Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Children, Schools and Families – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 25th January 2010.

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Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell 2:30 pm, 25th January 2010

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

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

In our Children, Schools and Families Bill, we are legislating to ensure that all children and young people receive personal, social and health education, including sex and relationship education, and we are lowering the parental opt-out to 15 years of age. We will consult on the detailed content of the new PSHE curriculum after the Bill has gained Royal Assent. In the meantime, we are publishing today updated guidance for schools on sex and relationship education. It has been produced following consultation last year with parents, teachers, faith groups, young people and health professionals, and it sets out, among other things, the importance of marriage and of strong and stable relationships for bringing up children.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

Returning to the dreadful Doncaster case, I note that one reason that the Secretary of State and Lord Laming used for not publishing the full case review was that professionals in future would not co-operate with such investigations. Will the Secretary of State accept what the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says-that that is quite wrong, that professionals must be forced to co-operate and that that is not a suitable excuse for not publishing the full review?

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

I am sorry to go over the same ground, but the NSPCC says, and has said since last Wednesday, that we should not publish the full review. That is also the view of 4Children and many other organisations. The reason is to ensure that the identities of innocent children who have been abused, and whose details are set out in such reports, are not put into the public domain. I would have thought that anybody who had ever read one of those reviews would know that there are very strong reasons for keeping such reports out of the public domain. That is what I have said, and that is exactly the approach that we will continue to take.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

It is unfair that Ofsted marks down any school where a high proportion of parents choose to send their children with unhealthy packed lunches, despite the school's efforts to educate parents about healthy eating. Will the Government order Ofsted to desist, and if not, why not?

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools)

I have not heard about that before, but I am certainly happy to raise the matter with the chief inspector and ask for a response. The majority of parents provide a balanced packed lunch, and packed lunches are the responsibility of parents, not of schools.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Shadow Minister (International Development)

Can the Secretary of State estimate how many pages of guidance his Department has issued to teachers in the past 10 years and tell the House whether he considers it sufficient?

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

I think that the answer to that is no-I have never sat down and counted all the pages of guidance. What I have done is reform the national curriculum to reduce the burdens on teachers and give them more discretion over the primary and secondary curriculums. It is a great pity that, rather than support the national curriculum, the Opposition propose to abolish it.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Chair, Members' Allowances Committee, Chair, Members' Allowances Committee

One of my constituents who works with young people is increasingly concerned because, she tells me, more and more schools are engaged in what she calls soft exclusions. They do not formally exclude children; they say, "Stay away for a day", "two days", "a week" or "two weeks". I believe that that practice is illegal. Will my hon. Friend the Minister undertake to look into that and, if it is illegal, put a stop to it?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I certainly will look into that. The situation may be different in Wales, but I will check, and I will be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss specific cases. To generalise, I can certainly say that soft exclusions are illegal, but I will look into the matter and report back to him.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Faith schools are being harassed by a party leader who seeks to tell them what to teach and by the European Union, which tells them who they can employ. Is not the very raison d'être of faith schools to sustain a distinct religious identity? Will the Secretary of State safeguard faith schools?

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

Absolutely. Faith schools were in existence providing free education to often the most deprived children before the state started to do the same. I fully support faith schools. They have to abide by the law on fair admissions. I think that agreeing to calls for the admissions code to be dropped to allow faith schools to pick by interviewing parents would be the wrong thing to do. I also think it is right that faith schools promote community cohesion. Both the Church of England and the Catholic Education Service are supporting our changes to the rules on sex and relationships education. I have very strong and good relationships with the faith organisations, which are supporting the direction that we taking and are not supporting the proposal by Michael Gove to keep the opt-out age at 19.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

Is my hon. Friend aware of recent research among young people in my constituency that found that they greatly valued the education maintenance allowance but wanted it to be based on current parental income rather than the previous year's income so that it could provide more effective support for children whose parents become unemployed? Would he be prepared to look at such proposals?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I get a lot of correspondence with regard to that. I have considerable sympathy when there have been in-year changes in circumstances. The full year's income assessment that we provide is the best general barometer of what parental income is. There are considerable flexibilities within the benefits system to allow other help and assistance to be given. In addition, we have increased help for discretionary learner support funds to schools and colleges. I keep a close eye on this matter.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I have a lot of respect for the Schools Minister, and I thank him for agreeing to visit my constituency. He referred to the importance of removing surplus places from secondary education. My constituent, Mr. Joe Slatter, has proved conclusively that Essex county council's arguments for closing the two schools that I mentioned are false. Will the Minister therefore join me in a meeting with people from Building Schools for the Future to prove that what Essex county council says about an investment of £130 million is not correct?

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

Nobody could describe the hon. Gentleman as being a slacker when it comes to these issues. The Schools Minister has already confirmed, and I can confirm it on his behalf, that he will be having another meeting. If the hon. Gentleman would like to bring people from Building Schools for the Future, that would be fine by us. If he wants to bring people from Essex county council, that will also be fine, although I am not sure that his relationship with them would allow for that. If he would like the Schools Minister to have more than one meeting, I am sure that my hon. Friend would, within reason, be happy to oblige.

Photo of Jim McGovern Jim McGovern Labour, Dundee West

This Government can be justifiably proud of the massive increase in the number of after-school clubs since 1997. In my constituency, however, several after-school clubs are facing closure owing to a withdrawal of funding by the Scottish National party-led local council. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to convince his counterpart in Holyrood that such clubs are a lifeline for working families and that their funding should continue?

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

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. The devolved Administration in Scotland have also been withdrawing, or reducing, support for education maintenance allowances. The National Union of Students estimates that as a result 7,000 fewer students will be able to stay on in education after the age of 16. I fear that the SNP Administration in Scotland have been paying far too much attention to the policies of the main Opposition party in Westminster, rather than the policies of the Government.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Will the Minister for Schools and Learners consider the merits of replacing the traditional three-term structure with five fixed terms of eight weeks each to provide for better attendance, families taking their holidays during holiday time, and the reduction of skill fade over the very long summer recess?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his question. For local authority-funded schools, that is a matter for the governing body and the local authority to decide and to determine. They must consult parents at least one term in advance if they wish to change the way in which terms are allocated, including by writing to parents and holding a meeting with them. Furthermore, the Local Government Association works very closely with local authorities to try to align term dates across local authority boundaries. I hope that that reply is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Geoffrey Robinson Geoffrey Robinson Labour, Coventry North West

Is my right hon. Friend aware that on the measure of five GCSE passes at grade A* to C, last year Coventry city had its best ever results? [Interruption.] I do not see what there is to laugh at there. They have increased by 15 per cent., which is a significant achievement and shows that the Government's policies for improvement in secondary education are working. Results continue to improve year by year.

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

My hon. Friend is right. As he will know, the improvements of the past decade have come after what was, in Coventry and around the country, a decade or more of stagnation in exam results. That has happened because we have the best generation of teachers that we have ever had and because we have been increasing investment in our schools year on year. We should not resort to policies of running down the achievements of teachers or cutting spending in the coming year, because that would set back the achievements of children in Coventry and around the country. It is not something that this Government will do in the coming year.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretary To the Leader of the Opposition

Dr. Elliott, the founder of Kidscape, has asked of the Edlington case:

"How could you have a report on something as critical as this without naming" the professionals at fault

"individually? By failing to release the... full report, it feels like an institutional cover-up".

Why is the Secretary of State a party to that institutional cover-up?

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

It would be very easy indeed for me to publish the full report and to bow to political pressure and pressure from some newspapers. The reason that I am not going to do so is that it would put into the public domain the details of abuse suffered by vulnerable children in the family concerned and more widely in Doncaster and set back our ability to ensure that it did not happen again. Sometimes in government, the easy thing to do is not the right thing to do. I am going to do my best to protect children in our country, not play the games that we are seeing from Opposition Members.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

The latest GCSE results have been put on the Department's computer and show figures on a ward-by-ward basis. By a long margin, the biggest improvement in York has been in the poorest wards of the city. What will the Government do to continue to provide additional help for children from poor families, so that educational opportunity is there for everybody, not just the richer and the better-off?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

As my hon. Friend knows, I was in York recently and visited an excellent school with him. I congratulate all the schools in York that are making improvements. He asks what more we will do to ensure that we tackle educational disadvantage in some of the poorest areas. We will of course continue the investment that we have made over the past few years, but just as importantly we will try to ensure that we do not just leave it to schools to tackle deprivation but that they work more closely with children's services, social services, health services, the police and other partners, including parents, to raise the achievement in those areas as we all want.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove

Earlier today I had the pleasure of welcoming pupils and staff from Offerton high school in my constituency to the House. They enjoyed their visit very much but are dismayed that Stockport's bid for BSF funding was turned down by the Secretary of State, leaving them stranded in a crumbling building on a split site. What hope can he give that there will be resources to put right the deficit in school building in Stockport?

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

Given that the Conservative party is committed to a £4.5 billion cut in Building Schools for the Future, the best hope that the hon. Gentleman can possibly have in his constituency is the re-election of a Labour Government.

Photo of Christine Russell Christine Russell Labour, City of Chester

In Chester, parents greatly value and appreciate our four excellent children's centres. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that those centres will continue to provide universal access to all parents, irrespective of their background and circumstances?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government's commitment is to universal service through children's centres-unlike the Conservative party, which wants to close one in four.

Photo of Paul Burstow Paul Burstow Shadow Chief Whip (Commons)

There is fierce competition for school places in south-west London. Will the Secretary of State and Ministers therefore consider reviewing the rules that govern the allocation of capital resources for providing school places, so that the popular schools in the London borough of Sutton can meet the demand of children living in that borough to go to those schools?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

The hon. Gentleman was present at an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall last week when the issue was raised. As I pointed out then, considerable powers are already in place for local authorities to be in the driving seat to ensure that demand for places is met. Provisions will be extended in the Children, Schools and Families Bill that is currently in Committee, but, as I suggested in the Adjournment debate-and now suggest again-the hon. Gentleman should have a word with the Lib Dem-led London borough of Sutton, and perhaps some sort of arrangement can be reached.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour, Loughborough

I am sure that Ministers will admit that we made a slow start in trying to tackle the disaster that was school sport in the 1990s. We did not make significant progress until 2002 to 2004. Despite the fact that we are now nearly up to 90 per cent. participation, what extra measures can my hon. Friend take to ensure that those who are still not getting at least two hours get them, and that, where there is a drop-off with the school club link, particularly for girls, action is taken so that everybody gets the chance to take part in sport?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I appreciate my hon. Friend's question and pay tribute to his fantastic work. He has just mentioned the 90 per cent. of young people who now do two and a half hours' sport. We want to take that further. Last year's schools White Paper and the Children, Schools and Families Bill include a commitment to increase that, as far as possible, to five hours, thereby ensuring that sport is an integral part of young people's learning experience.

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

The Secretary of State has been talking about children's best interests. As a married man, he knows that all research shows that children's best interests are served by being brought up by their mother and father in a stable relationship, preferably a marriage. Why, therefore, does he patronise those from less privileged backgrounds than him by suggesting that they should not aspire to bring up their children in a married, stable relationship?

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

I do not remember ever patronising those people. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am married and very much support the institution of marriage. I am currently married to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

I support marriage, but I do not support a tax allowance that would disadvantage the widow and the woman who has to leave an abusive relationship, and go 13 times more to people on the highest incomes, yet give no help to any family where both parents are working. That would be not only patronising but deeply unfair.

Several hon. Members:

rose -

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

Does the Schools Minister, following his visit to The Duchess's community high school in Alnwick, agree that it desperately needs replacing? Will the subsequent visit arranged by his officials clear some of barriers to getting that done?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I visited Alnwick recently and looked at the school. It clearly needs to be rebuilt as soon as possible. I hope that the subsequent visit by officials, which has taken place, will help with that process.

Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Has the Minister seen any evidence that A-levels or GCSEs have become easier in the past decade or so?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I have not seen any such evidence, nor have any of the bodies that advise us. A consistent battle seems to take place in this country when GCSE and A-level results improve, and people want to criticise rather than celebrate young people's genuine improvements.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

Returning to the subject of publishing serious case reviews, why is it not possible to go beyond a summary and start with publication with appropriate redaction?

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

I understand the hon. Lady's point, although, as I have said, people who have read a full serious case review know that the degree of detail included about innocent children in the family and more widely means that redaction is not at all sufficient. As Lord Laming said-and as the Association of Chief Police Officers said this afternoon-to publish the full report and therefore have less co-operation from police officers, social workers and health professionals, means that the lessons would not be learned. Those are not my views, but those of the NSPCC, police officers, directors of children's services and the Government's chief adviser on the safety of children. It is not a cover-up, but a Government putting the needs of children first. I urge the hon. Lady not to join in the politics being played by Conservative Front Benchers, but to join me in doing the best by children in our country.

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

Does the Secretary of State share my dismay at the proposals from the usually excellent hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) in his fair access to school admissions Bill, which would have the effect of reversing the Greenwich judgment, and mean that an artificial Berlin wall would be created between Croydon and Sutton, stopping Croydon parents and students from exercising their choice to go to very good Sutton schools?

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

Rather than being drawn into the details, I think that that is really a matter that requires a meeting with the Minister for Schools and Learners.