Previous Section Index Home Page

19 Nov 2009 : Column 145

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): May I ask the Secretary of State how meaningful these guarantees are? Let us take the fifth pupil guarantee, which says that

and that this pledge

How many schools are not already meeting the fifth pupil guarantee?

Ed Balls: I shall come on to the detail of all the guarantees in a moment, but on that particular one, we are announcing today that we have reformed the primary curriculum. We have also reformed the key stage 3 curriculum for 11 to 14-year-olds to make sure that there is teacher discretion, while ensuring at the same time that all schools are delivering a balanced curriculum. That is there in the guarantees and I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome it.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): My constituency has historically had low income, low aspiration and low educational achievement. As a result of the sustained investment going into our local schools there has been a huge improvement, but it still lags behind the national average. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the measures in the Queen's Speech will go a long way to addressing the social and economic issues that hinder a child's educational performance to complement the investment that we have put into teachers and the bricks and mortar of the schools?

Ed Balls: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is not good enough for a parent to know that in their area the average child is doing well or that most schools are doing well; what the parent wants to know is that their child is getting support and their school will be improved. That is what we guarantee in the Children, Schools and Families Bill with powers to step in if it is not happening. That is what parents want-not a free market free-for-all, which is what the Conservatives are proposing.

Let us be clear that none of these guarantees could have been delivered or even promised with any credibility back in 1997 because we inherited a school system and national health service that had been subject to underinvestment for decades. Let us not forget that in 1995 it was a Conservative Government who introduced and then failed to deliver an 18-month target for NHS waiting lists- [Interruption.] Yes, it was an 18-month, not 18-week, target that they introduced but failed to deliver in 1995. In education, too, in 1997, we had leaking roofs, pupils using photocopied textbooks, a teaching profession demoralised, a third of 11-year-olds leaving primary school not secure in the basics and half of our secondary schools not even reaching the basic benchmark of 30 per cent. gaining five good GCSEs, including English and maths.

The fact is that over the past 12 years we have had over 80,000 more doctors, 40,000 more nurses and 100 new hospitals. We are not failing to meet an 18-month waiting list target; we are delivering an 18-week target nationally. That is what our investment and reform have delivered. As for schools, we have 40,000 more teachers, more than 180,000 teaching assistants, 4,000 new or refurbished schools-the biggest school building programme since the Victorian era-and over 100,000
19 Nov 2009 : Column 146
more children leaving primary school secure in the basics. Under the Conservatives, one in two schools did not make the grade. Now, just one in 12 do not make the grade. We will get there by 2011, because this party does not want a free market free-for-all. What we want is for every child to deliver in every school. That is our record.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I wonder whether the Secretary of State is as concerned as I am about the fact that the number of children in poverty has risen each year for the past three years, and the fact that the gap between children receiving free school meals and those from wealthier backgrounds has not narrowed under the current Government. May I put it to him that, rather than trying to find political dividing lines, he should try to make common cause with those of us on both sides of the House who wish to see disadvantage tackled and not used as a political football?

Ed Balls: I fear that the hon. Gentleman is as confused as the Conservatives' Front-Bench spokesman. Yesterday on the "Today" programme, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath began an interview at 7.10 am by saying that our Child Poverty Bill was a gimmick and a political device. By 7.15 am, he was saying that he would support it.

The fact is that between 1979 and 1997 child poverty doubled. The fact is that over the past 12 years the number of children in poverty has fallen by more than 600,000. We will do more. What I want is a cross-party consensus that child poverty should be eradicated. If the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) is willing to join that consensus, he should know that it is not about political dividing lines, but about Governments' delivering fairness and equality. He should be supporting that.

I know that Opposition Members find this very difficult, particularly the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. At every stage, his approach to our more teachers, more investment and raising of standards is to run down the achievements of teachers, head teachers and our young people each year. Every few weeks, we hear a repetition of the usual litany from the hon. Gentleman. He comes along to the House, reads out what he calls our Mickey Mouse test questions in GCSE exams, and tries to use them in order to demonstrate that there has been dumbing down, that the exams are too easy, and that there is no rigour in our state education system.

I have to say that that is total and absolute nonsense. I have been checking exam papers over the last few weeks. I had a look at the GCSE additional science and biology paper. First question, first page:

It sounds quite difficult to me. Does the hon. Gentleman have an answer? I should be happy to take an intervention from him.

Right. Let us try another one: "Explain how a fluoride atom can change into a fluoride ion." The hon. Gentleman is well known as an erudite and intellectual man. What is the answer? Let me repeat: "Explain how a fluoride atom can change into a fluoride ion." Does he want to try that? Does he want to try?

Third one, then. [Interruption.] Look, to be honest, these are really hard. I do not know the answers; I am asking whether the hon. Gentleman knows the answers.
19 Nov 2009 : Column 147
The third question comes from the mathematics exam, GCSE, June 2008: "Work out 33/4 minus 1" Does the hon. Gentleman want to try? I asked the Minister for Schools and Learners a moment ago. He worked it out as two and seven twentieths.. I do hope that he is right. The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs checked it as well, and he says that that is the right answer.

Hard questions, Mr. Speaker-hard questions in tough exams in which our young people are doing very well. But I have to say that there is one question to which I do know the answer. Why are more young people leaving school with good grades? It is not because there is dumbing down and the exams are getting easier; it is because of the hard work of pupils and parents and teachers and head teachers, and the investment and reform that the hon. Gentleman's party has opposed consistently over the past 12 years.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I have listened to the Secretary of State's end-of-the-pier turns with great interest, but he is being very partisan. We want to be constructive. Indeed, the whole country wants us to be constructive on the important issue of education. He has tried to entertain us, but we need some facts. Let me give him some.

More than 50 per cent. of pupils are still not obtaining five good GCSEs including English and maths. Given that all those pupils have been educated entirely under a Labour Government, will the Government accept that their policies have failed and that head teachers and teachers must be given more trust and freedom to be able to raise standards for the whole country?

Ed Balls: I will come on to discuss the free market-and actually, when we look into the detail, rather interesting-policies of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, but as the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) raises the issue, let me say that, yes, I am not satisfied, because 50 per cent. of pupils getting five good GCSEs including English and maths is not good enough, but the proportion was not 50 per cent. in 1997; it was a third of pupils-about 33 or 34 per cent.-12 years ago. We have made real progress with investment and reform; there are rising standards and more good teachers. The hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford should be backing our reforms and proposals, rather than trying to run them down for party political and partisan reasons, contrary to the facts and the reality.

The Leader of the Opposition said yesterday that he was embarrassed-that we were trying to embarrass him. There is nothing embarrassing in this Conservative Front-Bench team saying, "We will guarantee parents and pupils a good school." There is nothing embarrassing in it saying, "For 16-year-olds, we will guarantee a school, college or apprenticeship place." The reason why the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is embarrassed is that the shadow Chancellor will not let him make the pledge. That is why under a Tory Government there would be young people leaving school and not getting a school, college or apprenticeship place. That is why he is embarrassed. Conservative Back Benchers should not be embarrassed, however; they should be pressing their Front-Bench team to get in the real world.

19 Nov 2009 : Column 148

The reality is that we are the party that is more ambitious. We are the ones who, on this track record, want to do more. We know that we need excellence for all, rather than just some, children in our schools and school system. The only way to do that-as the Bill, which the Conservative party should support, sets out-is on the basis of investing in public services and having clear entitlements for public service users. It also involves backing local leaders-the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford mentioned this-to deliver services by devolving power, responsibility and accountability, and matching that with stronger accountability through the report card, as well as, where needed and as a last resort, not leaving things to the free market free-for-all, but stepping in and demanding the best for every pupil in every school. That is what our guarantees are all about.

Let me say something about health, which will also be debated over the course of today. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is now proposing to back patients by turning targets into entitlements-an entitlement for all NHS patients to start treatment within 18 weeks, for them to see a cancer specialist within two weeks when referred by their GP, and where that is not possible, for the NHS to take all steps to find an alternative provider. He is also proposing a new legal right to an NHS health check every five years for 40 to 74-year-olds, and to lay the foundations for a national care service, starting with free personal care for those with the greatest needs. Those are guarantees which, aside from the political games being played, will have families in homes around the country saying, "Yes, that is what we want." That is what a Labour Government will deliver.

In schools, too-

Mr. Laws rose-

Ed Balls: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman shortly, but he asked me about our schools guarantee, so let me set out some details on that first. In schools too- [Interruption.] I would take a question from the Liberal Democrat Health spokesman, but unfortunately he has not turned up. I will take a question on schools in a moment.

We will now enshrine in law our guarantees to pupils and parents. They include providing catch-up help for any child who falls behind in reading, writing or maths during primary school and, for any child not getting to level 4, an entitlement to 10 hours one-to-one or small group tuition in year 7, with a report to parents at the end of year 7. That is not a gimmick; it is a real and tangible guarantee, which should be supported by any party that wants to invest in education for all children, rather than just some. Secondly-

Mr. Laws: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Ed Balls: In a moment. Secondly, there will be a personal tutor for every secondary school pupil, who will be a point of contact for the pupil and their parent throughout their time in secondary school. There will also be strong and effective discipline through tough home-school agreements so every family knows their responsibilities and schools have the power to take action to deliver discipline where needed. There is also-I have mentioned this before-our September guarantee
19 Nov 2009 : Column 149
to school leavers, and now our new January guarantee of a place in education, which we will deliver and the Conservative party would deny. That is not politics; it is about the lives of young people. It is about their chance of having a job, a career or an apprenticeship, which we will invest in and the Conservative party wants to cut. That is the reality.

Mr. Laws: May I bring the Secretary of State back to the issue of health? A moment ago he was chiding the Opposition parties for not welcoming the proposals on personal care. What, then, does he say about the comments that Lord Lipsey made overnight? He said that "one of the consolations" of his Government losing the next election is that it would sweep away

Ed Balls: I was not chiding people for making comments about health; I was chiding the Liberal Democrats for failing to have a health spokesman on the Front Bench. As for social care, we are making a commitment now, with money now, to give support now in their homes to the most vulnerable people in our society. The hon. Gentleman should be backing them as we move forward to the national care service, on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is consulting. The hon. Gentleman should be supporting what a progressive Government do, rather than opposing it and playing politics with the regressive Government that the Opposition would provide.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con) rose-

Ed Balls: I will take one more intervention.

Dr. Murrison: Can the Secretary of State therefore explain what Lord Lipsey meant when he said that yesterday's announcement on long-term care was like

Ed Balls: Not for a moment, and I will leave my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to answer those questions when he winds up later. I could not begin even to unpack that analogy, let alone know what the hell it means. What I would say is that we and Lord Lipsey are both clear that we want decent care for people in their homes. We will deliver it because we will invest in resources. The Opposition would not deliver it because they would cut resources; that is the difference.

Let me deal with entitlements and how they will be enforced, which has been an issue. We expect in the vast majority of cases the concerns of parents, if they arise, to be resolved at school level, and that is an issue for personal tutors, heads and governors, with the parents. We legislated in the last Session for the seeking of redress, as a last resort, from the local government ombudsman. I would like to make it clear that, for any parent who is entitled to catch-up tuition for their child and is not getting it, we are announcing today that local authorities will have a duty to ensure that there is alternative provision outside the school, if that is needed, to get a child on track. Parents want tough discipline and to know that if their child falls behind, they will get the help. We will guarantee that, and as I said, there should be a consensus on this matter.

Mr. Laws: Will the Secretary of State give way?

19 Nov 2009 : Column 150

Ed Balls: I have taken enough interventions; I will come to the hon. Gentleman in a second.

Our "21st century schools" White Paper also sets out a significant devolution of power and responsibility to head teachers. We are going to implement Jim Rose's review of the primary curriculum and create more space for teachers to be able to deliver that curriculum. We will introduce a new licence to practise for teachers, similar to that held by other high-status professionals such as doctors and lawyers. We will put the wider elements of personal, social and health education on a statutory footing, guaranteeing for the first time that all children are receiving sex and relationship education, with the parental opt-out lowered to 15. We will make the process of establishing an academy easier and reduce bureaucracy, so that all academies are guaranteed charitable status, and we will introduce a new registration system for home educators. I am told by the Opposition that there is nothing in this Bill. These are radical reforms, delivering for parents and schools the support they need to deliver for every child. As I said, the Opposition should be supporting them, rather than playing politics with this Bill.

Before I move on, let me turn to accountability. We will match these new flexibilities by strengthening school accountability in our school report card, which will include information on attainment but also set out for parents how well their school is doing for every child, in stretching the most able, and in areas such as discipline, sport and health. Because parents are clear that they want to know how their children and local primary schools are doing, I have announced in a written statement this morning that, following the recommendation of our expert group on assessment, we are, of course, retaining key stage 2 tests in English and maths, and I have today approved the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency's choice of the preferred test operator-Edexcel-to deliver English and maths tests for 11-year-olds in 2010. We will also-again, implementing the recommendations of the expert group-publish teacher assessment data for pupils in year 6 alongside those externally marked tests, and from 2011 we will introduce a new form of local moderation of teacher assessment as we build confidence in teacher assessment, alongside that objective information for parents.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Will the Secretary of State ask his colleague the Secretary of State for Health to step in to stop immediately the proposed cuts to accident and emergency services at the King George hospital, which serves my constituency, as well as that of the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes)?

Ed Balls: The hon. Gentleman has asked his question and the best thing would be for the Secretary of State for Health to answer it later. Obviously, I do not know the details of the case, but I should say that it is the extra investment in doctors and nurses and in our accident and emergency units across the country that is delivering the improvements in waiting times and in health care for people in our country.

Next Section Index Home Page