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House of Commons

Monday 8 March 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-

School Transport

1. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet local education authority representatives to discuss school transport. [320675]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ms Diana R. Johnson): There are currently no such meetings planned, but I will always give due consideration to any proposals from local authorities to meet them.

Mr. Bellingham: Does the Minister agree that if the 14-to-19 diploma programme is to work properly, efficient and effective school transport programmes must be in place to ensure that children who are going to schools further away from their home are accommodated? Has she seen the Select Committee on Transport's report of March 2009, and what action is she going to take?

Ms Johnson: We think it very important indeed that parents and young people can exercise preferences about where they want to go to school or college and the courses they want to study. Additional money has been made available to local authorities to ensure that young people have that choice. The Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), who is responsible for the diplomas, has said that further additional money is being made available, too.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): If the Minister is not having any meetings with local authority representatives, what further action will she take, beyond existing guidance, to ensure safer travel on school transport, including, in particular, tackling bullying on school transport and providing adequate training for school bus drivers?

Ms Johnson: The hon. Lady will know about the travelling to school initiative and the £7.5 million that was made available to work with schools to allow them to draw up school transport plans for the whole school community, so that there can be safe and sustainable ways of getting to school. The issue of bullying will be addressed within that, as will the issue of training for people who are travelling on school buses.

Playing Fields

2. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): What his policy is on the sale of school playing fields for development; and if he will make a statement. [320676]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Iain Wright): Schools and local authorities need the Secretary of State's consent to sell school playing fields. The legislation introduced in 1998 sets out clear criteria for sales. School playing fields can be sold only if they are genuinely surplus, and all proceeds from the sale must be returned to improving sports or educational facilities.

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Bob Spink: Essex county council has made three attacks on Castle Point's school playing fields, which is outrageous. The latest attack is to sell off part of Castle View school's playing field to build a massive estate in the green belt and on the floodplain. It is totally unacceptable. Will the Minister work with me to try to stop this? Essex county councillors should not be using my community-

Mr. Speaker: Order. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but we have got his point.

Mr. Wright: I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in this matter. He has raised it on the Floor of the House before in Department for Children, Schools and Families questions. I am very keen to work with him and, more importantly than that, my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners is very keen to work with him. I can offer a meeting between the hon. Gentleman and the Minister for Schools and Learners to allow that to take place.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the increasing use of outdoor gyms to enable people to use outdoor facilities more often? Will he encourage schools and local authorities to set about entering into partnerships to have more of those facilities, so that more people can use them?

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. We are keen to ensure that partnership and collaborative work takes place to ensure that every single young person in school has the opportunity to have 21st-century sport and recreational facilities. The hon. Gentleman's suggestions have been taken on board, and I want to work with him and other Members from around the House to ensure that his vision is realised.

Primary Schools (Hove)

3. Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with relevant local authorities on the provision of primary schools in Hove; and if he will make a statement. [320677]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ms Diana R. Johnson): Partnerships for Schools, the body responsible for the management and delivery of our schools capital investment programme, is currently in discussions with Brighton and Hove local authority about school place provision, particularly for primary schools in the Hove area. I have agreed to meet my hon. Friend and some of her constituents on 17 March to discuss access to primary school places in the area.

Ms Barlow: I thank the Minister for meeting me and my constituents and for meeting other parents in the autumn. Despite the Government's granting £44 million for schools in Brighton and Hove, the Tory-led council is still slashing money for young people, toddlers and training, including £600,000 from Sure Start. It still has not allocated the £5.7 million granted by her Department for a new primary school. Will she ensure that money given to children by the Government is given by the council?

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Ms Johnson: The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has made it clear that if we want to know what a Conservative Government would be like, we should look at how they act in local authorities-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must say to the hon. Lady that I feel sure that we are going to have an offer of Government policy on the matter-or does she feel that she has said enough?

Ms Johnson indicated assent.

Secondary Schools (Attainment)

4. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What recent steps he has taken to increase the level of attainment of pupils in secondary schools; and if he will make a statement. [320678]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): Standards are rising in our secondary schools due to great teaching, the doubling of per pupil funding and the biggest investment in school buildings since the Victorian era. We already have 96 local authorities in our Building Schools for the Future programme, and I can announce today approval for the next six authorities to enter the programme. These authorities are Buckinghamshire, Cornwall, Gateshead, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Sutton, with a total investment of £420 million. In addition, Birmingham, Cumbria and Gloucestershire fell just short of being ready, but with some extra work they will be first in line to enter the programme at the next available opportunity.

Mr. Evennett: I note the Secretary of State's response, but far too many schools are still not making the required level of progress. Is he aware that in almost a quarter of state-funded secondary schools, fewer than half the pupils made the expected progress between key stages 2 and 4 in English and maths? Is that not an indictment of his record, and his Government's record, over the past 13 years of failure?

Ed Balls: I know that the constituents of Bexleyheath and Crayford will be hoping, along with 50 other local authorities, that they will have the chance to come into Building Schools for the Future in the coming years. As he knows, that is a guarantee that Labour will make but that the Conservatives will cut. As for one-to-one tuition, which is vital to make sure that every child can make progress if they fall behind, it was in our fifth-Session Bill, which the Conservative party voted against on Third Reading. That is why there would not be progress under a Conservative Government.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): Is not a real picture of our success given by Halton, where the percentage of children getting five grades A to C has gone up by 36 per cent. since 1998 to more than 70 per cent. today? Congratulations must go to the teachers and pupils there. Is it not also important to recognise the role of local education authorities? Will he examine the important contribution that Halton has made to increasing and improving standards there?

Ed Balls: I know that some people do not think that there is a role for local education authorities, but the reason why we have made progress is because of those
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authorities that have been willing to support and challenge where progress was needed. The fact is that in 1997 only one in 20 schools were getting five GCSEs, including English and maths, whereas the number today is not one in 20 schools but one in three. That is a real measure of the progress on standards that we have seen in the past 10 years.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Thomas Lord Audley school in my constituency on exceeding the Government's 30 per cent. GCSE target and on achieving the best results in the school's entire history? Does he agree that, given those circumstances, Essex county council should not be shutting such a successful school, particularly given that last September's admissions were the highest for many years?

Ed Balls: In 1997, some 1,600 schools-more than one in two-were not achieving that benchmark of 30 per cent. for English and maths. Now, the number is not one in two, but fewer than one in 13. I congratulate the leadership of Thomas Lord Audley school on the progress that has been made. On the other issue that the hon. Gentleman raises about school improvement, and on the matters that are being discussed at length between him and Essex county council, I know that one of the numerous meetings that he is having with the Minister for Schools and Learners is happening this afternoon, and I shall look forward to receiving a personal report on the issues that have been raised-I am sure that playing fields will come up as well.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): High schools in my constituency have, like many others, made dramatic improvements in attainment in recent years. That is down to a number of factors, including dedicated, high-calibre teachers, but above all to a return to rigorous teaching methods. Will my right hon. Friend seek to make sure that such teaching methods are adopted nationally, so that we can get national improvement?

Ed Balls: We have a national curriculum that specifies the particular areas that need to be covered, including, for example, in history, the first world war, the second world war and the slave trade, but how teaching is done is really a matter for head teachers and teachers, rather than for the Secretary of State to prescribe. We have the best generation of teachers and some of the best school leaders that we have ever had. I think that starting to tell people how to teach and what to teach would be over-centralising. That may be the approach of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), but it will not be my approach.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that, in the last year for which we have figures, of the 80,000 children who were eligible for free school meals-the very poorest-only 45 got to Oxford or Cambridge. Why are so many poor children being failed by Labour?

Ed Balls: There has been repeated discussion on these matters. I have attempted to correct the hon. Gentleman on his statistical failings, but he keeps refusing to listen. What he does in his comparisons is to look only at the children on free school meals who go to schools. He
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repeatedly ignores the performance of young people on free school meals who go to further education colleges. His statistics therefore always give a very unfair and biased picture of what is going on, which I guess must account for why he keeps saying that his school reforms would lead to rising standards, while the head of the Swedish equivalent of Ofsted has said that they would lead to falling standards and greater inequality. I think that he should do his homework a little bit better.

Michael Gove: I think that it is the Secretary of State who will get an F for fail. The Association of Colleges has looked at our figures, and the 80,000 whom we are talking about are all people who were in school in 2002. Whether or not they went on to school or sixth-form college, we looked at those who went on to Oxbridge. The right hon. Gentleman's deputy, the Minister for Schools and Learners, repeated that mistake two weeks ago and had to acknowledge that it was an error. I hope the Secretary of State will have the good grace to acknowledge his error when he comes back to the Dispatch Box now. When more than 40 per cent. of the people who go on to Oxford and Cambridge come from fee-paying independent schools, where they have access to the high quality IGCSE, why does he deny poorer pupils in state schools the chance to have that high quality qualification? Why the prejudice towards the poor from his Labour Government?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but I counted four questions there. In the next set, we must not have a repetition.

Ed Balls: I will do my best to answer all four questions, to the extent that I followed them. The point that I was making is that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) regularly alleges, as he did only a week and a half ago, that only 189 pupils eligible for free school meals got three As at A-level, but he counts only pupils at maintained schools' sixth forms and excludes those who go to sixth-form colleges or further education colleges. I have written to him and contacted him to try to get him to correct that mistake, but he refuses to do so. Similarly, he refuses to acknowledge that his free schools initiative will not only divert money away from other state schools, but will lead to falling standards and greater social inequality. I would have thought that he would join me in congratulating the six areas which today have been given more than £400 million of school investment. Let me read a quote from EducationInvestor- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much wittering from a sedentary position taking place-

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Secretary of State is wittering from the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr, Gray, calm yourself. It is not good for your health. The Secretary of State may quote very briefly.

Ed Balls: Very briefly, the quote is:

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That was the shadow schools Minister. What that means is that schemes at 700 schools in 50 areas could potentially be cancelled by a Conservative local authority. That is the threat to school building. That is why the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will not talk about the Swedish model or his school building-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. We now need to move on.

Education Maintenance Allowance

5. Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): What plans he has for the future eligibility criteria for education maintenance allowance. [320679]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Mr. Iain Wright): To be eligible for education maintenance allowance in England, a learner must be aged between 16 and 19, meet certain residential criteria, have a bank account, and have a household income under £30,810, based on evidence from the last full financial year. We will continue, as now, not to require household income assessment for specific groups. However, from the end of June 2010, no new learners will be exempt from household income assessment solely on the basis of their course.

Ann Coffey: More than 3,000 young people in my constituency receive the education maintenance allowance. Without that financial support, many of them could not stay on for further education and skills training after 16. Will my hon. Friend assure me of his continuing commitment to maintaining the education maintenance allowance for low-income families in my constituency?

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend is correct, and I pay tribute to all the hard work that she does with regard to this subject. For far too long-for decades-there has been a direct correlation between the level of educational participation and attainment, and household income. EMAs help to break that. That is a direct result of a policy intervention from the Government. The 3,000 learners in my hon. Friend's constituency who are benefiting from that would, I think, like to be reassured that the Government will continue steadfastly supporting EMAs. We will certainly do that-no ifs, no buts. We will continue to support EMAs, unlike the Opposition, who have described them as a fiasco.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Will the Minister steadfastly defend EMAs for children in the independent sector in cases where, for example, grandparents are paying the fees of their grandchildren in independent schools?

Mr. Wright: I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, who is a decent and honourable man, that the whole purpose of education maintenance allowance is to make sure that we can help people on low and middle-incomes participate in education post-16. I suggest that if parents or grandparents are paying for their education, the household income is not necessarily a key criterion, and perhaps we should examine that criterion a little more closely.

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