the need for grit in previous questions. In a statement earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport said that we all need to take a common-sense approach. It is ridiculous to suggest that people cannot clear roads and pathways because of the threat of being sued. It is a ridiculous notion, it is not something that we encourage, and it certainly is not legal.

Children’s Centres

We are on track to meet our target of at least 3,500 Sure Start children’s centres by March 2010. By the end of December 2009, there were 3,381 designated centres.

That is excellent news, and this is one occasion when I have no hesitation in asking for further spending on children’s centres. The evidence is there; parents and children need them; and we need to get on with the programme, which is so greatly welcomed in our communities.

The evidence from the outcomes for the national evaluation of Sure Start shows that children behave better and are more independent and ready to learn, and that awareness of children’s centres and support from parents are at their very highest. The Government are committed to their funding of Sure Start children’s centres, unlike the Opposition, who want to cut them.

Topical Questions

In our Children, Schools and Families Bill, we are legislating to ensure that all children and young people receive personal, social and health education, including sex and relationship education, and we are lowering the parental opt-out to 15 years of age. We will consult on the detailed content of the new PSHE curriculum after the Bill has gained Royal Assent. In the meantime, we are publishing today updated guidance for schools on sex and relationship education. It has been produced following consultation last year with parents, teachers, faith groups, young people and health professionals, and it sets out, among other things, the importance of marriage and of strong and stable relationships for bringing up children.

Returning to the dreadful Doncaster case, I note that one reason that the Secretary of State and Lord Laming used for not publishing the full case review was that professionals in future would not co-operate with such investigations. Will the Secretary of State accept what the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says—that that is quite wrong, that professionals must be forced to co-operate and that that is not a suitable excuse for not publishing the full review?

I am sorry to go over the same ground, but the NSPCC says, and has said since last Wednesday, that we should not publish the full review. That is also the view of 4Children and many other organisations. The reason is to ensure that the identities of innocent children who have been abused, and whose details are set out in such reports, are not put into the public domain. I would have thought that anybody who had ever read one of those reviews would know that there are very strong reasons for keeping such reports out of the public domain. That is what I have said, and that is exactly the approach that we will continue to take.

T2. It is unfair that Ofsted marks down any school where a high proportion of parents choose to send their children with unhealthy packed lunches, despite the school’s efforts to educate parents about healthy eating. Will the Government order Ofsted to desist, and if not, why not? (312603)

I have not heard about that before, but I am certainly happy to raise the matter with the chief inspector and ask for a response. The majority of parents provide a balanced packed lunch, and packed lunches are the responsibility of parents, not of schools.

T3. Can the Secretary of State estimate how many pages of guidance his Department has issued to teachers in the past 10 years and tell the House whether he considers it sufficient? (312604)

I think that the answer to that is no—I have never sat down and counted all the pages of guidance. What I have done is reform the national curriculum to reduce the burdens on teachers and give them more discretion over the primary and secondary curriculums. It is a great pity that, rather than support the national curriculum, the Opposition propose to abolish it.

One of my constituents who works with young people is increasingly concerned because, she tells me, more and more schools are engaged in what she calls soft exclusions. They do not formally exclude children; they say, “Stay away for a day”, “two days”, “a week” or “two weeks”. I believe that that practice is illegal. Will my hon. Friend the Minister undertake to look into that and, if it is illegal, put a stop to it?

I certainly will look into that. The situation may be different in Wales, but I will check, and I will be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss specific cases. To generalise, I can certainly say that soft exclusions are illegal, but I will look into the matter and report back to him.

T4. Faith schools are being harassed by a party leader who seeks to tell them what to teach and by the European Union, which tells them who they can employ. Is not the very raison d’être of faith schools to sustain a distinct religious identity? Will the Secretary of State safeguard faith schools? (312605)

Absolutely. Faith schools were in existence providing free education to often the most deprived children before the state started to do the same. I fully support faith schools. They have to abide by the law on fair admissions. I think that agreeing to calls for the admissions code to be dropped to allow faith schools to pick by interviewing parents would be the wrong thing to do. I also think it is right that faith schools promote community cohesion. Both the Church of England and the Catholic Education Service are supporting our changes to the rules on sex and relationships education. I have very strong and good relationships with the faith organisations, which are supporting the direction that we taking and are not supporting the proposal by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) to keep the opt-out age at 19.

Is my hon. Friend aware of recent research among young people in my constituency that found that they greatly valued the education maintenance allowance but wanted it to be based on current parental income rather than the previous year’s income so that it could provide more effective support for children whose parents become unemployed? Would he be prepared to look at such proposals?

I get a lot of correspondence with regard to that. I have considerable sympathy when there have been in-year changes in circumstances. The full year’s income assessment that we provide is the best general barometer of what parental income is. There are considerable flexibilities within the benefits system to allow other help and assistance to be given. In addition, we have increased help for discretionary learner support funds to schools and colleges. I keep a close eye on this matter.

T5. I have a lot of respect for the Schools Minister, and I thank him for agreeing to visit my constituency. He referred to the importance of removing surplus places from secondary education. My constituent, Mr. Joe Slatter, has proved conclusively that Essex county council’s arguments for closing the two schools that I mentioned are false. Will the Minister therefore join me in a meeting with people from Building Schools for the Future to prove that what Essex county council says about an investment of £130 million is not correct? (312606)

Nobody could describe the hon. Gentleman as being a slacker when it comes to these issues. The Schools Minister has already confirmed, and I can confirm it on his behalf, that he will be having another meeting. If the hon. Gentleman would like to bring people from Building Schools for the Future, that would be fine by us. If he wants to bring people from Essex county council, that will also be fine, although I am not sure that his relationship with them would allow for that. If he would like the Schools Minister to have more than one meeting, I am sure that my hon. Friend would, within reason, be happy to oblige.

This Government can be justifiably proud of the massive increase in the number of after-school clubs since 1997. In my constituency, however, several after-school clubs are facing closure owing to a withdrawal of funding by the Scottish National party-led local council. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to convince his counterpart in Holyrood that such clubs are a lifeline for working families and that their funding should continue?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. The devolved Administration in Scotland have also been withdrawing, or reducing, support for education maintenance allowances. The National Union of Students estimates that as a result 7,000 fewer students will be able to stay on in education after the age of 16. I fear that the SNP Administration in Scotland have been paying far too much attention to the policies of the main Opposition party in Westminster, rather than the policies of the Government.

T7. Will the Minister for Schools and Learners consider the merits of replacing the traditional three-term structure with five fixed terms of eight weeks each to provide for better attendance, families taking their holidays during holiday time, and the reduction of skill fade over the very long summer recess? (312608)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his question. For local authority-funded schools, that is a matter for the governing body and the local authority to decide and to determine. They must consult parents at least one term in advance if they wish to change the way in which terms are allocated, including by writing to parents and holding a meeting with them. Furthermore, the Local Government Association works very closely with local authorities to try to align term dates across local authority boundaries. I hope that that reply is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that on the measure of five GCSE passes at grade A* to C, last year Coventry city had its best ever results? [Interruption.] I do not see what there is to laugh at there. They have increased by 15 per cent., which is a significant achievement and shows that the Government’s policies for improvement in secondary education are working. Results continue to improve year by year.

My hon. Friend is right. As he will know, the improvements of the past decade have come after what was, in Coventry and around the country, a decade or more of stagnation in exam results. That has happened because we have the best generation of teachers that we have ever had and because we have been increasing investment in our schools year on year. We should not resort to policies of running down the achievements of teachers or cutting spending in the coming year, because that would set back the achievements of children in Coventry and around the country. It is not something that this Government will do in the coming year.

T8. Dr. Elliott, the founder of Kidscape, has asked of the Edlington case:“How could you have a report on something as critical as this without naming”the professionals at fault “individually? By failing to release the… full report, it feels like an institutional cover-up”.Why is the Secretary of State a party to that institutional cover-up? (312609)

It would be very easy indeed for me to publish the full report and to bow to political pressure and pressure from some newspapers. The reason that I am not going to do so is that it would put into the public domain the details of abuse suffered by vulnerable children in the family concerned and more widely in Doncaster and set back our ability to ensure that it did not happen again. Sometimes in government, the easy thing to do is not the right thing to do. I am going to do my best to protect children in our country, not play the games that we are seeing from Opposition Members.

The latest GCSE results have been put on the Department’s computer and show figures on a ward-by-ward basis. By a long margin, the biggest improvement in York has been in the poorest wards of the city. What will the Government do to continue to provide additional help for children from poor families, so that educational opportunity is there for everybody, not just the richer and the better-off?

As my hon. Friend knows, I was in York recently and visited an excellent school with him. I congratulate all the schools in York that are making improvements. He asks what more we will do to ensure that we tackle educational disadvantage in some of the poorest areas. We will of course continue the investment that we have made over the past few years, but just as importantly we will try to ensure that we do not just leave it to schools to tackle deprivation but that they work more closely with children’s services, social services, health services, the police and other partners, including parents, to raise the achievement in those areas as we all want.

T9. Earlier today I had the pleasure of welcoming pupils and staff from Offerton high school in my constituency to the House. They enjoyed their visit very much but are dismayed that Stockport’s bid for BSF funding was turned down by the Secretary of State, leaving them stranded in a crumbling building on a split site. What hope can he give that there will be resources to put right the deficit in school building in Stockport? (312610)

Given that the Conservative party is committed to a £4.5 billion cut in Building Schools for the Future, the best hope that the hon. Gentleman can possibly have in his constituency is the re-election of a Labour Government.

In Chester, parents greatly value and appreciate our four excellent children’s centres. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that those centres will continue to provide universal access to all parents, irrespective of their background and circumstances?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government’s commitment is to universal service through children’s centres—unlike the Conservative party, which wants to close one in four.

There is fierce competition for school places in south-west London. Will the Secretary of State and Ministers therefore consider reviewing the rules that govern the allocation of capital resources for providing school places, so that the popular schools in the London borough of Sutton can meet the demand of children living in that borough to go to those schools?

The hon. Gentleman was present at an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall last week when the issue was raised. As I pointed out then, considerable powers are already in place for local authorities to be in the driving seat to ensure that demand for places is met. Provisions will be extended in the Children, Schools and Families Bill that is currently in Committee, but, as I suggested in the Adjournment debate—and now suggest again—the hon. Gentleman should have a word with the Lib Dem-led London borough of Sutton, and perhaps some sort of arrangement can be reached.

I am sure that Ministers will admit that we made a slow start in trying to tackle the disaster that was school sport in the 1990s. We did not make significant progress until 2002 to 2004. Despite the fact that we are now nearly up to 90 per cent. participation, what extra measures can my hon. Friend take to ensure that those who are still not getting at least two hours get them, and that, where there is a drop-off with the school club link, particularly for girls, action is taken so that everybody gets the chance to take part in sport?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s question and pay tribute to his fantastic work. He has just mentioned the 90 per cent. of young people who now do two and a half hours’ sport. We want to take that further. Last year’s schools White Paper and the Children, Schools and Families Bill include a commitment to increase that, as far as possible, to five hours, thereby ensuring that sport is an integral part of young people’s learning experience.

T10. The Secretary of State has been talking about children’s best interests. As a married man, he knows that all research shows that children’s best interests are served by being brought up by their mother and father in a stable relationship, preferably a marriage. Why, therefore, does he patronise those from less privileged backgrounds than him by suggesting that they should not aspire to bring up their children in a married, stable relationship? (312611)

I do not remember ever patronising those people. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am married and very much support the institution of marriage. I am currently married to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

I support marriage, but I do not support a tax allowance that would disadvantage the widow and the woman who has to leave an abusive relationship, and go 13 times more to people on the highest incomes, yet give no help to any family where both parents are working. That would be not only patronising but deeply unfair.

Order. I am trying to help hon. Members by including as many as possible, but I need hon. Members to help me to help them.

Does the Schools Minister, following his visit to The Duchess’s community high school in Alnwick, agree that it desperately needs replacing? Will the subsequent visit arranged by his officials clear some of barriers to getting that done?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I visited Alnwick recently and looked at the school. It clearly needs to be rebuilt as soon as possible. I hope that the subsequent visit by officials, which has taken place, will help with that process.

I have not seen any such evidence, nor have any of the bodies that advise us. A consistent battle seems to take place in this country when GCSE and A-level results improve, and people want to criticise rather than celebrate young people’s genuine improvements.

Returning to the subject of publishing serious case reviews, why is it not possible to go beyond a summary and start with publication with appropriate redaction?

I understand the hon. Lady’s point, although, as I have said, people who have read a full serious case review know that the degree of detail included about innocent children in the family and more widely means that redaction is not at all sufficient. As Lord Laming said—and as the Association of Chief Police Officers said this afternoon—to publish the full report and therefore have less co-operation from police officers, social workers and health professionals, means that the lessons would not be learned. Those are not my views, but those of the NSPCC, police officers, directors of children’s services and the Government’s chief adviser on the safety of children. It is not a cover-up, but a Government putting the needs of children first. I urge the hon. Lady not to join in the politics being played by Conservative Front Benchers, but to join me in doing the best by children in our country.

Order. I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State, who has dealt with these matters very comprehensively, whether Members agree with the answers or not.

Does the Secretary of State share my dismay at the proposals from the usually excellent hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) in his fair access to school admissions Bill, which would have the effect of reversing the Greenwich judgment, and mean that an artificial Berlin wall would be created between Croydon and Sutton, stopping Croydon parents and students from exercising their choice to go to very good Sutton schools?

Rather than being drawn into the details, I think that that is really a matter that requires a meeting with the Minister for Schools and Learners.