The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): Provisional results for 2005 show that 55.7 per cent. of 15-year-olds achieved five or more GCSEs or equivalent at grades A* to C. That is an increase of two percentage points on last yearthe biggest year-on-year rise for more than a decade. It means that more than 63,000 more pupils are now achieving five good GCSEs or equivalent than did so in 1997. I congratulate pupils, teachers and their schools on that tremendous achievement.
Kerry McCarthy: Although GCSE results have improved across Bristol, we know that there is still some way to go. The same could be said of staying-on rates in full-time education for 16 and 17-year-olds, which stand at 74 per cent. and 58 per cent. respectively. Will the Secretary of State comment on how the proposals in the White Paper will help to address that situation?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the scandalously low staying-on rates in this country. Britain has one of the lowest staying-on rates in the entire industrialised world, and Bristol has one of the lowest staying-on rates in Britain. We have to transform that. We have a target for improving staying-on rates from an average of 75 per cent. to 90 per cent. over the next 10 years. We will do that by introducing specialised diplomas that mix vocational and academic education and allow people to study subjects that interest them in the places that interest them in the ways that interest them.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating College high school in my constituency? This year, its GCSE results improved by a phenomenal 200 per cent. to 34 per cent. good passes from a disastrous 11 per cent. last year. Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the fact that the school is now finally fully staffed, successfully federated and making massive strides mainly because it has its third head in little more than two years? Schools should not trundle along in special measures while another generation of working-class kids gets written off. A failing school is not only a tragedy but an emergency. We cannot all go to Eton, can we?
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Ruth Kelly: I send my personal congratulations to all the pupils and teachers at the school in my hon. Friend's constituency. It is a tremendous achievement, although I hope that it is only the first step on a long journey to securing even better results. My hon. Friend is right: in rare but nevertheless too many cases schools have languished in special measures, not only for one or two years but sometimes for five or six. That must come to an end. That is why I proposed in the education White Paper that if a school had not made rapid progress within a year of being put into special measures, something radical should be considered, including federating with a more successful school, which my hon. Friend gave as an example.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does the Secretary of State share my concern that many of those who attain five GCSEs do not study languages? Will she give an undertaking to review the languages that are taught in our schools? In the context of global competition, will she consider adding Chinese and Urdu to the curriculum? Let me stress that there are some working-class kids on the Conservative Benches, too.
Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the need to promote modern foreign language teaching in our schools. Chinese is one of the fastest-growing modern languages in schools, with more and more opting to teach it as a specialism. Perhaps the best way to make our children enthusiastic about modern foreign languages is to teach them at primary school. That is why we have made a commitment that, by 2010, every child over the age of seven should learn at least one foreign language at primary school.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that her first duty is to protect the integrity of the GCSE examinations? Does she further accept that results should never be massaged so that schools appear to be doing better than they are? That does a huge disservice to the pupils.
Ruth Kelly: I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we should preserve the integrity of GCSEs. Recently, the director of education at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reviewed our system for preserving the integrity of GCSEs and said that he knew of no more robust system in the world.
Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Churchfields school in my constituency, of which I am a governor? It almost doubled its GCSE results from 26 per cent. in 200405 to just under 50 per cent. this year. Will she reassure me and my constituents that the Government will continue to support and promote with employers and parents vocational GCSEs as an equal alternative to traditional GCSE courses? That is what they want and value.
I certainly send congratulations to Churchfields school on its remarkable success in improving its GCSE results. My hon. Friend is right; vocational qualifications are hugely important and they have been undervalued in this country for generations.
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We need to start taking them seriously. That is why, later this autumn, I shall publish a delivery plan for implementing our 14 to 19-year-old specialised diplomas. They will, for the first time, give our young people genuine chances to study vocational qualifications of a high quality, which lead on to the next qualification and can even take students into higher education.
Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree with last week's BBC research, which showed that not enough young people in our most improving schools were achieving A* to C grades in English and maths? Does she accept that the foundations of numeracy and literacy are laid at primary school, yet 44 per cent. of children leaving primary school are unable to read, write or count to the desired standard?
Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman should study the record a bit more closely. Fifty-seven per cent. of our young people achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and arithmetic by the time they leave primary school. If we turn the clock back eight years, we find that figure reversed to 43 per cent. That achievement has been made after 50 years of no progress at all in raising primary school standards. Yes, I agree that we have to go further with English and maths, but I do not accept that schools have been downgrading their emphasis on those subjects because they are promoting vocational qualifications. Of course they must do more with English and maths; that is why we are making the GCSEs harder and why we are changing the league tables to ensure that schools reflect English and maths qualifications in the five GCSE results.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Sadly, earlier this week the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced her plans to enfeeble and marginalise local education authorities. While she still has the opportunity, would she care to pay tribute to the county of Leicestershirewhich is not Labour controlledfor successively achieving record GCSE results despite persistently being the worst funded shire county authority under both the previous Conservative Administration and our own? Finance and results do not always go together.
Ruth Kelly: I have a lot of respect for my hon. Friend, who I know takes these issues extremely seriously. I pay tribute to the work that has been done in Leicestershire to achieve this year's record results and I hope that the county will move from strength to strength. I should like to reassure my hon. Friend that there is a real role for local authorities in the education White Paper. I should also like to cite the view of the Local Government Association, which stated that it welcomes the new strategic role that has been given to local authorities.
Mr. Bone: In Wellingborough, the Government have allowed a secondary school to be demolished, resulting in the overcrowding of all the other secondary schools, children being bussed out of the county for their education and others being left at home receiving no education at all. How does the Secretary of State reconcile that appalling record with her discussions with the Prime Minister?
Ruth Kelly: Our first duty is to ensure that every school is a good school. We have already halved the number of failing schools over the past eight years. GCSE results are at record levels this year, and we have seen their biggest rise for more than a decade. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to suggest that we have to go further. We have to enable schools to develop their own ethos, to link up with an external partner and to drive their results even higher. That is how we are going to promote choice in the systemby ensuring that every school is a good school and that all parents have the opportunity to choose between them.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware that many Labour Members have grave concerns about her proposals and cannot possibly support them in their present form. There is no question that she and the Prime Minister have the best interests of young people at heart, but many of us fear that the proposals could be damaging to many young people in Tyne Bridge and similar constituencies up and down the country. Will she undertake to enter into meaningful discussions with colleagues, particularly on the Labour Benches, before she pins her colours too firmly to the mast in this White Paper?
Ruth Kelly: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. The proposals in the White Paper are about driving up standards across the board, but they are particularly about meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged pupils in our schools in the most disadvantaged areas. We will do that by ensuring that those schools have the opportunity to get really professional help, to federate with successful schools, and to develop a sense of purpose and mission. If we combine those measures with really good choice for all parents and with the extension of free school transport rights, we will serve the needs not only of the nation but of disadvantaged pupils in particular.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): In further meetings with the Prime Minister, will the Secretary of State draw attention to the fact that there is great anger in Northern Ireland at the Government's plans to destroy grammar school education?
I cannot sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's desire to have more selection in schools, or even to preserve the existing system of selection, particularly as that decision was, I understand, taken by the devolved Assembly.
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Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister are aware, there is concern on the Labour Benches, particularly about the concept of trust schools. Will she reassure me and some of my Labour colleagues on how trust schools will be required to take their fair share of children with special needs and children on free school meals, rather than cherry-picking the best students?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes the important point that when schools set their own admissions framework it ought to be within a national system that ensures fairness for everybody. Right at the heart of the White Paper is that principlefair admissions together with fair funding and fair accountability.
My hon. Friend is also right to point to the needs of particularly disadvantaged children within that process. I have said that I will shortly lay regulations before the House that will ensure that when looked-after children are considered, for example, they have top priority when it comes to determining admissions for any particular school. When a child has special educational needs, that child will have automatic right to the school that is named in their statement. By 2007, I expect all schools also to be taking hard-to-place pupils, again giving them priority in the system. I hope that, on those points, the concerns of my hon. Friends and others are allayed.
Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): I do not imagine that during discussions with the Prime Minister the Secretary of State had much time left over from putting out the row with the Deputy Prime Minister to discuss the problems in Stratford-on-Avon schools, but had she done so she would have found that there are three schools, all of which are completely full. The situation is getting worse because of Government housing targets. The high school, which is in a new building, simply cannot expand; the girls and boys grammar schools could.
In answer to a question on Tuesday, the Secretary of State said to me that she is continuing her predecessor's policy of not allowing the freedom of popular schools to expand to extend to grammar schools. So, we have a ridiculous situation in Stratford: the one school that cannot expand is free to do so and the two schools that can expand are not free to do so. What do parental and community choice at local level mean if such blind prejudice overrides them?
I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks that fair admissions are blind prejudice. Fair admissions are at the heart of what we stand for as a Labour Governmentfair admissions, fair funding and fair accountability. He is absolutely right that I do not want grammar schools to expand. I said it clearly in this House and I will continue to affirm it at every opportunity in this House. Nor can I understand why the expansion of grammar schools in his constituency is the best way to meet need. If there is space at those grammar schools, there should be non-selective education built to meet the needs of children in that area.
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Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that I wrote to her when she was appointed to express my concerns over the choice agenda, particularly regarding the schools in her constituency and mine, and in Bolton's third parliamentary constituency. She is, of course, to allow good schools to expand. That will be detrimental to the schools in my constituency of Bolton, South-East. How does she define a good school?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is right to have concerns about his constituency, but those concerns are not substantiated in the White Paper. Indeed, in Bolton we have good leadership capacity expanding throughout the system, with the head teacher of Rivington and Blackrod high school becoming executive principal of Labybridge schoola new school that was in special measures over a number of yearsand driving up standards, including a 5 per cent. rise in GCSE results this year. It is now able to help other schools to improve as well.
That is the system that I would like to be much more easily available to all schools in the country so that good leadership can expand, we can bring up the capacity of underperforming schools and every pupil has the opportunity to share in that success.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Will the Secretary of State confirm that under the White Paper she is not proposing to make the admissions code legally binding on schools? Will she also confirm that under the White Paper every school in the country could become its own admissions authority and be able to set its own policy with her as the ultimate arbiter? If that is all true, how can we be confident about fair admissions, given her recent ruling on the Oratory school in which she backed selection by parental interviewagainst her own admissions code?
Ruth Kelly: The White Paper introduces no change on admissions apart from toughening up the admissions procedures. The hon. Gentleman points to the current situation for foundation schools whereby rather than the local authority setting the catchment area or determining admissions, the school does. It does that within a fair admissions code, however, which is backed up on a statutory basis by the adjudicator. The adjudicator can rule on whether that admissions code has been preserved or whether there was a very good reason why the school could not abide by the admissions code, in which case it is referred to the Secretary of State. In the case to which he refers, the advice that I was given was completely unequivocalthere was no room whatever for discretion for the particular circumstances that pertained at that school. I hope that he will accept that our proposals are based on fair admissions, unlike those of the Conservative party, which would return us to a system of selection.
Helen Jones (Warrington, North)
(Lab): Does the Secretary of State accept that many of us have concerns about her White Paper, because it talks about schools as though they exist in isolation? If a school proposes to become a trust school or to expand, what consultation does she propose to carry out with parents at other schools who might be affected by that expansion? What
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procedures does she intend to put in place to protect those children in schools whose numbers might be falling?
Ruth Kelly: I must disagree with my hon. Friend, even though she raises an interesting point. The freedom that we are granting for schools is to set their own admissions arrangements, within the fair code of admissions, and to manage their own assets and employ their own staff, but to work in collaboration with other schools. That is what divides us from the Conservative party. Our framework has local authorities as the strategic leaders of the system, rather than the system being run directly from Whitehall, with every school fighting for its own survivalthe survival of the fittest. As to what will replace the school organisation committee in the process, local authorities will do so, because that is what they need to perform a fully strategic role, which they have requested.
Ruth Kelly: The White Paper sets out to make the freedoms for self-governing foundation schools much more easily available to trust schools. Those trust schools will negotiate with the Department for Education and Skills, using the power to innovate, which is already in the curriculum, to enable them to set the educational model for their school. That might mean greater vocational programmes, linking up with a local employer, or the sort of situation that we see in Knowsley, for instance. Once that is negotiated for one such school, however, it can be quickly applied to all the schools under its trust.
Mr. Cameron: What is interesting about that reply is that the real answer is nonethere are no automatic extra freedoms, and none of them apply to individual schools. If the differences are not significant, is it not hard to believe that this limited trust status will prove that popular? Will the Secretary of State tell us how she plans to measure progress? In particular, what proportion of schools does she expect to take up trust status by the end of 2007?
I expect that many schools will want to take up trust statusover time, perhaps the majority. Success will be determined, however, by how far trusts are able to raise performance in our school system. The hon. Gentleman is right that this has not just been dreamed up in the Department for Education and Skills; it is already working on the ground, in many parts of the country, to raise standards. For schools that want to go down that route, we want to make it as easily available as possible. That is the idea behind a trust school; it is about bringing in expert governance, linking to an external provider, enabling collaboration within a system in which such schools have freedom to manage their own assets and employ their own staff, and driving improvement throughout the systemunlike the old grant-maintained system in which schools were bribed to opt out of the system, to define themselves against other schools in the system and to opt for academic selection.
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