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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 523: debated on Monday 7 February 2011

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

Sure Start

1. What estimate he has made of the number of Sure Start children’s centres that will offer a full service in 2014-15. (38218)

The Government have ensured that there is enough money in the system to maintain the network of Sure Start children’s centres and have provided new investment for health visitors. Local authorities, in consultation with local communities, can determine the most effective way of delivering future services to meet local need. They have a duty to consult before opening, closing or significantly changing children’s centres and to make sufficient provision.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but in my local authority area, Tameside, the early intervention grant that funds Sure Start faces a cut of 12%. Does she agree that such a cut could be a false economy, because one of Sure Start’s great benefits is that it saves the state further expenditure down the line by improving outcomes for young people through early intervention? What studies are her Department carrying out to estimate the likely future costs of cutting early intervention now?

We have provided a flexible grant because that is what local authorities said they wanted. Obviously, that includes money for Sure Start, but it also includes money for other things. Local authorities are the best people to make these decisions on the ground. Localism is the right way forward regardless of the circumstances, but when finances are tight there is a particular requirement on us to ensure that decisions are taken closest to where the impact is felt, because we are much more likely to get high-quality decisions in that way.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the early years provision plays a vital part in social mobility? How many two-year-olds does she expect will benefit from the programme to extend that to disadvantaged children?

I absolutely agree that the early years play a vital role in social mobility, which is precisely why the Government have chosen to prioritise funding in this way. Tomorrow, we will debate the Second Reading of the Education Bill, whose first clause provides the enabling powers for us to regulate so that we can help an extra 130,000 two-year-olds to experience high-quality early education by the end of the spending period.

Does the Minister agree that there is an inherent contradiction in a policy that announces that the Government will protect the original local Sure Start programmes in the most deprived areas, which I was proud to develop from 1997, while, with the so-called “localism programme”, saying, “It is entirely the fault of the local authorities,” which have been denied the money to maintain those programmes in the first place?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to be proud of the Sure Start children’s centres, which are an excellent programme. That is precisely why the Government have made sure that the money is there in the early intervention grant, and why we have built on that by providing extra money for health visitors, through the Department of Health, and more money for things such as the family-nurse partnerships, which we know work on the ground and are often delivered through children’s centres. I believe that localism is the right way forward. Good local councils are thinking creatively about, for example, how to ensure that they can cluster their centres and merge their back offices, and how to prioritise outcomes for children—it is outcomes that matter.

Does my hon. Friend envisage opening up the assets of these underused children’s centres to community groups to expand the big society?

In some areas, local authorities are very good at making full use of the assets, which are often fantastic buildings, but in other areas they are not as good. I hope that providing the flexible fund will mean that local authorities start to think more creatively about how they can join services together and perhaps provide support for older children. By providing that kind of flexibility we enable local authorities to make the right decisions for their areas.

Recent research by the Daycare Trust and 4Children shows that, despite promises made by the Prime Minister and his deputy, 250 children’s centres are expected to close within the year, with hundreds more at risk of closure or big cuts in the services they provide. Hundreds of thousands of parents across the country are deeply worried about this, but all we get from the Minister is glib indifference. I read this morning that the Secretary of State has announced that funding for music will be maintained, so, incidentally, the Government feel that that is worth ring-fencing whereas Sure Start is not. To paraphrase my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), does the Minister not think that parents deserve much more than having to listen to the Secretary of State playing his fiddle while Sure Start burns around him?

That was a long rant and I struggled slightly to find the question in it. The important thing to say about the survey that 4Children did is that it is about people’s concerns and not about decisions that have been taken—decisions have not yet been taken. We are saying to local authorities that we want them to focus on outcomes for children and families. We are trying to encourage them to do that by holding back some money for payment by results and we are developing that scheme with the sector at the moment. Good local authorities that make sensible restructuring decisions will be able to benefit from that, but if they make decisions that jeopardise outcomes for children, they will not be able to benefit from it.

Discretionary Learner Support Fund

2. When he plans to inform colleges of the size of the discretionary learner support fund to replace the education maintenance allowance; and if he will make a statement. (38219)

We plan to allocate the new funding replacing the education maintenance allowance in line with the usual timetable for overall funding allocations for schools and colleges, which will be made in the spring.

The real concern is about transitional arrangements. Will the Minister explain what discussions he has had with colleges about the transitional arrangements, particularly for students who have already started their course and want to continue receiving funding support while they carry on with it?

The hon. Gentleman is right that transitional arrangements are important. We are in discussions with colleges and their representative bodies to ensure that there is not the kind of problem that he identifies. We are determined to allocate these resources in the way that addresses disadvantage most cost-effectively and ensures that the worse-off are not still worse off as a result of the changes.

The previous Labour Government left 3.9 million children living below the poverty line. Can the Minister give an assurance that when the children abandoned by Labour eventually arrive at further education colleges, they will all receive a discretionary learner support fund grant?

As I have said, we will ensure that those who are worse off are not disadvantaged by the system. Redistributing advantage and ensuring that there is a change in the prospects and opportunities for those who begin worse off is at the heart of all that this Government do. We are the champions of social justice—past, present and future.

In last month’s debate on the education maintenance allowance, the Secretary of State pledged that any replacement scheme for EMA would cover the costs of transport and equipment and would support young people with special educational needs or learning disabilities as well as those with caring responsibilities, teenage parents and those who were eligible for free school meals when at school. Given that research from the House of Commons Library indicates that such pledges would have a first-year cost of £480 million and ongoing costs of £420 million a year, will the Minister confirm, on behalf of the Secretary of State, that this is the budget for EMA’s successor and that he stands by the pledges he made to the House?

The hon. Gentleman is far too experienced as a Minister to expect me to make that kind of on-the-hoof promise. Equally, he knows that we are determined to amend this scheme to allow it to be targeted using the discretion to do the kind of things that he highlighted. After all, his own shadow Secretary of State has said:

“I have never set my face against changes or savings to the EMA scheme.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 863.]

Teaching Standards

3. What plans he has to raise standards of the teaching profession; and if he will make a statement. (38220)

There is nothing more important to a child’s education than the quality of their teachers, which is why I set out plans to raise the status and standards of the teaching profession in the White Paper “The Importance of Teaching”. We will focus on recruiting the best candidates to become teachers, we will improve their training and we will create more opportunities for all teachers to learn from the best.

Will the Secretary of State reassure pupils and parents in my constituency of Carlisle that the quality of science and maths-based teaching will not suffer as the academies programme continues successfully to expand?

I am delighted to be able to reassure my fellow Aberdonian that the quality of education that children in Carlisle enjoy will continue to improve. I have had the opportunity to visit some of the superb academy provision in his constituency. I know, and I am sure that every right hon. and hon. Member will be pleased to know, that we will guarantee an enhanced level of support for graduates who are scientists or mathematicians who wish to enter teaching in order to ensure that the subjects that will help to equip our children for the 21st century are given the boost they need.

I know the Secretary of State will want to acknowledge that, thanks to Labour’s reforms, we already have the best generation ever of teachers—that is according to Ofsted. He says in his White Paper that quality teacher training is vital, but he is allowing taxpayers’ money to be used to employ unqualified individuals to teach children in his so-called free schools. If having well-qualified teachers is vital for some schoolchildren, why is it not essential for all?

We are making sure that all children have access to improved quality of teaching by ensuring that we reform initial teacher training in a way that builds—yes—on some of the successes that we have seen in the past. We are also ensuring that new teaching schools are established. Many of these will be free schools and many higher education institutions, including the university of Cumbria, which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), are playing a role in helping to improve teacher training. Thanks to the expansion of Teach First, which the previous Government—yes—supported, but not as generously as we are doing, there are more talented teachers everywhere. I was delighted to be able to share a platform and a room with the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on Friday, when we signalled that Teach First was expanding into the north-east of England, something that was never accomplished under the previous Government, but which, under this reforming and progressive Government—

Vocational Education

The Government are keen to make significant improvements to vocational education, its organisation, funding and target audience—for example, through university technical colleges. Professor Alison Wolf has been commissioned to produce a report which will be published in spring 2011 and her findings will inform our determination to reinvigorate vocational education.

How will the Government boost the number of apprentices and ensure that those who complete their training will get the status and recognition that they deserve?

It was Dr. Johnson who said that a lack of manual dexterity constitutes a form of ignorance. The Government are determined to boost the number of apprenticeships, which is why we have put in place funding for 75,000 more adult apprenticeships and 30,000 more apprenticeships for young people. Today, in The Times—I know you will have seen it, Mr Speaker; others may not have done—we have for the first time celebrated the achievements of those who achieved higher apprenticeships in 2010. This ensures that apprentices and all those who aspire to and achieve vocational qualifications get the status and recognition that they deserve.

Can the Minister tell the House what evidence—the operative word is “evidence”—supports his decision to limit the curriculum so severely and thereby exclude many thousands of young people from accessing the curriculum successfully?

The evidence is that we have commissioned a report on vocational learning, we have put in place funding for apprenticeships, and we are determined to ensure that the status of those vocational courses is maintained and grown. The evidence is simply the evidence of the Government’s commitment and record so far in office. That is good enough for me. It should be good enough for the hon. Lady.

University Technical Colleges

5. What qualifications he expects to be required for pupils to gain entry to university technical colleges. (38222)

University technical colleges will be 14-to-19 institutions, with 14 being the normal age of entry. We do not expect pupils to be required to have any qualifications to gain entry to a university technical college.

I share the hope that university technical colleges will indeed bring poverty-busting structural change, and I look forward to the establishment of one in Houghton Regis in my constituency. I hope my hon. Friend can reassure me that university technical colleges will not seek to exclude those who are not predicted to get brilliant GCSEs, who may well have just the right attitude to shine in a university technical college.

I am happy to provide that reassurance, and to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his active support for the central Bedfordshire UTC proposals. UTCs will be required to adopt fair and open admission arrangements. They will give priority to the same statutory groups as maintained schools, children with a statement of special educational needs and children in care, and they will not be able to require that children have reached certain levels of attainment or that they have specific qualifications in order to qualify for admission. UTCs are for young people of all abilities.

I welcome the proposal, because we have in this country almost a contempt for technical qualifications and for engineering. Turning that around will require giving orders to the professional organisations and increasing the role and status of people coming out of those courses. Perhaps we might have one or two members of the Cabinet who are thus qualified, even if their only engineering qualification is engineering their financial blind trust to hide where their money is.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to support this development. We intend to have 12 UTCs up and running by the end of the spending review period. He is also right to emphasise the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths, which the Government are committed to.

I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for UTCs, but is he confident that the English baccalaureate will not have a cramping impact on the power of innovation in institutions such as UTCs, so that we can ensure the most appropriate education for all their pupils?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The English baccalaureate is designed to leave ample time in the curriculum for other subjects, including vocational subjects. In the countries around the world that have the best technical education systems, core academic subjects are taught alongside, not instead of, technical or vocational subjects until their students reach the age of 15 or 16. Subjects such as modern languages are critical for the technical and vocational success of young people.

Children’s Homes

6. What steps he plans to take to reduce the incidence of children going missing from children’s homes. (38223)

All local authorities are required to have procedures and processes in place to minimise the risk of children in care going missing. In April, we will bring in revised national minimum standards for children’s homes, which will strengthen the national guidance on this issue.

In Greater Manchester, more than half of all missing incidents involve children from children’s homes. According to a recent Barnardo’s report, many of those children are at risk from paedophile and criminal gangs. Will the Minister consider issuing statutory guidance to local safeguarding boards, asking them to monitor all incidents of children going missing and share that information with other agencies, such as Ofsted, so that action can be taken to reduce the number of children going missing and the risk to them?

The hon. Lady makes a good point and I pay tribute to her work as chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults. I am looking closely at the Barnardo’s report with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). This is a serious issue, but, without being complacent, I should say that the incidence of children running away from children’s homes has been reducing over the past few years. The figures are calculated on the basis of those who are missing for more than 24 hours, but in fact most children return within 48 hours. It is something that I will continue to look at.

Music Education

7. What assessment he has made of the effect on music education in schools of reductions in his Department’s funding for music services. (38224)

I am happy to inform the House that this morning we published Mr Darren Henley’s review on music education, and I am hugely grateful to him for his in-depth consideration of the issues and for the realistic and practical measures he has put forward. Following that report, I can now confirm that funding for music education in 2011-12 will be the same as it was in 2010-11—£82.5 million. That is not a cut; it is a very good settlement for music services, which is consistent with our broader strategies for school autonomy and deficit reduction.

I, too, pay tribute to the work of Darren Henley, who has at heart the need to ensure that young people get a good music education. Labour’s £332 million investment in school music helped children from poor and average backgrounds access good education in music. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the £82.5 million, although ring-fenced, is a real-terms cut? Local authorities are already slashing music services in their areas, so rather than blowing his own trumpet, should the Secretary of State not admit that this is really a cut, just like his cut to school sport?

Once again, we have had a superb pun: we had trumpets from the Back Benches and fiddles from the Front Bench, but what a pity they are not singing from the same hymn sheet as Darren Henley, local authorities and all those who care about music. From Alfie Boe the tenor, to Julian Lloyd Webber the cello player, everyone in the world of music is saying that today is good news for all children who want to learn more about music, including your own, Mr Speaker.

Bedfordshire Orchestral Society has an enviable record of promoting music in schools, but it is reliant on funding from two local authorities. Even ahead of today’s good news from the Secretary of State, Bedford borough council has committed funding, so will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging Central Bedfordshire council to do likewise?

When Central Bedfordshire council hears that my hon. Friend and I are both on the case, I am sure that it will be only too happy to join in and become as one in harmony with us both.

Once again, there is a chasm between rhetoric and reality: the big announcement is a cash freeze, which in real terms is a cut. It is another example of confused decision making. The right hon. Gentleman promises to increase access to music, but the cuts mean that 60% of schools, as surveyed by the National Association of Music Educators, are cutting music provision this year. Does he accept that, unless music is protected and ring-fenced not just for one year but into the future, all his rhetoric will lead to is less music provision in deprived areas?

There is a huge chasm between rhetoric and reality: the chasm between the apocalyptic rhetoric that we heard from the Opposition Front Benchers and their sock puppets elsewhere, and the reality of increased funding for those areas that need it most, and new funding for the teach music first scheme, ensuring that some of our most talented musicians from leading music schools and conservatoires work in our most challenging schools to ensure that every child has an opportunity, which I, like the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), believe should be extended to all. It is only under this Government, with this announcement on school music and our pupil premium, that we are at last ensuring that money goes to those children who need it most, instead of being wasted on the quangos and bureaucrats that characterised the past 13 wasted years.

Early Years Education

The Government are committed to taking steps to improve and invest in the quality of the early education and child care work force. We continue to invest in the work force by making funding available via the new early intervention grant, and by committing to fund the early years professional status and new leaders in early years programmes in 2011-12. We will publish proposals to support further improvement in the quality of the work force in the spring.

Last week, when opening the Hesketh Bank children’s centre in my constituency, I saw at first hand how essential the excellent staff are in helping families and children in the local community. How will the new leaders programme and the early years professional status programme ensure that more talented and committed people work in early years education?

I am very pleased to hear about the excellent work of the children’s centre staff in Hesketh Bank. The two programmes to which my hon. Friend refers will focus specifically on professionalism in the early years work force. The early years professional status programme enables people who already work in the sector to have their experience acknowledged, their skills refreshed and their learning updated. The new leaders programme is based around the Teach First and Teach Next programmes and designed specifically to bring into the early years work force talented people, with the potential to be great leaders, who might not otherwise have thought about working in the sector.

The Minister will be aware of several distressing cases recently of children in early years care being abused by staff. Will she commit, as part of that development, to ensure greater child protection training for early years workers, so that they not only know what is happening to children in the home, but can construct working practices that ensure such abuse cannot take place in the future?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that matter, which has been very distressing to follow. She will be aware that no prosecutions have yet taken place, but I have asked Dame Clare Tickell to undertake a review for the Government of the early years foundation stage, and one of the things she is looking at is child protection and welfare.

Religious Education

Religious education did not count towards the humanities element of the English baccalaureate in the 2010 performance tables, because it is already a compulsory subject. One intention of the English baccalaureate is to encourage wider take-up of geography and history in addition to, rather than instead of, compulsory RE.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but does he think that the exclusion of religious education from the English baccalaureate might dramatically reduce the number of students studying the RE full course at GCSE and have a knock-on and detrimental effect on the number of candidates for religious education teacher training?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making her point. We all recognise that high-quality religious education is a characteristic of the very best schools—faith schools and non-faith schools. However, the decision to include geography and history in the humanities section of the English baccalaureate will mean that those subjects, which have seen a decline in the number of students pursuing them, will at last see an increase, alongside modern foreign languages. As the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) pointed out, the English baccalaureate is intended to be a suite of core academic qualifications, which every child can be expected to follow alongside other qualifications, whether vocational, RE or others.

Can the Secretary of State tell the House on what research or evidence he has based his selection of subjects in the new English baccalaureate?

Yes. The research and evidence that I undertook was to look at what the highest performing education jurisdictions do. When the OECD published its table on how our country had been doing in education over the past 10 years, I was struck to see that under Labour’s stewardship we had slipped in the international league tables for English, for mathematics and for science. I was also struck by the fact that the numbers of students studying modern foreign languages, history and geography were declining. I was particularly struck by the fact that only last week the Russell group said that these are the subjects which the best universities expect of students if they are to go on and prosper and achieve the level of social mobility that sadly eluded us when the right hon. Gentleman was in government.

The Secretary of State mentions the OECD, so let me quote from last year’s PISA—programme for international student assessment—report, which says:

“Most successful school systems grant greater autonomy to individual schools to design curricula and assessment policies”.

That is in direct contradiction to what he has just said. I support the right of every child to take these five GCSEs, but it is a narrow selection, and not right for everybody, and the way in which he has introduced it is restricting student choice right now. Many feel that it is not a fair way to judge all children and all schools, suggesting that some are second best. So is he really saying to young people and employers today that dead languages are more important than business studies, engineering, information and communications technology, music and RE? Will he not listen to the call from the Chair of the Select Committee, made just a few moments ago, to allow a broader and more flexible English baccalaureate?

Order. I am sorry, but these questions are becoming excessively long. I hope that we can have a pithy response, and I am sure we will, from the Secretary of State.

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has the brass neck to quote the PISA figures when they show that on his watch the standard of education which was offered to young people in this country declined relative to our international competitors. Literacy, down; numeracy, down; science, down: fail, fail, fail. I am surprised that he has the brass neck to stand here and to say that working-class children should not study modern foreign languages, should not study science, should not study history and should not study geography. If it is good enough for the likes of him, why should it not be good enough for working-class children elsewhere? Why is he pulling up the drawbridge on social mobility? Why is he saying that they are only fit to be hewers of wood and drawers of water rather than university graduates like you and me, Mr Speaker? Rank hypocrisy!

While I entirely accept the Secretary of State’s point that RE is compulsory, it is not obligatory to sit the GCSE. Does he agree that the very many faith schools where RE is compulsory are thereby penalised in the calculation of their English baccalaureate achievement?

I appreciate the care with which my hon. Friend puts his question. I also appreciate the fact that he has been a very strong advocate for faith schools in his own constituency, including St Mary’s, whose cause he has championed with particular eloquence. Many schools will want to offer RE as a GCSE, and indeed we would encourage them to do so, but the core element of the English baccalaureate relates to five subjects which we believe are the essential academic knowledge that students should be able to master. The news from the Russell group of universities last week that the subjects that we have chosen for the English baccalaureate are the subjects that they expect students to have if they are to go on to leading universities ensures that there is an appropriate match between schools and universities in advancing social mobility rather than seeing it decline, as happened over the past 13 years.

Youth Services

I should point out that the Department for Education does not have responsibility for the provision of youth services in Wales. However, we are working to modernise and improve the quality of services for young people in England with our stakeholders, including, of course, young people themselves. The early intervention grant is providing more than £2 billion per annum to local authorities’ funding for early intervention services, including for young people. We secured £134 million in capital funding for the remaining myplace projects. The Government are also launching the national citizen service programme, which over time will offer all 16-year-olds a shared opportunity for personal and social development, community service and engagement.

Youth services around the country are anticipating crisis as councils are forced to pass on savage cuts, and the Government seem unwilling to protect these vital services. Will the Minister confirm that the youth service, which provides services week in, week out, has a distinct and specialist role and will not be replaced by the national citizen service programme?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of good quality youth services, particularly those that are focused on the people who will get the most from them. To reiterate the point made by the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), it is the duty of local authorities to chose how best to spend their funds. National citizen service funding is a separate funding stream that was negotiated with the Treasury, and it does not impact on the funding for youth services from the Department for Education.

Schools (Loughborough)

In 2010, at key stage 2, 72% of pupils in Loughborough achieved level 4 or above in English and maths combined, compared with 73% in England as a whole. In 2010, at key stage 4, 56% of pupils in maintained schools in Loughborough achieved five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C, including English and maths, compared with 55% in maintained schools in England as a whole.

I thank the Minister for that reply. The GCSE results in Loughborough for the past few years have consistently been below the English average. Locally, many people attribute that to the fact that pupils change school at 14 in Leicestershire, which unsettles pupils and is difficult for teachers. Is he aware that many people in my constituency would like that system to change? Will the Department listen to head teachers on that issue?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in Loughborough. When she and I visited Humphrey Perkins high school and Loughborough Church of England primary school together before the election, it was clear that she was passionate about education and raising standards. I know that there is a widely held view in Loughborough that changing school at 14 can have a negative impact on GCSE results at 16. Improving standards must be the driver for local restructuring. I know that that is my hon. Friend’s rationale for seeking to change the system in Loughborough. Lord Hill has a meeting with her and some teachers from Loughborough tomorrow—I mean literally tomorrow, not the parliamentary tomorrow—and I know that he will be keen to explore these issues in as helpful a way as possible.

Core Subjects

The White Paper “The Importance of Teaching” emphasises the importance of high quality teaching in the core subjects. We are introducing the English baccalaureate, which recognises achievement in the core subjects of English, maths, science, a humanity and a foreign language. It is intended to ensure that children receive a broad and balanced education, with time in the curriculum for vocational and creative subjects. We are taking steps to strengthen the teaching of reading through the use of systematic synthetic phonics.

I am sure the Minister is aware that in 2009, fewer than one in 25 children who were on free school meals took chemistry or physics, one in five took history, and fewer than 15% took geography or French. What plans does he have to ensure that children from poorer backgrounds get access to a proper academic education?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. That is why we have introduced the English baccalaureate. We are concerned that the number of pupils who currently receive a broad education in core academic subjects is far too small. That is particularly the case for pupils in disadvantaged areas. The English baccalaureate is designed to recognise the success of pupils who gain GCSEs or International GCSEs at grades A* to C across a core of academic subjects: English, maths, a humanity, the sciences and a language. We want to encourage more people to study those core subjects and to give all pupils the opportunity to study them, regardless of the school.

Many youngsters achieve good grades in GCSE maths without ever having studied algebra. That puts them at a disadvantage when they want to pursue mathematics beyond GCSE. Should algebra not be a vital part of GCSE maths?

Yet again, the hon. Gentleman says something with which I wholeheartedly agree. He is passionate about raising standards in our schools, as are we. That is why we recently announced the setting up of a review of the national curriculum. An expert advisory panel of head teachers from around the country will consider English, maths and science as the first part of the review.

Special Educational Needs

13. How many applications his Department has received to establish free schools for children with special educational needs. (38230)

My Department has received a number of proposals from groups and individuals interested in establishing free schools wholly or mainly catering for children with special educational needs. We have received more than 240 applications overall.

It has been a pleasure of mine to work with two groups that are hoping to take advantage of the policy. One of them, the Lighthouse project in Leeds, this weekend submitted an excellent application to open a school for young people suffering with autism spectrum disorders. It is eager to do so in the autumn, but after what it has heard from the Department, it is concerned that there may be some delays. It does not want to lose momentum. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and representatives of that organisation to see what we can do to progress the application?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the Lighthouse group. I have to stress that it is important to ensure that all the issues surrounding the establishment of any new school are successfully navigated. Opening any free school in September 2011 is a challenging timetable. Under the last Government it would take between five and 10 years for a new school to open, so it is remarkable that so many may open within a year. I will look closely at the matter, but I suspect that given the complexity of some of the issues involved we may not be able to open in September 2011. However, let us discuss it and ensure that we can support—

Order. May I gently ask the Secretary of State to face the Chamber, so that I can be the full beneficiary of his eloquence?

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind the fact that successful special educational needs provision depends very much on integration with other schools? That was the finding of the former Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. We very much support good SEN provision, but it must be integrated with the local schools that take other kinds of children.

I absolutely recognise that when we are talking about children with special educational needs, there is such a broad and complex spectrum that one solution will not fit all children. I had the opportunity to visit Redcar community college on Thursday, and I saw there an imaginative proposal to co-locate Kirkleatham Hall special school with that college. That seems to be the right solution there, but different solutions will apply elsewhere. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) for his impassioned advocacy of those two schools.

Further to the Secretary of State’s answer, is he open to suggestions for replacing provision offered by pupil referral units in some parts of the country? Outcomes at such units are variable across the country.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and one thing that the Education Bill will do is make it easier to ensure that we can have high-quality provision for students who are excluded for whatever reason.

Home-to-school Travel

14. Whom his Department plans to consult in its review of home-to-school travel; and when that review will be completed. (38231)

My Department is reviewing home-to-school transport policy, which has remained largely unchanged since the Education Act 1944, when the social, economic and education landscape was very different. As part of our review, we are considering how best practice can be spread to all local authorities. We will make further announcements in due course.

North Tyneside’s Tory-led council is currently reviewing its home-to-school travel policy to include a proposal to stop free and subsidised travel for children who travel more than 3 miles to school. As that will affect more than 400 pupils who travel from across the borough to St Thomas More RC high school, which is the only faith school in North Tyneside, will the Secretary of State please make a statement to support my constituents and their children against that unfair proposal?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that issue. It is important that we support the exercising of school choice, and that we support faith schools and the great schools of North Tyneside, such as Whitley Bay high school, whose headmaster I had the opportunity to talk to on Thursday when I visited the north-east. I will look into the specific situation that the hon. Lady mentioned, but of course one thing that all local authorities are dealing with is the drastic economic inheritance bequeathed by the last Labour Government.

Will the Secretary of State, who I know is a friend of North Yorkshire and a frequent visitor, look carefully at the proposals that North Yorkshire county council is coming up with for a similar review, bearing in mind that the distances that children have to travel cannot be covered by anything other than either bus or car?

I am very well aware of the specific challenges that North Yorkshire has in helping to ensure that children can exercise school choice and go to the most appropriate local school. I know that it is one of the most successful local authorities in terms of both value for money and school performance, so I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and the local authority to come to the right outcome.

School Discipline

15. What steps he is taking to improve school discipline in (a) Kettering constituency, (b) Northamptonshire and (c) England. (38232)

Raising standards of behaviour in our schools is a key priority for the coalition Government. It goes to the root of how we raise standards, and it lies at the heart of our determination to close the attainment gap between those from poor and wealthier backgrounds. The Education Bill, which we will debate tomorrow, sets out reforms to tackle poor behaviour, making it easier to impose no-notice detentions, extending search powers for items that disrupt teachers and making it easier for heads to expel violent and persistently disruptive pupils.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that, under this Government, badly behaved pupils who do not want to learn cannot damage the education of hard-working pupils who do?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is not just the rights of the pupils who disrupt the class that are important—although they are—but those of the overwhelming majority of students in class, which we must also protect.

Education Maintenance Allowance

16. What estimate he has made of the savings to accrue from terminating education maintenance allowance payments in September 2011 for students who are already part of the way through a two-year programme of study. (38233)

The cost of continuing to pay EMA from September 2011 for a further year to all students currently receiving it is estimated at £300 million, excluding the costs of administration.

York college tells me that, last September, on the Secretary of State’s watch, 650 students started two-year courses in the expectation of getting an education maintenance allowance for two years. To continue it would cost less than £500,000. Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider?

I am very grateful for the moderate and considered way in which the hon. Gentleman puts his point—I know how passionate he is about further education. [Interruption.]

Order. Hon. Gentlemen should not yell from a sedentary position. I want to hear the Secretary of State’s answer, and I hope that the House does, too.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is ironic that we were just discussing poor behaviour and people in class disrupting those who want to learn. I am keen to work with the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley), and college principals in particular, to ensure that our new, enhanced learner support fund can help all those vulnerable young people who need support to stay in education and learning.

When the Secretary of State assesses the size of the discretionary learner support to be made available to each college, will he consider at least making one of the criteria the number of second-year students who currently receive EMA, to assist colleges and students in the transition to the new system?

Topical Questions

I am pleased to announce that, on 1 February, more than another 30 schools converted to academy status, meaning that there are now more than 440 academies. Tomorrow we will debate the Education Bill, which will give all Members an opportunity to consider the further advance of the movement, which gives all head teachers more autonomy, and promises all children the raising of standards. The Education Bill will also provide all Members with an opportunity to vote for measures that will ensure better discipline and higher standards in every school.

The Schools Minister, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), is fond of saying that there is adequate money in the early intervention grant to fund the network of children’s centres. An education authority such as Hammersmith and Fulham is cutting by half in one year the children’s centre budget, closing nine out of 15 centres, including phase 1 centres in deprived areas, and sacking 50 staff—does that give the Secretary of State and the Minister pause for thought? If so, what will they do about education authorities that are wrecking children’s centres?

The hon. Gentleman has expressed his concern to me about the position in his area, and we discussed it last week. I will say what I said in answer to other hon. Members: good local authorities are restructuring with care, and looking at methods of clustering centres to merge back-office functions, because they know that that is the way to benefit from the Government’s work on payment by results.

T3. One of my local head teachers said to me last year that it can take up to a year to move a teacher who is not up to their particular responsibilities. Given that that could be a critical year for the children concerned, what steps can my right hon. Friend take to speed up that process? (38245)

No one is served when people who should not be in the classroom continue there. It increases the burden on other professionals and deprives children of the highest quality education. We are reviewing the professional standards for all teachers to make it easier for head teachers to ensure that staff who underperform are given the support that they need to improve or to move on.

T6. Given that the cuts in EMA will affect more than 2,600 low-paid families in my constituency, is the Minister not ashamed of that policy? What will he do to increase the top-up learner funds to help at least some of those families? (38248)

I have made it clear that we are absolutely determined to ensure that the worst-off are not disadvantaged by the new arrangements. However, I believe that there is a strong case for greater discretion to target some of things that Opposition Front Benchers identified as salient in helping people to achieve their best.

T4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of getting more capital into free schools would be to enable them to obtain it on the open market by allowing them the freedom to make a profit, as they can in Sweden? When will my right hon. Friend have the courage of his convictions and enable free schools to have the same freedoms as they have in Sweden? (38246)

It is always a pleasure to hear the radical proposals of my hon. Friend, whose stewardship of money when he was a councillor in Wandsworth and a Minister in a previous Conservative Government is a model to all. I shall look carefully at the case he makes, but the one thing that is clear is that we already know that our programme ensures that more new school places are being provided more cheaply than was the case under the previous Labour Government.

T7. Today is the first day of national apprenticeships week. We know that one of the most significant barriers to young people taking up apprenticeships is getting the right advice at school. In fact, there is now a confused situation, because the Government want to end Connexions and introduce an all-age service. Will the Minister explain what extra funds will be available to schools to procure advice for young people? (38249)

The hon. Lady is right to champion apprenticeships week. Indeed, she has personally championed apprenticeships in her constituency, and she knows that the Government are having ongoing discussions to see how we can help with that. It is critical that people get good, empirical, independent advice and guidance on vocational options such as apprenticeships. In the Education Bill, which the House is about to consider, we will make it a duty for schools to secure that independent, impartial advice on vocational learning.

T5. Cambridgeshire gets less school funding per pupil than almost anywhere in the country. If we received the per pupil average across England, we would have some £34 million more for education. Can the Secretary of State explain why pupils in Cambridgeshire deserve so much less money, and will he review that? (38247)

They deserve to be treated like every other student. We are reviewing funding and will be publishing a paper in the spring to try to ensure greater equity in the allocation of schools funding.

All 19 of the children’s centres in Sefton are under review. Does the Minister stand by her statement that local authorities have a legal duty to maintain a sufficient network of children’s centres? If she does, how many of Sefton council’s 19 children’s centres should it keep open to meet those legal duties?

The hon. Gentleman and I discussed this matter in detail when he introduced an Adjournment debate last week. I stand by my statement. Similarly, the council has a legal duty to consult before closing, opening or restructuring in its area. I am sure that it is in the middle of that consultation at the moment, and that parents will make their views very clear.

T8. Can the Secretary of State assure me that changes to education maintenance allowance will not leave college students disadvantaged compared with school sixth-formers, who will still be entitled to free school meals? (38250)

That point is well made by my hon. Friend. We have an anomaly at the moment, whereby the position of those in colleges and those in schools is not the same. The whole thrust of our policy making has been to try to ensure a level playing field between schools and colleges. The point he makes with respect to EMA weighs heavily with my colleagues and me.

Staff at the Independent Safeguarding Authority in Darlington learned from The Daily Telegraph on Saturday that the vetting and barring scheme is to be significantly scaled back. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Home Secretary about the reduction of that scheme, which is likely to affect child protection?

I had the opportunity to visit the hon. Lady’s constituency on Thursday, when I spoke to staff at Mowden Hall, the Department for Education headquarters in Darlington. I am pleased to say that I am the first Secretary of State to visit Darlington and Mowden Hall since the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), which is indicative of this Government’s commitment to the north-east, which was sadly not shared by the previous Administration.

A response to the Government’s review of vetting and barring will be made. The House will be informed of the details first. The one thing that we know is that the bureaucratic burden on the voluntary sector will be lifted. We will not only have a more proportionate system, but more children will be kept safe. Above all, we will ensure that volunteers and those who do so much to help in our society are given the trust that they need in order to carry on doing the wonderful work that they do.

T9. Will Ministers be prepared to look again at the rather puzzling exclusion of classical civilisation from the list of humanities scored in the English baccalaureate? Is classical civilisation not a humanity? (38251)

I am tempted to reply, “Timeo danaos et dona ferentes,” which, broadly translated, means, “Beware of geeks bearing gifts.” However, my hon. Friend is an impassioned champion of both Latin and Greek and the wider application of the classics in state schools. Latin is now on offer in more state schools than independent, fee-paying schools, and Latin and Greek are included in the English baccalaureate, along with modern foreign languages. His impassioned advocacy of classical civilisation certainly weighs with me.

I recently met some of the 229 students at Lewisham college in receipt of education maintenance allowance who told me that they had spent hundreds of pounds on equipment, IT and books. The Minister knows that there is a difference between the aspiration to be at college and sustaining attendance over a two-year period. Will he guarantee that no student in that situation will be forced to discontinue their second year because of lack of financial assistance?

The right hon. Lady is a champion of Lewisham college, which I have visited twice—I have laid bricks at Lewisham college, by the way, although not with any great skill. I can assure her that the places of college students, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, will not be put at risk by changes we make, and we will certainly take full account of representations from her and others on that point.

T10. When will the Minister announce further details of the learner support fund, including the amounts and time scales of such support to colleges across the country? (38252)

My hon. Friend makes a strong case for colleges. Perhaps it is time that I put on record the fact that this Government believe that further education colleges are the unheralded triumph of the English education system. Furthermore, we will continue to give them greater discretion, greater opportunity and greater freedoms in order to allow those with the tastes and talents to pursue vocational and other kinds of learning to fulfil their potential.

Has the Secretary of State had a look at the letter from the headmaster of Tibshelf school explaining the difficulties of having to deal with the split school site in Bolsover and North East Derbyshire? Has he also received a letter from the Derby building company Tomlinson and Sons which expected to build the school, or does he have the same disease as the Deputy Prime Minister and stop dealing with his Red Box after 3 o’clock?

I am grateful for that well-crafted question from the eloquent, grammar-school-educated Member for Bolsover. I am well aware that Derbyshire county council, under many years of Labour rule, did not secure value for money for the taxpayer. I am pleased that the incredibly wasteful Building Schools for the Future scheme is being replaced with a more effective way of ensuring that money goes to the front line, and I look forward in due course to visiting Bolsover and North East Derbyshire with him and the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) in order to salute what a coalition Government are doing for a generation betrayed by Labour.

I know that the Secretary of State is a strong supporter of our state boarding schools, such as Wymondham college in my constituency, which is doing excellent work pioneering special needs and academy schooling in the area. As he may know, Wymondham college was recently awarded academy status in order to pursue that work. Today, however, I received a letter from the college saying that the decision has been inexplicably reversed by officials in his Department. Will he agree to meet me and a delegation of Norfolk MPs to discuss the matter?

I have to confess myself perplexed by what my hon. Friend tells me, but of course I would be delighted to meet him. I know what impassioned advocates he and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) have been for Wymondham college.

(North East Derbyshire) (Lab): Children, parents and their teachers were delighted last month that the Government changed their minds about scrapping school sport partnerships. Unfortunately, however, the Secretary of State forgot to reinstate the money for them. I know that he is a very busy man and it was just an oversight, but will he take this opportunity to reassure the House that he will give school sport partnerships their money back?

I am overjoyed that in all my meetings with Baroness Campbell, the head of the Youth Sport Trust, since the announcement, she has expressed her delight that the funding that we have made available will be sufficient to ensure that the good work continues. I am reassured by her enthusiasm for this proposal, and I hope that the hon. Lady will be reassured too.

As Ministers review policy for young people and the youth services, will they ensure that they engage with local authorities, young people themselves and the voluntary sector to ensure that no local authority withdraws youth services where, with a bit of imagination, alternatives are available?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point about the importance of youth services, particularly of local authorities speaking to the people for whom those youth services are intended—young people. Not only has my Department set up a group from the voluntary sector dealing with youth issues, but a group of young people representing many of those organisations will be meeting me shortly to discuss the impact of the current situation on the charities and services in their areas.

The Minister responsible for children’s centres repeats the claim that good local authorities will merge their back-room functions and protect front-line services. Flagship Conservative council Westminster is merging back-room functions with Hammersmith, yet we expect children’s centres to face a significant reduction in staff, in the range of services and in outreach facilities, which are anticipated to fall by 40%. Is Westminster a good council?

I repeat that we are encouraging local authorities to focus in particular on outcomes, rather than on inputs. That is why we are beginning the process of payment by results. Local authorities will need to ensure that their services are structured in such a way that they improve outcomes for the most vulnerable children and families, otherwise they will not benefit.

Will my right hon. Friend investigate the activities of the Anti Academies Alliance, which is threatening a series of political strikes against any school seeking academy status?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the House’s attention to the activities of the Anti Academies Alliance, a group that is sponsored by, among others, the Socialist Workers party. There are a number of politically motivated strikes that some have been contemplating. I hope that Members in every part of the House will condemn any politically motivated strike action that makes children a political plaything. I also look forward to hearing from the Opposition Front Bench a clear and unequivocal condemnation of such activity.