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National Literacy Hour

5. Jackie Ballard (Taunton): If he will make a statement on implementation of the national literacy hour. [59106]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): The literacy hour came into being in September. Three hundred thousand framework documents have been issued, and training for co-ordinators in every school and training materials for every teacher have been provided. We are delighted that the response in schools up and down the country has been tremendous. As with the literacy pilot schemes, there have been great improvements in literacy, phonics and the grammar of children who have been undertaking the literacy hour.

Jackie Ballard: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Recently, the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, offered to intervene on behalf of schools that do not want to implement aspects of the national literacy strategy, including the literacy hour, providing that they can prove to him that their results are good enough. Will the Secretary of State clarify who is in charge of implementation of the literacy hour--the national literacy centre or the chief inspector of schools?

Mr. Blunkett: The chief inspector has a very clear role in assessing, through inspection, whether schools are providing the quality and meeting the standards that we have stipulated. His job, therefore, is to assess whether teaching methods are appropriate. If the literacy hour is adapted, so that it allows a school to meet a pupil's particular needs and reach the targets that it, the education authority and the Government are establishing, there is no problem whatever.

The approach is not prescriptive but proactive, ensuring that schools meet the best and that all children, whichever school they attend, will be able to read and write by the time they reach secondary level.

Mrs. Sylvia Heal (Halesowen and Rowley Regis): Does my right hon. Friend share my view that it is extraordinary that Conservative Members oppose the literacy hour? Does that not reveal their wish to avoid teaching most children in primary schools the basics of phonics, grammar and spelling?

Mr. Blunkett: My hon. Friend raises an important point, because the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment--for want of a better term--has written about his disagreement with the literacy hour in The Times Educational Supplement.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): It is too rigid.

Mr. Blunkett: What is rigid about it is that people are being asked to teach phonics, grammar and spelling.

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We need the Conservatives to tell us now, in public, whether they have abandoned any wish for children in our state schools to have the same opportunities as they buy for their own children in private education.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I assure the Secretary of State that the Conservatives are, of course, committed to improving literacy standards. The issue is whether the Government's literacy hour will achieve that. In Birmingham last month, members of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers told Professor Barber, the head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit, that the literacy strategy is pushing teachers to breaking point.

Recent research by Warwick university has suggested that the literacy hour is too long--[Laughter.] Yes it is. Last month the Secretary of State for Scotland supported the launch of an alternative literacy strategy based on research that showed that of a number of literacy programmes, those advocated for the literacy hour gave the worst results. Will the Secretary of State now listen to the voices of academics and teachers, and to his right hon. Friend, and think again?

Mr. Blunkett: When is an hour not an hour? When it is only 59 minutes? What a silly comment. We are building the literacy strategy entirely on the experience of the national literacy centres. In a spirit of co-operation, just in case the hon. Lady has forgotten, I remind her that it was her own damn Government that set up the national literacy centres in the first place. We have drawn on the evidence of the centres that her party set up, we have established programmes across the country, and we have learnt that in two years the national literacy framework improved the reading age of children by eight to 12 months.

The programme is working, as is demonstrated by a 10-point increase in the English and literacy standards of those 11-year-olds over the past two years, and it will work in every town and city in the country. As one teacher in Birmingham put it:

Such reservations, of course, have never stopped Conservative Members.

Parental Support

7. Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): What measures his Department is taking to support parents of young children in disadvantaged areas. [59108]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): The Government's early education and child care policies are intended for all families with young children. However, support for family literacy and learning, homestart, and much of the funding for the national child care strategy, recognise social need. That, coupled with the sure start programme, provides a strategy for tackling the legacy of multiple deprivation.

Mr. Coaker: Does the Minister agree that we need to ensure that our anti-poverty strategies stretch across all our cities and communities, so that areas sometimes missed out of anti-poverty work benefit as well?

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Will she join me in paying tribute to the work of the Greater Nottingham partnership and Gedling borough council on their parenting initiative in one of the poorest areas of my borough--namely, Netherfield?

Ms Hodge: I agree with my hon. Friend that we must address deprivation and poverty wherever they exist, and particularly pockets of deprivation in otherwise relatively affluent areas. Therefore, I am particularly pleased that we have embarked on the sure start programme. It will be an area-focused programme, but within pram-pushing distance of families, and therefore closer to the pockets of deprivation. Initiatives such as the working families tax credit and the child care tax credit will ensure an individual approach. I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Greater Nottingham partnership and Gedling borough council on their anti-poverty strategy and parenting initiative.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I understand that one way in which the Government seek to support children in disadvantaged areas is through their education action zones. Is every private sector company involved in education action zones going ahead with the bids which have been accepted, or are some of those who indicated their support at the outset now saying that, because of the Government's ambivalence over the involvement of private sector and profit-making organisations in our education system, they may not go ahead with their support?

Ms Hodge: That is simply not true. Every education action zone has private sector involvement, and that is going from strength to strength in each education action zone. I was at lunch with the leader of one of those education action zones, who was applauding the involvement of the private sector. The Government are also grateful for that growing involvement.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North): The consultation paper on family policy talked about the important role that health visitors play, and could play in the future, in supporting all parents with very young children. Given that many parents need advice between the birth of a child, when the health service is involved, and the time when a child starts school, when the education system takes over, will my hon. Friend have talks with her colleagues in the Department of Health with a view to enabling health visitors to play that vital role in future?

Ms Hodge: I congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Employment. I share his view that it is important that we have a co-ordinated approach, across all the professions, to children in their early years. Health visitors have a critical role to play in that regard. That is why we see them playing a crucial role in the sure start project which we will establish in 250 areas across the country. I am involved in discussions with colleagues, such as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health, to ensure that health visitors are incorporated--as are other professionals--in the work that we are doing with young children.

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Local Education Authority Expenditure

8. Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): If he will make a statement on (a) the administrative expenditure of and (b) peripatetic support provided by, local education authorities. [59109]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): The Government's plans for the further development of financial delegation to schools will require local education authorities to keep their administrative expenditure under strict control while at the same time enabling them to maintain essential support services for their schools. A draft of the regulations giving effect to our proposals will be laid before Parliament shortly.

Mr. George: I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful reply. Bearing in mind the fact that in dispersed and rural areas, such as Cornwall, the cost can be great, will the Minister assure the House that the cost of providing education services peripatetically--such as services for visually impaired or hearing-impaired pupils--are fully reflected in the allocation formula for local education authorities across the country?

Ms Morris: I am aware of the position in the hon. Gentleman's county, where a large number of children have special educational needs statements and there is a strong peripatetic service. I can assure him that local authorities will be able to retain funding for low-incidence SEN disabilities, and that nothing we have decided on so far should disturb the arrangements to which he referred.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): I am sure that my hon. Friend will be delighted to know that in my constituency, the central retention budget, at about £139 per head, is one of the lowest in the country. However, having such a low centrally retained budget creates certain problems for a local authority--for instance, when bidding for the private finance initiative for schools. Will my hon. Friend look into the problems that local authorities may experience when the centrally retained budget does not allow for enough in-house legal and design service expertise to produce a bid, which may disadvantage them? Will she study ways in which other money might be made available to such authorities?

Ms Morris: It is for Brent to decide how it conducts its business, but I have not noticed a lack of interest, enthusiasm or activity on the part of local education authorities in proposing PFIs to the Department. Those are coming in in great numbers and we welcome that. Of course, Brent can buy expertise from elsewhere to prepare its PFI bid if it has not retained sufficient staff to do so itself. I will be happy to discuss that matter further with my hon. Friend outside the Chamber, if that would be helpful.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): When the Minister studies local authority expenditure on education, will she take careful account of the answer given by the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) to the previous question, in which she recognised that otherwise affluent areas contain pockets of deprivation. At a school such as Watchetts county primary

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in my constituency, which is a pioneer in, for example, after-school clubs, 60 per cent. of pupils are statemented or have special educational needs. Will she take account of that and lobby her ministerial colleagues in the Treasury and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to ensure that no further cuts are made in provision for shire counties? The only effect of such cuts would be further damage to schools. While the Minister is on her feet, will she say how she can possibly justify the discourtesy that we were shown in an earlier answer, when it was announced that the Secretary of State would not make a statement to the House but would once again bypass it and make one elsewhere?

Ms Morris: The hon. Gentleman has a cheek, as a Conservative Member, talking about reductions in education funding. Having said that, I entirely accept that there are constituencies in shire and city areas which contain pockets of deprivation, but they are small pockets compared with some other local authorities, or indeed, constituencies within them. Of course, when we allocate money to local authorities we take into account the needs of all children in all constituencies and local authorities. The way in which local authorities allocate that money to schools is their decision. From my experience I know that the right thing for local Members of Parliament to do is to campaign and lobby at local authority level to ensure that the needs of their constituency are met. The greatest advantage under this Government is that there is a larger pot of money to go at.

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