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Volume 516: debated on Monday 11 October 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

School Bullying (Children with Allergies)

The Secretary of State and the ministerial team have not received any recent representation on the bullying of children with allergies.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I chaired a meeting of the all-party group on allergies at which a number of children spoke about their experiences of potentially life-threatening bullying in schools. For example, they had foods to which they are severely allergic forced upon them. Some schools’ response to that was commendable, but in others it was not taken seriously. Would the Minister be happy to meet me and a group of these children to discuss their experiences of that problem and potential solutions?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I pay tribute to the good work that she has done with the all-party group. She secured a debate on the subject and has raised the matter on numerous other occasions. I would be delighted to meet a group of representatives. I met a large body of young people who have long-term conditions who came to lobby us about their circumstances at school. The problem affects 18 million people throughout the country and it shows no sign of abating among younger people, so I am more than happy to take forward her offer.

Ofsted (Inspection Assessments)

The Department has regular discussions with Ofsted about its approach to school inspection, including its assessments of pupils’ educational attainment and achievement. That engagement will continue as Ofsted develops a new streamlined and refocused inspection framework built around the core areas of pupil achievement, teaching, leadership and behaviour and safety.

Can my hon. Friend assure me that the achievements of schools, such as Banbury school, which have challenging catchment areas will be fairly reflected in Ofsted inspection reports?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Ofsted takes into account not just raw attainment at schools but the progress of pupils. Between September 2009 and March 2010, of schools in challenging areas, 10% were awarded the outstanding grading, compared with 11% of all schools.

Two head teachers in Chesterfield told me how liberating it was for them when contextual value added measures were put in place and there was finally acknowledgement of the tough circumstances under which they performed their roles. Does the Minister agree that the CVA measures, as a key part of the inspection that assists parents, help parents to assess the strengths of teaching at a school, not just the strengths of an intake?

May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment? I look forward to working closely with him to achieve our shared objective, which is to close the attainment gap between those from wealthier and those from poorer backgrounds. I assure him that, in Ofsted inspections, the progress of pupils is as important as the absolute level of attainment. Value added figures, whether the current CVA figure or a review figure that measures progress, are important in all Ofsted inspections.

Special Educational Needs

To deliver the Government’s commitments on special educational needs, I am publishing a Green Paper later this year to look at the wide range of issues concerning children with special educational needs and disabilities. To inform this important work, I have issued a call for views and have met parents, teachers, local authorities, charities and other groups. I am also considering the findings of recent reviews, including the recent report from Ofsted.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer and I congratulate the new Opposition Front Benchers on their appointment.

In some schools, support staff provided for statemented children are being redirected to other children by head teachers who use such staff almost as a floating resource. Can the Minister assure me that she will look into that matter as a great priority?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I understand from my discussion with him prior to questions that a specific issue is concerning him and has led him to ask that question. I wonder whether he will be good enough to write to me because it would concern me greatly if schools were redirecting to other children resources that were supposed to be allocated to children who have a statement in special educational needs. It would be useful to have his feedback in advance of the Green Paper.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to children with special educational needs. My constituency has schools with well in excess of 50% of pupils on the special educational needs register. How will the Minister encourage Ofsted to look at the bigger picture when it comes to its assessments, because the problems are often complex?

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the problems are complex. It is absolutely right that school inspections take account of how well pupils with special educational needs and disabilities are provided for, as well as how well they learn and progress. That will be an important consideration for Ofsted as it develops new inspection arrangements focused specifically on the core areas of achievement, teaching, leadership, behaviour and safety.

Does the Minister agree that there has been a serious improvement in SEN children’s facilities and support up to the age of 16? However, does she further agree that the real challenge, as anyone who has looked at the matter in detail will know, is provision from ages 16 to 18, and that things get even more challenging for parents when their children are 18?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have discussed this matter before. I want the Green Paper to look specifically at that. He will be aware that there are a wide range of reports on what happens in schools and special schools, and on support for children in mainstream schools and in special units that are attached to them. However, there is very little research on transition. If one issue has come out clearly from my meetings with parents and voluntary sector organisations, it is the need to think about the whole of a child’s life—all the way through.

In my constituency, many parents, particularly those from less advantaged backgrounds, fight hard to get their children’s special educational needs recognised. Will my hon. Friend guarantee that she will look carefully at that?

My hon. Friend is correct to say that many families feel that they have had to battle to get their child’s needs recognised, let alone catered for. That is very much why we will produce the Green Paper later this year. We are looking at how we can make the system less adversarial and how we can focus more, for example, on outcomes, and how to make the process more transparent. I hope that any parents of SEN children in her constituency who have strong views will respond to our call for views. They can go to the Department’s website and submit them now to help to ensure that we frame the questions in our Green Paper correctly.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am delighted to address you from the Dispatch Box for the first time.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to SEN provision. However, there is significant feeling among the SEN community that the whirlwind pace of change within the Department for Education has left little time to consider the effect that the changes will have on SEN provision, and particularly the effect that academies and free schools will have on funding from local authorities. Will she reassure the House that those ideological experiments will not take money away from council budgets for providing support to the one in five children with SEN?

May I begin by congratulating the hon. Lady on her promotion? It will be a great pleasure to debate these issues with her. I am aware that she has a long-standing interest in special educational needs—she was responsible for the passage of the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008. I am sure she will be a knowledgeable opponent over the next few months, which I look forward to.

On the hon. Lady’s specific question—[Interruption.] I am being heckled when I am trying to pay a compliment. Labour Members cannot even let me be nice to Opposition spokesperson. Goodness gracious! They should wait till next week—[Interruption.] There’s always a last time. I should like to answer the hon. Lady’s question. On academies and free schools, she would be aware, if she had been in the Chamber for the debate on the Academies Act 2010 before the summer, that an advisory group is looking specifically at funding issues.

Special Educational Needs (Leeds North West)

5. What recent representations he has received on educational provision for children with special needs in Leeds North West constituency. (16451)

There have been no representations received from Leeds local authority in relation to provision for children with special educational needs in the authority’s area. School organisation and special educational provision are matters for local consultation and determination, and where there are disagreements, they may be referred to the independent schools adjudicator for consideration.

I thank the Minister for her answer. That there have been no representations contrasts with the fact that many representations have been made to Education Leeds and similar authorities. Lucy Holmes, my constituent, has finally, after a lengthy battle—10 years—had a review of her SEN statement, in which time, of course, her needs have changed substantially. What will the new Government do to ensure that children’s needs are met by reviewing statements far more frequently?

The statement of needs is supposed to be reviewed annually, so it is a matter of concern if that is not happening and it has taken 10 years for such a review to take place. However, I should also say that too often a statement of needs is a static document that ends up in a drawer, rather than a dynamic document used as a basis for discussion and focusing on outcomes. Again, I hope that the Green Paper will begin to examine this issue.

Building Schools for the Future

6. What assessment he has made of the effects on children from the most deprived backgrounds of the changes to the Building Schools for the Future programme. (16452)

The decision to end the Building Schools for the Future programme was designed to ensure that resources were targeted more effectively on the front line. It is deeply regrettable that the fiscal position that we inherited required projects to be stopped, but the capital review that we have put in place is designed to ensure that money goes to those who need it and schools are rebuilt in the areas of greatest need.

BSF cuts will hit deprived areas the hardest. Could the Secretary of State confirm that the poorest areas will receive the most help under the pupil premium?

Yes, I absolutely can confirm that under the pupil premium the students most in need will receive the most help.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the Grove school in Newark, where many deprived children are educated. I am grateful to him for arranging a visit by Lord Hill, but things really are desperate there. The next flood in Newark, which will come at any time now with the next heavy rainfall, will mean that they will be unable to teach at the school. Would the Secretary of State therefore be kind enough to arrange a date for the noble Lord’s visit?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the passionate way in which he makes his case. I am well aware that in Nottinghamshire, and in many other areas, schools that desperately need refurbishment and rebuilding have been denied resources. One of the reasons why we had to change the BSF programme was that it was behind on its timetable, it was inefficient in the allocation of resources and vulnerable children, such as those for whom he speaks so passionately, were losing out. I can guarantee that Lord Hill will be in touch later today to fix a precise date to see my hon. Friend.

Has the Secretary of State received a report of our meeting with Jonathan Hill regarding Tibshelf community school in my constituency? The school is 100 years old, it is being held up by pit props and the teachers are having to travel six miles back and forth from Tibshelf to Deincourt community school, which is being closed by the county council. We desperately need to get this job done. The Minister said that this is a compelling case. Does the Secretary of State feel compelled to replace the school and rebuild it?

The hon. Gentleman always makes a compelling case for his constituents, and I am well aware that in the part of Derbyshire that he represents resources have not been devoted to the front line as efficiently as they should have been. One of the aims of the capital review that we have put in place and of the comprehensive spending review, which will report to the House next Wednesday, is to ensure that the schools in greatest need—both secondary and primary—receive resources as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It is a pleasure finally to face the right hon. Gentleman across the Dispatch Box; he and I have not done this before. I hope that he will not mind my saying at the beginning that my observation of him so far in his job is that he has failed to understand the difference between being a Minister and being a journalist, displaying a fairly loose grip on the facts. He promised hundreds of free schools, but has signed off just 16; he promised thousands of academies but has so far signed up only 50; and his mistakes on the BSF programme threw schools into chaos and prompted four legal challenges from local authorities. Can he give the House a straightforward answer today? Can he confirm that he proceeded with his decision to scrap school building projects despite being explicitly warned by his civil servants that local authorities would have a “fairly strong legal case” against his Department?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. First, may I congratulate him on his elevation to shadow Education Secretary? I admire the way in which he fought his leadership campaign. He was an advocate for both modernisation and aspirational socialism, which is why, of course, he came fourth out of five, neither of those values being entirely flavour of the month in the Labour party at the moment. May I also thank him for his reference to my past as a journalist? It was a pleasure to spend some time in a job outside politics before I came into this House—I recommend it to him. May I also say that, as the permanent secretary made clear to the Select Committee when I was answering its questions back in July, the advice that it was alleged I was offered was not passed on to me?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his characteristic graciousness. Today he is wearing something of the air of the self-satisfied teacher’s pet who has escaped the attentions of the biggest boy in the playground, but I say to him that my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) and I are the strike force for the parliamentary football team—he softens up opponents and gives me the bullets to finish them off. I give that warning to the right hon. Gentleman.

The right hon. Gentleman’s answer is typical of the cavalier way in which he is running his Department. He has got himself into a mess because of his determination to inflict a political experiment on our schools, skewing the budget towards pet projects instead of helping all schools through tough times. We have already heard that he has wasted £260 million through his botched decision making—is that what Philip Green would call a shocking waste? Will the right hon. Gentleman now tell this House how much his Department has set aside to cover the legal costs and possible compensation to local authorities caused by the mistakes that he has made?

That was a fantastic question—or series of questions. I am impressed that the strike force in the Labour party parliamentary football team comes, according to the right hon. Gentleman, equipped with bullets. It says something about the approach of the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) towards playing fair that he regards a Tommy gun as an appropriate thing to bring on to the football field.

There was a certain element of the spraying of fire in the question asked by the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). May I say that we will vigorously contest the judicial review of our decision? It is really important that people appreciate that the Building Schools for the Future programme had failed. Unfortunately, in 2008, instead of 200 schools being built, fewer than 50 had been built. Under the Building Schools for the Future programme, £11 million was wasted on consultants. One consultant secured the equivalent of £1.35 million, while schools in my constituency, the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency and almost every hon. Member’s constituency needed that resource. We will make no apology for ensuring that in the education budget money goes not to lawyers and consultants but to the front line and that 13 years of Labour failure is at last reversed by a coalition Government committed to aspiration.

Vocational Education

The coalition agreement committed us to improving the quality of vocational education. Alongside Professor Alison Wolf’s review of such matters, we aim to open at least 12 university technical colleges offering high-quality vocational learning to 14 to 19-year-olds—schools that put vocational training at the core of their curriculum offer.

I thank the Minister for that clear answer, which underlines the reason why he is so popular in the further education sector and elsewhere, and as regards providing apprenticeships—

All right. What will be done to ensure that pupils are properly signposted towards and encouraged to take vocational training?

I think that my hon. Friend understated my popularity somewhat, but nevertheless he will know that we are entirely committed to ensuring that people get the right kind of advice about vocational options. Too often, people have lacked that advice and it is important that those with the aptitudes, tastes, talents and choices to take them down that road get proper advice and advice on progression, too.

Does the Minister accept that young people from poorer communities are often put into vocational GCSEs as an easy option, as a result of which academic subjects such as history are becoming the preserve of the elite? What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that “academic equivalence” GCSEs are not becoming the default option for poorer communities?

As a qualified history teacher, I share the hon. Gentleman’s passion for the teaching of history, but I think he underestimates and undervalues—as do so many from the bourgeois class that he personifies—the significance of technical skills, craft skills and practical skills. They matter too, and the Government know it.

Academy Schools

Am I up? [Hon. Members: “More, more!”] I am intoxicated by the exuberance of the situation, one might say.

The Government are absolutely clear about their determination to deliver practical learning in the way that I have described, and—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman might be a tad confused—I hope not. We are on Question 8 from Mr James Gray.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The exuberance and enthusiasm of my ministerial colleague is something to behold.

More than 300 academy schools had been opened as of 1 September 2010, and since the Academies Act 2010 received Royal Assent two months ago we have received 189 applications to convert to academy status, or 5.9% of the outstanding mainstream schools that are currently eligible. Some 32 new academies opened on 1 September, and 23 more have opened since then, the equivalent of one nearly every working day.

I had the good fortune to visit the Wellington academy in the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), last Friday. It is an outstanding example of what an academy can do. It has gone from being the worst-performing school in Wiltshire to being one of the best on a like-for-like basis. GCSE passes have doubled and it is now offering A-levels for the first time, and its level of exclusions has gone from being the highest in Wiltshire to being the lowest. Does the Secretary of State agree that academy status can not only be of benefit to higher-performing schools but be of huge benefit to low-performing schools that wish to improve?

My hon. Friend makes a compelling case. Academy status can benefit all schools, which is one reason why the former right hon. Member for Sedgefield argued that academy freedoms should be extended to all schools. What a pity that the Opposition have retreated from that high water mark of reform.

For the avoidance of any confusion among those on the Treasury Bench, this is a supplementary question to Question 8.

In opposition, the Secretary of State said that in his first 100 days he would identify the 100 weakest schools and rapidly give them new leadership, and give hundreds of high-performing schools academy freedoms so that they could help weaker-performing schools. Can he confirm that he has so far failed to enforce any obligation whatever on the 50 or so new academies to help weaker schools, and that he has done nothing about his pledge to help the weakest 100 schools? Is he not just picking a few of the favoured and allowing the rest to drift?

The hon. Gentleman will have to do better than that. All the schools that have been granted academy status either are helping or will help underperforming schools to improve. We have actively identified some of the weakest schools in the country and will shortly announce the partners, whether existing academy sponsors or high-performing schools, that will ensure that those schools raise their performance. It is a tragedy that under the Government of whom he was a part, the gap between rich and poor widened and we came near the bottom of the 57 most advanced countries in the world in educational achievement. It is a particular tragedy that the gap between private and state schools grew under his Government, testament to which is the fact that in the shadow Cabinet under which he serves, more members were educated in private or selective schools than in comprehensives.

Primary School Curriculum

9. What plans he has for the future of the primary school curriculum; and if he will make a statement. (16455)

We have made clear our intention to review the national curriculum at both primary and secondary levels, to restore it to its original purpose—a core national entitlement organised around subject disciplines. We want to arrive at a simple core, informed by the best international practice, that will provide a minimum entitlement for pupils. We will announce more details about our plans later in the year.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Head teachers in my constituency are concerned that Government have still not come forward with their proposals for replacing the primary school curriculum, and that the delay is preventing them from properly planning for the future. Will he reassure the House that the Government’s plans will be published in time for primary school heads to get the staff, timetables and resources that they need to start the next financial year?

Yes, primary schools should continue with the current primary curriculum. The details and timings will be announced later in the year, but I assure the hon. Lady that there will be plenty of lead time available to schools to implement the new curriculum. We do not want what the previous Government had, which was “initiativitis”. Schools received new initiatives every two weeks, and lever arch files full of prescriptive instructions about how to teach were disseminated to all our schools.

Will the Minister comment on the fact that many primary schools appear to be teaching multiple methods for basic mathematical problems, which has been set out through the national strategies, rather than achieving fluency in key methods, which enables those pupils to go on and achieve and where countries such as Flanders and Finland have proved so successful?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her passion about the way maths is taught in our schools. Of course, how children are taught is a pedagogical matter, which should be left to the professionalism of teachers, but what is taught and when will be matters for the national curriculum review.

Playbuilders Scheme

10. How many proposed play areas planned to be built under the playbuilders scheme after July 2010 will not proceed. (16456)

We believe that it is important that there are safe, free local places to play. However, the Department inherited unaffordable spending commitments for this year, and play has therefore had to make a contribution to the savings needed.

Local authorities will be told of their revised allocations within the next month, soon after the comprehensive spending review, and it will be for them to decide which play areas proceed, according to their own local priorities. Local authorities are not required to inform my Department of their decisions.

Aintree village is one of the areas in my constituency that was due to benefit from a new play area. One reason that residents and the parish council wanted the play area was to tackle childhood obesity. Does the Minister agree with me, and with residents in Aintree and across Sefton, that decent-quality play areas are a good way to tackle childhood obesity? What measures will he take to support local authorities and others who wish to see the kind of support needed to tackle childhood obesity?

I think we all agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of play in so many different areas. It can help to affect social divisions, obesity and other health measures. Of course, we fully share his aspirations and, I am sure, those of the people behind the project in Aintree village. I pay tribute to the people in his constituency and in other communities who have striven hard for those play areas, but I repeat that the play funding was based on the dodgy accounting of the previous Government’s end-year flexibility system. On that basis, I am afraid that it has had to be reviewed, but I hope that there will be money forthcoming in due course so that other projects can proceed. He will hear about that in the next few weeks.

The Minister may be aware that I have made several representations on this subject regarding a number of play parks in my constituency, including in Winterton, Keadby, Crowle and Burringham. What is now coming back from some of those is the fact that there have been several delays in the process, through the fault of the local councils over the years. May we have an assurance that the Department will look favourably on the cases of park bids that have been delayed because of problems within the local authorities?

Again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his concern for that important matter, but it is not for the Department for Education to specify which particular play projects are to go ahead. That area is not ring-fenced; it is up to the local authorities. Once we make the further announcement following the comprehensive spending review, I very much hope that those projects that are to go ahead do so with all speed.

Children from Deprived Areas (Educational Achievement)

11. What steps he plans to take to improve the educational achievement of children from the most deprived areas; and if he will make a statement. (16457)

Raising the attainment of children from the most deprived areas is a priority for the coalition Government. From September 2011, we are introducing a pupil premium, which will guarantee additional funding for schools with deprived children, and ensure that the poorest children, wherever they live, are able to receive the right support. Schools will decide how to spend the premium so as to achieve the best results for their disadvantaged pupils.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for that reply. Will she confirm that that premium will cover those living in pockets of rural poverty in Thirsk and Malton, which are particularly sparsely populated and rural in nature, to increase their chances of social mobility?

One of the points about the pupil premium is the fact that, because it targets the individual child, it has a much better chance of picking up those areas where there are pockets of deprivation, which have been missed by other ways of distributing deprivation funding. It does not matter whether children live in a wealthy area or not; unfortunately, the stats about their parents’ income are still the greatest predictor of how well they will do at school. I think that that is an absolute scandal. Unfortunately, it is the legacy of the previous Labour Government.

The educational achievement of young people in deprived areas has risen highest for those in receipt of the education maintenance allowance. EMA is undoubtedly helping to break the decades-old link between deprivation, attainment and staying-on rates. That being the case, and given the comments made by the Minister, will she commit to retaining EMA in its current form?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have made a commitment this year, and he will be perfectly well aware that future spending decisions are a matter for the spending review. He will have to wait with bated breath until next week.

Can the Minister tell the House what steps she is taking to ensure that children from the most deprived areas have access to the highest quality teaching, and to make sure that teaching in those areas is subject to the most effective performance management?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we have expanded Teach First, something that both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives feel strongly about. It was a Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment. I hope that will have a considerable impact on raising the attainment of children in deprived areas. Of course, pupil premiums will make sure that there are extra resources for schools to spend as they choose: they may be spent on one-to-one tuition, or on other things that schools feel are best for narrowing that attainment gap.

There are hundreds of teaching assistants working in primary schools in the most deprived areas of not just my constituency but the whole country. Many of them are fearful of the effect of the budgetary decisions that the Minister is about to make. Will she give an assurance that teaching assistant posts, which have had a massive impact on educational attainment, will be protected, and perhaps enhanced?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware—I have already said this to one of his hon. Friends—that future spending is subject to the spending review, which will take place next week. I cannot tell him what future spending will be until after the spending review next week. What I will say is that there is a clear coalition commitment to targeting extra resources on disadvantaged children through the pupil premium, which schools can spend as they wish to narrow the attainment gap between the richest and the poorest students in their school. They may well choose to do that by having more teaching assistants, but they may choose to spend the money on other things.

Departmental Guidance (Head Teachers)

You can’t keep a good man down.

The Government are committed to reducing the amount of guidance and advice issued to schools. Our intention is to streamline and reduce schools guidance so that it is provided only where there is evidence of demand from professionals. We want to free up head teachers so that they have more time to focus on the important task of raising standards in our schools.

Head teachers in the Kettering constituency are absolutely fed up with the scale of guidance and advice that they receive from central Government. My hon. Friend has a deserved reputation as the enemy of red tape, so can he illustrate the scale and volume of the guidance and advice issued by the Department under the previous regime?

I can indeed. I have here the advice and guidance just on behaviour and attendance. It is roughly equivalent in length to the complete works of Shakespeare, which I also happen to have to hand. This Government are determined to reduce red tape and bureaucracy. We want teachers to be able to get on and teach, so that they do their best by our children.

Attainment League Tables

13. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of school achievement and attainment league tables in providing information on academic standards in schools; and if he will make a statement. (16459)

We plan to reform the school performance tables to make them more rigorous and to ensure that they focus on academic standards. We have proposed introducing a new measure, the English baccalaureate, that will recognise achievement in not just English and mathematics but the sciences, a modern or ancient foreign language, and humanities such as history or geography.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. The number of students studying history and geography at GCSE level in some schools in Stourbridge has fallen as low as 25%. That is partly due to schools encouraging the study of softer subjects to improve their league table positions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an indictment of the current system, and has he any steps in mind to remedy the situation?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She joins a growing cross-party consensus, led by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), that we need to ensure that children up to the age of 16 follow a stretching academic curriculum, as they do in many other European countries. As a passionate pro-European, I would like to see us emulate those countries in that regard, and in many others.

Free School Meals

14. What estimate his Department has made of the number of children who will be eligible for free school meals in September 2010; and if he will make a statement. (16460)

The number of pupils of compulsory school age in maintained schools eligible for free school meals was 1,179,880 in January 2010. The Department has not produced an estimate of the number of pupils eligible for free school meals in September 2010; the figures are produced annually as part of the annual school census, completed by local authorities in January each year. Leaving time for compilation, the next set of figures will be available in May 2011.

I thank the Minister for his answer. He will note my interest as a former principal. Does he think it is fair that 16 to 18-year-olds attending colleges are ineligible for free school meals, when 16% in FE colleges and 10% in sixth-form colleges are from disadvantaged backgrounds, compared with only 7% in maintained schools?

I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I share his view. We have committed to maintaining spending on free school meals this year. Further announcements will be made after the spending review.

Help for Families

The Government are committed to a new approach to supporting families with multiple problems. My officials are working with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and voluntary organisations to encourage local innovation to tackle barriers. Since April, family interventions have supported 4,725 families with multiple problems, already exceeding the 3,518 supported in the whole of last year. Ninety-three per cent. of families completed or are still receiving support, and no fewer than 79% left with successful outcomes.

I am sure the Minister remembers visiting Whitehawk primary school in my constituency. With reference to families with multiple problems, does he agree that dealing with these complex issues early can often save the state money in the long run?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I well remember my visit to Whitehawk primary school, which has done a fantastic job in joining up support services for many of the families living in the deprived area around that part of Brighton. Independent evaluations show the considerable savings of such intervention programmes, which can cost on average from £8,000 to £20,000 per family, but which save around £50,000 per family and much more for those with particularly challenging problems.

White Working-Class Boys (Educational Under-Achievement)

16. What his latest assessment is of levels of educational under-achievement among white working-class boys. (16462)

White boys in receipt of free school meals are among the lowest attaining groups of students. In 2009, just 19.4% of white boys eligible for free school meals achieved five or more good GCSEs including English and maths, compared to 50.7% of all pupils.

I am grateful to the Minister, who obviously recognises the problem, which was first raised by the National Union of Teachers in a report about two years ago. Can he assure us that, unlike the previous Government, he will not, for reasons of political correctness, try to brush it under the carpet, and that he will do something about it?

It is a concern when any particular group is significantly underperforming compared with the national average. One big priority for the Government is to close the attainment gap between those from the wealthiest and the poorest backgrounds. We are focusing on that in a range of education policies from academies to free schools, and also in our focus on improving behaviour in schools and reviewing the curriculum.

Pathfinder Projects (Blackpool)

All local authorities, including Blackpool, have provided financial information on their 2010-11 play programmes and this is being considered by our Department. However, as I said earlier, the Department is not making judgments on the relative merits of individual sites, and does not hold this information. Local authorities will be notified within the next month of their revised play capital allocations. It will then be for local authorities to decide which play areas go ahead, based on local needs.

Eleven play pathfinder projects in Blackpool are waiting with bated breath for those allocations. That includes the Fishers Field project in my constituency, which is a highly imaginative but complex project involving new playing fields and a natural park. I hear what the Minister says, but his colleague the Secretary of State, in reply to me earlier in the summer, said he was clear about the needs of Blackpool in terms of deprivation, mobility and general problems in that area. Will the Minister pass on the message that the people of Blackpool would like to see such projects go ahead?

As I said before and as the hon. Gentleman would have heard, we are very much in favour of promoting play as much as possible because of the many social health benefits that it brings. When the allocations are determined after the spending review coming up, I hope the local authority in Blackpool will decide its priorities according to local needs—we have given local authorities that power—and proceed to promote the play schemes that it considers most appropriate for the local area.

Special Educational Needs (Daventry)

18. What recent representations he has received on educational provision for children with special educational needs in Daventry constituency. (16464)

There have been no representations received from Northamptonshire local authority in relation to provision for children with special educational needs in the authority’s area. However, school organisation and special educational provision are matters for local consultation and determination, and where there are disagreements they may be referred to the independent schools adjudicator for consideration.

Will the Minister kindly accept a representation from parents in my constituency, who have visited my surgeries with various problems regarding special educational needs provision in Northamptonshire—especially the parents of a young lad called Joe, whom I met on Friday, who suffers from Down’s syndrome and is unable to get the regular speech therapy that he needs?

May I very strongly encourage the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to respond to the call to send in views for the Green Paper? The call closes on 15 October, so there are just a few more days to respond, and I should be very grateful if he made sure that that his constituents’ experiences were represented. If he wishes to meet me further, I shall be very happy to do so.

New Schools Network

19. What arrangements his Department has made with the New Schools Network to provide a framework for the provision of services by the network on his Department’s behalf. (16465)

The Department is working with the New Schools Network to finalise the specifics of the grant agreement in line with the activities and key performance indicators. Those have already been outlined in broad terms in the letter of 18 June from my Department to the New Schools Network.

Does the Secretary of State understand the concern surrounding the level of transparency in the role of the New Schools Network? In particular, how can he be satisfied that there will be no conflict of interest between its role in providing advice to groups seeking to set up new schools and its other, undisclosed financial donors?

I am reassured by the fact that the New Schools Network has as its chairman the former editor of the Financial Times, who employed the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) before he became such a distinguished Member of Parliament. I am also reassured by the fact that among its advisers are Professor Julian Le Grand, who was an adviser to the former Prime Minister, and Sally Morgan, who was political secretary to the former Prime Minister. Those three distinguished figures, along with many others who support the New Schools Network, seem to be the sort of talented figures whom we should be encouraging to play a bigger role in state education, rather than, as was the case in the Brown years, saying to them that they are not wanted when it comes to improving education for the very poorest.

Topical Questions

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to reassure all those hon. Members who are anxious about the decline in the standards of education under the previous Government that two steps forward have been taken in the past week. First, we have reversed the policy, which was initiated under the previous Government, whereby marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar were removed from GCSEs. In future, GCSEs, according to Ofqual, will be marked in a way that pays proper attention to the need to spell, punctuate and write a grammatical sentence. Secondly, as I am sure the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) will be relieved to know, we will ensure that every child has a proper sense of the connected narrative of British history, and Professor Simon Schama has agreed to advise the coalition Government in order to ensure that every child grows up knowing the glories of our island story.

I have a case in my constituency, where the three mile limit rule for free school transport is so strictly applied, using new software mapping techniques, that half the local housing estate has lost its access to free bus passes. Owing to the two-tier secondary education system that operates in parts of Leicestershire, we have the ludicrous situation in which 11-year-olds are expected to walk three miles to school along a main road, whereas 16-year-olds travelling to the upper school, only 300 metres further on, have access to a free bus pass. Will the Secretary of State look urgently into the guidance notes for local authorities on that matter?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that case, and I shall certainly look into it. I know that Leicestershire is an F40 local authority, one of the least well funded in the country; I know, notwithstanding that, that Ivan Ould, the lead member for children’s services, does a fantastic job, as does my hon. Friend. I shall make sure that I talk to Mr Ould and my hon. Friend about how we can resolve that situation for his constituents.

T4. Will the Secretary of State use his undoubted influence in government to get a decision—perhaps before 20 October—on the previous Prime Minister’s commitment to make a proper donation to the £100 million appeal for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, so that the very successful schools to Auschwitz project has buildings to visit in future decades? (16473)

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter, and I must pay tribute, across the Floor of the House, to the fantastic work that he has done in the fight against anti-Semitism. I can reassure him that we have already committed to give the Holocaust Educational Trust the money that it needs. It is an issue of no contention, across the House, that we must ensure that as those who remember the holocaust fade from our lives, the memory of that unique evil never fades from the minds of any of us in this place.

T2. My local education authority of Cheshire West and Chester is one of the lowest funded in the country; like Leicestershire, it is a member of the F40 group. What measures is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that education funding will be more equally distributed across the country in future? (16471)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that passionate case, as so many representatives from F40 authorities do. In the context of the comprehensive spending review and the forthcoming schools White Paper, we are now looking at how exactly we can ensure that schools funding is more equitable across the country. We are of course looking particularly at how we can ensure that disadvantaged children, wherever they live, receive what they deserve.

Back in January, one of the Ministers stated that there was a question mark over whether local authorities were the best people to run youth services. Given that, how does the Department now justify the removal of ring-fencing for the youth opportunity fund and youth capital fund and the cuts to Connexions and the youth sector development grants? Those cuts mean that many organisations that the Department would like to see running youth services, such as the excellent Soul project in Walthamstow, are facing a very uncertain financial future.

Will the Minister agree to visit the Soul project with me to discuss with the young people and volunteers who run it the contingency plans that he has in place to ensure that there is not a big voluntary sector youth-shaped hole in the big society?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady and am delighted to take up the invitation, as I have to many other youth centres and projects around the country; she may come to regret that invitation.

I am afraid that in this financial climate we have to think smarter about how we can provide services. In common with every Department and every other part of this Department’s work, the youth sector is under that scrutiny. My battle is to involve as many providers as possible from the voluntary sector, local authority and others in ensuring that we provide youth services to those most in need of them in the most imaginative way—with less money, because of the previous Government’s disastrous financial legacy.

T3. The Leeds and Bradford Dyslexia Association is applying to open a specialist school through the free schools initiative. Will my right hon. Friend agree to look at that application? Furthermore, does he agree that the application is a clear demonstration that, despite Opposition claims, free schools can not only help the brightest but be a real opportunity for groups such as the LBDA to help children and young people who need extra support? (16472)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and the argument contained therein. He is absolutely right: many of those anxious to establish new free schools are motivated by the desire to help the very poorest or those most in need. As well as the case that he mentioned, in Yorkshire there is a talented young teacher, the son of a bus driver, who wants to open a free school in one of the most deprived parts of Bradford. It is the idealism of that young man, and of the dyslexia association activists my hon. Friend mentioned, that is an inspiration to us all on this side of the House.

The last Labour Government established three free school meal pilots in Wolverhampton, Durham and Newham. Will the Secretary of State give me an assurance that when the evaluations are complete, there will be full disclosure and that they will not just be scrapped as the Lib Dem council did in Hull when we had such a pilot? It did not wait for a full and proper consideration of the evidence.

The hon. Lady was a distinguished Minister in the Department and I know that she shares with me a desire to ensure that policy is evidence-based. That is why I was surprised that the previous Government said they would definitely go ahead with the extension of free school meals before the evidence about whether the pilots were working was in. I was also particularly surprised that the previous Secretary of State committed to the extension of free school meals without there being sufficient funds in the Department’s spending envelope to pay for them. It was, I am afraid, another example of the recklessness with which he drove our finances and economy on to the rocks.

T5. The Secretary of State is absolutely right to order a review of his Department’s capital spending. When he does decide how to allocate capital, will he look favourably on the schools that reached the very final stages of the BSF application process and suffer greatly from dilapidation, such as Mayflower high school and Billericay school in my constituency? (16474)

As ever, my hon. Friend is a strong, powerful and fluent advocate for his constituents. It is important for us to make sure that the capital that we have goes to the schools that need it most. It is also critically important that we ensure that the one area that the previous Government overlooked—the significant expansion in demand for primary schools, particularly in the south and south-east—is addressed. I am sure he will agree that we need to address that along with the dilapidation in the secondary estate.

On the vexed issue of BSF, I understand what the Secretary of State says about the capital review, but going hand in hand with that must be some sort of needs-based criteria. What progress has he made towards arriving at such criteria?

That is a very good and characteristically shrewd point from the hon. Gentleman. We need to do two things. First, we need to ensure that whatever money we have is allocated in the most effective and efficient way, and we also need to ensure that as well as being efficient, it reflects needs. As regards needs, there are a variety of different criteria that we have to judge: first, so-called basic need—in other words, population growth—secondly, deprivation; and thirdly, dilapidation, or the actual fabric and state of the buildings. We have not had an accurate assessment of the fabric of the school estate since 2005.

T6. The policy of enforced inclusion pursued under Governments of both parties has played havoc with children with special educational needs in my part of Essex. It has meant the closure of special schools, increased pressure on mainstream schools, and pressure on remaining places in the special schools system. Can the Minister promise that under the review inclusion will be made a matter of parental choice, not an outcome arrived at through bureaucratic stalling and bullying? (16475)

Parental choice is absolutely at the heart of the themes of the Green Paper. It is essential that we try to come to decisions about a child’s future based not only on their disability but on understanding the particular needs of the child. Two children with the same disability may have very different circumstances and need different educational provision.

Will the Secretary of State please indicate the Government’s position on supporting parents in choosing denominational schools for their children? Would he oppose any measure that would reduce that choice—that is, local authorities charging a flat rate of £2 a day per child, which amounts to £180 that parents believe is a tax on faith? Lancashire county council is charging parents £2 a day per child for transport to go to a denominational school; does he approve of that sort of attitude?

I am very interested in the case that the hon. Lady brings to my attention. In her constituency, in Skelmersdale and elsewhere, a great many people are benefiting from a Roman Catholic education. I would hate to see anyone unduly penalised for wanting their child to be educated in accordance with their faith, so I will look at the case she mentions.

T7. Under Labour, social mobility stalled. What action will the Government now take to kick-start that vital aspirational process for our children, our teachers and our schools? (16476)

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct; I am afraid that the legacy of the previous Labour Government is that social mobility did stall. This Government believe that one’s birth should not equal one’s fate. That is why we want Sure Start to focus better on targeting the most disadvantaged families, why we are reviewing the early-years foundation stage to ensure that all children are ready for school, and why we are implementing a pupil premium targeting extra resources on the most disadvantaged children.

After 18 months of very hard slog, the 50 children and the staff and parents of Lever Park special school in my constituency raised the £20,000 funding needed to become a specialist school. In July, the Government promised them £100,000 to transform their facilities; in September, the Government cut it to £20,000. Will they please review their decision?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady. I will be speaking to people from the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust later this afternoon, when I will explain to them exactly the difficult circumstances that we inherited, which mean that unfortunately some tough decisions have to be made, but also point out that the fantastic achievements that have been secured so far by specialist schools and academies will be rewarded appropriately after the comprehensive spending review.

T8. What recent assessment has the Secretary of State made of the need for additional secondary school places in the Brentford and Isleworth constituency, and what advice would he give to parents who have been in contact with me to say how desperately they need a new school? (16477)

My hon. Friend, like all those who represent constituencies in the west and south-west of London, will know that recent demographic changes mean that there is immense pressure on primary and secondary school places. I am particularly sensitive to the need for the resources to be there to ensure that the children who are now arriving at primary schools have the places that they deserve. We are also ensuring that some of the new free school applications that we have received are prioritised in those areas where the demographic need is particularly acute.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is a great disadvantage to return from school to a home where no English is spoken? Is it not time we had a campaign to make knowledge of the English language common throughout our country? Will the Secretary of State lead a cross-departmental campaign to deliver English speaking and knowledge across the country?

Not for the first time—nor the last—the hon. Gentleman speaks for me. It concerns me that a grasp of proper spoken and written English, which is the key to enjoying full civic life in this country, is denied to far too many people. I will work with my hon. Friend the Minister for Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning to ensure that an ability to speak and write English clearly is at the heart of everything we do, whether in adult, secondary or primary education.

T9. In the wake of the Munro report, is the Minister as concerned as I am about the growing number of children being taken into care? Does he agree that the best way in which to stop more of those personal tragedies is to invest in prevention programmes for babies and their carers in the earliest years? (16478)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course, the big increase in the number of children coming into care in the aftermath of the baby Peter case was alarming. It is therefore absolutely right that the ongoing Munro review makes suggestions for freeing up the bureaucracy, which holds back social workers from doing the sort of preventive work—keeping families together when possible and working with other professionals on an early intervention basis—that can be so profitable financially, but, more important, socially, for those families later.

The Secretary of State has just said that he is keen to promote initiatives in the study of history in schools. Does he remember the rather sterile debate in 1990, when Lord Baker introduced the national curriculum, between skills and content? Does he agree that skills Learned in the study of history are as important as narrative? We cannot have one or the other—we need both.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s point. He was a distinguished editor of History Today, and his voice in these debates is important. It is critical that we ensure that every child has a proper spine of knowledge—the narrative of the history of these islands. Without that, the skills of comparison and of examining primary and secondary sources and drawing the appropriate conclusions, are meaningless. Without that spine, history cannot stand up and take its place properly in the national curriculum. One of the problems in the past 13 years—indeed, since 1990—is that national history has not been taught as it should be in our schools. Under the coalition Government, that will change.

T10. I think that my hon. Friends are aware of my interest in and support for deaf education; I remain a chair of governors at a deaf school. What plans has the Secretary of State for deaf education and for ensuring that deaf children receive the same education as their hearing peers? (16479)

The Department currently funds the I-Sign pilot project, which supports our position of informed choice for parents by putting in place the British sign language skills infrastructure necessary to make a BSL choice viable. As I said in answer to several earlier questions, we will produce a Green Paper later this year on special educational needs and disability. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend made sure that his views on the needs of deaf children were inputted into the Department’s call for views. As I said, the deadline for that is 15 October.