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House of Commons

Thursday 28 June 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

New Writs



Oral Answers to Questions

Education and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Academic Boycott (Israel)

1. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on the proposed academic boycott of Israel. [146019]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): We have made our position on this issue extremely clear in recent weeks, including during my recent visit to Israel, when I stated clearly that the Government fully support academic freedom and are firmly against any academic boycotts of Israel or Israeli academics. While I appreciate the independence of the University and College Union, I am very disappointed that it has decided to pass a motion that encourages its members to consider boycotting Israeli academics and education institutions. I profoundly believe that that does nothing to promote the middle east peace process—in fact, it does the reverse.

Michael Fabricant: I am very grateful to the Minister for that answer. He will know from his visit to Israel that its academic institutions lead the world, especially in the fields of medicine, science, engineering and IT.
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Any boycott would damage higher education in the UK, as well as in Israel. What steps can he take as a Minister to ensure that there is co-operation and dialogue? Even Universities UK has said that such a boycott would be very damaging to us in Britain.

Bill Rammell: The fact that I undertook the visit to Israel very shortly after the boycott was announced, a visit on which I was very pleased to be accompanied by Professor Drummond Bone, vice-chancellor of Liverpool university, and president of Universities UK, sent out a very strong message on behalf of those institutions. Education must be a bridge between different peoples, and not a subject of conflict. We are currently working on an idea that I put forward during the visit—that we hold a seminar in London involving Palestinian, Israeli and British academics to demonstrate that education should bring people together.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): I welcome what my hon. Friend has said, and applaud the fact that Professor Drummond Bone accompanied him on his visit to Israel. May I invite him to consider what it must be like for Jewish students on British campuses? They are facing a mean and nasty campaign by lecturers that could be described as anti-Semitic. Students of all religions and faiths—and none—should be welcomed on campuses. Such a campaign could damage Britain’s universities and students here, as well as our interests abroad.

Bill Rammell: I wholly agree with my right hon. Friend. The numbers of overseas students on our campuses has grown. At a time of international conflict, having students of all faiths, nationalities and belief systems working, studying and living together can only be a force for good. It is clear that Israeli academics and Jewish students feel that they have been picked out for special treatment by the boycott, whereas academics in countries without democratic institutions but with much weaker records in human rights are not proposed for boycott. We need to be steadfast on the matter, and this Government will be.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does the Minister agree that, when so many Israeli universities are doing projects and programmes that benefit not only the Jewish people of Israel but the Druse, the Palestinians and people far beyond that, a boycott can only be detrimental and, far from bringing peace, will divide people?

Bill Rammell: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. During my visit to Jerusalem, I met Israeli academics at Hebrew university who were engaged in giving direct advice to the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The idea that we would want to stop that kind of co-operation bewilders me, and we should oppose it most strongly.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with sweeping actions such as the boycott is that they affect individuals regardless of their personal views for or against the peace process? While we can understand people who take a critical view of one Government or another, they should not use a weapon that hurts individuals who might actually agree with them.

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Bill Rammell: Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. I profoundly believe that in Israel and the occupied territories, there are both progressive and reactionary voices. The problem with an academic boycott is that it makes the job and the position of the progressives much more difficult and it entrenches and enhances the position of those who want to take a hard line.

Child Care

2. Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): What assistance the Government provide to parents who need child care in order to take up training. [146020]

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): I am announcing £75 million over the next three years so that 50,000 workless families can benefit from free child care, helping parents to gain access to training and move into work. This is in addition to a number of other schemes that help parents pay for child care while training, including care to learn for young parents, learner support funds for adult learners and the new deal for lone parents as well as special pilot schemes in London. Together with the existing schemes, this new funding will help to establish a more comprehensive and coherent system that reaches those in most need of support.

Mrs. Dean: I thank my right hon. Friend for the answer and for the announcement of the extra funding. Will that help the small number of young women in particular who cannot claim working tax credit to support their apprenticeships because they are in non-employed apprenticeships and, if they are over 20, also cannot claim care to learn child care support? If that funding will not help them, can she consider how we can help them?

Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for her interest in this matter. As she implies, people on apprenticeships that are classed as employment can apply for working tax credit and, contrary to popular belief, that applies to parents from age 16, not from age 25. She is right that young people on apprenticeships that are classed as non-employed are eligible for education maintenance allowance and, in some instances, care to learn funding. I will take on board my hon. Friend’s comments and make sure that we examine the small number of young people who may fall between those stools. We need to ensure that we have a comprehensive system as a result of the funding and that we can assist all those who need help with child care to get into training or work.

Mr. Speaker: I call the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). If she feels more comfortable, she can address the House from a seated position.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. What assistance is available to parents who are not seeking work or training, but whose children would particularly benefit from good early-years provision, which may help them to break out of the spiral of poverty within the family?

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Beverley Hughes: In addition to all the general Sure Start funding that the Government have put in, to the tune of £21 billion, a specific amount—£3 billion per annum—has been made available to fund free nursery entitlement for every three and four-year-old. That is of great benefit, especially for children from more disadvantaged families, in which parents may not be working but can use that entitlement to get into training or work. In addition, we have some special pilots focused on children over two but under three who do not necessarily qualify for the full entitlement. The pilots are focused in very disadvantaged areas to see whether, by getting those children into early education, we can assist their parents into training and work.

History Teaching

3. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): If he will make a statement on the teaching of history in schools. [146021]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): We are currently considering final advice on the new key stage 3 curriculum to be taught from September 2008. The advice specifies the holocaust, the slave trade and the two world wars as compulsory. British history will remain as a substantial element of the curriculum, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear.

Andrew Rosindell: I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he agree that a firm grasp of our country’s history is vital for all our children and that teaching segments in isolation does nothing to improve the understanding of the glorious traditions of this country? What plans do the Government have to ensure that children are taught a well-rounded and comprehensive history of these islands?

Mr. Dhanda rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the Minister answers, may I tell Members as gently as possible that I would prefer them not to read out their supplementary questions? Supplementaries should be a spontaneous reflection on what the Minister has said.

Mr. Dhanda: I shall try to be as spontaneous as I can, Mr. Speaker.

British history is an important element at all key stages. Our review of key stage 3 will make a difference by ensuring that important elements of British history will be supported; in addition, GCSE and A-level courses will have a minimum content of 25 per cent. British history.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): May I suggest another area that should be part of historical education in this country? The history of Parliament. Parliament has played a key role in establishing our liberties and freedoms, so will my hon. Friend make sure that we use all our resources here so that schools have proper access to this place? Will he also talk to the British Museum about using its resources so that people can understand not only British history but that of the wider world, too?

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Mr. Dhanda: I should love the opportunity to talk to the British Museum, and if I get the chance I am sure I will. My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about Parliament, which is, as many Members are aware, part of the citizenship curriculum. Many Members talk about Parliament and the benefits of parliamentary democracy to pupils who visit and tour this place. Long may that continue.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I make a plea for room in the curriculum for the teaching of local history and local culture? It is important that young people have a sense of place and identity. I am struck by the fact that when I take children around the House and show them things that relate to the history of Somerset, their teachers tell me that they are never taught about that in history, which seems a great shame.

Mr. Dhanda: There is flexibility in the curriculum for that. Last week, I addressed a conference in Cheltenham where we talked about the city curriculum, which affects my constituency. At key stages 1 and 2 in particular, teachers talk about local landmarks and history and incorporate such work. We encourage schools to continue to do that.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The Minister said that the abolition of slavery would be addressed, so in that spirit may I make a plea for the history of black and Asian people in this country? It is also part and parcel of our history, but has never been discussed. Young people would benefit from it in their education.

Mr. Dhanda: Those matters were considered recently as part of the Ajegbo report, of which my hon. Friend may be aware. He and I are very much part and parcel of British life these days, but he is right and, following our review, the slave trade, the British empire, the holocaust and the two world wars will all be essential elements of the key stage 3 curriculum. That is the right way forward: to learn about British life and our history, but also about migration and immigration in the context of the slave trade. It is important that we do so.

Literacy and Numeracy Standards

4. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the literacy and numeracy standards of 11-year-olds. [146022]

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): Last year 79 per cent. of pupils achieved the target level 4 or more in English and 76 per cent. did so in mathematics. This represents a significant improvement in the standards of literacy and numeracy in schools compared with, say, 1997 when fewer than two thirds of pupils reached the target level in either subject.

Under this Government, schools in Tewkesbury, the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, have made a 14 percentage point improvement for 11-year-olds and a 16 percentage point increase in maths at the same level.

Mr. Robertson: I thank the Minister for that response, which demonstrates how good teaching in Tewkesbury is. However, is it not the case that the
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increase in standards over the past few years has rather plateaued, and the children who are losing out are those from poorer backgrounds? Given that the previous Prime Minister was elected on the pledge of being tough on not only crime but the causes of crime, rather than looking to build more prisons, would it not be better to tackle the problems that are experienced by the poorest members of society who fail at 11, go on to play truant and then go on to prison? The prisons are full of people who are illiterate or innumerate so, after 10 years of Labour Government, should they not be doing rather better?

Jim Knight: I am not the Prisons Minister—right now anyway. [ Laughter. ] I will therefore not comment on much of that.

The hon. Gentleman talked about plateauing, but he may not know that, in 1996, the National Foundation for Educational Research reported that there had been no improvement in primary standards for 50 years. We have seen significant improvements in the last 10 years that we should celebrate, and the new Prime Minister in his Mansion house speech last week talked about measures that he wants to see us implement in the future to attack some of the problems regarding the children who still need to improve and the narrowing of attainment gaps around income, ethnicity and gender. For example, he talked about the new learning credit that will mean that those on low income receive the support that they need.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Before my hon. Friend becomes Prisons Minister or something else, will he ensure that further research is done on not only the improved literacy and numeracy results, but on the really troubling problems in some areas of selective education where grammar schools exist and the overall package of education is not very good for the entirety of the population? In fact, many of the struggling young people mentioned by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) do very badly in those areas.

Jim Knight: My hon. Friend hits upon a very interesting question. I know that it is the subject of much research in the academic community, and I looked at some from the university of York fairly recently that reinforces the point that he makes. Those in selective areas who are not selected into grammar schools suffer from poor outcomes and that is why the Government remain opposed to any new forms of selection and why some Members on the Opposition Front Bench agree with us.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): Who does the Minister hold responsible for the decline in the performance of young working-class white children in our schools? Does he take any responsibility for the policies of the last 10 years that have led to that decline?

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