Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 520: debated on Monday 20 December 2010

I am delighted to say that the Government are looking closely at the matters that affect disadvantaged students who attend the college that my hon. Friend represents.

The Minister has visited South Thames college in my constituency. Like many further education colleges, it has warmly welcomed the freeing up of colleges from bureaucracy, and the extra freedoms and flexibilities that they have been granted. Such colleges would like more information, if the Minister can provide it, on how they might use the enhanced discretionary support fund to support the most disadvantaged young people, particularly those who are starting two-year courses.

I was pleased to visit the college with my hon. Friend and I am delighted that it recognises the progress that we are making in giving colleges additional freedom, so that they can innovate and excel. I understand from looking at the figures before today that the college has among its learners a number of disadvantaged students. We will look closely at these matters to ensure that those students get every opportunity to fulfil their potential, for my party is the party of Wilberforce, Shaftesbury and Disraeli, and the elevation of the people is in our hearts.

T2. On the education maintenance allowance, will the Secretary of State comment on two findings of the Institute for Fiscal Studies? The first is that the A-level results of recipients are, on average, four grades higher on the UCAS tariff than those of people who do not receive EMA. The second is that the so-called dead-weight costs of the EMA are less than those of initiatives that the Government are introducing, such as the relief on employers’ national insurance contributions. Does that not show that the Government are making less a policy based on evidence and more a cut based on ideology? (31449)

That is a very good question, actually—much better than any of those from the Labour Front Bench. Unfortunately, the evidence does not stack up. The IFS actually pointed out that there had been no increase in participation and only a modest increase in attainment, and the National Foundation for Educational Research pointed out that the dead-weight cost was roughly 88%, so only 12% of students were participating who would not otherwise have participated. Clearly we can have more effective targeting. Just because many policies carry a dead weight, that does not mean that all policies should. Neither, indeed, should all Front Benches carry dead weight.

T3. My right hon. and hon. Friends will be aware of Operation Golf, the Metropolitan police’s operation in London that has identified several hundred trafficked children on the streets of the capital, mostly from eastern Europe. What consideration have they given to ensuring that those children receive a decent education while they remain in the United Kingdom? (31450)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I recently had a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who takes the lead on trafficking. We want to ensure not only that those children are picked up at the border whenever possible and that we can track their whereabouts in this country, but that when we do know their whereabouts we work with local education authorities to ensure that they get the education to which they are entitled and which they desperately need. We must help them to shake off the people who have trafficked them, in many cases under the most gruesome circumstances.

T5. Can the Minister confirm that the budget for the new early intervention grant, which includes funding for Sure Start, will be almost 11% lower next year than the current funding for the various programmes, and 7.5% lower in 2012? Can she tell the House by what definition of flexibility that is not a cut? (31452)

The hon. Lady will be aware, especially if she has listened to the answers to previous questions, that when her party was in government it unfortunately spent all the money. We simply cannot fund everything at the same level as before; otherwise we will never be able to tackle the deficit.

By producing a flexible grant, we are responding to what local government has asked us to do. It has asked us, especially at a time when money is difficult, to create one large, flexible budget to ensure that it can prioritise based on local need. That means it will be able to fund things in a different way. If we tell local government that it has to fund things in one exact way, with certain priorities and in a certain order, it has no flexibility to focus on local areas. A flexible grant will allow it to prioritise funds and change the way in which it provides services locally.

T4. I am currently representing two families in my constituency who have been unable to get their children into a primary school along with their older siblings, owing to infant class size legislation. That has caused considerable distress to the families involved. Will my hon. Friend review the impact that infant class size legislation is having on families who wish their children to attend the same primary school? (31451)

As my hon. Friend knows, the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 places a duty on local authorities and schools to limit the size of infant classes taught by one teacher to 30 pupils. It makes exceptions for exceptional circumstances, such as when a child moves into an area outside the normal admissions round and there is no other school within a reasonable distance. Under current legislation, however, siblings are not included in the list of permitted exception criteria. We announced in the White Paper a review of the school admissions framework so that it will be clearer for parents, and that review will consider the over-subscription criteria, including siblings and the important issue of twins and children from multiple births. In other words, yes.

T7. Young people may be forgiven for thinking that the Government do not like them very much following their decisions on EMA, tuition fees and the future jobs fund, and the destruction of the youth service. Can we assume that they have abandoned “Aiming High for Young People”, the 10-year strategy for positive activities? As many local authorities are not now fulfilling their statutory duties under the Education Act 2005, will the Secretary of State intervene? (31454)

Another beautifully read question. I can tell the hon. Lady which Government betrayed young people—the one whom she supported, who left young people with a huge burden of debt around their necks and record levels of youth unemployment. A higher number of young people were not in education, employment or training when they left office compared with what they inherited. She has a right cheek to ask a question like that at this time of year. The first thing she should do is apologise on behalf of the previous Government for the dreadful mess in which they left the economy.

I endorse the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders). The Government have listened and responded on school sport partnerships. I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that the system is put right as quickly as possible so that staff do not lose their jobs. May I draw his attention to a Westminster Hall debate last week and an excellent suggestion from me on how the rest of it could be funded?

I have always benefited not just from listening to the hon. Gentleman, but from reading his speeches in Hansard. I am thinking of having them bound and giving them as Christmas gifts to many of my friends. On this occasion, I will read with particular attention his contribution to that debate, which I am sure will make us all happier in the new year.

Will the Secretary of State or one of his ministerial colleagues agree to meet me to discuss Nottinghamshire county council’s proposed closure of Gedling school in my constituency? It is a well supported school and there has been a big campaign against its closure, but despite that, the county council is to continue with its proposals.

The hon. Gentleman was a distinguished schools Minister. I should be delighted to meet him at the earliest opportunity.

The Secretary of State will be aware that North Yorkshire is the most rural and largest county in the country. We have problems with school transport, even outside the current extreme weather conditions. Will he give an undertaking that the pupil premium will apply first and foremost to rural counties such as North Yorkshire, and not to inner-city schools?

The pupil premium will apply equally across the country, and we will ensure that the disadvantaged children in North Yorkshire who deserve it will receive it on the same basis as every other disadvantaged child.

Since October, I have been requesting that the Secretary of State visit two schools in my constituency, but as yet I have had no reply. As he will be in North Tyneside on 3 February, will he commit to visit Longbenton and Seaton Burn community colleges?

I always enjoy visiting the north-east. I particularly enjoyed my visit a couple of weeks ago, when I had the chance to visit the Duchess high school, Alnwick, and schools in Stanley and Consett. I already have a packed schedule for the day to which the hon. Lady refers—I am due to be in Newcastle and Stockton—but I hope that I can visit North Tyneside, because I also want to visit south Tyneside to congratulate a school in Whitburn that has opted to become an academy. I have to remind the House that the number of schools that have opted to become academies under this Government has dramatically increased. Ninety-four schools have converted, 40 more will convert in January, and 333 have applied to convert, including 64 in the last week alone. [Interruption.] That is a record of reform of which I am afraid the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) can only dream.

There is considerable concern among many parents that elements of the current sex and relationships education contribute to the early sexualisation of children. What can the Secretary of State do to reassure the House that parents and governors will have significant local input into the framework for sex and relationships education in the curriculum review, so that they can know what is being taught in their local schools?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. There is a recognition across the House that we need to strike a sensitive balance between the need to protect the innocence of young people and the need to equip them for the modern world. To my mind, that means that sex education needs to be both inclusive and rigorous, and ultimately subject to parental veto. Parents must have the right to withdraw their children from sex education if they consider it inappropriate, and a right to be informed on a local basis how that curriculum is generated. It is right that sex education is a compulsory part of the national curriculum. My Department wants to look at the guidance it provides, in consultation not just with faith groups but with other organisations such as Stonewall, to ensure that the correct balance between inclusivity, tolerance and respect for innocence is maintained.

In September, I raised concerns on behalf of my constituents about Seaham school of technology, and the Secretary of State kindly wrote back indicating the criteria that would be applied to replace schools cancelled under the Building Schools for the Future programme—notably those in the worst state of dilapidation and where there are pressures on school rolls. May I remind him that Seaham school of technology is in a serious state and is the only school serving a population of about 26,000 in the town of Seaham? He indicated in his letter that he would try to respond by the end of the calendar year, and I am now looking for that response.

That is a fair constituency case. As I pointed out in reply to an earlier question, I am interested in supporting schools in County Durham and the north-east that have faced difficult circumstances, and I have had the chance to see schools in Consett and Stanley that are also in a bad way and need support. They have embraced academy solutions, and if the hon. Gentleman wishes to explore such a solution for Seaham, I would be delighted to explore that. In any case, I will look closely at the situation he described to see what can be done.

The 2009 OECD assessment of UK schools referred to earlier concluded that 77% of the differences between schools in student performance are explained by differences in socio-economic backgrounds—only Luxembourg has a higher figure. What assessment has the Minister made of that, and what will the Government do to address the situation?

It is still too often the case that a child’s background will determine educational outcome and opportunities in life, which is something that the coalition Government are determined to tackle. That is why we have introduced a pupil premium starting at £430 per child qualifying for free school meals, rising to a total of £2.5 billion by 2014-15, and it is why we are focusing on raising standards of behaviour in schools and supporting teachers and head teachers to take a zero-tolerance approach to poor behaviour. It is also why we are putting such an emphasis on children learning to read and using systematic synthetic phonics.