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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): The young apprenticeship programme for 14 to 16-year-olds is a successful pilot that has been available in selected areas since 2004. The budget for 2009-10 is £31.75 million, and is administered by the Learning and Skills Council. The programme will support some 9,000 learners.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Is the Minister aware that secondary schools in my constituency are aligning their timetables to provide a wider range of vocational opportunities for young people, partly by playing to the strengths of each school? Can she confirm that funding will continue for initiatives of that kind as well as for young apprenticeships, at least under the present Government?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: My hon. Friend is a good advocate for her local authority and for young people in her local school.

Partnership working is key to all parts of our education system, but is particularly relevant to the 14-to-19 and 14-to-16 age groups. The young apprenticeship programme brings together employers and young people while they are learning at school. We are also piloting young apprenticeship schemes alongside diplomas, which, as we roll out new lines, will offer even more mechanisms for partnership working.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): In her earlier answer, the Minister acknowledged that there were almost 100,000 fewer apprenticeships this year than the Prime Minister had anticipated in his announcement in 2003. If we can only achieve a figure of around 230,000 after the years of boom, how many apprenticeships does she think there will be next year, during the years of bust?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I assure the hon. Lady that we intend to increase the number of apprenticeship places. I remind her that we recently announced investment of £140 million with a target of an additional 35,000 places, many of which we are trying to create in the public sector. There is an untapped opportunity there, which the Government are looking into.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): My hon. Friend is much in demand today as I, too, would like to invite her to my constituency to visit the new West Lancashire construction academy. It is a state-of-the-art facility offering training and apprenticeships in the construction industry, and we will need those skills in preparation for the return of demand in the housing market and, of course, for the building of affordable housing, especially in my constituency.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I agree with my hon. Friend that we must look to the future. I also agree with something that was said at a summit I attended recently: the lesson has been learned that after coming out of downturns the biggest regret has always been that people did not invest sufficiently in training. We are certainly not going to make that mistake. If I go on a regional tour, after I have been through Yorkshire I am sure it will not be too far to visit the north-west, and I will certainly try to find time to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency.

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Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): On her tour, would the Minister care to call in at Castle Point in Essex? We should all welcome the Government’s apprenticeships initiative. It is important, particularly in the current economic environment, that we invest for the future. Will the Minister be spending any additional funding to try to get employers involved in targeting this particular age group, in order to make sure they understand both that there is relevance in what they are doing and that there is a future opportunity for them with real employees on work-based schemes?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Unlike my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners, I did not study geography at A-level, but even I would struggle to think of Essex as on the way from Wakefield up through the north-west. On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, however, getting employers involved is certainly crucial. Just last month we published our building stronger partnerships employer engagement strategy. It is important to get employers involved as early as possible in the education of young people. There are benefits on both sides—for schools and employers. By working closely together, we can get the benefits to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

AS and A-levels

5. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the examination regime for AS-levels and A-levels. [250612]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Changes to AS and A-levels that have been introduced this year will maintain them as highly valued and internationally recognised qualifications. We are establishing Ofqual as a fully independent regulator to ensure continued confidence in the examinations regime. We are also establishing advanced diplomas as a genuine alternative for young people who want a different learning experience.

Mr. Robathan: The Minister talked about “highly valued” and “internationally recognised” qualifications. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said, however, that the coursework for AS-level modules was “laughable”. Even more risible is the fact that if a pupil does not do particularly well, they can take them again and again until they get a good result, and that contributes to their A-level result. Please will the Minister explain why so many top private schools are starting to leave the A-level system because they do not believe A-levels give a satisfactory result, and are choosing the international baccalaureate instead? Charterhouse has done just that this weekend.

Jim Knight: I noted Charterhouse’s advocacy of the pre-U, which is an international qualification with a global dimension. It is an interesting qualification, but far and away the majority of schools are still doing the A-level and they should continue to do so. It is also still an extremely popular export from this country, and we should be proud of it. We should note, too, the reforms that are taking place to the A-level, such as its moving from six to four modules, the use of the extended project, and the introduction of the A* and more open-ended synoptic questions with longer written answers—of which I am sure that, during an examination, even the hon. Gentleman might approve.

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Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Is the Minister as worried as we are about the growing divide in achievement at A-level and beyond? In 2007, 264 comprehensive schools failed to enter a single pupil for A-level geography, denying today’s pupils the opportunity the Minister had when he was a sixth-former. Also, 47 per cent. of the A* grades in GCSE French went to pupils in the independent sector, which educates just 7 per cent. of pupils, and 45 per cent. of children qualifying for free school meals failed to achieve a single GCSE above grade D. Are not the lack of direction in the Government’s education policy, the overloading of initiatives and the Government’s failure to understand the core problems in our weaker secondary schools letting down the most disadvantaged children in our society and failing to ensure that education for these children is a ladder out of poverty?

Jim Knight: When I was lucky enough to sit A-level geography—

Mr. Robathan: What did you get?

Jim Knight: I got a grade A. At that time, the A-level was an elite qualification, taken by a very small proportion of the population. It was taken, disproportionately, by far more people such as myself, who came from private schools rather than the maintained sector. That has radically changed as we have opened up access to education and made the system much fairer. I am proud of the improvement in A-level results that has taken place over the past 11 years. I am particularly pleased to see the increase in the number of entrants for maths, further maths and physics. We have a really good record on A-levels, and I do not want to indulge the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) too much longer in his attempt to rubbish those achievements.

Child Abuse

6. Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): What recent estimate he has made of the incidence of child abuse. [250613]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): National data show that 29,200 children were the subject of a child protection plan at 31 March 2008. Children are given a plan where there are concerns about their safety and welfare as specified in the Government’s guidance “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, published in 2006. Some 45 per cent. of the plans arose from neglect, 25 per cent. from emotional abuse, 15 per cent. from physical abuse, 7 per cent. from sexual abuse and 8 per cent. from multiple abuses of children.

Annette Brooke: I thank the Minister for her reply, sad as it is. Sometimes it appears that the Government operate like a fire brigade when a crisis appears in a particular children’s services department. Does she agree that regular training in safeguarding for the whole of the children’s work force is crucial to ensuring that the number of incidents is reduced and that professionals recognise the early warning signs of abuse? Furthermore, what action will the Government take to give leadership to show our society that hitting and abusing children is wrong?

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Beverley Hughes: I thank the hon. Lady for that question—I know that she takes a great deal of interest in, and is very knowledgeable about, these issues. She will know that following the death of Victoria Climbié and Lord Laming’s review, there was a wholesale radical transformation of local arrangements, with a focus on safeguarding. Those arrangements are largely working, but they depend on effective implementation in every local area. She is right to say that that crucially depends on the quality, experience and training of the people operating the system at every level. That is why we published the work force strategy; it is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced today the taskforce that will specifically examine the training needs of, and issues associated with the work of, social workers and their managers; and it is why we announced leadership training for directors of children’s services and managers, to be provided through the National College for School Leadership.

I know that the hon. Lady is alluding to smacking, but I am sure she would not wish to bracket together good parents who feel that sometimes it is necessary to smack with those who consistently abuse children. Although it is good that parents are moving away from smacking—I support that—we have no intention of criminalising the vast majority of parents, who do a very good job with their children.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend refer to the letter that I sent her last week about examining the failures in Birmingham’s safeguarding children services? As was revealed in this weekend’s Sunday Mercury—my local Sunday newspaper —15 children’s lives have been lost over the past four years in the local authority area, and that is wholly unacceptable. Will she intervene to provide good leadership in that local authority in order to ensure that that number is reduced?

Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. One way in which the 2004 legislation transformed safeguarding arrangements was that it introduced powers for Ministers to act and intervene, and we have recently seen those powers used very publicly. My officials went into Birmingham on 17 December, they have met council officials and they will be reporting to me shortly with recommendations for action in relation to that particular local authority, which, as he said, appears to be in serious difficulty.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Before Christmas, the Secretary of State kindly said that he would reverse the Department’s policy of instructing local authorities not to give me the lists of serious case reviews following the deaths of children from suspected abuse and neglect. I thank him for that, but when will it happen?

Beverley Hughes: As far as we are aware, that instruction has been given, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and clarify the situation for him.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Blackpool council finds that if children are abused in families, those families also often suffer domestic violence and other problems? As a result, the council has developed
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inter-agency working. Will she ensure that those working not only in children’s services but in other agencies that have dealings with children are aware of the importance of working together to prevent incidents of child abuse?

Beverley Hughes: Absolutely. I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in these issues in Blackpool, which faces particular challenges from people moving in and out of the area. Any issue that impairs an adult’s ability to parent their child, whether it is domestic violence, substance misuse or a mental health problem, should raise questions about child protection or development in the minds of those working with the parent that should be explored. It is important that agencies that work with children work together with agencies that work with children and adults and that both “think family” rather than one or the other.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I deplore any case of child abuse, but on Saturday evening, as president of the Majestic theatre group in Macclesfield, I attended a pantomime production of “The Little Mermaid”, in which many young children took part—something that I greatly encourage. What surprised and concerned me was the number of chaperones that the theatre had to provide so that those children could participate. Is not that overkill, and will the Minister look at the situation to see whether the burden placed on such groups might be reduced?

Beverley Hughes: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman enjoyed the performance. Unfortunately, I have not seen that production so I do not know how young the children are or how many are involved. However, I am sure that he would want to err on the side of caution, as would many parents. In the case of very young children—say, under seven—a fair few adults are needed to ensure their safety, not just because of the possibility of molestation but because there are many health and safety risks backstage. I will look at the issue and if there are matters to address, we will be happy to do so.

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) (Lab): While the massive extension of children’s centres and Sure Start by the Government must have had an impact in identifying children who are abused, unfortunately many parents still do not access those services. What are we doing to try to ensure that we access them?

Beverley Hughes: Of course, one thing that we are doing is putting in additional resources for outreach workers to knock on doors and develop relationships with some of those disadvantaged families who find it difficult initially even to walk up to a children’s centre. The Opposition would cut the funding for those outreach workers, and if that were to happen, the ability of children’s centres to reach those families would be seriously impaired.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): One would have hoped that the Minister would not try to make party political capital when talking about such serious issues.

I hope that the Minister will at least agree that the role of social workers in child protection is critical. How confident is she that the current level of training for social workers is adequate, and that the standard is the same across the country?

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Beverley Hughes: In a sense, when it comes to political commitment the proof of the pudding is in the resources that political parties put into particular issues and the focus that they place on them. That is why I drew attention to the difference between the hon. Gentleman’s party and mine—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am going to give a ruling. Let us not draw attention to the party opposite. It is the job of a Minister to answer for the Department that they represent.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for her comments about the action that she has taken in relation to Birmingham and for her stress on children and parents in the intervention. In some parts of Birmingham, such as Quinton, where we have a safe haven system, the police and schools work together extremely successfully. Will she therefore ensure that the education authorities where police and schools work together to prevent children coming on to the at risk register in the first place roll out their good practice across the entire authority?

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the focus of the children’s trusts, which we will strengthen to ensure the integration and close working together of all those agencies, which should take responsibility locally and together for whatever measures need to be taken to protect children in their area.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Let me bring the Minister back to her own policies. One of the common themes to have come out of the Baby P disaster and other child deaths has been the high level of case loads on social workers, the increasing time that they spend in front of computer screens filling in assessments and the high vacancy rate that a Unison report today described as a “ticking time bomb” that will lead to further child deaths. Today the Government start the £224 million computer project, ContactPoint. Which does she think is more likely to protect vulnerable children: investing in more permanent and appropriately trained social workers and reducing their case load or throwing money at another expensive data disaster waiting to happen, which will further take key professionals away from the sharp end of personal contact and the security of which she has declined to guarantee?

Beverley Hughes: It is not an either/or situation. That is the difference with this Government. We are committed to both those things, not one or the other. It is very important that social workers get the training that they need. Lord Laming is looking at that and the taskforce that we have set up is looking at it in detail. It is vital—this came directly from the Victoria Climbié inquiry—that when different people, such as social workers, health visitors and police officers, are working in a family, they know very quickly who else is involved so they can put their piece of the jigsaw into the whole picture. That has been the failing discovered in almost every inquiry into a child death. ContactPoint will do that—we are funding it, the Opposition will not.

Schools (East Midlands)

7. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): How many schools in the east midlands have applied for trust status. [250614]

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