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Topical Questions

Volume 507: debated on Monday 8 March 2010

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.