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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 513: debated on Monday 12 July 2010


The Secretary of State was asked—

Building Schools for the Future Programme

1. For what reasons he has ended the Building Schools for the Future programme for Ilkley and Bingley grammar schools. (6956)

As I set out in my statement last week, the Building Schools for the Future programme has been over-bureaucratic and inefficient. I therefore decided that where financial close had not been reached, future projects provided under BSF could not go ahead. Ilkley and Bingley grammar school projects have not reached financial close, and BSF plans for those two schools have therefore stopped. However, we will continue to invest in schools capital projects.

In the catchment areas for both Ilkley and Bingley grammar schools, there has been excessive house building, so there is no longer sufficient capacity on their existing sites to meet local demand. Can my right hon. Friend ensure that those schools that need new build to increase capacity to meet local demand will still receive capital expenditure?

I very much take the point made by my hon. Friend. One of the defects of the BSF scheme was that, in many parts of the country where there was real need as a result of a growing population, the money was not there to provide new school places. As a result of our capital review, we will ensure that where there is additional population pressure and additional basic need, particularly in primary schools, which BSF did not cover, we will provide the support that is necessary. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend to help the parents and teachers in those two great schools.

For parents, children and teachers in Ilkley and Bingley, the initial shock of learning that their new school building has been cancelled will have turned to outrage at the seemingly arbitrary and chaotic way in which the Secretary of State has made and announced his decisions. The right hon. Gentleman must now know that there is widespread anger in all parts of the House. Following weekend reports that he was advised by his officials not to publish a list of schools at all, I wrote to him yesterday to request answers in advance of today’s oral questions. I have received a reply that does not answer any of my questions: it merely attaches a new list—list No. 5—containing 20 additional cancelled schools compared with a week ago.

I shall ask the right hon. Gentleman for a straight answer to a specific question. Did he at any point receive written or oral advice from departmental officials or Partnerships for Schools urging him not to publish a list of schools until after he had consulted local authorities, to make sure that his criteria were sound and his facts were right?

The right hon. Gentleman says that there was anger across the House. There was—at the way in which the BSF project had been run by the right hon. Gentleman. There was justifiable anger at the way in which a project that was originally supposed to cost £45 billion ended up costing £55 billion, and it was shared by those who were shocked that under the previous Government, one individual received £1.35 million in consultancy fees—money that should have gone to the front line. From the moment that I took office, everyone involved in this process said to me, “Make sure that you ensure that this faltering and failing project ends.” That is what I have done. I inherited a mess from the right hon. Gentleman, and we are clearing it up.

Order. Both the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State have had their say, and I know that we will now want to return to Ilkley and Bingley.

The right hon. Gentleman cannot give a straight answer to a straight question. The people of Bingley and Ilkley will not be satisfied by that answer, and nor are we. Interestingly, his letter today says very clearly that his fifth list has been validated by local authorities—presumably a clear admission that the information should have been validated before the list was published in the first place, including by Bradford authority, in which the schools of Bingley and Ilkley are situated.

Let me ask the right hon. Gentleman another straight question. Is it not the case that he was advised of the risk of legal challenge from private contractors, but that he personally decided to ignore that advice and take that risk with taxpayers’ money? That is a very simple question. We all know that he is on shaky ground, and that he is fast losing the confidence of pupils, parents and teachers. If he had any sense, he would end this shambles, withdraw these error-strewn lists, and let our communities have new schools.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for once again stretching so far the geographical definition of Bingley and Ilkley. Let me point out that under him the cost of setting up the procurement vehicle for Building Schools for the Future was £10 million, before a single brick was laid. The taxpayers of Bingley and Ilkley have re-elected a Conservative MP because they are disgusted with the waste and squander of the right hon. Gentleman. There is a dividing line between this side of the House and that side of the House: when mistakes are made, we apologise and we take responsibility. The right hon. Gentleman has never apologised for a single mistake in his life; that is why he is on that side of the House and we are on this side of the House clearing up his mess.

Order. I want to help the House. I appreciate the enormous interest in the subject of BSF in Ilkley and Bingley—conceivably also elsewhere—and there will be opportunities, if Members look, to raise these matters later.

Academy Status

3. How many expressions of interest in academy status have been received from schools in (a) Skipton and Ripon constituency and (b) North Yorkshire. (6958)

So far five expressions of interest in academy status have been received from schools in Skipton and Ripon. Fifteen expressions of interest have been received from schools in North Yorkshire.

Does the Minister agree that schools with foundation trust status should be given credit for the work they have already done in moving along the path to independence, and can their path to academy status therefore be made slightly easier?

May I welcome my hon. Friend to the House and congratulate him on his election? I understand his point. Trust status was a useful form of independence, which is why it surprises me that Labour Members are so critical of our moves to boost the academies programme and to give more schools the independence and the trust in professionals that is inherent in the trust school system. Our concern about the trust school basis is that it did not give sufficient freedoms to schools; we want to ensure that schools have those extra freedoms.

Order. May I gently say to Members that Stoke-on-Trent and Chesterfield are a considerable distance from Skipton and Ripon and, more widely, North Yorkshire? This is what we call a closed question, I am afraid.

Poor Families (Assistance)

4. What steps his Department is taking through the education system to assist children from poor families. (6959)

We have made a clear commitment to narrowing attainment gaps between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers through our recently announced pupil premium. This will help us to give more support to the children who are most disadvantaged and who need it most, and to their schools. We will announce more details of our proposals in due course.

I would like to push the Secretary of State for greater details on the pupil premium and on where the extra funds will be allocated.

I thank my hon. Friend for promoting me, but it is a little premature.

We will be announcing more information about the pupil premium in due course. However, to quote the Prime Minister, it will involve a “substantial” extra sum from outside the education budget. We are determined, in particular, to tackle the pockets of deprivation that have not been dealt with by other forms of deprivation funding, ensuring that the funding follows the students and that schools then have the freedom to decide how best to spend the money.

Sandwell is home to some of the poorest families in the country. Last week, officials confirmed that school cuts in the borough were made because the outline business case for their wave 5 bid was not signed off until after 1 January. Can the Minister confirm that no school that retained funding missed that deadline? Does she think that the criteria used for the funding is fair given that children in Labour-controlled Sandwell lose £140 million of support while those in the neighbouring borough, Conservative Wolverhampton, gain £360 million?

I appreciate the particular difficulties with Sandwell. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that BSF was set up by his Government, and it is because of the slowness and inefficiency of BSF that schools in Sandwell were so late in getting anything from the bid at all.

Children from poorer areas of Hull have rightly had additional funds come to their local authority to help with their education. However, when those children travelled across the border to be educated in East Riding, the money that was given to support their education in Hull did not follow them. Ministers in the previous Administration, despite repeated representations, refused to make that change. Will the pupil premium follow the child wherever they go to school?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is precisely for that reason that we need a funding system that follows the student and reflects their individual needs. We see widely varying levels of deprivation funding from one area to another.

Does the hon. Lady believe that cancelling new schools in the most deprived areas of my constituency will assist poor children with their education? Did she have any discussions with Warrington borough council about deprivation in the borough before cancelling those building projects?

Simply because some projects under BSF have been cancelled does not mean that schools will not be rebuilt or renovated in the future. That is precisely the reason why the capital review is happening—to ensure that we have enough money to rebuild and renovate schools in the future. Unfortunately, BSF is such an inefficient way of doing that that there would not have been any money left.

Child Protection

5. What progress has been made on the Munro review of child protection; and if he will make a statement. (6960)

Professor Munro’s review, which was launched on 10 June, appointed a top-level reference group to advise her. It met for the first time on 6 July. Professor Munro has issued a call for evidence with a 30 July deadline. We have asked her to report in three stages, the final report being in April 2011. The review has come about because the system of child protection in our country is still not working as it should be, despite the immense dedication and hard work of front-line professionals.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me and many children’s charities that out-of-area placements for children taken into care should be considered only in extreme circumstances?

I, too, am grateful for the promotion.

I know that my hon. Friend has already established her credentials in this matter. She will be pleased to know that as part of the care planning guidance that came out of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, which we supported, a new sufficiency duty will come into effect from next April, which should lead to a significant drop in the number of children placed far away from their original homes. I know that that is a particular problem in her constituency, as it is in mine and those of other hon. Members with seaside constituencies in particular.

Would the Minister be concerned if, as a result of the review of the role of the Children’s Commissioner that I understand has been announced, more children who are in care because of abuse were put at risk because no one was there to stand up for their interests? Will he confirm that there will be no dismantling of the office of the Children’s Commissioner prior to the completion of the review that he has referred to and the implementation of its recommendations?

The hon. Lady makes a point about the review of the role of the Children’s Commissioner and her office, which is quite separate from the Eileen Munro review. I share her concerns about the rights of children in care, and she will be aware that the children’s rights director has a direct role in that matter, which he has carried out with enormous respect over recent years, ensuring that the concerns and voices of children in care are heard loud and clear.

Public Spending

6. Pursuant to the written ministerial statement of 5 July 2010, Official Report, columns 1-2WS, on public spending control, how much of the £1 billion of reductions in his Department’s expenditure in 2010-11 will take effect in (a) Wakefield constituency and (b) West Yorkshire. (6961)

The budgets that will be affected were published on the Department’s website on Monday 5 July. We will shortly write to all local authorities setting out the impact on their allocations.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply, but the promises of rebuilding and repairing schools ring a little hollow in the light of the £1 billion cut to the schools capital programme that he is making in-year. Given that almost a third of the financial year has passed and he has not yet written to Wakefield or any other West Yorkshire authority with the details of how much will be cut from their reparation programmes, is his cut not in effect more like £1.3 billion or £1.5 billion, as the cuts will have to be made in-year?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, but I refer her to a letter from the permanent secretary of my Department to the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls). He pointed out last week that, last year, the Treasury wrote to clarify its expectations of the use of end-year flexibility capital. The Treasury wanted to limit its use, but the Department refused to acknowledge it. The Treasury said clearly to the right hon. Gentleman that he was playing fast and loose with that capital stream. The issue had not been resolved by the time of the election, and instead of the dysfunctional relationship between the right hon. Gentleman and the Treasury, we now have a proper relationship involving a coalition Government who are clearing up the mess that we inherited from the hon. Lady’s Government.

Why was not a single word about that further £1 billion cut in education mentioned in the Secretary of State’s oral statement to the House last week? Will he confirm that the additional cuts in education, at the expense of hundreds of thousands of pupils in Wakefield, West Yorkshire and elsewhere, are being made so that he can open free market schools for the benefit of mere hundreds of pupils?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but he made two mistakes in his question. First, in my statement to the House last week, I explicitly mentioned that the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood had abused end-year flexibility. That is why he was kind enough to write to me, and why the permanent secretary was kind enough to write to put the record straight and to explain that the Treasury was in dispute with the right hon. Gentleman—not for the first, nor, I suspect, the last time. The hon. Gentleman’s other mistake is over the fact that the reduction in the—to my mind—unwarranted exploitation of end-year flexibility has been to restore sanity to the public finances after the mess that the right hon. Gentleman created. The capital allocation for our free schools is just £50 million, and it comes from a lower priority set of IT programmes. The permanent secretary makes it clear in his letter that the previous Government left us in a mess, which we are trying to resolve.

Free School Meals

7. What assessment he has made of the educational achievement of pupils in receipt of free school meals in (a) Hastings and (b) England. (6962)

Information is published on an annual basis on the performance of all pupils, including those eligible for free school meals, and it can be accessed on the Department’s website. We have made a clear commitment to narrowing attainment gaps between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers through the pupil premium. We will announce more details of our proposals in due course.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will she confirm that the children who are eligible for free school meals will qualify for the pupil premium? Those who have high numbers of children on free school meals in our constituencies, as I do in Hastings, are looking forward to having that advantage to help our children do well.

We are looking at the best measure to ensure that we can target extra money at students. It is a question of ensuring that we have a system that is attached to the child, the child’s background and the particular school. We will be able to say more about that shortly. However, we are clear that extra money will follow the student.

Thanks to the previous Labour Government, a further 8,000 pupils in Wolverhampton now benefit from free school meals. As somebody who benefited from free school meals, I know that there is a link between nutrition and the ability of pupils from lower income families to do better at school. Does the Minister acknowledge that link, and will she extend the pilot scheme in Wolverhampton and roll it out throughout the country?

I recognise the link, and I agree with the hon. Lady. However, we are in difficult financial circumstances and unfortunately we were unable to extend free school meals simply because it was an unfunded pledge. However, I recognise the hon. Lady’s point, which was well made.

After 13 years of the previous Government, only 75 free school meals pupils gained three As at A-level. That is a disgrace. What do the Government propose to do about it?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a scandal that, after 13 years of a Labour Government, the greatest predictor of achievement at school is still parents’ income. That is precisely why the coalition is so committed to introducing a pupil premium and investing in early years. It is also why the Prime Minister appointed the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) to conduct a review of life chances.

The publication last week of figures showing, contrary to claims by the Health Secretary, the biggest increase in the take-up of school meals, proves that Labour’s policy on school food worked. The work of people such as Jamie Oliver was also successful. Does the Minister wish to reconsider the coalition’s reversal of those successful policies, as the Government let the junk food industry call the tune and snatch free healthy school meals from the poorest half million children in England?

I think that Jamie Oliver did the nation a great service in raising the issue of standards in school food, but the next stage is for the Government to take forward, particularly on take-up. I was pleased that take-up of school meals has increased, but there is a lot more work to do.

School Discipline

The latest Ofsted reports tell us that in 95% of primary schools and 80% of secondary schools inspected in 2008-09 pupils’ behaviour was good or outstanding, but that means that behaviour in one out of five secondary schools is still no better than satisfactory. To address this, I announced to the House on 7 July a series of measures that will give head teachers and teachers the powers they need to ensure discipline in the classroom and to promote good behaviour.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Two teachers from a primary school came to my surgery in despair over school discipline. They and others have advised me that schools are deterred from excluding pupils because they believe that doing so would have a negative impact on their Ofsted score and budgets. Does he agree that discipline and a head teacher’s ability to exclude pupils is being undermined by that and other aspects of schools policy that prevailed under the previous Government?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I welcome her to the House and congratulate her on her election. She is right: head teacher authority must be absolute in the classroom and we will remove deterrents that may prevent schools from properly exercising their powers to exclude pupils. The vast majority of head teachers intervene early to prevent exclusions becoming necessary, but when they are necessary we need to be sure that any deterrent is removed.

Academy Status

9. How many expressions of interest in academy status his Department has received from schools in (a) Nuneaton constituency, (b) Warwickshire and (c) England. (6964)

So far, 15 expressions of interest have been received from schools in Warwickshire, including one from an outstanding school in Nuneaton. A total of 1,836 expressions of interest have been received from schools in England.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Several schools in my constituency may wish to become academies. However, after 13 years of the previous Government, they are carrying a tremendous amount of debt, which seems to prevent them from doing so. Will he consider what he can do to make it easier for such schools to become academies?

I sympathise with my hon. Friend, who was so handsomely elected at the last general election—a fact that reflects how angry people in Nuneaton and across Warwickshire were at the scandalous way in which education was underfunded and managed by the previous Government. Let me assure him that I look forward to working with him and the local authority to ensure that the many outstanding schools and teachers in Warwickshire have the chance to enjoy the benefits of academies.

We know that the Secretary of State has had one or two problems with lists of schools in recent days. Is he aware that he has listed a number of schools almost as if they have applied to become academies, when all they have done is request information from his Department? Is he also aware of the comments of people such as Mark Lacey, head teacher of Parson Street primary in Bedminster, who said:

“We responded out of a desire to receive the information in order to keep up with what is happening—not because we want to become an Academy”?

Is that not another inaccurate list that the Secretary of State should now withdraw, just like the inaccurate remark he made earlier? As he will know, the letter from the permanent secretary actually corrected his mistakes, not the mistakes of my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls).

I am grateful for that “two for the price of one” question from the shadow Minister. The letter from the permanent secretary actually did correct the errors of the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood. On the question of lists, as I said in my earlier answer, there were 1,836 expressions of interest. As the hon. Gentleman should know, being a former teacher, it is vitally important for people to listen in class before they put their hands up.

Local Education Partnerships

10. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of local education partnerships; and if he will make a statement. (6965)

As I set out in my statement to the House last week, local education partnerships are part of an over-bureaucratic and inefficient procurement model. The capital review that I announced last week will consider alternatives to ensure that, at last, capital spending achieves value for money, raises standards, and actually helps the most disadvantaged.

I have raised concerns about the local education partnership in my constituency in relation to the project with Elmlea school. Essentially, money has been snatched from children and schools to line the pockets of contractors and consultants. I am sure that Opposition Members will share my concern about that. Will my right hon. Friend promise to stop this terrible reverse Robin Hood approach to public spending?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. There is a dividing line between this side of the House and that one. As far as the Opposition are concerned, a Building Schools for the Future programme that enriches consultants and ensures that one man can earn £1.35 million is defensible, whereas we believe that that money should be going to the front line to ensure that the most dilapidated schools are repaired as quickly as possible. It is the contrast between a Government who wasted money like there was no tomorrow and a Government here at last who are building a better tomorrow for all our children.

In that capital spending programme, will money be reserved for areas such as Slough, which has a rapidly growing school population and insufficient secondary school places to educate the children?

I sympathise with the hon. Lady and she is right. One of the reasons why we had to halt the Building Schools for the Future programme was that far too much money was being wasted inefficiently on secondary schools when that money is needed to ensure that children who arrive at primary school in Slough, the south-east and across the country receive the classrooms that they need. Our first priority is ensuring that every child who needs it has a good school place, instead of ensuring that money goes to consultants, architects and the others in receipt of the cash that was being funnelled to them by the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls).

Does the Secretary of State accept that many of us, and many people outside, would love these quangos that cannot count and cannot provide accurate lists to be abolished, saving the money on salaries to spend on bricks and mortar?

My right hon. Friend, as ever, is a redoubtable scourge of waste, and it is always a pleasure to hear him as he turns his eye to yet another non-departmental public body.

The letter from the Secretary of State, which was published at 2.35—the fifth list—refers to local education partnerships. It will be no surprise to the House to learn that already, within 25 minutes, the first mistake in this list has been found. The right hon. Gentleman referred earlier to past mistakes and the SATS fiasco. In that case, there was an independent inquiry. If he would like to establish an independent inquiry now into the BSF shambles, he would not find it easy to repeat his failure to answer questions in this House. Is not the truth that he should withdraw this list, apologise to local education partnerships and stop treating children and this House with such total contempt?

I am grateful once more to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I would welcome an inquiry into just what went wrong with Building Schools for the Future and Partnerships for Schools under the previous Government. The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee pointed out in February 2009 that the estimates of progress for which the right hon. Gentleman’s Government were responsible were fanciful, but steps were not taken to ensure that we were moving in the right direction. The list that we have issued today is one that has been verified by Partnerships for Schools and by the Department for Education. The most important thing that we need to ensure is that the waste that characterised the previous Government does not characterise this one. That is why we have taken steps to ensure that in future the public money that should be going to the front line is protected. The mess that the right hon. Gentleman and his team created is being cleared up by this Government—these two parties—who are at last acting in the public interest.

Academy Status

11. How many expressions of interest in academy status his Department has received from schools in the Kent and Medway local authority area. (6966)

Ninety-five expressions of interest in academy status have been received from schools in Kent, and nine expressions of interest have been received from schools in Medway.

I thank the Minister for his reply, and I am sure that he will be reassured to hear that many of the head teachers I have spoken to are genuinely very enthusiastic about the programme. The Minister will be aware that many of the schools in Kent and Medway that have expressed an interest are grammar schools. Can he assure the House that if they were to become academies they would retain their selective status?

Early-years Provision

Last week, the Government asked Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, to carry out an independent review of the early years foundation stage to consider how the framework could be less bureaucratic and more focused on young children’s learning and development. The review will formally start in September this year, and will report in spring 2011. It is our intention to undertake a full consultation before any changes are implemented. A statement has been placed in the House outlining further details of the scope of the review.

We all want to see the very highest standards promoted in pre-schooling, but does the Minister agree that the over-prescriptive, box-ticking approach favoured by the previous Government is likely only to stifle the sector and reduce parental choice?

Indeed. This is a question of building on some of the good things about the foundation stage, but ensuring that we can reduce the burden on the sector, and particularly on the smaller providers. In fact, I was in a nursery school in Brent on Friday, and the head teacher said to me that she was grateful that we had begun a review of the foundation stage, because although there were many good things about it, the assessment is bureaucratic and she was hoping for something rather better.

Can the Minister explain why my constituents in Bradford should trust what this coalition Government say on education? We have lost Building Schools for the Future and the free school meals pilot, and we have an education authority that needs to be developed because of the failure of the private sector. Can the Minister tell us that Sure Start in particular will remain a key part of early years provision?

The current review of the foundation stage is independent, and we have asked Dame Clare Tickell—who I am sure would command respect right across the House—to conduct it.

Funding (Hexham)

13. What recent representations he has received on funding for schools in Hexham constituency; and if he will make a statement. (6968)

We have received just one representation on the subject of school funding from a school in Hexham. We will bring forward our proposals for school funding in due course.

Schools in the Hexham constituency in rural Northumberland all complain of a funding shortfall that was dramatic under the previous Government. What assurances will the Minister give me and the teachers in that particular school that this imbalance will be changed?

I am only too well aware of many of the discrepancies in the system that prevailed for far too many years under the previous Government. I am aware that Hexham middle school in my hon. Friend’s constituency has raised concerns about problems in tackling rural deprivation and sparsity of population that have not been dealt with in the past. That is one area that we will be looking at, and the pupil premium will be a priority in ensuring that we recognise deprivation and have effective measures to deal with it.

Professional Development (Teachers)

Order. I do not need to be advised by the Government Whip on the Front Bench. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) should remain quiet. We are on Question 14 and we have a Minister at the Box; I require no advice from the hon. Gentleman whatever.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was expecting some interest in Hexham from the Opposition, but clearly there is none.

I agree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) that the quality of teachers and professional development is important. International evidence shows that teachers learn from observing good teachers, and this happens best in schools. That is why the Government are committed to encouraging schools to demonstrate a strong culture of continuing professional development, with teachers leading their own development and that of others, and sharing effective practice within and between schools. That is why we are currently reviewing our policies and existing activities to ensure that they focus on that vision.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that teachers are finding it much more difficult to get out of the classroom to go to good CPD sessions, particularly in places such as the science learning centres in York and elsewhere, because of the way in which the “rarely cover” provision is being interpreted as part of the work force agreement? Not only is CPD suffering; so are kids’ visits to out-of-school facilities.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I am aware of the limiting factors of “rarely cover”, which is an area that we will look at in our assessment of the problems facing teachers in getting continuing professional development. Having to pay supply teachers can be an obstacle to getting CPD, which is why this Government want to free up school pay and conditions and give greater powers back to heads to ensure that they can devise the best methods for ensuring that their teachers get the best continuous professional development and training.

Free School Meals

15. What assessment he has made of the educational achievement of pupils in receipt of free school meals in St Austell and Newquay constituency. (6970)

Information is published on an annual basis on the performance of all pupils, including those eligible for free school meals, and these can be accessed on the Department’s website. We have made a clear commitment to narrowing attainment gaps between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers through the pupil premium, and we will announce more details on these proposals in due course.

Children across the country who are in receipt of free school meals are only half as likely as their peers to get good GCSE results. Does the Minister agree with me that only the pupil premium proposed by this Government will address the educational inequality left by the previous Government?

I absolutely agree. The scandal of educational inequality left by the previous Government is testament to their legacy, and I am very sad that they have not been willing to support the pupil premium. I hope that, with their change of leader, they will consider a U-turn on this policy.

Order. It is always a pleasure to hear the hon. Lady, but I must observe in passing that Hampstead and Kilburn are some considerable distance from St Austell and Newquay.

Teachers Pay (Wales)

16. What recent discussions he has had with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on teachers’ pay in Wales. (6971)

I met the Minister for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning in the Welsh Executive, Mr Leighton Andrews, on 28 June, as part of a schedule of meetings since taking up my post. I look forward to having an ongoing discussion with him and his colleagues on this and other important issues.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. What consideration is he giving to introducing regional variation in teachers’ pay outside London?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, teachers’ pay and conditions are set by the School Teachers Review Body, which governs England and Wales. I will have ongoing discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government, and it is important that we ensure that teachers have certainty in the future. It is my understanding that the current arrangements are working in the interests of teaching unions and teachers across England and Wales, but I would be very happy to receive any representations from the hon. Gentleman to ensure that the recruitment and retention of teachers in his constituency—in a very beautiful part of north-west Wales—are made as easy as possible.

Academies Bill

17. What recent representations he has received on the provisions of the Academies Bill; and if he will make a statement. (6972)

Many schools have told us that they welcome the opportunity to acquire academy freedoms through our Bill. Officials and Ministers have had positive meetings so far with teaching unions, the Special Education Consortium, the Church of England and the Catholic Education Service. Alongside these representations, we have also had approaches from individual peers and MPs, which have been dealt with through correspondence and meetings with Ministers.

Why does the Secretary of State continue to call these schools academies? Under the old system, academies were a means of getting extra money from outside the system to children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds who were not doing well. Under the new system, academies are taking money from within the system away from poor and disadvantaged children and giving it to schools that are already doing very well. Why does he continue to call them academies?

I know that the hon. Gentleman served with distinction as a Minister in Tony Blair’s Government, and was then defenestrated when the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) took over. He should be aware that Tony Blair made it clear, when he was Prime Minister, that academy freedoms should be extended to all schools. In that respect, we are simply carrying on the good work that was begun under the Prime Minister who was wise enough to have the hon. Gentleman on his Front Bench, rather than following the disastrous course that was taken by Gordon Brown and the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls).

I have here a press cutting in which a local head teacher in my constituency complains about his school appearing on the Department’s database as “interested in academy status”, when all that he had actually done was to ask for details of a sketchy scheme. He now says that the chances of his school wanting academy status are minimal and that people are “playing politics” with this. How could such things happen? Could it be that the demand for academy status is being overstated? Also, will the Secretary of State correct the database?

I have consistently made it clear that all those who have expressed interest have only ever expressed interest. I am delighted that so many have done so, but as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, our legislation is permissive, and it will be for schools to decide, rather than Ministers or bureaucrats. That will be a welcome change from the dirigiste methods that so scarred education under the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood.

Special Educational Needs

I will launch a Green Paper in the autumn to look at a wide range of issues for children with special educational needs and disabilities. Before then I will be looking at the results of the Ofsted review of special educational needs expected later this summer, along with the many other reviews of policy in recent years. I will also be listening to the views of parents, teachers and organisations with an interest in this area.

Does the Minister agree that children in Nottinghamshire with the most profound special needs deserve to be taught in first-class facilities? Is it not therefore fortunate that the previous Government were committed to investing in their education and that they built the wonderful new Oak Field school under Building Schools for the Future?

As I said in an earlier answer, simply because some projects have been stopped under Building Schools for the Future does not mean that schools will not be rebuilt or renovated in the future. This Government are absolutely committed to renovating school buildings, which is why we have had to have a review of capital—to ensure that there is still money for children to be able to learn in decent facilities.

This morning, I met all the head teachers in my constituency, the most vocal of whom was the head teacher of the Orchard special educational needs school. When it rains heavily, the children in this school have to stop being taught in order to hold buckets under the leaking roof. I ask the Secretary of State, or one of his Ministers, to visit the Orchard school and others in my constituency to find out exactly what the situation is.

Topical Questions

As I pointed out earlier, because of the dysfunctional system we inherited, it has been difficult to establish the absolute truth about the number of schools affected by the rules-based announcement I made last week. Today, an hour and a half before the House met for questions, I distributed to the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) and others the latest updated list of the schools affected. This list has been verified by Building Schools for the Future and by my Department, which has contacted every local authority affected. I am looking forward to hearing from the individual local authorities in due course.

May I also take the opportunity to correct the record on one further matter? In last week’s statement, I referred to six schools built under BSF that had suffered from design or construction flaws. On Thursday evening, I was told that three of the schools I mentioned—Carr Manor, Lawnswood and Primrose high—were, in fact, built under a predecessor private finance initiative scheme that sought to renovate the school estate in Leeds. Some of the renovation was financed through BSF; the schools themselves were not procured through BSF, but instead through that predecessor programme. The other schools I referred to in last week’s statement were procured through BSF.

We have also issued a written ministerial statement today, pointing out that we are going to review the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. As I am sure the whole House will appreciate, this is very much a season for ensuring that we get value for money from our quangos.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that fewer than 100 schools have been rebuilt under Building Schools for the Future, none of which, incidentally, are in Tamworth, where we have been waiting more than three years for this labyrinthine process to happen, but not a brick has been laid? Will he confirm that this is yet another example of the former Government failing to keep their promises?

I sympathise hugely with my hon. Friend. Only 97 schools were built under Building Schools for the Future during the period when the previous Government were in charge. Now we know that under this coalition Government, 706 schools will benefit from BSF and more than half of those will be new builds. Where the previous Government failed, this Government are succeeding.

T5. On Friday, I visited Holly Lodge school—one of six in my constituency affected by last week’s announcement. For Liverpool, investment in our schools is crucial to our economic future. Will the Secretary of State undertake to visit Liverpool between now and the end of September to meet schools, the business community, my colleagues and the local council to discuss this crucial issue for the future of our city? (6985)

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who was a distinguished schools Minister, for that question. I know how hard he works for his constituents and, indeed, for every parent, child and teacher in Liverpool. I am aware that the consequences of the regrettable decision we had to take last week will be felt particularly hard in Liverpool, so either I or a member of my ministerial team will commit to come to Liverpool to talk to him and those affected—by the end of the year, I hope, but certainly as soon as possible.

T2. Under the previous Government, 186 special schools closed. On Thursday, I will attend the annual prize-giving at Highview special school in my constituency—one that you, Mr Speaker, have visited. May I take the Secretary of State’s message of support for special education under the new Government as meaning that the school will have a sustainable future and the support it needs? (6982)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. It is a tragedy that the ideologically driven closure of special schools under the last Government meant that so many children with special educational needs did not receive the education they deserved. That ideologically driven closure will end under this Government, and under the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) we will review support for children with special educational needs. Their care should always be our first concern.

T9. The Secretary of State will know that one problem in many of the poorest constituencies in the land is the high level of teenage pregnancy in this country—five times higher than in the Netherlands. Before Government Members start blaming Labour—or, for that matter, me personally—let me tell them that the figures rose dramatically under the Conservative Government and then did not fall sufficiently under a Labour Government. The Secretary of State fought hard in the previous Parliament to ensure that we did not have good compulsory sex and relationship education, for every child, in all schools in the land. Will he reverse the argument that he advanced then, because in countries with low levels of teenage pregnancy, the existence of such education is the big difference? (6989)

The hon. Gentleman is a former vicar of the Church of England; he has been accused of many sins, but contributing to teenage pregnancy has never been one of them, to my knowledge. May I say that I entirely appreciate the importance of proper sex and relationships education? My dispute with the previous Government was simply over a question of individual liberty. I felt it important that parents had the right to withdraw their children from sex and relationships education if they thought it inappropriate. I agree, however, that it is vital that all children have high-quality sex and relationships education, in order to ensure that they make the right decisions later in life.

T3. Further to my right hon. Friend’s answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), is he aware of the situation in Enfield, where increasing housing, migration and birth rates are putting acute pressure on primary and secondary school places? Will he ensure that future capital funding focuses more on increasing capacity and less on increasing bureaucracy, as happened under the previous Government? (6983)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the demographic changes to which the previous Government did not pay sufficient heed was the increase in the number of pupils arriving at primary schools, particularly in London and the south-east. That growth in basic need is our first priority.

T10. The Secretary of State has already spoken of his great concern about special schools. Has he done any cumulative assessment of the impact on special schools of his BSF cuts last week? The programme for all three such schools in Blackpool—Woodlands, Park and Highfurlong—will be affected and stopped, because they were co-operating with other secondary schools. What assurance will he give the House that he will consider the cumulative impact on special schools, and what assurance will he give me that he will look at the problems in Blackpool in particular? (6990)

I am very sensitive to the problems in Blackpool. I had the opportunity to visit one of the schools that the hon. Gentleman mentions—Highfurlong—with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I appreciate the problems on that site and want to do everything possible to ensure that our capital review guarantees that children attending special schools get the money that they need for the facilities that are crucial to their education, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

T4. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, under the overly cumbersome Building Schools for the Future, it took on average 13 months from first meeting to first construction of a site? What can be done under this Government to ensure that that does not happen again? (6984)

My hon. Friend makes a critically accurate point. As a result of the massive bureaucracy that used to exist under the Building Schools for the Future scheme, people in dilapidated classrooms were denied the resource that they needed, as it was going into the pockets of bureaucrats rather than into bricks and mortar for those most in need.

The Secretary of State will be aware that in his announcement to Parliament last week, a special needs school in my constituency of Birmingham, Erdington was listed under two separate titles, “Stopped” and “Unaffected”. Hopes were raised, confusion was then caused, and hopes have been shattered. Will the Secretary of State come to my constituency to meet the head of Queensbury school, which, along with its sister school Kingsbury, has a remarkable vision for a world-class centre of excellence catering for the children of Birmingham with special needs?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and for showing me the great courtesy of calling me before the weekend to explain precisely the question that he would ask. We will have the opportunity to meet one on one later this week to discuss the precise circumstances of the school that he mentions. I or one of my ministerial team will certainly join him in a visit to that school, to provide the head, teachers and parents with all the information that they need to ensure that in future we do everything possible to help to support them and the great work that they do.

T6. I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting St Michael’s primary school in Bournemouth with me last week. If the head teacher of St Michael’s, Mr Bob Kennedy—or, indeed, any other head teacher—were to ask him what excuse could be given for spending £60 million of local authority Building Schools for the Future money on consultants rather than the front line, what on earth would he say in reply? (6986)

It was a pleasure to meet my hon. Friend and the teachers who were doing such outstanding work at St Michael’s. It was a fantastic school, and a pleasure to visit.

If a head teacher were to ask me why the last Government spent so much money on consultants rather than on teachers, for once I would be dumbstruck.

I recognise that there are many pressing issues in Ministers’ diaries, but may I beg the Secretary of State to take seriously the request by Willowfield school in Walthamstow to host a meeting for him, for parents from the Walthamstow area, and for parents affected by the decision to stop all the wave 1 school projects in Walthamstow, including those involving William Morris school and Holy Family college? There could then be a discussion about how we can meet our urgent need for school places in the locality, given that all those buildings have been condemned as not fit for purpose—a bit like the present Government.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for asking a very good question with a nice scorpion sting in the tail. I appreciate that in some parts of the country, because of the way in which Building Schools for the Future was run, the decision that we had to make bites more sharply. Waltham Forest is one of them, Somerset another, and Liverpool a third. For that reason, I will ensure that one of my Ministers or officials contacts the hon. Lady very quickly to see what we can do to alleviate this necessary blow.

T7. Given that last week’s announcement on BSF has had an impact on several schools in Warrington—including Penketh high school, where the need is great—will the Secretary of State tell us when his capital review is likely to report, and what criteria will be used in the review to prioritise schools? Is he willing to meet me and Warrington educationalists to discuss their needs? (6987)

My hon. Friend was good enough to lobby me several weeks ago about the fate of the school that he mentioned, and schools in Warrington overall. He was, as ever, articulate and powerful on behalf of his constituents. I recognise that his constituents have been let down by the fact that Building Schools for the Future spent so much money on bureaucracy, and not enough on bricks and mortar. The purpose of our capital review is to ensure that money reaches the front line more quickly, and that the dysfunctional system that was established under the last Government—which they took no steps to reform or abolish—is transformed. I believe that there will be an interim report in a few months’ time and a final report by the end of the calendar year, both of which will transform school buildings for the future.

Is the Secretary of State aware that figures from his department show that academy schools are, on average, teaching one third less GCSEs in history and geography than schools in the maintained sector, and are often inflating their grades through the use of GCSE equivalents? If that is to be the model for the future, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that academic subjects are protected in academies?

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am committed to academic excellence, so I should point out that he should have said “fewer”, not “less”. However, he has made a good point. I am worried about the use of so-called equivalent qualifications instead of academic GCSEs. When I raised the issue from the Opposition Benches, the then Secretary of State said that I was talking achievements down, but I am glad to note that we can now form a coalition for excellence across the Dispatch Box.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is regrettable that five secondary schools in my constituency which are in dire need of expenditure on the framework of their buildings have received absolutely nothing under the Building Schools for the Future programme, simply because in theory they are in a reasonable area where children are, in theory, receiving a good education?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, which points to one of the many weaknesses in the Building Schools for the Future programme. Because its operation was area-based, some schools which were not dilapidated and which occupied serviceable buildings—not ideal, but serviceable—received large sums of money, while in many other parts of the country children suffered poor education in dilapidated buildings that were not prioritised for investment. That has to change.

Will the Secretary of State or a member of his team undertake to meet the pupils of Westhoughton high school, who will be making an educational visit to Parliament this Thursday, to explain to them why they have wasted the last two years designing and developing their programme for their new school and why they will now have to spend the rest of their school career in a crumbling school?

The hon. Lady is an impassioned advocate for Bolton West, but I have to tell her—and she can tell this to the children and parents concerned—that the reason why this process took so long is because of the bureaucracy her Government put in place. The reason why those children are losing out is because of the decisions made by the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood, and if she is angry, as I am, that children’s destinies have been compromised, that anger—that righteous anger—should be directed at the right hon. Gentleman, the person who presided over this debacle in the first place.

Free schools have the potential to make a massive positive impact on the education of children in my constituency, Cheshire and the north-west as a whole. When does the Secretary of State anticipate that the first free schools will be able to open and begin their vital work?

Order. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that pithy reply, but I am afraid that demand has exceeded supply and we must now move on to the statement.