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Education Policy

Volume 516: debated on Monday 18 October 2010

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State to set out the Government’s policy on the fairness premium to disadvantaged young children, pupils and students.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I have been asked to reply to this urgent question as it falls within my departmental responsibility.

I am delighted to have this additional opportunity to confirm the very good news that this coalition Government will be spending more on schools. The House will know that the full details of the comprehensive spending review will be announced on Wednesday, but I can confirm today that we will fund a new fairness premium of £7 billion over the whole CSR period, which will be invested in accelerating social mobility.

This coalition Government will give all disadvantaged two-year-olds 15 hours a week of pre-school education. We will give all disadvantaged children a pupil premium in schools to improve their attainment—that will amount to £2.5 billion a year by the end of the CSR—and we will introduce a student premium to help more disadvantaged children to make it to university.

We have had to undertake a fundamental review of expenditure to deal with the massive deficit bequeathed to us by the previous Government, whom the right hon. Gentleman served as Chief Secretary. As we have protected NHS spending—against his advice—all Departments have had to look for efficiencies. I have already taken steps to halt inefficient programmes, cut out waste, prune bureaucracy, close quangos and drive forward school reforms. The decisions that we took in the first months of this Government to reduce inefficiencies were tough. The outlook overall is tight, but thanks to the steps that we took early in the life of this Government, we can now prioritise spending on the front line, so I can confirm today that school spending will rise in real terms.

In addition, we can spend more on those who need more. We inherited a two-tier school system, with the biggest educational divide between rich and poor of any developed nation. The opportunity gulf begins in the early years and grows over time. By the time they are 16, the poorest children—those eligible for free school meals—are only half as likely as other children to get five decent GCSEs, and of 80,000 children in any year eligible for free school meals just 45 get to Oxbridge. As many children from one top public school—St Paul’s school for girls—get to Oxbridge as the entire population of poor boys and girls on benefit. That lack of opportunity is a scandal—an affront to the nation’s conscience—and thanks to the decisions taken by this coalition Government, the policies are now at last in place to give every child a fairer chance.

First, let me thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement, and may I also welcome him to his new role clearing up after the Deputy Prime Minister?

On Thursday evening, the BBC was briefed about a new policy—the so-called fairness premium—with huge implications for early years, schools and higher education funding. No notification was given to this House. We know that the Deputy Prime Minister had a bad week, and this had all the hallmarks of a hasty move to get him out of a political hole. The country could hear policy being made on the hoof.

On process first, therefore, when did the Secretary of State for Education hear that the Deputy Prime Minister was making that speech? We know that the Cabinet was kept in the dark on child benefit, but can the Secretary of State confirm that the Cabinet discussed all aspects of the fairness premium policy before it was briefed to the media?

As this announcement came in advance of the CSR, and given the overall reduction proposed by the Chancellor, people are anxious about where the funding is coming from. Can the right hon. Gentleman today give the House an assurance that he is not robbing Peter to pay Paul and that no other part of the education budget is facing disproportionate cuts to pay for the policy? Is he aware that his announcement has fuelled rumour over the future of the education maintenance allowance and universal Sure Start? Can he today reassure the House on those fronts as well?

Finally, the heart of the matter is this: we need to know whether the Government will honour repeated promises that the pupil premium will truly be additional to the schools budget. A BBC report suggested that funding will be recycled from within the schools budget. The Liberal Democrats have broken one education pledge; we need to hear from the right hon. Gentleman today whether another has been broken, or whether the Deputy Prime Minister has secured the reddest of his red lines.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his series of questions, and may I also thank him for his generous words about the Deputy Prime Minister, who had a very good week last week? I think that being able during the course of our CSR to secure a better deal for schools than the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) was able to negotiate when he was Education Secretary counts as a significant triumph. I think that advancing social mobility and social justice by delivering on Liberal Democrat manifesto promises is something in which Members on both sides of the House can take pride.

The right hon. Gentleman asks when I knew about the fairness premium. I knew when I read through, and nodded with approval at, the education section of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. The Liberal Democrats committed then—months ago—to spending more on early years, to funding a pupil premium and to ensuring that more disadvantaged people can go to university. The Liberal Democrats, in this coalition Government, have delivered on all those goals.

The right hon. Gentleman asks whether there will be any disproportionate cuts in any other part of the education budget. I can assure him in respect of Sure Start and 16-to-19 funding that he will find out on Wednesday that we have ensured that the funding is in place in order to guarantee that more people will participate after the age of 16 and that a network of Sure Start children centres is there for every child who needs them.

All of this has been done because our coalition Government working together has dealt with the inefficiencies, the waste and the bureaucracy that the right hon. Gentleman’s Government bequeathed to us. A coalition Government working together has prioritised social mobility after years in which it was frozen. A coalition Government working together has ensured that money goes to the front line rather than being spent on bureaucracy and waste. As a result, we are taking the tough decisions that he and he and he—his right hon. Friends on the Opposition Benches—ducked. They will not support reducing child benefit in order to ensure that the poorest get more. They will not support our VAT increase in order to plug the deficit. They will not support any of our steps to improve efficiency on the front line in schools. They are a party of naysayers and deficit deniers, and that is why this coalition Government are putting right the mess we inherited from them.

I welcome today’s announcement and the commitment it shows on the part of the Government to narrowing the gap between rich and poor and between their respective outcomes. Has the Secretary of State yet decided how the pupil premium will be allocated and on what basis?

The Government have consulted on exactly who should receive the pupil premium. That consultation began earlier this year and there are still a couple of hours left should the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) wish to contribute to it—he has not yet done so. We are looking at a variety of measures of poverty and we wish to target the pupil premium most effectively on all children in need. One of the disadvantages of the way in which the previous Government targeted resources on the very poorest was that the premium attached to children who were eligible for free school meals was as low as £22 in some local authority areas.

In fact, the pupil learning credit was £350 per pupil in the most disadvantaged schools.

Will the Secretary of State tell me what was the impact of the £600 million cut in area-based grant from the Department for Communities and Local Government, which was half the total announced on 22 June, and which cut child and adolescent mental health services, work dealing with teenage pregnancy and youth and careers services across the country, coupled with the £670 million cut in-year from his own Department? If we cut his salary by £40,000 and gave him £20,000 back, would he be better or worse off?

I suspect that the taxpayer would be a lot better off, but I do not do this job for money; I do it because I am convinced that we need to do better to improve children’s education. The right hon. Gentleman was a great Education Secretary, and I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to him. During his years as Education Secretary, we were able to see an improvement in performance in primary schools that was not subsequently matched by any of his successors. Yet during his first three years as Education Secretary the amount spent on education in this country actually declined for three years as a proportion of national income, which proves that if the right policies are pursued and we are rigorous about cutting waste, we can ensure that children will perform better—that is what we are doing.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s remarks this afternoon. Will he assure me that he will ensure that the pupil premium gets to every child, no matter where they live?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s point. It is crucial that we ensure that disadvantaged children across the country receive the money that they need. One of the inefficiencies in schools funding under the previous Government was that disadvantaged children, particularly those in rural areas, often did not receive the support that they needed to achieve their full potential. We want to ensure that poverty knows no boundaries, and that the ways in which we will tackle it know no boundaries either.

Will the Secretary of State guarantee, first, that he will use a more sophisticated criterion than free school meals? The former Select Committee found that it was a very dodgy measure of whether a pupil was from a poor background. Secondly, he worried me by referring to “a network” of Sure Start children’s centres, so is he going to maintain the current good level of those centres or cut it down to a smaller number?

Those were two very good questions from the former Select Committee Chairman, with whom I often find myself agreeing. On his first point about targeting children who are eligible for free school meals, he will be aware that there is no perfect way of identifying the children who are in need. One of the ideas floated by the Sutton Trust is that we should allocate money to children who have ever been eligible for free school meals. Another idea is that we should link eligibility to eligibility for tax credits. We are examining all these ideas. The consultation has not yet closed and I do not wish to pre-empt the conclusions that we will reach, but I can say that the work that he did as Select Committee Chairman plays a part. On Sure Start children’s centres, we want to ensure that the funding is there to maintain the current network of phase 1, phase 2 and phase 3 centres.

I strongly welcome the extra money for children from the poorest backgrounds. Will the Secretary of State tell me whether he has any proposals for helping pupils who have special educational needs as well?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, and I can tell him that we absolutely do. We recognise that many factors hold children back from achieving their full potential. I have been struck by the way in which many children who have special needs, including children of very high cognitive ability, do not achieve their full potential and, in particular, by how children with low-incidence special needs, such as deafness, who can achieve so much more, fail to achieve everything possible. That is why I am so delighted that the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), will be publishing a Green Paper on special educational needs, which will reform the assessment and the funding systems, and will ensure that all children, whatever their needs, get the support that they deserve.

Leaving aside the political knockabout content of part of the Secretary of State’s statement, I welcome the fact that more resources are to be targeted at children in the greatest need. Will he give me an assurance that he will work closely with local authorities and schools to ensure that the additional resources are targeted properly and effectively at those children with the greatest needs?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s constructive question. He is a distinguished member of the dwindling Blairite tendency on the Opposition Back Benches. He is fortunate in having in Knowsley one of the more imaginative and creative local authorities. That is why representatives from Knowsley are working with the Department for Education to ensure that we can target deprivation more effectively.

One of the biggest complaints that I hear from local head teachers concerns the way in which they were micro-managed under the previous Government and told how to spend their money. Will my right hon. Friend please give us an assurance that head teachers will be free to spend the pupil premium money in the way that they see fit?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are working with head teachers to ensure that the unacceptable level of ring-fencing and bureaucracy that fettered their discretion under the previous Government is removed, so that the money—particularly the money that will be spent on the very poorest children—can be spent in line with their priorities and judgment. Of course schools will be accountable for how that money is spent, but greater freedom combined with sharper accountability seems to me to be the adult way to go.

The simple fact is that two-year-olds who have never been to school are not yet eligible for free school meals. What new mechanism will the Government use in the eligibility testing process, especially for children without elder siblings, to integrate the functions of the private and voluntary sectors and the tax authorities, and what will that new mechanism cost?

That is a very good question. We are consulting now on how we can identify the broadly 20% poorest two-year-olds. At the moment, the number of two-year-olds who are eligible for pre-school education is just 20,000 and, under the previous Government, they were allocated just 12.5 hours. We intend to increase that significantly, and we expect 100,000 two-year-olds to be eligible for 15 hours of pre-school education. How we identify them is a matter on which we will consult, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be delighted to play a part in that consultation process.

Under the last Labour Government, schools in Cornwall received some of the lowest levels of funding in England. I very much welcome today’s announcements, but can the Secretary of State confirm that the pupil premium will be extended to early-years education?

I can absolutely confirm that. I mentioned earlier that we are specifically looking at how we can target two-year-olds. I am sympathetic to the position in which Cornish MPs find themselves, because there are pockets of deep rural poverty in Cornwall that deserve to be attacked, and unemployment in Cornwall is far too high and linked to seasonal factors. We need to improve the level of educational attainment in Cornish schools, and I look forward to working with all Cornish MPs and, indeed, with the new unitary authority in Cornwall to do just that.

The £7 billion is for everyone who is involved in improving state education, and the overwhelming majority will go to the head teachers who are responsible for doing a fantastic job in existing state schools. Free schools will be developed where we need new provision, either because provision does not exist or because it is not good enough. In doing that, we shall only be doing what I think the hon. Gentleman voted for when he supported the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in introducing his Education White Paper in 2005 and his Education and Inspections Act 2006.

Although I appreciate that no final decision has been made on the level of university fees, will my right hon. Friend confirm that his Department will work closely with colleagues from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that no poor child from my constituency will be prevented from going to one of the best universities in the land because of cost?

Order. That was outwith the terms of the urgent question, but I feel sure that it is not beyond the dexterity of the Secretary of State to respond to it.

Thank you for that very generous compliment, Mr Speaker.

I have been working closely with my colleagues from BIS. We have one joint Minister, who is my hon. Friend on the Front Bench—[Interruption.] He represents one of the most beautiful parts of Lincolnshire, which I was privileged to visit just 12 months ago. The image of the sunlight on the fens will stay with me for ever, as will the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). Yes, by using the £150 million that has been dedicated, we will do everything possible to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are encouraged to go to university. As there are no up-front fees, and because no one earning under £21,000 will be paying anything for their university education, those from poor homes and those who devote themselves to public service for low pay will not be dissuaded from going to university.

As well as poverty, other things that affect the cost of educating children to the highest standards include the mobility of the school population, English as an additional language, the extent of special needs and behaviour problems among children. Will the Secretary of State assure me that those education authorities that at present have a relatively high level of funding will not have that amount diminished as a result of this targeted funding?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I am well aware that in Slough—the local authority that covers her constituency—there are huge pressures on education as a result of migration, of the many children who have English as an additional language and of the entrenched pockets of deprivation. It is our aim to ensure that all deprived children, wherever they are, receive the funding that is necessary, so we will take account of historic investment in tackling deprivation while ensuring that deprivation money is better targeted on the individual children who need it. The hon. Lady’s area also has a particular pressure on primary places that was not addressed satisfactorily under the previous Government. We hope to work with her and her local authority to address that.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on this excellent announcement on the pupil premium. I have one quick question. May I have confirmation that head teachers will have control of where money is spent so that the dead hand of Whitehall and the local authority does not get in the way of what head teachers know how to do best?

I absolutely confirm that. One of the benefits of working in coalition, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is that I have been able to work with the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Deputy Prime Minister to ensure that the right balance is struck between respecting the autonomy of individual schools and promoting social justice.

The Secretary of State said that Sure Start centres would remain open for people who need them. That does not preclude any change to the criteria by which people access such services. Will he state categorically today that there are no plans to introduce any measures that will restrict access to Sure Start centres?

It is our intention to ensure that Sure Start is a universal service. That is why we are investing additional money in securing 4,200 health visitors in order better to guarantee that the very poorest benefit from those services. One point that has been borne in on me is the fact that in the early years it is critical that children from poorer homes mix socially and learn the skills that come from being in a genuinely socially comprehensive environment, so we will ensure that Sure Start remains a universal service.

This announcement will come as welcome news to my constituents in Stratford-on-Avon, where we suffer from invisible rural poverty. I ask my right hon. Friend specifically what does the announcement mean for the current two-year-old pilot and will it continue until the expansion to all disadvantaged two-year-olds is introduced?

My hon. Friend makes a good point and I know that he is absolutely committed to ensuring that pre-school education is delivered effectively to the very poorest. We will ensure that we move from the 20,000 children who currently benefit to around 100,000 as quickly as possible.

I wanted to double check that I heard the right hon. Gentleman correctly. Will the education maintenance allowance be available to my constituents in Nottingham in the same way as it is currently?

We will be reforming the way in which money is available to those over the age of 16 to ensure that we can meet our shared goal of maximising participation.

When it comes to levels of educational attainment, the Secretary of State will be aware that the worst performing group of children are looked-after children. I welcome the extension of the pupil premium to early years, but can the Secretary of State confirm today that that will extend also to all looked-after children and that careful consideration will be given to how the allocation of the pupil premium is taken into account for each of those children individually?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s commitment to helping children in care. Before he entered the House he worked enormously hard as a family lawyer on behalf of those children and they have been consistently championed by him in this place. I confirm that it is within the scope of the consultation to extend the pupil premium to all looked-after children. He is absolutely right that their fate is a reproach to our conscience and that we must ensure that they get the resources and support that they need to fulfil their potential.

Does the Secretary of State agree that his education policy—along with what will happen on Wednesday—consists of cutting overall resources for state education by between a quarter and a third and redirecting what is left away from disadvantaged areas and failing schools towards leafy suburbs and extra schools in middle-class areas? How can that possibly be construed as fair?

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is no. The slightly longer answer is that he could not be more wrong. The figures that he quotes and the dynamic that he invokes are utterly wrong. We will not be cutting in the way that he mentions; we will be increasing spending on schools. More than that, we will be targeting spending more effectively on the very poorest. I know that it is difficult for him to cope with, but the Government whom he supported from the Back Benches, before he lost his seat and came back representing somewhere else, presided over a growth in inequality and a freezing of social mobility. If he is committed to advancing the education of the very poorest, he should make another journey, like the one he made from Croydon to Swansea, from the Opposition Benches to the Government Benches on the side of social justice.

I recently visited Fleetville infant school which runs a very successful extended schools programme. Will funding such as the pupil premium be allowed to fund programmes that support the whole family and deliver a holistic approach to better educational outcomes for small children?

My hon. Friend, who is a former teacher, makes a very good point. I absolutely agree that the funding can be used in the context of extended schools to deliver a holistic approach that will help the entire family to do better.

Does the Secretary of State recognise the very real concerns of families and students about cuts in child benefit, the future of the education maintenance allowance and tuition fees? Those concerns have led a number of students in my constituency to reconsider whether to go to university at all or whether to go for a different course that would allow them to be paid better when they qualify. What actions—

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman but his question is very wide. I have let him ask that question, but, after a very brief reply from the Secretary of State, we will move on to matters that are, I hope, fully within order.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to ensuring that no one who has genuine talent is put off going to university. That is the function of the £150 million undergraduate premium.

By slashing the Building Schools for the Future bureaucracy that was holding back Bedford academy, and through his strong support for the free school in Kempston, my right hon. Friend has already delivered for disadvantaged children in my constituency more in five months than the Labour party did in five years. May I point out that 50% of the children in lower schools in my constituency come from families in which English is not the primary language? Will he please ensure, through the consultation, that attention is given to people in that situation so that they do not lose out in the very welcome review that he is undertaking?

Bedford is a classic community in that even though it sits within a county that is considered to be relatively wealthy, it contains not just pockets but large areas of real deprivation. That is why my hon. Friend, who is utterly committed to social justice, has played such a big role in helping to support teachers such as Mark Lehain who are committed to providing a better education for the poorest. Today’s announcement will only help such people to do a better job for the children who are in the most need.

In his answers, the Secretary of State has referred repeatedly to the need to improve social mobility, which I very much welcome. Does he agree that any change in social mobility as a result of measures that he puts in place will take many years to show and that the freeze in social mobility in the past 13 years that he mentioned is down to the preceding 18 years of Conservative government? The children who have benefited from short programmes such as Sure Start in the past 13 years have not even left school yet.

The hon. Lady is right that we need to do more to close the social mobility gap and that it will take some time to do so. However, the Sutton Trust, which is the leading organisation when it comes to championing greater social mobility, is quite clear that it was under the previous Government that social mobility moved backwards. I know that she would like to rewrite the past and lay the blame for the past 13 years on the former Conservative Government, but her comments reaffirm my belief that we need proper narrative history once again to be taught in the nation’s schools.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the wide disparity among the benefits that go to schools and colleges on the front line for deprivation. Much of that is because local education authorities hold back the money, or divert it for other purposes. How will he make sure that the money reaches the front line and is not diverted for other purposes?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. One of the problems with the way that school funding worked in the past was that the method of allocating money was so opaque that much of the money that was intended to go towards deprived children went elsewhere. We will ensure the money is passported directly to the schools that need it.

The poorer pupils premium will offer real help to children and young people in my constituency, but will my right hon. Friend work hard to ensure greater opportunities for children with speech, language and communication disabilities, which are so often associated with social deprivation?

I absolutely will. If you will forgive me for saying so, Mr Speaker, I want to work on the marvellous steps that were recommended under the previous Government in the Bercow report. I pay tribute to the work of everyone associated with it, and to the right hon. Members for Morley and Outwood and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson). We want to carry forward their work.