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House of Commons

Monday 12 November 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—


2. Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to improve the safeguarding of children and young people. [161954]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): Over the past four years, the Government have introduced new legislation, new guidance and new structures to make children safer and to strengthen the vetting and barring system. The recent cross-government Staying Safe consultation and the new public service agreement to improve children’s safety will ensure that children’s safety is a top priority. We will shortly introduce the children and young persons Bill to improve further the services for our most vulnerable children, including looked-after children.

Helen Southworth: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He is aware that we have been holding parliamentary hearings to try to find better ways of protecting children who run away or go missing. Will he, however, give his immediate attention to the case of the 18,000 children who are being placed outside their local area by local authorities? Many of them are hundreds of miles away from their networks of support. Will he also ensure that a child can be placed away from their family and friends only when it is in the best interests of that child to do so?

Ed Balls: I commend my hon. Friend for the work that she has done for looked-after and missing children. The meeting that she held in the summer with colleagues, including the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), and me, was directly responsible for the inclusion of a looked-after and missing children’s indicator in the local government indicator set. She has raised a particular point today and she is completely right to do so. We, too, have concerns about the number of children in care who are looked after out of area. We think that that currently involves about one third of
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children in care. In the Bill that we will publish later this week, we will require local authorities to secure a placement for a child within their own local authority area unless to do so would be inconsistent with the welfare of the child—for example, because of complex disabilities or because a child needed to leave an area because of domestic violence.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Minister will probably be aware that Mencap has recently published a report called “Don’t stick it, stop it”. One of its conclusions is that 82 per cent. of children and young people with a learning disability have experienced bullying, and that such children are twice as likely to be bullied as other children. Has the Secretary of State seen the report? If so, what does he propose to do to try to improve this dreadful situation?

Ed Balls: I have read a report of the Mencap report. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that all bullying of any kind is completely wrong, and I am keen to work with Mencap to ensure that we give priority to bullying against children with disabilities as well. We produced new guidance on bullying a few weeks ago, and I will ensure that we include Mencap in the current consultations, to make sure that we can eradicate that terrible occurrence.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): Fifty-three per cent. of children and young people in Stockport are from other boroughs. There is already advice from the Government to local authorities that children and young people should be placed within their locality if possible, but it is clear that some local authorities are completely ignoring that advice. During the passage of the children and young persons Bill, would the Secretary of State be willing to look again at the registration process and the Ofsted inspection process, to ensure that we can monitor the way in which independent homes that often encourage the placing of children with extensive criminal records in those homes manage the children in their care?

Ed Balls: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I also congratulate her on the work that she has done in this area. As I have said, the Bill will make it clear that a child should be looked after in their own area unless it is in the interests of the child to do otherwise. We will look at the provisions that will require that of local authorities, to ensure that the proper safeguards are in place.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Key to the safeguarding of vulnerable children is the engagement of dedicated social workers. Key to the findings in the Victoria Climbié report was the failure of health service professionals and others to engage with those social workers and to adopt a multi-agency approach. Why, then, has the National Children’s Bureau today published a report on safeguarding arrangements that reveals that, five years on, 53 per cent. of hospitals do not even have hospital-based social workers, despite the Government’s own guidance in the national service framework for children that was introduced after the Victoria Climbié case? How does the Secretary of State hope to remedy this situation, given the worsening
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vacancy rates for children’s social workers revealed in the latest work force review? Has he had an opportunity to read the Conservative party’s report on social workers, “No More Blame Game”, in which he might find some of the solutions?

Ed Balls: Unfortunately, I have not yet had time to read that particular document, but I look forward to studying it along with the range of other documents that I read in the course of my duties. I will raise the question that the hon. Gentleman has asked with the Secretary of State for Health and we will look at the issue to see what more needs to be done. I have a joint responsibility on this. I met the Secretary of State last week to discuss these issues as part of our consultations on the children’s plan. I will happily have a conversation with him about this and provide a report to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

Educational Standards

3. Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to raise standards in secondary schools. [161955]

10. Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to raise standards in secondary schools. [161964]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): Standards have risen over the past decade and the reforms that I have announced to offer more personalised learning in schools and to give teachers more power to enforce discipline in the classroom, as well as our local strategies to tackle poorly performing schools, will all help to drive standards up even further, especially when backed up by the doubling of real-terms per pupil spending since 1997.

Mr. Carswell: Will the Secretary of State take responsibility for the fact that the brand-new £24 million Bishops Park college in Clacton, which was opened by the previous leader of the Labour party a week before the last general election, now faces closure? Does he agree that closure after only two years represents appallingly bad value for public money and appalling failure to raise local standards?

Ed Balls: I will not take that responsibility. The decisions to open the school and to plan places in the local area are both the responsibility of the local authority. If the hon. Gentleman has concerns about how those responsibilities have been taken forward, I suggest that he raises them with the local authority rather than with myself.

Mr. Burrowes: At the launch of past education policies, the Prime Minister and Ministers rushed down to the flagship private finance initiative Highlands school in my constituency. I appreciate that it is more awkward now that Enfield, Southgate benefits from Conservative representation, but I invite the Secretary of State to visit Highlands school to explain why it should rush to introduce diplomas next year, given that the school has only just decided not to go ahead with the international baccalaureate tests, which failed the
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school, so it is now setting about reintroducing A-levels. On second thoughts, perhaps the Secretary of State should keep away from Highlands school and let it get on with doing a better job of A-levels.

Ed Balls: I am very happy to come and visit. When I do, I will discuss with the school—and with local parents, if the hon. Gentleman would like me to—our policy on diplomas. Let me be clear that we are not going to force parents or schools to teach diplomas, as it will be a matter for local schools and parents to decide, but we will ensure that diplomas are introduced in a comprehensive way. We have added in new diplomas for science, modern languages and humanities to ensure that we have a comprehensive and first-class choice of diplomas, which should be available for all young people by 2011. As I have said, I believe that the diplomas system can be comprehensive and first class and that diplomas could become the qualification of choice, but that will be a matter for the market, parents and schools to decide and not for me to impose.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that although standards have risen progressively at secondary level, there is something in the “Teach First” document that is to be published this week about the size of schools? Does he agree with the authors that in the secondary world, small can sometimes be beautiful?

Ed Balls: The “Teach First” report is very interesting. It does not say that smaller schools are the way forward, but rather that within schools a case can be made for using house systems or mixed-year tutorial groups to help drive up performance while at the same time providing pastoral care in a more personal form that can be achieved in very large schools. I do not think that the evidence shows that standards have risen either faster or slower in larger or smaller schools. As my noble Friend Lord Adonis said at the weekend, the “Teach First” report definitely deserves study.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The Secretary of State will know that all the research shows that good quality sports facilities and having sport in schools raises standards. Why, then, given the welcome building schools for the future programme, is a school such as Stockwell Park in the most deprived part of Lambeth, which currently has a good 25 m swimming pool, to be totally rebuilt minus its swimming pool? Surely that does not show that we mean what we say when we talk about joined-up thinking, bringing together and tackling obesity in our inner-city areas.

Ed Balls: As my hon. Friend will know, a quiet revolution has been happening in school sports over the last few years. In 2002, 25 per cent. of young people were doing the required amount of sport a week; 85 per cent. are doing it now. Just a few weeks ago, I visited the school that my hon. Friend mentioned and met the head teacher—and I know that she did an excellent job. We will ensure that “Building Schools for the Future” provides the flexibility that we need in order to drive up standards and provide the facilities necessary to support the needs of all children in our society.

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Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): How can the Secretary of State talk about improving discipline in schools when even the most basic elements of home-school contracts are not legally enforceable and when, in dealing even with the most disruptive pupils, head teachers and boards of governors can be overruled by independent panels?

Ed Balls: The fact is that we have implemented the Steer review and given head teachers and governors the powers that they need. I stand ready to give any extra powers that they ask for, so that we have the discipline in the classroom that we need to ensure that we continue to drive up standards in our schools.

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that we should congratulate the city of Nottingham on the fact that the number of pupils who attain GCSEs at A to C grade has gone up by six times the national average, admittedly from a very low base? Does he have further plans to alter that persistent attainment gap?

Ed Balls: I join my hon. Friend in passing on those congratulations. In the figures that I published a few weeks ago of the top 20 local authorities that had the largest improvement in grades in the last year, Nottingham was, I think, fifth on the list and therefore deserves all the congratulations of my hon. Friend, myself and all hon. Members. However, there is more that we can do. The extra funding that we have given to personalise learning to make sure that we have extra help for those who fall behind in primary and secondary schools will do more to ensure that we help Nottingham to do even better in the years to come than it has done already in its GCSE performance.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): Coming back to the issue of vocational diplomas, what level of take-up would constitute a success in the Secretary of State’s view?

Ed Balls: I am not going to prejudge that now. While the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) continue to call the diplomas “vocational”, I think that they will be both academic and vocational—both practical and theoretical—and can become comprehensive and first class. I disagree that they are somehow a fantasy or second-class qualification. To give the impression that vocational qualifications are second class is quite wrong. As I said, I think that they can become the qualification of choice. That will mean that the majority of them will be taken in schools in the next decade. However, I am not going to prejudge the timetable for that. As I said, I will let the market—parents and teachers—decide. In the end, they will listen not to me, but to universities and employers, which are increasingly saying that these are good, excellent and, indeed, better qualifications for young people to be studying. But of course the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and we will see that over the next few years.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that school standards and child poverty are inextricably linked because if a child’s home circumstances are difficult it is very difficult
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for them to achieve at school, and if they do not get decent qualifications, that poverty is perpetuated throughout their life. Will he take the opportunity to tell the House whether the Government are still committed to the target of abolishing child poverty? If so, what does he hope to achieve in his role to push that forward?

Ed Balls: The answer is yes, definitely. As my hon. Friend will know, because she was with me and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in No. 11 only last week when we met Save the Children, it is the view of the Chancellor and myself that the child poverty goal is essential. We will not be able to deliver excellence for all unless we tackle the causes of poor performance in schools. One of those causes is child poverty. Therefore, if we are to be an “Every Child Matters” Government—if we are to ensure that we tackle all the barriers to poor performance—it is essential that we stay on track to meet our child poverty goal by 2010.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): The Secretary of State will have seen the comments by Simon Lebus, chief executive of the Cambridge Assessment exam board, who said:

Do the Government accept responsibility for that? Are they not making matters worse by creating academic diplomas in science, the humanities and languages, in direct competition with the GCSE and A-level, thus creating a two-tier system? Does the Secretary of State share our view that we need to retain the A-level, but restore its rigour so that it can once again become the gold standard of the British education system?

Ed Balls: I am very confused. [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] One moment the hon. Gentleman tells me that A-levels have fallen in their standing, and then he tells me that I am being accused of undermining the excellence of the A-level. It seems to me that on this issue, as on many others, including grammar schools and diplomas, Opposition Members should sort out their own lives before they start asking questions of me.

The fact is that we are taking steps to improve A-levels, but introducing diplomas at the same time. Geoff Parks, director of undergraduate admissions at Cambridge university, has said:

He has also said that he

At our press conference, he expressed the view that a diploma in maths for engineering would be a better preparation for studying education at Cambridge university than a maths A-level. I think that rather than lecturing me about Cambridge university reports, the hon. Gentleman should listen to Cambridge university himself, and get his facts right before coming to the House with questions of that kind.

Mr. Gibb: So no acceptance of responsibility there, either.

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The Secretary of State just said that the market would decide which exams were taken up, but the market is already deciding. At least 200 independent schools have already adopted the more rigorous international GCSE in maths and science rather than the regular GCSE, but state schools are not allowed to adopt the international GCSE. The Government have been reviewing that position for some months. When will they put state schools on an equal footing with the independent sector, and allow them to adopt the IGCSE?

Ed Balls: The reason the exams are not allowed in state schools is that they do not conform to the national curriculum. I think that rather than running down the achievements of our state schools, we should celebrate them. The fact is that their share in A grades in A-levels has been rising, not falling, in recent years.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): May I urge the Secretary of State to employ some caution before taking the advice of the privately educated Schools Minister in the other place? Downsizing schools does not necessarily drive up standards. In Leicestershire, the comprehensive system produces schools like my old school, Ashby, a specialist technology and languages college with 1,600 students, which is achieving very high standards. I urge the Secretary of State to visit Ashby school, where I used to be chairman of the governors and am still a governor.

Ed Balls: I should be happy to go and look at the school, and I commend its achievements. I do not think we should criticise the Opposition spokesman simply on the grounds that he was privately educated. I am not sure whether that is a fair criticism. It would be fairer to say that he should ensure that he is on solid ground before he makes accusations.

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