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Topical Questions

Volume 516: debated on Monday 11 October 2010

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.