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School Selection

8. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): How many schools interview parents as part of the selection process for pupils. [49944]

The Minister for Schools (Jacqui Smith): We do not survey school admission arrangements nationally. However, from a recent London survey we know that three schools have interviewing as part of their admission arrangements—the London Oratory school in Hammersmith and Fulham, and St. Joseph's college and St. Coloma convent school in Croydon. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we will legislate to end that practice.

Mr. Prentice: It only took my question to force that change in Government policy, so I shall try again. My friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) has raised the issue of admissions forums. If, for example, a school has a disproportionate number of children on free school meals, how would the admissions forum decide whether to refer the matter to the adjudicator?

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend is in good company in pushing for the end of interviewing. In 2003, the Church of England and the Catholic Church supported our guidance in the code of practice to end interviewing, and they have pushed us to take legislative action—I know
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that he likes to associate himself with such allies. We will enable admissions forums, which involve schools, local authorities and significant parts of the community, to determine whether schools are behaving in line with the new code of practice by, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, welcoming all pupils and delivering fair access. Where they determine that that is not the case, they will have a new power to report schools to the adjudicator, which will considerably strengthen the current position.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I happen to know the London Oratory quite well. It has always interviewed parents, it is a beacon school, and it involves a genuine social and academic mix of pupils. Why should that school, which has fought a successful court case to protect its ethos, be told by Government diktat that it should no longer interview parents? Is it fair that people who have enjoyed the services of an excellent school are pulling up the ladder behind them?

Jacqui Smith: I repeat that the good practice has not been determined by this Government alone. The Catholic Church and the Church of England asked us to act, because, like us, they recognise that we need fair, objective and transparent admissions arrangements. There is considerable doubt whether interviewing fulfils those criteria so, along with the Churches, we believe that the time is right to move away from that practice and to make the situation clear in legislation.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): On the question of interviews, and whether cost is a barrier to take-up, will my right hon. Friend examine admissions policies in relation to informal methods of selection—for example, when schools insist on a particular type of uniform, which must be purchased from a particular expensive outlet—which have been highlighted in recent reports? The media recently highlighted a case in which a headmaster insisted on children wearing a particular sports outfit manufactured by Nike, which is the most expensive in the range.

Jacqui Smith: I agree with my hon. Friend that such restrictions on uniform are unacceptable. I am a strong proponent of school uniform, which benefits schools, but we have made it clear—we will reinforce this point in guidance—that uniform should not be disproportionately expensive and that it should not be confined to certain suppliers. School uniform is useful in developing the right attitudes within a school, but it should not be used to discriminate in deciding who gets into a school.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): The real issue is not a school's intake, but what happens within a school. Does the Minister agree that setting children in ability groups—selection within a school—enables the curriculum to be tailored to each child's ability and aptitude, with resulting higher standards? If she agrees, why is it that 60 per cent. of lessons still take place in mixed-ability classes, the proportion of mixed-ability teaching is rising not falling, and half of all English lessons are still taught in mixed-ability classes?
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Jacqui Smith: I do accept the significance of setting—that is why I am pleased that following the action that we have taken over the past eight years, more children are taught in set classes than previously. There are two challenges for the approach that the hon. Gentleman takes. First, he has to begin to square his supposed commitment to trusting the professionalism—

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is not for the Minister to talk about the commitment of a political party. Will she please take her seat? I have told her before—this is becoming quite a regular thing with the Minister. It is the Minister's duty to tell us about her stewardship of her portfolio.

Jacqui Smith: I apologise, Mr. Speaker.

I believe that our approach to setting should not suggest that Whitehall writes the timetables of schools across the country, but trust in the professional judgment of head teachers, alongside the guidance that it is possible for us as a Government to provide, as we have done and will continue to do. I also believe that the time is right, as we spelled out in the White Paper, to move beyond simply saying that there is benefit in setting pupils within groups, and reach a position whereby we are more able to identify the individual needs of pupils, provide catch-ups where they are falling behind and stretch them more effectively where they have particular gifts and talents. That is why we have accentuated, and will invest in, further personalised learning in our schools.

Sure Start

12. Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): If she will make a statement on the Sure Start programme in the north-east. [49948]

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): There are 62 Sure Start local programmes in the north-east, most of which will become Sure Start children's centres by March this year. Children's centres will provide integrated support services for parents of young children under five. There are 53 designated children's centres operational in the north-east, and we propose to increase that to more than 250 by September this year, and to more than 340 by March 2008.

Helen Goodman: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. My constituents are grateful for the two Sure Starts that have opened in the past six months—one in Evenwood and one in Bishop Auckland—where children and families are enjoying activities and facilities that they never had before. However, I get complaints from people who are unable to go to Sure Start. Can the Minister say what new Sure Starts and children's centres are planned for the constituency?

Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for her work in supporting and promoting early years services, particularly Sure Start. By September 2006, there will be another 30 designated children's centres in County Durham, including a total of five in her constituency. There will be more in phase 2, but we do not yet have their locations; I will let her know as soon as I am aware of them.
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The Solicitor-General was asked—

Thames Valley Crown Prosecution Service

20. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): When he next expects to meet the head of the Thames Valley Crown Prosecution Service to discuss resources. [49929]

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I met the chief Crown prosecutor for Thames Valley in Oxford on 6 October. I have spoken to her several times since, including a few days ago. I do not have a date set in my diary for a further meeting. Thames Valley CPS has received a significant increase in resources and has deployed them in recruiting new front-line staff. I am pleased to say that there has been a study by the police and CPS in relation to resources at Banbury, which I hope will result in an increase there.

Tony Baldry: I hope that when the Solicitor-General met the head of Thames Valley CPS she explained that there have been several instances in Banbury magistrates court where cases have been set down for a not guilty contest, witnesses have been summonsed and fixtures have been arranged, but the case has had to be abandoned because a prosecutor has not turned up. That includes cases involving assault and burglary. That is simply unacceptable, and it is unfair to everyone involved. It is unfair to the victims, unfair to the defendants—who cannot clear their names—and unfair to the police, who have spent a lot of time working up a case only to see it abandoned. Will the Solicitor-General ensure that there are sufficient resources, and that Thames Valley CPS ensures that prosecutors turn up at court to prosecute not guilty pleas?

The Solicitor General: Since 2003 the number of prosecutors in Thames Valley has increased by 20 per cent., to 70 lawyers today. Eleven lawyers are specifically recruited to deal with issues such as charging. The CPS in the area has recently had an increase in its budget from £6 million to £7 million a year, which is one of the biggest budget increases for the CPS in the country.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there was an issue about certain cases—three, according to my understanding—which were subject to a pre-trial review. A request was made to vacate some dates for a trial and the CPS took the view that it would accept guilty pleas to some offences. The pleas were accepted and the cases did not proceed to trial. I have some concerns about that and have asked for a report about it. The hon. Gentleman therefore raises an issue about which I would be concerned, but I am told that an error was made, and the chief Crown prosecutor assures me that it will be rectified.

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