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Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We are certainly committed to backing head teachers’ authority when pupils’ behaviour warrants exclusion. Last year, the number of successful appeals was just 1.2 per cent. of all permanent exclusions, so we must get this in balance. We obviously recognise,
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and we have said in response to Alan Steer's report, that repeated suspension should lead to permanent exclusion. We are certainly giving back head teachers authority in that.

Free Nursery Places (Reading)

6. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): How many three and four-year-olds in Reading have free nursery places. [270737]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As he knows, free entitlement to early-years provision for three and four-year-olds is a universal offer that is taken up by almost all four-year-olds and more than 95 per cent. of three-year-olds. In Reading that equates to approximately 3,500 places, helping to give three and four-year-olds the best possible start in life.

Martin Salter: There is no doubt that the extension of free nursery education is one of Labour's finest achievements. In order to spread the word to a wider audience, can the Minister tell the House how many extra nursery places have been delivered in all Berkshire authorities since 1997?

Beverley Hughes: I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend that information because the figures before 1997 are not available, but we know that it was not a priority for the Government at that time: free provision was patchy and often depended on whether one had a good Labour council funding it, or whether one could afford to pay. This Government have been the first to introduce and to be committed to universal free entitlement for all three and four-year-olds, and we remain so because of the difference that it makes to reducing inequality, to helping every child to fulfil their potential and to helping families to balance work and family life. Parents want to know whether all that will be in jeopardy if the Conservatives come back into government.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): Many nursery providers in my constituency are under considerable financial pressure thanks to the changes made by this Government. A recent survey found that about half have considered closing. Many cannot meet the cost of free entitlement. How do the Government expect a broad range of nurseries to remain in business in Reading and elsewhere if they cannot afford to cover their basic costs?

Beverley Hughes: Frankly, that was nonsense. It is because this Government doubled the number of places for the under-fives that the private sector was able to expand in the way it did under the Government last year; there are now more than 1.3 million places. The funding that we are putting in for free entitlement is enabling those providers to stay in business largely. Certainly our independent research shows that the money that we are putting in—£4 billion a year across all early- years provision—is sufficient for free entitlement. We want local authorities to be more consistent in the way in which they administer that, but it is helping the private sector to thrive.

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Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) is absolutely right. When it comes to nursery places in Reading or any other part of the country, the Minister knows that the sums do not add up. Two out of three nurseries still cannot provide free places for the Government money that they receive. Why, when more than 9,000 families are predicted to see their child care close by the end of this year because of the financial crisis, is the Minister failing to take action to stop the instability that is so damaging for so many families up and down the country?

Beverley Hughes: The £1.3 billion per year for the free entitlement is enabling many nurseries in the private sector to continue. We are committed to continuing that funding, along with the funding for Sure Start children centres and all the early-years provision in our maintained schools. The question that parents want answered is whether the hon. Lady, if a Conservative Government came to power, would be committed to continuing that funding and continuing the provision for the under-fives

Secondary School Expenditure

7. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): How much his Department plans to spend per secondary school pupil in 2009-10. [270738]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Separate figures are not available for secondary schools, as funding is not allocated by phase. Revenue and capital combined funding per pupil aged three to 19 in England for 2009-10 is £6,400. The average guaranteed per pupil unit of funding in the dedicated schools grant, which is the core element of school revenue funding, for 2009-10 is £4,218.

Mr. Chaytor: I thank the Minister for that reply, and may I say what a vast improvement that is on the situation before 1997? In the context of the financial crisis, does he detect any lessening of the Government’s enthusiasm for seeking convergence in the funding of the 93 per cent. of children in state schools and the 7 per cent. of children in private schools?

Jim Knight: There is no lessening of enthusiasm at all; our commitment remains to safeguarding schools budgets. We are committed to the increases that we set out the year before last for this comprehensive spending review period—unlike others, who can make no commitment for the last year of that spending review period—and on the basis of those increases, we are narrowing the gap all the time.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister always seeks to deal with questions in a helpful and sensitive way. Am I right to believe the information that is coming to me from a number of my local secondary schools that there is a problem in the funding of sixth-form education? This deeply worries me, because I believe that, at the sixth-form level, we really do dictate how people will succeed in their subsequent career and life. Is there a problem? If so, what are the Government going to do about it? As he knows, I come from what was Cheshire—now it is Cheshire East.

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Jim Knight: I shall try to put this as helpfully and sensitively as possible. As we set out in response to earlier questions, in the Budget we announced more than £200 million for this year and more than £400 million for next year so that we can fully fund post-16 places and, indeed, an additional 55,000 extra learners. We are not just saying to schools and colleges, “Plan on the basis of what you had already predicted at the turn of year for post-16 places.”; we are also saying, “If you can stimulate more into learning, we have the resources to listen to what you are saying and to see whether we can do even better than you were expecting.”

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): We all welcome the increase in the baseline funding for secondary schools, but will the Minister assure us that, once again, he will re-examine the area cost adjustment, in order to take account of children who live in small pockets of deprivation and underachieve, yet are paid less than those in accommodating areas, where schools overachieve above the average and there is no deprivation, simply because they are not in metropolitan areas?

Jim Knight: Certainly I can tell my hon. Friend that we are looking at a new formula for the dedicated schools grant for the next spending review period. We have been working and consulting on that for some time, and we expect to be able to make some announcements towards the end of next year on the outcome of that work. During this spending review period, we acknowledge, for the first time, that there are pockets of deprivation in some of our wealthier authorities; we have begun a process of acknowledging exactly the point that he raises.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): In the middle of March, Lutterworth college—the biggest school in Leicestershire—which is in my constituency, was told that it would get a certain sum for post-16 education, but at the end of March, the Learning and Skills Council told it that the sum would be less. Now, after the Budget, the Government are saying that they are going to find the money after all. May I say sensitively to the sensitive Minister that the situation is chaotic—to say the least? Can he now guarantee that Lutterworth college will be able to fund every place that it expected to fund this coming September?

Jim Knight: Yes.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the investment to which my right hon. Friend has referred in earlier answers. Do figures exist to show the funding that is being put into the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics? Is he confident that it is sufficient to ensure that every student who wants to study one of those subjects can do so?

Jim Knight: I do not have the figures at my fingertips for the extra resources that we are putting into the STEM subjects, which my hon. Friend champions so passionately, but it is crucial that we sustain the momentum that we have developed in science, technology, engineering and maths for our economy and to enable individuals to prosper in life. Those skills and competencies are hugely
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important, and we will continue that commitment as we carry out the review of schools funding that I mentioned earlier.

Free School Meals

8. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What his most recent assessment is of levels of educational achievement by pupils eligible to receive free school meals; and if he will make a statement. [270739]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): The attainment of pupils eligible for free school meals has improved strongly since 1997. An estimated 20,000 more FSM pupils now get the expected standard—level 4 or better—in maths at the end of key stage 2, which is the end of primary education, than 10 years ago and the figure is more than 16,000 for English. Last month the Department published “Breaking the Link between deprivation and low attainment—Everyone’s Business”, a comprehensive assessment of the reasons why children receiving free school meals attain less than their peers at every key stage, and we will say more on that key issue in the White Paper later this year.

Michael Fabricant: Both the OECD and the Rowntree Foundation agree that the great achievement of Labour over the last 12 years has been the widening of the gap between rich and poor in our communities. With 75,000 children receiving free school meals and 45 per cent. of them not getting a grade C or above at GCSE in any subject, what does the Government have to be proud of?

Jim Knight: We are proud that standards have risen in every authority and that the most deprived areas have made the biggest gains. We are proud that schools serving the most deprived pupils have made the most progress. We are proud that underperforming minority ethnic groups have made above average progress. We acknowledge that there is still a strong link, at individual pupil level and starting at 22 months of age, between disadvantage and achievement levels. Therefore, anyone serious about a progressive agenda would not cut Sure Start and children’s centres, would not oppose national challenge and personalised interventions such as one-to-one tuition and would certainly not abandon the national curriculum through primary academies, meaning that effective reading schemes such as synthetic phonics would not be mandatory for those who need them most. Those are the policies of the hon. Gentleman’s party.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): As the Minister will be aware, I am an evangelist for universal free school meals. In trials of universal free school meals in Hull and Scotland, educational attainment, attendance and behaviour all improved. At a recent conference of the Caterers Association, concern was expressed that the nutritional standards were too stringent. I do not know whether that is the case, but I have had representations from pupils in Gateshead who felt that taking the chocolate off the top of their flapjacks was a step too far. We all want school food to be healthier, but what is the Minister’s response to the flapjack issue and the concerns of the association?

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Jim Knight: While I am partial to the occasional flapjack, with or without chocolate—in fact, I enjoyed one with plain chocolate, cranberry and macadamia nut over the weekend—I do not think that they would meet the nutritional standard, with or without chocolate. My hon. Friend raises a more serious issue about the importance of free school meals. We are looking to pilot universal provision and we will make some more announcements on that shortly.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): All pupils, especially the most disadvantaged, need reliable assessments to ensure that they are making progress. However, I have serious questions about the Government’s handling of assessment and their ability to deliver reliable assessment this year. The Minister said last year that delivering national curriculum tests was a mission-critical issue for his Department. When we warned on 19 May that last year’s tests were going badly wrong, the Secretary of State said that it was an issue that he personally was monitoring closely. On 30 June the Government eventually acknowledged that the whole testing process had descended into shambles. Just how closely did the Secretary of State monitor those tests? How many times did he meet Ken Boston, the head of the agency charged with delivering the tests, between the alarm being raised in May and the end of June?

Jim Knight: The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was pressed throughout the whole of the debacle relating to the delivery of the SATs for which it was responsible. The QCA was pressed by officials, by me and by the Secretary of State. We commissioned an inquiry into these matters, so serious were the problems relating to test delivery. Lord Sutherland carried out that inquiry and he remains of the view, as confirmed in a statement last week, that no new information has come to light that changes his findings from that inquiry, which said that the responsibility lay squarely with the contractor, ETS, and with the QCA.

Michael Gove: The Minister, like the Secretary of State, is once again evading responsibility for the truth. Ministers’ testimony in the Sutherland report depicts them—the Minister has repeated this statement—as having regularly

The Secretary of State told me in this House on 16 December that throughout the critical period, Ministers

He told the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that

Under further interrogation, he insisted, “We regularly asked questions”. However, the QCA chief executive testified to the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families last week:

Is Ken Boston lying? If not, who is?

Jim Knight: The Secretary of State did press three times by mid-June. I have here a whole list of a series of meetings that I, officials and the Secretary of State had
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with officials from the QCA, including Ken Boston. There was one problem when I recollected his presence wrongly as regards two meetings a fortnight apart. At the second meeting, on 2 July, I met Ken Boston and David Gee. I previously met David Gee and I previously met Ken Boston on all those occasions— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Minister reply—that goes for the Education Secretary, too.

Jim Knight: The records of all those meetings were given to Lord Sutherland. He carried out his inquiry, which was described even by Dr. Boston last week as fair. That inquiry fairly and squarely laid the blame and the responsibility where they should lie.

Fair Admissions Policies

9. Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): What steps he is taking to promote fair admissions policies in primary and secondary schools. [270740]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): We recently improved the statutory framework, making admissions fairer, more co-ordinated and easier for parents. For 2009 entry, 83.2 per cent. of children got their first choice of secondary school, with 96.2 per cent. securing one of their preferences. Parents must now be consulted on local proposals and the schools adjudicator can examine arrangements without formal objection. Local authorities must now report annually to the adjudicator on fair access, informing his report on compliance to the Secretary of State.

Andrew Gwynne: I thank the Minister for her reply. Every year, schools admissions have been a hot topic in my constituency. I can understand the concerns of parents who are choosing a primary or secondary school place. As part of a fair admissions policy, we need quality information. What reassurances can my hon. Friend give parents in my constituency that they will have access to all the relevant information to enable them to make a fair choice?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that in Stockport, which covers his constituency, parents’ preferences for school places were met at higher than the national average level. From next year, parents need only to apply to their home local authority for school places, including for applications in year. Information for parents must be clear and comprehensive and choice advisers are available locally to help the disadvantaged. We are requiring local authorities to produce composite prospectuses by 12 September each year.

Last April, we published a parents’ guide to help parents navigate the admissions and appeals system. We will update that in July to ensure that parents have all the information that they need.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Ministers have tried hard to amend the policy to make it better, but is it not still the truth that in local authorities where many or all schools are their own admission authorities it is sometimes very difficult to have a fair and flat playing field for applications? For example, in areas where there are a lot of Church
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schools, people who go to church get a far better deal than people who do not. What will Ministers do to give all pupils a fair opportunity to have access to all secondary schools?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The first thing we have done is to make sure that all schools, whether they are their own admissions authority or part of the local authority, act in accordance with the current code. They have to abide by the admissions code. Through that mechanism and also in the fact that we are now allowing the schools adjudicator to look into objections from wherever they come, we can continue to update the code and ensure that it is fair.

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