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11 Dec 2007 : Column 161

Children’s Plan

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): The first ever children’s plan, which we are publishing today, follows months of consultation with parents, teachers, professionals and children and young people up and down the country.

Over the past 10 years, the lives of children have improved. School standards are up, child poverty is down, and we have many more outstanding schools and many fewer failing schools. However, following our detailed consultations, the results of which I have laid before the House, I have concluded that we need further reforms to deliver a world-class education for every child and that we must do more to prevent children from falling behind or failing to fulfil their potential because of learning difficulties, poverty or disadvantage. I have also concluded that, although there are many more opportunities for young people today than ever before, families want more help to manage the new pressures that they face: balancing work and family life; dealing with the internet and modern commercialism; and letting children play while staying safe. The children’s plan is our response.

Let me deal first with the new measures to support the learning of every child. The early years are critical; so as we raise the entitlement to free nursery care for all three and four-year-olds from 12 to 15 hours, we will allocate more than £200 million over the next three years, to ensure that young children receive the highest quality care in their early years, with at least two graduates in nurseries in the most disadvantaged areas, and to extend the offer of free nursery places to 20,000 two-year-olds in the most disadvantaged communities.

School standards are rising, but I want to accelerate the improvement. I have therefore asked Sir Jim Rose to undertake a root and branch review of the primary curriculum to create more space for teaching the basics—English and maths, and a foreign language—in all primary schools, and also to ensure all children start secondary school with the personal skills to succeed. If our making good progress trials are successful, we will implement age not stage testing nationally, which will represent the biggest reform to national curriculum assessment since its creation. To back our teachers, I am today allocating £44 million over the next three years so that all new teachers will be able to study for a masters-level qualification and to establish a new future leaders programme to bring even more talented people into teaching.

Supporting parents is central to this children’s plan. In future, every parent will have a record of their child’s development and education through the early years and into primary school. The Minister for Schools and Learners will consult parents and schools over the next few months—and legislate, if necessary—to ensure that every child has a personal tutor who stays with them as they progress through secondary school; that every parent receives up-to-date information about their child’s progress, attendance and behaviour, using real-time reporting and new technologies such as mobile phones or the internet; and that every secondary school has a parents’ council, so that parents know what they can expect, how they will be consulted and how they can express concerns and complaints.

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Parents also want earlier intervention if their child falls behind. Alongside one-to-one support for reading and maths at primary school and our new every child a writer programme, I am allocating £18 million over the next three years to improve initial teacher training about special educational needs and to find new ways to identify dyslexia earlier. Following the Bercow review, Ofsted will lead a review into our special educational needs provision in 2009.

In our consultation, head teachers told us that schools needed more support from other services to tackle all barriers to learning. Today, one in 10 children have a diagnosed mental health problem, but schools repeatedly say how hard it is to get the child and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—to engage with them early enough. So I have agreed with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health that we will launch a review of CAMHS, to investigate how it can work better with schools and to identify where early support is most needed. Our two Departments will also produce the first ever child health strategy in the spring.

We will also enhance inspection across schools and children’s services, and examine whether children’s trust arrangements need to be strengthened, including through further legislation if necessary. To improve services for parents further, and to enable better early intervention, we will publish new guidance for the building schools for the future programme, to ensure that where possible schools are designed to be co-located with other services—health, police, social care, advice and welfare services. Furthermore, because schools must be sustainable for our children, and their children, we will set a new ambition that all new schools be zero carbon by 2016.

With the reforms that I have already announced to the House to tackle failing and coasting schools, to expand the academies and trusts programme, to raise the education leaving age to 18 and to introduce new diplomas, this children’s plan will set us on course to deliver ambitious long-term goals for a world-class education for every child.

Discipline in schools is essential for raising standards. We have given teachers new powers to tackle bad behaviour, and 97 per cent. of schools are now in behaviour partnerships, co-ordinating behaviour and exclusions policy, which Sir Alan Steer recommended should include all schools by 2008. I am minded to implement that recommendation in 2008, and I am asking Sir Alan to assess progress on all his proposals and to make recommendations in the spring.

We will also strengthen the regulation of pupil referral units, improve the quality of provision and pilot a range of alternatives; that could be one role for studio schools. To break cycles of reoffending among young people, the Home Secretary and I are together allocating £66 million over the next three years to target support at the young people most at risk of getting into crime. As we prepare our youth crime action plan, we will reform the education and resettlement of young offenders and pilot the use of restorative justice from April 2008.

Our consultation reports that, while parents are clear that it is their job to bring up their families, they want more information and support to help them keep their children safe and healthy. Our children’s plan includes the provision of £167 million over the next three years to fund two new expert parenting advisers in every
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local authority area, expand family learning, support young carers and deliver new support for families with disabled children.

Dr. Tanya Byron is investigating the potential risks to children from harmful or inappropriate material on the internet and in video games, and will report next March. We will make proposals on young people and alcohol in the spring and investigate how the huge increase in commercial activity, advertising and marketing aimed specifically at children and young people is affecting their well-being.

I have two further announcements. In our consultation, children and young people told us that they wanted more places to play, interesting things to do outside school and recognition for their achievements. Earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families set out our 10-year strategy for young people, with an ambition to have new youth facilities and places for young people to go to in every constituency of the country. It will be funded by proceeds from unclaimed assets and new investment from my Department.

I want us to start to transform youth services now, so, before the unclaimed assets legislation takes effect we will invest an additional £160 million over the next two years to develop high-quality youth facilities for young people, shaped by young people. That could mean 50 new state-of-the-art youth centres, 500 refurbished youth centres or more than 2,000 smaller centres, including mobile units. The funding will be available for every part of the country, and that will start in April. I urge all hon. Members to start working with young people, the voluntary sector and their local community to draw up local plans and prepare to bid for that money.

Finally, to help parents to keep their children safe while playing outside, I can also announce that we will launch a new national play strategy early next year. To make that a reality, from next April we will build 30 safe and supervised adventure play parks in disadvantaged areas. With a total investment of £225 million over the next three years we will also be able to build or upgrade more than 3,500 play areas across the country. There will be an average of 23 per local authority area and seven per constituency. That will be the largest Government investment in children’s play in our history.

With schools, children’s services, the voluntary sector and Government all playing their part and meeting their responsibilities, and with the £1 billion over the next three years we are allocating today to meet our children’s plan commitments, we can unlock the talents and promote the health and happiness of all children, and not just some; back parents as they meet their responsibilities to bring up their children; and intervene early so that no child or young person is left to fall behind. We will make our country the best place in the world for children to grow up. That is the mission of this Government and the children’s plan, which I commend to the House.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): May I first welcome those aspects of the children’s plan that provide focused help for the most vulnerable in our society? We support the extension of a child care entitlement to the parents of two-year-old children in the most disadvantaged
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circumstances. I also commend the Secretary of State for his work on special needs and his plans to improve the provision of respite care for the families of children who are living with disabilities—a cause that is close to his heart, which he has consistently championed. It does him credit.

The Secretary of State is right that our children face a world that is full of greater opportunities and greater risks than ever before. However, the background to the children’s plan, sadly, is a world in which our children are falling behind those of other nations. Last week, we discovered that we have fallen from fourth to 14th in the international league tables for science, from seventh to 17th for reading, and from eighth to 24th for maths. How does the Secretary of State explain why we were in the top 10 for all those subjects when the children sitting the tests had the majority of their education under a Conservative Government, whereas we plummeted down the rankings, relegated to the second division, when those sitting the tests had all their education under a Labour Government? Is not every external audit of our education system a story of Labour failure? Is not it time to acknowledge the limitations of the top-down micro-management and political interference of the old Labour approach and embrace genuine reform?

Today, the Secretary of State announces a review of the primary curriculum to clear away the clutter. It sounds attractive. However, at the same time, the Department is pressing ahead with a pre-primary school curriculum, with 576 different targets for professionals, which prescribes exactly how toddlers should

which is helpfully defined as,

How can the Secretary of State credibly say that he is clearing away the clutter and empowering professionals when he is sticking his fingers into everything and generating gloop on an industrial scale?

The Secretary of State says that he wants parents to be more involved in their children’s education. Does not he realise that that involves trusting, not lecturing parents? Only last week, Ministers blamed parents for our slide in the literacy league tables. Parents should read more to their children, the Department dictated. However, did not the report that showed us falling behind contain no survey of how often English parents read to their children? Ministers criticised mums and dads on the basis of no hard evidence. When it comes to delivering on reading, do not Ministers bear the primary responsibility for ensuring that every child who can is reading by the age of six? Should not we ensure a more concerted drive to hold accountable those schools that do not use tried and tested methods by holding a simple test after two years to ensure that our children are being taught properly?

The Secretary of State accepts that there are flaws in the current test regime, but will his plans for a changed regime, with children taking tests at several different stages in primary school, mean that new tests are shorter than the current key stage 2 tests? If so, how can we ensure that they are not made less rigorous? With independent research from Durham university showing that literacy levels have scarcely improved in a decade, surely we cannot afford any less rigour.

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I fear that today will be remembered as a great missed opportunity for the Government. Instead of a clear picture for our children’s future, we have an underwhelming collage, with items stuck on any old how and no underlying vision. Why are there no proposals to give parents the right to take their children from a failing school and place them in a good new school? Why is there no determination to give teachers the power to impose effective discipline by excluding disruptive pupils without having teachers second-guessed by those outside the school? Why, instead of giving more schools academy-style freedoms to innovate and drive up standards, is the Secretary of State still restricting the freedoms of existing academies?

Is not it the case that, ultimately, instead of a broad and deep vision, we have a disappointingly hesitant and patchy programme, which betrays an itch to intervene but no grasp of the genuine problems? Is not it clear that, unless we learn from abroad and reform our education system to meet the challenge of global competition, we will fall further behind and the Government will fail future generations?

Ed Balls: I was disappointed that the hon. Gentleman was not as funny as normal. However, to be fair to him, behind the usual scripted gags and froth, there were some serious questions, which I shall tackle. I thank him for his support for the Bercow review and our work to strengthen the provision of SEN support for parents and children. I agree that that is a priority.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s reading of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—PIRLS—report, which made it clear that there was a responsibility on Government, teachers and parents to ensure that all our children are reading. If he reads the report, he will realise that it is clear that the brightest children are reading less at home. We all—that includes us, as parents—bear a responsibility for getting our children to read more.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that we are plummeting down league tables and that standards are falling. I remind him that, in 1997, when the Conservatives left power, 63 per cent. of 11-year-olds achieved the key level in English and that that has now increased to 80 per cent. The figure for maths was 62 per cent. and it is now up to 77 per cent. For English and maths, the figure was 53 per cent. and it is now up to 71 per cent. The number of failing schools has fallen from above 600 to fewer than 30. This Government have delivered rising standards year on year through our reforms—reforms that we take forward and strengthen in this report, so that we can be world class.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about our new making progress assessment. Yes, the tests will be shorter; and no, despite his accusations, there will not be dumbing down, because we are introducing the reform of an independent standards regulator to give parents, teachers and schools the confidence that standards will not fall. As for his charge that we are going backwards on reform and academies, I am accelerating the academies programme, as I say to him every time he makes that accusation. The reform of the primary curriculum in this report is a good reform that will drive up standards in our schools.

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I must say to the hon. Gentleman that this is a children’s plan. He mentioned SEN, but he made no reference at all to children’s play, youth services, investing in the early years work force, parent support advisers, our CAMHS review, our changing of the guidance for the building schools for the future programme, the children’s trust, reoffending, prevention or the Byron review. He made no mention of any of those things, which was baffling. I remember, however, him writing a very important article in The Times, in which he said that

Those were his words, and he has eloquently proved his point this afternoon.

I have received representations for other reforms. I have had a representation that we should re-impose tests, externally marked, on six-year-olds. I reject that proposal, as do parents and schools, as it would be the wrong thing to do. I have also received a representation that we should hold back for a further year children who do not make the grade in primary schools, but that was rejected in our consultation by teachers, head teachers and parents, because we do not want larger class sizes at 11. We do not want those children who do not make the grade to be held back in primary school; we want them to be helped as they move into secondary school.

I have also received representations that we should abolish appeals on exclusions as that would somehow reduce legalism, but the head teachers tell us that they want to keep the appeals as that would prevent them from being mired in the courts. I have also received representations that we should not go ahead with increasing the education leaving age to 18; I reject those representations. I have had a proposal that we should not introduce new diplomas; I reject that representation. I have also had a proposal that we should cut £4.5 billion from the building schools for the future programme, and therefore put thousands of schools at risk in 76 authorities. Once again, in my consultation on the children’s plan, I reject that representation.

In the end, Government are about three things: vision, policy and judgment. We set out our vision here; I reject the vision of a two-tier education system. I am setting out clear policies here; I reject those wheezes that fall apart under scrutiny. As for judgment, in my view, over the past six months the judgment of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has increasingly come into question.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree—or does he know—that the Children, Schools and Families Committee is investigating testing and assessment, and we will be keen to look in detail at his proposals for stage not age tests? Is he also aware that our Committee, as it did in its former incarnation, has consistently pushed for us to do something about the quality of the work force in early years, in terms of both how much they are paid and how they are trained? Much of what my right hon. Friend says today is welcome, but will he give a guarantee not only that the Select Committee will be able to track the progress of the building of the new edifice of a children’s plan, but that a monitoring of staged successes is built into it?

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