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House of Commons

Monday 9 March 2009

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—

Myplace (Blackpool)

1. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential contribution of his Department’s myplace programme to supporting young people in Blackpool; and if he will make a statement. [261289]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): Myplace will transform the lives of thousands of young people in Blackpool, as it will those of tens of thousands of other young people across the country. Through £272 million of investment from 2008 to 2011, myplace is delivering world-class facilities for young people, driven by the active participation of young people themselves. Last week, I announced the second tranche of £180 million for 41 superb projects across the country, including £4 million for the Blackpool youth hub.

Mr. Marsden: Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a splendid example of the way in which Government initiatives from children’s centres to myplace are transforming prospects for young people in towns such as Blackpool? Will she congratulate with me the council officials, the Blackpool young people’s council and all those involved in school councils in Blackpool who have been involved in putting the project together and, as importantly, continue to be involved in voluntary work that makes a practical link between Government initiatives and day-to-day life in the Blackpool community?

Beverley Hughes: Yes, I will. It was a superb bid. It was strong in two respects, which is particularly important. The first strength was the partnership behind the bid, which means that a strong and secure revenue funding stream supports future work through the involvement of the primary care trust and the police. The second strength was the central involvement of young people that shaped the bid and decided what it would provide, including a mixture of exciting activities as well as a range of advice, information and support for young people from the various agencies involved.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I very much welcome this exciting initiative in Blackpool, South. While we are waiting for something in Blackpool, North, will the Minister please liaise with Blackpool council to ensure that young people who live in the north of the town can access this new facility and all the other facilities that are available on the Palatine school site?

Beverley Hughes: That is very important. The partnerships putting in the bids—Blackpool’s bid was strong in this respect—had to demonstrate how they would seriously involve young people from a range of communities, in particular those from the most disadvantaged communities. We know that the young people who cannot get these opportunities routinely through their family are the ones for whom the opportunities offered by the centres of participating in such positive activities with good, mature adults who are good role models will make the most difference. My hon. Friend’s point is a very important one.

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Schools (Capital Funding)

2. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): What capital funding for schools is planned to be brought forward to 2009-10. [261291]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): Capital spending on schools and children’s play areas of £919 million will be brought forward from 2010-11 to the coming financial year. Of that money, £390 million has been devolved directly to all schools to invest in smaller projects such as new science labs or gyms and £490 million has been allocated to the 116 local authorities who responded to our invitation to accelerate larger-scale spending to the benefit of pupils and local businesses alike.

Kerry McCarthy: My right hon. Friend will know that Bristol has been well ahead of the curve in terms of the Building Schools for the Future programme, which has made a real difference to schools in east Bristol in particular. Will he confirm that this new tranche of investment will benefit not just schools in Bristol but local companies, and construction firms in particular?

Ed Balls: I can confirm that that is the case. In fact, Bristol brought forward a total of more than £2 million plus a further £500,000 for voluntary aided schools out of a possible £4.2 million, so there is still space there. If Bristol wanted to make a further bid to bring more money forward, that would mean even more contracts for local small businesses as well as more benefits for pupils. Bristol is one of the authorities to have bid and that is very welcome indeed.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm again that some of that money will be used for science laboratories in schools? Will he also ensure that they are of dedicated design so that teachers can do the sort of experiments that excite young people into learning the individual science subjects? Will he also consult on risk so that teachers have the courage to do something that goes “Bang” occasionally?

Ed Balls: I can confirm that the money is available to schools so that they can make their own decisions, in part. If their decision is to refurb science labs, that is all to the good. Surprisingly, the hon. Gentleman’s authority asked to bring forward only 30 per cent. of the total that it could have brought forward, so it has not brought forward over 85 per cent. of the money that it could have done. There are 33 authorities that have turned down the invitation to bring forward any money at all to 2009-10. That seems to be letting down the small businesses that need the contracts very badly.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is right: capital funding is highly valued, and will transform the quality of education. That said, does he understand why I, like my colleagues in Stockton, was disappointed to read that we would lose £5 million from our Building Schools for the Future funding? Can he explain why that is happening, and why it is based on something called the location factor?

Ed Balls: The position in Stockton is very odd indeed. We asked the local authority, on more than one occasion, to bring spending forward from 2010-2011 to 2009-10,
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and it turned down that invitation entirely. I know that the Conservative party has issued a national injunction on bringing forward spending to benefit local businesses, but I would have thought that the right thing for local councils to do would be to ignore central political injunctions, and to do the right thing by local pupils and businesses. The fact that the 33 authorities concerned are disproportionately Conservative authorities is no surprise at all.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): On the issue of schools funding, ever since Tony Blair was Prime Minister, there has been a pledge to increase each year the share of the national cake that goes on education funding. That has been honoured since 1998. Does that pledge persist beyond the current spending review?

Ed Balls: It does persist for the Labour party. We have made clear our commitment that a rising share of national income will go on education over the course of this Parliament. That is the commitment that we made. It takes forward our goal, which is steadily to close the gap in funding between state schools and independent schools. That is our commitment, but it would not be delivered on if there were a £5 billion cut in public spending and a commensurate cut to the Department for Children, Schools and Families budget. That may not be what the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) wants, but there is a clear commitment to that cut from the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. David Cameron.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my right hon. Friend for the very welcome announcement of Building Schools for the Future investment in Plymouth’s schools; that will be good for education, jobs and small businesses. Can he give me advice on how we can make absolutely sure that the investment is secured? Is there any risk at all that the investment might not be made?

Ed Balls rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the Secretary of State answers, he will understand that there are conventions in the House, and he will keep to those conventions.

Ed Balls: I apologise wholeheartedly for that mistake, Mr. Speaker. On Plymouth, the answer is that the authority has asked to bring forward just 3.2 per cent. of the total that it could have brought forward—a matter of a few hundred thousand pounds, when it could have brought forward millions of pounds of extra investment to 2009-10. As for the wider commitment to Building Schools for the Future, we are clear that we will keep this record investment in school buildings moving forward, so that we rebuild or refurbish all secondary schools in our country. It is the Conservative party that is committed to a £4.5 billion cut, which would mean that hundreds of schools around the country would not get the go-ahead if—

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is not good that the Speaker keeps coming in during Question Time, but the Conservative party is well able to put its own case. It is not necessary for the Secretary of State to put its case; that is not what he is here for.

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New Schools (Croydon)

3. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): What recent progress has been made on the establishment of proposed new schools in the London borough of Croydon. [261292]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): The local authority in Croydon has consulted on transformational plans for its educational provision, which include the establishment of three academies to replace National Challenge schools. My Department is working closely with the authority on those plans. There are also plans in the borough to amalgamate an infant and junior school; that is currently being considered by the schools adjudicator. London challenge advisers are supporting school improvement in six secondary schools and 13 primary schools in Croydon through the Key to Success programme.

Mr. Pelling: I thank the Minister for that answer. On academy plans for Croydon, what attention will he pay to the capture and continuation of the best of the predecessor schools, and to transferring any good traits to succeeding academies? I am thinking especially of Haling Manor high school, which has just been named the most improved school in London by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. What consideration is given to minimising disruption, for example in the case of Ashburton junior and infant schools, which have already been subject to a destabilising merger with another primary school? There were also three different succeeding plans and proposals for amalgamation on the Ashburton community school site, creating an all-the-way-through, four-to-18 school. That is an important issue for my constituents—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Jim Knight: I met my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks) and the leader of the Labour group who, in a pithy way, made the same sort of points to me last week. Haling Manor school has shown improvement generally over the past few years, but there is still a lot more to do in respect of English and maths. Given the comprehensive performance assessment rating that Croydon council has recently received, I am not confident that that is the right body to provide the support that that school needs, which is why I have approved the move to academy status with one of the strongest sponsors that we have in the academies movement, the Harris Federation.

Education Maintenance Allowance

4. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of progress in the delivery of the education maintenance allowance; and if he will make a statement. [261293]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): Education maintenance allowance processing rates are now operating at normal levels. All applications are being processed within two weeks of receipt and, as of 27 February 2009,
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more than 558,000 unique learners had received an EMA payment, compared with 550,000 for the entire academic year 2007-08.

Mr. Goodwill: The administration of the scheme has been a nightmare for sixth-form colleges. At Scarborough sixth-form college, more than a third of the 1,100 students have applied for EMAs and there have been problems. The college has tried everything. It has brought in additional admin staff on a Tuesday, the payments day, and staff have even worked in the evenings and at night to try to get on the website. Despite that, they have had to advance over £1,000 each to 20 students, and the allowances for four students are still outstanding. May we have an apology from the Minister to the staff who have had to deal with the scheme and, more particularly, to the students from lower-income households, who are just the people whom the scheme was meant to help?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I am sure that we are all very grateful to members of staff who stayed to help those students who missed out. As I said, we are currently processing applications within two weeks of receipt and we have more or less cleared the backlog. If there are any cases that the hon. Gentleman is aware of, I will gladly look into those if there is still a problem.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that in Rotherham alone 3,040 EMAs have been awarded? Yes, there have been teething and administrative troubles, but EMAs are most welcome. Is it not the case—I am not sure whether I may say this—that the Conservatives have consistently opposed efforts to help working-class kids get higher education? They should be ashamed of themselves.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. I will use the opportunity to emphasise Labour’s commitment to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds to stay in further education. We can see that the policy has worked, because the most recent analysis has shown that EMA increased attainment at levels 2 and 3 by 2 or 3 percentage points.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): EMA and adult learning grants are there to provide incentives and support to those on low incomes who wish to pursue their studies. Will the Minister therefore please explain why there is no equivalent support for young people with learning disabilities who wish to continue their studies? My 19-year-old constituent Emma Frost is studying for a level 1 qualification—[Hon. Members: “Reading!”]—and is not entitled to education maintenance allowance or adult learning vouchers—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I see hon. Members getting very grumpy today, but the hon. Lady should not be reading. She has been in the House a long time now and she should not be reading a supplementary question. She did not know what the reply to the original question would be, so how can she have a prepared question?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We are committed to ensuring that all young people between the ages of 16 and 18 have the opportunity to go on to further education and get the qualifications that they can. We are certainly committed to helping young people with learning difficulties and disabilities to do that, too.

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Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the education maintenance allowance has helped people who would otherwise not have stayed on at school and college to remain there during the current economically difficult period, and that it is important that we find ways of facilitating access to the education maintenance allowance when families suddenly lose their income and their children may be forced to leave education or college before they reach the end of their course?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I recognise the problem that my hon. Friend mentions. At present, the assessment system for the education maintenance allowance is annual, but when a particular difficulty has occurred during an educational year, we have the facility of learner support grants. We will look further into how we can use them.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does the Minister accept that there needs to be more flexibility in the means-testing criteria? For example, the circumstances of a household on an income of £30,000 with a single child in full-time education are entirely different from those of another household on the same income but with five children in full-time education. Such issues have an impact on whether some children fulfil full-time education.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The problem is that the more flexibility we put into the system, the more complex it becomes. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but there will not always be the same number of young people in the 16-to-18 age group. It is that particular age group that we are trying to attract with the education maintenance allowance.

Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): Some 4,000 young people in Enfield have benefited from the education maintenance allowance in the past year. That means young people staying in education and getting the qualifications that they need in both academic and vocational courses. It is interesting to note that the number of young people going to university from Enfield has doubled in the past 10 years; in recent years, the education maintenance allowance has made a significant difference. Will the Minister give a commitment that, unlike the Conservative party, we will guarantee the future of the education maintenance allowance?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. Her constituency is testament to the good work that the EMA has done in enabling young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to continue their education. I am proud to say that we are, I understand, the only party committed to continuing the education maintenance allowance.

School Standards (Secondary Schools)

5. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What his most recent assessment is of trends in educational standards in secondary schools; and if he will make a statement. [261294]

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