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15 Nov 2002 : Column 264—continued

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): Before the Secretary of State moves on to another subject, will he tell us what the Government are going to do about antisocial behaviour within schools? When I talk to sixth formers in schools, they are concerned that they are being denied the right to learn because of the disruptive behaviour of other pupils.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is entitled to make that point. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is addressing these matters in great detail. The best short answer to his question is yes. The answer is to give more power to the profession—teachers—to deal with these problems in appropriate ways. There are a number of specific measures, such as investment in pupil referral units, that are important to help deal with the situations that can exist. However, the most important thing is to get a sense of order in the classroom. If we are to do that, the role of the teacher is critical. Our job is to help teachers in that, and that is what we will do. We shall make specific proposals in the near future—before Christmas—to deal with that specific point. The hon. Gentleman was right to raise the matter.

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The roots of these issues start earlier, as I have indicated. In our work on early years and pre-school arrangements, we believe that it is critical to intervene in a serious way to stop the long-term cycles of decline that cause some of the problems that we are describing. Our sure start programme has been a critical element in that approach, with its objectives of improving social and emotional development, health and ability to learn, and of strengthening families and communities.

We are working with our colleagues in the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that we can roll out the programme substantially throughout the country. We also wish to ensure that in every area all the professions are working together in the way that has been so well piloted in the sure start areas. For example, we want to see teachers, social workers, police, health visitors and housing officers working as a real team to try to address the needs of children. The truth is that intervening early and effectively in this way is the most effective way of ending some of the cycles of despair that have been present.

We are proud that in terms of our comprehensive spending review targets, in 1998 our target was to

We over-achieved on that target, and 70 per cent. of three-year-olds are now able to access a free place. We see this entire approach as central. We believe that in the past not enough attention was given to early years. Similarly, in some ways, not enough attention was given to primary education. We are determined that that will no longer be the case.

I now come to my second question for the hon. Member for Ashford. I have been unclear about the position of the Conservative party on sure start. I read that the Conservatives proposed to establish a small national agency and a national programme delivered by charitable and voluntary organisations that would, in their words,

Their programme is costed at no more than #80 million.

The effect of that approach would be to close 80 sure start programmes. The total average assumed spending for a sure start programme is #1 million. We have a significant extra budget compared with to the budget that the Tories intend to operate. Let us clarify today whether it is Conservative policy to close 80 sure start programmes. Let us clarify also what Conservative proposals are and whether the Opposition see sure start as the priority that I think most people believe it to be.

Primary and secondary reform must be at the heart of any Secretary of State's educational priorities. I shall begin with a reference to the A-level issues, because of the media background and because I gather that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough intends to raise the matter. In my constant spirit of helpfulness, I am keen to answer his question before he asks it, so that he can comment on it directly.

The issues during the summer relating to A-level grading were referred to the former chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson, who has been widely respected throughout the education service. On 2

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October he wrote to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, making clear the criteria on which the grading of papers would be reviewed:

that is the essentially the point that is being made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, as I understand it—

In other words, any grade boundaries that have been adjusted by more than was expected under the previous A-level regime were reviewed. That was a clear benchmark and, moreover, one that was accepted by all the parties involved, including those who made the original complaints.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, Mike Tomlinson's final report on the review of gradings was published on 15 October. My predecessor reported the result to Parliament on that day. The Government have full confidence in the Tomlinson inquiry. It was welcomed by the main head teacher bodies and it involved them. I do not believe that there is any basis for reopening the inquiry. That is my response to the hon. Gentleman. Obviously he will say more about he matter if he wishes to do so. The issue raises another question for the Conservatives, and it is my third question to them. The Leader of the Opposition stated in the House:

Is that the position of the hon. Member for Ashford? Does he believe that A-levels are not worth the paper they are written on? We certainly do not accept that—A-levels are a vital standard in our education system, and we are determined that that should continue. An overwhelming number of A-level students, parents and teachers will deeply resent the suggestion from the Leader of the Opposition, a senior politician, that A-levels are not worth the paper on which they are written. My question is therefore direct—does the hon. Member for Ashford agree or not agree with the point made by his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition?

On primary and secondary education more generally, the Queen said in the Gracious Speech:

Our main focus must be quality and standards in primary and secondary education. Success has already been achieved in primary schools, with the best results ever, established standards and an accountability framework, but we now need to accomplish the transformation of secondary education into a new diverse system that will be specialist in ethos and focus on the individual child's talents. I call that Xcomprehensive plus"—we need a system that ensures that every child is fulfilled and can achieve their aspirations.

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I have a question for the Liberal Democrats. I have read that their policy is to stop support for the specialist schools system.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): There is only one Liberal Democrat in the Chamber.

Mr. Clarke: That is a characteristically unfair Conservative attack on the Liberal Democrats. I am sure that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough will explain that his colleagues make a priority of supporting him in his important party work on education. I am told that it is Liberal Democrat policy to abolish the specialist schools programme. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would confirm that his party are proceeding with that policy.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's interest in Liberal Democrat policy, particularly as the Government constantly include it in their legislation. However, can he quote a single word from any speech or document produced on behalf of the Liberal Democrats to support his comments?

Mr. Clarke: I do not have the full text of speeches at this year's Liberal Democrat conference, but I understand that the document considered by that assembly stated that all decisions would be taken by schools; everything about the running of schools would be dealt with by individual schools, not by any centralised—as the hon. Gentleman would put it—system. The specialist schools programme is a centralised programme to support schools throughout the country. I may be wrong about Liberal Democrat policies. If so, I am happy to be corrected and learn that the Liberal Democrats are supporting our programme—that is why I put a question to the hon. Gentleman. The basis of my remarks, however, is the document that was submitted to the Liberal Democrat assembly earlier this year.

Mr. Willis: It is good to have a debate in the House on Liberal Democrat policy. The right hon. Gentleman will know—indeed, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris), the former Secretary of State, will confirm—that my criticism and that of my party of the specialist school programme is that it creates a two-tier system in our schools. The Government's initial approach was to give a small number of schools specialist status, with #0.5 million extra over a period of five years. Our objection is simple—every single school should be able to bid for those resources provided that they meet the relevant criteria. Moreover, it is not up to the Secretary of State to decide—

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