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Children, Schools and Families

Volume 507: debated on Monday 8 March 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

School Transport

Does the Minister agree that if the 14-to-19 diploma programme is to work properly, efficient and effective school transport programmes must be in place to ensure that children who are going to schools further away from their home are accommodated? Has she seen the Select Committee on Transport’s report of March 2009, and what action is she going to take?

We think it very important indeed that parents and young people can exercise preferences about where they want to go to school or college and the courses they want to study. Additional money has been made available to local authorities to ensure that young people have that choice. The Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), who is responsible for the diplomas, has said that further additional money is being made available, too.

If the Minister is not having any meetings with local authority representatives, what further action will she take, beyond existing guidance, to ensure safer travel on school transport, including, in particular, tackling bullying on school transport and providing adequate training for school bus drivers?

The hon. Lady will know about the travelling to school initiative and the £7.5 million that was made available to work with schools to allow them to draw up school transport plans for the whole school community, so that there can be safe and sustainable ways of getting to school. The issue of bullying will be addressed within that, as will the issue of training for people who are travelling on school buses.

Playing Fields

2. What his policy is on the sale of school playing fields for development; and if he will make a statement. (320676)

Schools and local authorities need the Secretary of State’s consent to sell school playing fields. The legislation introduced in 1998 sets out clear criteria for sales. School playing fields can be sold only if they are genuinely surplus, and all proceeds from the sale must be returned to improving sports or educational facilities.

Essex county council has made three attacks on Castle Point’s school playing fields, which is outrageous. The latest attack is to sell off part of Castle View school’s playing field to build a massive estate in the green belt and on the floodplain. It is totally unacceptable. Will the Minister work with me to try to stop this? Essex county councillors should not be using my community—

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in this matter. He has raised it on the Floor of the House before in Department for Children, Schools and Families questions. I am very keen to work with him and, more importantly than that, my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners is very keen to work with him. I can offer a meeting between the hon. Gentleman and the Minister for Schools and Learners to allow that to take place.

Is the Minister aware of the increasing use of outdoor gyms to enable people to use outdoor facilities more often? Will he encourage schools and local authorities to set about entering into partnerships to have more of those facilities, so that more people can use them?

The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. We are keen to ensure that partnership and collaborative work takes place to ensure that every single young person in school has the opportunity to have 21st-century sport and recreational facilities. The hon. Gentleman’s suggestions have been taken on board, and I want to work with him and other Members from around the House to ensure that his vision is realised.

Primary Schools (Hove)

3. What recent discussions he has had with relevant local authorities on the provision of primary schools in Hove; and if he will make a statement. (320677)

Partnerships for Schools, the body responsible for the management and delivery of our schools capital investment programme, is currently in discussions with Brighton and Hove local authority about school place provision, particularly for primary schools in the Hove area. I have agreed to meet my hon. Friend and some of her constituents on 17 March to discuss access to primary school places in the area.

I thank the Minister for meeting me and my constituents and for meeting other parents in the autumn. Despite the Government’s granting £44 million for schools in Brighton and Hove, the Tory-led council is still slashing money for young people, toddlers and training, including £600,000 from Sure Start. It still has not allocated the £5.7 million granted by her Department for a new primary school. Will she ensure that money given to children by the Government is given by the council?

The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has made it clear that if we want to know what a Conservative Government would be like, we should look at how they act in local authorities—

Order. I must say to the hon. Lady that I feel sure that we are going to have an offer of Government policy on the matter—or does she feel that she has said enough?

Secondary Schools (Attainment)

4. What recent steps he has taken to increase the level of attainment of pupils in secondary schools; and if he will make a statement. (320678)

Standards are rising in our secondary schools due to great teaching, the doubling of per pupil funding and the biggest investment in school buildings since the Victorian era. We already have 96 local authorities in our Building Schools for the Future programme, and I can announce today approval for the next six authorities to enter the programme. These authorities are Buckinghamshire, Cornwall, Gateshead, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Sutton, with a total investment of £420 million. In addition, Birmingham, Cumbria and Gloucestershire fell just short of being ready, but with some extra work they will be first in line to enter the programme at the next available opportunity.

I note the Secretary of State’s response, but far too many schools are still not making the required level of progress. Is he aware that in almost a quarter of state-funded secondary schools, fewer than half the pupils made the expected progress between key stages 2 and 4 in English and maths? Is that not an indictment of his record, and his Government’s record, over the past 13 years of failure?

I know that the constituents of Bexleyheath and Crayford will be hoping, along with 50 other local authorities, that they will have the chance to come into Building Schools for the Future in the coming years. As he knows, that is a guarantee that Labour will make but that the Conservatives will cut. As for one-to-one tuition, which is vital to make sure that every child can make progress if they fall behind, it was in our fifth-Session Bill, which the Conservative party voted against on Third Reading. That is why there would not be progress under a Conservative Government.

Is not a real picture of our success given by Halton, where the percentage of children getting five grades A to C has gone up by 36 per cent. since 1998 to more than 70 per cent. today? Congratulations must go to the teachers and pupils there. Is it not also important to recognise the role of local education authorities? Will he examine the important contribution that Halton has made to increasing and improving standards there?

I know that some people do not think that there is a role for local education authorities, but the reason why we have made progress is because of those authorities that have been willing to support and challenge where progress was needed. The fact is that in 1997 only one in 20 schools were getting five GCSEs, including English and maths, whereas the number today is not one in 20 schools but one in three. That is a real measure of the progress on standards that we have seen in the past 10 years.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Thomas Lord Audley school in my constituency on exceeding the Government’s 30 per cent. GCSE target and on achieving the best results in the school’s entire history? Does he agree that, given those circumstances, Essex county council should not be shutting such a successful school, particularly given that last September’s admissions were the highest for many years?

In 1997, some 1,600 schools—more than one in two—were not achieving that benchmark of 30 per cent. for English and maths. Now, the number is not one in two, but fewer than one in 13. I congratulate the leadership of Thomas Lord Audley school on the progress that has been made. On the other issue that the hon. Gentleman raises about school improvement, and on the matters that are being discussed at length between him and Essex county council, I know that one of the numerous meetings that he is having with the Minister for Schools and Learners is happening this afternoon, and I shall look forward to receiving a personal report on the issues that have been raised—I am sure that playing fields will come up as well.

High schools in my constituency have, like many others, made dramatic improvements in attainment in recent years. That is down to a number of factors, including dedicated, high-calibre teachers, but above all to a return to rigorous teaching methods. Will my right hon. Friend seek to make sure that such teaching methods are adopted nationally, so that we can get national improvement?

We have a national curriculum that specifies the particular areas that need to be covered, including, for example, in history, the first world war, the second world war and the slave trade, but how teaching is done is really a matter for head teachers and teachers, rather than for the Secretary of State to prescribe. We have the best generation of teachers and some of the best school leaders that we have ever had. I think that starting to tell people how to teach and what to teach would be over-centralising. That may be the approach of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), but it will not be my approach.

The Secretary of State will be aware that, in the last year for which we have figures, of the 80,000 children who were eligible for free school meals—the very poorest—only 45 got to Oxford or Cambridge. Why are so many poor children being failed by Labour?

There has been repeated discussion on these matters. I have attempted to correct the hon. Gentleman on his statistical failings, but he keeps refusing to listen. What he does in his comparisons is to look only at the children on free school meals who go to schools. He repeatedly ignores the performance of young people on free school meals who go to further education colleges. His statistics therefore always give a very unfair and biased picture of what is going on, which I guess must account for why he keeps saying that his school reforms would lead to rising standards, while the head of the Swedish equivalent of Ofsted has said that they would lead to falling standards and greater inequality. I think that he should do his homework a little bit better.

I think that it is the Secretary of State who will get an F for fail. The Association of Colleges has looked at our figures, and the 80,000 whom we are talking about are all people who were in school in 2002. Whether or not they went on to school or sixth-form college, we looked at those who went on to Oxbridge. The right hon. Gentleman’s deputy, the Minister for Schools and Learners, repeated that mistake two weeks ago and had to acknowledge that it was an error. I hope the Secretary of State will have the good grace to acknowledge his error when he comes back to the Dispatch Box now. When more than 40 per cent. of the people who go on to Oxford and Cambridge come from fee-paying independent schools, where they have access to the high quality IGCSE, why does he deny poorer pupils in state schools the chance to have that high quality qualification? Why the prejudice towards the poor from his Labour Government?

Order. I am sorry, but I counted four questions there. In the next set, we must not have a repetition.

I will do my best to answer all four questions, to the extent that I followed them. The point that I was making is that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) regularly alleges, as he did only a week and a half ago, that only 189 pupils eligible for free school meals got three As at A-level, but he counts only pupils at maintained schools’ sixth forms and excludes those who go to sixth-form colleges or further education colleges. I have written to him and contacted him to try to get him to correct that mistake, but he refuses to do so. Similarly, he refuses to acknowledge that his free schools initiative will not only divert money away from other state schools, but will lead to falling standards and greater social inequality. I would have thought that he would join me in congratulating the six areas which today have been given more than £400 million of school investment. Let me read a quote from EducationInvestor[Interruption.]

Order. Mr, Gray, calm yourself. It is not good for your health. The Secretary of State may quote very briefly.

Very briefly, the quote is:

“‘What we’re saying is if financial close has been reached, it will go ahead.’ If not . . . Decisions about whether to continue with projects will be made on a ‘case by case basis.’”

That was the shadow schools Minister. What that means is that schemes at 700 schools in 50 areas could potentially be cancelled by a Conservative local authority. That is the threat to school building. That is why the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will not talk about the Swedish model or his school building—

Education Maintenance Allowance

To be eligible for education maintenance allowance in England, a learner must be aged between 16 and 19, meet certain residential criteria, have a bank account, and have a household income under £30,810, based on evidence from the last full financial year. We will continue, as now, not to require household income assessment for specific groups. However, from the end of June 2010, no new learners will be exempt from household income assessment solely on the basis of their course.

More than 3,000 young people in my constituency receive the education maintenance allowance. Without that financial support, many of them could not stay on for further education and skills training after 16. Will my hon. Friend assure me of his continuing commitment to maintaining the education maintenance allowance for low-income families in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is correct, and I pay tribute to all the hard work that she does with regard to this subject. For far too long—for decades—there has been a direct correlation between the level of educational participation and attainment, and household income. EMAs help to break that. That is a direct result of a policy intervention from the Government. The 3,000 learners in my hon. Friend’s constituency who are benefiting from that would, I think, like to be reassured that the Government will continue steadfastly supporting EMAs. We will certainly do that—no ifs, no buts. We will continue to support EMAs, unlike the Opposition, who have described them as a fiasco.

Will the Minister steadfastly defend EMAs for children in the independent sector in cases where, for example, grandparents are paying the fees of their grandchildren in independent schools?

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, who is a decent and honourable man, that the whole purpose of education maintenance allowance is to make sure that we can help people on low and middle-incomes participate in education post-16. I suggest that if parents or grandparents are paying for their education, the household income is not necessarily a key criterion, and perhaps we should examine that criterion a little more closely.

I thank my hon. Friend and our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the constructive meeting to talk about EMAs with young people from Northampton. May I stress the fact that a number of young people who are at university in Northampton were able to go only because they received an EMA to stay on at secondary school and finish their A-levels?

The Secretary of State and I really enjoyed our meeting with students from my hon. Friend’s constituency. They convinced me—if I needed convincing —that EMAs are an absolutely essential part of what we offer to young people as they go forward and participate in education and training post-16. Let me be absolutely clear with the House and, in particular, with my hon. Friend, who really supports that policy agenda. No ifs, no buts: we will continue to maintain education maintenance allowance from 16 onwards. That way we think that we can break the cycle between household income and educational attainment; and that way we can have real social justice in this country.

Primary Schools (Literacy)

Literacy standards in primary schools have never been higher. Eighty per cent. of 11-year-olds are now reaching the target level in English, up 17 percentage points from 1997. Record levels of funding and support, coupled with programmes such as communication, language and literacy development, Every Child a Reader, Every Child a Writer and, now, the pupil guarantee, all continue to drive up standards and progression.

But this year’s key stage 2 results are, I believe, the clearest indication yet that the Government’s policies for primary education have not only stalled but failed. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to focus on the use of tried and tested teaching methods in our primary schools?

I do not see how 100,000 more children achieving level 4 this year when compared with 1997 is a record of failure; I think that it is a record of sustained progress of which we can be proud. We are, of course, looking to see what further measures we can take to ensure that all children achieve the level that they should. That is why we are introducing one-to-one tuition and small group work; that is why the programmes to which I have referred, Every Child a Reader and Every Child a Writer, will be expanded and developed; and that is why we have recently announced proposals to allow the best primary schools to federate and join those primary schools that need support. So, over a period, we shall see continued and sustained progress.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the success in raising literacy standards is very largely due to our highly skilled teaching work force? If that is to continue and we are to achieve even better results, we must ensure that their continuing professional development—CPD—goes on unmarred. Does he realise that the “rarely cover” policy is interpreted in some schools as stopping CPD taking place?

“Rarely cover” arrangements, as my hon. Friend will know as Chair of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, should not stop CPD in any form. Continuing professional development is an important part of the entitlement of every teacher in our schools, and one way in which we want to see that progress and become entrenched is with a licence to practise, which we are introducing through the current Children, Schools and Families Bill, and which will mean a statutory entitlement for teachers with respect to their continuing professional development.

The Minister knows that the foundations for children’s literacy are laid in the very first years of their school life, and that the true record of Labour in that respect is no improvement in the national standards of reading at key stage 1 since 2001, and a decline in the standard of writing. Is it not time to start doing as my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has said and focus on tried and trusted teaching methods, such as synthetic phonics, and bring in an effective reading test when children are six years old in order to ensure that every child has the opportunity to master the essential skills of reading, which will stand them in good stead for the future?

Of course we want to improve reading and writing. That is why we introduced Sure Start, which, as the hon. Lady will know, her party proposes to cut. She also mentioned the introduction of phonics as a way of ensuring that young children, particularly those at key stage 1, achieve the levels that they should, and she will know that it is now mandatory for schools to teach phonics at key stage 1.

September Guarantee

7. What estimate he has made of the number of young people who are staying in education or training in 2010 as a result of the September guarantee. (320681)

Our school leavers guarantee will ensure that all young people leaving school this September will be offered a school, college or apprenticeship place. We have allocated £8.2 billion to fund a total of 1.6 million learner places for 16 to 18-year-olds in 2010-11. That includes 142,500 more places than we had originally planned, thanks to the generosity of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with 449 extra places in Milton Keynes in 2010-11.

I thank the Secretary of State for those additional places. He knows that the youth unemployment level in Milton Keynes has gone up quite considerably during the recession. Can he assure me that he will maintain the September guarantee and the funding that goes with it, and that he will not be tempted to remove it too early simply in order to pay down the deficit?

My hon. Friend’s point is very important. In the pre-Budget report, the Chancellor of the Exchequer allowed us, for this year, next year and the year after, to ring-fence funding for Sure Start, for schools and for the school leavers guarantee, with rising funding in real terms, so that we can provide these extra places—a pledge that we will make and that the Conservatives refuse to match, because of their commitment to have cuts now to reduce the deficit.

May I give my hon. Friend a figure about her constituency that I know will be of interest to her? In Milton Keynes, youth unemployment among 18 to 24-year-olds exceeding six months now stands at 365 young people. That is a low number because of the new deal, the school leavers guarantee and the future jobs fund. The figure peaked in June 1985 at 1,285 young people—almost four times as many. That is what happens when one cuts spending and does not act to protect youth jobs.

Can I give the Secretary of State a figure, as well? Over the past 10 years, the number of people aged between 16 and 24 who are not in education or employment has risen by 150,000 to 750,000. In my constituency, H. J. Berry, the oldest chair-maker in Britain, has closed, with the loss of 85 jobs; the oldest shoe shop in Clitheroe, D. Lord & Son, has closed; and we have recently seen the closure of Kaydee bookshop, with a loss of jobs. Let us forget the September guarantee and have the May promise—that we will get off the backs of entrepreneurs and allow them to create jobs for young people and others alike.

It is very important to protect and support entrepreneurs in creating more jobs for the future; there is a consensus on that on both sides of the House. I am proud of the fact that this year, compared with last year, the figures for young people not in education, employment or training have fallen for 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds, even in a recession. The reason for that is that, unlike the Conservatives, we will not forget the school leavers guarantee. We will fund the school leavers guarantee so that there is a college, school or apprenticeship place for every young person, not just some young people.

Primary Schools (Attainment)

8. What steps he is taking to improve standards of attainment in primary schools; and if he will make a statement. (320682)

Primary school standards have improved significantly over the past 12 years, with 100,000 more children now leaving primary school secure in the basics than in 1997, and a 19 percentage points increase in pupils achieving the expected standard in English and maths. There is still more to do if every child is to succeed at primary school. That is why last December we launched the world-class primaries programme, which will support local authorities in helping to bring all primary schools up to the level of the best.

As a governor of a primary school—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] As a former governor, I should say, of a primary school—[Interruption]and, indeed, a former pupil, I quite understand the urge of Ministers to interfere from the centre, given the lunacy of what has sometimes passed for education in primary schools. However, does the Minister understand that the sheer volume of initiatives and prescriptions is becoming part of the problem, and that is certainly what the profession is complaining about?

One of the things that the Government are doing, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is to provide that from 2011 national strategies will have ended, with the money passed down to schools, including primary schools, to enable them to choose how best to spend that money within their own school. That will make a significant difference. As I said in a previous answer, one of the best initiatives—some initiatives are indeed better than others—in improving practice, whether or not it involves the primary school at which he was a governor, is to allow the sharing of best practice between schools that are achieving significantly better results than others to try to help and support those others to bring them up to the level that we all want.

Will my hon. Friend congratulate all the primary schools in my constituency on their excellent improved standards, much assisted by the reduction in class sizes brought about by the transfer of £2.25 million within the constituency from the Tories’ assisted places scheme? Will he congratulate them also on the wonderful rebuilding that is taking place, for instance at St. Agnes Church of England primary school and the Acacias community school? All that is because of a Labour Government.

I am happy to join my right hon. Friend in congratulating the head teachers and teaching staff in primary schools in his constituency, and all the teaching profession across the country, on the work that they are doing and have done to improve standards.

My right hon. Friend refers to class sizes, and I can inform the House that in 1997, 29 per cent. of pupils were in classes of more than 30. Now, just 2.1 per cent. are in unlawfully large classes, and the overall average is 26.2 pupils per class. That is a significant improvement as a result of this Government’s investment.

Even given that improvement, it has been reported that more than 10,000 pupils in primary schools are in teaching groups of more than 40. How will that help to raise school standards? Is it not time that the Government considered the Liberal Democrats’ proposal for a pupil premium, which would put extra money into schools with disadvantaged children and enable the head teacher to choose to have smaller classes sizes, if that is the best option?

I suppose at least the Liberal Democrats are saying how they are going to pay for their pupil premium, although we do not agree with cutting tax credits to provide the £2.5 billion to support it. As I have said, we have invested significant sums of money into primary schools. In virtually every primary school across the country, there have been significant reductions in class sizes alongside additional teaching staff. That is one reason why we are seeing a significant increase in results. The Government are committed to ensuring that front-line services are protected, which is why we announced in the pre-Budget report a 0.7 per cent. real-terms increase in school funding, a promise that—

One of the most effective ways of improving attainment in primary schools is to encourage reading at home. The evidence from my constituency appears to be that the good work being undertaken by Sure Start is bringing that about. Will my hon. Friend assure us that that work will continue under the next Labour Government?

My hon. Friend makes a really important point about the importance of Sure Start, in which we will of course continue the investment. He is absolutely right that if we want to tackle the reading and writing problems of some of our poorest pupils, the involvement of parents and reading at home makes a significant difference. That is why many schools that are trying to tackle reading and writing problems invite parents in, work with them and in some cases offer them literacy classes, as those parents themselves often have very poor reading and writing skills. It is not that they do not want to read to their sons or daughters, but sometimes they simply do not have the skills to do so even if they wish to.

A number of recent reports from Cambridge down, including from the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, have expressed great concern about the need for even better-quality teachers in our primary schools, where some teachers have got on to teacher training programmes with no A-levels at all. Does the Minister share those concerns, and does he agree that as well as encouraging more specialists into teaching, we should ensure that primary school teachers have secured at least grade B level GCSEs in English and maths as a basic requirement, to help guarantee quality teaching for all primary school pupils?

What we want in our primary schools is good teachers, and many of them are excellent. We have the most highly qualified and best teaching work force that we have had, according to Ofsted. Rather than lecturing me about standards for teachers, I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider whether Carol Vorderman is the right person to be the adviser to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), under whose proposals, as he will know, she would not be regarded as appropriate because she does not have the right class of degree.

Order. We started making very good progress at Question Time, since which time questions have tended to get longer and so have answers. We need to speed up.

Secondary Schools (Copeland)

Building Schools for the Future is the main programme for the strategic investment of capital funding for secondary schools. The Secretary of State announced today the latest six authorities to be invited to enter the programme, which have been assessed as the most ready to commence their projects. Cumbria is one of three authorities that came close to being selected. With some extra work in certain areas, it is well placed to enter the programme at the next available opportunity. Partnerships for Schools will work with the authority to assist it to prepare for entry.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response. Without question, attainment levels in schools in my county are rising as a result of the investment we have been putting in, but enough is enough with regard to the local education authority. This is the second time that it has missed an open goal for attracting school funding to my part of the world and the Workington constituency. Will he now meet me, the LEA and head teachers, and send in a Government hit squad to sort the LEA out once and for all?

I know the schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency well—as he knows, I visited Cumbria the week before last. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also visited the county to look at the quality of education and particularly at school buildings. I am quite happy to meet not only my hon. Friend to discuss Cumbria’s progress and how we take matters forward, but any other local Member and, indeed, the local authority.

Young People in Care

10. What recent representations he has received from local authorities on the safety and security of young people in care. (320684)

I am puzzled about that, because last week UNICEF produced an excellent report, in which it said that three councils—Kent, Solihull and Harrow—reported losing contact with children in their care and expressed concern that there could be thousands more out there at risk of exploitation, but invisible to the professionals. Will the Minister confirm that she will immediately put an end to trafficked children being accommodated in bedsits and hostels, where they are very much at risk from their traffickers? It really is a bit of a scandal that children are disappearing—

The hon. Gentleman has a fine track record in representing the best interests of young people who are trafficked to this country. He and I had discussions on the matter recently. Clear guidance is in place on the standards that we expect local authorities to achieve in identifying and supporting children who may have been trafficked. If he has specific issues regarding the three local authorities he mentioned, and if he brings them to my attention, I will be happy to pursue them on his behalf.

Following the damning PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ofsted reports into safeguarding and looked-after children in Calderdale, and the litany of failure they highlighted, what importance does my right hon. Friend attach to the role of elected local authority cabinet members, particularly the portfolio holder and the leader of the council, in corporate parental responsibility?

Both elected members and officials in local authorities should be and are undertaking their responsibilities with regard to looked-after children and are caring for them as the corporate parent to the very highest of standards. Where that does not occur, and when interventions are necessary, the Government act swiftly. Later today, I will be meeting representatives from Calderdale local authority to discuss the particular issues following the Ofsted report of 26 February.

The right hon. Lady will be aware that the two children who were responsible for the horrific crimes chronicled in the serious case review into the Edlington case were both in foster care. Does she believe that the executive summary into that case is an adequate document?

I have read both the full report and the executive summary. Ofsted judged the latter to be good. As the Minister responsible for dealing directly with discussions with Doncaster, I am taking forward all the questions of improving that authority’s procedures for safeguarding children.

I am literally amazed that the Minister thinks that that scanty 10-page document is adequate to do justice to the scale and complexity of the case. The British Association of Social Workers—the professional body—has said that full serious case reviews should be published in a suitably anonymised version. Why are the professionals wrong, and why is the Secretary of State correct?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children does not agree with that view. In these circumstances, it is important that all the information is in the full serious case review to ensure that the lessons are learned, and that people are frank and open about what happened. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made the point about ensuring that whenever necessary we protect people’s identity, and the hon. Gentleman knows that all these matters are being considered in the discussions on how we move forward on the guidance for the information that should be made available in the executive summary. Ofsted has judged the executive summary in that case to be good, and we need to ensure that lessons are learned and acted on.

Academic and Vocational Qualifications

11. What his policy is on the balance between the provision of courses leading to academic and vocational qualifications for school children. (320685)

From 2013, most young people will access qualifications through one of four nationally available routes—apprenticeships, the diploma, GCSEs and A levels, or foundation learning. Each of those routes offers a different learning style, ranging from vocational to academic, with the diploma designed by employers and higher education institutions to bridge the divide between academic and vocational qualifications.

We all recognise the enormous contribution that vocational learning has made to upskilling our work force, making our manufacturing more competitive and encouraging innovation and enterprise. What more can my hon. Friend do to ensure that we get rid of the artificial divide between so-called vocational and academic learning, and raise the status of vocational qualifications?

My hon. Friend is right: too often, there is a tendency not to give parity of esteem to vocational routes in our schools and colleges. That is not helped by those who propose leaving out vocational subjects from league tables as if they do not count. That says that we regard academic qualifications as the premiership and vocational qualifications not even as the championship, but as one of the lower leagues. That is not an approach that we should follow, even though the Opposition advocate it.


12. What his latest assessment is of progress on the academies programme; and if he will make a statement. (320687)

There are now 203 academies open in 83 local authorities, with up to a further 100 opening in 2010. Evidence from independent reports by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ofsted and the National Audit Office shows that academies are working. For academies with results in 2008 and 2009, the increase in the proportion of pupils achieving at least five A* GCSEs, including English and maths, is 5 percentage points, an increase on last year’s academy improvement rate of 4.3 percentage points.

What assurances will the Government give to existing academy leaders that the freedoms that their schools initially enjoyed will not be further watered down?

The academies programme is an important part of the school reform programme that this Government have introduced, but academies are not independent schools within the state sector. They have certain freedoms, but they have to collaborate with other schools—and that is one of the changes that we have made. They have academic freedom and curricular freedom, as well as freedom with respect to their staff, but we do not want to see academies totally cast adrift and allowed to do whatever they want within the state system. They are an important part of our school reform programme, and that is how they will stay.

My hon. Friend will be aware that in Stoke-on-Trent the proposals for the 2020 academy have met with great concern from the local communities, who want to see it built on the fields alongside Longton high and for the Mitchell school to be kept open, serving those communities. Will my hon. Friend confirm that if Stoke-on-Trent city council wished to listen to the people of their communities and do that, it could do so—even though it is a Conservative council?

It may be of interest to the House to learn that I have had a meeting with my hon. Friend and local people about this matter in his constituency. The important point is that of course it is a matter for local authorities to determine the best way to organise schools in their area, and they can change, listen and adapt programmes, although they have to take account of other considerations. I know that my hon. Friend will be pleased to join me in welcoming the investment of £250 million into Stoke’s schools that we are making through Building Schools for the Future.

We do not want most schools to become academies, because we believe that local people and local authorities should determine the best mix of secondary school provision in their areas. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that not only will he have to persuade me of his argument, but he will have to persuade a number of Tory local councils, up and down the country, which do not believe that simply saying that academies are the right solution for every secondary school is the right way forward. They agree with us that academies are sometimes the right answer, but that sometimes the answer is maintaining a school as a local authority school, while sometimes the answer is setting up a national challenge trust. Rather than being ideologically dogmatic, let us see what works and introduce it in a local area.

Building Schools for the Future

Birmingham is in waves 2 and 5. Ten schools are being redeveloped, and it is planned to redevelop a further 20. The first phase of projects reached financial close in August 2009. The first schools will open in January 2011. The authority is seeking approval from Partnerships for Schools for the remaining phase 1 schools, and it is preparing the strategy for change and outline business case for phase 2. Partnerships for Schools is assessing the readiness to deliver for phase 3. Today the Secretary of State has announced the next six local authorities, with the next three in line.

Will my hon. Friend clarify Birmingham’s current position? Although I am aware that it has benefited from BSF investment in the earlier waves, I am sure that he will share my disappointment that the majority of Birmingham secondary schools still have no idea when they will be refurbished or rebuilt under the BSF programme. Will he clarify whether today’s announcement shows that capital investment for Birmingham schools is unavailable, or whether it shows that the local authority has not got its act together to submit its case? Either way, will he meet me to discuss the situation?

Before we can agree a programme for a local authority, that authority has to demonstrate its readiness to deliver. There is a proper set of criteria that local authorities have to abide by, as well as a proper assessment process, which is rigorously assessed by Partnerships for Schools, the Government office and our officials, and on the basis of the information provided, so that judgments can be made about which authorities are most ready to deliver. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made a statement today about the six authorities currently most ready to deliver, and indicated which three are, as it were, next on the runway. Birmingham is one of those three, but it is for the local authority to sort out the remaining issues before we can finally get that agreed.

Early Intervention Green Paper

We will shortly publish a document on early intervention to help local authorities and their partners, working in children’s trusts and elsewhere, to improve the quality and consistency of the support that they offer to vulnerable children and families.

In an era when politicians are criticised for not thinking long term, may I congratulate the Government on their far-sightedness in setting up an early intervention unit in the Department and on bringing forward a Green Paper on early intervention? Does my right hon. Friend agree that a social and emotional bedrock is the foundation of all attainment for babies, children and young people, and that we should continue to support it and ensure that it is spread as far as humanly possible, particularly in deprived constituencies such as mine?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Not only do we know that shifting to early intervention can provide value for money, in terms of the costs to the individual, the family and the community at a later stage, but the evidence base clearly shows that intervening early is a particular help to children’s development and their ability to learn. Therefore, it is incumbent on us all to look again at how services are delivered, looking for that innovation and ensuring that we build that early intervention.

All local authorities have considered the position since the recession and the impact on services. If we look in particular at children’s services and the availability of child care facilities, both through childminders and otherwise, we see that, thankfully, excellent children’s services continue to be provided, giving children the very best start in life, thanks to the extra investment that this Government continue to put into those services.

Topical Questions

I would like to update the House on the actions that I propose to take to implement the pre-Budget report. As I said, the Chancellor protected, with real-terms rises, 75 per cent. of my budget, covering Sure Start, schools and 16-to-19 learning. However, he also requested that by 2013 I should find £500 million in savings from non-protected spending, which, excluding teachers’ pensions, covers 10 per cent. of my budget. That will be a 7 per cent. cut in those non-protected budgets.

So far, I have identified savings of over £300 million, which includes £135 million from our non-departmental public bodies, including significant reductions in funding for BECTA—the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency—and the Teacher Development Agency. There will be a cut of £100 million by ending start-up funding for extended services, now that 95 per cent. of schools are offering access to them, and of £50 million by scaling back bursaries for initial teacher training. There will be a further £21 million of savings from communication—

Order. May I just say to the Secretary of State that the answer is too long? A problem has arisen in that those to whom we do not refer in the Chamber, but who have a hand in the preparation of material, are preparing too much material, and it will not do. I want to make progress. I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but we really must have pithy questions and pithy answers—[Interruption.] Order. I do not require help from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove).

Will the Secretary of State undertake urgently to investigate the failure of Building Schools for the Future to fund Havering sixth-form college, because 2,300 pupils were depending on that funding and they are now not getting it? Will he find out why there is a problem and try to sort it out quickly?

First of all, Mr. Speaker, may I apologise? I had understood that the convention at topical questions was that I could make a short statement in reply to the first question, which is what I was attempting to do.

The hon. Gentleman asked a question about Building Schools for the Future, and I am happy to look into the details of the school that he mentioned. As he will know, his borough joined Building Schools for the Future in November 2009, and the schools in his constituency, including the one to which he referred, are therefore exactly the kind of schools that would be put at risk by the Conservatives’ proposals not to give a guarantee to any school that had not yet got to financial closure. I would be happy to talk to him, but I am afraid that I cannot make any guarantees on behalf of those on the Conservative Benches; that is a matter for them.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right in his interpretation of the procedure but, unfortunately, his statement was not as short as I wanted it to be.

T2. My right hon. and hon. Friends might realise that one of the roles that head teachers in my constituency have abandoned is the pre-1997 practice of moving buckets to catch the raindrops coming through the holes in the roof, because their schools have been rebuilt. Nevertheless, there is still a backlog of schools that need upgrading and rebuilding. Will my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench tell me what is the post-election future of Building Schools for the Future? (320701)

I have to say that, although this situation has not arisen in my hon. Friend’s constituency, hon. Members on both sides of the House have come up to me in recent weeks and said, “Please could you get our area through, because if you lose the election, I fear that we won’t get the Building Schools for the Future funding that we want.” That is not a problem in the case of Manchester, however, because its money has already come through in the form of nearly £1 billion of school capital spending. The only thing I can say to those Conservative Members who are worried about cuts if they were to win the election is that they should join Samantha Cameron and vote Labour.

T3. A recent Channel 4 “Dispatches” programme asked 155 primary school teachers to sit a mathematics test for 11-year-olds. I know that the Secretary of State did not want to take that test, but will he tell us why only one of those teachers got all the questions right, and what he is going to do about that? (320702)

I joined the shadow Secretary of Secretary in not taking that test; we both decided that we would not put ourselves through that ordeal. I know, however, that we have had an expert report into primary maths teaching from Professor Williams, who made a series of recommendations. We have also heard that, because the person who speaks about maths on behalf of the Conservative party got a third, she would not even be allowed to teach in schools, let alone give any recommendations about how to improve maths teaching. We are the people with the real ideas and we are implementing them.

T5. A pupil in my constituency was unable to access the local education authority-run educational psychology service because the school had run out of its hours. Last year, those hours were reduced from 42 to 37, meaning that the school got 2.1 minutes of educational psychology per pupil. Will the Minister please tell me whether she thinks that that is adequate, and, if not, whether she will undertake an investigation into Lancashire county council’s psychology service? (320704)

I am very disappointed to hear about the experience of my hon. Friend’s constituent, and I will certainly look into it. We greatly value the work of educational psychologists. In the last six months, I have met the Association of Educational Psychologists twice to discuss its role and how best to support it.

T6. On the subject of the Secretary of State’s maths, will he now apologise for inadvertently misleading the House when he spoke about the numbers of people eligible for free school meals who went to Oxford and Cambridge? He got those figures wrong. (320705)

I may have misheard the shadow Schools Secretary when I heard him—erroneously, once again—quote A-level student numbers that excluded those in sixth-form colleges and maintained schools. The fact is that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has form; in recent months, he has regularly quoted figures that he knows to be untrue. We have tried to correct them time and time again. I have no idea whether he got them right or wrong in this case; what I know is that every time he has used them in the past, he has got them wrong.

T10. As the Minister is aware, Calderdale children’s services have recently been classed as inadequate, and failings have been found in that department. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that children in Calderdale are safeguarded and that there is complete trust in the service provision? (320709)

When the Ofsted report on the inadequacy of the services for safeguarding Calderdale children was published, my Department’s officials were immediately in contact and have been in discussions with Calderdale local authority about the issues, looking into the reasons and the steps it intends to take. I will meet Calderdale local authority this afternoon to hear its proposals before having discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on any further action, including intervention, that needs to be taken in that local authority.

T4. The Minister’s reply to me a few moments ago was quite outrageous. Children are actually going missing in local authority care—the local authorities do not know where they are; the public do not know where they are. UNICEF produced a report last week, which appeared in The Observer on Sunday, specifying three local authorities which said that they were missing and losing children. The Minister cannot just duck out of this, saying that she does not know anything about it. (320703)

With respect, that is not what the hon. Gentleman asked me. He asked whether any local authorities had contacted me, and I said no, as they had not. He then said he was surprised because three had been quoted in a UNICEF report. I then asked him whether, if he had any specific details or concerns, he would let me know of them, and I would pursue them. I was not ducking his question. As he well knows, this Government have taken a number of steps over the last five years to protect and reinforce the rights of all children in care, including those involved in trafficking, by adopting procedures and protocols to ensure that children who go missing are found and returned to safety.

I welcome the recent reduction in the number of young people not in education, employment or training. However, if access to education maintenance allowance were to be restricted, would that help or hinder making further progress in reducing the number of NEETs?

As I mentioned in previous answers, the policy intervention of the education maintenance allowance has had a wonderful effect on improving the educational attainment and participation rates of pupils, particularly of those from lower income backgrounds post-16. We are continuing with that. We have a very clear policy on ensuring that the EMA will continue, but I am afraid that the Conservative party does not.

T7. Following the remarkably frank statement from the Secretary of State about the budget cuts to his Department, will he give the House an assurance that they will not affect rural areas, such as North Yorkshire, disproportionately? How does he respond to criticisms from North Yorkshire schools that the Ofsted inspection does not give even one full day’s notice, even when it is inspecting outstanding and highly achieving schools? (320706)

I am happy to give the hon. Lady a clear assurance that front-line school spending, including Sure Start and 16-to-19 funding, will be protected under the present Government. We have funds for real-terms rises during the next three years. What we will not engage in is a free-market experiment that would lead to cuts for existing schools, as well as falling standards and rising inequality. As I have said before, if the hon. Lady wants to ensure that her school budgets are protected, she had better vote Labour.

May I ask the Secretary of State to take a second look at one aspect of the Building Schools for the Future programme? Schools with listed aspects to their architecture—classrooms built on concrete, for example—are penalised because they cannot rebuild completely. An element of flexibility is needed, but it does not exist at present.

That flexibility should be there. We are talking about brand-new or fully refurbished school buildings. Over the past couple of years, I have visited many schools that have had to work with the issue of listed buildings, but it is possible to do so if the planning is right and the resources are there. I know that Coventry has benefited from those resources. I hope that the new schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency have reached financial closure, but their funds would be cut by the Conservatives were they to win the election.

T8. Following the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), may I offer the Secretary of State a second opportunity to apologise to the House for giving misleading information about children who receive free school meals and the number who go to Oxbridge colleges? (320707)

I want more children from free school meals backgrounds to go to Oxford and Cambridge. The fact is that time and again in recent months, in the House and in speeches elsewhere, the shadow Secretary of State has wrongly quoted figures about free school meals in which he has excluded those who go to sixth-form or further education colleges. That does down their achievements, but I have not received any apology from the hon. Gentleman for his errors at any stage. Once he starts to admit his errors, we can start to have a grown-up conversation.

Order. I am not going to become involved in the issue of apologies, but I am sure the Secretary of State is not suggesting that the shadow Secretary of State was deliberately misleading the House. I am sure he is not saying that.

No, I am not saying that at all. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] It sounds as if a few Conservative Members have had a large lunch. That was a rather large belch from them.

I have written to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) in the past and asked him to correct factual mistakes in his figures. He has refused to do so, even—

Order. We will not become further involved in that debate—although I think that we already have.

Leicestershire county council failed to get its BSF bid beyond the Partnerships for Schools process and on to Ministers’ desks. Will Ministers assure me that they will explain the reasons for that, and will they join me in urging the council to talk to all who oppose the bid, so that we can achieve a genuine consensus and partnership locally and the bid can be submitted again in the near future?

I assure my hon. Friend that we will do all that we can to work with his local authority to enable it to complete the process in due course. The Minister for Schools and Learners will be happy to meet my hon. Friend and local officials. What I cannot do, however, is give an assurance that the money will be there. We are guaranteeing Building Schools for the Future for the future, but the Conservative party is not giving that guarantee. Only the re-election of my hon. Friend can ensure that those schools are built for his constituents.

Why do the Government undermine schools that exclude pupils by sending some of them back to the same schools, thus putting at risk the education of all the children in those schools?

We do not do that at all. In a proper system, schools exclude pupils and pupils have an opportunity to appeal. Sometimes it is right for pupils who are excluded to be returned to their schools. That is a proper system, and when I was a deputy head teacher it operated quite well without undermining school discipline.

Given that today is international women’s day, will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the partners of deployed personnel who keep the home fires burning, and particularly to Friends and Families of Deployed Units, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year? Although the organisation was born in Plymouth, it now operates in a number of service communities throughout the country.

I do pay tribute to the families and especially the fathers and mothers of men and women who are serving abroad. I pay particular tribute to those who have lost sons and daughters in recent months. Their commitment to their children is something of which our country is hugely proud, and on international women’s day it is particularly important for us to recognise the contribution of the mothers of those serving in our armed forces.

I am extremely grateful to you, Mr. Speaker.

The Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust believes a 13-year-old boy in my constituency who attends a secondary school and who has learning difficulties needs additional support at school, but the education authorities are not prepared to grant that support. What advice can the Secretary of State give me on how to put this matter right and give this young man an opportunity to make progress?

Obviously, I do not know the details of this particular case, but what I do know is that the Brian Lamb review was set up to try to make sure that parents get the information, support and voice that they need if they feel their children are not getting the proper support that they require. There are variations around the country in the ways in which local authorities support children with special needs, and particularly their parents, but the important thing to do is to make sure they get the support they need. I am sure that, as the constituency MP for the young man in question, the hon. Gentleman will do his best, and I will be very happy to help in any way I can.