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House of Commons

Thursday 26 July 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Children in Care

1. Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): What steps the Government plan to take to improve outcomes for children in care. [152578]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): I am very proud to answer the first question on behalf of the new Department for Children, Schools and Families—the “Every Child Matters” Department, including children in care.

The White Paper “Care Matters: Time for Change” proposed a wide range of measures to improve outcomes for children in care, and additional funding of £305 million over four years. We will introduce legislation in the next Session to support implementation; provide a £500 allowance for each child in care falling behind at school; improve stability through parenting support for foster carers and better use of family carers; and improve support for those leaving care.

Mrs. Humble: I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to his position, and I also welcome that comprehensive answer. Is he aware that for some time Blackpool council has been developing an advocacy service for children in care in the looked-after system, and is currently developing a looked-after children’s council? Will my hon. Friend ensure that as the “Care Matters” agenda is developed, the voice of the child is heard? It is through listening to those young people that appropriate services can be set up, and their outcomes improved.

Kevin Brennan: Yes, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work as president of Blackpool Advocacy, and on all her work down the years on behalf of children in care. It is central to the White Paper and the legislation that the Government will introduce in the new Session that the voice of the child should inform all we do, in local systems as well as individually in their day-to-day experience.

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Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I applaud the Government’s efforts to improve outcomes for children in care, who are badly served by state services at present. Some time ago the Government floated the idea—in fact, I think they intended to introduce it—of sending some of those children to boarding school, either state or private. That idea offers an interesting opportunity. It would give children continuity of care and enable them to make friends, and also offers the prospect for their foster carers in summer to have less time responsibility. Can the Minister update us on the prospects for such placements for some children?

Kevin Brennan: Yes, I can. The principle that will always inform everything we do for children in care is that what is done should be in the best interests of the child. I am sure Members are familiar with that paramount principle. We are piloting some of the ideas to which the hon. Lady referred, and obviously, we shall keep the House informed of progress.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome not only the new team but also the much greater emphasis on children right across the piece. Does my hon. Friend agree that with children in care, as with children throughout the education system, our real problem is that the poorest children have the least spent on their education and care? That is the real challenge that we and his team face over the coming years.

Kevin Brennan: Yes. It is absolutely the mission of the Department to ensure that all children reach their potential, particularly children from the poorest backgrounds. Children in care sometimes do not achieve the outcome that accords with their potential. The principles we shall follow in bringing in the new legislation and implementing the proposals in the White Paper are based on the fact that we have high ambitions for children in care and for the poorest children in the country.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The Government have caused a number of problems by conflating section 31 and section 20, but will they commit to listening to the voices of children who say that they want to leave care and return to their parents? I know of cases where children have run away from care to go back to their parents, only to be returned time and again. Will the Government start listening to the voices of children who want to return to their parents?

Kevin Brennan: It is the principle the Government follow that wherever possible children should remain with their birth family. It is absolutely legitimate to make criticisms and to look into the issues raised by children in care and adoption, but what is not legitimate is—sometimes in pursuit of a headline in a popular newspaper—to accuse the Government, professionals in the social care sector, local authorities, and indeed the courts, of not trying to act in the best interests of children, which is what the system is designed to do.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Local authorities act in loco parentis for children in care. Will the Minister tell me how he is working with the Department for
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Communities and Local Government to ensure that the local area agreements that local authorities are about to develop will have at their heart services and outcomes for our children in care?

Kevin Brennan: Yes, and as I said earlier, when it becomes the responsibility of the state, particularly at local level, to act in loco parentis or to act as a parent in lieu, we should be aiming to act as a parent to the same standard that we would expect from good parents if a child was able to remain with their birth parents. Naturally it is possible for local authorities, where they believe that they need to stretch their performance, to negotiate local area agreements, and obviously that will be a matter for them to decide.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): The Government’s target has been to narrow the gap in achievement between looked-after children and their peers. Is it not therefore a cause for deep concern that just 12 per cent. of looked-after children pass five GCSEs at grade A to C, and that the gap in attainment between children in the care of the state and all other children has widened every year since 2001? The Government have for 10 years failed to get it right for 61,000 looked-after children in this country. With such a record of failure, can the Minister explain why there should be any confidence that he will get it right now, and tackle what has become a deteriorating educational poverty gap for these children?

Kevin Brennan: I thank the hon. Lady—although I was hoping that we might be able to develop a relationship based on consensus around trying to help children in care. Perhaps it is unfortunate that she started off talking about a record of failure, when in fact there has been significant improvement in the educational performance of children in care. For example, between 2000 and 2006 the percentage of children in care obtaining a GCSE has increased from 49 per cent. to 63 per cent., the percentage of those children obtaining five A to Gs has increased from 35 per cent. to 41 per cent. and the percentage obtaining five A to Cs from 7 per cent. to 12 per cent. [Hon. Members: “Twelve per cent.!”] That is not good enough, but it is a significant improvement on the previous position. With the Every Child Matters agenda, with the White Paper and with the legislation that is being introduced, which will include additional financial help for children who are in danger of falling behind in school and who are in care, we are determined to make that better.

Secondary Schools

2. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to raise standards in secondary schools. [152579]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): I start by welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), to the Front Bench for his first Question Time, and also by welcoming the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) to the Opposition Front Bench for his first questions on this subject.

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Standards in secondary schools have risen dramatically over the past decade, with more than 86,000 more pupils now achieving five good GCSEs last year compared with 1997, and 62,000 more achieving five good GCSEs including maths and English. This is as a result of rising investment, a relentless focus on standards, support for teachers and improved discipline, and targeted intervention to tackle poor performance.

Mr. Mackay: In welcoming the Secretary of State to his very important new role, may I urge him to be more flexible in pushing up standards? Surely that means both setting and streaming in every subject in secondary school. When is that going to happen?

Ed Balls: I agree that we need to be flexible, and that means giving teachers and head teachers the flexibility to do the right thing for their children in their schools. I have said that I believe that setting is the right way to go, and setting is rising in our schools, but I have also said that I do not think that selection, either through grammar schools or through grammar streams, would be the right way to go. I think that grammar streams would be divisive. That would be the wrong way to go. I do not think that the Conservative party is right on this subject, but I do think that setting is the right way to go.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of the year-on-year improvement in GCSE pass rates and grades from pupils across Dudley. What further progress does he envisage for the pupils of Stourbridge, with the recent announcement of an extra £25 million for the black country learning challenge?

Ed Balls: The standards have been rising in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but they have not risen fast enough and we want to do more, and in particular to do more for every child in her constituency. That is why, learning from the London model, we have established a black country challenge to help her and her colleagues to drive up standards in every school in her constituency.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): There is a growing movement within the education establishment to try to reduce the amount of testing in our secondary, and indeed primary schools. Testing has been an extremely valuable tool in raising standards. Can the Secretary of State give me a categorical assurance that there will be no retreat from testing in our schools?

Ed Balls: I think that it is the Conservative party that has advocated a reduction in testing; that was certainly the previous shadow Minister’s view. In my view, testing is essential for parents, for head teachers and for pupils themselves, to be able to track progress. We want to ensure that we test more through the curriculum, but do it in a personalised way that enables us to drive up standards for every child, and to give teachers the information they need to ensure that we drag up poor performance as well as promote excellence. So I can tell the hon. Gentleman from this party that there will be no retreat from the testing agenda.

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Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): May I too welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position? I am delighted with the way in which standards are being driven up in our secondary schools, but will he place particular emphasis, especially in secondary schools, on encouraging young people to go into the crafts? I am talking about engineering, carpentry, plumbing, electrics and whatever. We are really getting short of such skills, and secondary schools have a big role to play in encouraging people to go into them.

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is completely right, and we need to make sure that our programme for diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds both promotes academic excellence and gives people the skills that they need for life—whether for university, for college or for work. Two days ago I visited South Bank university to launch the first engineering diploma, and with the other four diplomas that we are launching in the next couple of weeks, I think that he will see that in the areas he described—related to the built environment—we will both promote learning and give people skills for life. I assure him that this Department will drive forward that vocational agenda in a way that promotes academic excellence.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State to his first question session. In his first statement to the House as Secretary of State, he said that he would make standards rather than structures the priority. In almost his last speech on education, Tony Blair, the previous Prime Minister—if I am still allowed to mention him—said:

Could the Secretary of State explain why he has changed the Government’s position on that issue since coming to his new post?

Ed Balls: I made it very clear that standards for all children would drive this new Department and I said that it is all about what happens in the classroom, and about backing teachers, but also about backing leadership change in schools when that is needed. That is what our academy programme does. In the end, the test is standards rather than simply structural change for its own sake, so I am clear that standards are the ultimate test of our policy. I say to the hon. Gentleman and to all Members of the House that when shadow Ministers say:

they are making the case for why we reject structural change through grammar schools in favour of an agenda of standards for all in our country.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Is not a major factor in success in secondary schools excellence in leadership? Will my right hon. Friend give his commitment to the support and training for head teachers and senior management teams? Does he agree that we must never overlook the very valuable contribution made to good leadership in our schools by the massive army of unpaid school governors?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is completely right. The voluntary work done by governors contributes hugely to the leadership agenda that I have spoken about. It is
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also about teachers, head teachers and the support staff who play a valuable role in the classroom every day in our schools. Backing leadership in every classroom by recognising the professionalism of every teacher and every support worker is essential so that head teachers and governors can do their job and deliver for all the pupils in their area.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): May I welcome the Secretary of State and his ministerial team to their places for their first Question Time? And may I say how much I look forward to working with him, with his team—and, indeed, with the Liberal Democrats—to advance the cause of pragmatic reform wherever possible?

In his first statement to the House, the Secretary of State said that his priority would be core subjects such as maths and science. That is a priority that Conservative Members share—but can he tell me how many students are now taking A-level maths and physics compared with 10 years ago?

Ed Balls: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I am concerned by the fact that the number of A-level pupils doing physics has gone down—although I am pleased to see that the number of pupils doing physics GCSE has gone up. Since 1997 the number of pupils doing one science GCSE has risen from 87 per cent. to 92 per cent. and the number of students doing the single science GCSE has gone from 9 per cent. to 11 per cent. We are laying the foundations in the GCSE curriculum to promote more science. We are delivering, but there is more to be done in order to deliver more A-level students, and I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman to make that happen.

Michael Gove: The answer was a simple sum; we did not need an extended essay. There are now 15 per cent. fewer students taking physics A-level and 7 per cent. fewer taking maths—something that the Secretary of State ignored. A quarter of state secondary schools have no physics teacher, and fewer than half our maths teachers have maths degrees. As Winston Churchill might have said, if he was still in the curriculum, “Never in the field of maths and physics have so many been taught so little by so few.” How does the Minister explain that failure?

Ed Balls: I have just said that our performance in science GCSEs has been going up, not down. I have also said that I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman to make sure that we do more. In my statement to the House a couple of weeks ago, I said that I wanted a national consensus on driving standards up for all children. I have also said that there are things that we have to do to make that happen. We should raise the level of state school spending to the private school level. We should raise the education-leaving age to 18. We should promote excellence for all students, not just some in a grammar stream. We should roll out our extended schools programme and our Sure Start programme to every area in the country. I want a consensus with the hon. Gentleman on these matters. I know that this is difficult for him—there are difficulties on these issues; I understand that. As he said himself:

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Mr. Speaker: Order. That is not the responsibility of the Minister.

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