19 May 2008 : Column 1

House of Commons

Monday 19 May 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—

Academies (Kettering)

1. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect on educational attainment levels in Kettering at the GCSE stage of the establishment of the two academies there. [205964]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): At present there are no academies in Kettering. However, statements of intent have been agreed and my Department is in ongoing discussions with the local authority about the possibility of two schools in Kettering becoming academies. Where academies are established the aim is to achieve educational transformation, significantly improving levels of pupil attainment and benefiting the wider community, including neighbouring schools.

Mr. Hollobone: The two hoped-for academies at Ise community college and Montagu school will attract additional investment in local education in Kettering and would be most welcome. What steps are the Government undertaking to monitor individual academies’ performance around the country, so as to understand what makes the most successful academies work best and in order to spread best practice to all the others?

Jim Knight: I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the possibility of the two academies in his constituency. Indeed, we carefully monitor the work of academies and we are not alone in doing so—the National Audit Office regularly looks at it, as do others such as the Select Committee. In 2007, the NAO concluded that GCSE performance in academies had improved compared with that of predecessor schools and that, taking pupils’ personal circumstances and prior attainment into account, academies’ GCSE performance is substantially better on average than that of other schools. Comparisons in this area are always welcome.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Pupils from my constituency have to be bussed to Kettering for their secondary education because under this Government and a Labour county council, John Lea secondary school in my constituency was closed and demolished. Given all the thousands of new homes to be built in my constituency, what plans do the Government have to build a new secondary school there?

Jim Knight: It is a bit like going over old ground, but I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has not raised that matter for a few sessions of oral questions—he has done so several times in the past. As ever, I explain to him that his Tory friends who run Northamptonshire county council are responsible for school organisation, and he needs to take the matter up with them.

Academies (Feeder Schools)

2. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): If he will make it his policy that parents of children at feeder schools and existing secondary schools can vote on whether an academy should be established in their area as part of the decision-making process. [205965]

19 May 2008 : Column 3

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): Proposals to establish academies are subject to non-statutory local consultation, which would normally include all interested parties, including the parents of children at feeder schools and existing secondary schools. When a maintained school is to be closed and replaced with an academy, statutory consultations are required on the proposed closure, which must engage all interested parties. In neither case, however, would there be formal votes or ballots.

Bob Russell: On 1 May in Colchester, the Conservatives lost five seats and control of the borough council. The closure of two secondary schools and the imposition of an academy were major issues. If the Government are listening and they really do want to engage local communities, will the Secretary of State give a pledge that he will honour what happened at the ballot box and save Thomas Lord Audley school at Monkwick and Alderman Blaxill school at Shrub End from closure?

Ed Balls: I understand that there were five Conservative losses on 1 May. I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on their four gains, and note the Labour gain as well.

I will give no long-term guarantee for those individual schools because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Alderman Blaxill school has not had a good run of results. It is substantially below the target of 30 per cent. GCSEs at grades A to C, including English and maths. During the past three years it has achieved 16 per cent., 14 per cent and 17 per cent. of that target, so we need improvement. Essex county council has explained that its preferred approach is to build on the existing partnership with Stanway school and to pursue a trust. We will support the council in its decision, but only as long as there is genuine improvement in all three schools in the coming year, particularly in Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill. We will keep the matter under control, and if those schools do not deliver, we will consider other ways to intervene to ensure that all kids in the hon. Gentleman’s area get the improvement in standards that they need.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Building Schools for the Future money is welcome in Wolverhampton, and there is a proposal to have two academies there. It has been suggested that that money will not be made available in Wolverhampton unless it has those two academies. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that there is no link between the two and that Wolverhampton could have the money without two academies, if it so chose?

Ed Balls: There is no requirement for academies in Wolverhampton as a condition of Building Schools for the Future money—we made that clear to the council and local Members of Parliament. There will be academies in Wolverhampton because the council is proposing them. It sees from results throughout the country that academies are a powerful way to raise standards, especially in areas that have had lower standards and where there is a need for new investment. We support academies in Wolverhampton but we will not impose them on Wolverhampton. The local council is proposing them and we will back its plans.

19 May 2008 : Column 4

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): The Secretary of State will recall Tony Blair’s vision for the academies programme. He said:

We were told that academies were to be freed from the national curriculum and independent of local authority control, but since the Secretary of State took office he has required all new academies to follow the national curriculum and now a third of new academies have local authorities as their sponsor. Why have the Government abandoned those freedoms? Is it not the case that, as last week’s legislative programme makes clear, the Government have run out of ideas on school reform, have no clear sense of direction and, as the chief inspector of schools said today, school standards have “stalled”?

Ed Balls: The hon. Gentleman’s facts are incorrect. I have not imposed the national curriculum on academies. New academies will teach the national curriculum in maths, English, science and IT, but retain the wider flexibilities to innovate and tackle lower performing pupils’ needs.

When I became Secretary of State, all new academies proceeded with local authorities’ agreement and I have not changed that. The only change that I have made is to accelerate the number of academies to bring universities, further education colleges and wider sponsors into the academies movement by abolishing the £2 million entry fee. We are using academies as an important way to drive up standards and meet the national challenge of getting all schools above the 30 per cent. target. The Government are using academies effectively to drive up standards, but the Conservative party has a black hole in its plans, which it cannot explain, when it comes to academies.

Children’s Centres

3. Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): What progress has been made towards meeting the target of establishing 3,500 children's centres by 2010. [205966]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): There are currently 2,907 designated Sure Start children’s centres offering services to more than 2 million children aged under five and their families. We met our manifesto commitment for 2,500 centres by March this year and we are on track to meet our target of 3,500 centres by 2010—one for every community.

Anne Snelgrove: That is indeed good news. I am delighted that there are five Sure Start centres in my constituency. On average, 800 children use them each year, and I am committed to the Sure Start programme. What does my right hon. Friend believe the effect would be on those 4,000 children in South Swindon should the Sure Start programme be closed or not go ahead?

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend takes a great interest in the matter and she knows that we are progressively building a new universal service for the youngest children and their families, bringing together health, early years, parent support and employment services, to name but a few. The independent academic evaluation has shown
19 May 2008 : Column 5
that that is already having a positive impact on children’s development and parents. If anything jeopardised the programme, I am sure that parents, professionals and any sensible person would greet that with dismay.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): We welcome the progress on the number of children’s centres, but does the Minister share my concern about the continuous fall in the number of registered child minders, according to Ofsted, in the past year? Has she specifically examined the possible impact of the introduction of the early years foundation stage on the number of people who are willing to undertake that important function?

Beverley Hughes: The number of places for children in early years provision continues to grow. However, we will clearly watch carefully and talk to child minders about any further decrease in their numbers. Having spoken to many child minders, I am convinced that the decline has nothing to do the EYFS, which is simply what good child minders are already familiar doing: having a flexible, play-based approach to children’s development while they are in their care. The early years foundation stage does nothing more than that.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Children’s centres make a big difference in constituencies such as mine. However, a minor problem is that, when they are attached to existing primary schools, with nursery provision extending from nought to five, they can become over-subscribed, as has happened in Milefield school in Grimethorpe in my constituency. Neighbouring Ladywood primary school, on whose governing board I serve, has only three pupils in the nursery unit next year. What more can we do as a Government to try to correct the imbalance that is currently being created in some locations?

Beverley Hughes: I know that my hon. Friend has written to me about the situation in his local area. As I explained to him, the situation is not one that we in central Government can micro-manage. We have laid a duty on every local authority to assess the need in its area, look into the supply and ensure a good match, in order to give parents the most flexibility in affordable child care suited to the needs of the area. However, I would be happy to talk to my hon. Friend further about his local situation if that would help.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the early years foundation stage curriculum becomes mandatory in September and that, as the right hon. Lady knows, communication, language and literacy are an important strand of provision for children from birth to the age of five, can the Minister advise the House what progress has been made in clarifying the guidance to be issued to the Department of Health on the provision of speech and language therapy in those children’s centres and on the financing for it? Further to what has just been asked, will she also do something to try to ensure that the excellent children’s centres are extended to the hardest to reach children in some of the poorest parts of the country?

Beverley Hughes: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. I know the premium that he places on communication and language skills, as do I. I will
19 May 2008 : Column 6
investigate the question that he raises about guidance for the Department of Health and write to him. I can tell him, however, that speech and language therapists are increasingly working in and through children’s centres, which I am very pleased about. We will also develop a programme, which I think we will call Let’s Talk to help people to develop children’s vocabulary, because we know that that makes a big difference to a child’s ability to communicate.

On outreach, we have also funded two additional workers in every children’s centre, to ensure that we reach those families who would perhaps not necessarily find it that easy to come of their own volition. Going out to those families can encourage them to come into the children’s centres.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): The director of the national evaluation of Sure Start has told the Select Committee on Health that an integrated and expanded role for health visitors would make Sure Start significantly more effective. We agree. That is why our policies involve health visitors delivering Sure Start’s vital outreach service. I know that the Minister shares our view that outreach support to the most disadvantaged groups is a critical role for Sure Start, so can she explain to the House why the Government’s plans and budget for extending the service, which were set out in great detail last November in this document—“Sure Start Children’s Centres: Phase 3 Planning and Delivery”—have now been slashed, with outreach in the most disadvantaged areas cut by one third? Outreach is a vital part of Sure Start. Why is it being cut and where has the money gone?

Beverley Hughes: Those on the Opposition Front Bench seem a bit weak on correct information today. The hon. Lady is quite incorrect: the Government are investing a total of £4 billion in supporting services through, and developing further, children’s centres over the next three years, which includes an additional £79 million specifically for outreach work. What we are not doing is having a £200 million cut, which is what the Opposition would propose, and neither are we saying that it is either health visitors—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call David Taylor.

Pupil Transport

4. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent assessment he has made of the charging policies of local authorities for pupil transport to and from voluntary-aided schools; and if he will make a statement. [205967]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): The Department is committed to enabling parents to exercise choice and access the range of schools, including the excellent education offered by many faith-based schools. The Department does not routinely conduct assessments of charging policies for transport to voluntary-aided schools. Local authorities are required to publish their policies on free and assisted home-to-school transport annually and to defend those policies locally.

David Taylor: Many North-West Leicestershire children in faith primary schools have a faith secondary school
19 May 2008 : Column 7
at such a distance that pupil transport is needed, but Conservative-led Leicestershire county council is introducing an annual £240 transport charge per child in the autumn, which will impose a serious burden on many homes. Does the Minister agree that if there is no consistency of policy across local authorities, we will have in effect a discriminatory, excessive, unacceptable and scandalous Catholic tax on families who ought to have continued free transport, at least until year 11, which is what is available to parents of other faiths and no faith? That will damage access and choice, will it not?

Jim Knight: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that local authorities should continue to think it right not to disturb well-established arrangements, including free faith-based transport. My authority, in Dorset, appears to be proceeding, without any consultation, with charging for it. We would not advocate that in our guidance. In the Education and Inspections Act 2006, we changed the law to make faith-based transport available, up to 15 miles, to those on low incomes, but local authorities are still locally accountable for decisions beyond that.

Children’s Centres (Ipswich)

5. Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): How many children’s centres there are in Ipswich. [205968]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): There are 11 designated children’s centres in Ipswich, offering services to approximately 8,000 children aged under 5 and their families. In the next three years, Suffolk will have a further £28.7 million to develop an additional 13 centres, including in Ipswich, to provide all families with those services by 2010.

Chris Mole: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. We are about to start celebrating the success of children’s centres in Ipswich and in the wider county. Staff working in the Wellington centre, in Ipswich, have told me how much they value working in a multi-agency way, because it helps them to address the often complex needs of some of those families with young children. Will she continue to resist proposals to cut £200 million from the Sure Start programme, as that would undermine the high-quality early learning and health interventions and the employment outreach work that are so vital to some of those families?

Beverley Hughes: Yes, the proposals to which my hon. Friend refers would leave a black hole of £120 million and would involve a £200 million cut in the programme. More than that, they are wrong-headed, because this is not about having either health visitors or outreach workers; we need multi-agency teams that include both, as with the excellent co-located services in Ipswich, where health visitors hold clinics and carry out home visits with family support outreach workers. That system is about working together.

Short Breaks (Disabled Children)

6. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the provision of short breaks for disabled children. [205969]

Next Section Index Home Page