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Topical Questions

Volume 511: debated on Monday 7 June 2010

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I have today placed a letter in the House of Commons Library detailing how the £670 million of spending reductions in my Department will be implemented. There will be reductions of £359 million in a variety of programmes, including the ending of “Who Do We Think We Are?” week, which started under my predecessor. Given his article in The Observer yesterday, in which he sought to win his party’s leadership by outflanking the leader of the Conservative party on both immigration and Euroscepticism—something not done since Enoch Powell was a Member of the House—I hope that those cuts will be of interest to the House.

I am also today lifting restrictions that have stopped state schools offering the international general certificate of secondary education qualification in key subjects. That means that, from September, state-funded schools will be free to teach a wide range of those respected and valued qualifications, putting them, at last, on a level playing field with independent schools.

I am sorry to tell the Secretary of State that his answer was too long, but I know that he will not repeat it at Question Time next month.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on starting his spending cuts with abolishing the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, which I believe is partly responsible for undermining academic standards in science and maths A-levels and GCSEs. What does he plan to put in its place to ensure that pupils are properly prepared for university and for work?

I know how committed my hon. Friend is to raising standards in schools. The right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) will be aware that Ofqual recently pointed out that some of the changes to the science curriculum had downgraded the importance of rigour, and the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend will be aware that the Royal Society of Chemistry said that recent changes to the science curriculum had been a catastrophe. We will make sure that the finest minds in the country of all parties are invited to join us in reshaping the curriculum.

T4. The ContactPoint database that was championed by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Barnardo’s is to be scrapped. What assessment has been made of the impact that the removal will have on safeguarding children? (829)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her election. Very soon she will hear further details of the demise of ContactPoint, which was not championed by a great many professionals at the front end, who knew that the bureaucracy added to safeguarding over recent years has contributed to some of the dangers to our children, so we would like to replace it with a much better system. She will hear more details shortly.

T2. Does the Secretary of State agree that whether or not Building Schools for the Future continues in its present form, schools such as Carshalton Girls, Carshalton Boys and Wandle Valley will still need substantial investment—about £70 million—to help them improve buildings and deal with demographic pressures? (827)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that in parts of south London, including those that he represents, demographic pressures are a real concern. One of the reasons that we are reviewing the allocation of school capital is to ensure that every pupil who needs it gets a school place. That was not true under the previous Government.

T8. I am sure the Secretary of State will know of the considerable success that we have had in my constituency, Wigan, in creating apprenticeships, jobs and university places for young people. Can he tell us what measures he will introduce to help young people who are not in education, employment or training? (833)

We will increase the number of apprenticeships. I am pleased to see that the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who has responsibility for apprenticeships, is in his place. We will increase the number of apprenticeships by reallocating funding that is currently going on the Train to Gain programme, and we are increasing spending for further education colleges, which—given what happened to the Learning and Skills Council under the previous Government, when building projects were cancelled halfway through and young people who deserved to be in education and training were denied training places—will at last ensure that we give young people the chance that they deserve.

T3. I have received a number of inquiries, as I am sure other Members have, from teachers who would like to get involved in starting up free schools but are concerned about confidentiality issues. Can my right hon. Friend advise where they should go to find out more about how to go about setting up free schools without revealing too much about their personal details? (828)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question. She will be aware, as I am sure are Members on the Opposition Benches, that some of the finest schools in the world, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program schools in America, were set up by teachers, and those teachers would not have been able to set up schools anything like as good under the regime that prevailed under the previous Government. I recommend that anyone my hon. Friend knows who wants to get involved in improving state education contact the New Schools Network, a not-for-profit charity organisation dedicated to improving state schools.

T9. What provisions will the Secretary of State make in the Academies Bill to safeguard the interests of parents of children with special educational needs or hard to place and other children with specific and complex needs, such as the children currently supported by EDPIP, the East Durham positive inclusion partnership in Easington in my constituency? (834)

The interests of all children with special educational needs, particularly those who have the most acute disabilities, are at the heart of my thoughts and those of my ministerial colleagues. That is why we are reviewing the whole provision of special needs education, so that we can ensure that whether children are in academies, voluntary aided schools or other local authority schools, they have the highest possible level of support and nurture so that they can achieve everything possible.

T5. The Secretary of State will know that there are some excellent schools in Stroud. He has visited one of them, Amberley school. What provision, guidance or support will there be for schools that want to become academies which are not so good and are struggling, but see a future for themselves as academies? (830)

My hon. Friend has been a fantastic champion of both schools and further education. We will make sure that schools that are in real difficulty are teamed with an education sponsor with a track record of excellence in order to improve circumstances. We will ensure that schools that aspire to become academies but are not yet in a strong enough position are teamed with people who can help them achieve their ambitions for all their children.

T10. The safeguarding of our children and young people, which is of paramount importance, has received an unprecedented profile in recent times—but for the wrong reasons. What are the Secretary of State’s plans for supporting local authorities and social workers in that crucial work, and for ensuring that all our children and young people are protected? (835)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that very important subject, on which in opposition we did a lot of work. Despite all the well-intentioned reforms and the dedication of front-line professionals, the safeguarding of children in this country is still not working properly. That is why I should like to inform the House that, as we first announced in opposition in February, we have decided to commission Professor Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics to carry out an independent review leading to recommendations that support good-quality, child-focused front-line safeguarding practice in children’s social care; and we will strip away the bureaucracy that has grown up too much around safeguarding in recent years.

T6. The Children, Schools and Families Committee report on the national curriculum called for a five-year cycle of review and reform of the curriculum. Will the Secretary of State put in place such a cycle and ensure that the early years foundation stage, the national curriculum and the arrangements for 14 to 19-year-olds are viewed as a continuum? Will he also tell us whether he plans to implement the Rose review in the meantime? (831)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Teachers do not welcome perpetual revolution in the curriculum; schools need some stability, and we will shortly make some announcements about the review of the curriculum. Thereafter, it will not be our intention to have five-yearly-cycle reviews.

Regarding the Rose review and the decision by the previous Government to implement a new primary curriculum from September 2011, as both parties in the coalition made clear in opposition, we do not intend to proceed with the proposed new curriculum. We believe that the Rose review’s proposed approach was too prescriptive in terms of how schools should teach and diluted the focus of what they should teach—

Does the Secretary of State agree that the CPD—continuing professional development—of teachers is absolutely essential, particularly in science and maths? Is he aware that the fine centre at the university of York, where teachers can go for CPD, and the nine other centres are being starved of visiting teachers because of the interpretation of the “Rarely Cover” work force agreement? The unions interpret it so strictly that we will not be able to maintain those centres.

As ever, the former Select Committee Chairman makes a brilliant point. He is quite right: John Holman’s work in York is outstanding and we should do everything that we can to support it. I note the split between the enlightened voice of Opposition Back Benchers, challenging what the unions say, and the position of Opposition Front Benchers, who will do everything possible to ingratiate themselves with organisations such as Unite, including indulging in anti-immigration rhetoric.

T7. Many schools in my constituency find it necessary to implement personal security measures, paid for by parental contributions and budget delegations. How do the coalition Government intend to address the future cost of the capital and revenue for security funding in such schools? (832)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and congratulate him on his election. Both he and his predecessor have been impassioned champions for the interests of the Jewish community and other faith communities in the London borough of Barnet, and I am deeply concerned that parents of Jewish children have to pay out of their own pocket to ensure that their children are safe in school. It seems to me quite wrong that, simply because of the faith or community from which a child comes, their parents should have to pay extra to ensure that they are safe. That is why I have asked for talks with the Community Security Trust and the Board of Deputies of British Jews—to ensure that we can do everything possible to safeguard those children.

I think that I have discovered why the Secretary of State was so disparaging about the recipe book that the previous Government produced, which as you will recall, Mr Speaker, included recipes for proper English food, such as Lancashire hotpot and cottage pie. The right hon. Gentleman might not have heard of those, because I understand from The Times this morning that his favourite meal is something called “scaloppine with parmentier potatoes”. I am afraid that we cannot get that in Dudley, so I asked somebody more familiar than myself with the fancy foreign food available in expensive London restaurants, and apparently it is veal. Is that what the pupils of Britain can look forward to eating now that the Notting Hill elite are running the Government?

I am enormously grateful to the hon. Gentleman for paying such close attention to my wife’s column in The Times. I should point out that the issue is not about fancy London restaurants; I do not have time to eat in them. The dish is cooked by my wife, and, if he and his wife would like to come round for dinner, scaloppine will be on the menu. I shall make sure that I have some Banks’s Mild, as I know that it is his favourite tipple, and we will have an opportunity to discuss together how I can help the black country.

What plans does the Secretary of State have for the process of revising the funding formula for local authorities? I represent two local authorities, both of which are in the lowest 40 authorities for educational revenue funding.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising her concerns on behalf of the F40 local authorities. It is our intention to try to ensure, consistent with making provision for the very poorest children, that all local authorities, including those that have been most disadvantaged, have fairer funding.

Stoke-on-Trent was in phase 1 of the Building Schools for the Future programme, and my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Labour Front Bench will know full well the number of times that I have raised this issue. We were within a hair’s breadth of securing the BSF programme—there was just the issue of the 20:20 academy to be resolved. May I urge the Secretary of State to look carefully at the situation in Stoke-on-Trent and to try to give us some certainty about ensuring that we get the much-needed and much-deserved BSF programme through?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. His colleague, the newly elected hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), recently said on Radio 4 that he wanted money available for school buildings to go to Stoke rather than to vanity projects for yummy mummies in west London. I defer to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central when it comes to knowledge about yummy mummies in west London; however, we have been, and are, looking very sympathetically at the case for specific additional spending in Stoke.

Will any attempt be made to revisit the proposed changes to the nursery grant provision system introduced by the previous Government and due to come in this September, which could have a very bad impact on private nursery provision?

We will be going ahead with extending the free child care entitlement for three and four-year-olds for 15 hours a week. However, I am aware of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman mentions, and I am listening to the views of the private voluntary sector. If he has specific concerns arising from his constituency, I would be grateful if he would write to me with the details, as that will help to inform our thinking.

The Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), has today announced the introduction of no-notice detention. How is that compatible with good child safeguarding procedures, and how will he ensure that children who have caring responsibilities, and who often do not let their schools know that they have them, are not adversely impacted by this retrograde proposal?

This is a deregulation matter. It is not a prescriptive matter requiring schools not to give 24 hours’ notice for detentions: it merely enables them to do that if they wish. Trusting head teachers and teachers means that they will make these arrangements themselves if schools feel that they are necessary. We are trying to take out of the statute book impediments to maintaining good order and good behaviour in our schools.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his post, but may I return to the subject of special educational needs? He will be aware that in a low-spending authority such as Gloucestershire, parents, particularly disadvantaged parents, often struggle to get their children the special educational needs treatment that they need. Can he assure me that there is no place in this country for a postcode lottery for special educational needs and that every child in this country should get equal treatment for their needs?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. This is precisely why we need to consider and carefully review the whole provision of special educational needs to ensure that parents have a real choice about where they send their child—be it to a maintained school, to a specialist unit within a maintained school, or to a special school—and that the support is available to them and to parents.

I am sure that the Secretary of State would like to agree that Sure Start has been a huge success. Can he guarantee not only that the funding will be there for Sure Start but, more importantly, that he will continue to expand the programme on the number of Sure Starts in constituencies?