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Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): Where does this leave the programme of inclusion? Given the closure of so many special schools over the past eight years, and the new autonomy to be given to state schools, where will the measures leave children with special educational needs?
I would ask the hon. Lady to look at the facts. The proportion of children with statements in special schools has gone up, compared with eight years ago. That is a clear matter of fact. In the White Paper, we are saying to special schools that we want them to share in the mainstream specialist schools programme,
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and that if they want to develop a speciality, either in special needs or in the mainstream curriculum area, they should have the opportunity to do so. If they want to work more closely with a mainstream school, we should also make that happen. This is about providing opportunities for children with special needs as well as for everyone else.
Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend recently visited one of our three brand-new secondary schools in Crawley. The school, which used to be unpopular with parents and had falling rolls, is now a sports excellence college and people are fighting to get their children in there. It also has an excellent record of working with pupils who have been excluded or who are having trouble getting into a school. How will the White Paper help it to build on its excellent relationship with the pupil referral units, to allow it to continue that fantastic work?
Ruth Kelly: I am glad that my hon. Friend brought that school to my attention. I was very impressed with what I saw there, and I hope that she will send my best wishes to all its staff and pupils. She is right to say that it has a curriculum for excellence in sport, and that it is excellent at working with excluded pupils through the pupil referral units. The White Paper's approach to hard-to-place pupils is that schools should work together in collaboration to plan the necessary provision for those difficult pupils. Special learning support units or specialist off-site provision might be needed, but schools should have those pupils on their rolls, where appropriateunless they are excludedso that there is a clear incentive to drive up standards in the pupil referral units as well as in the schools.
Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): I have great admiration for the right hon. Lady's intellect, but I am puzzled by her somewhat schizophrenic approach to admissions policy. Could she make it somewhat clearer for simple souls like myself? Is she also aware that a large majority of the parents polled in Bournemouth were in favour of the retention of Bournemouth's excellent grammar schools, which were, at one time, grant maintained? Can she explain why she is so opposed to their continuation in that former role?
Ruth Kelly: The answer is quite simple: I want parents to be able to choose schools. I do not want schools to be able to choose parents, which is what happens under a grammar school system. The schools cream off the children who are able to do well and to pass the 11-plus, and the others are left behind. I want every school to be a centre of excellence so that parents can choose between them. If that means raising parents' aspirations for the children in our most disadvantaged communities and getting them to think more broadly about which school might match their children's talents, I want them to do that. If there are financial barriers to their getting into a school that is, for example, slightly further away than the one at the end of their street, we should help them to overcome those barriers. This is about widening choice in the system, and about making that choice work for the people who want it and need it most.
Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab):
In my constituency, the very best schools have done extremely
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well under this Government. However, it is the schools that traditionally had the poorer performances that have done best of all, by increasing standards at a faster rate, taking on specialist school status and working collaboratively in clusters. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how this already very good performance will be enhanced by her proposals? Will she also ensure that standards continue to rise, and that no school is left behind or feels that it does not have a place in the new system?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the fact not only that standards have been rising across all schools, but that those in schools in the most disadvantaged areas have been catching up with the rest. Our proposals will try to bring in an external partnerfor those schools that want one, not where the school or the parents do not want oneto the schools that need that most. If a school in a disadvantaged area has improved rapidly, but should be doing even better for the children, it should have the first bite of the cherry. Such schools should be the first to look for an external partner, if they want to go down that road and if they think they could benefit from being linked with a trust.
The schools commissioner, who will be based in the Department, will work with local authorities to set up those trusts, but also to match-make, so that they go to the schools that need them most and so that those trusts do not cherry-pick the best schools and the best pupils, but really work for the most disadvantaged pupils.
Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): Last year, the Education and Skills Committee published its report on school admissions. In 100 pages, it documented the failures of the admissions system under which a largely voluntary code of practice and largely powerless and weak LEAs were letting down children with special educational needs, those receiving free school meals and children in care. Can the Secretary of State explain how, in her brave new world of completely independent competing schools and completely powerless LEAs, those children will do anything but get an even worse deal?
Ruth Kelly: They will get a better deal andto take an examplewe are just about to lay the regulations on looked-after children, which will mean that looked-after children are top of the list of the admissions criteria for schools. So all schools will have to look at those children first[Interruption.] Yes. By 2007, hard-to-place pupils will also have to get priority in the queue, as it were.
If schools need to deal with those pupils by having extra off-site provision, because that is the way those children will benefit most, that is the way they should go, and they should plan that provision between themselves. But schools will have the incentive to plan good provision, because those children will be on their rolls, unless they have been excluded from school. So those children will be some of the first to benefit from these proposals.
Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab):
I applaud the fact that my right hon. Friend has turned her face against selection at 11 and her intention to promote social mobility through education, but that
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surely has to mean equality of access to the best education irrespective of where people live in an authority, irrespective of their means and irrespective, for instance, of their ability to move house next to the school they want their children to go to in order to get in. Will she please spell out very clearly how her proposals will reconcile the apparent conflict between greater freedom for the schools, including matters of entrance, and guaranteeing equality of access for all social classes in areas like mine?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. The first thing to say is that local authorities will have a clear duty, for the first time, to ensure fair access to schools for all pupils living in that community, so they will have to go out and find out what parents want. They will have to talk to parents when their children are in year 1, year 2 or year 3 of primary school to find out what sort of secondary school they want to go to and to ensure that they have access to schools of the sort that they want to attend. Authorities will have to build that into their school transport plans and ensure that there is fair access. Financial help will be given to them to overcome that barrier, but underpinning all that is, first and foremost, a requirement for every school to be a good school. Choice is not real choice unless standards are driven up across the system, but fair access to the schools that are on offer is at the heart of our proposals in the White Paper.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her statement, but may I ask her whether she believes that parent power will in any respect stand in the way of expanding schools and improving them? Where are the schools that want to expand to take on more challenging pupils?
Are we not empowering parents who have moved heaven and earth to get near to the successful schools, and who often have moved house to do so? Will they turn round and say, "Yes, expand this school and make it bigger to take on those more challenging pupils," when they feel that they have left those pupils behind through their ability to move closer to the most successful schools? I urge my right hon. Friend to think very carefully about the system we are introducing. Are not these proposals in danger of being a charter for the chattering classes to leave behind the inner-city secondary schools, as they have always done in our education system? What mechanisms will she put in place to ensure that that does not happen?
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