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Ed Balls: I was coming to that very point. If we want to raise school standards to ensure that every school can be an excellent local school, it does not just take good leadership and a willingness to intervene to drive change where necessary, but strong inspection and independent auditing of standards. As the House will know, in the spring, we will publish a report card White Paper. Through the Bill, we will strengthen school inspection by allowing Ofsted to produce an annual health check
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for all schools and to introduce a new, risk-based approach, which will mean that more attention is focused on schools that need more support, and that there is a lighter touch for higher-performing schools. At the same time, building upon the immediate success of our new independent regulator of qualifications, tests and examinations, the Bill will provide Ofqual with the remit, powers and independence that it needs. It is the job of Ofsted, with greater flexibility, greater powers and much greater independence, as a body reporting directly to Parliament, to ensure that we maintain the quality of standards across qualifications and over time. That is what the Bill will achieve, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will support it.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): The Secretary of State will be aware that at a recent Qualifications and Curriculum Authority meeting in September, the chair of the Ofqual committee spoke of the need for a clearer picture of what is meant by maintaining standards when the structure of qualifications changes. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what he means by maintaining standards in such circumstances?

Ed Balls: I am not going to do that, because I will leave it to Ofqual. It is an independent regulator of standards, it is independent of Ministers and it reports directly to Parliament. It is clearly its job to ensure that standards are maintained across qualifications and over time. We have to get away from this ridiculous, damaging and draining debate about dumbing down, when, whenever standards go up and teachers and young people have worked hard, some politicians and commentators jump up and say, “This must be because standards have been dumbed down.” That is not fair, and it is not right. Rather than my making such assurances about standards, it will be much better when Ofqual, the independent regulator, makes such assurances to the public and to families. I am not going to second-guess its work. That is Ofqual’s remit and responsibility, and it should get on with that work.

Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his patience in giving way a second time. Given his undoubted enthusiasm for a fully independent Ofqual, will he take up the recommendations of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families that it should be allowed to sample cohorts to obtain an objective assessment of what is happening to educational standards over time?

Ed Balls: In the reforms to key stage 3, we are introducing such sampling, and Ofqual will advise us on it to ensure that standards are maintained. However, I am not going to pre-empt the work of the expert committee that is looking at key stage 2 reform. The Bill makes it clear that there is a role for Ofqual as an independent regulator and as the monitor of standards to ensure that standards are maintained in national curriculum tests. Lord Sutherland praised the work of Ofqual precisely because he recognises that its role will be crucial to getting beyond the mess of last year’s curriculum tests.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ed Balls: No.

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I turn to a second point that is essential to the Bill. Strong discipline is vital for effective teaching and learning. Over the past decade, we have made huge progress on improving behaviour. In 2007, Ofsted rated behaviour as poor or unsatisfactory in a third of the number of schools that it had given that rating to 10 years before. Following Sir Alan Steer’s review in 2005, we have given head teachers the powers that they need to tackle bad behaviour. In the Bill, we are extending the powers that we have given school and college staff to search a pupil for weapons so that they may search also for drugs, alcohol and stolen property. Alan Steer asked for those reforms to ensure that teachers have the powers that they need so that they can get on and teach in the classroom.

At the same time, we will legislate to build on the work that now involves pretty much all secondary schools, including all academies, working in partnerships to challenge poor behaviour and attendance. We will implement Sir Alan Steer’s recommendation that all secondary schools, including academies and pupil referral units, should be part of those partnerships. As will be discussed in Committee, I intend to ensure that those behaviour partnerships report regularly to children’s trusts on the work that they are doing together. That work will ensure that we keep exclusions down but that they happen when they are needed, that head teachers have the confidence to use their powers, and that we intervene early to keep young people on the right track and ensure that they are not permanently or temporarily excluded from school.

It is also important that schools have the support of parents. Strengthening the role of parents in schools is an important part of the children’s plan, but we also want to ensure that when parents feel that their complaints are not being properly listened to, they have a proper right of resort. In our consultation, parents made clear their view that the opportunity to complain to the local government ombudsman would be welcome, and we are taking that step in the Bill. That is the right approach, and it will be used in a very small minority of cases. I hope that the whole House will support that reform.

Mr. Graham Stuart: If I may, I shall bring the Secretary of State back to Ofqual and its independence. Has he had an opportunity to meet two of the three large examination bodies, which have serious, albeit different, concerns about its independence and its ability to ensure that standards are right? It is not good that those powerful bodies have such doubts about the independence of that important new agency.

Ed Balls: Ofqual is a new agency that has tough powers, and it is important that the examination bodies know that it has teeth and will use its powers when it needs to. It would not surprise me if the examination bodies were concerned, but are they concerned about its independence? In my view, absolutely not. It is a non-departmental body that reports directly to Parliament, and its head is a Crown appointment. It is an independent body, but in the end its independence will be proved by how it undertakes its task and its work. We have already seen that Ofqual is independent, and it will be an extremely important addition to our education landscape.

A decade ago, there were no children’s centres. There are now almost 3,000 Sure Start children’s centres around the country. The next stage of our reforms is to ensure
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that every family can access the support of such centres. That is why the Bill will enshrine in law our 2020 goal of ensuring that there is a children’s centre in every community in the coming years. That is the way to ensure that the benefits of Sure Start, which millions of children and families around the country are receiving, are received by all children and families in perpetuity.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): Abacus, in my constituency, was one of the first Sure Start centres. Part of its success has been the inclusion of parents in its advisory body. I welcome the establishment of children’s centres on a statutory basis, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that their governance arrangements include parents in the wider community so that services are developed in a way that meets the local community’s needs?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend has a great track record and expertise in those matters. If she thinks that that is the right thing to do, I am sure that it is. The details of the proposals will be discussed in Committee.

Every Sure Start will be expected to have a governing body, and we need to ensure that the voluntary sector and the private sector have a proper voice if they are involved in Sure Start, and that parents are also represented. Sure Start is founded on the premise that it starts from the community and from parents’ work, needs and interests—indeed, many of our best outreach workers are parents.

It is vital that all services that support children work together effectively to put the needs of children and families first. Sure Start is an example of that. We must build on the excellent examples of services working together across an area through a children’s trust. The Bill ensures that every local authority will have a children’s trust board, with responsibility for improving the well-being of all children in the area. It will also ensure proper accountability for the well-being of children and young people, and a culture of early intervention and prevention so that all young people, especially those with a special educational need, get the support that they need.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): The Secretary of State knows that on Friday I shall have the privilege of introducing a private Member’s Bill—the Autism Bill—with tremendous support from all parties in the House. An integral part of that Bill is the requirement that local areas collate and share data on disabled children as part of children and young people’s plan assessments, and take account of autism in the statutory guidance that will accompany the regulations. Will the Secretary of State undertake today that in Committee he will table the requisite amendments, under the Government’s imprimatur, to the Bill that we are considering now so that we have legislation that allows local authorities to collate and share the information?

Ed Balls: The hon. Lady has a passion about and an expertise in such matters. We discussed them with the parents of autistic children and adults a few months ago in the House. The Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) introduced last year—it has subsequently been enacted—provided for recording information about children with special educational needs. It is vital, as part of our Aiming High work, to listen and record the satisfaction and concerns of parents with a disabled
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child. That includes autistic children. My hon. Friends have written to the hon. Lady about those matters. Second Reading of her Bill is approaching, and it is not for me to say today what the Government will do. However, I have written to the hon. Lady to say that supporting transition and collecting data, and especially ensuring that the needs of families with an autistic child are taken into account, will be central to the work of children’s trusts. Indeed, it will be in the statutory guidance that accompanies the children’s trust legislation. The children and young people’s plan will ensure that the issues that she raises are acted on in every area of the country. I look forward to reading the debates on her Bill on Friday.

Mrs. Gillan: May I press the Secretary of State further? Will he confirm that the statutory guidance that accompanies the regulations will state that autism is to be specified as a category?

Ed Balls: I will not give the details of that statutory guidance today. However, I will ensure that the guidance is drawn up in such a way that it ensures that the needs and interests of families with a child with autistic spectrum disorder are properly taken into account. The children’s trusts must be accountable for ensuring not only that services are co-ordinated and that the problems and concerns of a child with a special need are addressed, but that if that does not happen, parents and wider services have somewhere to go to ask why matters have not been tackled effectively. The children’s trust is the right place for that and the guidance is the right place to specify what the hon. Lady seeks. I am happy to have a further meeting with her and my hon. Friends to take up the matter in the coming weeks.

I was considering the importance of area-wide accountability for the work of children’s trusts. There is a specific problem for families with a special educational needs child, and when children have been or are at risk of being excluded from school. We have piloted several different ways in which to offer alternative provision for young people who are excluded from school. We have done that with the private and voluntary sectors, as well as several different organisations around the country. In this Bill we are legislating further, to improve the provision for young people educated outside the mainstream. Following consultation, we are legislating to reform what will be called short-stay schools, in order to increase local accountability for such pupils and to ensure not only that local authorities have the freedom to act to ensure the right provision in their areas, but that we have the powers to act when we do not think that the provision is good enough. That will be a substantial step forward.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): The Secretary of State will recognise the extraordinary work that charities such as Action for Children and Barnardo’s do to support some of the most vulnerable children in our communities. How does he respond to those charities’ concerns that the Bill does not do enough to help young people from marginalised backgrounds to access apprenticeships—a word that he has not yet used in his speech—and appropriate learning pathways? Also, what assurance can he give about the future of work-based programme-led apprenticeships?

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Ed Balls: I am coming to apprenticeships in a second. First, however, let me praise the work being done by Action for Children, the Special Educational Consortium and others to ensure that the needs of children with a special educational need and, in particular, of those young people at risk of getting into difficulties or getting on the wrong track are properly taken into account.

As I have said, we will debate the issue in Committee. We will also propose amendments that will strengthen further what is already a substantial strengthening of the obligations on local authorities, both home and host, to ensure that young people do not fall down the crack, but are supported in their education and have their well-being ensured while they are in custody. The Bill will clarify the responsibility of local authorities to secure a good education for young people while they are in custody and to ensure continuity in their education as they leave custody and are resettled, and, in particular, the responsibility of the local authority to which they return to ensure that their education continues once they are released. We will propose amendments, but we will also back that up with revised statutory guidance for local authorities in the summer.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): A moment ago the Secretary of State referred to short-stay schools, which I assume will be taking over from the pupil referral units, for young people with difficulties who are not thriving in a mainstream school. They are termed “short-stay schools”, but will he confirm that there will be no cap on a pupil’s length of stay, so that they are not reimposed on their mainstream school before they are ready or before they have made sufficient progress?

Ed Balls: The name is being changed because of representations from the sector, which is keen that the word “school” be included, because we are talking about schools, first and foremost. In many cases stays are short, but not always. There is no artificial cap being introduced, and there is nothing in the legislation to suggest that. However, we are keen to ensure that, as part of behaviour partnerships, pupil referral units—or short-stay schools, as they will be—are engaged with other schools to ensure that young people receive the support and the challenges that they need, so that they can keep on track before they reach the point of exclusion. Spending some time in such a school during the week before reaching that point may help young people to keep on the right track and not be excluded. I hope that hon. Members will welcome that when we have a chance to debate the issue in Committee.

In the current economic circumstances, it is also vital to ensure that all young people are equipped to meet the challenges that they face, as the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who is no longer in his place, said. Achieving that includes staying in education or college, as well as entering an apprenticeship. Last year we legislated through the Education and Skills Act 2008 to raise the education or training leaving age to 18. We also introduced the first set of diplomas, which I believe are the best chance that this generation has to break the old two-tier divide between first-class academic qualifications and second-class vocational qualifications. I am delighted that early feedback on that from pupils and teachers has been good.

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Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is talking about widening opportunities, so will he ensure that all schools support the children’s plan and the vision for young people in their communities? Will he also ensure that there are opportunities for all young people from a range of backgrounds to mix when taking up the new diplomas or the other schemes on offer?

Ed Balls: That is what the diplomas do, by ensuring that schools work together with colleges to ensure that the curriculum is interesting and inspiring. We are also extending the duty to co-operate as part of children’s trusts to all schools, academies, sixth-form colleges and further education colleges, to ensure that they all work together to make opportunity available to all children and young people in their areas, not just some.

As I said, we legislated last year to raise the education leaving age to 18. This Bill will put in place the requirements, the expectation and the levers for local authorities, working with the new Young People’s Learning Agency, to ensure that all 16 to 19-year-olds have the opportunity to stay in education, training or an apprenticeship. Over the past decade, the number of apprenticeships has gone up from 65,000 to 250,000.

The Bill represents the first overhaul of apprenticeship legislation for nearly 200 years. It will put apprenticeships on a statutory basis, and establish the entitlement to an apprenticeship place for every suitably qualified young person who wants one. It will ensure that apprenticeships are of high quality, and that they will benefit young people and employers alike. It will also require schools to provide information, advice and guidance on apprenticeships, when it is in the best interest of pupils to do so. We are backing this with a £1 billion plan.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): Apprenticeships obviously represent an incredibly important process, but it is important that apprentices should not be used as cheap labour. Will my right hon. Friend look into whether the exclusions from minimum wage legislation that apply to some apprenticeships are really valid?

Ed Balls: As my hon. Friend will know, we have raised the minimum pay for apprentices from £80 to £95; that will come into effect shortly. The vast majority of apprentices already get paid above that level. The national minimum wage is not a matter for me; it is a matter for the Low Pay Commission. This is something that the commission will look at, and we look forward to seeing its reports.

Mr. Willis rose—

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab) rose—

Ed Balls: I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman. I will give way to my hon. Friend.

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