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House of Commons

Monday 17 March 2008

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—

Small Schools

1. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): If he will make a statement on the future of small schools. [194063]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Local authorities have legal responsibility for determining the pattern of school provision most appropriate to their areas, taking account of parents’ wishes. Small schools that are popular with parents must have a place in our educational system, and many serve rural communities. We will continue to support small rural schools through the presumption against closure, and by allocating funds to take account of the sparse population in rural areas.

Mr. Heath: That is all very well, but up and down the country small schools are being closed by local authorities. If the Minister wants his “presumption” to be taken seriously, will he withdraw the guidance that was issued to every local authority in December, which threatened to withhold money for primary school buildings and renovation from authorities that did not close schools or remove so-called surplus places?

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman should note that we have reduced the number of rural school closures significantly, from a peak of 127 in 1983 to an average of just six a year over the last 10 years. The guidance to which he referred should be read in its entirety: it makes clear that if access for young children is to be preserved there may be a need for more surplus places in rural schools, and acknowledges that it will not always be practical or desirable to remove all such places. Somerset county council’s work on federation of rural schools provides a model for how the situation should be tackled.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give a cast-iron assurance that when it comes to maintaining small schools—rural schools, in many cases—he will not necessarily be swayed by the views of parents, but will take a stance on what constitutes the
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best solution for the children? Multi-age classes are not always the best solution. They may make it possible for a school to be maintained, but the outcome is not good. Will my hon. Friend give that assurance that he will put children first?

Jim Knight: As my hon. Friend knows, we always want to put children first, but I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). These are decisions for local authorities, and although we want them to listen to the views of parents, obviously we also want them to ensure that the individual needs of all children in their areas are met.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Minister said that the number of closures of small schools in our rural areas—against which the Government made a strong commitment in 1998—had declined to only six a year, but the fact is that we now have some 1,200 fewer small schools in our rural areas than we had in 1997 when the Government came to power. I have the figures in front of me. The Minister shakes his head, but I will happily show him the figures later. They are as plain as the nose on your face.

We need more than just words and the paying of lip service to schools. What about cutting the bureaucracy, initiatives and general messing around that makes small schools so difficult to maintain?

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman should consider his own bureaucracy when he quotes completely false figures. Statistics of that kind do not relate to the number of schools that have been taken out of communities. They relate to the closure of schools as a result of mergers between infant and junior schools to form primary schools, and to a range of factors that do not feature in the rurality classification used by DEFRA. The statistics that we use are consistent. The hon. Gentleman should remind himself of the trend that we saw when his party was in power, which, as I have said, resulted in a peak of 127 closures of small rural schools in 1983.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend commend the track record of Leicestershire county council? It has never been under the control of the Labour party and has only been under the control of any party for the last seven years, but in a generation or more it has never closed a rural school, with the single exception of Tilton on the Hill, east of the city of Leicester. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that enough funds are being allocated to local education authorities in rural areas to allow them to skew their budgets to meet the recognisably higher cost of enabling smaller schools to exist in the medium term?

Jim Knight: I am happy to commend the job done by Leicestershire county council in managing its schools against the background of a relatively difficult funding arrangement, although even in Leicestershire funding has increased significantly over the last 10 years, and its dedicated school grant will include funds for sparsity. I do not have the Leicestershire figure in front of me, but Somerset, for example, receives £5.48 million in sparsity funding.

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Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am reassured by the Minister's emphatic statement that there should be a presumption against the closure of rural schools. Does he accept that, often, the school in a village is the only major facility, so keeping it open is of great importance? Does he believe that federation of some schools is a good way of getting over the problem facing many local education authorities? Perhaps a merger between a Church of England school and a Catholic school to make an all-faith school can help in keeping small schools, village schools and rural schools open.

Jim Knight: I never thought that I would say that I hope that local authorities have the imagination of the hon. Gentleman. He is entirely right that we should be looking more at federations. In my own constituency, hard federations have resulted in school buildings remaining open in two villages, but under a single head teacher and a single governing body. That has been extremely successful. In Somerset, as a result of a move towards federation that encompasses all but five of its primary schools, just 9 per cent. of primary school places are surplus places. That is the kind of thing that we want to see, alongside co-location of services, so that a range of children's services and other services can be offered from a village school to keep village communities alive.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The Minister will be well aware of the value of small schools, particularly in his constituency in Dorset, where a view has been taken to keep schools open for the wider community benefit, as he has stated. I congratulate him on reducing the number of small school closures over the past few years. That is absolutely right. Will he help me on Canvey Island, where one of my small schools is under threat of closure from Essex county council because of low numbers, even though much more building will be forced on Canvey Island, which will increase the capacity requirement on the island? What is more, that school is making excellent progress. Will he ask the county council to declare a moratorium on that closure?

Jim Knight: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman needs all the friends he can get right now, and I am happy to have a chat with him about what is going on in Canvey Island and about how he can have a constructive conversation with his former friends in Conservative-controlled Essex county council.

Capital Funding (Milton Keynes)

2. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): How much capital funding will be provided to schools in Milton Keynes local authority area in the next three years. [194064]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Capital funding allocated for schools in the Milton Keynes local authority area in the next three years amounts to more than £75 million, including £30 million for growth. We are now considering Milton Keynes' application for additional growth funding to reflect its exceptional circumstances, which may result
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in further capital support. Of course I have been informed by the extensive representations made by my hon. Friend.

Dr. Starkey: This morning I was at the start of the construction of the Milton Keynes academy in my constituency, so I am mindful of the money that we have had in Milton Keynes, but I have been making representations to support the bid by Milton Keynes council for the safety valve funding. Will the Minister confirm that, when he considers that, he will not just provide it according to formula but take into account the special needs of Milton Keynes?

Jim Knight: Naturally, following the representations that I have received, I will certainly seek to do that. I am glad that my hon. Friend was able to be at the academy this morning to see the results of the excellent investment that is going in, which has risen significantly from the low level of less than £10 million in 2001-02 to the high levels today. I am hopeful that we can make an announcement in the next few weeks about what we are going to do in respect of the application that has been made by her authority for the basic needs safety valve funding.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): The Minister is keen to trumpet the cash for Milton Keynes but less keen to confirm that there is now a £50 million shortfall in funding for Milton Keynes—confirmed to me by the Secretary of State in a letter on 4 February. That means that, at a time when the Government are forcing new houses on Milton Keynes, they seem less keen to fund the 10 or 12 new schools that we desperately need to accommodate that new housing. What exactly will the shortfall be for Milton Keynes over the next three years?

Jim Knight: Certainly Milton Keynes council argues that it needs another £50 million. As I say, we are looking at the representations that the council and others have made. The hon. Gentleman has also been to see me to discuss the matter, but he needs to bear in mind when talking about that to his constituents that his party plans a raid on Building Schools for the Future that will take £4.5 billion from areas such as Milton Keynes, meaning that two of the 12 secondary schools in his town may not even be rebuilt.

English and Mathematics

3. Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of standards of attainment in mathematics and English in schools. [194065]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): As a result of our investment and reform since 1997, there has been an unparalleled rise in primary and secondary school standards in English and maths. Primary standards are at their highest ever, and record numbers of pupils left school in 2007 having gained five good GCSEs, including in English and maths.

Mr. Ellwood: I begin with a declaration of interest: I am a product of the international baccalaureate, so I did not do A-levels or GCSEs. As we are talking about raising standards in maths and English, why is the Secretary of State introducing a new form of diploma
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that has already proved very unpopular with the universities, when we have the international baccalaureate, under which English and maths are taught up to the age of 18, and which is popular not only with schools but with universities and employers? Why is the Secretary of State reinventing the wheel?

Ed Balls: I am pleased to hear that the IB did a good job for the hon. Gentleman, as it does for many pupils throughout the country. We have been trying to put together a qualification that can combine academic and vocational learning, and I must say to him—I can get him the detailed information if he would like it—that the diploma has been welcomed by a wide range of universities, including Cambridge university, whose admissions tutor said that a diploma in engineering could be better preparation than A-level maths. The diploma has also been welcomed by a wide range of employers. Conservative Members would do well to reconsider their opposition to our new diplomas, as they are the best chance in more than a generation to break the two-tier system in academic and vocational learning. It is revealing that the Conservatives remain on the two-tier side of the argument when it comes to educational qualifications.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will probably agree with me that the evidence taken by the Education and Skills Committee shows that standards have been rising in both English and maths. Will he, however, look at the experiment in Warrington, where five schools are using different forms of information technology to advance teaching in maths and English? Will he also look into whether we can improve the training of maths teachers so that both the teaching and learning experiences can be improved?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is an expert in these matters, and he knows that 100,000 more young people are now making the required grade at key stage 3 in English than in 1997, and that 95,000 more are making the grade in maths. It is because we want to improve the teaching of maths and teacher training in maths that we asked Professor Williams to produce a report for us on mathematics, and it will be published shortly. Also, our new master’s qualification in teaching will enable teachers to get in-career training in mathematics. I am happy to listen to my hon. Friend’s points, and to look at the Warrington example and see what further lessons we can learn.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I am glad that the Secretary of State is arranging to build on the work on maths teaching of Professor Adrian Smith of Queen Mary college. Will the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers get a list of the relevant secondary schools where A-level maths could be taught, find out which of them has not had a grade A in A-level maths in the past five years, and ask whether none of the pupils would have had the ability or aptitude to achieve that?

Ed Balls: I will be happy to get that information; I cannot say that I have brought it with me.

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Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the primary school teachers in my constituency? Over the past five years, there has been a greater than 40 per cent. increase in the children’s English ability and more than a 25 per cent. increase in their maths ability. That is astounding delivery by the primary sector. What are we going to do to improve further primary school education?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is right, as the facts show. In 1997, only 63 per cent. of children reached key stage 2 level 4 at the age of 11; that proportion has now increased to 80 per cent., and in maths it has increased from 62 per cent. to 77 per cent. That is a real improvement in standards, but it is not enough; we want to get to much higher levels even than those. That requires us to do even more to back the learning of our primary school pupils and to tackle the barriers to learning both in and out of school. One way to make sure that we can do that is to improve even further the teaching of reading in the earliest years. Along with Lord Adonis and Professor Jim Rose, I visited a school on Friday to see how it is using phonics in the curriculum. That is now being done extensively in three quarters of all schools, but we want to get to 100 per cent. and we will do so over the next year.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Speaking of phonics, Sir Jim Rose in his report into the teaching of reading said:

However, the Secretary of State, in his press release on Friday, in which he reported that a quarter of primary schools were not using phonics to teach children to read, and indeed in his response just now, does not use the term synthetic phonics. Can he therefore confirm the Government’s policy? Is it that schools should use synthetic phonics, as recommended by Jim Rose, or is it a return to the mix of strategies that was the hallmark of the national literacy strategy?

Ed Balls: I know that no one is more keen on taking forward the issue of phonics and synthetic phonics in our curriculum than the hon. Gentleman. I am very pleased, therefore, that he read my press release. He will see that the first quote in it came not from myself, but from Sir Jim Rose himself; it was his findings that I was quoting. He was reporting on the progress on implementing his report and he says that all schools are using phonics, but that only three quarters are using them in the way that he would like—and we would like—which probably means using synthetic phonics in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. That will differ school by school, depending on the needs of different individuals, but Jim and I are clear on what needs to be done. We need to make sure that this is across all schools in the curriculum. The school that we visited was really interesting: 95 per cent. of children did not have English as a first language, and phonics was being taught not just in reading but in PE and right across the whole curriculum. I can therefore assure the hon. Gentleman that we are taking forward this agenda with determination, and we will make sure that the right kind of phonics are taught in all schools for all pupils.

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Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): In September 2004, the Government appointed Celia Hoyles as the mathematics tsar to promote mathematics in our schools, colleges and universities. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the tsar’s progress in promoting mathematics in our schools?

Ed Balls: Celia Hoyles did a wonderful job, and we are really grateful for her work. She has laid the foundation for the strengthening of maths in the curriculum in primary and secondary schools, and we are taking that forward, including through the Williams review.

Alderman Blaxill School

4. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): If he will visit the Alderman Blaxill school in Colchester to discuss its future with the head teacher, staff, governors, pupils, parents and representatives of the local community. [194066]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I am obviously very grateful for the invitation from the hon. Gentleman and I am of course aware of the representations that he has been making about the future of Alderman Blaxill school, not least through last year’s Adjournment debate, to which I responded. I know that there is an urgent need to raise standards at that school for the benefit of pupils, parents and the whole community.

Bob Russell: I am not sure whether the Minister will visit, but if not, will he receive a delegation from the school? Will he confirm that the latest Ofsted report, which was published this month, says that the school is now making satisfactory progress, which is no doubt entirely down to the inspirational leadership of executive head Mr. Jonathan Tippett? In view of the Minister’s earlier comment that we should be looking more at federations, does he accept that the community resolution of the Roman river federation of secondary schools in south and west Colchester is the right way forward to save the three schools concerned?

Jim Knight: I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman thinks that the executive head who has been brought in is doing a good job, and that is certainly what I have been told. However, the reports that I have from what I think was the most recent monitoring visit, in February—there may have been a more recent visit since then—show that progress since going into special measures is still inadequate. I have not been briefed on the Roman river federation, but I am very happy to look at the issue and to meet and talk with the hon. Gentleman, who has met my noble Friend Lord Adonis on a number of occasions to discuss the matter.

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