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School Playing Fields

12. Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford): What plans he has to restrict the sale of school playing fields. [85412]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Charles Clarke): We have already delivered on our manifesto pledge to protect school playing fields. Since 1 October 1998, section 77 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 has meant that local authorities in England may not dispose, or change the use, of school playing fields without the prior consent of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. On 7 June, earlier this week, we published the criteria against which decisions on applications from local authorities and governing bodies will normally be made.

The first criterion is financial; any proceeds from sales must be returned to education or used to enhance sports provision. The second relates to schools' needs; the playing fields and other sports facilities that will be left must meet the needs of local schools, particularly primary schools. Thirdly, there are community needs; the playing fields and other sports facilities that will be left must meet the needs of the local community. The fourth criterion involves consultation; there must have been adequate consultation both locally and with recognised national bodies such as Learning through Landscapes, the Central Council of Physical Recreation or the National Playing Fields Association, so that their views can be taken into account. Those proposals offer a clear way forward in improving playing field provision in schools.

Mr. Beard: I thank the Minister for that answer. It was one of the scandals of the public asset stripping under the previous Government that 5,000 school playing fields were sold off. Does the Minister share the concern recently expressed by the National Association of Head Teachers about the level of fitness of many of their pupils,

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and their sedentary life styles? Will he give an assurance that school playing fields and sporting facilities will be used to ensure that standards of, and improvements in, fitness keep pace with classroom achievement?

Mr. Clarke: I agree with the points and sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. We have a series of initiatives to develop a much healthier approach to life in school, ranging across changes in the national curriculum, our playing fields initiative, and our approach to diet and food. We have a joint healthy schools initiative, which I and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health chair, to bring together and to develop activity in this area. We go down the line that has been set out by my hon. Friend. It is critical that we develop more resources for school playing fields and sporting activity, and better use of those facilities. Yesterday, I met representatives of the Central Council of Physical Recreation to discuss ways in which we might develop that approach.

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham): Does my hon. Friend recognise that there are major new opportunities for sport and for music, art and drama in the Government's new nationwide network of after-school clubs? What can my hon. Friend's Department do to ensure that these clubs take good care of, and look after, the children involved, and extend to them opportunities for sport, music, art and drama, which are often not available to them during their time in school?

Mr. Clarke: I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend, who puts the case with her traditional power and force. We are making resources available through the new opportunities fund, with £125 million being allocated for schools, councils, community groups and other organisations to improve access and develop the activities to which my right hon. Friend referred. We are encouraging out-of-school activity in music, arts and drama in the way that she suggests. We believe that that is an essential approach. Critical to it is developing a much better relationship between schools and their local communities and community organisations, so that real co-operation can be built up. We give this initiative major priority, and it is important that we continue to drive it forward.

Educational Attainment (Inner London)

13. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): If he will make a statement on the current level of educational attainment in schools in the inner-London boroughs. [85415]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): In 1998, the attainment of pupils in schools in the inner-London boroughs was below the national average in literacy, numeracy and science at the ages of seven, 11 and 13, and in the achievement of five or more higher grade GCSEs. However, between 1997 and 1998, the improvement in literacy and numeracy tests was twice the national average, and the improvement in higher grade GCSEs was more than three times the national average.

All our policies to raise standards are contributing to urgent and essential improvement in inner-city education. That has been most recently drawn together in the excellence in cities programme announced in March this year.

Mr. Robathan: All of us who live in central or inner London, even if only for part of the week, must be

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concerned about education standards in those areas. Does the Minister accept--I know that she did not mention this--that the dreadful performance of the education service in Hackney and Islington is partly due to the ridiculous education philosophy put into practice by Labour education authorities in those two boroughs? Does she further accept that it is perhaps not appropriate that someone who was responsible for the dreadful education performance in Islington--the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge)--should now be the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment? Will the Minister give her candid opinion of those who denied selection to other parents, but were prepared to send their children across London to get away from dreadful education services to schools such as the London Oratory in west London?

Ms Morris: I am not sure that the best way in which to tackle vast under-achievement in inner London, and some other urban areas, is to lay blame on actions taken many years ago and on those who were in post more than a decade ago. It is necessary now to accept that things must change and that action must be taken. The hon. Gentleman will know that, in Hackney and Islington, there has not been a failure to support schools in the past two years. However, there was a failure to support schools over a long period. The Conservative Government did nothing to put matters right.

Over the past two years, the Government have speeded-up Ofsted inspections of local authorities. We have made it clear that we will take action without fear or favour where there is under-achievement. We shall retrain teachers to teach better literacy and numeracy. We shall put more money into our schools, we shall have high expectations of them and we shall prioritise them in terms of £350 million in excellence in city initiatives. If the Conservative Government had done only one tenth of those things over the previous 18 years, I probably would not have to tell the House that there is chronic under-achievement in some of the inner-London boroughs.

National Grid for Learning

14. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): If he will make a statement on the benefits to schools of the national grid for learning. [85416]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Charles Clarke): The use of information and communications technology in the classroom can bring learning gains, increased motivation and improved attitudes to learning. The national grid for learning is a nationwide programme to bring those benefits to all our learners, by providing access to the national focal point for education on the

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internet, stimulating the development of high-quality educational resources, and organising them in such a way as to make them useful and easily accessible to teachers and students.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply, which rightly emphasises the potential benefits of the national grid for learning. However, given that only 12 per cent. of primary schools have access to the internet, owing substantially to the prohibitive cost of line rental, and given also that Gawcott county first school in my constituency has to pay the same £1,200 per year as a large comprehensive, will the hon. Gentleman undertake to go back to the drawing board and consider by what means arrangements can be improved so as to reflect the different needs and ability to pay of the primary and secondary sectors?

Mr. Clarke: I will commit myself and the Government to intensification of our massive commitment to get ICT into schools--a commitment that was introduced by this Government in an area that was flagrantly neglected by our predecessors. Substantial sums are going into the programme, together with substantial training for teachers, physical kit, internet connections and software development. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are different demands in different parts of the system, as between primary and secondary schools, which we are actively addressing in our strategy to roll out the ICT programme.

I can commit myself to taking into account that specific point when we consider the connections that need to be made. However, the core point is that there must be a major national initiative to drive forward and use the advantages. I believe that we are part of that initiative, and I regret only that it has taken the election of this Government to start to move it forward.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Does the Minister agree that, if we are to get our pupils on-line, we must also get our teachers on-line? Can he therefore explain why, despite all the hype from the Government, the Chancellor and his Department are making available sufficient money for only 6.5 per cent. of teachers to have a lap-top computer?

Mr. Clarke: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to focus on teachers. None of the potential benefits can be liberated unless teachers possess the means to implement the change. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the benefits of the lap-top for teachers scheme. Where we have introduced it, it has brought real benefits; we are looking to extend it in various ways. He will be aware that the key issue is to ensure that in every school and on the internet and the national grid, there are resources that can be used by teachers beneficially. That is what we are focusing on, and what I believe we are delivering.

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