27 Apr 2009 : Column 551

27 Apr 2009 : Column 551

House of Commons

Monday 27 April 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—

Dedicated Schools Grant

1. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): How much dedicated schools grant has been allocated to schools in (a) East Devon, (b) Devon and (c) England for 2009-10. [270732]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): The Government allocate funding to local authorities, not by constituency, so we do not hold figures separately for East Devon. The guaranteed unit of funding per pupil for Devon is £3,843. The amount of dedicated schools grant that Devon receives is dependent on the number of pupils on roll. Devon will receive around £359 million for 2009-10. The indicative total of dedicated schools grant for England for 2009-10 is £29.8 billion.

Mr. Swire: I am most grateful to the Minister for that answer. He came down to Devon recently and gave an interview to my local paper in which he admitted that Devon is still slightly below the average for funding. The reality is that if the average amount allocated to schools according to the Government’s funding criteria were met in Devon, Sidmouth college would be £300,000 better off in 2009 and Exmouth community college—the biggest secondary school in Europe, with 2,500 pupils—would be better off by £900,000. Does the Minister not agree that education in Devon is just as important as education in Birmingham? I have always considered him a fair man; will he therefore undertake today to end that discrimination against Devon’s schoolchildren?

Jim Knight: I am looking forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman next month to discuss those issues and the dedicated schools grant review that we are undertaking. The truth is that Devon receives well over £1,000 per pupil more than it did in 1997, as part of the 75 per cent. real-terms increase in schools funding. We are committed to protecting school budgets, as we review the dedicated schools grant. I note that the hon. Gentleman is also meeting the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) to discuss those matters, but I am not sure that he can make the same commitment.

27 Apr 2009 : Column 552

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): We on the Conservative Benches support the Government’s approach to education. We are totally committed to it—we want more education, we want more jobs; we want all these things—but could the Minister please explain to the House why South Devon college, which is a showpiece in the south-west, has had its funding cut for this year and why Dartmouth college is falling to bits? The people there are ready to rebuild it, but they cannot get the funds.

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman has come to see me to talk about Dartmouth college. We have discussed how we might be able to take things forward, as we roll out our Building Schools for the Future programme, which is a Government commitment to refurbishing or replacing every single secondary school over 15 years. I know that South Devon college does a fantastic job and I am keen to see it develop as an outstanding provider of education in Devon. However, if there are issues that I need to look at with the Learning and Skills Council, I shall be happy to do so.

National Challenge Programme

2. Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): How many academies and national challenge trust schools he expects to be opened under the national challenge programme. [270733]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): Our national challenge programme provides resources to transform up to 70 additional schools into academies and up to 70 schools into national challenge trusts. This September, more than 300 academies will open, and we expect that academies will have replaced more than 200 national challenge schools. So far, we have agreed 16 national challenge trusts and we are expecting to agree a further 34 shortly, of which 30 will open this September and 20 will open in 2010.

Siobhain McDonagh: In 2006, we opened two new city academies in Mitcham in my constituency, in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Conservative councillors. Those two schools have now doubled the number of pupils getting five GCSE passes. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the sponsors, Lord Harris and the Church of England, as well as all the staff and the pupils at those schools? Will he also warn people that although those on the Conservative Front Bench may have converted to supporting academies, Conservative local councillors on the ground do not want schools in deprived areas?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend makes two important points. The first point is that academies in disadvantaged communities are driving up results faster than the average, which shows that academies work. The second point, which she made about her constituency, but which is equally true of Dudley, is that for all the bluster from the Opposition, it is Conservative councils that are blocking academies round the country.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): If the problems with the national challenge programme continue, and if Ministers end up having to hold an inquiry into the matter, will the Secretary of State assure us that the evidence that
27 Apr 2009 : Column 553
Ministers give to the inquiry will not be “false”, a “fiction” and “sexed up”, as Dr. Boston suggested of the evidence given to the SATs inquiry?

Ed Balls: All the evidence that is given by this side is accurate, and when any mistakes are made, they are always corrected as soon as they come to our awareness. The hon. Gentleman should be supporting the national challenge programme, because it is transforming the life chances of children in schools around the country. He should not join the Conservatives in opposing that part of school improvement policy as well.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that, earlier this year, his Department agreed a multi-million pound investment in the village of Maltby in my constituency, which included the rebuilding of three schools, one of which is the secondary school that is going to become an academy. Is he aware that the Conservative opposition on Rotherham borough council have voted against this, and that, on 15 April, at a meeting of the scrutiny committee that attempted to prevent the project from going ahead, the prospective parliamentary candidate for the Tory party, Councillor Lynda Donaldson, voted against the rebuilding of those schools?

Ed Balls: I understand the point that my right hon. Friend is making. I think that there is a theme here. Some people believe that the academies programme is right because it takes out the role of local authorities. Presumably that is because they are Conservative local authorities that oppose academies, as we have seen in London and Dudley. We are also now seeing it happening in Rotherham. Luckily, there is a Labour council in Rotherham and it is taking forward the academies policy. It is those Members on the Government Benches, not those on the other side, who believe in school improvement for disadvantaged children.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): In the current economic climate, surely education reform is vital to strengthen our economy. Will the Secretary of State now accept that extending bureaucratic interference in education is not the way forward?

Ed Balls: I am totally against the extension of bureaucratic interference, but I also believe that it is important that our schools should do a good job by all the children in our country. That is why Jim Rose is producing his primary curriculum review on Thursday to ensure that primary schools focus on the basics, including phonics. I do not support proposals to withdraw the national curriculum from some primary schools. That would set back reading, learning and phonics, and it would be the wrong thing to do. I will stand by parents on doing the right thing by education, and not by Opposition Members.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): At the weekend, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), in a widely acclaimed speech, announced a new Conservative policy that would extend the academies programme to include primary schools, freeing those schools from local and national bureaucratic interference. The former Labour education adviser to Tony Blair, Conor Ryan, welcomed the proposals
27 Apr 2009 : Column 554
in his excellent, well-written blog, but he expressed shock and disappointment at the response of Ministers to these proposals—particularly the “uncharacteristically sour” response from the Minister for Schools and Learners. He said that the Government’s response would send chills down the spines of “thoughtful Labour supporters”. Is the man who did so much to craft the education policies for the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) and Tony Blair wrong, and, if so, why?

Ed Balls: The hon. Gentleman is well known for his support for early reading, for literacy and for phonics. We have introduced a role for phonics and literacy in the national curriculum, and that will be strengthened on Thursday. The idea that he could support some successful primary schools opting out of the national curriculum beggars belief. This is not just about collaboration; it is also totally dishonest to come along with a policy to expand investment in academies while advocating cuts in the schools budget. That is what will send chills down the spines of parents.

Building Colleges for the Future (Barnsley)

4. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effects on sixth-form provision in Barnsley of the financial difficulties in the Building Colleges for the Future programme. [270735]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): I understand the difficulties being faced by Barnsley college, which is one of the 144 capital projects being considered by the Learning and Skills Council. The additional £300 million of capital funding that was announced in the Budget, including £80 million from my Department, will enable a number of the most urgent projects to start within the spending review period. In line with Sir Andrew Foster’s recommendations, the LSC is consulting on which capital projects can be brought forward in that period.

Mr. Illsley: First, may I point out that I have not changed my name and that the entry on today’s Order Paper is a typo? I am still the MP formerly known as Eric.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. He knows perfectly well the situation of Barnsley college. The fourth element of the college’s rebuilding scheme is accommodation for our sixth forms, because the vast bulk of our sixth-form provision is within the college. Will he add his voice to that of the local Barnsley MPs in pressing the Learning and Skills Council for a decision in relation to Barnsley college—I hope one that will allow that fourth phase of the development to go ahead?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend will understand why it is hard for me to press the LSC at this stage while it is carrying out its consultation, but as I said, in the next two years, £80 million of 16-to-19 funding is being brought forward now to help to deal with the issue. I understand the particularly acute needs of Barnsley college, given the advanced state of the plans and the investment there. The consultation will be done properly. We will also ensure that no college loses out. Like him, I would like the building of that final stage of the Barnsley project to be completed as soon as is practically possible.

27 Apr 2009 : Column 555

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that all the secondary schools in my constituency have sixth-form provision. On 2 March, they were given their figure for the year. By 23 March, some schools had £90,000 removed from them—within three weeks. Will he meet a delegation of headmasters from my constituency and explain to them why they are losing so much funding and will have to cut sixth-form provision in my constituency?

Ed Balls: I fear that the hon. Gentleman may have missed the Budget announcement, which allocated—

Mike Penning indicated dissent.

Ed Balls: No, the hon. Gentleman did not miss the Budget announcement, in which case he will know that in the Budget we allocated £650 million over the next two years, which will guarantee more than 50,000 more learners, and all the learners in 2009-10 and 2010-11, including in his college. I am happy to have a meeting with those headmasters to say to them that they are getting the money. I hope he is not misunderstanding the position and he ought to be pressing his Front Benchers, who so far have failed to match our September guarantee for September 2009 and September 2010. That is what I will say when I meet his college principals: we are the ones guaranteeing the money; the Conservatives are the ones guaranteeing the cuts.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): It is not only Barnsley that has these problems. Skem college has outstanding a £41 million development of a new campus—a first and major step in the regeneration of Skelmersdale, which is a town of significant deprivation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that investment in Skem college is vital for the social and economic ambitions of the town and the college, and that a needs-based approach must be the one that is adopted when reviewing these matters?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is completely right and that is what Sir Andrew Foster proposed. He said that the Building Colleges for the Future programme is a brilliant programme. It is helping hundreds of colleges around the country and it is a record investment, but we have more colleges with plans than we have resources available. That is why this must be based on need. I have to tell my hon. Friend that if she wants to see that investment flowing through, it is vital that she continues to campaign for a Labour Government, because the Conservatives would cut those budgets.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Of that £650 million, will the Secretary of State confirm that some has been allocated to the excellent Telford college of arts and technology? In a time of rising unemployment in Shropshire and the west midlands, the college does a great job in reskilling and retraining people, and indeed keeping young adults in full-time education, yet they have been let down. They were told to think big and plan big, but now they are being told that a large extension cannot go ahead because the funds have dried up. That means that at least £1.6 million from existing funding will have to go into the design costs, let alone
27 Apr 2009 : Column 556
the abandoned build costs. Will he commit in the House today to TCAT being allowed to expand to meet the rising demand?

Ed Balls: The point I made a moment ago was that we have more projects in the pipeline than we have resources in the next two years and that the LSC is going through a prioritisation review. We will ensure over the coming years that all those projects are completed in time, because we will guarantee the funding, which the Conservative party would cut.

It is also the case that, because of the £650 million allocated in the Budget, the LSC has been able to write to all schools and colleges today to tell them that we will be guaranteeing the funding for September this year and next. We will fund the September guarantee because we want all young people who want to do so to stay in school or college or be on an apprenticeship. However, despite my repeated requests, I cannot get similar backing from the Conservative party because the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) knows that the cuts committed for his budget would not allow that funding to flow. That is the difference. If the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) is honest, he will tell his constituents that fact. I am the one guaranteeing the funding. His party is not.

Excluded Children

5. Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with local authorities on proposals to abolish appeals panels for excluded children. [270736]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): There are no proposals to abolish these panels. This Government are committed to retaining the right for parents of permanently excluded pupils to appeal to an independent appeal panel, which is an established safeguard for pupils and parents.

Lynda Waltho: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am particularly concerned about talk, especially from the Opposition Benches, about stopping these panels. They are a particular safeguard for children with special needs, who we know are three times more likely to be excluded. Will she assure me, the Council for Disabled Children and the National Children’s Bureau that this Government and the education system will support these children, rather than let them down, which is much more likely should that despicable policy ever see the light of day?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: My hon. Friend is right to draw that to our attention. Certainly, an amendment to that effect was tabled to the Education and Skills Bill by the Conservative party. The Special Educational Consortium said then, and we agree with it, that children with special educational needs were already disproportionately represented in exclusion statistics and the amendment would remove one of the remaining few checks and balances currently operating in the system.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Of course, schools sometimes mistake disability for disobedience. Children with special educational needs are nine times more
27 Apr 2009 : Column 557
likely to be permanently excluded from school, and the Government are rightly committed to reducing the incidents of such exclusions. In the light of that, will the Under-Secretary of State consider the merit of amending the law so that a child with SEN or disability may be permanently excluded from school only if a review has taken place of the sufficiency and effectiveness of the reasonable adjustments that have been made under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to seek to accommodate that pupil?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I pay tribute to his expertise in this area of special educational needs, and we certainly share his passion and commitment to promoting improved outcomes for children with SEN and disabilities. I am, of course, aware that he has a private Member’s Bill that is due for its Second Reading on 15 May. I believe that that is one proposal that may be considered in it. We certainly look forward to debating that.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): While I accept my hon. Friend’s answers to those questions, and following on from the question asked by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), a few years ago a pupil in a high school in my constituency physically attacked a teacher and other pupils, who required treatment for their injuries. He was then excluded but put back in the school by an appeals panel. Is not the real problem that there is not sufficient provision in publicly provided residential accommodation for young people with serious behavioural difficulties to go into from time to time?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We certainly recognise the difficulties that children and young people with behavioural and emotional problems present in schools. That is why we are looking at the review of special educational needs; we have Ofsted reviewing special educational needs and Brian Lamb looking at how we can improve the experience for parents and young people. Certainly, part of that is how we manage behaviour in schools and how we ensure that there is sufficient provision to enable these young people to fulfil their potential.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Government figures last year revealed that there was a drop of 13 per cent. in permanent exclusions between 2003 and 2007 despite a 50 per cent. increase in the number of children suspended for five times or more— 867 of them excluded for 10 times or more—at a time that saw 4,370 fixed exclusions for serious racist abuse and more than 207,000 serious offences, such as sexual abuse and violence. Yet, in no fewer than 40 per cent. of appeals against permanent exclusions, reinstatement was upheld so that pupils could return to the scene of their offences with impunity, most of them having nothing to do with SEN. Does the Minister think it right that a pupil who has been excluded for violent crime, racist or sexual abuse should be readmitted to schools under any circumstances against the better judgment of the head or the governors?

Next Section Index Home Page