Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Children, Schools and Families – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 4th February 2008.

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Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire 2:30 pm, 4th February 2008

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

This morning, I put before the House a written statement on progress in respect of 14-19 diplomas. In addition to setting out that UCAS is recognising that the advanced diploma will be worth three and a half A-levels, Leeds university is announcing that it will accept the construction and built environment diploma for entry to its civil engineering course, and Newcastle, Southampton, Sheffield, Warwick, Nottingham and Liverpool are all announcing that they will accept the engineering diploma—and, indeed, the chair of the 1994 group of universities is confirming that all its members will accept the diploma—the written statement confirms that more than 800 schools and more than 150 colleges will be offering diplomas from this September. It also sets out a regional breakdown, area by area, for Members of the House, and estimates that from September 2009, two thirds of secondary schools and three quarters of colleges will be offering diplomas as part of their curriculum.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

We hear from the Opposition routine and vacuous charges of a continuing widespread decline in academic standards at GCSE level, which can be swiftly and confidently rebutted for almost every subject—save GCSE mathematics, which is widely recognised as a totally inadequate preparation for almost all higher education courses. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that he will respond positively and rapidly to last Friday's concerns of the advisory committee on mathematical education that those otherwise welcome new diplomas, to which he has just referred, could worsen an already most unsatisfactory mathematical position for future students and future employers?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I can. May I say how pleased I was that my written statement bore some relation to my hon. Friend's topical question T1 [Interruption.] Or, indeed, vice-versa.

On the issue of diplomas, I can first assure my hon. Friend that functional maths is a core part of every stage of every diploma. Secondly, Geoff Parks, admissions tutor at Cambridge university, said in a public statement before Christmas that he believed that the mathematical part of the engineering diploma would be a better preparation than the maths A-level for engineering at Cambridge. I share the concern to ensure that our maths curriculum and maths teaching is of the highest quality, which is why the Williams review is currently looking into the teaching of maths at primary school. We will ensure that, in mathematics as in all other aspects, diplomas are not viewed as a gimmick, or second-class, or only vocational, but as truly world-class excellent qualifications. That means in mathematics, too.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am sure that Ministers are aware of the struggle undergone by many parents of children with special educational needs to secure statements for their children. However, once secured, a statement is applicable to only one local education authority, which is particularly frustrating for armed forces parents, who are regularly posted around the country. Will Ministers consider, if not the situation more generally, the possibility of making such statements portable?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

The Defence Committee's inquiry also raised this issue, and I shall discuss with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence how we can do more to increase portability. That does not mean that when armed forces personnel go abroad they will be able to carry the statements with them, which would be a more complex process, but we should be able to make re-entry easier, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will discuss that with my MOD colleagues.

Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho PPS (Rt Hon David Hanson, Minister of State), Ministry of Justice

I was pleased to hear about increased and continued funding for holocaust education, as was my hon. Friend Gordon Banks. Last year I was privileged to accompany a group of Dudley pupils to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I have witnessed their work since then. I know that they have learnt much more than facts and figures about the holocaust. They have learnt about intolerance, victimisation, and how ordinary people can do extraordinary things in the face of adversity. Will my hon. Friend ensure that that opportunity is widened beyond students of history? It is very much part of the citizenship education programme, and should be made available to all pupils.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

My hon. Friend is right: the Holocaust Educational Trust, led so ably by Karen Pollock, does a fantastic job in organising not only the trips themselves, but the preparation for them and the work that takes place afterwards. My hon. Friend is also right to say that holocaust education of this kind is not purely about history, important though it is in the context. It has significant citizenship effects, and it also helps to combat bullying. We have problems with homophobic bullying and bullying of people with Gypsy or Romany background, as well as anti-Semitic bullying. If young people can understand where that can lead to, they can learn a significant amount from history.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The Secretary of State knows that the future of some 2,500 primary schools across the country has been put in doubt by the guidance issued by his Department in December. If the Government really believe in localism, can he tell us why the money that is to be distributed for the building of new primary schools in the future should be conditional on the taking of 125,000 surplus places out of capacity?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

It is not. Let me take this opportunity to lay that claim to rest. Once again, a Liberal Democrat press release has proved to be very misleading. On page 25 of the guidance, we say that we want local authorities to take

"decisive...early action to ensure that no school has more than 25 per cent surplus places".

We say this as well:

"It is also accepted that in order to preserve access for young children, there may be more empty places in schools in rural areas than in urban areas".

We are absolutely clear about the fact that there is a presumption against closing rural schools. Of course, given that resources for local authorities are increasing, it is essential for budgets to be managed properly through collocation of services, through federations and through school budget managers. Local authorities can take a number of measures to avoid the closure of small schools. The idea that we have set out in guidance a plan to close 2,500 schools is simply wrong, and I am happy to put the record straight.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden PPS (Mr Michael Wills, Minister of State), Ministry of Justice

What can the Government do to improve educational provision for young people over 16 with special educational needs? There is a new Disability Discrimination Act code for post-16 providers, but given that the Connexions service is being transferred to local education authorities without guaranteed ring-fencing, can the Government ensure that that will result in improved rather than reduced information, advice, guidance and support for young people over 16 with disabilities?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

Yes. Our initial impact assessment is that the code has greatly influenced the quality of provision. It has raised the level of awareness required; it has also improved the sector's provision for young people with special educational needs, and the way in which it discharges its duties and responsibilities. Nevertheless, we realise that much remains to be done if we are to achieve the target of true equality.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

Last week, the Department gave the Association of Muslim Schools, a group of independent Islamic faith schools, a new right to establish its own separate inspection arrangements, and according to its own website, the association has also received £100,000 in Government funding. But the association's deputy chair, Mr. Ibrahim Hewitt, the head of the Al Aqsa school in Leicester, is on record as saying that

"the word integration doesn't even belong in a true democracy".

He has also called

"political zionism a threat to world peace", and said of

"zionist control of the media" that there is no smoke without fire. He has objected to Holocaust memorial day, and he is the UK chairman of Interpal, an organisation under investigation by the Charity Commission following a "Panorama" examination of its links with Hamas. Against that background, does the Secretary of State not think that we need to be more, rather than less, rigorous in policing the growth of separatist Islamism in education?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

Of course we do, and that is why the inspectorate the hon. Gentleman mentions will itself be inspected by Ofsted and come under the tough rules in the Bill now before the House. It is revealing that when we published our children's plan in December, the hon. Gentleman did not make a single reference to any of the issues raised in it, and also that, although he is now publishing his own children's plan, he does not raise the issue of children's policy in the House. That shows what his priorities are.

B

This is a very dangerous path for the Secretary of State to tread. Of course the issues raised by Michael Gove need the closest of attention and monitoring. It is churlish to say the least for Ed Balls to decend to partisan remarks presumably to deflect attention from his own shortcomings

Submitted by Bob Hayes

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am disappointed by the Secretary of State's partisan tone on this serious issue. We have faced the problems that I have described before. The King Fahad academy, which Mrs. Ellman referred to, has used textbooks that describe Christians and Jews as pigs and monkeys, and Ofsted has acknowledged that it did not study the details of all the textbooks concerned. Indeed, of 606 visits by inspectors to Muslim faith schools, only 94 have been made public. The Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee has pointed out that we just do not know what is being taught in many Muslim schools. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that we have proper inspections by independent figures who are fluent in the relevant languages and aware of the ideological challenge posed by separatist Islamism?

B

It almost sounds as if Michael Gove read Bob Hayes astute remark before responding!

Submitted by Ben Hoskin

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

That is what our legislation is doing, and the Ofsted oversight of all inspection is the right way to achieve it. We cannot have different rules for different schools; they must all come under one legislative framework. On the instances raised of particular problems in recent months, we have taken action, and so has Ofsted; where action needed to be taken, it was taken. That is what independent inspection is all about. As I have said, it is very revealing that on the day that the hon. Gentleman publishes a flimsy document on children's policy, he and his colleagues have made no reference to it whatever.

A

It would seem like the easiest and best way to avoid "[having] different rules for different schools" would be to have the same body inspecting them all, rather than different bodies for different kinds of school.

Submitted by Andrew Taylor

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Rt Hon Rosie Winterton, Minister of State), Department for Transport

What support does the Department provide for families when a baby is born, and what affordable plans does it have to continue such support in future?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families; Minister for the North West), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children and Youth Justice) (and Minister for the North West)

What we are learning through the work that the Government are doing is that we cannot support the most disadvantaged mothers with a quick burst of support in the first week after a baby is born, as has been suggested today—particularly if we also cut maternity grants to pay for it. In contrast, the family nurse partnerships will start working with first-time mothers when they are pregnant and stay with them until the child is two years old, if necessary, to make sure that the most disadvantaged children really do get the best possible start in life.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I have seen that the most successful primary school in the country requires its parents to read to children. I am the literacy governor of Studham lower school in my constituency. Does the Secretary of State think that giving home school contracts more strength might be part of how we could encourage that practice more widely?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

The most successful primary school in key stage 2 tests at age 11 is in Salford, and I visited it only two weeks ago. Its head teacher stresses the importance of every child being read to every day in school, and also the important role parents play in supporting their children's reading. That is why all Members should use this national year of reading to encourage all parents to read to their children from the earliest age. I do not necessarily think that that should be put in a contract; every parent should be doing it from birth. I want to encourage that to happen, but I am not sure whether legislating for it is the right way to achieve it.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The Secretary of State will know that in answer to the Select Committee's report on special educational needs, the Government said that they would set up an expert group under the chairmanship of Brian Lamb to look into increasing parental confidence in the system. Does that group have any timetable to come back to the Government with proposals, or is the commitment open-ended?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

We set out our intention to ask Brian Lamb, who, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is an acknowledged expert in this area, to examine the issues raised in the Select Committee report. We will publish written terms of reference and a timetable for his work in due course. We are doing this partly to examine best practice across the country, but also because experts on different sides of the debate have different views about the best way to approach statementing. We decided that rather than rushing to a conclusion, the right thing to do was to ask an expert to examine the matter. That is what we will do, and we will set the timetable in due course.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

May I take the Secretary of State back to employer-sponsored diplomas, which I am sure we all think are an interesting and valuable step forward? What genuine independent assessment will be made of such diplomas, so that McDonald's, or whoever is involved, will not be selecting students for our top universities—or, indeed, for Keble college, Oxford?

Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

The introduction of the McDonald's qualification has been widely welcomed; it has been welcomed not only by Michael Gove but by the CBI, which has said:

"Today marks a significant milestone on the road to reforming qualifications so that they better reflect the skills and competencies employers and employees need. Flybe, McDonald's and Network Rail deserve recognition for trail blazing this initiative and making it easier for companies wanting to follow in their footsteps."

The CBI is supporting us, as is the chairman of the Federation of Awarding Bodies. The independent standards regulator that we are setting up will ensure that higher standards are maintained and employers' needs are also met. It is the Labour party that will ensure that the training needs of employers continue to be met.

Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

May I tell the Secretary of State that 3,395 children in Middlesbrough benefit from free nursery education? What sort of future support can he provide? May I also invite him to visit Middlesbrough to see this great success for himself?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families; Minister for the North West), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children and Youth Justice) (and Minister for the North West)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and for his support for the development of early years learning that the Government are putting in place. He will know that Middlesbrough is a pilot area for extending the free entitlement to two-year-olds. We can also expect the extension to 15 hours to take place there from September, as we progressively develop the support and the options available to parents of young children. I shall happily come to Middlesbrough to see what is going on there.