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16 Jan 2008 : Column 322WH—continued

5.3 pm

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate, and I thank her. She described herself as an advocate for children and young people, particularly for extended schools and related services. She is indeed a fierce advocate, and she has been responsible for getting the local authority in Westminster to think critically about how it operates its systems for the development of extended schools. There is scope for that to be done further.

I know that my hon. Friend supports the fact that Government have given an explicit commitment and top priority to transforming options for children and young people and their parents at local level. As she rightly said, the services in extended schools, operating from 8 o’clock to 6 o’clock with a mandatory menu of options for children, range from study support and extra-curricular activities to support for parents. They include secure child care upon which parents can rely, which is part of a wide package of measures, including children’s centres and placing on local authorities a duty in law to ensure that there is sufficient child care of different types that meets parents’ needs, not just in its quantum but through its high quality and with the flexibility needed for their working patterns in the labour market.

My hon. Friend will know that those changes, alongside the changes in maternity and paternity benefits and the right to request flexibility at work, are part of a package intended to give parents many more options for combining working and family life. There is a particular focus on families from more disadvantaged backgrounds, because it is for them that work is particularly important. It raises their standard of living and quality of life and can lift families out of poverty.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned the importance of extended schools for the development of children and young people. Children in many families get the opportunity to do enriching activities that are important for their development and relate directly to their ability to achieve
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academically. The activities are not just nice add-ons that are good things to do, they are an opportunity to develop skills such as leadership, initiative and creativity, which are part and parcel of children’s development. It is important that we extend those opportunities to disadvantaged children. The objective of ensuring that children from more disadvantaged families have the opportunity to take part in extended activities in school is of paramount importance to the Government. It is one of our top priorities.

My hon. Friend began by talking about resources. We cannot, and I believe should not, orchestrate the process of developing services from the centre with a command and control model. We must necessarily depend on local authorities and their partners, including schools, to take the general policy direction and resources that the Government give them and relate them to their local needs. Within the constraints of how policy is defined, they should implement and provide services in ways that reflect those needs. There is no other option. In the case of my hon. Friend’s area, there are some problems in how that has been done, particularly for disadvantaged children. When we see such problems, we must recognise them and work with the local authority, but we cannot operate in a way that would require my Department to orchestrate the development of services from the centre.

I should like to take up another point. My hon. Friend said something like “It’s not fair to muddle money together,” referring to the different funding streams for extended school start-ups, the sustainability of extended schools and personalisation, among other things. We depend on schools and local authorities to use the different funding streams that come from central Government flexibly and in ways that add value one to another to achieve the best for children. That is not muddling those funding streams. We expect local authorities to use the extended school resources to put those things into particular schools. Alongside that, the money that they get for personalisation should be used to identify individual children for whom those different tranches of money can be brought together to assist those children and give them the most opportunities.

Personalisation is not separate from the opportunities that will come through a school that offers a wide range of extra-curricular activities. Personalisation for a particular child might involve having access to a wide range of creative activities, such as sport and drama, or having extra study support. That will come through the provision from the extended school, but it might be paid for at least in part by the personalisation money that is attached to that child precisely because they are a child from a disadvantaged background. I know that that is a difficult task for some schools and that some are doing it better than others at the moment, and we want to support them all to do it well, but it is right to tell schools and local authorities that they must have the flexibility to use that money creatively for individual children. By giving them that flexibility, if they use it
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properly, we can maximise the impact of those opportunities on individual children.

My hon. Friend asked about her local situation, particularly about sports fields. I know that some schools in Westminster do not have their own sports facilities, but that is a matter for the local authority. I agree with her in spirit that local authorities should make their leisure facilities available, free of charge, to schools that do not have such facilities. I am not dictating that to Westminster, but other local authorities have adopted that approach. Indeed, other local authorities have added their resources to Government resources to develop extended schools.

On the allocation of extended schools money, my hon. Friend compared two particular schools. If they are the same schools that she recently mentioned to me informally, I can tell her that I have looked into that in some detail and that we will talk to Westminster about some of those issues. Westminster has a method of allocating resources that is based 50 per cent. on school numbers and 50 per cent. on a definition of need, which is different for primary and secondary schools. The school in a middle-class area that she mentioned has significantly more pupils than the school in the deprived area, so the 50 per cent. that relates to school numbers will bump up its allocation of extended school start-up money. However, the formula for the need element is hard to understand, and it is worth my hon. Friend going to speak to the new director of children’s services there, because it is hard not to agree that it looks strange that a school with only 14 per cent. of children on free school meals—not 8 per cent., as she said—should receive more than a school with 32 per cent. of children on free school meals, albeit a slightly smaller school.

Ms Buck: I am grateful for the line that the Minister is pursuing. I took that information from the school improvement partners profiles of those schools. That raises questions about working on different sets of information. It is not the first time that we have struggled to get to the bottom of things, when there are different sources of information, to help us to get a proper understanding of comparisons.

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend is right: we have had this problem before. The information that I have been provided with says that one school has 14 per cent. of children on free school meals and the other has 32 per cent. The first school has 772 pupils, compared with 593 in the other school. It is legitimate to ask why a school in a fairly affluent area, albeit slightly bigger, which has much lower needs in terms of social deprivation, should end up with a higher allocation of extended school start-up, given that we rightly expect schools to have a charging policy where that is appropriate.

However, the allocation of money in any local authority has to be agreed by the schools forum, as it has in this case. On child tax credit, there are several opportunities for Westminster to—

It being fifteen minutes past Five o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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