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Education

Volume 531: debated on Monday 11 July 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Careers Service

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning—who is here with us in spirit, if not in body today—committed during an Education Bill debate to hold a summit for interested parties to focus on issues of transition to the new arrangements for young people’s careers guidance. That summit is to take place this Friday. Following the event, we will set out key milestones for the transition period up to September 2012 to support local authorities’ transition planning. We will also look to share examples of the models being developed at the local level, and the material will be made available on the Local Government Association’s communities of practice website.

We know that this Government are fond of pauses, but it is eight months since the Minister announced the end of Connexions and the start of the new all-age career service. In the meantime, parents and practitioners have been left with no help to support young people in assessing their options or planning for their futures, so will Casper the Ghost Minister take this opportunity to provide detailed guidance, eight months after it was promised, on how the transitional arrangements and the new service will work?

I am impressed by the hon. Lady’s affection for Connexions, which does not exist in Scotland anyway. She will have just four more days to wait until after the summit that was promised and discussed in Committee, when my hon. Friend the Minister will lay out our plans in detail, with plenty of time for the transitions to come into effect.

Will the Minister update us on the Government’s plans to introduce performance measures that highlight the progress in attainment not only of those on the five A*-to-C boundary, but of those not achieving that level?

There is an odd connection, as the hon. Gentleman says. Last week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out the plans for raising the threshold, which is surely a much more realistic and aspirational target than the rather poor compromise that we have had up to now.

I am not surprised that the Minister in charge of the careers service does not want to show his face in this place—it has not done his own career any good—but I am pleased that our man in Havana is with us today. This whole episode has been handled absolutely shambolically, but will the Minister now at least confirm, even at this late stage, that despite the lack of a transition plan eight months on from the announcement, face-to-face quality advice and guidance from a careers professional will be provided to all children, and that no one will be left out?

As a question, that was close, but no cigar. However, just last week the hon. Gentleman was referring to my hon. Friend the Minister as his friend, and he will appreciate more than many the immense amount of work that he has put in to ensure that the arrangements are absolutely right. Let us remember that it was the hon. Gentleman’s former friend, the right hon. Alan Milburn, who panned the former Connexions service as being patchy and inefficient. We want to ensure that we do not make those sorts of mistakes and that we get it right for our many young people in future.

English Baccalaureate

2. What assessment he has made of the effects of the decision not to include religious education in the English baccalaureate. (64598)

We have had a large number of representations about the potential effect of the English baccalaureate on religious education in schools. We are carrying out our own work to assess the extent of the changes that schools are making from next year, and we shall continue to monitor the take-up of all subjects and the associated staffing implications. Religious education remains a vital subject that it is compulsory for all schools to teach through to the age of 16.

I have been lobbying the Government on this issue for some months now. The schools Minister has repeatedly asked for evidence to back up claims that excluding RE from the E-bac will have a negative impact on take-up and teaching provision. Last week, a report by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, based on evidence from half of all state schools in England, showed that a quarter of schools are not providing statutory RE for 14 to 16-year-olds. Will the Minister address the issue, now that we have the proof?

The NATRE study cited by my hon. Friend suggests that around one in six schools anticipate a drop in religious studies entries at GCSE related to the E-bac, but it is not clear what overall effect that might have on take-up. Well over half of schools specifically indicated in that survey that there would not be a drop in GCSE entries in RS; indeed, a proportion said that there would be an increase in entries. That bears out the fact that the English baccalaureate does not prevent any school from offering RS GCSEs, and RE remains a statutory part of the curriculum.

I do not know whether you are a fan of films of the ‘80s, Mr Speaker, but you might remember one called “Back to the Future”. It starred a man called Michael who was trapped in the 1950s—an echo, perhaps, of someone else in modern politics. Ministers are hopelessly stuck in the past: they drop work experience at key stage 4 and promote Latin above engineering, ICT and RE, yet we know religious education helps young people understand the world today. Ministers tell us that the E-bac is what parents and students want, so will the Minister tell us what percentage of year 9 students who have recently chosen their GCSE options have opted for the English bac?

We do not collect the figure centrally. We will see the effect of the English baccalaureate when we see the GCSE results this year, next year and the year after that. If the right hon. Gentleman wants a modern curriculum, he should be aware that we need modern languages to be taught in our schools. Under his watch, the numbers entering for GCSE in modern languages plummeted from 79% in the year 2000 to just 43% last year, while the proportion taking geography fell from 44% in 1997 to 27% last year. The range of subjects in the English baccalaureate is mirrored elsewhere in modern emerging economies such as Singapore, France, Japan and Alberta. [Hon. Members: “Alberta?”] In Canada. Those are the most successful education jurisdictions.

It is just not good enough that the Minister does not know about the impact his policies are having on student choices in schools. In my constituency, about 30% of young people are opting for the English bac; what does the Minister have to say to the other 70% who have chosen not to do it? RE teachers, music teachers and art teachers are at risk of redundancy because of the English baccalaureate. No wonder nine faith leaders wrote to The Daily Telegraph this weekend to say that they were

“gravely concerned about the negative impact current Government policies are having on RE in schools”.

Ministers promised freedom, choice and autonomy in education; is it not time that they started living up to those words?

If we were to take advice from the right hon. Gentleman, we would have a cap on aspiration for young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. He should be ashamed of the fact that his Government left this Government a legacy whereby only 8% of pupils on free school meals were even entered for the English baccalaureate subjects, and these are subjects that the Russell group of universities regards as the facilitating subjects that give rise to progression. Only 4% of those pupils actually achieved the results in comparison with 15.6% nationally. The right hon. Gentleman had a cap on aspiration; we want to raise aspiration right across the abilities and backgrounds of young people.

Public Examinations

The Government are committed to ensuring that GCSEs and A-levels compare with the best exams in the world, so we will increase the role of higher education in the development of A-levels; we will change the rules on modules and retakes so that GCSE examinations are taken at the end of the course; and we will ensure that proper marks are once more given for spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Does my right hon. Friend recall a study by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2008—I think he will because he commented on it at the time—showing that 1,300 of the brightest 16-year-olds found great difficulty answering questions taken from the 1960s and ’70s? Does this not prove that standards have dropped? Is there any evidence that the steps my right hon. Friend is taking will make a real difference so that we can halt the catastrophic decline in the standard of A-levels?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right to say that the Royal Society of Chemistry and other learned bodies have pointed out that some examinations our young people sit today simply do not compare with the best in the world. I have asked the Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator to ensure that the tests that our children sit to prepare them for the 21st century are every bit as rigorous as those in the other countries that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) mentioned, which are currently outpacing us in educational achievement.

On 9 June, Ofqual apologised for the record number of examination question errors this year and said that every paper had been rechecked. On 12 June, three more examination papers were found with errors in them. Why?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, which is why Ofqual has ensured that there will be an inquiry into the mistakes made by the awarding bodies. This is not the first year, and it might not be the last, in which awarding bodies made mistakes in examinations, but it is a cause of heartbreak for every family affected. We inherited an examination system from the previous Government that needed reform. That is why we are changing both the way Ofqual operates and the way in which awarding bodies are held to account.

“Out of Mind, Out of Sight”

4. What representations he has received on the report “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” issued by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. (64600)

The CEOP thematic assessment has been widely welcomed as an important contribution to the tackling of child sexual exploitation. As available data are limited, the report does not provide a complete picture of this horrific abuse, but it does help us to understand much better the scale, nature and complexity of the issues that we are facing. As the hon. Lady knows, the Government are working with national and local partners to develop a comprehensive action plan, which we will publish this autumn.

The CEOP report says that sexually exploited children frequently go missing or run away, but, the Children’s Society report “Make Runaways Safe”, which was published today, says that two thirds of runaway children are not reported missing. One of its most disturbing findings is that most runaway children do not seek help because they do not feel that there is anyone whom they can trust. When drawing up his action plan, will the Minister take full account of the findings of both those reports?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady again for the immense amount of work that she has done. She and I recently took part in a debate on the subject in Westminster Hall. She is right to draw attention to the strong link between runaway children and sexual exploitation, and that will certainly feature in the action plan we are drawing up. The Children’s Society report, which was published today, makes even more harrowing reading and reminds us of the urgency of the task. According to the report, children as young as eight are subjected to sexual exploitation, which is completely unacceptable.

Industrial Action

5. On how many days annually on average schools were closed owing to strike action between (a) 1979 and 1997 and (b) 1997 and 2010; and what assessment he has made of the likely trends in days lost to such action in the next four years. (64601)

My Department published detailed information on school closures associated with the industrial action on 30 June. The Department has not collected such detailed figures in the past, so we do not have comprehensive figures for the days lost between 1979 and 2010, and it is not possible to predict the number of days on which schools might close in the event of future industrial action.

It is clear from figures available to Labour Members that more strike days were taken under the previous Conservative Government than under the more recent Labour Government. Is that because a Tory-led Government are incapable of sitting around a table and negotiating with teachers, or does the Secretary of State have an alternative explanation?

I agree with the hon. Lady that negotiation is important. That is why I look forward to talking to representatives of the trade unions later this afternoon and why I value the discussions that we have with them, not just about pensions but about every issue.

In all the pension negotiations that have led to the recent strikes, the Secretary of State seems to have been a bit of a non-entity. Has he made any representations to his Cabinet Office and Treasury colleagues in support of the teachers’ case on pensions, or has he decided simply to wash his hands of their concerns?

I note that the hon. Gentleman has promoted me from Marty McFly to Pontius Pilate in just 30 seconds. Far from washing my hands, however, I have been actively intervening to ensure that, across Government, we make certain that pensions for valued public sector workers such as teachers are protected, while at the same time being fair to all taxpayers and reflecting the reforms that Lord Hutton, in his excellent report, suggested we pursue.

Youth Services

I discuss youth services regularly with a wide range of stakeholders, particularly young people. The Government acknowledge the value of year-round services when they are of high quality, but too many are of variable quality, insufficiently targeted on those most in need, and not open to a range of providers. Through the early intervention grant we are encouraging local authorities to improve services by making better use of the voluntary sector, increasing the involvement of local businesses, and ensuring that disadvantaged young people receive early help.

On 4 May, the Minister told the Select Committee on Education that he was concerned about the “bang for your buck” in the provision of universal youth services. The Committee’s report on youth services shows that the national citizen service, as currently constructed, does not provide value for money. What action is the Minister taking to prevent himself from being hauled before the Public Accounts Committee for wasting valuable resources that should go to our young people?

I noticed that the term “value for money” tripped rather awkwardly from the hon. Lady’s lips. The Select Committee report was about services beyond the school day for young people aged between 13 and 25, yet the press release focused almost solely on the national citizens service, which is for 16-year-olds. We are running pilots this year. The purpose of pilots is to see how things work, and in this case to ensure we get value for money and the biggest bang for our buck so that as many of our 16-year-olds as possible will benefit from this wonderful scheme in years to come. I hope the hon. Lady will visit one of the schemes in her area.

The Minister rightly pointed out that provision has been different in that the service has been non-statutory. What consideration has he given to the idea of objectives being proposed that it would be hoped commissioners would take up, so that young people across the country would be able to engage with the process and there could be some minimum standards?

I take on board my hon. Friend’s point. Youth service provision is very patchy across the country and needs to be modernised, and some youth services departments do not take on board what local people actually need. Above all, we must ensure that we involve all the relevant sectors and people—the voluntary and business sectors, youth workers and, most importantly, young people themselves, who are often not included in consultations on the services we provide for them. I am determined that under my watch that will be a thing of the past.

The Minister says he thinks value for money is important and stresses the importance of the voluntary sector in providing youth services, but the Select Committee on Education report makes it absolutely clear that voluntary service organisations are already playing a very significant part in youth service provision and tells the Government that they need to acknowledge what is happening on the ground and act now. Will the Minister speak up for our young people and explain what he is going to do about the crisis in youth service provision, with local authorities right across the country making swingeing cuts?

Unlike the previous Government, who rather demonised young people, this Government will speak up for young people wherever we can. That is why the comprehensive youth policy we are putting together will be called “positive for youth.” It will include contributions from the voluntary sector, the business sector, the youth worker sector and young people themselves. Our very successful summit at the QEII centre in March was a springboard for probably the most comprehensive youth policy that any Government will produce. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman reading that report when it comes out in the autumn.

Traveller Children

For the record, the Minister should be advised that Braybrooke primary school in my constituency is populated 100% by Traveller children. It must be the only school in the country where children from the local village do not attend and the entire population is made up of children from local Traveller camps. Will my hon. Friend be kind enough to visit the school to see how we might address this unique situation?

I will, of course, be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and Braybrooke primary school. The Government are committed to the promotion of community cohesion and to breaking down barriers between different groups in society, and we have committed £201 million within the dedicated schools grant to help schools raise the performance of ethnic minority pupils, including Traveller children.

Careers Service

The careers guidance provisions in clauses 26 and 27 of the Education Bill have been extensively debated and will be subjected to further scrutiny in the House of Lords. A wide range of stakeholders submitted evidence to inform the passage of the Education Bill through Parliament.

Ministers frequently respond to correspondence relating to the delivery of careers guidance. The subject has been raised in discussions with a number of interested parties including representatives from the careers sector, the Association of School and College Leaders and the Association of Colleges.

Careers advice and guidance will have to be provided in schools, but my understanding is that no inspection regime will be in force to ensure they do so. How will we know that schools facing scarcity of resources will provide impartial and high-quality advice?

The most important way we will discover how well the new system will work is not through measuring inputs, but through measuring outcomes. Ofsted will therefore have a role in looking at the destinations of young people leaving school, and that will be part of the performance measures we are currently discussing, which will be in place for 2012.

It is obvious from information around the country that the young people who most need face-to-face careers guidance are those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, where they do not receive that support at home. As Ministers consider how to deal with the Education Bill in the Lords and this guidance, will they reflect on the fact that specific advice that would lead to face-to-face careers guidance would be hugely valued, particularly in the most disadvantaged schools and areas?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point and, as I say, those considerations will form part of the summit that my colleague is holding this Friday. He makes the point that every child is different, and we need to ensure that we provide tailor-made careers advice that is suitable and appropriate for the child. The new arrangements will give schools far greater flexibility to make sure that they are delivering what works to the children they know best.

The Minister talks about outputs, but the reality is that we cannot look at them unless there is some input in the first place. People at my local schools in Blackpool are distraught that the Department has taken away the dedicated £200 million that was supposed to go into providing face-to-face guidance. How does he expect proper provision to be delivered if he is not investing any money in the first place?

The hon. Gentleman will recall that funding for schools has been greatly protected, and now, by taking away the ring fences, we are making sure that schools can deliver the most appropriate, best-quality careers advice for the children they know best. That used to happen when I was at school under a Mr Herbert, although one could say that my ending up as a Member of Parliament does not suggest the best careers advice.

Pupil Premium

9. What assessment he has made of the way in which the pupil premium is being spent in (a) Lancaster and Fleetwood constituency and (b) England. (64605)

Schools are best placed to decide how to spend the pupil premium in ways that they judge to be most effective in helping their most deprived pupils. We will learn from those schools that are making the most effective use of the premium. From this year, performance tables will publish data showing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers. From September 2012, schools will provide information to parents about their use of pupil premium funding.

I am not sure that that was quite the answer to my question. Given the importance of this policy, the fact that we are at last beginning to target extra resources on some of the most disadvantaged pupils in all our schools and the fact that there have been so many failed policies in this sphere, how are we going to assess this policy?

The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that I did not answer his point about Lancaster and Fleetwood, so I will respond to him in writing about it. As I said, schools will be held accountable for their use of the pupil premium by the detail in the performance tables, which will be published from this year, and by the requirement from September 2012 to make it clear how they are spending their pupil premium money in respect of the progress made on the attainment of the pupils it covers. We are also very committed to providing advice on best practice and we will be doing that soon.

The motto is that Ministers should look at the question on the Order Paper before answering, rather than afterwards, but I appreciate what the Minister has said and I think that the House is grateful for it.

Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education

10. When he plans to launch the internal review of personal, social, health and economic education announced in the teaching White Paper. (64606)

We will announce details of the internal review of personal, social, health and economic education shortly. The issues covered in this subject are very important. We are taking time to ensure that the review, when it starts, can identify what schools need to do to improve PSHE while allowing teachers the flexibility to use their judgment on how best to deliver it.

Figures reported last week showed that among 13 and 14-year-olds more than 1,000 abortions were carried out last year, which just highlights the need for us to do better in providing high-quality sex education taught in the context of relationships. Will the Minister stop delaying the review—it was due to start in February —so that we can ensure that children have access to the vital information and learning they need to develop into healthy and confident young adults?

My hon. Friend is right to say that these are important issues. Children need to have good-quality PSHE at schools, and that is precisely what the review will cover. We are taking our time setting up the review to ensure that its remit is correctly drafted and that the quality of the review gives rise to a high-quality improvement in the teaching of PSHE in those subjects in our schools.

But will he ensure that the need for schools to help to prevent domestic violence and violence between boys and girls is made a priority in the review? Every relevant Committee of this House, including the most recent Select Committee on Home Affairs, has identified that although in Britain we are relatively good at dealing with the policing of domestic violence, we are very bad at preventing it. Schools have more of a role to play; will the Minister ensure that they do that?

Yes. We are determined to play a strong part in the cross-government action plan on ending violence, particularly against women and girls, that is led by the Home Office. We are providing support to families with multiple problems, funded by the early intervention grant, and we are taking forward the recommendations of the Reg Bailey review. The PSHE review will consider sexual consent, which is an important issue to cover, and we are raising standards of behaviour in our schools, with a particular focus on anti-bullying.

Following the publication of the internal review, will the Minister ensure that the consultation that is undertaken will restate the very important part that governors and parents play in the development of such policies?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. All the reviews we are carrying out will be open and we will want a wide consultation with as many representations from interested parties as possible, including governors and parents.

There has been an explosion in internal trafficking and the grooming of school girls for the purposes of sexual exploitation, and although I hate to add more ideas to the curriculum, schools need to discuss that, to identify the symptoms and to explain the dangers to children. I hate to add new material to the work of the Department, but could this problem now be tackled in schools by alerting children to what they might face and how to recognise it?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise these issues. Such actions are crimes and are unacceptable in our society, and the issues that he raises were covered by the Reg Bailey review and will form a part of the review we are asking the committee to consider.

University Technical Colleges

11. What assessment he has made of the level of interest in establishing university technical colleges. (64607)

The investment in UTCs and technical academies is very welcome and will, I believe, provide a substantial boost to education standards in the areas that will have them. Has my right hon. Friend given any thought to how we can accelerate the UTC programme so that more areas can benefit from this fantastic programme?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a champion of high-quality vocational and technical education. The Government are doing more for vocational and technical education than any and that is why I am so pleased that he is heavily involved with the bid to ensure that Reading receives an appropriate technical academy. We are doing everything possible to accelerate consideration of those bids and to support as many as possible and I am grateful for the support of the Chancellor.

The Secretary of State will know that many of us hope that the university technical school pilots will be successful and we watch with great interest. Has not an important opportunity been missed of working with the further education sector, which knows a lot about teaching young people from the age of 14 in technical subjects? Is there not a great deal of capacity and potential in that market, too?

The hon. Gentleman makes a characteristically shrewd point. Professor Alison Wolf argued in her report that we should ensure parity of esteem between teachers in schools and those in further education colleges, that the qualified teacher learning and skills status, or QTLS, qualification should be considered equivalent to qualified teacher status, or QTS, and that the links between schools and FE colleges should be improved in a number of ways. As ever, the hon. Gentleman hits the nail squarely on the head.

Curriculum

We are currently reviewing the national curriculum. As part of that review, we carried out a call for evidence that attracted nearly 5,800 responses, including many that raised issues about the breadth of the curriculum. The national curriculum sets out the curriculum that all maintained schools must teach, but it is only part of the wider curriculum, which is determined by school themselves. All schools are required to teach a broad and balanced curriculum.

In considering representations, has the Minister thought about what Barack Obama’s Education Secretary said? He commented:

“U.S. students will need both the hard skills of math and English language arts and science, and the soft employability skills, to thrive in our flattened world.”

Will the Minister perhaps reconsider things such as the E-bac curriculum for a flattened world rather than continuing with the flat earth views he seems to have had until now?

Arne Duncan came to this country to see schools such as Mossbourne academy delivering a very high-quality curriculum. The hon. Gentleman must not confuse the national curriculum with the school curriculum. We do not want to set out every minute of every hour of every day in the national curriculum, which was the approach taken by the previous Government. We should leave it to the professionalism of teachers to determine the school curriculum, which covers issues such as soft skills and ensuring that children have a rounded education and are confident people when they leave school.

In conducting his review of the curriculum, will my hon. Friend give consideration to the choices that young people make about GCSE subjects at a young age without having enough information about how those choices might affect their university aspirations? Will he ask schools to make sure that they are aware of the “Informed Choices” document recently published by the Russell group of universities?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is a concern that only 8% of young people who qualify for free school meals are even entered for the English baccalaureate subjects and that only 4% achieve the desired results. The Government are determined to close the attainment gap between those from poorer and those from wealthier backgrounds. Taking the right choices at GCSE and A-level is key to ensuring progression either into further and higher education or into successful employment.

Music

We are very lucky that there is so much excellent music teaching in our schools and we are anxious to ensure that it improves even further. We have made £82.5 million available to make that a reality. In the past few months, we have received almost 4,000 representations on how we can further improve music education.

As the Secretary of State says, the Government have announced this new system of funding music in schools. If it is, indeed, a bidding system, what assurances can he give to the schools and schoolchildren who will inevitably lose out?

I do not believe that any school or child will lose out. The hon. Gentleman is very lucky that on his doorstep sits the Sage centre, which is an outstanding exemplar of music education. The funds that we have available and the national music plan that we hope to unveil this autumn will ensure that the already high standards that exist in areas such as south Tyneside are augmented even further in future.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the recent announcement of a national music competition, the “Next BRIT thing”, which is backed by both the Government and the UK music industry? Is it not an example of the Government’s commitment to nurturing our future musical talent?

History

14. What recent representations he has received on the teaching of British history to all children of secondary school age. (64610)

We have received a number of representations about the teaching of history in secondary schools and about the place of British history in the curriculum. In addition, as part of our review of the national curriculum, our recent call for evidence attracted nearly 5,800 responses, of which more than 2,500 related to history.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. One of the great achievements of the previous Conservative Government was ensuring that every child learned some British history before leaving school, but some academies are now designing alternative curricula for pupils who will not achieve a C grade in the English baccalaureate, which might mean that they do not study history at all—at secondary school at least. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to impress on academy head teachers the importance of all children being taught British history?

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend about the importance of teaching history in schools, particularly British history, and we know that teachers share this view. Having the flexibility for teachers to be imaginative in how they design the curriculum within a broad and balanced context is a key feature of the academies programme, and the improvements we have seen in academies’ GCSE results suggests that this approach is working well among academies. However, we hope and expect that the curriculum review will deliver a high-quality national curriculum that academies will wish to adopt. It is important that we do not limit aspiration, as my hon. and learned Friend has said, and that is why we will be publishing data specifically about the GCSE results of lower-attaining students on a school-by-school basis.

Will the Minister confirm that the most recent Ofsted report stated that the decline in the teaching of British history was a myth? Is not the real issue that the average 11 to 13-year-old receives only 38 hours of history teaching a year, with academies being among the worst-performing schools in that regard?

There is a lot of very high-quality history teaching taking place at both primary and secondary level but we are concerned about the drop in the proportion of young people taking history at GCSE, which fell from 35% of the cohort in 1997 to just 31% in 2009. Addressing that lies at the heart of the reason for introducing the concept of the English baccalaureate.

Sure Start Children’s Centres

15. What assessment he has made of the effect of changes in funding for Sure Start children’s centres in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. (64611)

The Department for Education does not collect detailed information on Sure Start children’s centres in individual local authorities. Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that there are sufficient children’s centres in their area to meet local need, so far as is reasonably practicable. It is for local authorities to commission Sure Start children’s centres and to monitor and evaluate the use and impact of their services.

There have been 45% cuts in the Sure Start budget in one year; nine centres deregistering because they have had more than 90% cuts and cannot function; and parents taking and winning judicial reviews to restore a basic service. In February the Minister said that she was monitoring the situation in Hammersmith and Fulham because there were particular concerns. Will she do more than monitor now and take some action while we still have any Sure Start centres left?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue on many occasions. He might also be aware that last week we announced some changes to the Sure Start programme so that we will be piloting payment by results, for example. We will also require local authorities to publish information about what they are spending and on what services. If local authorities are systematically downgrading services, as he suggests, they will obviously not be eligible to benefit from payment by results, and we will be able to see that clearly from the transparency requirements that we are putting in place.

The Minister is right to be careful when faced with the wild misrepresentations on the issue from the Opposition Benches. Is she aware that Hammersmith and Fulham council has announced that it is committed not only to maintaining its existing 15 children’s centre venues, but to expanding them by a further one centre?

I know that the Minister wants parents to be more involved in their local children’s centres, but I am not sure that parents taking their council to court is exactly what she meant. Will the Secretary of State and the Ministers accept that it was their choice to slash the funding and remove the ring fence that led to the present chaos? If so, will they use the imminent early years statement finally to set out how they will keep their promise and the Prime Minister’s numerous promises to protect Sure Start from cuts and closures?

That was an awful lot of waffle. [Interruption.] I will have to wait until everybody stops yelling because I have not got enough voice to yell over everybody else today—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) will just have to wait with bated breath for our early years statement, which will be out shortly and in which we will make further announcements about Sure Start and how we intend to improve the quality of early years.

Academies

16. How many schools in (a) Harrow East constituency and (b) England have converted, or applied to convert, to academy status. (64612)

Three high schools in Harrow East have applied to convert to academy status and are aiming to convert in a collaborative partnership with four other high schools in Harrow. A primary school is also aiming to convert in the autumn. More than 1,000 schools in England have applied to convert to academy status since June 2010. The total number of open academies, including those opened under the previous Government, now stands at 801.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on leading this quiet revolution in education in this country, freeing schools from the dead hand of local education authorities and allowing them to develop and grow. What role does he foresee local education authorities fulfilling in the future, and what arrangements is he making for the governance of these new schools to enable them to flourish and grow?

Local authorities have a crucial role to play in education in ensuring fairness of admissions, making sure that the needs of children who have, for example, high-level special educational needs are respected, and making sure that when it comes to behaviour and attendance, there is appropriate collaboration. They also have a critical role to play as champions of excellence. The best local authorities pursue this role with vigour. Not all do, however.

Bursary Scheme

17. Whether young people being raised by kinship carers will be eligible for the bursary scheme which will replace education maintenance allowance. (64613)

The short answer is probably. The long answer is that under the arrangements for the 16 to 19 bursary fund, the most vulnerable young people—young people in care, care leavers, those on income support, and disabled young people in receipt of both employment support allowance and disability living allowance—will receive bursaries of £1,200 a year. Young people being raised by kinship carers may fall into this category, depending on the nature of the placement, and may also receive support from the discretionary funding.

I am disappointed that the Minister cannot give a more specific response. These carers have stepped up to the plate, often when children have been abandoned or orphaned, and often at great financial and personal cost to themselves. I urge him to listen to organisations such as Kinship Care Alliance and, if the Government are as family-friendly as he will no doubt tell us they are in answering the question, look at families that do not fit the nuclear model and perhaps live in chaotic circumstances, but who still need help?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that kinship carers do a fantastic job, and we want more of them to step up to do it and be supported in that, but it depends on the nature of the placement and whether it is formal or informal. If it is informal, those children and young people will be able to apply for discretionary funding and could end up getting more than they would have done under the old EMA arrangements. We have taken those considerations into account.

Family-friendly Policies

The Government are committed to promoting family-friendly policies that can support better child outcomes, help parents to balance work and family life and deliver real benefits to employers. The Department is funding a scheme to support organisations to adopt more family-friendly services and working environments for clients and employees. The Government are consulting on proposals to introduce more flexible parental leave and extend the right to flexible working to all employees.

Lack of good child care can consign many capable women to the family home or to not having children. What action will the Minister take to improve this situation?

I am very aware of the difficulties that many families face in accessing suitable child care, which is one of the reasons why we announced last week that we will consult on a more flexible arrangement for adopting the free entitlement so that families can access it a little earlier and a little later in the day, for example. That is exactly why we extended the free entitlement to 15 hours.

Topical Questions

I am delighted that my Department, following extremely hard work by the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), and our behaviour adviser Mr Charlie Taylor, has today published new behaviour guidance, which is significantly slimmer, and more focused and effective. It has been widely welcomed by teachers as at last getting to grips with the indiscipline in some of our weakest schools.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He recently mentioned that there were about 200 failing primary schools in this country, which is a shocking statistic. Although there is no list, I believe that Shelthorpe primary school in my constituency is one of them. When judging whether a school is failing, what allowances are made for pupils with moderate learning difficulties, cases of social deprivation, cases involving social care and the number of free school meals? Also, the school’s head teacher has asked me to invite the Secretary of State to visit the school.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. We specifically take into account not just raw attainment, but the progress that children are making in school to ensure that any judgment is properly contextualised. The 200 weakest schools are those that have been below floor standards for five years. Let me be clear: that means that more than 40% of students leaving those schools over the previous four years have been incapable of reading, writing or adding up to an acceptable level. We absolutely need to take action where schools are failing and where communities are aware that those schools are not performing as well as they should be. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will recognise that such action is necessary.

T5. Will the Secretary of State reassure the parents, teachers and governors of Moorside school in Halifax that they will get the necessary capital funding for the new build they have been promised for so long, and if so, say when they will get it? (64626)

It is vital to ensure that we have an accurate picture of the schools that are most in need of capital funding. One of the unfortunate consequences of decisions made by the previous Government is that in about 2006 we stopped collecting data at a national level on the state of school buildings, which means that we do not have an accurate picture of the schools that are most in need. The hon. Lady makes a very good case for a school in her constituency, which I know she represents effectively, but we have to look at the picture in the round.

T2. Five families have been refused admission to Wootton primary school on the Isle of Wight from the beginning of next term, which means that four-year-olds will have to travel to other schools, the nearest of which is 2.5 miles away. Mothers who want to travel with their child would have to pay for that, assuming that public transport was available. This is a complete scandal. Surely the ridiculous limits on the size of primary schools imposed by the Labour party need to be reconsidered, and before the beginning of next term. (64623)

I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point. It is not the first time that we have received reports of this nature, with families frustrated and confused by an admissions system that is too complex and bureaucratic and which effectively rations places in good and popular schools. That is why we are consulting on simpler and fairer admissions systems. The key point is that there are simply not enough good school places, so it was absurd that it was not possible before to raise the number of places in good schools. Increasing the flexibility to do so is therefore a major part of the new admissions code.

The baccalaureate’s emphasis on ancient history and Latin will allow our students to cope admirably with the Roman invasion 2,000 years ago, but leave them less able to cope with modern life, because of the neglect of IT. In which century are the Government living?

It is a source of considerable pride to me that the number of students studying Latin in comprehensives is the highest ever. We are presiding over the greatest renaissance in Latin learning since Julius Caesar invaded. [Interruption.] Those who are about to answer should be saluted, as we say in Latin. The critical thing is that we have to ensure that our examinations in every subject are up there with the best in the world. It is striking that before he went to university, one of the iconic figures of the 21st century—Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook—studied Latin, Greek and classical Hebrew.

T3. I recently met parents who send their children to Sceptre school, a Christian-based independent school that has decided to apply for free school status. They said: “Overall, we will be able to enrich the choice and diversity that will, in turn, drive up standards and increase opportunities.”Is that not an example of the Conservative-led Government delivering? (64624)

I am hugely grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the enormous interest in our free school programme. Everyone from former advisers in Tony Blair’s No. 10 through to figures from grass-roots faith organisations has embraced that reform. I fear that the only people who are still standing against that wave of the future are the isolated and neolithic figures of the Labour Front Bench.

The Secretary of State knows that one of the neediest schools that he has to deal with—and it was described as a compelling case by one of his junior Ministers—is Tibshelf, which was built before the first world war. Pit props are holding up part of the roof, and teachers have to tramp between one school and another to keep the show on the road. When is the Secretary of State going to give the Tibshelf people a chance to have their new school built?

The hon. Gentleman is a consistent and effective campaigner on behalf of the parents, children and teachers of Tibshelf school, and I congratulate them on having such an impassioned defender. However, that school is in such poor repair because, under 13 years of Labour rule, money was wasted. It did not go to the front line, and the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, like many poorer students around the country, were failed by an arrogant, unaccountable and out-of-touch Labour Government.

T4. The Sutton Trust has recently stated that under the previous Government, between 2007 and 2009, a group of 2,000 secondary schools and sixth-form colleges sent fewer pupils to Oxford and Cambridge than just five of our leading independent schools. Will my right hon. Friend join me in deploring that situation, and will he set out what this Government are going to do to put that record right? (64625)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that social mobility went backwards under Labour. Poorer students had a better chance of going to university before the Labour Government came to power than after they left office. We are changing that, and we are making sure that with increased investment through the pupil premium, higher standards in the English baccalaureate and a remorseless drive to get the best possible teachers into the classroom, standards rise for the poorest. It is a great pity that the once so-called party of progress is standing in the way of that necessary reform.

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), Ministers repeated the confusion about who will, or will not, be eligible for education maintenance allowance. Given the overwhelming evidence that young people need to know whether they will receive EMA so that they can make a decision to go to college, will the Government think again?

I am grateful for the point that the hon. Lady makes. We are doing everything possible to ensure that the replacement for education maintenance allowance, the discretionary learner support fund, is in place as soon as possible. We had consultations with college principals who said that while they accepted that these were straitened times, they would prefer to have discretion over how that funding was allocated, and we are happy to accede to that general advice.

T6. At Frogwell primary school in Chippenham I have seen for myself the success of the Every Child Counts drive for early intervention to aid numeracy in Wiltshire schools. How does the Secretary of State propose to monitor the take-up of such programmes now that the budgets that pay for them have been delegated to schools themselves? (64627)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Catch-up programmes in numeracy and literacy are hugely important. That is why we are making sure that in our reform of the accountability measures for all schools we take account not only of the raw attainment at the end of primary school but of how children do, particularly when they are from poorer backgrounds or have low levels of prior attainment. It is not for us to prescribe exactly the method, but it is for us to ensure that the poorest are better served.

Can the Education Secretary confirm that the objective of his schools reforms, particularly the introduction of free schools, is to provide an over-supply of schools, thereby inevitably setting some schools up for failure? Has he made an assessment of the costs and upheaval that that will generate?

That is an interesting ideological take, but I am afraid that the hon. Lady is wrong. If she wants to talk about setting schools up for failure, she should look at the at east 200 underperforming primary schools that we were discussing earlier. Free schools will introduce innovation and higher standards to some of the areas that are desperately in need of new schools. They will also ensure that the growth in pupil population at primary, for which the previous Government failed to prepare adequately, is at last addressed with innovative new schools in the places that count.

T7. How can parents of children with special needs be more involved in the education of their children? I recently met parents at Ripplevale school in my constituency who say that they must not only battle the difficulties and challenges that are obvious to all but battle the education authority, time and again, to get a fair, decent and proper education for their children. (64628)

We finished our consultation on the Green Paper on 30 June and received 2,300 responses along similar lines to those my hon. Friend has outlined. I feel very passionately about the need to involve parents better, particularly if their child has special educational needs. That is one of the reasons we are rolling out Achievement for All—a programme that does exactly that.

When do Ministers expect to come to a conclusion with the devolved Administrations on the replacement for the child trust fund for looked-after children, which was promised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer some months ago but which, as far as I can see, is still yet to reach its final stages?

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that over the past few weeks a lot of discussions have been going on between the Treasury, ourselves, some of the charities involved and hon. Members who have made these proposals. There are a number of practical problems that we have to overcome to make sure that we get the most cost-effective scheme that has the biggest impact for those who most need it, but I can assure him that it is going to happen.

T8. May I commend strongly to the Secretary of State the proposal for a free school at Breckland school in Brandon—a middle school that was set for closure under the previous Administration? If that happened, there would be no post-11 education in Brandon, but if it gets the go-ahead as a free school there will be education all the way up to 16. That will have a massively positive impact on the community, and I hope that he will commend it. (64629)

I agree with the Secretary of State’s aim to raise standards in primary schools. Will he therefore meet me to discuss why he is seeking to remove the outstanding leadership of a primary school in my constituency that has been praised by his permanent secretary and has this year taken children above floor standards, and where his proposals threaten to make the situation much worse?

T9. Over recent weeks, I have seen many parents in my constituency surgery who are extremely unhappy because they could not get their sons and daughters into the schools of their choice. What can my right hon. Friend do to end this school place lottery and get more good school places in my constituency? (64630)

My hon. Friend raises a good point, which is a major concern of this Government. More than one in six parents have children who are not offered a place at their preferred school. That has led to 85,000 appeals. We are reviewing the admissions process, which is far too complex to understand and administer. One of the proposals is to allow good schools to raise the pupil admissions number. We have had a very good response to the consultation so far and will announce our response in due course.

Order. It is much better when the hon. Gentleman addresses the House. We always look forward to that.

It appears that the 16 to 19 funding consultation for 2013-14 will not be published until September at the earliest. Will the Secretary of State take steps to ensure that that does not delay the publication of information about the 2012-13 budgets for schools and colleges?

The hon. Gentleman was a great FE principal and is a superb advocate for further education. We will do everything we can to accelerate this process.

T10. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the five schools in my city of Lincoln constituency that have converted into academies, the latest being Ermine primary school? Does he agree that academy status can bring significant benefits to schools across England by providing them with greater freedoms, rather than top-down bureaucracy, as was witnessed under the previous Labour Government? (64631)

That question was epigrammatically brilliant and requires no further elucidation from me, other than to say, “Hear! Hear!”

Order. I must say that as a quick learner, the Secretary of State is proving to be exemplary, and the House is grateful to him.

Every head teacher and teacher I have spoken to dislikes and has enormous disrespect for the E-bac. I have not come across a single educationist who supports the Secretary of State. It is causing chaos at key stage 4 and in our schools. Is that what he meant by giving more power and autonomy to teachers?

The hon. Lady is assiduous, but she has not yet talked to the head teacher of the best school in County Durham, Durham Johnston comprehensive school, who backs the E-bac, as do all the great head teachers to whom I have spoken recently.

Further to Question 13, successive Governments have failed on one area of music. Will the current Secretary of State for Education do something to promote English folk dance and song?

Oscar Wilde once said that one should try everything in life once apart from folk dancing and incest. I think that he was only 50% right.

Order. We always go away from listening to the Secretary of State not only entertained, but improved. We are grateful to him.