Education and Health

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 7:24 pm on 2nd June 2010.

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Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham 7:24 pm, 2nd June 2010

Let me begin by congratulating Gavin Barwell on his maiden speech, which was extremely informative. It outlined not only the needs of his constituents, but the attractions of his constituency.

There are a great many measures in the Queen's Speech that I am very concerned about, that I disagree with and that I think will be unhelpful to my constituents. There are also a few measures that I think will be unhelpful for our democracy, the most obvious of which is the proposal requiring the approval of 55% of the House for its Dissolution. I also think that a number of the measures proposed will undermine local democracy as it is embodied in our local councils. I am talking not only about the effect that drastic cuts will have on services, but about the proposals to remove most of our schools from the local authority family.

I have a number of concerns about the proposals on education, including those covered by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, that I want to outline, the first of which relates to the further withdrawal of funding from our universities. Like many others in the House, I believe that universities are the powerhouse of our future economy. They provide young people and others with the necessary skills to compete in the global jobs market now and into the future. The withdrawal of 10,000 places and the cutting of a further £200 million from the higher education budget is to be wholly deplored. I suspect that those who will lose out on a place this autumn will not be those from the most affluent backgrounds, but those who were hoping to benefit from Labour's widening participation strategy and perhaps to be the first person in their family to go to university. What will happen to those young people if they do not gain a place at university? Are the Government going to offer them a job or alternative training, or will they simply throw them into unemployment?

That brings me to the cuts in the future jobs fund. We think that about 40,000 to 80,000 young people could be affected by the cuts in funding. It is interesting that both parties in the coalition thought that programme was a very good one before the election-and, indeed, it was. When Labour left office, there were around 40% fewer young people signing on than during the recession under the Tories in the 1990s. Labour Members will be taking a very careful look at how this issue plays out in the areas of the country that we represent that are most disadvantaged. In particular, we will look at how it feeds into youth unemployment.

The third issue that I want to address is that of academies. Like all Members of the House, I think, education in my constituency was transformed under the last Labour Government, with attainment levels improving from the low 30s, in percentage terms, in relation to those gaining five GCSEs. That figure was about 31% in the early 1990s, whereas currently the figure is higher than 80% for a number of schools in my constituency. That did not happen by accident: it happened because of the investment that Labour put in. But we are still waiting for our first academy. We have an excellent proposal, and a scheme that was approved by the last Labour Government is under way. It brings together a very interesting partnership between the excellence of Durham university, our local chamber of commerce and the local authority. I am seeking reassurance from the Secretary of State and his Ministers tonight that that excellent scheme will go ahead.

The House might be interested to hear that those new buildings, which are planned for 2013, were opposed by my Liberal Democrat opposition in the election. She told us in a focus leaflet-not the most reliable source of evidence, I know-that she was leading the opposition to the academy on ideological grounds. Those ideological grounds were, apparently, that she deplores-and thinks her party's policy is against-any schools being brought out of the local authority family. I should therefore like to hear from the Government how they have managed to reconcile the huge differences between both parts of the coalition on academies and whether they used the services of Relate to bring them together.

I hope that those new buildings go ahead. Labour saw that investment as essential to improving opportunities for our young people, so I am very concerned about a policy that seeks to make all schools into academies without necessarily adding to their facilities or introducing new facilities. We all know that simply removing schools from the local authority will not necessarily lead to innovation or the driving up of standards that is necessary.

The fourth issue that I want to talk about is the free schools policy. At the moment, we probably have more questions about it than answers, and I am going to add a few questions of my own this evening. If there is a rush for free schools, how will the Government ensure that all areas benefit equally? If resources are directed to them, what will happen to existing schools, particularly in areas where there are falling rolls? If additional money is put into free schools, will it be taken away from others?

When the coalition parties talk about the pupil premium, they do not say much about the money already directed to disadvantaged schools through targeted grants. Again, I wonder whether those grants will be continued with the pupil premium. If the Government are going to withdraw them, they should make that very clear.

The last issue that I want to raise is that of free school meals. My hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and I, together with the public services trade unions, drove forward the campaign for free school meals. I am extremely fortunate to have a pilot scheme in my constituency. It is showing enormous benefits in improving the understanding among our very young people of the importance of eating well, and it is also helping them with their studies by enabling them to concentrate more. I would really like to hear from the Government this evening that they are going to continue and expand these excellent pilots, which are doing so much to tackle educational disadvantage and child poverty.