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National Curriculum

6. Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): If he will make a statement on reform of the national curriculum. [85398]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): On 13 May, I launched the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's proposed revisions to the national curriculum. That

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consultation will conclude on 23 July, and orders and changes will be announced in the autumn. The intention behind the review is to contribute to the agenda on raising standards, to retain stability and consistency in the curriculum, to ensure a full and rounded entitlement to learning for all pupils and to encourage the development of best practice. Establishing the literacy and numeracy framework as a key part of the curriculum has been a priority in our mind, and we are pleased with the welcome that that has so far received.

Mrs. Laing: I thank the Secretary of State for that very full answer. I am sure that he agrees that, to get on with the important job that we expect them to do, teachers and head teachers want a degree of certainty, so that they can plan what they are going to teach in the months ahead, and less bureaucracy, so that they can spend their time teaching children, not filling in forms for the Department for Education and Employment. Therefore, is there not a contradiction in the Secretary of State's answer, in that he says that his top priority is retaining stability in schools, but that the review of the national curriculum will not be published until the autumn?

Why is the right hon. Gentleman not telling teachers and head teachers sooner what should be done in the next term and the next school year? Why do they have to wait such a long time and have to go through so much bureaucracy, instead of being able to concentrate on the basics? There is a difference between the rhetoric, which is very good, and the practice, which is not.

Mr. Blunkett: Let me pause to draw breath. I have a statutory duty to consult on the recommendations of the QCA, and I am using the minimum time available to ensure that that consultation concludes at the end of a summer term. It is not possible to issue the immediate response to that consultation to schools during August, because they are on holiday. When schools return in autumn, we shall get the results of the review to them as quickly as possible. Through the standards fund and the web, we shall provide information, schemes of work and updates so that everyone has the necessary information. We shall ensure that schools have the rest of the academic year to prepare for the main changes, which are minimal and which will be introduced from 2000. All reasonable people will recognise that is the fastest that we can act.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): I welcome the introduction of thinking skills to the new national curriculum. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is willing to respond positively to the recent offer of help made to him by the National Committee for Philosophy in developing that curriculum in such a way that the committee's expertise is made available to the schools sector?

Mr. Blunkett: We strongly welcome advice and support and have made a point of ensuring that we open up access to the information and advice that is available outside the Department. I shall be happy to take on board the suggested contribution to which my hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): The Liberal Democrats welcome the review of the national curriculum--although it is rather ironic that it was introduced without any consultation. We particularly

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welcome the fact that the Government have taken the Crick report seriously. As we shall see huge voter apathy in today's European elections, does the Secretary of State believe that citizenship should be not only taught, but practised? How does the Secretary of State propose to introduce citizenship into schools, and to ensure that school councils and active participation are the norm rather than the exception?

Mr. Blunkett: I strongly welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments. About a third of our secondary schools are conducting the recommended citizenship programmes, which will be implemented by 2002. The development of citizenship and democracy in our schools is an essential feature of a modern, civilised society. It will help students to understand the world around them and their part in it. However, even in my wildest dreams, I do not imagine that the introduction of citizenship and democracy into the curriculum will improve voter turnout in European elections.

Youth Service

7. Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): If he will make a statement on his plans for the youth service. [85400]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. George Mudie): After analysing and considering the national audit of the youth service published last year, we are considering policies for the benefit of young people, including the role of the youth service. We will consult--in fact, we will issue a consultation document--on the future of the youth service, but context, content and timing will need to be determined once we have decided on the wider services for young people generally. I shall make an announcement in due course.

Ms Taylor: Does my hon. Friend agree that too many young people in the 13 to 19 age bracket feel excluded, and that far too many believe that they are criticised and blamed for the things that go wrong in our society? Those young people are definitely keen to be involved--although their participation is often not recognised. Will my hon. Friend consider how the voluntary sector agencies can participate in consultation about youth provision? The youth service--certainly in my constituency--is an able group, which could be involved, and participate at the appropriate level, with young people.

Mr. Mudie: My hon. Friend and the House will be aware that a main thrust of Government policy is ending social exclusion. I say time and again--whenever I have the opportunity--that the youth service plays an important role, and is a vital partner in allowing colleges, schools and universities to widen participation and end social exclusion. The voluntary sector can play a valuable role. For example, one of its great strengths is its willingness to provide new solutions and opportunities. We fund the voluntary youth sector through the scheme for national voluntary youth organisations, and the Secretary of State announced late last year fresh grants for 81 organisations and a 30 per cent. funding increase. We support the voluntary youth sector not only verbally, but financially.

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Disabled People

8. Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): What steps his Department is taking to assist people with disabilities when they return to work. [85401]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): The Government are committed to providing high-quality services to help disabled people who want to return to work. They include access to work, the job introduction scheme, and advice and guidance from the disability service teams. Measures taken by my Department sit within a broader pattern of across-Government help, including the new disabled persons tax credit and initiatives within the health service.

Mr. Levitt: I am sure that my hon. Friend will have noted that the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill provides improved linkage rules which give added confidence to disabled people who wish to return to work. Does she agree that equally important is the question of job retention for disabled people? If people suffer from a progressive disability--such as reduced hearing, sight, dexterity or mobility--the extra assistance provided to help them stay in work will not only increase their earning power, but retain skills within the work force and decrease the benefits bill in the long run. It is better for an individual's dignity if, despite a disability, he or she can be encouraged to stay in work rather than fall out of the work force.

Ms Hodge: I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. We consider the retention of people in jobs to be such a high priority that we are working with colleagues in the Department of Health, the Department of Social Security and local government social services to find out what new measures we can take to ensure that there is better rehabilitation and retention of people who fall ill at work. [Hon. Members: "Remploy."] On Remploy, I should hope that there would be cross-party support for our initiative to ensure that people are integrated into mainstream employment opportunities and given the dignity of working alongside others, rather than being segregated in factories as they have been for far too long. The previous Government should have tackled that issue many years ago.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): Will my hon. Friend take note of a case in my constituency in which Barclays bank sacked a person who was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME? When that person asked for extra time to recover, the request was denied. Is there something that we can do to impress on employers the fact that they have a responsibility to dedicated workers who develop disabilities, and who should be given assistance instead of being sacked and left with no hope of further employment? Can we do something to help those people?

Ms Hodge: I would be most grateful if my hon. Friend would write to me about the case to which he referred because it strikes me that, if there was discrimination against that employee, there might well be a case against the employer under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

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The Department has now received the first stage of research on the early cases taken under the Disability Discrimination Act. That demonstrates that more cases have been taken under that Act in its early days than were taken under the equal opportunities and race relations legislation. It demonstrates also the beginnings of the Act's good impact; for example, a person with a visual impairment received an award of more than £100,000. We hope that, when our Disability Rights Commission is up and running, there will be further support to individuals to ensure that they have rights at work.

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