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11 Dec 2007 : Column 167

Ed Balls: I reassure my hon. Friend, and I thank him for his leadership of the Select Committee. I look forward to appearing before it in early January to answer detailed questions on the children’s plan. I can confirm that we will report back on the children’s plan in a year’s time. In the meantime, our three expert groups will continue their work of monitoring our implementation. We will also involve parents in monitoring our progress.

The issues my hon. Friend raises on the work force are critical. The document sets out a strategy for the children’s work force and, within that, important reforms of the early years work force to increase their standing and enhance even further their professionalism so that it matches their dedication. We want more graduates coming into early years education and these proposals will take that ambition forward.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement.

I know that it is traditional on these occasions for Opposition spokesmen to be disappointed by the contents of statements, whatever they contain, but may I genuinely say that many people inside and outside the House will be tremendously disappointed with the plan that he has put forward? After all, if we set it alongside the conclusions of the UNICEF report published earlier this year, which put Britain bottom of the league table of 21 developed countries in respect of child poverty and child well-being, today’s plan emerges as a mouse of a plan to deal with what is, frankly, a mountain of a problem. Even where new policies have been announced, they are tiny in their effect: 20,000 places for two-year-olds set against 650,000 youngsters in that cohort. What we have heard today is not, by anybody’s independent judgment, a serious 10-year plan for children, but a hotch-potch of reviews, recycled announcements from earlier Secretaries of State, one or two gimmicks and a unifying theme that is a belief only in top-down big government solutions.

Why was there no mention in the statement of what is supposed to be the biggest ambition of the entire Government—dealing with child poverty? Is it not absolutely astonishing for a Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to give a statement to this House in which the only mention of child poverty is backward-looking, describing what has happened up to today with nothing at all about policy for the future? Does not that indicate that Martin Narey of Barnardo’s was correct to say yesterday that the Government now seem to be managing the failure to meet the 2010 target? Does it not also underline this Government’s foolishness in deciding in the pre-Budget report to allocate £3.7 billion towards the reduction of inheritance tax, set alongside the £120 million—an almost trivial amount—found for child poverty? Why has the Secretary of State with responsibility for children failed to mention anything forward looking about what used to be one of this Government’s great ambitions? Why do we continue to find that 1.5 million children—almost of half of whom are living in relative poverty—live in households that pay full council tax when the Government have been reviewing and reviewing that unfair tax for years and doing precisely nothing about it?

On the schools agenda, why on earth do we need yet another primary curriculum review? I thought that primary education was supposed to be something that
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the Government had fixed in their first term in office. We now find that apparently it has not been fixed and that we need another review. What is the review designed to achieve? According to the Secretary of State, it is to allow more time for literacy and numeracy studies, but we already know that 51 per cent. of time in primary schools is spent on those two subjects. Rather than have another pointless review of primary education, why does not the Secretary of State just devolve powers to schools to make those decisions? Is it really necessary for the Whitehall screwdriver to reach into every school in the country, directing schools on how to communicate with parents and even fixing the number of graduates in early years settings? How on earth can it be right for central Government to fix those policies? Why is there nothing in the statement to target extra money on pupils through a pupil premium that would target deprivation? Why is there nothing about more freedom for schools to innovate?

On the children’s services agenda, will the Secretary of State tell us whether his desire to tie in children’s services more closely with schools is going to mean a relocation of responsibility for those services—from primary care trusts and social services, which are not usually very good at interacting with schools, to the schools themselves?

This was supposed to be one of the centrepieces of the Government and their aspirations, yet it has given us an indication of why they are so far adrift, because we have had a 10-year plan for the future of children that is entirely top down, entirely unconvincing and that will not deliver the aspirations that the Government have themselves set.

Ed Balls: I believe that when parents, teachers and young people hear what the hon. Gentleman has said, they will find the idea that a £400 million investment in 3,500 play areas and youth clubs around the country is a gimmick very surprising. I think the suggestion that transformation of the life chances of 20,000 children aged two in disadvantaged areas is trivial says more about the hon. Gentleman’s values than it does about our policy. As for the idea that a curriculum review designed to introduce study of a foreign language for every child in primary school, as well as social and emotional aspects of learning—SEAL—teaching through the primary curriculum, is pointless, that too is a reflection on the hon. Gentleman’s politics rather than on our children’s plan.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the child poverty goal. I made a speech about child poverty yesterday. I will not take the time to read it out to the hon. Gentleman today, but the children’s plan makes very clear our goal that child poverty will be halved by 2010 and eradicated by 2020. I will tell the hon. Gentleman how we will do that. We will do it through the national minimum wage that his party opposed, and through the expansion of the tax credit system which he personally has persistently opposed. I will take no lectures from him on the subject of child poverty, given the way in which he has attempted to undermine a consensus in the country about progress in that regard.

As for the idea that we say nothing in the plan about freedom to innovate, the plan is all about schools’ innovating and working with children’s services to tackle all the barriers to learning. As for the idea that
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we say nothing about tie-in, we say that children’s trusts will take forward that agenda with help at the centre of them. As for the idea that we say nothing about extra money to deal with disadvantage, in his announcement on schools funding a few weeks ago my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learning allocated more money to tackling deprivation, and we are doing the same today.

The hon. Gentleman’s comments told me more about his political positioning in the Liberal Democratic party than it did about the children’s plan. He may wish to reconsider some of those comments in the coming months.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): Parents and children all over the country will welcome the new emphasis that my right hon. Friend is placing on the importance of children’s play. Play is important to children’s social development, and to their mental and physical health. What we need now is a further commitment to helping parents to feel secure when their children are out playing. Does my right hon. Friend accept that if we are to achieve that, he will have to work with other Departments to ensure that local, regional and national planners always bear in mind the need for somewhere for children to play safely, and for transport planners to remember that the principal cause of death among child pedestrians is being run over in the road? We need that emphasis too, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will achieve it.

Ed Balls: I thank my right hon. Friend, and praise him for the leadership that he has provided in this regard. It was his 2004 review “Getting Serious About Play” that paved the way for today’s announcements.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the importance of provision for children’s play, and that of the creation of spaces in which children can play safely. In our report and in response to the views expressed to us by parents, we have encouraged local authorities to go further in introducing 20 mph speed limits in areas where children play. We have also encouraged them to think about the way in which they design housing, not just to tackle overcrowding but to ensure that there are proper places in which children can play.

In my view we need children to be seen and heard, and we need to move away from the old-style “no ball games” culture to a world in which there are spaces for them to play. We are funding that today, but it will require leadership at local level. It will also require leadership from Members of Parliament in building coalitions in every constituency to implement the plan’s proposals.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that ever since the reforms that introduced the principle of testing particular age groups to national standards and then reporting the results to the public, there has been a consistent campaign against both practices by teachers’ trade unions and large parts of the educational establishment? Labour spokesmen and Ministers, however, have in principle always defended that approach.

Will the Secretary of State explain how his latest announcement of stage not age testing is not yet another serious step back in the face of all the campaigning?
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Surely it will make it much more difficult for parents to know whether their children have reached the standards expected of their age level, much more difficult for people to have confidence in the quality of the standards being described, and almost impossible for parents and the public to make meaningful comparisons between the performances of different schools.

Ed Balls: I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman takes these issues seriously and studies such matters closely. He will be reassured when he studies the detail of the proposals. I have listened to people, including those from the teaching profession, who have put it to me that we should move away from collecting information that allows school-by-school comparisons of performance to be made. I reject that approach—it does not reflect the consensus in this country, including the consensus among parents. That information is essential in order to drive up standards in our schools and to ensure that we tackle schools that are coasting.

That is fully consistent with what we are talking about now—a move towards a more stage-based approach to testing. Such an approach allows children to be tested according to their ability and the level that they have reached. It allows schools to stretch the best pupils further, while ensuring that children who are falling behind are still tested at a level appropriate to them. The information can then be used to make proper comparisons.

I shall give an example in order to explain the approach. If we were to say that all children who are learning a musical instrument, the violin for example, should be tested at 11, in year 6, it would be ridiculous to say that every child would have to take the grade 5 music exam regardless of whether they had started to learn a few years before and were at grade 1 or they were a good musician and at grade 8. It makes much more sense for the music test—the tests will build on this principle—to be based on the progress that the child has made. That in no way makes it difficult for us to compare schools in terms of the attainment levels that children reach. We will ensure that, under our pilots, we test carefully so that we provide information that allows comparisons to be made both between schools and with the past. Our independent standards regulator will ensure that we do that properly.

Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome statement, which contains some good news for children and families. May I remind him that he has received the report and recommendations of the parliamentary hearings to safeguard the 100,000 children who run away and go missing every year? Will he respond positively to those recommendations by supporting measures to reduce radically the number of children who run away in the first place and to provide immediate safety for children who go missing?

Ed Balls: I commend my hon. Friend on the leadership that she has given on this issue. As she knows, we are working closely with the Children’s Society on these matters. In fact, we are implementing some of her proposals by including a national indicator on young runaways in the local government indicator set. That information will be important in enabling us to improve
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our policy delivery across the country. We are carefully studying her report, which followed her consultations. We shall discuss the details with her, and make a further announcement in due course.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that if he believes his approach to child health services is the first strategy, he ought to ask for a copy of the Court health report, which I believe was published when he was 10, in 1977? He might also read with some advantage the Plowden report on primary schools, especially the research report published in 1967, the year that he was born.

I support what the Secretary of State said about stages rather than just ages—it is perfectly possible to produce age profiles from stage reports. I strongly support the idea that people can reach standards not only in music, athletics and swimming, but in maths, spelling, arithmetic and other forms of mathematics. The sooner we start saying to people that they can soak up information and knowledge, the faster we will undo the damage that I fear was done in most educational reforms made between 1955 and 1985. He should not believe that he is the first person to think that we can get standards back, and put arms around all our children.

Ed Balls: I think that I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s kind comments and I thank him for reminding me of my date of birth. I cannot admit to having read the Court report at the age of 10. Opposition Members may have been reading such reports at the age of 10, but I think that I was playing. My point was that we will produce the first ever joint report between the health service and the Department responsible for schools and children’s services on child health. That is important because it will mean that we can integrate health into our parenting and schools policy. That is welcome and, as I understand it, new, and a consequence of the innovation of our new Department.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s comments on progression, I entirely agree with his sentiments. We are seeking to implement those sentiments in the reforms that we set out today. Perhaps the importance of today for that issue is not that it is a new departure, but the commitment from Government to make it happen. That is my commitment today.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I urge my right hon. Friend to reward those schools that take on the most challenging pupils, because otherwise we will not improve standards in the way that we want to in constituencies such as mine. I welcome his statement on communities becoming involved in providing facilities for local young people. Can he say how those local communities will be able to engage with that, and will he ensure that those voluntary organisations that are already engaged in such work, but are struggling to find core funding, are not overlooked when it comes to the funding that he is making available?

Ed Balls: Only yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families and I visited the excellent Cardwell primary school in Woolwich, close to my hon. Friend’s constituency. The school is in a disadvantaged community and it is implementing now
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the vision that we set out for schools in the plan, including ensuring that all barriers to learning, in and out of school, are addressed by the school, the parents and the local community; engaging health services and parents from the earliest years; and working closely with the voluntary sector. In our work on children’s trusts, we want to ensure that the voluntary sector is included with schools and wider services, and that we have a consistent approach across the country to tackling those issues in the way that my hon. Friend sets out. I commend the local authorities in that part of south-east London on the leadership that they are providing on this matter.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I welcome the mention of support for young carers in the Secretary of State’s statement. Young carers underachieve in education because of the enormous burdens put on them in caring for their parents, siblings or both. What is not so welcome is that that group will have to compete for the £56 million a year that has been allocated with parenting advisers for each local authority, undefined family learning and new support for families with disabled children. Will the right hon. Gentleman commit to making young carers a priority for his Department, so that that neglected group of children is given much more support to achieve their full potential?

Ed Balls: I can give the hon. Gentleman more details of the plan. If he studies those details, he will see that the plan will build on the £13 million that we have already allocated to young carers, many of whom face huge burdens and difficulties, through the family pathfinders programme. In addition, I will make available through the plan a further £3 million over the next three years so that we can do more to support young carers and ensure that their needs are properly taken into account in our wider carers strategy. We have a detailed plan, supported by specific money, and I hope that he will be reassured when he examines the details.

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the plan. I would like him to say a little more about work force reform, because it is important that the very best quality staff work with young children in the early years. It is important that we set an ambition to recruit teachers from the top 10 per cent. of graduates. We have already done a great deal to improve the teaching work force, but we have more to do. We also need a better quality work force looking after children in care, and in youth services. The most difficult problem, in constituencies around the country, is the recruitment of youth workers, because full employment means that many of the people who before would have been prepared to do sessional youth work are now not able to do so, and I want to see—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members have one supplementary question.

Ed Balls: I can reassure my right hon. Friend that in the plan we are taking forward and enhancing the teach first programme. We are also introducing a teach next programme, which will encourage more excellent people from our wider community to come into teaching. As I have said, in the next three years we are investing more
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than £100 million in the early years work force. Our commitment is to make teaching a masters-level profession by ensuring that every new teacher studies for a masters qualification, but we will also encourage more teachers who are already in schools to study for a masters qualification. We will make that part of our continuing professional development work and will work closely with unions and heads to make it happen. I hope that when she sees the detail, she will be reassured that we are taking forward the work force agenda, so that we have more excellent people in our schools and in our early years settings.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): May I commend the Secretary of State for his commitment to families with profoundly disabled children? Does the children’s plan contain extra capital funding for respite care for such families, and will he say a little more on the subject? Is the money to be ring-fenced for local authorities, and will it be distributed alongside the extra and very welcome revenue funding that he announced earlier in the year?

Ed Balls: Within the children’s plan, and on top of the £280 million that we have allocated to pay for an expansion of respite care for families with children with a disability over the next three years, we are now able to allocate £45 million in the next three years to support capital investment in new respite care facilities. That will make sure that the premises where respite care is provided are modernised and get the extra and special equipment that often makes the difference between a family being able to access respite care and them finding that—because of the absence of the right kind of hoist, for example—it is just not possible for them to take advantage of those respite care facilities. The money will not necessarily mean new facilities, but there will be investment in the extra help that those facilities need. We are also expanding the Family Fund to ensure that 16 to 18-year-olds qualify for grants. We think that 16,000 more grants could be made as a result of the announcements.

Through his work last year, the hon. Gentleman rightly put the Government on our mettle on the issue of whether we will deliver for families with disabled children. I hope that we will show him, families with disabled children, and disabled children themselves, that we are on their side. We are investing in extra support for them. When we on the Labour Benches talk about the every child matters initiative, we are talking about every disabled child, too.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and his commitment to improving the quality of life of all children? I also welcome the introduction of the Children and Young Persons Bill to improve outcomes for looked-after children. Most homes for looked-after children provide very good standards of care, but I am concerned that some reach a barely adequate standard. That is evidenced by the number of children who run away. Does he agree that if we are to drive up standards in the small number of homes concerned, a strong message must be given to failing homes? It should be exactly same message that is given to failing schools: improve or face closure.

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