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IT Projects

5. James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): How much his Department plans to spend on IT projects in the next 12 months; and if he will make a statement. [194067]


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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): Subject to final spending decisions, the Department plans to spend £150.2 million on IT-enabled projects in the 12 months commencing 1 April 2008. That figure covers a wide range of investments in the Department’s internal systems at a cost of £20.5 million, and in major IT-enabled policy initiatives at a cost of £129.7 million.

James Brokenshire: Despite the Department’s spending millions on its ContactPoint database, the recent report by Deloitte and Touche highlighted the fact that significant data security risks remain with the project. Given that ContactPoint will draw together information on every single child in the country, creating a honeypot effect, what sort of risk does the Minister think is acceptable in relation to those sensitive data?

Kevin Brennan: I would not agree at all with the hon. Gentleman that the report identified significant risks. We commissioned the Deloitte report to look over the ContactPoint project, and it confirmed that ContactPoint has been developed very much with security in mind. The database is very important, and I hope that at some stage the Opposition will look very seriously at why we are setting it up. For example, there has recently been quite a bit of publicity about forced marriage. If we are to be able to identify young people who are at risk, we need to be able to share information between the professionals working with them. I hope that the Opposition will reconsider their position on ContactPoint.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that the adoption of open-access IT systems can result in significant savings? Is his Department promoting their use throughout the education sector?

Kevin Brennan: BECTA—the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency—leads for us on that issue, but I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a way of achieving significant savings. As any modern business or any modern constituency MP knows, having properly IT-enabled systems is vital to serving the needs of children in this country and of our constituents.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): There is, however, a real and growing concern about IT database overload in the Department. It has three major databases of its own—ContactPoint, Connexions and the national children’s database—and nine other children’s databases feed into ContactPoint. May I take it from the Minister’s response that there is a disagreement between the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government as a result of the recent “Lifting the Burdens” report, which stated that the obsession with multiple databases has diverted attention from the most important task that the Department should have, which is delivering real support for families, or has the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government got it wrong?


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Kevin Brennan: As usual, that is a rhetorical rather than a substantive question from the hon. Lady. The point about ContactPoint and the other databases is that they exist to promote the welfare of children and young people in this country. I remind the House that ContactPoint was developed as a result of the Lord Laming inquiry into the Victoria Climbié case. I make no apologies whatever to the House for our continuing to develop that important project, which will enable professionals working with children to identify the other professionals working with them. That is a basic requirement of safeguarding children, and I hope that all parties in the House will support it.

Children in Poverty

6. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the proportion of (a) disabled and (b) non-disabled children living in poverty. [194068]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): I have had several discussions recently with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on a number of aspects related to child poverty, including poverty rates for disabled children. The Government are committed to our child poverty targets and improving the life chances of all children. In addition, over the next three years, a total of £340 million has been set aside by my Department specifically to improve the lives of disabled children and their families.

Mr. Harper: The Minister will know that the Opposition share the Government’s aspiration to eliminate child poverty by 2020, although I note that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions conceded only recently that the Government were unlikely to hit their target of halving it by 2010. Some 55 per cent. of families in the UK with disabled children are living in poverty. To return to part of the announcement that the Minister has just made, will she update the House on what progress has been made in improving access to child care for families with disabled children, so that they are more able to access work?

Beverley Hughes: There are many reasons why the Government want to support families with disabled children. It is true that in some of those families the children are in poverty, but if the hon. Gentleman had read the excellent document that we produced last week, “Ending child poverty: everybody’s business”, he would have seen that it is not actually the presence of a disabled child that increases a family’s risk of poverty; it is the presence of a disabled adult that significantly increases that risk.

The Government want to halve child poverty by 2010 and eradicate it by 2020, and we remain absolutely committed to that. We have already reduced absolute poverty by half and we will continue to move children out of poverty through the Budget—unlike the previous Government, who were responsible for more than doubling the rates of child poverty. They made Britain the worst place for child poverty and reversed the upward trend in social mobility. We are reversing that legacy.


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Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): The right hon. Lady’s boss, the Secretary of State, has made a considerable personal investment in the plight of disabled children, but last year the number of children living in poverty after housing costs were taken into account rose by 200,000. We now have a higher proportion of children being brought up in workless households than any European country, and they stay in poverty for longer. Given the disproportionate effect on disabled children, who are twice as likely to live in poverty and twice as likely to leave school with no qualifications compared with their peers, thus reinforcing the cycle of generational underachievement, is not the Minister embarrassed by the Government’s lack of a truly joined-up approach to disabled children and poverty involving employment, education, transport, health and housing—or is this just another case of so what?

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman cannot have read the document that we produced last week or have considered the measures in the Budget. Those measures—increasing the rate of child benefit, changes to the child tax credit, and disregarding child benefit—will lift a further 300,000 children out of poverty, and taken with last year’s Budget that is another 500,000. We are committed to reversing the disastrous and atrocious legacy that the Conservatives left children in this country. They said that unemployment was a price worth paying, and they cannot be trusted on the family. They say one thing, but when they have the chance they do—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Teachers’ Pay

7. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): If he will make a statement on the teachers’ pay settlement. [194069]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): The Minister for Schools and Learners made a written statement to the House on 15 January 2008 concerning the latest report of the School Teachers Review Body and our response. Following consultation on those proposals, we expect to make a further statement shortly.

Mark Pritchard: But with one in 10 teachers having been physically attacked in the classroom, with more than 33 knife attacks on teachers, and with 75 per cent. of all teachers having been verbally abused last year, does the Secretary of State agree with Lord Adonis that future pay settlements should include some sort of bonus or performance-related pay that is linked to improving discipline in the classroom?

Ed Balls: It is essential that we do even more to improve discipline in the classroom. We have taken substantial action, including in legislation, to ensure that we back teachers and give head teachers and governing bodies the power that they need to confiscate dangerous items and to act in and out of school. We will do more. That is why I have asked Sir Alan Steer to produce a report on the implementation of his report on behaviour and to suggest what we can do to improve
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behaviour further. When I speak to members of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers at their conference next week, I will tell them that we are on the side of teachers in rooting out ill-discipline in the classroom and will give them the powers that they need. It may be a more serious issue than can be addressed through a bonus in pay: we will give teachers the powers they need to act, so that they can get on and teach.

Employment Choices

8. Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to encourage male and female school pupils to consider a wider and less stereotyped range of employment choices; and if he will make a statement. [194070]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I expect schools and the external information, advice and guidance services that support them to be rigorous in challenging gender stereotypes and low career aspirations. We have taken, and are planning, a range of measures that make clear our expectations and which will embed good practice. For example, all 14 to 19 consortiums wishing to deliver diplomas have to undergo a rigorous diploma gateway process assessing them against a number of key criteria, including how they will challenge gender stereotypes and raise aspirations.

Judy Mallaber: I welcome that response. The Women in Work commission report and the recently published Select Committee report, “Jobs for the Girls”, identified occupational segregation as one of the major reasons for the continuing gender pay gap. In view of that, will my hon. Friend consider the proposals in the Committee’s report for providing further funding and resources specifically for careers advice and work placements, such as the proposal from the YWCA that boys and girls should have more than one work placement so that opportunities are not limited at too early an age through the assumptions embedded in families and society in general?

Jim Knight: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s consistent championing of these issues in the House. We will, of course, look closely at the Select Committee report to which she has referred. I pay tribute, too, to the YWCA for the work that it has done. I met representatives of the YWCA before the Committee stage of the Education and Skills Bill, and they found that the lowest paid apprenticeship, hairdressing, is more than 90 per cent. female while the highest paid, the electro-technical trades, pays twice the average and is 100 per cent. male dominated. It is clear that we need to do better as regards careers advice. That is one reason why we have brought in a new quality standard, which all authorities will need to have regard to in the future.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Why does the Minister think that male and female pupils choose stereotypical employment? Is it nature, nurture or neither?


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Jim Knight: The hon. Lady has raised an interesting doctoral question. I suspect, Mr. Speaker, that you would not want me to expand at any great length on it. I imagine that it is a combination of the two, but I leave hon. Members to reflect on where the balance lies. That does not take away from the need to do more about gender stereotyping. I saw an excellent example in a school that took year 7 pupils and gave them taster sessions of work experience that did not fit their gender stereotype. As a result, interest in such careers increased significantly. If people have access to such taster sessions, which are more nurture than nature, it can only be a good thing.

Bullying

9. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to reduce the incidence of bullying in schools. [194071]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): We are implementing a wide range of measures to help schools tackle bullying. These include reinforcing the power of school staff to discipline pupils who bully and providing them with comprehensive practical guidance on proven strategies for tackling bullying. We also provide support for individual schools through the Anti-Bullying Alliance, support peer mentoring schemes and fund a helpline for parents whose children are being bullied.

John Robertson: My hon. Friend will be aware that because of new technology, bullying now involves the internet and mobile phones. Sometimes, advertising such things makes the situation worse, as can be seen in some schools. What is my hon. Friend doing to try to solve the problem and what discussions has he had with service providers and schools to try to tackle that new kind of bullying?

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Bullying takes lots of new forms because of the new technology that is available. I agree absolutely that the virtual world is not a valueless world, and we should ensure that we enforce the same standards when dealing with online bullying or the use of mobile phones as we do when we deal with more traditional forms of bullying. We have taken measures to make it clear in law that schools can confiscate mobile phones when they are being misused and that discipline can be enforced beyond the school gates when bullying takes place online.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given the finding of the Stonewall school report that no less than two thirds of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have suffered bullying, will the Under-Secretary of State join me in congratulating Stonewall on the magnificent campaign that it is waging across the whole country, working through no fewer than 5,000 secondary schools, on the theme, “Some people are gay. Get over it!”? It is a good campaign that is making progress, and it has elicited a very positive response. We need to see more of that.


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Kevin Brennan: Yes; unfortunately, the legacy of section 28 lives on to a certain extent in our system. I commend the hon. Gentleman for his work on equality as a pioneer in his party on the subject. He will be aware that we issued guidance on homophobic bullying last September. In fact, I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State attended an event with Stonewall a month ago in relation to that.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): On the legacy of section 28, does my hon. Friend agree that homophobic bullying is not just a matter of victimising pupils who are gay or lesbian, but about the routine use of the terms “gay” and “lesbian” as forms of abuse? Does he recall that the Select Committee on Education and Skills report on bullying last year placed huge emphasis on the role of head teachers and governing bodies in establishing firm anti-bullying policies in schools? Will he incentivise efforts to stress the importance of that to head teachers and the chairs of their governing bodies?

Kevin Brennan: I am happy to do that, and to confirm what my hon. Friend said. We all agree that relationships in our schools should be based on respect—respect between teachers and pupils, respect between pupils and respect between families and parents who use the school. That is why we issue anti-bullying guidance on all forms of bullying. I am happy to tell the House that in the near future we hope to issue the guidance that we have been developing on tackling the bullying of children with disabilities.

Ofsted Inspections

10. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): If he will bring forward proposals allowing schools to request an Ofsted inspection. [194072]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): Schools are already able to request an Ofsted inspection, although I understand that such requests are rare. The hon. Gentleman will understand that it is important that the chief inspector of schools has the capacity to target inspection resources where they are needed most. The decision whether to inspect, following a request, is a matter for the discretion of the chief inspector, taking into account factors such as the timing of previous inspections.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister, who is my constituency neighbour and who knows my local schools well. She knows that I have four grammar schools and four non-selective high schools, all of which are excellent. Of the non-selective high schools, three have already been awarded an “outstanding” categorisation by Ofsted. The fourth—Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic college—is confident that it, too, will be found to be outstanding. It is keen to receive that categorisation as soon as possible, so that it can proceed with applications for a second specialist status. I think that it will take comfort from the Minister’s words, and I would be grateful for any support that she can give.

Beverley Hughes: I welcome the finding, in the school’s last inspection report, that parents and pupils hold the school in very high regard and that it performed very well across the piece. For reasons that the hon. Gentleman will understand, schools are now
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given minimal notice of inspections and so cannot choose when an inspection takes place, but if the school wants to make a request to Ofsted, Ofsted will consider that request for an inspection on its merits. I understand that the school must be inspected by June next year, so an inspection must be on the cards in the near future.

Admissions Process

12. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effects of the changes in the secondary schools admissions process in 2007. [194074]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): The data that my Department published last week showed that, for the first time, 82 per cent. of families received an offer of a place at their first choice of school, and 93 per cent. of families received an offer of a place at one of their first three choices of school; both of those figures are an improvement on last year. The new stronger admissions code that was introduced last year has been widely welcomed. We are determined to ensure that all schools comply with the code.

Mr. Hands: In constituencies such as mine, there is enormous stress and upset over secondary school admissions at this time of year. In Hammersmith and Fulham last year, 40 per cent. of pupils did not get their first choice, and 10 per cent. got none of their choices. That is despite the best efforts of the Conservative council in Hammersmith and Fulham to extend secondary school choice, so why does the Secretary of State simply say that parents should “engage in the appeals process”, when the real issue is that there are not enough quality secondary school places?

Ed Balls: The hon. Gentleman is right in his figures: about 60 per cent. of parents in his area got their first choice, and 90 per cent. got one of their preferences. I agree with him—in the end, the only way to deliver fairness for all parents is to make sure that every school is a good school. If we do not do so, we will always have some schools that are over-subscribed. I know that in his area there are three single-sex faith schools that are particularly over-subscribed. That is why I hope that he will back my national challenge programme, which seeks to reduce to zero the number of schools where less than 30 per cent. of pupils get five good GCSEs including English and maths. In 1997, that was the case in more than half of all schools—more than 1,600. We have got that number down from 1,600 to 638, and our pledge is to get it down to zero. I would like his support in making that happen.


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