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4. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to reduce truancy. [161957]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan) rose—

Hon. Members: Hear, hear!

Kevin Brennan: I did not realise that I was so popular.

Our focus is on reducing all forms of unnecessary absence, and in particular on reducing the number of persistent absentees with very high levels of absence. We both support and challenge local authorities in areas where those problems are concentrated. Our success is demonstrated by record low rates of absence last year, and by the 10 per cent. reduction in the number of persistent absentees.

Mr. Mackay: Given that truancy is at its highest level for 10 years, and given the Government’s scrapping of the target introduced by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1998 to improve school attendance, what hope have we that, when the
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Government eventually insist on children staying at school until the age of 18, those children will turn up at all?

Kevin Brennan: I should have thought that, as a member of the esteemed club of ex-Government Whips, the right hon. Gentleman would realise that we should be concentrating on persistent absentees rather than the quality of the note provided by the person who is absent. The Government are concentrating on persistent absentees, and as a result there are 75,000 more children at school every day than there were in 1997.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend may recall that when we last had a debate about truancy there were seven Members in the Chamber, of whom there was a photograph in The Times. I might add that I was one of the school creeps who were present at the time.

May I ask whether any studies have been undertaken of truancy in other countries, where truancy rates may be much lower, to identify the drivers of truancy and how we might make a real success of driving it downwards?

Kevin Brennan: Far from giving my hon. Friend an ASBO, I will give him a gold star for being here so often. He is certainly not one of the persistent absentees—unfortunately sometimes, I hasten to add. If he looks at the international comparisons, he will find that this country’s record is improving considerably. The reason is that, instead of concentrating on the meaningless and perverse incentive of looking at unauthorised absences, which simply means that schools can decide whether to authorise an absence, we are looking at overall absence. As a result of that, every day we have 75,000 more pupils in school than there were in 1997. Absence among persistent absentees fell by 10 per cent. last year, and 20 per cent. in the schools that we targeted, and it is down overall from 7.23 per cent. in 1995-96 to 6.44 per cent. last year.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Is the Minister surprised that, given that this is in effect Education questions and the Liberal Democrats are so concerned about education, all their Back-Bench MPs are playing truant at the moment?

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Minister is right to acknowledge that persistent truancy is a major problem, but there is also the problem of peer pressure on younger people to stay away from school, which leads to drink and drug problems and petty crime. What can we do to ensure that local education authorities across the country have the right funding and do not cut back on truancy and welfare officers? Giving them powers to act is important.

Kevin Brennan: It is very important. Through the national strategies and other schemes, we are concentrating on behaviour, truancy, peer mentoring, bullying and all the things that may impact on truancy. My hon. Friend is right to say that we should
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emphasise persistent absence because about 2 per cent. of pupils are responsible for over half of those unauthorised absences that we talked about earlier. Therefore, it is important that we focus on them. We have done that through concentrating on 400 schools with the most problematic records, with considerable success: there was a 20 per cent. reduction last year in persistent absentees from those schools.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Ten years ago it was announced that school truancy would be cut by one third, and in fact there are now 1.4 million children playing truant every year. That is almost 500,000 more under this Government. Given that failure, how certain can the Minister be of his proposals to increase the number of 16 to 18-year-olds participating in education by fining them up to £200 when they do not turn up? I am sure he will be aware that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, recently said that he felt that that idea was in “cloud cuckoo land”. Is the Minister expecting to quietly drop that proposal, in the same way as he quietly dropped the failed truancy target?

Kevin Brennan: It is simply not right to say that truancy has gone up in the way that the hon. Lady suggests because she is confusing the statistics for unauthorised absence and truancy. They are not the same thing. She does not have to take my word for that. I refer her to Martin Ward, who is the deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He said:

I hope she is listening to this—

We could tomorrow, if she really wants us to, say to schools that we want them to reduce the figures for unauthorised absence and they could do that, without having any impact on truancy, simply by becoming stricter on excuses for absence. If she is serious about truancy, she will concentrate on overall absence, not on the figure for unauthorised absence. We will bring in measures to make sure that young people are in employment, education or training up to the age of 18, with training for them all, including modern apprenticeships.

Science Syllabus

5. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the new science syllabuses for secondary schools. [161958]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): The new science GCSEs have had an enthusiastic welcome from teachers and pupils alike. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has commissioned research evaluating them.

Dr. Iddon: I am pleased to hear that response. The other day I visited two Bolton schools, where the new 21st century science syllabus was being taught by two extremely enthusiastic teachers to enthusiastic pupils.
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Will my hon. Friend continue to monitor those courses and compare the different science syllabuses that are being taught? Does he accept the criticism that I have picked up from children that they would prefer more practical work to be built into those syllabuses? However, that would require—I hope that he will accept this—massive investment in bringing school laboratories into the 21st century.

Jim Knight: First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for championing in the House the cause of science education. I will be talking to the QCA about how it will monitor the different syllabuses—or syllabi; I am not sure of my classics—as they are rolled out. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said about enthusiastic teachers. He will welcome today’s figures from the Training and Development Agency for Schools, showing that the number of trainee science teachers recruited has reached more than 3,000 for the fist time. He will also welcome the increase in the numbers choosing physics, 31 per cent., and chemistry, 32 per cent. Those are good strides forward and what he says about practical work will mean that he, unlike the Conservative party, will welcome the new science diploma that will deliver much more practical learning.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): When I completed an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship with Universities UK a couple of years ago, the universities’ concern and despair about having to bring on young science undergraduates who had not had the quality of science education at school that enabled them to keep up even in their first year was noticeable. Does the Minister take note of the concerns of universities and of what they would like to see in the science syllabus? It is all very well defending something new, but unless it is producing the quality at school that we need before university we are not serving our young people very well at all.

Jim Knight: We take careful note of what universities are telling us, which is one of the reasons why we have strengthened the A-level—the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the increases in entrance to physics, chemistry and biology A-levels—with the A* and the extended course. We are responding to universities’ concerns by bringing forward the science content in all 17 of the diplomas, but particularly with the science diploma, which has been welcomed by Russell group universities, by Oxford and Cambridge, and by universities such as South Bank university that have been working with us on diploma design.

Youth Services

6. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): If he will allocate additional funding to youth services in Ellesmere Port and Neston. [161959]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): It is for each local authority to determine its own budget on youth services, but the recent comprehensive spending review settlement for local government included an increase in formula grant of 4.2 per cent., 3.5 per cent. and 3.4 per cent over the period 2008-11 that will enable local authorities to build on 10 years of sustained growth to improve
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outcomes for children and young people. As well as that continued funding, there are specific areas where we will be allocating new money over the CSR period, including the expansion of the Youth Opportunity Fund in the most deprived areas, and investment in new and improved youth facilities and in positive activities for young people.

Andrew Miller: My right hon. Friend will have seen the imaginative programmes put together by students and young people from my constituency under the Youth Opportunity Fund. Mr. Speaker, you will be particularly interested to know that one of those schemes was entitled Destination Westminster and involved a group of young people coming here to learn about this place. I thank the staff of the House for their support for that scheme. My right hon. Friend knows that young people such as those and others within the cadet forces and other youth organisations do so much good in our communities. Will she ensure that they continue to have some control over their budgets under the youth opportunities scheme, especially with the expanded amounts of money that she has just described?

Beverley Hughes: Yes. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his support for and interest in the cadet forces and the work that they do with young people throughout the country. It is true that the Youth Opportunity Fund has produced some spectacularly good projects. One of the reasons for that is the fund’s condition for the direct participation of young people in developing bids for projects, deciding how money will be spent and monitoring and overseeing that expenditure. Secondly, voluntary organisations such as the Sea Cadets, which can provide those structured and positive activities and trusted adults that we know are so important for the development of young people, have a key role.

Positive Activities

7. Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): What steps the Government are taking to provide facilities and opportunities for productive activities for young people. [161960]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): In July this year, the Government launched “Aiming high for young people: a ten year strategy for positive activities”. Supported by £184 million of new Government investment, the reinvestment of unclaimed assets and £495 million of continuing funding, the strategy will improve young people’s life chances through participation in positive activities, improved youth support services and, over the next 10 years, new and improved youth facilities in every constituency.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response. We all know the good that such positive and structured activities do. I have in my constituency many disadvantaged young people who do not always have the family support networks that enable them to attend such activities. Will the Government be able to give any help to such people in my constituency?

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Beverley Hughes: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s interest in this important topic—as, sadly, it does not seem to be exciting much interest on the Opposition Benches. There will be additional funding specifically for extended schools to enable children from poorer families who cannot afford to pay for activities to take part in them. Also, the “Positive activities for young people” scheme will be extended, with an additional £82 million over this period specifically for very disadvantaged areas. The youth opportunity fund will also have an additional and separate element of money specifically for the most disadvantaged areas, so we can make sure that all young people can take part in these activities.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Could the right hon. Lady comment on a problem that one of my tertiary colleges has? That college, in Cirencester, has responsibilities that come under her remit—such as the agenda for 14 to 19-year-olds, GCSEs and A-levels—but other responsibilities, such as vocational courses, come under the remit of the other Ministry concerned. Now that such responsibilities have been split up, it seems that the two ministries do not have joined-up government thinking. What is her Department doing about that?

Beverley Hughes: I am grateful for that hastily thought-of question. We are working closely with our colleagues in the other Department. More to the point, it will be the responsibility of local authorities, with support from both Departments, to ensure that, through measures such as their 14-to-19 provision in schools and further education colleges, and bringing Connexions into the local authority arena to support young people with positive mentoring, every young person can get both the flexible package they need to make the best of themselves and the personalised support to make sure they can access the improved provision that the diplomas and other reforms will bring in.

School Finances

8. Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): If he will make a statement on the treatment of financial balances held by maintained schools. [161961]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): As I made clear in my statement of 30 October, schools and local authorities must work to reduce revenue balances substantially over the next three years, making full use of existing local authority clawback powers, because revenue funding is for today’s pupils and capital funding is for future investment. The operation of a modest surplus year on year makes sound financial sense but, at £1.7 billion, the national total is unacceptable, and if balances remain high we will act to release some of the money for the benefit of current pupils.

Robert Neill: I am sure that the Minister knows of, and will want to recognise, the high quality of the head teachers in my constituency. Perhaps he would also like to know that when I wrote to them about his proposal, the balance of the sentiment of the replies was that it is “absolutely ridiculous” and “ill thought-out”, and

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prudently to roll money over for the next year for higher priorities. Against that background, will the Minister not take the message that the best thing would be not only to remove the retrospective element of the calculation but to take away the entire scheme and think again, as it is creating disillusion and concern for responsible and prudent head teachers?

Jim Knight: We certainly believe that, as I have just said, a modest surplus year on year makes sound financial sense. In the Bromley authority, in the area that the hon. Gentleman represents, the net revenue balance was relatively modest, and I am sure his head teachers are doing a good job and enjoying spending the increased capital money to invest in their pupils, which has increased from £1.66 million 10 years ago to an allocation of £576 million in 2011. That reinforces the point that if schools continue to build up excessive surplus balances, they need to be dealt with so that the money can be spent on current pupils. However, we have now given schools good notice—at least a couple of years—of the need to get their act together, to work with local authorities and to reduce excessive balances, while maintaining a prudent surplus.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Does the Minister recognise how welcome it was to schools throughout the country when this Government introduced money that can be spent at the discretion of head teachers, which has enabled schools to develop transformative projects that are not necessarily part of the national priorities, but that best fit those schools’ needs? Will he reassure head teachers that that approach, which allows them to decide local priorities, will continue?

Jim Knight: I absolutely assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue that discretionary approach of allowing head teachers the freedom to allocate funds. In capital terms, we now delegate directly to schools more money than was in the whole capital fund under the previous Government. In the schools funding announcement that I made this morning, the school standards grant, the SSG personalisation element and the school development grant will all increase in line with the minimum funding guarantee. All those funds go directly to schools, and head teachers decide how to spend them.

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