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House of Commons

Thursday 28 November 2002

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Standing Orders (Private Business)


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Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Care

1. Linda Perham (Ilford, North): What plans he has to increase pre-school and after-school child care provision. [81967]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): On 15 July, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced, as part of the spending review, plans to more than double child care spending and create 250,000 new child care places by 2006. In addition, we shall also be encouraging schools to provide and host a range of services, including child care, for the local community through our extended schools programme.

Linda Perham : I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he recognise the work of the Redbridge early-years and child care partnership on delivering excellent pre-school and after-school services with resources provided by the Government through sure start and other excellent initiatives? Will he also congratulate it on the recent award of a new opportunities fund boost of £200,000?

Mr. Twigg: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments and I am pleased to congratulate Redbridge on that. I know that she has a long-standing interest in

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providing the best possible early-years services in Redbridge. Indeed, she was a founding member of the Redbridge under-fives. The experience in her area demonstrates the importance of investment in such services.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I hope that the Minister has had time to read my Adjournment debate of last night on pre-schools. Sadly, no Education Minister was present to hear it. Will he take up my plea to cut the regulatory burden on pre-schools? They have Ofsted reports every year whereas primary schools have them only every five years. Their child profiles are 16 pages long and they have to have 24 policies, even though some of the pre-schools, like the wonderful Blackditch Bunnies in Stanton Harcourt which I visited recently, have fewer than 20 children.

Mr. Twigg: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not having had the opportunity to read what I am sure was an excellent debate. It is this Government who have invested in early years, including pre-schools, via our funding of the nursery programme. I am happy to look at the detailed points raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I recall that before 1997 pre-schools were closing up and down the country. Thanks to our investment in early years, new pre-schools are opening up and down the country.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): Many of our children in Amber Valley benefit hugely from breakfast clubs and out-of-school provision. Will my hon. Friend ensure that funding for the current schemes continues when the new opportunities fund ends? Many clubs cannot be sustained by simply asking parents to pay, because they are in poorer areas.

Mr. Twigg: I know that those breakfast clubs and other out-of-school activities have made a real difference. We want to ensure that they are sustainable because the benefits that they bring are educational, social and economic. In my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), I said that our extended schools programme has great potential. I think new investment will be available not only for breakfast clubs, but for after-school facilities as well.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Is it not a frightful waste of money that pre-school settings and other educational establishments are employing people they cannot use because of delays in the Criminal Records Bureau system? Is the Minister aware of the length of those delays? What action is he taking with his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to put things right?

Mr. Twigg: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. The issue is serious and I agree with him. We are working with the Home Office and Ofsted to clear the backlog of delays. They are unacceptable and we want the problem resolved as quickly as possible.

Specialist Schools

2. Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): What plans he has to allow more schools to obtain specialist status. [81968]

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The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): I am pleased to announce today that the Government intend to remove the cap on national funding to support specialist schools. This means that every school in England which meets the required standard will from today be able to join the specialist schools programme.

In addition, I can say that my Department is announcing a new partnership fund of £3 million in 2003–04 to be administered with the technology colleges trust in accordance with guidelines from my Department. This is designed specifically to help schools that have difficulty in meeting the current £50,000 sponsorship requirement.

Ms Munn : I thank my right hon. Friend for that welcome answer and his announcement. What support will be given to schools that apply for specialist status and do not meet the requirements, not because of financial reasons, but because their plan is deemed to be not good enough? It is demoralising for schools that are in difficult circumstances which want to take advantage of that opportunity to fall at the first hurdle.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is right. Support is offered through the technology colleges trust and local education authorities. I congratulate the director of education in my hon. Friend's city of Sheffield for the work that is being done to enable all the authority's schools that want to become specialist to achieve that by 2006, provided that they meet the quality standard. At the moment, 10 out of 27 schools in Sheffield are specialist, but I hope that my announcement today will help all schools to become specialist with support from the technology colleges trust and the local education authority.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): Does the Secretary of State accept Ofsted's view that specialist schools should not be assessed as a homogenous group because specialist sports colleges, for example, have seen no real improvement in standards, whereas the best performing are those that specialise in languages; and that diversity does not, in itself, drive up standards? Have not we reached the point at which we must stop obsessing about structure and start looking at the philosophy behind the way in which teachers teach and the way in which they are trained?

Mr. Clarke: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's fundamental point, in that it is right to look at particular schools in a particular way rather than to generalise across disciplines. His comments about Ofsted are not entirely accurate. Research by Ofsted confirmed that for the vast majority of schools already in the programme, specialist status has helped to sustain or accelerate the pace of school improvement. XSchool improvement" is the key phrase, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the purpose of the scheme is to develop school improvement programmes across the whole range.

In evidence to the Select Committee yesterday, Ofsted's director of inspection said that it would be years before the picture became clear, and I accept that

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judgment. With a proper research programme, it will be some time before we see how things are going. However, I believe that our approach to school improvement, using specialist schools, is already delivering results and will continue to do so.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Will my right hon. Friend look closely not only at Ofsted's evidence to our Committee yesterday but at the evidence from a range of academics who are concerned about the relationship between the investment in specialist schools, which is a great deal of taxpayers' money, and results? We know that good schools become specialist schools, but as yet specialist schools are not producing good schools. However, it would be churlish not to welcome the announcement that many more schools will be able to benefit from specialist status.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's welcome, and I shall look very closely at his Committee's conclusions. I have considered the evidence given to the Committee in hearings earlier this week, and a number of interesting points were made. However, anyone who doubts the contribution of the specialist programme to the process of driving up standards in schools, by providing focus and an opportunity to develop different aptitudes, is missing an important point. That is why I was so pleased to be able to announce today that the opportunity to take part in that dynamic and positive programme will be extended to all schools in the country.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): The Secretary of State clearly believes in specialist schools. He will be aware that in Northern Ireland, where schools are able to specialise by academic selection, GCSE results are 14 per cent. better than in England, A-level results are 13 per cent. better, and 20 per cent. fewer children leave school with no qualifications. What lessons does he draw from that for the specialist schools programme in England?

Mr. Clarke: I do not draw the conclusion that the hon. Gentleman obviously does, which is that the 11-plus should be reintroduced throughout England. It would extraordinary if the Conservative party nailed its flag to 11-plus selection. The lesson that I learn is that the more focus schools have and the more their ethos encourages learning, the better they do. That is why I think that the specialist programme is positive and why I am so pleased to announce its extension today—it is the right way to go.

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