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16 Dec 2002 : Column 669—continued

11.20 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) on not only his outstanding speech tonight but the passion with which he speaks on the Floor of the House, in the Select Committee on Education and Skills and elsewhere. On my first appearance before the Select Committee in June, he asked me about some of the issues that he raised tonight. He pursues them diligently. He knows, although other hon. Members may not, that I shall appear before the Committee again on Wednesday. I look forward to continuing the conversation with him then.

I am pleased that my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), and the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) are present. I congratulate them on staying here at this late hour for an important debate and providing moral support for me as well as for my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough. I hope that I would have been present for the debate, even if I were not the Minister answering it because South Shields is a former mining constituency. Many of the issues that my hon. Friend raised also affect my constituency.

The meeting of the coalfield communities campaign to which my hon. Friend referred, and at which the educational research was first published, was held in the town hall in South Shields. I spoke at the conference, and I perceive such issues as critical in changing structures and cultures in my constituency.

My hon. Friend mentioned some important data that were produced jointly by the Department and the coalfield communities campaign under the Department's sponsorship. That independent research dealt with educational attainment in coalfield areas. It is unfortunately true that although pupils in our constituencies fare well at primary school and do some outstanding work, by the time they reach secondary school and key stage 3, which covers 11 to 14-year-olds, GCSE and beyond, attainment falls well below national averages.

The research that we commissioned warned against a specific Xcoalfield effect", and highlighted other parts of the country where similar under-performance occurs.

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However, my hon. Friend made a powerful case to show that specific factors are at play. For example, the lack of investment in the coalfield areas in the past 20 years, especially in the 1980s, had a devastating effect and the speed of economic collapse left little time for the planning that is necessary to deal with major industrial change.

My hon. Friend did not have much time to congratulate the teachers and pupils in Barnsley on their outstanding work. I hope that he will forgive me if I take a few moments to do that. In the middle of much discussion of problems, we should not forget that teachers, head teachers, support staff and pupils work in schools in the coalfield areas day in, day out for 38 weeks a year. Some achieve remarkable results. My hon. Friend may know the figures that I am about to cite, but perhaps other hon. Members do not. In Barnsley, at key stage 2, which covers 11-year-olds, the number of children who read, write and count well when they leave primary school increased by 11 per cent. in the three years to 2001. In maths, the percentage of children who do well has increased from 55 per cent. to 63 per cent., and for science, the figure increased from 64 per cent. in 1998 to 82 per cent. in 2001. Those are significant advances.

Just under 30 per cent. of 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds gained five A to C grades at GCSE in 1998. In 2001, that had increased to more than 35 per cent. My hon. Friend referred to the outstanding work of the education action zone in Barnsley. The higher than average rates of improvement in that zone are testimony to the power of Government intervention and to the potential that exists in those communities. The young people who are growing up there have the potential to do well in education.

In the education action zone, the number of seven-year-olds who read to the expected standard has increased by 12 per cent., compared with a national average of 4 per cent. in the past three years. There are similar figures for 11-year-olds: there has been a 16 per cent. rise in the number of young people doing well at that age. The effects are, however, less marked at secondary level than at primary level, and that is the issue that my hon. Friend is highlighting in this debate.

I want to focus the second half of my remarks on the challenge that we face in the secondary sector. In the spirit of harmony that is prevailing in the Chamber at the moment, I shall start with some more good news about Barnsley. My hon. Friend will remember that, in 1999, 28.6 per cent.—nearly a third—of children in Barnsley were failing to get five grades A to C at GCSE. I beg your pardon, Madam Deputy Speaker, I meant to say that the percentage of lower-attaining schools was nearly one third. Two years later, that percentage had been halved. The number of schools where less than 25 per cent. of pupils were getting five good GCSEs had been halved in the space of two years. We await this year's statistics with—well, I was going to say trepidation, but, in the light of the figures that I have just given, I should say that we await them with anticipation, because I am confident that the outstanding performance of the young people and teachers in the area will continue.

Like my hon. Friend, we want to go further in raising the performance of young people in the coalfield areas, because the truth is that they do not just need average

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levels of performance; they need to perform above the average level if they are going to overcome some of the disadvantages that are placed in their way. I want to highlight for my hon. Friend four issues that we are focusing on over the next three years to tackle some of the problems. The first relates to the quality of school leadership—not just the head teacher but the senior management team, comprising 12 to 15 people in any primary school. We want to ensure that they are of the highest quality, and have the proper training and support. As part of the excellence in cities group, schools in Barnsley will be receiving #125,000 a year extra for the next three years, specifically for leadership development, because we all know that the leadership of a school is a critical factor in raising performance.

Secondly, we want more schools to have access to the specialist schools programme and to share their facilities and their excellence. I can tell my hon. Friend that 20 per cent. of secondary schools in coalfield areas are now specialist schools, and I am delighted to say that, of the four bids for engineering college status, two have come from coalfield areas. I hear what my hon. Friend has said about Willowgarth and Ridgewood, and I will certainly look carefully at the applications that have been made. In fact, they are already being carefully scrutinised. I would trespass into dangerous territory if I said anything further on that, but I promise him that there will be due diligence in the assessment of those bids.

I hope that my hon. Friend was pleased by the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the development of a partnership fund to help to bridge the sponsorship gap in cases in which schools have worked hard to build the links with the outside community that are important to a successful secondary school and can lead to the motivation and development of curriculums and programmes that support young people's achievement, but in which there has been a problem in raising the full funds. We want to help to bridge that gap, and the partnership fund will help to do that.

The third priority for us is the reform of the school work force. My hon. Friend referred to the range of professionals who work in schools. Obviously, there will be the head teacher, the teachers and the caretaker, but there will also be learning mentors who come in to support young people, language specialists, and sports coaches who come in to support teachers and help young people. That is a major part of the agenda, and I am pleased to say that funding for young people in Barnsley will have risen from an average of #2,840 per pupil in 1996–97 to #3,850 by 2005–06. The preponderance of that money will be in the hands of the head teachers to spend on a range of staff—not just teachers; other support staff as well—to make the most of the learning opportunities for young people.

Our fourth priority is to develop partnership beyond the classroom. My hon. Friend referred fleetingly to the important role of parents, and I completely agree with his points about supporting good behaviour and high aspiration. The role of outside bodies, notably universities, is also important in helping to broaden the horizons of young people and to give them the

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confidence to aim high in terms of higher education or high-quality vocational education. This is not just a matter of programmes and structures; it is also a matter of culture. Too many young people think that university is beyond them, when in fact they have the brains to do well. We need to do a better job of helping them to gain access to information on what is good about university life. We also need to ask the universities to play a more proactive role in helping to raise standards within schools. There is major work to be done in linking our higher and further education institutions with our secondary schools. That is the way to provide the role models that will help young people to believe that they can move on and achieve a lot.

On challenging the poverty of aspiration that has at times marred some coalfield communities, my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that 15 of the 72 education action zones and 13 of the 58 excellence in cities areas are in coalfield communities. I very much take his point about the need to extend the excellence in cities programme and its success beyond cities. That is why we are developing the excellence clusters programme to take care of smaller areas, which are not defined as a city but which can benefit from the strands of work at the heart of that programme.

My hon. Friend also referred to education maintenance allowances, and I know that he has campaigned for a long time for the nationwide outreach of that programme. I can confirm that that will happen next year.

The debate is drawing to a close, so I should point out that we on the Labour Benches—I am sure that I can speak also for the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price)—are all committed to every single child. We believe that every single child is special and that every single child has a talent and a potential to fulfil. It is the job of the education system to help to develop that talent to the full. Some children face greater barriers than others, and the Government's job is to help them to overcome those barriers. We recognise that and the need to address the issue, which involves funding as well as programmes. It also involves a culture of achievement, which must go from the top of the education system to the bottom.

I reject wholeheartedly the terrible English curse according to which, somehow, more means worse and that more achievement represents a dilution of standards. I say the opposite—more achievement is testimony to the hard work of children and the skills of their teachers. If any proof of that were needed, I know from my research for the debate that there is already a beacon school in Barnsley, Darfield Upperwood primary, whose outstanding performance has delivered a better education not just for its own pupils, but for other pupils in the area.

That is the theme behind much of what we are doing. Let us not confine excellence to the few; let us spread it to the many, because the many have potential as well as the right to see it fulfilled.

Question put and agreed to.

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