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House of Commons

Monday 25 January 2010

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-

GCSE Grades

1. Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Which five schools have shown the greatest increase in numbers of passes of GCSE grades A* to C since 1997. [312577]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Mr. Vernon Coaker): We are unable to make a statistically valid comparison of results for all schools individually between 1997 and 2009. However, 45.1 per cent. of pupils achieved five or more good grades-A* to C- in 1997 and that rose to 70 per cent. in 2009.

Martin Linton: I know that the figures are now normally given including English and Maths and so no straight comparison is possible with those from 1997. However, on the basis of the figures that are comparable-those for straight GCSE passes-is the Minister aware that the results of Battersea Park school in my constituency have improved by 66 percentage points, from between 4 and 5 per cent. in 1997 to 70 per cent. now? Does that not make it the most improved school over that period in the country?

Mr. Coaker: It certainly makes it one of the most improved schools in the country over that period, and I congratulate all the staff, pupils and parents at Battersea Park school on all the work that they have done. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the improved results in obtaining five A* to C GCSE grades-as he says, the figure for his local school has risen from 5 per cent. in 1997 to 70 per cent. in 2009. He may be interested to learn that 11 per cent. of Battersea Park school's pupils gained the benchmark of five A* to C GCSEs including English and Maths in 2005, whereas 36 per cent. of its pupils did so in 2009. However one measures it, Battersea Park school has made significant and substantial improvements, and should be congratulated on doing so.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I welcome any improved results, but does the Minister agree that the basic standards of literacy and numeracy in this country are nowhere near good enough for a country that is attempting to compete in a global economy?

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Mr. Coaker: I do not accept that numeracy and literacy standards are nowhere near where they should be-a significant rise has taken place in those standards. The number of primary school pupils gaining level 4, which is the benchmark that we use, has risen significantly. I mentioned the GCSE results at Battersea Park school, but the results of other secondary schools up and down the country also show a significant improvement. Are we satisfied with that and do we want to do more? Of course we want to do more, which is why we are introducing one-to-one tuition in primary schools. Such tuition will be carried on into secondary schools and will be backed up by the resources and investment needed.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that the number of pupils obtaining five good GCSEs in Westminster has more than doubled since 1997? Will he join me in congratulating Martin Tissot and the teachers and pupils at St. George's school? That school had a particularly troubled history and the fact that it has just been recognised as the most improved school in London shows what can be done with a combination of excellent leadership and resources.

Mr. Coaker: Of course I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the school in her constituency and Martin Tissot on his work. It goes to show that schools that have good leadership, work with their communities and focus on teaching and learning can, even in the most difficult circumstances, raise standards and improve results. That is what has happened in the school that she mentions, and it is happening in schools up and down the country.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Is the Minister not concerned that nearly half of the 75,000 children on free school meals do not get a single GCSE above a grade D; that fewer than 4 per cent. of those 75,000 children are even entered for a GCSE in biology, physics or chemistry; that the independent sector now accounts for nearly half of all A* grades in GCSE French and achieves more A grades at A-level than all our comprehensive schools put together; and, most damning of all, that the achievement gap in GCSEs between the poorest areas of the country and the richest is widening-from 20 percentage points last year to a staggering 25 percentage points this year? Why, when pupils and teachers are working harder than ever, are this Government generating deeper and deeper inequalities?

Mr. Coaker: The key stage 4 results for children on free school meals are rising faster than the average, and between 2002 and 2009 the number of pupils on free school meals achieving the equivalent of five A* to C grades at GCSE rose by 26 percentage points. It does not do the hon. Gentleman justice to keep pointing negatively at the achievements of those on free school meals. Significant improvement has been made in respect of those pupils, many of whose schools face the most difficult and challenging circumstances. Do we want to achieve more? Of course we do, which is why there has been a focus in those schools on standards and why, over time, we will also see an improvement in numeracy and literacy, particularly through the introduction of one-to-one tuition. As I say, there are things that we
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need to do and we need to do more, but more will not be achieved by simply decrying the achievements of schools that serve the most difficult areas.

Education Maintenance Allowance

2. Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): What his policy is on the future of the education maintenance allowance; and if he will make a statement. [312578]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): The pre-Budget report announced an investment of £8.2 billion in 2010-11 to fund 1.6 million places and meet our September guarantee to school leavers of a school, college or apprenticeship place. We expect to spend about £580 million on education maintenance allowances which will fund a further 80,000 places, and in 2011 we will remove the EMA bonus scheme to ensure that we can guarantee EMA payments to all students who need them.

Nia Griffith: Many young people in my constituency have benefited from what the Welsh Assembly Government have done in parallel with the Department. They use the money wisely to help young people stay in education beyond 16. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that some people are talking even about depriving young people of such things? For example, the nationalist Government in Scotland have decided to steal the money from the young people who need it most-those who are staying on in school and trying to do the best they can for their futures.

Ed Balls: This is rightly a devolved matter, so it is for the Administrations in Wales and Scotland to decide, but the evidence shows that EMA payments increase participation in education beyond the age of 16 for children from poorer backgrounds. Any decision to scale back funding for EMA payments would be a very retrograde step.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): My constituent, Mrs. Nicholas, is a widow with twin daughters, Emily and Sarah, who are clever enough to be studying for their A-levels a year ahead of their age cohort. As a result, they have been told that they do not qualify for the education maintenance allowance. Is that not an unfairness? Will the Secretary of State pledge to put it right?

Ed Balls: I am happy to look at the details of the case raised by the hon. Lady. If she gives me those details, I shall write back to her. The purpose of the EMA is to ensure that finance is not a barrier to young people staying in school, college or an apprenticeship place after the age of 16 as they go into further study. There would be an even greater barrier if those places did not exist. At least with the Labour party, people know that there will be a school leavers' guarantee this September.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree not only that education maintenance allowances have been a success but that when they are clustered with what we have done in opening up diplomas, which are growing healthily, and
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with new apprenticeships, they give 14 to 19-year-olds a real alternative for the first time in the history of education in our country?

Ed Balls: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The fact is that we have a higher number of young people staying on in education after 16 than we have ever had, and that is really good preparation for when education to 18 becomes the law in a few years' time. Whether education takes place in school, in college or through an apprenticeship, it is vital to have qualifications that meet the needs of every student, whether they are more academic or want more vocational learning. It is also vital to ensure that they are not pushed down one route because their family says, "I'm really sorry, but you've got to go to work as we can't afford full-time study." That is what EMAs deal with. To propose that they should be scaled back or abolished would be a very retrograde step for social justice in our country.

Sex Education (Faith Schools)

3. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What recent representations he has received on teaching about homosexual relationships in faith schools. [312579]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ms Diana R. Johnson): We are not aware of any specific representations from faith schools on teaching about homosexual relationships, although we are aware that it is of concern to some. We will be consulting on revised guidance to schools on sex and relationships education that makes it clear that schools have the flexibility to tailor their SRE provision to reflect the ethos of the school, but that teaching should be presented in a balanced way and should include other perspectives.

Mr. Bone: I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Do the Government agree with the leader of the Liberal party that schools should be forced to teach that homosexuality is normal and harmless?

Ms Johnson: Many faith schools are already teaching SRE very well. Schools have to teach within the context of their faith and their beliefs. They must present the accurate facts on homosexuality and do so fairly, and they can then, of course, talk about their faith, ethos and beliefs, too. They must also talk about tolerance, diversity and respect for all people who live in our communities and about the importance of rights and responsibilities.

Integrated Qualifications

4. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to integrate academic and vocational qualifications. [312580]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Iain Wright): Our 14 to 19 reforms are the most comprehensive changes to this part of education policy for more than half a century. They are designed to put in place high-quality qualifications that match a young person's abilities, talents, interests
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and aspirations. There are four clear qualification routes: apprenticeships, the diploma, foundation learning or GCSEs and A-levels.

Mr. Chaytor: I welcome the Government's effort to create a more integrated curriculum between the ages of 14 and 19. Does the Minister not agree that the shelf-life of the terms "vocational" and "academic" is coming to an end? The rigid segregation between what people perceive as vocational and academic is not helping to create parity. Do we need a new form of language to describe the curriculum?

Mr. Wright: I would go further than my hon. Friend. The fixation in certain quarters on categorising people at 11, 14, or 16 as academic or vocational and then labelling them as a success or failure accordingly has hindered our economic progress for more than a century. We need to focus on what is needed in the modern economy. What will success look like? Success will mean students learning to the best of their abilities and deploying transferable skills that can be applied in different settings. That is exactly what we want, and what the diplomas are providing. That is how our wider reform of 14 to 19 education is progressing.


5. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What recent representations he has received on Ofsted's new powers of inspection. [312581]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): Schools, head teachers' representatives and directors of children's services are in regular contact with Ministers and the Department about a range of matters, including Ofsted inspections.

Miss McIntosh: Is the Secretary of State aware that Ofsted has changed the basis on which it inspects satisfactory schools but that that change does not appear on its website? Instead of a 20-day window for re-inspections of satisfactory schools, they are happening from one day to the next. Why is that not published on the website? Why is Ofsted acting as though it cannot trust any school or head teacher?

Ed Balls: This is not a change in Ofsted's powers, but it is a change in the framework for inspection. It started in September, after a long consultation. It is a deliberate raising of the bar to make our pursuit of high standards for all children in our schools even tougher and more demanding. A new framework always takes the first few months to bed down, and we shall see the details of that in a few weeks, when Ofsted does its report. However, I think that it is right that we are challenging all schools to ensure that all children succeed. That will be the basis for the new report card that we are introducing, and of the new Ofsted inspection framework, which I fully support.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): Ofsted also has a responsibility to inspect serious case reviews and, when one takes place, to sign off the summary for the courts. I do not agree that we should publish the serious case review in full, but I have some concerns about the guidelines for the summary, which I believe should tell
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the story and not just present recommendations. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and others who want to express that point of view?

Ed Balls: I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend. She joins the widespread consensus when she says that she does not want the full review to be published, but she makes important points about the executive summary. In fact, over the past few months we have been consulting on revising the terms of reference for serious case reviews. That followed the report from Lord Laming earlier in the year, in which he said that we should continue not to publish the full review, but that we should put more information in the summaries. I agree, and that is what we intend to do, but I will have a meeting with my right hon. Friend and others to make sure that we proceed in the best possible way in the coming weeks.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I am glad that the Secretary of State seems to be changing his position on this matter. Most people in this House got the impression last week that the Prime Minister was arguing that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children supported the Government's existing position, which is to release only the serious case review summaries. Does the Secretary of State accept that the NSPCC changed its mind on this issue in November, and that it does not regard the existing position as sustainable? When, therefore, will we get some change in the arrangements?

Ed Balls: The hon. Gentleman needs to get his facts right when he makes a point like that. In May 2009, the Government responded to the report from Lord Laming in which he said that we should revise the guidance to children's departments on serious case reviews. We published a consultation in July, part of which said that we should have fuller executive summaries, and that is what we intend to do. We have had 146 responses to that consultation: while all but one of them supported withholding publication of the full report, they agreed that we should expand the amount of information in the executive summary. That is what we intend to do, and what we will do. It is also what the NSPCC said. In its statement after Prime Minister's questions last week, the NSPCC made it clear-and I agree-that we need to have high-quality summaries that give a full, transparent and accurate picture of agency involvement, including errors or failings. However, it also said:

I agree 100 per cent. with the NSPCC, and I hope that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) does so. We know that the official Opposition do not.

Mr. Laws: I do not know what the Secretary of State is making so much fuss about. If all he is saying is that a few pieces of sensitive information and issues of anonymity need to be dealt with, both sides of the House will agree. That is not a reason to keep the vast majority of full serious case reviews secret, as has happened. If the right hon. Gentleman is softening his position, it is merely a question of the degree to which the full reviews can be published. Will he assure us that the Government will table an amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Bill in order to have far greater openness than is currently the case?

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