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Non-maintained Schools

9. Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): If he will make a statement on the regulations to govern the purchase of provision by local education authorities from non-maintained schools. [85406]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): The legislation that the Government introduced last year enables the Secretary of State to prevent the introduction of a new locally funded assisted places scheme. We shall publish draft regulations in due course.

Mr. St. Aubyn: During the proceedings on the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the Minister's predecessor told the Standing Committee:

The Minister did not conduct his business in that manner. In February, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) tabled a written question to the present Minister, asking when draft regulations would be published for consultation. She replied:

    "It is planned to issue draft regulations for consultation in May 1999."--[Official Report, 22 February 1999; Vol. 326, c. 20.]

We now hear from the Minister that she refuses to give any date for those regulations.

When individual schools and education action zones have the power, without regulations, to buy places at independent schools, why are such regulations needed? Conservative-run Surrey local education authority, which has already shown the Government a lead by bringing in the private sector to manage a maintained school, is ready and willing to show the Government a lead in building new bridges with the independent sector. Give us the tools and we shall do the work.

Ms Morris: The hon. Gentleman is getting very exercised on this issue. My predecessor said that we would publish regulations after Report and Third Reading, and we shall do so. It is a matter of prioritising.

As far as we know, no local authority has plans to reproduce the assisted places scheme at a local level. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have introduced many regulations since the passage of the school standards legislation. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), and I feel, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleagues do, that we spend much of our time in Committee discussing statutory instruments. We have

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discussed and laid statutory instruments on admissions, parental appeal, funding and the new standards framework. It was a greater priority for us to implement for the start of the next school term the new framework and the new funding, admission and appeal arrangements. We shall come to further secondary legislation in due time, as I said.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): On the Secretary of State's comments about citizenship and the European elections, may I invite the Minister to congratulate our education Whip, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), on already having done three hours' telling in the European elections? Ministers are worried about turnout; it helps if one fights an election campaign. We find such telling quite a good way of increasing turnout.

On the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), there is a serious problem. Guildford had to follow cumbersome rules, which were set by the European Union procurement policy in the absence of any regulations guiding procedures in the area. How come Islington can do a quick deal with one company for the private management of some education service virtually overnight, but education authorities that want responsibly to consider purchasing private management of schools must undergo time-consuming procedures? That is why the regulations are needed. LEAs have been kept waiting for far too long.

Ms Morris: I wonder which group of Conservatives the Whip was counting--those who are pro-European or those who are anti-European--and at which school she was doing so.

More seriously, the point raised by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) relates to our fear that assisted places schemes would be reproduced locally. We do not want that; we have made that clear. We want the private sector to be involved properly in the education service, where that is appropriate. We shall ensure that ways of enabling that to happen are implemented.

The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) should realise that much of what we heard from his Government about the relationship with the private sector did not transpire. Over the past two years since we have taken power, we have been very carefully building up contacts and establishing rules and regulations to enable a relationship with the private sector, in order that it may contribute to the wider agenda of raising standards. That has happened in both Guildford and Islington. We shall reflect on those processes and, if need be, simplify them. We have no intention of allowing local authorities to reproduce assisted places schemes locally.


10. Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): What steps have been taken by his Department to encourage parents to read to their young children. [85409]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): Encouraging parents to read to their young children has been a very important part of both the literacy strategy and the national year for reading. We have run a series of television and radio advertisements for a free leaflet entitled "A Little Reading Goes A Long Way". The

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leaflet offers parents practical advice about how to read with their children. More than 1 million copies have been requested so far, and a further 2 million have been distributed through various outlets, including supermarkets and doctors' waiting rooms.

Ms Stuart: I thank the Minister for that answer. Reading to young children is beneficial not only to the child-parent relationship but to educational development. Is the Minister aware of the project that was first piloted in Birmingham in 1992, in which parents were given a leaflet and book alerting them to access to libraries when their babies attended hearing tests? In 1997, that scheme was run again for the whole city and, in the past two years, 25,000 children have received as part of the core-school partnership a pack of a book and information on the library. I gather that the scheme is being rolled out nationally. How much support will the Department give to the book start project?

Ms Morris: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the city of Birmingham, in which both our constituencies lie, an incredibly positive scheme, which was originally called "Books for Babies", was launched. The issue is about changing the culture and giving parents the confidence to realise that libraries are for them, and that they can learn from libraries and help their children. We are indeed rolling out the programme nationwide, with funding from the national year of reading and, I am very pleased to say, from private sector sponsorship. My hon. Friend will know that, when key stage 1 children in Birmingham and a control group were tested, the improvement in attainment rates among those who had been part of "Books for Babies" was quite remarkable. I therefore look forward to many more young children and their parents benefiting from the rolled-out scheme, and to rising reading and numeracy levels among children aged six and seven.

Secondary School Closures

11. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): If he will make a statement on his responsibilities in relation to proposals for the closure of secondary schools. [85410]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Charles Clarke): Madam Speaker--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Thank you to the fan club.

Proposals for the closure of schools are usually brought forward by the local education authority and are copied to the Secretary of State. If there are no statutory objections and the proposals are not called in for decision by the Secretary of State, the decision may be made by the local education authority. If proposals fall to the Secretary of State for decision, they will be decided on their individual merits, taking into account the advice of Her Majesty's inspectors and any points made by interested parties in the local area.

Mr. Winterton: I am grateful to the Minister for his detailed and helpful reply. Although I am totally in favour of excellence and success, I also support the idea of a number of schools being designated to take those with learning difficulties. League tables, unless responsibly used, can mean that a school will suffer as a result of the

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fact that it takes youngsters with learning difficulties, and many parents may opt to send their children to other schools.

Will the Minister, the rest of the Government and the bodies that are to take responsibility for making decisions on the closure of schools take into account the fact that some schools take on the burden, and the important task, of dealing with children with learning difficulties? Should that fact not be borne in mind before a hasty decision is taken to close a school because of a reduction in numbers?

Mr. Clarke: The short answer is yes. The hon. Gentleman has made his point powerfully and correctly. In several of the individual cases that I have had to consider during my time in office, the issues that he has raised have been taken into account, because of the considerations that he has mentioned. The general issue that he raises is the difficult one of the relationship between league tables and people with special educational needs. We are thinking carefully about how to ensure that crude league tables are considered only as part of a fully rounded view that takes into account all the issues that schools must address in trying to meet the needs of pupils in their areas. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's interest, and commit myself to respond positively to his approach.

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