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The Minister for Schools and Learners (Mr. Vernon Coaker): Decisions about school organisation are taken by local authorities and are not matters for the Secretary of State. However, I understand that Wirral local authority has recently consulted on reorganising its special educational needs provision, but that no decisions have yet been made regarding the future of the Lyndale school.
Does the Minister agree that children with profound and multiple learning difficulties require tailor-made education in an age range from three to 19,
and that an excellent school such as Lyndale, which the Secretary of State visited in 2008, would make a super nucleus for such education?
Mr. Coaker: I know that the Secretary of State visited the Lyndale school and saw for himself the excellent educational provision there. [Interruption.] It is interesting that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), says that I should go and visit that school. That is what the Secretary of State has just said to me as well, so it looks as though I am going to the Wirral. The serious point is that it is important that children, particularly those with special needs, receive the educational entitlement that they deserve. I am sure that those who follow these debates will have read what my hon. Friend said about the Lyndale school and will have taken note of the fact that the Secretary of State has been there and commented on how outstanding it is. Hopefully, all those remarks will be taken into account when decisions are made about the future of special educational needs and school organisation in the Wirral.
The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Dawn Primarolo): Educational psychologists are local authority employees. It is for individual authorities to determine the number required and their input in terms of training costs. To support local authorities, the Children's Workforce Development Council administers a scheme based on employer contributions which funds the training of educational psychologists. The Children's Workforce Development Council has also developed a work force development model to support future planning.
Rob Marris: The funding crisis in training is exacerbated by the lack of guidance as to the number of educational psychologists who are needed to support and improve outcomes for vulnerable children and young people. By what date does the Minister expect the Children's Workforce Development Council at long last to decide the role of educational psychologists and therefore the ratio needed per child and young person? Will she encourage the Children's Workforce Development Council to hurry up?
Dawn Primarolo: There was a meeting on 26 October with the then general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists and the CWDC, which my hon. Friend attended with my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall). The Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), has written to local authorities with regard to the funding issue. She has a follow-up meeting with the CWDC on the very points that my hon. Friend makes about providing dates, and with Kate Fallon, the new general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will keep him informed.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Iain Wright): The Department has guidance on its teachernet website. The guidance had been revised after the heavy snow in February 2009. We sent a message to schools on 8 January this year, stressing the importance of trying to open for exams. We encourage schools to remain open when it is safe to do so, but the decision on whether to close has to be taken locally, by those who know the local conditions.
Norman Baker: There are a number of schools in my patch where the teachers were able to get in and wanted to open, but did not do so because there was ice on the path on the way in or in the car park, and they were concerned about the prospect of being successfully sued for any incidents that occurred. Can the Minister give schools some assurance that, if teachers get in and want to open, they ought to do so and that the Government will protect them from such action?
Mr. Wright: I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised the topic of snow and the need for grit in previous questions. In a statement earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport said that we all need to take a common-sense approach. It is ridiculous to suggest that people cannot clear roads and pathways because of the threat of being sued. It is a ridiculous notion, it is not something that we encourage, and it certainly is not legal.
The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Dawn Primarolo): We are on track to meet our target of at least 3,500 Sure Start children's centres by March 2010. By the end of December 2009, there were 3,381 designated centres.
Laura Moffatt: That is excellent news, and this is one occasion when I have no hesitation in asking for further spending on children's centres. The evidence is there; parents and children need them; and we need to get on with the programme, which is so greatly welcomed in our communities.
Dawn Primarolo: The evidence from the outcomes for the national evaluation of Sure Start shows that children behave better and are more independent and ready to learn, and that awareness of children's centres and support from parents are at their very highest. The Government are committed to their funding of Sure Start children's centres, unlike the Opposition, who want to cut them.
The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): In our Children, Schools and Families Bill, we are legislating to ensure that all children and young people receive personal, social and health education, including sex and relationship education, and we are lowering the parental opt-out to 15 years of age. We will consult on the detailed content of the new PSHE curriculum after the Bill has gained Royal Assent. In the meantime, we are publishing today updated guidance for schools on sex and relationship education. It has been produced following consultation last year with parents, teachers, faith groups, young people and health professionals, and it sets out, among other things, the importance of marriage and of strong and stable relationships for bringing up children.
Mr. Mackay: Returning to the dreadful Doncaster case, I note that one reason that the Secretary of State and Lord Laming used for not publishing the full case review was that professionals in future would not co-operate with such investigations. Will the Secretary of State accept what the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says-that that is quite wrong, that professionals must be forced to co-operate and that that is not a suitable excuse for not publishing the full review?
Ed Balls: I am sorry to go over the same ground, but the NSPCC says, and has said since last Wednesday, that we should not publish the full review. That is also the view of 4Children and many other organisations. The reason is to ensure that the identities of innocent children who have been abused, and whose details are set out in such reports, are not put into the public domain. I would have thought that anybody who had ever read one of those reviews would know that there are very strong reasons for keeping such reports out of the public domain. That is what I have said, and that is exactly the approach that we will continue to take.
T2.  Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): It is unfair that Ofsted marks down any school where a high proportion of parents choose to send their children with unhealthy packed lunches, despite the school's efforts to educate parents about healthy eating. Will the Government order Ofsted to desist, and if not, why not?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ms Diana R. Johnson): I have not heard about that before, but I am certainly happy to raise the matter with the chief inspector and ask for a response. The majority of parents provide a balanced packed lunch, and packed lunches are the responsibility of parents, not of schools.
T3.  Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Can the Secretary of State estimate how many pages of guidance his Department has issued to teachers in the past 10 years and tell the House whether he considers it sufficient?
Ed Balls: I think that the answer to that is no-I have never sat down and counted all the pages of guidance. What I have done is reform the national curriculum to reduce the burdens on teachers and give them more discretion over the primary and secondary curriculums. It is a great pity that, rather than support the national curriculum, the Opposition propose to abolish it.
Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): One of my constituents who works with young people is increasingly concerned because, she tells me, more and more schools are engaged in what she calls soft exclusions. They do not formally exclude children; they say, "Stay away for a day", "two days", "a week" or "two weeks". I believe that that practice is illegal. Will my hon. Friend the Minister undertake to look into that and, if it is illegal, put a stop to it?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Iain Wright): I certainly will look into that. The situation may be different in Wales, but I will check, and I will be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss specific cases. To generalise, I can certainly say that soft exclusions are illegal, but I will look into the matter and report back to him.
T4.  Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Faith schools are being harassed by a party leader who seeks to tell them what to teach and by the European Union, which tells them who they can employ. Is not the very raison d'être of faith schools to sustain a distinct religious identity? Will the Secretary of State safeguard faith schools?
Ed Balls: Absolutely. Faith schools were in existence providing free education to often the most deprived children before the state started to do the same. I fully support faith schools. They have to abide by the law on fair admissions. I think that agreeing to calls for the admissions code to be dropped to allow faith schools to pick by interviewing parents would be the wrong thing to do. I also think it is right that faith schools promote community cohesion. Both the Church of England and the Catholic Education Service are supporting our changes to the rules on sex and relationships education. I have very strong and good relationships with the faith organisations, which are supporting the direction that we taking and are not supporting the proposal by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) to keep the opt-out age at 19.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of recent research among young people in my constituency that found that they greatly valued the education maintenance allowance but wanted it to be based on current parental income rather than the previous year's income so that it could provide more effective support for children whose parents become unemployed? Would he be prepared to look at such proposals?
Mr. Iain Wright:
I get a lot of correspondence with regard to that. I have considerable sympathy when there have been in-year changes in circumstances. The full year's income assessment that we provide is the best general barometer of what parental income is. There are considerable flexibilities within the benefits system
to allow other help and assistance to be given. In addition, we have increased help for discretionary learner support funds to schools and colleges. I keep a close eye on this matter.
T5.  Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I have a lot of respect for the Schools Minister, and I thank him for agreeing to visit my constituency. He referred to the importance of removing surplus places from secondary education. My constituent, Mr. Joe Slatter, has proved conclusively that Essex county council's arguments for closing the two schools that I mentioned are false. Will the Minister therefore join me in a meeting with people from Building Schools for the Future to prove that what Essex county council says about an investment of £130 million is not correct?
Ed Balls: Nobody could describe the hon. Gentleman as being a slacker when it comes to these issues. The Schools Minister has already confirmed, and I can confirm it on his behalf, that he will be having another meeting. If the hon. Gentleman would like to bring people from Building Schools for the Future, that would be fine by us. If he wants to bring people from Essex county council, that will also be fine, although I am not sure that his relationship with them would allow for that. If he would like the Schools Minister to have more than one meeting, I am sure that my hon. Friend would, within reason, be happy to oblige.
Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): This Government can be justifiably proud of the massive increase in the number of after-school clubs since 1997. In my constituency, however, several after-school clubs are facing closure owing to a withdrawal of funding by the Scottish National party-led local council. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to convince his counterpart in Holyrood that such clubs are a lifeline for working families and that their funding should continue?
Ed Balls: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. The devolved Administration in Scotland have also been withdrawing, or reducing, support for education maintenance allowances. The National Union of Students estimates that as a result 7,000 fewer students will be able to stay on in education after the age of 16. I fear that the SNP Administration in Scotland have been paying far too much attention to the policies of the main Opposition party in Westminster, rather than the policies of the Government.
T7.  Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will the Minister for Schools and Learners consider the merits of replacing the traditional three-term structure with five fixed terms of eight weeks each to provide for better attendance, families taking their holidays during holiday time, and the reduction of skill fade over the very long summer recess?
The Minister for Schools and Learners (Mr. Vernon Coaker):
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his question. For local authority-funded schools, that is a matter for the governing body and the local authority to decide and to determine. They must consult parents at least one term in advance if they wish to change the way in which terms are allocated, including
by writing to parents and holding a meeting with them. Furthermore, the Local Government Association works very closely with local authorities to try to align term dates across local authority boundaries. I hope that that reply is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that on the measure of five GCSE passes at grade A* to C, last year Coventry city had its best ever results? [Interruption.] I do not see what there is to laugh at there. They have increased by 15 per cent., which is a significant achievement and shows that the Government's policies for improvement in secondary education are working. Results continue to improve year by year.
Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is right. As he will know, the improvements of the past decade have come after what was, in Coventry and around the country, a decade or more of stagnation in exam results. That has happened because we have the best generation of teachers that we have ever had and because we have been increasing investment in our schools year on year. We should not resort to policies of running down the achievements of teachers or cutting spending in the coming year, because that would set back the achievements of children in Coventry and around the country. It is not something that this Government will do in the coming year.
"How could you have a report on something as critical as this without naming"
"individually? By failing to release the... full report, it feels like an institutional cover-up".
Ed Balls: It would be very easy indeed for me to publish the full report and to bow to political pressure and pressure from some newspapers. The reason that I am not going to do so is that it would put into the public domain the details of abuse suffered by vulnerable children in the family concerned and more widely in Doncaster and set back our ability to ensure that it did not happen again. Sometimes in government, the easy thing to do is not the right thing to do. I am going to do my best to protect children in our country, not play the games that we are seeing from Opposition Members.
Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): The latest GCSE results have been put on the Department's computer and show figures on a ward-by-ward basis. By a long margin, the biggest improvement in York has been in the poorest wards of the city. What will the Government do to continue to provide additional help for children from poor families, so that educational opportunity is there for everybody, not just the richer and the better-off?
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