15 Mar 2007 : Column 417

House of Commons

Thursday 15 March 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Education and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Nursery Services

1. Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): What representations he has received on provision of nursery services free at the point of delivery. [127470]

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): My colleagues and I have regular meetings with and correspondence from representatives of all sectors, as well as early years providers, including those providing the entitlement to 12.5 hours early education or care for three and four-year-old children for 36 weeks of the year. It is this Government who introduced the entitlement and guaranteed that it is and will remain completely free to all parents who wish to take it up.

Mr. Scott: Does the Minister share my concern that at a time when we read that one of the leading chains of nurseries is planning to close down 10 of its 13 facilities, this will be repeated across the country? I have had reports of that happening in my constituency, Ilford, North.

Beverley Hughes: If that were the case, yes, I would be concerned. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who speaks from the Front Bench, have stated that that chain has closed. From our information, I understand that that is not accurate. The chain has changed hands, as such businesses do, but we cannot find any reports of intentions to reduce places. That rumour and a number of other comments from Opposition Members are untrue. In fact, there has been increasing stability in the market over recent years, particularly for private providers. That reflects both the investment that we are making and our commitment to maintaining a diverse sector.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): As always, there are two sides to the argument. What representations has my right hon. Friend received from parents about their entitlement to free care? Sometimes parents are asked to top up what
15 Mar 2007 : Column 418
should be a free entitlement, and they are unaware of their right to an excellent scheme for helping them and their children.

Beverley Hughes: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s contribution. It is in parents’ interests that we ensure that providers and local authorities understand that this is a free entitlement. That is the point of it. We do not want to discriminate between parents who could afford to pay top-up fees and those who could not. From my discussions with local authorities and the broad swathe of providers, I am convinced that the £3 billion a year that the Government are committing to this free offer is sufficient. Provided that it is administered properly by local authorities—we are looking at that—there is no reason at all for any provider to ask for a top-up fee, and we will certainly not allow them to do so.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I am delighted to see the Minister back in her place. We are all agreed that we want to see more child care, rather than less, but the Minister must accept that the free entitlement is not free, that in large measure the local authorities are not passing all the costs on to providers, and that the providers are using the extra half-hour over and above the statutory entitlement to subsidise the cost. To a large extent, the Government have had this child care cheap. Does the right hon. Lady accept that there is a mixed economy in respect of provision? Will she come clean and say what will happen when the code of practice applies to the pilot areas, and clear up any confusion? There is great uncertainty on the part of providers about what will happen from 1 April.

Beverley Hughes: I know that the hon. Lady is keen to develop a campaign on the issue, but the points that she makes here and elsewhere are simply not true. They are causing needless concern for parents. The experience over the vast swathe of the country is that the money going through local authorities is sufficient. In some instances the way in which it is being allocated by local authorities should be examined. I am sure she is aware that that is why on 7 March we launched a consultation document on schools, early years and 14-to-16 funding, including specific proposals which, if they are supported, will ensure better alignment in allocation across the sectors in local authorities where that might not be the case. I am convinced that the £3 billion is sufficient and that the provision must remain, as it is at present, free to parents at the point of access. We will not have the kind of two-tier system that the hon. Lady wants. We do not want vouchers and we will not allow discrimination—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Teacher Vacancies

2. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): If he will make a statement on teacher vacancies. [127471]

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): Teacher vacancies in local authority maintained schools went down between January 2005 and January 2006 by 250, to reach 2,230 posts, which is broadly the same
15 Mar 2007 : Column 419
percentage as it was 10 years ago. We expect that vacancy figures for January 2007 will be published on 26 April.

Mr. Mackay: Will the Minister accept that the large number of supply teachers in all too many schools, particularly as head teachers, French teachers and maths teachers, is not only very bad for morale in the common room, but harms children’s education? What more is he going to do to make sure that we have more permanent head teachers, French teachers and maths teachers?

Mr. Knight: We have commissioned a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers on leadership in schools. We are doing a series of things involving the National College for School Leadership in respect of head teachers. Lord Dearing published his report this week on language teaching, and we are addressing some of the recommendations. The statistics on maths teachers are very encouraging, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning launched some new measures for science, technology and maths this week. The overall picture is that we have more than 36,000 more teachers than we did 10 years ago, and we have added 140,000 more support staff so that teachers can concentrate on teaching. The general trend is extremely positive.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): My constituency lies right on the boundary with inner London, where there is a significant enhancement for teachers through London weighting. Although the areas and the schools are very similar, my area finds it difficult to attract teachers against that competition. Will my hon. Friend consider the issue to see whether there is any way in which he can make a more level playing field, so that the schools in my area can attract teachers to work in Enfield?

Mr. Knight: My hon. Friend has been assiduous in raising that concern with the ministerial team. We will continue to look at the success that we have achieved through the chartered London teacher scheme, London Challenge and Teach First. A series of measures is making sure that London schools are getting the leadership that they need and that we are getting the quality of teachers that we need to continue the exceptional improvement in the quality of education in London schools, which is ahead of that in the rest of the country.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): We have heard the figures on teacher vacancies. According to the most recent figures, however, 25 per cent. of newly qualified secondary school teachers and 26 per cent. of newly qualified primary school teachers were not in full-time employment six months after they graduated. Does the Minister agree that that is a real concern? What does he plan to do about it? And what implications does it have for the Government’s recruitment campaign for teachers?

Mr. Knight: We have to get the right balance. I have received a number of letters from hon. Members representing constituents who have trained as teachers and who are struggling to find posts. We have to
15 Mar 2007 : Column 420
balance that against the concerns raised by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay). There are particular subjects such as languages, maths and science where we need to improve the supply of teachers. Although the vacancy rate for head teachers is broadly what it was 10 years ago, there is a future challenge in terms of succession planning. We have to strike that balance. The level of supply is broadly in tune with the level of demand, but there will always be some geographical disparities.

Secondary Schools

3. Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): what steps his Department is taking to raise standards of educational achievement in secondary schools. [127472]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): Since 1997, education has been this Government’s top priority. We have doubled spending per pupil, and there are now 36,000 more teachers and 150,000 more support staff. We are investing more than £1 billion in personalising learning by 2008. The secondary national strategy is improving the quality of teaching and learning with training and support for teachers. Our 14-to-19 reforms, including the introduction of diplomas, will enhance our focus on functional skills. Attainment has increased at all levels in secondary schools since 1997, and the number of schools with fewer than 25 per cent. of pupils achieving five or more good GCSEs is down from 616 in 1997 to 47 this year, and 85,000 more students achieve that standard each year.

Mr. Lancaster: Will the Secretary of State explain why in Milton Keynes, where we are having to build new schools, English Partnerships will charge full price to the local authority for a piece of land if a secondary school is being built, but if the same site is used for a primary school, it will transfer the land at zero cost? Why is there an imbalance between the two different types of school? Since the Secretary of State has such commitment to secondary education, will he look at the matter? And will he meet a delegation from Milton Keynes to discuss it?

Alan Johnson: That does not sound right to me, and I would happily meet a delegation from Milton Keynes to discuss it.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that some of the figures that are coming out about the success of extended schools are quite remarkable and should be applauded? Will he begin a campaign to get more Members of Parliament to go out and visit more schools? As I go round the country visiting secondary schools, I see improving achievement, whereas many Conservative Members seem only ever to have been to the independent schools that they were raised in.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am getting to the age when as I look around at the new intake, some of them look as though they have just left secondary school. I think that we would all
15 Mar 2007 : Column 421
agree that it is a very fulfilling experience to go and visit our local schools—much more so now than it was 10 years ago.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The Secretary of State is no doubt aware of the decline in the study of languages in secondary schools, following the Government’s decision to relax the curriculum. We all want to see the study of languages prosper, and we now have the Dearing proposals to try to address the problem. Does the Secretary of State believe that following those proposals there will be an increase in the number of candidates in our secondary schools for public examinations in languages at GCSE and A-level?

Alan Johnson: Lord Dearing has done a valuable task, and his report is full of good sense. We have accepted his principal recommendation that we should make languages compulsory in primary schools, and we will do so at the next available opportunity when we review that key stage. As for children in secondary schools, we need to do much more to encourage schools to go for a much higher benchmark. On Saturday, I was at Wakefield city high school, which is in the middle of a council estate and has a large intake of pupils who have free school meals. The number of students taking languages has not changed since we moved from compulsion to entitlement. That is because of inspirational, very good-quality languages teaching and a method of teaching that enthuses youngsters. That represents a large part of Lord Dearing’s recommendations, and we should ensure that it happens in every secondary school.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for visiting Wakefield city high school with me on Saturday, when its inspirational head teacher, Alan Yellop, told us how he took a school where just 7 per cent. of pupils were getting five good A to C grades at GCSE in 1994 to one that is not only performing above the national average in absolute terms but is in the top 5 per cent. of the country, in value-added terms, for maths. Will my right hon. Friend urgently consider the need for capital financing to rebuild that school? Following our tour, I am sure that he will agree that we urgently need a significant investment in the school to ensure that its high-quality teaching and inspirational leadership continue.

Alan Johnson: There we have it. In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), I can say that MPs are not only visiting schools but doing so on a Saturday. [ Interruption. ] There were children in attendance. My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is a tremendous school with tremendous leadership, great teaching and improved results. The capital spend needs to go in, because the school is in a poor condition. We understand that. That is why we are refurbishing and rebuilding every single secondary school and have targeted the capital funding available to local authorities to deal with schools such as Wakefield city high. I hope that that school will soon have an infrastructure to match its tremendous teaching.

15 Mar 2007 : Column 422

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that one of the measures that the Government have taken to improve secondary schools is to allow them to move to trust status. Ryeish Green school in my constituency is undergoing a consultation on closure. It is a much improved school that wants to be a trust school, and it looks as though it has the strong support of a very good local organisation. The only problem is that the local education authority needs some persuasion. Will the Secretary of State meet people from the school, the local education authority and me to bring all parties together to ensure that this opportunity to raise secondary school standards is taken?

Alan Johnson: I will certainly facilitate such a meeting. If the circumstances are as the hon. Gentleman describes—I have no reason to doubt him—we should include the school among the many that wish to introduce trust status in the next couple of years.

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): Educational achievement in Hartlepool has doubled in a decade, facilitated largely by a doubling of spend per pupil by the Labour Government. Whereas fewer than 30 per cent. of pupils in 1996 achieved five good GCSEs, 60 per cent. now achieve that. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, following the current comprehensive spending review, which is acknowledged to be tighter than previous rounds, education will continue to be a central focus of the Government’s policy so that pupils in Hartlepool can continue to benefit from rising standards and increasing spending?

Alan Johnson: The achievement in Hartlepool is truly remarkable. It should be a beacon to other areas of the country, which have similar circumstances but have not managed the same achievement.

I obviously cannot comment on the comprehensive spending review. However, we are locking £66 billion of funding into the Department this year—record amounts are being spent on education and I hope that we will retain that and have a real-terms increase on top.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Despite the record spending on education and the plethora of initiatives that the Secretary of State has described this morning, only 75 per cent. of youngsters this year reached the level expected of them in key stage 2 tests in English, maths and science. Is it not time that the Secretary of State took on the left-wing, liberal establishment, which dominates education, brought an end to all-ability comprehensive schools and mixed teaching classes, and introduced traditional methods of teaching English?

Alan Johnson: The reference to liberals certainly created a stir on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

The hon. Gentleman talks about 75 per cent. achievement in three subjects at key stage 2. He needs to consider the position in 1997, since when a tremendous amount of progress has been made. That is
15 Mar 2007 : Column 423
due not to politicians, educationists or civil servants, but to teachers and head teachers. They do a tremendous job.

Much of changing the culture has to do with building aspiration, especially, as I said yesterday, among working-class boys. That matter is being addressed, but with a teaching profession that is in better shape. There are more teachers and they comprise probably the best cohort of teachers that we have ever had in this country—whether they are left-wing liberals is a matter for them.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend rightly says that the key to raising standards is good teaching. Yet time and again, the Select Committee in its investigations finds deficiencies in teacher training. Teachers will face far more demands in future with the changing curriculum. When will my right hon. Friend examine the content of teacher training courses for initial training and continuous professional development to ensure that we have a teaching work force that is adequately trained for the demands of the 21st century?

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Make that woman a Minister.

Alan Johnson: I very much agree with that sentiment. If it were in my gift—which it is not—my hon. Friend would be a Minister. She raised an important point, which the Select Committee has made on occasions. Its distinguished Chair is sitting near my hon. Friend—perhaps another ministerial job approaches?

Both my hon. Friends would agree that we have done much to improve teacher training and the work that goes into that from the Training and Development Agency and others. Much work is going into school leadership and getting teachers to aspire to it. The challenge of introducing diplomas and the various other measures that we are taking requires us to redouble our efforts to ensure that our teacher training and our career professional development is of the highest quality that we can make it. We are working towards that and I believe that we share that objective with my hon. Friends.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to the previous question, does he agree that the curriculum is critical to raising standards in secondary schools? Given his comments last week about the danger of the new diplomas going horribly wrong and becoming “secondary-modern” qualifications, will he now rethink and implement Tomlinson in full?

Next Section Index Home Page