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House of Commons

Monday 30 November 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-

All-through Schools

1. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What plans his Department has for the development of schools for three to 18-year-olds. [302046]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Iain Wright): The decision to create so-called all-through schools is one for local authorities to take. There are currently 25 such schools, with a further four planned. A majority of them cater for pupils aged three to 18 and they include academies as well as those maintained by local authorities. We are currently examining the benefits of and challenges faced by all-through schools, with the aim of sharing good practice.

John Mann: I thank the Minister for that answer, and I know that the ministerial team will be keen to visit Serlby Park three-to-18 school, as it has recently knocked back a Tory council attempt to close it down. Is he prepared to consider whether his Department could assist with some specialist advice on how it can free itself from local authority control by becoming an academy?

Mr. Wright: I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is one of the best campaigners in the business, and certainly in this House, on his campaign to save Serlby Park school. I understand that on 19 November he presented a community award to Brett Lindsay, a sixth-former who campaigned to save the school. My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners, a near parliamentary neighbour of his, is very keen to visit Serlby Park and offer the special advice that my hon. Friend requires.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Secretary of State has stressed today that in any school environment, children from the age of three up and young people should be protected from racist views such as those of the organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, which he rightly describes as abhorrent and which is banned in Germany. However, the schools and nurseries of the Islamic Shakhsiya Foundation have received taxpayers' money, even though the proprietor, Yusra Hamilton, was a Hizb ut-Tahrir activist, and she is married to its media representative, Taji Mustafa. The head teacher of one of the schools, Farah Ahmed, who has described her past activism with Hizb ut-Tahrir as irrelevant, has designed a curriculum
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that defines the ruling system of Islam as a khilafah or caliphate, in precise accord with Hizb ut-Tahrir ideology. What guarantees does the Minister have that those schools are absolutely not a front for, or linked in any way with, Hizb ut-Tahrir?

Mr. Wright: I think the hon. Gentleman and the whole House would agree that racism cannot be justified in any shape or form, in schools or indeed anywhere. His right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition had a go at my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about this on Wednesday and got it hopelessly incorrect, and he has had another attempt today. Might I suggest to him that he set out his views and concerns in writing so that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to respond to him in full?

Michael Gove: I am very grateful to the Minister for that very fair reply. I wrote to the Secretary of State last Wednesday, and I am still waiting for a reply to that letter; I look forward to receiving it in due course. After it was written, the BBC reported that the headmistress of the Slough school, Farah Ahmed, had described democracy as a "corrupt tradition", the national curriculum as a tool of "systemic indoctrination" and western education as a threat to "our beliefs and values". Will the Minister and the Secretary of State investigate those views, that head teacher and the foundation following that revelation by the BBC?

Mr. Wright: I will certainly ensure that those claims and allegations made by the hon. Gentleman at the Dispatch Box and by the BBC last week are investigated. I reiterate what I said a moment or two ago-my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will respond in full to the concerns that have been raised.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend accept that through-schools are an interesting pilot? One in my constituency, Netherhall campus, which since last Thursday has been assured that it will encapsulate a studio school, will be a very important experiment. Will he ensure that it is an experiment in which we can play with the national curriculum to make it a through curriculum, without great disjunctions at seven, 11 and so on?

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Department does not dictate or impose any particular type of school system, such as a two or three-tier system or all-through schools. It is for the local authority to determine what is necessary, based on the local priorities of the area. The minimal disruption that can be caused in all-through schools is certainly a good thing for local authorities to consider. There are only 25 of them, as I said in my original answer, and it is too early to decide whether they can be rolled out across the country, but they certainly have some benefits and challenges and are something that we are considering.

Haywood Engineering Specialist College

2. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): What recent representations in respect of equal pay for staff he has received from Haywood engineering specialist college. [302047]

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The Minister for Schools and Learners (Mr. Vernon Coaker): This year we have received two letters from Haywood engineering specialist college on this matter and a further two letters from my hon. Friend herself. In addition, I have met her to discuss this matter. As I stated in my last letter to her, I am hopeful that it will be concluded in a positive way. The Stoke-on-Trent schools forum supports the position of the school, but a conclusion cannot be reached until the new chief executive takes up his post in the new year.

Joan Walley: I thank my hon. Friend for all the help that he has given us to get Building Schools for the Future funding in Stoke-on-Trent. In respect particularly of the Haywood high school specialist college, will he ensure that Stoke-on-Trent city council provides the resources needed to meet the equal pay claims from support staff, on the basis that the college adopted foundation status notwithstanding Government guidance that, in respect of such claims, foundation schools are to be treated

This has gone on far too long. Will he do everything he can to ensure that Stoke-on-Trent council attends to the matter?

Mr. Coaker: I congratulate my hon. Friend, who has worked tirelessly on the problem affecting Haywood engineering specialist college. I know that it is a source of great concern to her. I reassure her that I intend to come to Stoke in the near future to see her in her constituency, and meet her and my hon. Friends in the rest of the area to talk about several issues. By that time, I hope that the problem, which has gone on for far too long, will be resolved to the satisfaction of the staff at the school. I hope that when the new chief executive comes along, the progress that we all want will be made. I hope that all schools in Stoke benefit from BSF investment.

Free School Meals

3. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What his most recent assessment is of the educational achievement of pupils eligible to receive free school meals. [302048]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): May I make it clear that I replied to the letter from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) this morning? I am only disappointed that he did not ask me those questions because I could have given him detailed answers.

In the past decade, primary and secondary schools that serve the most deprived intakes have achieved the largest increase in key stage 2 and GCSE results. In schools with more than 50 per cent. of pupils eligible for free school meals, the proportion of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, has increased from 24 per cent. in 2005 to 33 per cent. in 2008-double the rate of increase in the least deprived schools.

Andrew Selous: Is it not unacceptable that under half of white British boys eligible for free school meals achieve the expected standards in English and maths at the end of their primary school stage? Does the Secretary
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of State agree that part of the answer is more new academies, such as the excellent All Saints academy in Dunstable in my constituency?

Ed Balls: Since I became Secretary of State, I have approved 136 new academies, precisely because they show that they can raise standards, including for white boys, in the most disadvantaged areas. Of course, it is disappointing that we have not seen faster progress for white boys, but, as I said, the exam results for pupils from the most deprived backgrounds have increased faster in the past 10 years. That is true for primary and secondary schools and for English and maths. We are narrowing the gaps through investing in good schools, good teachers and the one-to-one tuition that is needed for pupils to make progress.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The facts that the Secretary of State has given the House are interesting, but does he agree that the concept of free school meal status being an adequate measure of social or economic disadvantage has outlived its usefulness? There are better measures and we should start to pursue some improved statistic.

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend makes an important and interesting point, which I would be happy to debate with him and the Minister for Schools and Learners in due course. However, the question was about the progress that free school meal pupils had achieved in the past decade, and the answer is that they have made progress faster than the average pupil-and much faster than in the previous decade. The picture is therefore good and improving, but we need to do more to narrow those gaps.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): The report on social mobility by the Secretary of State's old friend the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) earlier this year proposed a Liberal Democrat policy to improve the targeting of young people with educational disadvantages-the pupil premium. When will the Government formally respond to the right hon. Gentleman's report and when will they get on with introducing a pupil premium?

Ed Balls: We have already responded by setting out the way in which we will enhance information, advice and guidance. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a review of the pupil premium is going on at the moment. To be honest, as we have debated previously, a pupil premium could accompany an increase or a reduction in the amount of money that goes to the most disadvantaged. That would depend on whether the budgets were increasing or decreasing, but if we genuinely want to make progress, we have to guarantee that any pupil in years 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 who falls behind will get one-to-one, catch-up tuition to get them back on track. That is in our pupil guarantee and our legislation. Rather than criticising and refusing to back our guarantees, the hon. Gentleman should match and support them. In that way, we can make more progress on closing the gap to which he refers.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): On free school meals as in so many other areas of policy, is it not right that Members of Parliament should set an
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example to young people by doing their homework before making inaccurate and sensational claims at the Dispatch Box?

Ed Balls: We all know what my hon. Friend is alluding to, and I will not go over that past territory other than to agree that getting homework right is very important.

May I correct the record again for the House on an error made by my Department at the end of last year? In a parliamentary answer, we made an error when we said that the most disadvantaged pupils had seen their results go up by 13 per cent. over the last 10 years. In fact, the correct figure was 33 per cent. Our statisticians corrected that, we corrected the parliamentary answer and the Minister for Schools and Learning has written twice to correct it, but the shadow Secretary of State repeats that wrong statistic again and again-

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State has made his position clear and I want to make progress on the Order Paper.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for correcting his Department's mistake. I am also grateful to him for writing to me; I have not yet received that letter and I would be grateful for any clarification that he can give at the Dispatch Box.

The Sutton Trust has expressed its deep concern about the continuing under-achievement of children eligible for free school meals. It says that far from acting as a great leveller, the current education system is perpetuating inequalities. Nearly 40 per cent. of pupils eligible for free school meals do not even get a single grade C at GCSE. The 16-year-olds who left school this year had their entire education under Labour. Sir Terry Leahy has expressed his concern that standards are still woefully low and Sir Stuart Rose has said that school leavers cannot do reading, cannot do arithmetic and cannot do writing. Are Sir Terry and Sir Stuart wrong?

Ed Balls: I am very concerned that the hon. Gentleman continues on his path of undermining the progress being made by pupils and teachers all over the country. As I said, 33 per cent. of children in schools with more than 50 per cent. entitled to free school meals are getting five good GCSEs with English and maths. The Minister for Schools and Learning has twice written to the hon. Gentleman-in January and again this autumn-but in his speech in November the hon. Gentleman repeated the wrong figure, even though he knows that it is wrong. Undermining confidence by peddling false statistics is the wrong thing to do: it is the hon. Gentleman's credibility that is now in doubt on this matter.

Sure Start Centres

4. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What methods he uses to assess the effectiveness of individual Sure Start centres. [302050]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Dawn Primarolo): Local authorities are responsible for managing the performance of their Sure Start children's centres. Most use a framework devised by my Department in 2007. The Department does not currently receive
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information on individual centres, but from 2010 Ofsted will have a duty to inspect individual centres and report to the local authority.

Tony Lloyd: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real increases in educational attainment by children from disadvantaged backgrounds owe a lot to the Sure Start centres and what they have done for young people, especially in inner-city areas and the equivalent? Who in their right mind would want to get rid of those centres?

Dawn Primarolo: My hon. Friend is right. The national evaluation of 2008 identifies a Sure Start effect: parents have more positive parenting skills, better home learning environments exist and we can see the development of children. The Leader of the Opposition has said that he supports Sure Start, but he has also identified cuts of more than £200 million to its budget. That would hit the very poorest in our community.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): The Minister knows that we fully support Sure Start, especially its role in helping children who have the toughest start in life to have better early years education. Can she explain why she takes so little notice of Ofsted's figures, which show that after years of Sure Start children in the most deprived communities are twice as likely to attend a failing nursery as children in the richest areas, and that this situation is getting worse?

Dawn Primarolo: The hon. Lady will know that wishing support for Sure Start without committing resources to, and investment in, children's centres will never help to tackle the under-achievement that still exists in some parts of the country. She needs to come to the Dispatch Box now and commit her party to match all the spending to which the Government are committed, rather than cutting £200 million from Sure Start. Only then would we see the improvements that she allegedly wants in the performance of the very poorest in our community.

Children's Centres (Ealing, Southall)

5. Mr. Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): How many children's centres there are in the Ealing, Southall constituency. [302051]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Dawn Primarolo): Ealing local authority has a total of 22 designated Sure Start children's centres, offering services to more than 15,600 under-fives and their families. Of those, 10 are based in the Ealing, Southall constituency.

Mr. Sharma: In the light of the fantastic work done by those children's centres in my constituency, supporting some of the most vulnerable children and families, does the Minister agree that it would be disastrous if funding cuts closed two of them, as proposed by the Opposition?

Dawn Primarolo: Children's centres offer a full range of services, whether it be integrated early learning and care for children, the support given to families through the health service, the employment and training advice given to parents or the support that is particularly important for fathers. As my hon. Friend says, for his community, if one in five children's centres were closed,
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it would devastate the performance and ability of children. That is the policy of the Opposition, and we need to push them on that to deny it.

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