Children, Schools and Families Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 11th January 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley 7:15 pm, 11th January 2010

It is a pleasure to follow Robert Key. I remember that when I was Public Health Minister there was much that we could agree on, as in his speech today, as regards young people and their health, opportunities and aspirations in life.

I am pleased to speak in the debate on the Second Reading of the Children, Schools and Families Bill. As an MP of 13 years, I have seen a lot of changes in my constituency. Back in 1997, our aspiration was just to get indoor toilets in so many of our schools with dilapidated buildings and terrible outside toilets that were not a joy for the pupils, the teachers or the cleaning staff. Since that time, we have seen the refurbishment of very many schools, with more than £100 million spent on new school buildings. We have three new secondary academies and four specialist schools. We have seen improvements across Doncaster, although I would be the first to admit that there is still some way to go. In 1998, 34 per cent. of our pupils got five A to C-grade GCSEs. If one compares that with the proportion in 2009-71 per cent.-there is no doubt that there have been changes, not only through resources but reforms that have meant that the outcomes and prospects for many children in Don Valley and Doncaster are better than they were some years ago.

The Bill tries to look further at how we get the right balance between rights and responsibilities, not only for schools and staff but for pupils and parents. I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench on seeking further to address these important issues. As a former member of the Education and Employment Committee, as it was then, I know only too well how important leadership is in schools. Under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend Margaret Hodge, we undertook an inquiry into the role of the head teacher in that context. To be honest, nothing changes-the head teacher's role as leader of a school was as important then as it was decades before, and it is as important today as it will be in future. More support should be given to head teachers in tackling underperforming teachers in their schools. If that is not done, it does not serve the school, the pupils or their parents, and it certainly does not serve other teachers who are having to cover for those who are not up to the job.

A lot has already been said-I will not repeat it-about pupil and parent guarantees and home-school agreements. I think I understand why my right hon. and hon. Friends want to enshrine guarantees for pupils and parents in our communities, which is a worthy aspiration. However, I am concerned about how they will be enforced and understood by pupils and parents, and about exactly what would trigger the point at which a parent might go to the local government ombudsman to tackle an issue they are worried about. Alongside that, I am concerned about the time taken and the number of cases that the ombudsman might have to take on. Over several years as an MP, I have had to work on behalf of constituents with the local government ombudsman, and I know that they are not exactly underworked in the number of cases that they have to take up in a whole host of other areas. I hope that that will get further attention in Committee.

On home-school agreements, as a parent rather than as an MP I have seen three children go through GCSEs, A-levels and degrees under a Labour Government, and two are currently looking to do postgraduate qualifications as well. Before that, I happened to have them attending a school that was already providing home-school agreements, which the Government of the time had not enshrined in law. The agreements are important, as it is important for a parent when their child starts a school, whether primary or secondary, to have a baseline of what is expected from them and their children. They should also know what they can expect from the school, both in standards of education and in pastoral support, which is very important for children's well-being.

I am concerned about where home-school agreements are going and how much more work might be needed to personalise each one to meet the needs of every child. Hon. Members have outlined that concern in this debate. As a parent, I hope that when it comes to the educational needs of my children, and those of my constituents and of every parent in the country, that personalised attention takes place through their form tutor in each year group. Parents engage in their child's education in different ways, such as through the parents' meetings that they should have and the information that they receive about their child's success or otherwise. That should be an ongoing process, and I am concerned that we may be trying to mix that up with home-school agreements too much.

Another point that I wish to make about home-school agreements was made to me by a head teacher in my constituency recently. Clarity is needed about the consequences for those parents who do not abide by their responsibilities. In most schools, as the agreements stand, an overwhelming majority of parents fulfil what is expected of them. A very small minority do not, and that could be to do with attendance at school, supporting the improvement in their child's behaviour and so on. Head teachers tell me they do not really know where they should go and what they should do when that breaks down completely. The Bill mentions the courts and parenting orders, but some of the head teachers to whom I have talked do not realise that they can already use parenting orders. We need to ensure that where they already have powers, they know how to use them appropriately.

The matter needs attention, and a parenting order, parenting contract or acceptable behaviour contract-whatever we want to call it-may be necessary. At the moment, as with all sorts of matters to do with rights and responsibilities, the question is what to do when the responsibilities are not taken on and what sanctions there are to make a parent engage. The vast majority of parents do so, even those who are having difficulties and challenges with their children, but some refuse, and teachers often feel that there is not a lot they can do.

The new duty on local authorities requires them proactively to seek parents' views on the range and quality of secondary school places in their area. I am interested in that, and I understand that it is focused on the year 5 age group. Perhaps there is something to be said for asking parents of children in other year groups, who have already gone into secondary education, what they think about the experience and the choice.

I was concerned recently when I took up a case on behalf of a Catholic primary school in my constituency. The local education authority was going to cease to provide funds for buses for the children from that school in Edlington, a deprived area by anyone's measures, to go to a local Catholic secondary school. I understand that there have also been cuts in bus services to other schools. There are four specialist schools in my constituency, and part of the role of specialist schools was to offer children who excelled in a particular specialism the opportunity to go to them. If local authorities cut the means of transport to them, what choice is there for those children's parents? That needs to be attended to.

I very much support the idea that schools should consider supporting the wider community and be able to use their delegated budgets to invest in doing so. Given the amount of money that has gone into improving our schools and building new ones, it seems only right that we should see them in the context of the wider community. There should be opportunities for other community organisations to benefit from a school's facilities, but also to help schools and work with them on the issue of families in the community. There are other community organisations that can help the staff of schools provide better for their pupils.

I would also like schools to have an opportunity to have far more control over their finances in planning ahead. There have been headlines recently about the number of schools sitting on reserves. I shall not justify or defend schools that sit on huge amounts of money that could be better spent in their school community, but there are times when a school has to plan ahead for its needs, for example when year groups are changing and a large number of children are coming into the school because of the number of births locally. That will have an impact on spending in that school and the number of staff it needs to employ. In one year, school numbers might go up-

Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website