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House of Commons

Monday 13 October 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—

Teaching Life Skills

1. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What steps he is taking to make the teaching of life skills to pupils between the ages of 11 and 16 years more relevant to the needs of areas with high levels of teenage pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse and low educational aspiration; and if he will make a statement. [225778]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): The flexibility in the new secondary curriculum allows teachers to tailor it to local circumstances and the needs of all pupils. Personal learning and thinking skills, which I agree are critical if children are to reach their potential, are embedded in the curriculum. Through personal, social and health education, young people are helped to develop the social and emotional skills that they need to make informed decisions and good choices. The children’s plan announced reviews of sex, relationship and drugs education, and those reviews will report shortly.

Mr. Allen: The Minister will know that the basis of all attainment is adequate social and emotional intelligence, but the provision of life skills education for those aged 11 to 16 is currently not fit for purpose in constituencies such as mine. Sex and relationship education, PSHE, civics and the secondary-level teaching of SEAL—the social and emotional aspects of learning—all create a confused, overlapping and unstructured offering. Will the Minister support Nottingham’s early intervention plan to pull together a coherent 11-to-16 life skills curriculum, including modules on preventing teenage pregnancy and reducing drink and drug abuse? Will she
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ensure that it reaches the years that need it most, and becomes a mandatory, tested and inspected part of the curriculum?

Beverley Hughes: Many schools across the country are already doing what my hon. Friend suggests, using the new secondary curriculum to build an innovative, personalised curriculum for their pupils that has personal thinking and learning social and emotional skills at its heart. Of course, schools now have a statutory duty to promote the well-being of their pupils. The new curriculum gives schools the flexibility to do that. There is an extensive programme of support to enable schools to start developing their curriculum. I understand that only three schools in the city of Nottingham have attended the PSHE events, and that schools there have not drawn down the expert help that we are offering. If my hon. Friend can encourage schools in Nottingham to do that, they can make the same progress that schools across the country are already making.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The ethos of the school and the wishes of parents and governors should be the main driver of the PSHE curriculum. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be no national prescription of the content of PSHE? There are many schools where PSHE is already very successful and reflects the cultural and religious views of the school’s community. Where it is necessary, and where there is failure, help should be given, but some schools are already perfectly capable of providing such a service.

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Lady is probably aware that there are two new, non-statutory PSHE frameworks that schools can apply and develop according to the needs of their pupils and the wishes of parents. As I have said, we are currently reviewing sex and relationship education, and will come forward with the outcome of that review shortly.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is another aspect to the lack of education about sex and unprotected sex? Many women today have to undergo invasive, unpleasant and expensive treatment to help them to conceive, but they would not have been in that position if they had had information fed to them at school about the need to have protected sex to avoid conditions such as chlamydia.

Beverley Hughes: I agree with my hon. Friend, who has done a great deal of work on the issue, that the long-term effects of early and unprotected sexual activity and of getting pregnant in one’s teens are numerous. She identifies some of the health consequences, but of course there are also other consequences, such as poverty and lack of opportunity later in life. That is why we have put a great deal of effort into reducing teenage pregnancy and making sure that young people can get the advice that they need when they need it on all aspects of sexual health.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): The new child maintenance and enforcement commissioner recently suggested that children as young as 11 be taught about the consequences of becoming young fathers, and the repercussions of failing to fulfil their parental responsibilities. While that is admirable, does
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the Minister think that there is room in the curriculum for such information, and does she think that it will be successful?

Beverley Hughes: I agree, if the hon. Gentleman is making a general point about the need to focus on the behaviour of boys as well as of girls when we try to help young people to make the right choices in relation to sexual activity. I would certainly like to see as much a focus on boys as on girls within SHE in schools and within sex and relationship education. I am sure that that is something on which the review will comment, and I hope that we can take that forward.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Britain stands in stark contrast to many countries in continental Europe in these matters. For example, only a little while ago in Holland, there was one sixth the number of teenage pregnancies compared with Britain. Is my right hon. Friend looking into why those contrasts are so dramatic, and can we learn something from countries such as Holland that would serve to improve the situation in Britain?

Beverley Hughes: Yes, indeed, I think that we can, and we have been looking at that quite closely. It is true that our relatively high teenage pregnancy rates in this country are long standing, and go back as far as records began, some 40 years ago. In making comparisons, a couple of factors might be associated with the different rates in different western countries. First, in Holland, there is much more acceptance by parents of the subject, and there is a freedom and lack of embarrassment among parents when talking to their children about sexual activity—much more so than here. Secondly, the quality and nature of the sex and relationship education in Dutch schools is something from which we can learn.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Whether or not it is schools teaching too much sex or parents teaching too little, or the other way round or neither, the fact is that in my constituency, which I guess is typical, the major public health problems among young people are chlamydia and penile warts, exacerbated by excessive alcohol consumption. That is a real problem, and we have been ducking it for years. It is time that we recognised that there is a free-for-all out there among young people, who are not inhibited by the social mores under which most of us grew up. Is it not time that we helped them, and whether the answer is schools or parents, or both, we have to raise the tone of this debate?

Beverley Hughes: I certainly agree that for a minority of young people, that is a problem that we have to take seriously, and we are doing so. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that there is clearly a link for some young people between alcohol and drug consumption and unsafe sex. However, I regret the general stereotype that he painted, because it is not true of all young people. We should be careful in the House lest we reinforce the negative stereotypes of young people that we see all around us in the press, which are very regrettable.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North
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(Mr. Allen) on his excellent work with the Centre for Social Justice and on his co-authorship of the pamphlet, “Early Intervention” because he knows more than most people about the problem, as after 11 years of Labour Government in Nottingham, his city has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in western Europe and, at 8 per cent., the lowest proportion of people going into higher education. Does the Minister agree that the teaching of life skills is not just the responsibility of teachers battling to fit everything into the curriculum, and that school nurses, parents and other professionals have a key role to play in reducing teenage pregnancies and substance abuse as a precursor to better educational achievement? In that case, why in a parliamentary answer of 3 June from a Health Minister, was it revealed that the grand total of qualified school nurses employed by Nottingham City primary care trust amounted to zero?

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is quite right that dealing with the issue at local level involves all the relevant organisations, as well as parents, working together. Health professionals have a clear role to play. I cannot tell him what the figures are for Nottingham, but I will obtain them for him.

Tim Loughton: Zero.

Beverley Hughes: I do not think that that figure is probably right, but I will check it. The number of health qualified professionals working in the community nationally—that includes community nurses, school nurses and district nurses as well as health visitors—has risen under the Government, and I am sure that that will be shown to be the case in Nottingham as well.

Primary Schools (Rural Areas)

2. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What steps he is taking to maintain the provision of primary schools in rural areas. [225779]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): The Government are committed to rural primary schools. Recognising that small rural schools cost more to run, we provide extra funding to sparsely populated areas, and we calculate the dedicated schools grant in 2007-08 contained almost £188 million funding for sparsity. To protect rural schools, we introduced a presumption against closure in 1998, which has reduced the number of closures by two thirds. In January, my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners wrote to local authorities, reminding them of the presumption and making it clear that we wanted spare capacity in rural schools to be put to other use—for example, to broaden the services that schools offer in line with the likely future pattern of children’s services. We also promote shared governance arrangements between small village schools as a means of addressing financial and educational challenges.

Ann Winterton: I am glad that the Minister agrees with me that the survival of rural primary schools is absolutely vital to the areas that they serve. However, bearing in mind that the prediction of school rolls is an inexact science and that during an economic downturn the birth rate often goes up, does the Minister agree that
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a reduction of capacity from 105 to 75 places at Church Lawton school in my constituency, for example, is a contribution to the reduction of surplus places throughout Cheshire, and that Church Lawton as a whole should not be deprived of the school, which is down to be closed?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Church Lawton school is not designated as a rural school, and it is the local authority’s responsibility to manage spare capacity in all the schools in its area. We can never guarantee that no rural school will ever close, but we hope that given the measures that we have taken, the presumption against closure and by working together to try to get in other children’s services, we can protect surplus places and recognise the valuable contribution that rural schools play.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The presumption against closure is an excellent step forward. What active encouragement is there in respect of the clustering of schools—one headmaster, say, being responsible for two or three schools—as opposed to having to look towards closure? Clustering can be creative and useful. Are the Government giving instruction in that regard?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We recognise that rural schools play a vital role. In trying to keep them open, we are helping them to work with other organisations within the local authority and community at the sort of clustering that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. We will issue further guidance.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I support the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) of Plaid Cymru who has just put his question—

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): And your hon. Friend, too!

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Indeed; I also support my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), who put the original question.

Does the Minister not accept that transforming learning communities is causing huge anxiety in rural areas and that schools in rural areas are often the centre of community activity? Will she look carefully at whether the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy—to have a federation or partnership of rural schools—is the way to ensure that a very large number of rural schools can be kept open?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Having federations of schools is one of the ways in which we expect this to work; there is also the sharing of governance arrangements and the use of spare capacity in schools for other children’s services. We expect schools across the country to be the centres of their communities. Nowhere is that more true than in rural areas. We will certainly take that suggestion on board; in fact, we are already doing so.

Academy Programme

3. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): If he will make a statement on the future of the academy programme. [225780]

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The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): May I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) to the Front Bench and congratulate Lord Adonis on his further elevation and promotion to the position of Minister of State at the Department for Transport?

Due, in part, to Lord Adonis’s important work, 47 new academies opened this September, part of the biggest opening of new schools that we have seen for more than three decades. On top of the 130 academies now open, four more are due to open in January, 80 next September and a further 100 in 2010—well on the way to our goal of at least 400 academies nationwide. Today, I have given the go-ahead to three new academies, in Northampton, Poole and Portsmouth; they all replace national challenge schools.

Bob Russell: May I advise the Secretary of State that although there is much rejoicing at Lord Adonis’s move to the Department for Transport, unfortunately the academy locomotive is still steaming down the track? Where local communities have demonstrated as clearly as they did my constituency in May, when the Conservatives lost five seats partly because they want to impose academies on the town, will he listen to those local communities and pick up on the concept of federations as the way forward, not the imposition of academies when people do not want them?

Ed Balls: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appearance at today’s Question Time; he is rather lonely on his Benches. [Hon. Members: “So are you!”] There is more than one.

Today, the Minister for Schools and Learners and I took the opportunity to have a discussion with Lord Adonis, who will continue to ensure that he gives us his views on academies. He told me that on Friday he spent some time in the cab of a train, which he said was the most exciting day of his life so far.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the question of whether to bring forward proposals for academies is a matter for the local authority, not for us. It is for the local authority to decide on the way forward and to consult and build a consensus. There are several different ways in which structural change can occur for national challenge schools, and there is the option of a national challenge trust as well. I will wait to see whether Essex proposes academies—that decision is imminent—but it is for the local authority to decide rather than me.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State accept that not everybody is quite as enthusiastic about academies? I do not oppose academies, but, first, the consultation process has to be adequate. Secondly, more than one choice should be given to an authority and to the governors. Thirdly, in my view—I hope that the Secretary of State will agree—somebody who is heavily committed to a political party should not be chosen as the single sponsor. Fourthly, in a school where a high percentage of the kids come from a range of religions, the person chosen as sponsor should not be a little off-centre with his own religious views and proselytising skills.

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