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13 Oct 2008 : Column 529

Ed Balls: Given those comments, I am not sure whether “off-centre” means lurching to the left or to the right, but I will not comment on the individual case of a sponsor. It is of course extremely important that the consultation is done properly. I am pleased that more than half our universities are now coming forward as sponsors of academies. It is very important to forge a consensus in the governing body, in the school and among parents as to the way forward. The important thing to say, though, is that academies are delivering results faster than average, often in the poorest communities, so they provide real opportunities for young people in our country.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I very much support the academy programme, which is making a great difference in my constituency at the erstwhile Pimlico school, which has had academy status. However, one concern is brought up time and again—that whereas the old school had no fewer than seven parent governors, the new academy constitution allows for just one parent governor. What does the Secretary of State think of that? In future, will the treatment of parent governors ensure that academies can have a proper rooting in a local community?

Ed Balls: It is very important that the sponsor is able to lead the school, but it is also vital that parents are properly involved in the school. There is a clear requirement as regards parent governors, but there is also a minimum requirement. It is open to the school to have more parent governors, or alternatively to have a parent council. It is vital to our reforms that there is more active engagement and involvement of parents in setting up and managing schools. We are currently taking forward proposals for 100 co-operative trust schools, which will actively engage parents as members of the school community. There are different ways in which this can be done, but every school, including academies, needs to ensure that it involves parents properly.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): A year ago, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister opened a new school in east Bristol that exemplifies what the Government are trying to do to improve educational standards in deprived areas. It is an academy, it is a federated school, and it was the first school to be completed under the Building Schools for the Future programme. I thank the Secretary of State for returning to Bristol Brunel academy this month. Does he agree that what he saw on that visit proved that Labour’s education reforms are working?

Ed Balls: The fact that the rise in results over the past 12 months was so dramatic shows that our education reforms are working. Bristol Brunel academy has a fabulous new building and great leadership. The teaching staff are really onside for it, and the results speak for themselves. We want to have more academies like Brunel around the country. I look at it and am proud at what a Labour Government are delivering in Bristol.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The Secretary of State may have been envious of the success and cross-party support enjoyed by the architect
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of the academies programme, Lord Adonis, but was that really reason enough to force him out?

Ed Balls: That was rather a silly question, if I may say so. Lord Adonis was promoted from Under-Secretary with responsibility for schools to Minister of State at the Department for Transport and, as he has said very clearly, he went to the Prime Minister and said that because academies were now embedded as part of our schools system and were so successful, he wanted to move to a new challenge. I fully backed that. I tried to persuade him to stay at our Department because I thought he was doing a brilliant job, but he wanted a new challenge. We have an excellent successor in the Minister for Schools and Learners, who will lead the academies programme forward. My advice to the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) is to ignore the gossip and look at the facts.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Given the ascension of the spiritual leader of academies to the Department for Transport, and given that private sector investment is being withdrawn, that there are disproportionately high exclusion rates and that there is opposition from parents in Bolton, Camden, Colchester, Sheffield and a number of other places, would it not be kinder to draw a veil over this unfortunate experiment so that local authorities can go back to running schools, giving a voice to the communities that those schools serve?

Ed Balls: The answer is no. That would be the wrong thing to do.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): First, I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) on her elevation to the Front Bench, and may I also congratulate the Minister for Schools and Learners on his elevation to the Privy Council? Both are richly deserved promotions.

Since taking over his Department, the Secretary of State has deprived new academies of many freedoms and he has sacked Sir Cyril Taylor, the guiding spirit of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. Now he is deprived of the services of Lord Adonis. To lose one of the parents of the academies programme might seem like a misfortune, but to lose two looks rather like carelessness. In the past few months, we have discovered that the Government have cut core funding for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust from 60 per cent. of the trust’s income to just 20 per cent. Is the academies programme still safe in the Secretary of State’s hands?

Ed Balls: That question was even worse than the one from the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart). The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust is expanding its role in schools throughout the country. It is helping us to take forward our academies programme and, through the national challenge, our proposals for national challenge trusts and wider specialisms. The appointment of the chair was a matter for the trust and was not something that I was involved in at all. Lord Adonis was promoted and is moving on to new challenges because we are accelerating our academies programme. As I said, today we are announcing three
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new academies: the Unity college in Northamptonshire, the Rossmore school in Poole and St. Luke’s in Portsmouth. Those academies are all national challenge schools, which will see their standards rise because of the injection of new funding and support that can come from an academy.

The suggestion that I have taken the academies programme backwards in the past year is complete nonsense. I have brought more universities into our academies programme than ever before, I have made sure that our academies are teaching the core parts of the curriculum, while retaining their basic flexibility, and I am building a broad-based consensus about the importance of academies in our country, which would be put at risk by the cuts to the Building Schools for the Future programme proposed by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). He is talking complete nonsense. It is my party that will take forward the academies programme; it is his party that would put those investments at risk.

Michael Gove: It is interesting to see that the Secretary of State decides to reward success by kicking Lord Adonis out of his Department and decides to back academies by cutting funding for the body behind them.

Talking of cutting funding, may I ask why the Government have also denied funding to Teach First, preventing a charity that does so much to help academies expand into the north-east from doing its work? Can we have an assurance from the Secretary of State that he will remain true to the academies programme not just in name, but in spirit, and that he will endorse the vision outlined by Lord Adonis of “independent state-funded schools” influenced by “the successful Swedish experience”, which operate “outside the local authority system”?

Ed Balls: Once again, what we are getting from the hon. Gentleman is laughable, bombastic nonsense. The fact is that we are expanding the Teach First programme, not cutting it. We introduced it, and we are expanding it. We are accelerating our academies programme. Again, we introduced it and we are expanding it. We are bringing more sponsors into our academies programme and putting more money in. We now have more academies coming forward year by year than before I arrived in the Department. The fact is that the hon. Gentleman’s so-called Swedish proposals, which would cut £4.5 billion from the constituencies of Conservative Members, would be the biggest threat to our academies programme and our school building programme.

I am happy to have these debates with the hon. Gentleman. It is good to see that he is at last willing to have discussions during oral questions about the future of our school building programme because, over the next 18 months, we will expose the grave risks to our school system that he represents.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Milton Keynes academy in my constituency is being built as we speak, superseding the Sir Frank Markham school, which has had a rather troubled history. The academy is greatly welcomed by the students, their parents, their teachers and the local community. May I urge the Secretary of State to concentrate on taking this policy forward and to rise above the ridiculous personality-obsessed politics of the Opposition?

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Ed Balls: I would be very happy to take my hon. Friend’s advice.

UK Council for Child Internet Safety

4. Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): What progress has been made on the establishment of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety; and if he will make a statement. [225781]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): On 29 September, the Government launched the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, an unprecedented coalition of 100 organisations dedicated to working with us on improving internet safety for children and young people. Reporting directly to the Prime Minister, the council will work to implement the recommendations in Dr. Tanya Byron’s landmark report, “Safer Children in a Digital World”. This launch fulfils the Government’s commitment set out in our action plan, which we published last June following the Byron review.

Mr. Whittingdale: I welcome the establishment of the council, but will the Government and the council now consider the recommendation of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee that the industry should come forward with a self-regulatory body to implement the council’s recommendations, to publish performance statistics and to adjudicate on complaints arising when member bodies do not meet those recommendations? Does the Minister not feel that the establishment of such a body would help to improve public confidence that everything possible is being done to increase our children’s safety online?

Beverley Hughes: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I also thank him for the work that he has done on this matter through the Select Committee and for the Committee’s report, to which we will respond shortly. Everyone on all sides, and particularly the Government, agrees that there needs to be stronger self-regulation by the industry on a whole range of fronts. Self-regulation is the right way to go, given that many of the internet sites are hosted outside the United Kingdom and are therefore outside our jurisdiction. We therefore need very strong self-regulation. We are open to discussion on whether that would involve a particular body or a new body. The industry is well represented on the council, as the hon. Gentleman knows, alongside other sectors to which we shall also want to listen. We are open to discussion on how we get there, but much stronger self-regulation is absolutely imperative. On that, I agree with him.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Zentek Forensics in my constituency has analysed the use of the internet by several school pupils, and the news is not good. They are undoubtedly accessing undesirable internet sites by breaking through the firewalls that the schools provide. What advice is my right hon. Friend giving to all schools to prevent that from happening?

Beverley Hughes: We have already given quite extensive advice to schools, but we also want the council to consider whether we need to go further in that regard. Another aspect of the council’s work is to help us to
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progress our commitments on providing public education and public information to parents, children and young people. This is an important part of the range of factors that we need to address so that young people can understand the dangers that they face when they enter inappropriate sites with inappropriate content.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am very interested in what the Minister said about parents, because it is essential that more guidance and information are given to parents so that they are able to understand the mechanisms that restrict access to unsuitable sites. May I urge the Minister to make giving parents that information a top priority in public education?

Beverley Hughes: Yes, that important strand of the work is now going ahead. We have accepted Tanya Byron’s recommendations for a public information awareness campaign and we have put in £9 million to develop an authoritative one-stop shop or site on the internet where parents can go for advice and information. We also want to ensure that we suffuse information about e-safety over other helplines and internet sites that we fund to provide parents with information more generally, so that they can get the advice that they need.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Would my right hon. Friend ensure that any recommendations from the UK Council for Child Internet Safety apply equally to private and state schools? In particular, will she close the current loophole whereby directors of children’s education services have no power to intervene in independent schools in order to protect children’s well-being?

Beverley Hughes: We have a very good relationship with private schools on a range of matters through the Independent Schools Council. Independent schools are certainly very willing to work with us on issues concerning the safety of children. I will certainly take on board my hon. Friend’s comments.

Sex and Relationship Education

5. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the quality of sex and relationship education in schools. [225782]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): As part of the children’s plan, we have given a commitment to review best practice in effective sex and relationship education and its delivery in schools. We have fully involved young people in the review, many of whom told us that they did not have the knowledge they needed to make safe and responsible choices about relationships and sexual health. We expect to announce the review’s recommendations shortly.

John Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that extremely informative reply. Given the chronic rates of teenage pregnancies in this country, the rising incidence of sexually transmitted infections among young people and the description by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority of our sex and relationship education as patchy, will the Minister now heed the call by the Sex
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Education Forum to make sex education part of statutory personal, social and health education, to be delivered by a qualified work force in an age-appropriate way, as a matter of priority?

Jim Knight: As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes his points clearly and forcefully; I always listen to what he has to say. Teenage pregnancy rates have fallen by 12.9 per cent. over the past 20 years, so, although there is further to go, we have made some good progress. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, that we need to improve the consistent quality of sex and relationship education. I have received many strong representations for making personal, social and health education statutory in order to address the problem. I think that that is only part of the argument, but we will make our announcement shortly.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that Ofsted has said that a substantial amount of PSHE is not satisfactory and that too many teachers are not well qualified to teach it. Will the Minister also heed that the PSHE Association, which supports teachers, has said that in many cases teachers find it difficult to get time off for professional development in that subject because the school does not regard it as a high priority? Making the teaching of PSHE statutory would, I am sure, help schools to give the subject the priority it deserves and secure better qualified teachers.

Jim Knight: My hon. Friend is right that Ofsted has raised concerns about the consistency of the quality of the teaching of sex and relationship education. That echoes the work of the UK Youth Parliament and the Sex Education Forum, which each conducted a survey of young people that showed that about 40 per cent. and a third of young people respectively said that the sex and relationship education they received was not good enough. We set up the PSHE Association in order to improve its overall quality. I am listening closely to the argument that my hon. Friend makes for statutory provision of PSHE.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Whatever may be done in secondary schools, is there not something deeply disturbing about a society in which young primary school children can be taught the mechanics of sex by those who are not allowed to put a comforting hand on their shoulders?

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting philosophical point. It is important that we as a society allow better sex and relationship education in both primary and secondary schools without sexualising young people too early. It is right to share the responsibility between home and school: it is not something that schools can deliver on their own; parents need to have a loud voice in how sex and relationship education is delivered for their children. As a Government we put the safeguarding of children as our highest priority and we will continue to do so.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): On that very point, before entering this place I had 20 years’ experience as a teacher. I once had a post teaching health education, including sex education, at
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Hillsborough primary school in Sheffield. It was always my view that the best way to teach sex education was to do so in the early years at primary school, so involving the parents before the children reached the age of puberty. Does the Minister agree that we are talking about the beginnings of teaching sex education and that that ought to be done in the primary sector, rather than leaving it to the later stages in secondary school?

Jim Knight: My hon. Friend is right that the international evidence suggests that teaching aspects of sex and relationship education before puberty has a positive effect on such things as teenage pregnancy rates. Clearly, that has to be done with a high degree of sensitivity and, as he says, the involvement of parents, with children reaching puberty at different ages. We must ensure not only that, as a society, we are comfortable with the level of detail and of education that people receive during sex education, but that we are strong on relationship education. We are proud of the introduction of SEAL—the social and emotional aspects of learning—which my shadow described as ghastly, but which is improving relationship education in primary as well as secondary schools.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): The Government’s guidelines clearly say that sex education has to be delivered in the context of relationships to be effective, but the Youth Parliament has already shown that four out of 10 youngsters have not received any relationship education while at school. For more than six years, Ofsted has been calling for fundamental changes in how sex and relationship education is taught in our schools and the Minister’s new review is welcome, but when will he be able to reassure parents and young people that action has been taken and that every child will be taught sex and relationship education by a teacher who understands best how to deliver that challenging subject, because they have had some training in it?

Jim Knight: I would be happy to proceed on the issue on a cross-party basis, and I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady this week if she would like to discuss where we might end up with our review. She is right that it is important that we have strong relationship education as well as sex education. It is important that we have listened to the voices of young people. That is why I co-chaired the review with a member of the UK Youth Parliament, which did such useful work in its survey of more than 20,000 young people.

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