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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 15 December 2010

[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]

Outdoor Learning

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Angela Watkinson.)

9.30 am

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): May I say what an honour it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton, and not for the first time?

I start by declaring an interest. My enthusiasm for this subject started in previous years when I was involved in the creation of a charity, the Countryside Alliance Foundation. That fuelled the fire for this debate and since then, a number of organisations have come on to my radar and helped enormously in shaping my views. I will quickly list them: the Field Studies Council, in particular its excellent staff at West Orielton in Pembrokeshire in my constituency; the National Trust, its Outdoor Britain campaign, and particularly the help of Jonathan Hughes; the English Outdoor Council; the Bushcraft Company; the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; and the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom. One of the encouraging things about preparing for this debate was the common ground found between so many different organisations.

This debate is not about urban interests versus rural interests; the subject is important to everybody, wherever they come from and whatever their background and aspirations. Neither is the debate aimed at persuading urban children to go out and do things such as skin rabbits; this is about getting everybody-whether teachers or pupils-out of a classroom and into a new environment so that they can find something somewhere that excites them and in which they can excel. In short, the debate is about outdoor education, not outdoor entertainment.

When I looked into this topic, I was struck by the fact that these days only about 10% of children play outdoors, although about 40% of their parents used to do that. A survey conducted a few years ago by Country Life magazine illustrated the challenge that confronts us. A group of children was asked why, in their view, it was important that gates were closed in the countryside. The most popular answer was, "To keep the elephants in." They were asked why it was perhaps more enjoyable to live in rural rather than urban areas, and the equally depressing, but slightly telling, response was, "There are fewer coppers." Those are the challenges and the facts that underpin part-although not all-of this debate. We have a big mountain to climb, but we have the consensus and enthusiasm to climb it.

Emerging evidence suggests that outdoor learning meets every social target set. It is good for education, health, behaviour, community cohesion and, of course, for the natural environment. Everybody who takes part, not just those from a disadvantaged background or
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those who may not excel in a traditional classroom, benefits from the process. Outdoor learning teaches people, in particular teachers, to understand risk.

Depressingly, 76% of teachers turned down the opportunity to go on a field trip because of fears about health and safety. Such learning, however, is low risk and high reward, and the statistics back that up. Over a 10-year period, only 364 legal claims were tabled because of children injured at school, and only half of those cases ended in any kind of payment. On average, most local authorities paid out £293 over that period.

James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on a topic that I know is dear to his heart. Does he agree that the health and safety culture in this country is hugely damaging, not only in relation to this debate, but overall? A bit of common sense and some good, sensible reforms to encourage people to take reasonable risks when dealing with children, or any other matter, would be of great benefit to our education system and the people of this country.

Simon Hart: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The difficulty with health and safety legislation is that we are trying to create a society where risk is eliminated, but no such thing is possible; risk can be limited and managed, but it cannot be eliminated. My hon. Friend highlights that point well.

In 2008, the most recent year for which we have decent figures, 53% of six to 15-year-olds did not go on a single school trip. A further depressing thought is that over the past 10 years, there has been only £4.5 million of funding for that concept. That is in stark contrast to the music manifesto, for example, which attracted £332 million of funding in 2007. About 97% of teachers believe that it is important for children to learn about the countryside within the national curriculum, and 85% of young children and their parents agree.

Some teachers cannot do what they would like because their school or local authority will not fund their cover when they take children on a trip. That is the "rarely covers" conundrum, and perhaps it goes to the heart of the debate Under qualified teacher status 30, trainee teachers are asked only to "recognise opportunities" for out-of-classroom learning. It is a weak standard, but even that is not being reached by some initial teacher training providers.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the barriers that stops teachers from having the confidence to take kids out of school and into the countryside, to pursue an education about rural life, is that they do not have access to resources and knowledge? Is he aware of the charity FACE, Farming and Countryside Education, based at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire? It offers teachers resources, knowledge and teaching aids to help them form educational lessons and partake in rural education.

Simon Hart: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am aware of that charity and the good work that it does. I am also aware of countless other charities that offer similar, if not identical, services.

I stated earlier that this debate was not about the town versus the countryside. Indeed it is not, and we must be careful not to fall into the trap, as I have myself, of seeing the only benefit of outdoor learning to be that
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of teaching urban children about rural ways. My hon. Friend's intervention makes it clear that plenty of people are enthusiastic about reaping the benefits of outdoor learning, but cannot do so either because of insufficient funding through the charitable sector, or because of obstacles due to health and safety legislation, bureaucracy or Government funding.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, will she consider reviewing whether current teacher training provides new teachers with the skills to lead outdoor learning activities in the first place? Secondly, will she review the "rarely covers" guide to residential visits and fieldwork, and look at whether part of the pupil premium may be used for that purpose?

Emerging evidence points to the direct and indirect health benefits of outdoor learning, including personal well-being and-the latest catchphrase-"happiness." The current gaming epidemic does not lend itself to our mission of stirring a child's interest in the outside world. A staggering 53 computer games were released on to the market in April 2010, and it is easy to deduce that we cannot leave it to the children to discover the outside world. It is our responsibility to take them there.

Activities such as walking, cycling and riding can burn up to 380 calories an hour. Green spaces can stabilise anger in young people, which can help prevent antisocial behaviour. Outdoor education could therefore play a key role in reducing the amount of permanent and fixed exclusions for physical and verbal abuse in schools, which currently run at the eye-watering level of 300,000 cases per year.

Outdoor learning could also help to reduce the cost of youth crime and obesity, which is estimated at an even more staggering and depressing £5 billion per annum for the taxpayer to pick up. Of course, evidence is an essential prerequisite of any progress that we make on this topic. I shall start with what Ofsted had to say about it. In 2008, Ofsted published a thematic report that stated:

It went on to recommend that schools and colleges should


In a similar study in 2006, the National Trust stated:

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the timeliness of the debate. Does he agree that in addition to the
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issues that he is outlining from those surveys, the battle against childhood obesity can be taken further by learning outside the classroom? It can contribute to that battle, which unfortunately as a society we do not seem to be taking seriously.

Simon Hart: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. There are direct and indirect health benefits to be gained from this educational concept. The direct benefits are simply from getting people out of a windowless and joyless classroom environment into an environment that is more interesting and more demanding physically. That is a good thing, but outdoor education can also teach people about the value of a different and varied diet, the process of food production and the attractions of exercise and entertainment, in whatever form they might come, in open areas.

Of course that will have a positive effect. That used to be just conjecture on our part and on the part of the experts; there is now evidence to support the view that that is the case. That is what is encouraging: we are going beyond just speculating to being able genuinely to point to evidence that supports that view.

The Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families also came up trumps. It stated:

On the back of those third-party endorsements, I shall pose two more questions to the Minister. Will the Government reconsider plans to include an entitlement to outdoor learning for everyone in the curriculum? Also, can outdoor learning be included as part of the Ofsted inspection protocol? There is a feeling among members of the teaching profession with whom I have contact that if it is not inspected, it is not important. It is clearly important; Ofsted and the Select Committee have said that it is important. If it is important, let us include it in the inspection protocol, so that everyone knows that it is important and we can cement that in the minds of those responsible for outdoor learning projects.

I represent a seat in west Wales and should therefore like to consider for a moment how the Welsh Assembly Government view the issue. It is encouraging that they are a few lengths ahead of Westminster on this topic. I recognise that the matter is devolved, but we can learn lessons from the Welsh Assembly in this regard. The foundation phase is the Welsh Assembly Government's approach to learning for children aged three to seven years. My own children have benefited from initiatives such as the Forest school. That involves a perfectly non-contentious regular monthly trip into the great outdoors of Wales, which benefits children from quite a young age in many different ways. The Welsh Assembly Government recognise that. Their framework states:

They say that they will aim to

I say to the Minister that if that is good enough for the Welsh Assembly, surely it is good enough for the UK as a whole.

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To conclude my short contribution on this important topic, I shall make these points. We can now prove that outdoor education improves health, education and social benefits for children, young people and society as a whole. We can increasingly prove that if we can obtain those benefits for children and young adults, the economic benefit for the taxpayer in the long term could also be huge and well worth the investment required now.

I want to finish with two case studies. In my last job, I was involved with a project called Fishing for Schools. We took people who often had severe disadvantages and just put them in an environment that they were not used to. We used to marvel at the way in which lives could be transformed as a consequence of that simple project. We had one pupil called Zach on that programme. His teacher wrote to us after the course had finished and said:

Alex McBarnet, founder of The Bushcraft Company, came into the world of outdoor education as a result of difficulties that he had had in traditional education. Using his own get-up-and-go spirit and his own inspirational zeal, he started his own company. He said:

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are many outside bodies that can contribute to outdoor learning? One is the Countryside Alliance, which the hon. Gentleman might have an interest in. Does he see a role for such bodies, whether we are talking about the British Association for Shooting and Conservation or the Countryside Alliance, that could help to benefit young people?

Simon Hart: The hon. Gentleman makes a point that he knows I will approve of-and I had deliberately not been making it, for exactly that reason. I think that any way in which we can take young people into interesting, challenging, different and adventurous environments and teach them skills that they do not know and introduce them to ways of life, people and communities that they may not usually have any contact with, must be good.

The more of that we can do, the better. I do not say that just as someone who had a personal and professional interest in it, and to some extent still does. I say it because I have seen many examples of people who have benefited. They are not just rural or urban or suburban people, or people from poor backgrounds or rich backgrounds. Everyone who has had the fantastic privilege of coming into contact with the outside world, whether formally or informally, has come away feeling that they have gained something that traditional education could not provide to them. We all have a social responsibility to encourage youth in that respect, but we need help from central Government to break down the barriers that sometimes prevent us from being able to do that.

That leads nicely to my final question to the Minister. I and other hon. Members and organisations out there in the real world think that outdoor learning could bring benefits to the nation and benefits to people who sometimes struggle, through no fault of their own-and
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often through no fault of their local authority's or the Government's-to obtain benefits from the type of education system that we have.

We have a golden opportunity now to improve the lives of people in a number of communities through a few simple initiatives. Of course, that requires funding, but it does not require obscene levels of funding. In fact, it is not funding but an investment, because the downstream economic consequences of doing it will be profoundly beneficial to the nation. It will save us millions of pounds in the long term if we get it right.

I hope that the Minister will grant an audience with herself and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, not only for hon. Members who may be interested in the issue but for representatives of the wide range of outside bodies that have contributed to the debate and made strides in the right direction. If we could get together early in the new year to see whether we could convert what at the moment is a struggling dream into a deliverable reality, this debate will have been a worthwhile use of our Wednesday morning.

9.49 am

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing the debate on this hugely important matter. It is timely, as it was only about three weeks ago that I was on Goole moor, in my constituency, meeting Natural England to highlight the opportunities for our local schools on that nationally important nature reserve. Following that, I have worked with our fantastic head teacher at Goole high school to find innovative ways of using the moor and the site for educational and health purposes.

As a former school teacher, I would like to appeal to the Minister over the Ofsted framework; if something is going into the framework, can there be a one-in, one-out principle or, preferably, a one-in, two-out principle? There are huge pressures on teachers already from the inspection regime, and, due to how the profession is structured, naturally, we tend to teach towards Ofsted, rather than the young people whose education we are there to enhance. I make that small appeal to the Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire on his knowledge of the teacher training process. Although trainee teachers are required to prove that they can organise and undertake a trip as part of their postgraduate certificate in education, it is normally a well structured trip to a museum, so they do not come away from the training with particular skills in organising trips outside. There are so many pressures on teachers in terms of advice, risk assessments, and so on, that it can be incredibly difficult to organise trips outside the classroom.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on that point. One problem is the cost of minibus insurance for teachers. If something could be done about that, it would make a considerable difference. It often costs more than £1,000, and is a particular barrier to short trips to local open spaces.

Andrew Percy: That is absolutely key, because there are huge costs, and other pressures such as extra staff. When I was training as a history teacher and doing my final teaching practice at Endeavour high school in
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Hull, we were studying the industrial revolution. The area I taught in had a fantastic outside resource in its buildings from the industrial revolution period. I simply wanted to take my class of year 8s outside to look at some of those buildings, but I was told that I would have to do a risk assessment and get three members of staff, because there were 30 kids in the class and the ratio has to be 1:10. By the end of the day, those kids were running home across those same streets and past those same buildings, but we did not go out and ended up sitting in the classroom looking at pictures instead. Although the teaching profession can certainly do more to enhance outside learning, we need the structures in place to support them and we need to remove some of the pressures. Following some of the sensationalised reports in the press about school trips, my former union advised us not to take them, which, again, is a reaction to all this bureaucracy.

Outdoor education has a particular role for excluded children and children with special needs. As any teacher has to, I have worked with children from across the spectrum. It was often the most challenging children who benefited most from being taken outside the formal school setting-where they were still learning. I referred to this during my maiden speech; it is expensive to deliver education outside the classroom, but, for those children, the value of doing so cannot be quantified. I have seen kids go off on particular courses outside the classroom and come back significantly changed, so that education has a particular role. As the Minister is about to undertake a review into special and additional needs, I hope that that can be taken into account.

With a change in curriculum, the Government have, rightly, outlined how we intend to move to more vocational or joint pathways. There are huge benefits and opportunities not only for visits but to get skills outside school. I was talking to Natural England on the nationally important nature reserve-I will plug it once again-about potentially putting a curriculum together, which kids could access from our local schools, on countryside management. There are not only health benefits, which my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire rightly highlighted, but educational benefits.

Mr Spencer: Is my hon. Friend aware that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has funded a higher-level entry scheme, which includes educational visits to farms by schools? I understand that the scheme is now closed to new entrants. May I take this opportunity to encourage the Minister to pressure DEFRA to clarify whether that scheme is indeed closed to new entrants?

Andrew Percy: I am happy to be a conduit for my hon. Friend's point. I am sure that, through me, the Minister has heard him and will respond appropriately.

I close by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire again on securing the debate. It is an important area, and it is pleasing to see that so many Members from both sides of the House have attended, particularly my hon. Friends. I look forward to the Minister's response. Thank you for allowing me to make a small contribution to the debate, Mr Benton.

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9.56 am

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): It is a privilege to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing the debate and on his excellent contribution, which enhances the subject.

My hon. Friend touched on the foundation phase and the different approach taken in Wales. I want to spend a little time on my experience in that area. I declare an interest in that my son was one of the first children to go through the foundation phase in Wales under the new education structure for key stage 1. It has had an impact and influence on him and on education and the wider community in Wales.

By way of background, it is worth underlining that key stage 1, or the foundation stage as we refer to it, requires 50% of teaching time to be spent outside the classroom. My hon. Friend and others referred to visits to farms, museums or other outside extracurricular activities. They are important, but the point of the foundation phase is to mainstream outdoor learning as part of the education structure. That throws up lots of problems and issues that need resolving, which I shall come on to in a moment.

It is important to underline the significant benefits that children have drawn from the new approach to learning: social skills, their interaction with each other, their individual approach to risk and personal management, the innovation that it allows children to explore and express, and how it helps-although it is too early to assess its contribution-with the challenges of inactivity and obesity, as has been mentioned. It is also about lifestyle and leadership that allows children and teachers to develop. Those are some benefits that the new approach has brought to children, particularly in an environment where computer gaming seems to be the obvious choice and parents, naturally, worry in a different way about children playing outside than they did when we were growing up.

Teachers, as well as children, obviously benefit as well. I am told that some teachers feel claustrophobic because they are kept in the classroom no matter what the weather. They are stuck there, particularly on wet days when the children are not even free to go outside during break time. The new approach has allowed the teachers to innovate, try new approaches and use the environment around them. It is important to say that that is not only true in rural schools, but in urban schools that have been able to adapt learning practice and curriculum to respond to the environment. The children and teachers have been able to react in a first-class way to those demands.

I should add that there have also been benefits for parents, schools and governors in general. The stipulation that 50% of teaching time should be spent outside the classroom has enabled more people to access schools in higher demand. Current guidance limits the number of pupils in classrooms, but I am familiar with a number of admission appeals. In that respect, I should declare an interest in that my wife, who is an education lawyer, has represented children who wanted to gain access to a particular school. The National Assembly for Wales guidance to teachers relates directly to the floor space
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available and to the number of children who can go to a particular school. However, if, as my wife has argued, children spend half their time outside the classroom, the guidance is out of date and needs to be changed, because it can be argued that half the classroom is outside. That has been accepted in some admission appeals.

As I suggested, the 50% target has thrown up problems that have not been fully resolved. There was a significant need for capital spend, because we needed to ensure that classrooms had better access to the outdoors. There was also a need for investment in wet-weather gear. This might come as something of a surprise, but it is not always sunny in Wales, and if we are to achieve the 50% target, investment in effective, proper wet-weather gear is essential. I regret to have to draw hon. Members' attention to the fact that, at some schools, it was the parent teacher association that raised the money to deliver that gear. We have talked about having outdoor learning in prosperous and more deprived communities, but it is essential that the same wet-weather equipment is made available to everyone.

The target has also raised challenges and questions in relation to teacher training. My hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire highlighted the need for such training to reflect the demands of modern parents and pupils.

I want to close by asking how we take the culture of outdoor learning forward into key stage 2 and beyond. Without question, it has become central to learning in key stage 1.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am learning today about the difference between Welsh and English education for youngsters. Many things that would be decided by a school, or at least by a county council, in England are decided at national level in Wales. Is the English approach of making decisions at local level not more sensible?

Alun Cairns: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is fair to say that education structures in Wales are far more centralised than those in England. Of course, it is up to the devolved Administration to decide how best to deliver education, but it is regrettable that some of the freedoms that are to be offered to schools in England will not be offered to those in Wales. That aside, my point in highlighting the merits and benefits of the foundation phase in key stage 1 is that it has allowed teachers and pupils to express themselves and to learn in different ways. I would encourage free schools, whose numbers will increase in England, to learn from the benefits and merits of the different approach taken in Wales.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman seriously think that an aspiration to carry out 50% of learning outside the classroom could be met without that direction from the Government in the curriculum?

Alun Cairns: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, but, yes, I do think that that is possible. In free schools in England, greater power will be devolved to the head teachers and governors, who will be able to
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decide how best to approach these issues. The rigid 50% approach taken in Wales may not be right for their school, depending on its environment, its location and its children's needs, which that school can better reflect.

My point in highlighting the merits and benefits of the different approach taken in Wales is that it has made outdoor learning central to education at key stage 1. That has significant advantages, and I hope that free schools in England will look at that approach and apply it to their pupils' needs. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole reflected on the requirements of children with special educational needs and on how outdoor learning can better reflect them. Surely, the way in which a school wants to approach outdoor learning will depend on the nature of children's special educational needs. Although the model in Wales is centralised, and I would disapprove of that, the thrust of outdoor learning at key stage 1 is beneficial overall. Should teachers and governors be given the freedom to introduce such a scheme under the system in England, they could adapt it, and that would be much more beneficial in terms of meeting their pupils' needs.

In closing, I underline the need to advance the approach taken in key stage 1 and to underline its benefits, although there will be drawbacks, which we will need to learn about. We also need to understand how outdoor learning should be approached in key stages 2 and 3. Outdoor learning is central to education in key stage 1, and it would simply be wrong to cut it at key stage 2. It needs to make that transition so that we can meet the needs of older children. I take on board the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire about the essential need to have outdoor learning throughout education, rather than just at key stage 1.

10.6 am

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate on such an important subject. I also congratulate other hon. Friends on their contributions.

Many children and teachers in my constituency and in the county of Worcestershire benefit from outdoor education. As my hon. Friend made clear, the benefits are substantial. We do not live in a classroom, and it is vital that education provides children with the tools and skills they need for real life. Outdoor education recognises the fact that we live, not in the controlled environment of a classroom, but on a living, breathing planet. As we seek to give future generations a better understanding of issues such as climate change and pollution, learning outdoors gives children a greater appreciation of the importance of our natural environment. Crucially, some skills, such as teamwork, leadership and an appreciation of risk, are far more effectively developed through outdoor education than they ever can be in a classroom.

Coming from an urban constituency in a rural county, I know that outdoor education has a further advantage for the children of my city of Worcester. It teaches them to appreciate the wonderful countryside around them and to understand better the way in which it works and the opportunities that it offers. For centuries, Worcester has been a county town, and the interaction between city and countryside was automatic. In the age of
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supermarkets, television and video games, however, things are not always that way. Without outdoor education projects, many children in my constituency who live within a mile or two of wonderful woods and fields would quite literally never visit them. The Wii Fit and the X Factor are a powerful draw away from the benefits of the outdoors, and parents who are themselves working flat out to support their families are not always able to take their children into the countryside as much as they would like.

Fortunately, Worcestershire long ago realised the benefits of outdoor education and was an early adopter of the forest school scheme, which is enjoyed at many of our primary schools. Having talked to pupils and teachers at schools from Cherry Orchard and Perry Wood to Dines Green, Gorse Hill primary and Lyppard Grange, I have heard countless stories of the enjoyment and benefit that the scheme brings. More important than the stories, however, is the experience itself. In the case of outdoor learning, seeing really is believing. Seeing the excitement of children who are taken out of the classroom and into the natural environment for the first time, one can see how outdoor learning helps to engage some of the most difficult and easily distracted pupils. Seeing the way in which children learn new respect for teachers who can show them physical skills and relish the opportunity to escape the confines of the classroom, one can immediately understand why forest school status is an important tool for retention at many local primaries.

However, outdoor learning is not, and should not be, restricted to the primary sector. At Tudor Grange academy, in the heart of Warndon, outdoor learning is being developed as a key tool and a key opportunity for engaging students. This new academy serves a large population that will benefit from the pupil premium. It replaced a school that struggled for many years to engage its students and to deal with truancy, apathy and high levels of special needs.

Jim Shannon: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that today's young people, whether in primary or secondary school, have great awareness of the environment, climate change, litter control, recycling and such things? Does he agree-I think from his remarks that he would-that more needs to be done, and what is already happening needs to be continued?

Mr Walker: Absolutely. I completely agree. Through outdoor learning we can give people more of an opportunity to understand those things even better. That is one reason why it is a positive benefit.

Through outdoor learning, the new and energetic leadership of Tudor Grange has found a way to engage some of the most difficult pupils and provide a pathway to work for some of those who were simply uninterested in an academic education. By taking pupils out of the classroom for part of their day and engaging them in work and learning outdoors, staff have found that behaviour is much improved on their return to the classroom. Pupils who would previously disrupt academic classes are prepared to get down to work in maths and English much better, having spent part of the day outside. A local employer, Cobb House fisheries, has given the academy access to its resources, and the
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environment is used for forestry, animal husbandry, angling and orienteering. It forms part of a year 12 access to work programme but it also provides an environment for engaging 30 at-risk students who have a bespoke curriculum utilising outdoor education as their key hook.

The academy also works closely with a local farm, and a group of very vulnerable students has achieved the BTEC certificate in agriculture there in one year. The students are now doing a BTEC countryside and environment course as part of their programme. Those students are making significant progress in their literacy and numeracy from a very low baseline. They were not engaging with a mainstream curriculum before, and two students on that route had not attended school for two years before the academy opened the courses. They are now in year 11 and on track to achieve the equivalent of a minimum of six GCSEs, with improved attendance and better results across the board.

Outdoor learning at Tudor Grange extends to a cadet force branch and a course in public services, which is proving particularly popular in the academy with students who presented with extreme behavioural difficulties. The course includes a lot of personal health and fitness units, and local residents are now familiar with the sight of groups from the academy running in units around Worcester as part of their training drills. The principal tells me: "This is developing tenacity and determination in students we would never have attached such attributes to before".

Speaking of the benefits of outdoor learning in Worcestershire, it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the wonderful work that goes on beyond the boundaries of my constituency. My hon. Friends the Members for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) would no doubt speak passionately about the excellent schools in their constituencies that provide fantastic opportunities for outdoor learning. However, they are kept away from this debate by ministerial and Select Committee responsibilities respectively. I would like to give a couple of examples of how the positive influence of schools in their patches has been felt as far afield as my own constituency.

Top Barn farm, just beyond my boundaries, is a hugely inspiring centre for outdoor learning and a test base for the care farming movement. Hon. Members will be aware of that movement, and some may feel that it is beyond the scope of the debate, but the work that is being done there, to bring, in particular, children with special needs on to a farming environment, and ensure that they can benefit from learning opportunities there, deserves a mention.

Another institution that I visited recently, which hugely impressed me, was the Madresfield early years centre in west Worcestershire. That wonderful school-my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire was there on Friday-is the product of a vision for outdoor learning and the boundless energy of its founder Alice Bennett, a farmer's wife who has devoted her life to bringing outdoor learning into a farming environment. It brings children on to the farm as their learning environment and caters for a broad cross-section of society, from those receiving state support and living in social housing to the children of the grandest houses of the area. Each child has at least two half days a week
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out of doors and children are encouraged to engage with the environment, take constant exercise and relish the opportunities offered by the countryside.

Perhaps I should conclude with the words of the very inspiring head teacher, who recently returned from a visit to Denmark, where she was looking at how outdoor learning is integrated into the system there. She concluded that

She also spoke of the miracles that happen outside with special needs children. I hope that the Minister will carefully consider the miraculous benefits of outdoor learning for her forthcoming Green Paper on special needs education.

10.14 am

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Benton. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this important debate. Perhaps I should declare an interest: like my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), I used to be a teacher. I was a teacher for 12 years and am still a member of my union, the NASUWT.

I very much endorse what other hon. Members have said, which is that this is not simply a debate about rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire has a proud record of championing rural areas, and I concur with him on many of those issues, but he was right to make the point that outdoor education is about urban schools as well.

I start with a couple of anecdotes. One of the most successful field trips I ever organised involved leading a group of children from a deprived school in north Devon down to the city of Plymouth. It was an excellent day's work that examined the architecture, the effect of the Blitz, the new buildings that went up in Plymouth, the naval town and the economy of the area. Those children would not have experienced that-it is a long way from Barnstaple to Plymouth-had we not given them the opportunity.

Closer to home, I think of the scheme that we embarked on in Powys. We set up a partnership scheme between a local organic farm and our school. We acquired a plot of land and visited each term. Every child in that small village school visited the farm every year, nurtured the plot and grew vegetables. They took the vegetables back to school to make meals.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a good point about the need for farmers to play a role in outdoor learning. What worries me is the fact that so many schoolchildren do not understand where their food comes from. That is quite frightening, especially when, if we ask some schoolchildren where their potatoes or chips come from, they say, "McDonalds". Does my hon. Friend think that the National Farmers Union and farmers need to play a key role in such education, and in improving understanding of where food comes from?

Mr Williams: Absolutely. One of the benefits of the project that I was involved in was that we considered the seasonality of fruit and vegetables. I think that it is assumed that because children live in a rural area they have automatic access to farms and to schemes of the
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kind that the NFU and others, such as the Farmers Union of Wales, have put forward. That assumption should not be made. That is why the debate is important, for getting some clear guidelines. It is beginning to seem a little like a Welsh debate-I am proud of that, but I shall not stray on to devolved matters.

Every year at the school where I taught we took the year 5 and 6 children to stay at an outdoor pursuit centre in Montgomeryshire, where they could do kayaking, orienteering, rock climbing, mountain walks and canoeing-the very kinds of activities from which many children with special needs, who were not high achievers in the classroom, really gained. We were teaching concepts of teamwork, collaborative work and team building. Those were important opportunities for the children.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): The point that my hon. Friend makes about the outdoor pursuit centre is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) made the point that health and safety is an issue when taking children out of the classroom, and such outdoor pursuit centres have health and safety covered; they have the skills to deal with pupils safely and give them the experiences that have been described.

Mr Williams: I agree very much. One of the nice things for a teacher organising such trips was that there was no need to get embroiled in the bureaucracy of organising a risk assessment; it had already been done by trained professionals.

This is a core debate, not a peripheral thing. It is not a trendy lefty debate about the effectiveness of group work or topic work-debates that have happened in the past. It is about enhancing learning in the classroom, teaching in context, teaching in the real world and broadening horizons in the strongest way. As I reflect on my education, I recall that the only such opportunity that I had in secondary school-there was little in primary school-was the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme. That is a great scheme, with great opportunities for young people, but very much curtailed and limited.

Was there, in the three schools where I taught, always a dedicated member of staff with expertise, responsible for developing the outdoor curriculum? If there was, in some instances it was not very visible. Should we give more prominence to outdoor education in initial teacher training? I did a PGCE course, from which I benefited; I gained my qualification and enjoyed my 12 years in the classroom, but there were limitations with respect to outdoor education.

To repeat a question that has been put to the Minister, is the initial teacher training that we provide giving teachers the skills that they need to lead outdoor learning? It is all very well talking about identifying opportunities; teachers sit there developing their lesson plans and identifying opportunities. It is a matter of whether those opportunities for outdoor learning can be delivered. It is not about burdening the curriculum. I agree with the direction of travel: it is about scaling down the curriculum.

Years ago, I worked as a researcher in the other place. When the national curriculum was introduced in 1988, I remember the huge number of representations from
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different organisations in favour of including subjects in the national curriculum. That was an over-burdening experience.

I also remember, years later when I was in the classroom, the minutiae of detail directed from the centre about how I should deliver a numeracy hour and a literacy hour, down to the five minutes of a plenary session at the end. We are moving away from that over-prescriptive period. There is a consensus among all who have spoken so far that we are seeking to build meaningful cross-curricular links in key areas of the curriculum-notably geography, history and science-for which outdoor activities are appropriate.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire mentioned, the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families produced its report in April 2010. I want to draw on three of its conclusions. First, the report talked of the ability of families to pay, or their inability to pay, for trips and the deterrent to schools in offering opportunities to pupils. At one school where I taught, there was a blanket policy. We could not countenance any outlandish trips, because we knew that the parents in the deprived wards of that area would be unable even to subsidise their children's trips.

The Select Committee recognised the principle of subsidies for children from low-income families for school trips, and I think that that should be endorsed. The report also talked about an individual entitlement within the national curriculum to at least one school visit each term. That is integral to the curriculum that needs to be delivered. I would like to hear the Minister's comments on that individual entitlement to outdoor education.

Mr Andrew Turner: I draw attention to another thing. When I was a teacher, it was perfectly acceptable for one member of staff to take one class into town. What has happened since then?

Mr Mark Williams: My hon. Friend is right. The answer came from my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole when he talked about the one-to-10 rule. That is very hard, and it is also sometimes hard to engage parents to become involved in outdoor pursuits. We think of a captive audience of parents eager to accompany their children on trips, but that is not always the case.

There is a fundamental need for schools to have a policy on learning outside the classroom. As I said, it is not just a matter of having a policy, with words in readiness for the Ofsted or Estyn inspections; it is about being able to deliver. The Government do recognise the importance of outdoor learning-as, to their credit, did the last Government. It is important for the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom to get on with the job. I regret that the Select Committee's recommendations on additional resources and Government regulation and monitoring guidance were not accepted.

We had a little spirited debate about Welsh Assembly Government policy. I do not want regulation and rules to be over-prescriptive, but we do need some clear guidelines from the centre. Most professionals in most of the schools I have been involved with fully recognise the importance of that, as my hon. Friend the Member
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for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) mentioned. They are delivering the foundation stage with great effectiveness-I have two young children experiencing the foundation stage now. However, that is not always the case across England and elsewhere in the UK. We need those rules and that guidance.

I will not repeat all the figures about the effectiveness of outdoor education mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. I do, however, want to say something about the risk-averse culture developing in our country, and the characterisation of many children's lives as "home to school and back home again"-from the classroom to the sitting room, or wherever the TVs are in the house.

I do not agree with everything that the much-maligned Lord Young says-far from it. However, his work "Common Sense, Common Safety" was important. It was a welcome attempt to rebalance the risk-averse culture in the country that has considerably damaged the tradition of school trips, with teachers and schools inevitably concerned about liability if things go wrong.

I remember the frustration and bureaucracy of trying to organise trips. It is not surprising that 76% of teachers identify health and safety risk assessments as the main barrier to delivering outdoor learning. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Despite the few but tragic cases where things have gone wrong, there has to be a measure of sensible risk assessment. Action should be taken where negligent behaviour occurs, but we must do all we can to rebalance the system.

In his foreword to Lord Young's report, the Prime Minister states that we need to

Some of us may disagree about what that constitutes, but I hope we can all agree with the sentiment.

The Department for Education launched its "Learning Outside the Classroom" manifesto in 2006. That report highlighted research on the way the brain works. Reading it took me back to teacher training and some of the lectures and seminars I participated in. The research showed that learners can be re-engaged with the world as they experience it, known as "authentic learning".

That is particularly important when we look at the sciences. The Field Studies Council has seen a decline in the number of people studying secondary science visiting their residential centres across the country, with a drop of 18% between 2008 and 2010. We need to engage with the people who have the potential interest, if it can be captured and promoted in a positive way. It was a sad reflection that only 47% of six to 15-year-olds went on a visit to the countryside with their school in 2008. I am not going to talk about the foundation stage in Wales, other than to say that it has been a huge success.

There is much in the Government's agenda that suggests that they are keen to encourage more activity. They are keen on volunteering and we have had Lord Young's review. I hope the Minister will be able to outline what steps are being taken to ensure that more outdoor learning can take place at schools and translate support into concrete achievement.

One final point: I want to commend the young artisans scheme in Ceredigion, in the Penparcau ward of Aberystwyth. It is a deprived area-we have deprived
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wards in rural Wales as others do across the country. That scheme has largely worked with low achievers and people with special needs, taking the craft, design and technology curriculum out of the classroom. It takes youngsters from years 5 and 6 to work with employers and local colleges, out of the conventional classroom, so that the young people can see links with the real world. It is a pioneering scheme that has been going for years. Later, as 16-year-olds, some participants have found decent gainful employment on the back of an outdoors education policy.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker-there are two people standing-I should say that I propose to start the wind-ups no later than 10.40 am.

10.28 am

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I will be brief to ensure that every hon. Member who wants to contribute can do so. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on bringing this excellent and positive debate to the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) declared an interest because he has one child going through the school foundation stage in Wales. I have twin boys and another three children going through the educational system in Wales, so I, too, need to declare an interest. When we talk about the educational benefits of outdoor activities, we in Wales are very fortunate. I do not want to dominate the debate by referring to Wales again, but as a child I used to go to the Urdd Gobaith Cymru centre in Llangrannog in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams). When I was slightly older, I went to the centre at Glan Llyn, where I learned canoeing and white-water rafting. The terrible thing is that I am now old enough to see my children getting the same experiences.

The concept of getting children into the outdoors and enjoying pursuits is important and I fully subscribe to the comments made by several hon. Members.

I wish to focus on a slightly different aspect of the importance of outdoor activities to the educational sector-its economic impact on constituencies such as mine. My constituency of Aberconwy includes a large tract of Snowdonia. The area has had to struggle to create employment and economic opportunities, and we have had to make the best of the facilities and the environment that we have. Agriculture is obviously important, as is food production and our specialist food producers, but a growing part of the economy in my part of the world has been the outdoor activity sector.

That sector is not entirely dependent on educational customers, but they allow companies to offer an all-year service, with year-round employment for young people from my constituency. I could give numerous examples- they will challenge Hansard-of organisations and companies in my part of the world that benefit from providing services to schools in all parts of the United Kingdom.

For instance, Plas y Brenin at Capel Curig is renowned as a mountaineering centre. We have an outdoor education centre at Conwy, which brings young people to the
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Conwy valley to enjoy white-water rafting and so forth. Tree Top Adventure offers excellent facilities at Betws-y-Coed, but it depends on school trips to allow it to offer employment every day of the week and all year round; it makes an important contribution to the economy of my constituency.

We also have specialist companies that deal with the health and safety aspects. They offer a safe environment for young people to experience the adventure and the challenges offered by the environment in areas such as mine. Snowdonia is not there only for the enjoyment of people who can afford to pay for an expensive hotel or a slightly cheaper bed and breakfast for a weekend visit. The environment of Snowdonia should be enjoyed by young people.

In addition to private-sector companies offering services in my constituency and throughout Snowdonia, we have a number of other centres, including the Oaklands Centre at Capel Garmon. Oaklands is owned by Wirral borough council. It is about an hour and a half down the road from the Wirral to my constituency. Young people are brought from an industrialised area and taken to the beauty of Snowdonia where they can enjoy the challenge of getting involved in outdoor activities. The contribution made by the Oaklands centre is also economic. For instance, it employs local people to ensure that there is food on the table when the young people arrive.

Throughout Snowdonia, numerous centres are in danger of being lost because of the priorities of local authorities, which may not emphasise the importance of their contribution to the educational sector. I am therefore concerned about the future of centres such as Oaklands. They are important not only because of the opportunities that they give the young people who visit them, but because they give people in my constituency the opportunity to stay and work in a rural area, often in highly skilled positions. It needs to be said that the opportunities afforded by the outdoor activity centres in my part of the world are extremely important because of the quality of the jobs that are created. Taking responsibility for groups of young people going mountaineering or out on rivers is a highly skilled position.

I applaud the local authorities in my part of the world. We hear a lot about the need for local authorities to work across boundaries. In north-west Wales, Isle of Anglesey county council, Gwynedd county council and Conwy county borough council have come together to form the North Wales Outdoor Partnership. It was developed to give young people from that part of the world an understanding of not only the enjoyment that can be had from the environment of Snowdonia, but the economic opportunities that exist. The partnership takes young people out to enjoy mountaineering, kayaking and so on, but it also highlights the economic opportunities that can develop from becoming skilled in such activities. Numerous young people have found employment as a result of the skills gained through the partnership.

Menter Iaith Conwy, a local company, has highlighted the need to train young people to be responsible for taking people out on to the mountains. The fantastic thing is that the company is training people through the medium of Welsh or English. Again, it highlights the fact that economic opportunities are available through outdoor education.

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Government spending is not necessarily the way forward for every part of the economy; those organisations and companies could develop employment opportunities in the private sector. However, the educational market is important in ensuring proper employment all year round. When such decisions are made, it is important that we take account of the economic impact of those activities on the rural economy.

10.35 am

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I fully support this excellent debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). First, I shall say why I am supportive. I shall then make a plea to the Minister, which I hope will be helpful.

Many of my hon. Friends spoke of the significance of engagement. I have visited Crowdys Hill school in my constituency; it is an excellent school for children with autism and autism spectrum disorders. It is fortunate enough to have a small livestock holding on site. To see at first hand the sheer joy and engagement of the children during their hands-on involvement with nature is fantastic.

Not many schools have livestock holdings, but several have some form of nature reserve. It concerns me that many modern private finance initiative schools do not have the space. That is a real challenge, as we look forward to the next wave of schools being built.

We have the headquarters of the National Trust in my constituency. In its contribution to the debate, it says that, generation by generation, we are spending less and less time with nature and reducing our capacity to understand, respect and conserve the natural environment.

Having spoken on similar subjects before, and having been a councillor for 10 years, I know that back gardens in new-build houses are a third of the size that they were in the 1960s. Parents are concerned about letting their children venture too far, but nowadays they cannot venture out even on their own doorstep. New developments are often concrete jungles, with limited open space. That is a major concern.

The outdoors provides a wealth of leisure opportunities for a healthy, active lifestyle, and is often available at no cost. As a lead council member for leisure, I considered investing in leisure centres, and I support that. However, the outdoors gives families and people of all ages a wonderful opportunity to be active without having to spend huge amounts of money. That is why I call it the great outdoors.

I have many happy memories of growing up and charging around Arley and the Malvern hills with my classmates, doing orienteering and burning off huge amounts of energy. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) will be pleased to know that we often got lost, partly because we were not supervised, but we learned some good teambuilding skills. Certainly, my map-reading skills benefited greatly.

I touched on the subject in an intervention, but my plea is about insurance for schools. If the cost proves to be a barrier, it limits access. I believe that the Department for Education should negotiate a national insurance contract to cover all schools. Putting all those insurance
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renewals together would be one hell of a piece of buying power, giving potential economies of scale. That would be benefit sport and many other activities for which schools need to bus children elsewhere. It would be a constructive thing for the Department to do.

10.38 am

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing the debate.

Someone pointed out earlier that the debate had a distinctly Welsh feel. Indeed, we also heard from the hon. Members for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) and for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). I should mention the others who spoke, but I may struggle when pronouncing the English names of their constituencies. We heard from the Member for- was it Wore-ses-ter?-the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) contributed, and at the end we heard from the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), which I think I can pronounce properly.

All contributions to the debate were good. Indeed, I wish I had thought of the last point made by the hon. Member for North Swindon when I was a Minister. It is an excellent proposition, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively. I hope that I have mentioned everyone who spoke in this enjoyable debate. Its reflects the fact that there is a degree of consensus on learning outside the classroom; there has been for many years.

Hon. Members have mentioned the many reasons why this is a good thing. They talked about the health benefits and practical skills that can be gained; the broadening of horizons; and the influence on behaviour, with improving relationships between pupils themselves or between teachers and pupils-adults and children. During my time as a Minister, I was keen to promote learning outside the classroom. I used to say that, for whatever reason, we have managed to raise a generation of battery-farm children and it is time to allow them to go free range. That is what we all think in this debate; we need to liberate children from the bounds of the classroom and get them to enjoy all the benefits of the great outdoors. I am a big enthusiast of that, which is why I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire on securing this debate.

Like other hon. Members here, I have also spent time as a teacher and organised field trips. I remember one particular trip to Llanbradach in the Welsh valleys where I confiscated an awful lot of cigarettes, but where we had a wonderful time. I have fond memories of the various trips that I took as a pupil, as I am sure other hon. Members have. As a teacher, I used to say that it is important to make something memorable for students; to give them something that they will remember in years to come. The things that we often remember and that have a positive influence on us are the kinds of experiences that we gain outside the classroom.

Risk, which has been raised this morning, is very important. We must get people focused on the real risks. There are risks; the hon. Member for Ceredigion pointed that out. Irresponsible actions can sometimes be taken by those who supervise learning outside the classroom, but it is the real risks rather than the rare risks on which we should focus in this debate. It is essential to get that
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message across to teachers, governors, pupils and to everyone involved in organising learning outside the classroom.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the foundation phase in Wales, or the key stage 1 curriculum. I visited Kitchener road primary school in my own constituency last year. Anyone who knows anything about Cardiff will know that one could not find a more urban school than the one on Kitchener road. It is a classic Victorian primary school on a very constrained site, right next to a main road. It is a multi-ethnic school. As part of the foundation phase, the teachers found a bit of scrubland on the school site and held their forest school there. If anyone saw those children gathered around the campfire making toast on the end of a stick, they would not know that a main road was only five yards away. It is a classic example of what can be done with a bit of imagination. It did not need a great deal of resources. Yes, it was a damp day, and the children needed outdoor gear, but that was no reason for them not to go outside. It was absolutely wonderful to see them benefiting from such an experience. I am sure that many of them would not have had that experience had it not been for the fact that the curriculum was organised, as the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan pointed out, to ensure that those very young children spent half their time outside.

There is a great deal of consensus in the Chamber about what we need to do and, I think, in fairness, about the fact that the previous Government made a big effort in this area. If hon. Members have done their research they will know that that is the case. I was Minister in the old Department for Children, Schools and Families, which organised and launched the "out and about package" in 2008. The quality badge scheme was designed to assure schools that organisations that are great at offering opportunities for outdoor learning, such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Aberconwy, can meet the standards and requirements that are needed.

The Government's response to the Select Committee report that was published just before the general election in April states:

I give the Minister credit for that. It recognises the efforts that have been made so far to try to overcome the culture that was getting in the way of learning outside the classroom.

In preparing for today's debate, I was a little surprised to read the briefing from the Countryside Alliance, of which the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire used to be in charge. I met the alliance the other day and we had a very good meeting about this matter. I commend the trust that the hon. Gentleman set up and its aims and what it is attempting to do. None the less, its briefing said:

There is, I think, a typo in there. It was not the previous Government who issued the response to the Select Committee's report; it was this Government, who, the
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Countryside Alliance says, do not believe that outdoor education can contribute to the development of a child. I do not believe that that is true. I am quoting the Countryside Alliance briefing for this debate; it is not me saying this. I am sure that what it says is not the case and that the Minister will confirm that in a moment, but I can understand why the alliance might be concerned.

I have read the Government's response to the Select Committee's report on outdoor education. It does not make good reading for members of the Select Committee, because it is tantamount to a wholesale rejection of the report. Running through the response is this ideology of laissez-faire that seems to have overtaken the Department. The thinking is that if we let everything go, do not drive anything and let schools and governors get on with it, we will suddenly, miraculously, end up with a situation-as the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan believes-in which children will spend 50% of their time outside the classroom. All we need, the Government think, is a general feeling good about things, osmosis and a laissez-faire approach. However, it will not happen.

Clear guidance is needed from the centre, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion pointed out. It is important. Teachers take note of it as do governors, local authorities and providers. We must give a clear indication of what we want to see schools doing. Sometimes, we have to put resources into it and sometimes Ministers who want to get things done will have to apply a bit of stick as well to ensure that it happens on the ground. I am afraid that just wishing will not make it happen.

I will not go through all the Government's responses to the Select Committee report, but if we look at them, we can see that most of them start with the words:

For example, one of the responses states:

Here is another one:

Those are fine words and everyone welcomes them, but the Government will be judged on what actually happens on the ground and whether there is an increase in the amount of time that children spend on learning outside the classroom.

Another response states:

which was one of the recommendations of the Select Committee-

I hope that learning outside the classroom will be part of that.

Here is yet another response:

Such burdens should be reduced, but whether data are collected can send a signal to schools about what is thought to be important.

In closing, I just want to say that I am afraid that the idea that has been put forward by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds before this debate that the pupil premium can provide some funding for outdoor learning
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is cloud cuckoo land, because the pupil premium is a con. It does not add any additional money whatsoever in real terms to the school budget and it will be exposed when head teachers start looking at it. I can guarantee the Minister that, because of the way that the Government have played "funny figures" with school funding, she will have head teachers queuing up to tell her that the pupil premium is a con very shortly.

The Government are cutting school sport and we are still awaiting an announcement on it. I hope that the Prime Minister has not sold the country a dummy on school sport, because we are still awaiting the announcement about whether the Government will do anything to reinstate the structure of school sport, which is important if we are talking about children's health. The School Food Trust is being abolished and we will see food standards fall as a result. We will be back to turkey twizzlers, with no proper physical education and a lottery for learning outside the classroom.

I hope that the Minister, in responding to the debate, can tell us what she will do to promote learning outside the classroom and to face down the laissez-faire ideology that has infected her Department.

10.50 am

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I was going to say that it is a great pleasure to participate in this debate, until I heard the end-point of the speech by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). His speech began so well and ended with such nonsense, but I guess that the Opposition have to be the Opposition and demonstrate that they oppose everything.

I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate on a really important topic. It is good to see Westminster Hall so full of people. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's previous role as chief executive of the Countryside Alliance and of his involvement in charitable work with that organisation to promote outdoor learning. It is really good to see that he is continuing that work now as a Member of this House.

We have had a good and well informed debate. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) gave particular detail about the situation in Wales. There were contributions from former teachers, my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) and the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). We have heard about a number of examples of outdoor learning from Members' constituencies. The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) spoke about forest schools. I was very interested to hear about the particular examples given by the hon. Members for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson).

The Government absolutely believe that outdoor learning is vital and provides so many opportunities for young people to expand their horizons and to put learning into context, so that they can actually see what is happening and are not just learning the theory. Moreover, outdoor learning provides opportunities to break down
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barriers. It is very easy for someone to fulfil a role if they go into the same place and perform the same function every day. However, when a group of people are taken out of that place and put somewhere else, it breaks down the old traditional roles, which of course is exactly why outdoor learning has the impact that it does on behaviour. It is able suddenly to boost the confidence of many children who may not succeed in other activities in the classroom.

Many hon. Members began their contribution by declaring an interest in this sector and I should probably declare an interest too, in that my brother works for the Outward Bound Trust as a fundraiser. When I listened to him talk about the history of the trust, I was fascinated. It is perhaps worth saying something about that history as it is really relevant to the debate.

The Outward Bound Trust began as part of the war effort in 1941, so it will celebrate its 70th anniversary next year. It began because of the experience of people who had watched merchant seamen after their ships had been torpedoed. Some merchant seamen survived longer than others and it was really obvious that the ones who did not survive were the young people. So a lot of young seamen were taken out of their ships and taught survival skills and team-building exercises, and it was found that those activities had a real impact on their ability to cope in strenuous situations. After the war, the effect of that training on those particular seamen was so great that the trust decided to roll out the training to many other young people. Last year, it was able to provide 26,000 young people with opportunities for such training, much of which was funded through charitable donations.

So the Outward Bound Trust is a prime example of the organisations that many hon. Members have spoken about during the debate, from forest schools to Farming and Countryside Education, which the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) spoke about. Often, those organisations have a very strong charitable arm and so they are able to take young people who could not otherwise afford those outdoor experiences and really change their perspective on life. I want to pay tribute to all the organisations, whether they are private or charitable, that do this kind of work for young people.

However, it is important to say that the Government view outdoor learning as being much wider than just that type of adventure activity. Outdoor learning is not just about getting out into the countryside, although that is absolutely vital. Many of the contributions to the debate have been about the necessity of giving children experience of the countryside. A couple of hon. Members spoke about the fact that many of our young people do not know, for example, how food is produced. All of those activities are part of outdoor learning, but they are not the only aspect. Getting out and experiencing music, theatre or the visual arts is also part of outdoor learning. Furthermore, outdoor learning is a vital part of understanding history and field trips in science and geography are all important.

Not all of those trips have to be trips to places that are a long way away. In fact, the hon. Member for Cardiff West gave the example of a school trip in his constituency that stayed very close to the school. Sometimes such activities can take place just outside the school and even occasionally within the school gates. Getting out of the classroom is what is so vital.

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The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the previous Government's record on outdoor learning. I absolutely acknowledge that the previous Government invested an awful lot of effort, time and money in trying to improve outdoor learning. However, as the Children, Schools and Families Committee stated very clearly in its report on outdoor learning, we are not there yet and we are a long way away from being where we need to be. Far too few young people have the opportunity for outdoor learning and there are all sorts of reasons for that, which were drawn out in the Select Committee report. I just want to refer to a few of those reasons.

I think that part of the problem is related to an overcrowded curriculum, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion spoke about. There are so many compulsory elements in the curriculum that it is difficult to find the space in the day for teachers to explore outdoor activity. A number of hon. Members were trying to request that extra things should be put into the curriculum, particularly in relation to outdoor learning. In the same way that the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole suggested one thing out, one thing in, I am resisting the tendency to put extra things into the curriculum. However, I can perhaps offer a word of comfort to hon. Members who raised this issue. The national curriculum review is particularly looking at what should go into the curriculum. For subjects such as science and geography, it may well be that the review looks at the particular components of outdoor learning. I do not want to pre-empt the review, but I will say that it is ongoing.

Alun Cairns: Will the Minister give way?

Sarah Teather: I have only three minutes left and I have quite a lot still to say, so I had better not give way just now.

I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire for raising issues of health and safety. I absolutely agree with him on those issues and it was helpful of him to put on record the statistics that he cited about how rare difficult events are. The Government take very seriously the report by Lord Young and it is absolutely vital that we get out the message that such difficult events are very rare and that we should take a much more common-sense approach to outdoor learning.

The Government believe that, by offering more flexible funding to schools with less ring-fencing, we have a much better chance of encouraging schools to take up opportunities for outdoor learning. For example, schools
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are free to spend the pupil premium on supporting particular activities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. If the priority is to hire a minibus, that might be what a school chooses to do. However, I will undertake to examine the suggestion of the hon. Member for North Swindon about an insurance scheme for schools that is bought en bloc, to see if there is anything that can be done with respect to that suggestion.

The White Paper on schools also speaks specifically about "access to live theatre" and encouraging

That is something that the Government take very seriously.

I have mentioned history, and the understanding of citizenship is also very important, which is precisely why we support the Holocaust Educational Trust in its programme "Lessons from Auschwitz". I have experienced that programme myself and it is a fantastic programme that offers the opportunity to change people's perspectives. For those who have not had that experience at school, the Government are providing extra opportunities through the national citizen service, which will give young people an opportunity to experience outdoor activity first-hand at the start of that scheme and really change their lives.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire asked a number of questions. With respect to teacher training, a paper on that subject will be released next year and I will ensure that his comments about teacher training are drawn to the attention of the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), who is the Minister with responsibility for schools.

With respect to the foundation stage, I will ensure that the comments that have been made about it during the debate are fed into Dame Clare Tickell's review of the early years foundation stage.

With regard to the "Rarely Cover" guidance, if schools plan trips in advance that guidance should not really be an issue. However, the Department for Education and Skills is looking at the guidance.

With respect to the idea of an entitlement for one particular outdoor learning activity, I think that this process is much more about understanding outdoor learning as a part of a child's whole learning experience. Just having one trip does not really meet the need for outdoor learning. What we need to do is to mainstream outdoor learning into the whole way that we are looking at the curriculum, which is why I made the point earlier about geography and science trips.

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order.

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Pollution (Horn Lane, Acton)

11 am

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. The Horn lane industrial site sits on a busy single carriageway in my constituency, connecting the Uxbridge road with the north of the constituency, which is home to the Park Royal industrial and business park and through which runs the A40. The purpose of bringing that part of the world to your attention is to highlight a long-standing problem that shows no signs of abating: the unacceptable pollution levels emanating from the Horn lane industrial site and the palpable failure of any agency to enforce legal pollution limits in the area.

It is local residents who have really upped the ante on the issue by putting it firmly on the agenda and starting to campaign for genuine action and, hopefully, an end to the pollution plight that menaces their daily lives. Ably led by a former Acton Central councillor, VIod Barchuk, and local activist, Rosco White, SHLAP-Stop Horn Lane Pollution-has attracted considerable support from a community that, understandably, wants to hear less about monitoring pollution levels and more about active policing and enforcement.

Having consulted the Environment Agency and corresponded with the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the matter, I am still a little unclear on how best to move forward and achieve genuine action on the matter. The site is the problem, because it sits uncomfortably, slap bang in the middle of a large residential community. It is surrounded on three sides by residential properties that are supported by a parade of shops and local businesses, all directly alongside the industrial site. Despite living and working along a busy road, a real sense of community exists among local residents, who feel that they are living in an area with great potential and already benefit from Acton's excellent transport links and the easy access it offers to central London.

That ease of access makes it obvious why Horn lane was chosen to house an industrial site in the first place. It has first-rate rail links and is right on the doorstep of the Park Royal estate. The A40 is to the north and the Uxbridge road is to the south. That made sense in the past, when Horn lane was home to factories, rather than flats and houses as it is now. It must seem odd to those who work on the site that they drive their lorries, unload their skips and transfer their waste right in the heart of a residential community. To local residents, it is ridiculous that their quality of life is being impaired by that throwback, which produces literally sky-high levels of pollution.

Incidentally, although we are looking at air pollution today, the noise pollution from some of those units is also intolerable. The beeping of lorries backing up to empty their loads, the clanking of skips being unloaded and reloaded, and the general din of deafening noise produced by large vehicles moving back and forth in a confined space is also pretty awful for residents. There is no doubt that a more modern and enclosed site would limit both air and noise pollution and increase efficiency. Those units are way behind their times, another reason why they are so unsuitable for the area they remain in.

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However, it is the high levels of small, carcinogenic PMIO particles that produce the really serious health problems. They are produced when the units transfer aggregates and building materials from rail to road and engage in their waste-transfer activities. PMIO particles are proven to have a range of effects on health, including effects on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, asthma and mortality. As the evidence that I will share shows, PMIO levels originating from the Horn lane site have consistently overshot the maximum permitted from any one location. That that is allowed to continue in a heavily populated residential area is just not on.

Monitoring of pollution levels at the Horn lane site is already in place. The Environment Agency is now comparing readings from all three of the monitoring devices at the site in the hope that the sources of the PMIO can be more precisely located. However, residents who complain about the unacceptably high levels of pollution have for years heard the familiar refrain from the Environment Agency that it is monitoring pollution from the site and will take action if the industrial units exceed the limits agreed under their operating licenses. Indeed the monitoring equipment takes readings every 15 minutes, which allows pollution patterns to be identified. The readings show that both measures for pollution levels-the daily and annual average readings-far exceed the maximum levels permitted.

The European Commission has set a target that no location should have an annual average of more than 40 micrograms of PMIO particles per cubic metre. So far this year, the Horn lane site has averaged 42 micrograms per cubic metre. The EU states that in any one location there should be no more than 35 days a year when PMIO levels average more than 50 micrograms per cubic metre. That happened on 96 days in 2008, 73 days in 2009 and on 91 days so far this year. Based on those readings, in the last three years pollution levels have been more than double the agreed acceptable levels. Where is the enforcement? What is the point of all the monitoring if it does not actually lead to anything?

The lack of enforcement brings about cynicism of the worst sort among the public. Residents are told that there are acceptable levels of pollution and that anything beyond those limits incurs a penalty, but in reality those levels are breached with frightening regularity and nothing is ever done. For instance, a bell has been installed at one of the units on the Horn lane site to ring when levels rise above a certain point. At that point, all activity at the unit is supposed to cease immediately until the level drops back down. Residents say that they cannot hear the bell because there is so much noise, but the figures reveal that pollution was above the acceptable level, and yet no one has ever seen activity stopped for any period whatsoever during a working day. It is no good being told after the event that pollution levels were too high if nothing is done at the time to rectify the situation. People will just ask, "What is the point?"

In the meeting that I organised in Parliament between the Environment Agency and SHLAP, the agency's representatives explained the great difficulties that they face in enforcing the legal pollution limits set out in the industrial units' licensing agreements. My understanding is that the principal problem with that enforcement is that one has to go to court and prove that an individual unit is exclusively responsible for the pollution, but that is clearly impossible in the case of the Horn lane site,
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because a number of different potential polluters operate there at the same time. What are we to do? The public simply cannot continue to be told that there is unacceptable pollution at the site and then be informed that nothing can be done about it or that no agency is prepared to do anything about it.

The added problem at Horn lane is that it is not just the Environment Agency that is responsible for enforcing pollution levels, as some of the units come under the remit of the local authority, Ealing borough council. I am not making a partisan point, because both main parties have run the council and neither have managed to get to grips with the problem. It will always be difficult when two separate authorities are responsible for different units at the same place and when it is necessary to prove that an individual site is at fault. The situation is just too confusing.

The operators have not always been entirely open to positive discussions with their neighbours, which is unfortunate. Some residents have at times felt noticeable hostility when they have been "too active in making complaints". It might be fair to say that since the arrival of SHLAP there is a growing recognition by those companies that the residents are now much more united and determined to get things done. For that reason, we have noticed certain improvements at the industrial site, such as proper wetting of the ground, which captures the dust before it flies into the air. It seems that that is now being done on a more regular basis, but my point is that residents should not need to dedicate their lives to the cause of getting genuine action on enforcing legal pollution limits.

The Environment Agency will be on schedule 7 of the Public Bodies Bill currently going through Parliament. If the Bill becomes law, it will be subject to review on a regular basis, and we are hoping that that will help to sharpen its approach.

Also going through Parliament is the Localism Bill, which is about returning power to the local level. It includes a general power of competence that would allow local authorities to do anything that is not specifically prohibited by law. It may well provide an opportunity for the local authority to take a more proactive approach to the problem emanating from the Horn lane site. It should be noted that the local authority did take a more proactive approach in 2006, when it brought a prosecution under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. That was effective in improving the unit's performance, albeit only in moving pollution levels down from the outrageous to the unacceptable. Broadly speaking, focus and leadership have been seriously lacking in the past. The Localism Bill coupled with regular reviews of the Environment Agency's approach might just get things going.

The real long-term answer to the problem must be to shift this small industrial remnant and to rezone the area for residential and office use. The problem has existed for too long-it is absolutely time to sort it out. The arrival of Crossrail at Acton mainline station, which is now guaranteed in the comprehensive spending review, cannot come soon enough. It will provide the perfect opportunity for complete rezoning of the area. There will be great demand for offices and residential units, and they would surely be a much more suitable way to use land in what could become an appealing location.

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There have also been growing calls for Network Rail to sell off some of its valuable land assets, bearing in mind the public purse in these times of austerity. When Crossrail finally comes to Acton with a brand new station, the surrounding land owned by Network Rail will increase considerably in value. That is yet another argument for rezoning the area.

Obviously, I am not trying to put people out of business. The last thing that I want to do is to close the industrial units down, as such-I just want to move them a little. In fact, there is a perfectly sensible alternative. The Park Royal business and industrial estate is, literally, just up the road. It offers excellent access to the A40, there is still plenty of free space, and there is easy access to rail links from the estate. Surely that would be a better location for this kind of industrial activity than a heavily populated residential area.

But, of course, that is for the future. Crossrail is not due to open for business much before 2018 or 2019, and we have a problem that has to be dealt with here and now. That is why I have focused my attention today on the current needs of the Acton residents who live along Horn lane, alongside the industrial site. They need action now, not endless monitoring and statistics.

I recognise that the agencies I have spoken to want solutions, but, as I said earlier, this is about focus and leadership, and a determination to act on the information, rather than to provide all kinds of reasons for why nothing can be done. My constituents deserve much better than that, and I hope that the Minister will provide us with some helpful thoughts on a meaningful way forward. I thank him, and you, Mr Benton, for listening to our case this morning.

11.13 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) on raising this matter again in the House. She raised it last week in Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions. She has held frequent meetings and has been a prolific letter writer on behalf of her constituents, and is to be commended for her tenacity in raising an important issue for her local residents.

The emergence of SHLAP-Stop Horn Lane Pollution-is a great credit to the community. It shows strength of spirit and determination to resolve a problem that is clearly blighting the lives of local people. I will deal in detail with the circumstances later, but it is important first to set the context.

Good air quality is fundamental to health and the quality of life. The public health White Paper, which was published only last week, highlighted that. It also highlighted the important role that local authorities play in ensuring that their citizens and communities have clean air to breathe and, with other agencies and local businesses, in ensuring that pollution is kept under control and its impacts minimised.

We have seen significant improvements in air quality over many decades, but, as this case demonstrates, poor air quality continues to have an impact on peoples' lives. Moreover, poor air quality and pollution hotspots, as in the case of Horn lane and the industrial site located there, can blight the lives of local communities significantly.
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The coalition Government have made a clear commitment to work towards achieving air quality pollution limits in the UK, and co-operation between the Environment Agency, local authorities and others is key to achieving that commitment.

Several points that my hon. Friend made have to be dealt with at the local level-they cannot be dealt with from the desk of a DEFRA Minister. However, she was right to say that leadership at every level is vital. I shall ensure that her powerful words are heard by the Environment Agency, and I am sure that she will ensure that they are heard by the local authority. I shall also ensure that we continue to work with her to get a proper solution to the problem.

Local communities and citizens have an important role to play in highlighting shortcomings and in drawing them to the attention of higher authorities if they cannot achieve local solutions. I am pleased, therefore, to have this opportunity to say more about the action that is being taken to deal with the matter.

This case shows that safeguarding local air quality is not a simple matter, and that many different sources can contribute to the problem. An air quality monitoring site was installed on Horn lane by the London borough of Ealing in 2005. As my hon. Friend said, it measured very high levels of dust particulates, also known as PM10, which is particulate matter of less than 10 microns in diameter-smaller than the width of a single human hair. PM10 is composed of dust from exhaust fumes, brakes and tyres, aggregates, which she referred to, and industrial processes such as waste management and construction and demolition works. It is not visible to the naked eye but can be monitored, and it impacts on human health, particularly that of vulnerable groups with respiratory problems.

In the case of Horn lane, there are several potential sources of PM10 close to the monitoring station, including transport from Horn lane and the nearby A40, other transport sources such as buses and trains, and pollution from the industrial site, which has several units engaged in concrete production, aggregate supply, scrap metal and waste transfer, and also heavy vehicle movements. That combination of sources adds to the load of dust and pollution and requires that several agencies work together with operators to control it.

The local authority has overall responsibility for local air quality in Ealing and for plans to improve it. The Environment Agency is responsible for ensuring that waste management sites regulated under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010 do not contribute significantly to breaches of national air quality objectives. If a site is contributing to such a breach, the agency develops site action plans with the operator to achieve improvement within an agreed time scale. If improvements do not happen, the agency has the power to serve improvement notices, to stop the activity, to initiate criminal proceedings or to revoke the site's environmental permit.

At Horn lane, the Environment Agency regulates part of the Yeoman Aggregates site, the Gowing & Pursey waste transfer site and Horn Lane Metals. Ealing council regulates one other unit and, with Transport for London, has responsibility for reducing pollution from transport sources. That is a complex picture, and I
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know that my hon. Friend and local residents have been concerned about how the arrangements ensure that proper controls are in place. It is right to take into account the valuable local employment provided by firms such as those operating in Horn lane, but these firms must take all reasonable steps to minimise their environmental impact.

The Environment Agency has focused particularly on Gowing & Pursey and has pressed this company over the past four years to improve its control and management of dust, especially from vehicles using the site. Both the London borough of Ealing and the Environment Agency have taken enforcement action against Gowing & Pursey. Most recently, in 2009, the agency served a notice under the environmental permitting regulations, requiring the company to supply it with air quality monitoring data. The company failed to do that, but, following the initiation of enforcement action, it is now supplying the required information.

Further legal enforcement, in principle, remains an option. However, due to the sensitive location at Horn lane, the agency believes that the best option is for all waste activities to occur within a building. I am told that the operator has started discussions with Ealing council on planning permission for this activity to take place in a building.

In addition to these actions, the agency continues to require Gowing & Pursey to monitor for particulates arising from its operations and has increased its inspection and audit frequency for all the sites that it regulates on Horn lane. The agency also carries out regular joint visits with the London borough of Ealing, so that the statutory powers available can be used to improve air quality.

My hon. Friend mentioned relocating facilities on the site. That might be the ideal solution. Planning is a matter for the local authority. I urge her to explore that option-I know that she is doing that-to ensure that in the medium term, at least, a solution can be achieved, leading to different zoning, so that all the benefits that she sees coming forward from a development such as Crossrail can be integrated and factored into a plan dealing with the inappropriate activities that take place so close to so many people's homes.

Since 2006, levels of particulate matter pollution have declined from an annual average of more than 217micrograms per cubic metre to 75 micrograms per cubic metre most recently. This is a significant improvement and the data are publicly available if further details are wanted. I am sure that that is of no comfort to the members of SHLAP, who just want this matter resolved and are not particularly fascinated by the details of the data. Although pollution has reduced, all the parties involved recognise that levels are still too high and further improvements are needed.

I understand that the area manager for the Environment Agency met my hon. Friend and the community representatives she mentioned. From that meeting, it was agreed that the agency would continue to monitor air quality around the site to pinpoint the source and would make frequent unannounced visits to ensure that the site was operating in line with its permitting requirements.

I will take away the points raised by my hon. Friend about the pollution alarm and will personally ensure that the Environment Agency requires that, if a site
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licence requirement says that once the alarm is triggered activities must cease until pollutants reach an acceptable level, and if that is not happening and it is within the means of the Environment Agency to solve the problem-not some other agency-action will be taken.

The agency also agreed to facilitate a meeting with the operators and the community to explore further control measures. I understand that that meeting has yet to take place. This co-operative and transparent approach is important to provide assurance to the local community that action is being taken to improve matters, particularly in this case, where a number of sources could potentially be contributing to breaches of air quality objectives. It is only possible to take enforcement action once the most significant source has been isolated. Although the majority of particulates that are causing problems may or may not be coming from one major source, they might not be coming exclusively from there. It is important that we get the full picture.

As can be seen, this is a complex matter and it is necessary for the local authority, the Environment Agency and others to work together to identify pollution sources. They must also ensure that the responsible operators on the site take suitable measures to improve air quality and monitor levels of pollution. Both the local authority and the agency have taken enforcement action and air pollution has reduced over the years since this engagement, but everyone would agree that more improvements are necessary.

I encourage local residents to continue their dialogue with the Environment Agency and the London borough of Ealing; to keep this site under close scrutiny; and to work with the operators to identify further improvements.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for turning a spotlight on this issue and championing the concerns of local residents. They should know how hard and assiduously their Member of Parliament works for them, dealing with important problems for people living in that area.

11.25 am

Sitting suspended.

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Financial Support (Students)

2.30 pm

Teresa Pearce (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): It is a privilege to have this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. I am pleased to see so many hon. Members here to talk about an important issue. I will try to keep my speech brief, so that everybody can get in to make their points and, more importantly, to ask questions.

I asked for this debate for two reasons. First, we need to highlight the effect that the decision to scrap the education maintenance allowance will have on young people throughout the country. Secondly, we need answers about how the proposed financial support scheme, the enhanced discretionary learner support fund, will work.

Last week in the main Chamber, a vote was carried that will allow university tuition fees to rise up to £9,000 in a year to plug the gaping hole in the higher education budget left by the Government's 80% cut. I voted against that rise with other Opposition Members. The Government fail to grasp that, by cutting EMA, many young people from poorer backgrounds, particularly in constituencies such as mine, will never reach the level at which they will be able even to consider attending university. Taken together, the tuition fee increase and the scrapping of EMA are a heavy blow to young people in constituencies such as mine.

The EMA keeps many young people in Erith and Thamesmead in college or sixth form-and in some cases, it has to be said, on the straight and narrow. Their families rely on payments to cover the costs of attending college, including transport and books, and they often help top up the family budget. One of my constituents, Trudy Mackie, wrote to me recently, saying:

living in Thamesmead,

that enhance her education, such as

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): My constituent, Timar Misghina, a student, said precisely the sorts of things that my hon. Friend has just quoted. Tellingly, she said that EMA not only helps with books, transport and clothing, but helps to get her through her studies with fewer worries. It is important that, when people are trying to study, they and their families are not in a state of constant worry about money.

Teresa Pearce: I agree. It makes a difference if people know that they can concentrate on their education without worrying about the bus fare.

Some 43% of students at Bexley college and 38% of students at Greenwich college-the two largest colleges serving my constituency-receive EMA, the vast majority receiving the higher rate of £30 a week. Some argue that
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this money does not have an effect, but the principal of Bexley college, Danny Ridgeway, has confirmed that, in the past two academic years, students at his college in receipt of EMA have been more likely to pass their course than their colleagues who have not received EMA support. I believe that this positive outcome is linked to the attendance requirement attached to EMA payments.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): On that point, I received an e-mail from the principal of Hugh Baird college in Bootle, telling me that 84% of young people at the college currently receive EMA. She says that it is clear that the EMA has become a key part of family income and that its discontinuation is very likely to impact on the participation rate locally. In addition, a study in Merseyside colleges shows that the results of those on EMA are 7% higher than those of people who do not receive it.

Teresa Pearce: I agree. More importantly, Danny Ridgeway, the principal of Bexley college, agrees. He says:

At this stage, we do not know whether the Government's plans for enhanced discretionary learner support will have a similar attendance requirement. Will the Minister tell me whether it will?

The Government's current line is that many students would have stayed in education anyway and that EMA is therefore a dead-weight. When the Minister makes this point-I am sure that he will-I would be grateful if he commented on the following points. First, research underpinning the dead-weight assertion was flawed, because it was undertaken only among schools, when 69% of the recipients of EMA attend colleges not schools. Furthermore, a significant number of EMA recipients are black and ethnic minority, yet those surveyed were 91% white. If a survey is undertaken with an unrepresentative sample, I believe that the results are irrelevant to the debate.

Secondly, research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies showed that where EMA is available, participation in education and attainment levels increased. Does the Minister not think that those are worthwhile objectives?

Thirdly, many public policies involve a high amount of dead-weight-for example, the initiative announced in the June Budget about temporary relief from national insurance contributions for new businesses. The Treasury's costing shows that 96% of that tax cut will go to employers who would have set up anyway and that 4% will go to employers who have set up in response to the incentives. If the sole aim of this policy is to stimulate new business, it would be regarded as 96% dead-weight. Why are employers worthy of support, while young people, who are the future of this country, are not?

Before I turn to the details of the enhanced discretionary learner support fund, I wish to discuss what will happen to those students who currently receive EMA and are mid-way through their courses.

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Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): My hon. Friend is right to say that the Government have based their whole case for withdrawing EMA on the research that she mentioned. The Minister will base his case on that research, saying that only a minority of students say that they would not have pursued any course at all if they had not received EMA, but that is not the sole point, is it? Surely the point is the level of sacrifice that families will have to make so that their young people can pursue education.

Does the Minister accept that if he withdraws EMA, even from those students who say that they would proceed with a course, the sacrifice that families have to make will be increased, particularly among those who need the help most-students with learning disabilities, teen parents and those from the poorest families? Does he really want to pursue that policy?

Katy Clark (in the Chair): Order. Can I remind hon. Members that interventions should be short?

Teresa Pearce: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point.

Students who receive EMA and are mid-way through their courses began those courses in good faith and could not have foreseen that the funding that they were promised would be withdrawn later. On 25 November, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and I wrote to the Secretary of State for Education, urging him to ensure that students would continue to receive EMA for the duration of their courses. We have not yet had a clear response from him, so I would be grateful if the Minister clarified what is to happen to those students, particularly given the recent confusion between written answers and information appearing on Government websites.

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on 15 November, the Minister said that £174 million would be set aside for EMA in 2011-12, the next school year. Yet the Directgov website states:

I would be grateful if the Minister clarified which is the correct answer.

EMA keeps young people focused on their studies, as other hon. Members have mentioned, meaning that they do not have to take on part-time jobs to see them through their education. Long gone are the days when students could get Saturday jobs to do that, because those jobs are often taken by middle-aged women. The jobs just are not there.

In a letter that I received yesterday, the Minister says that

I totally agree with the Minister, but that change is precisely because of EMA.

The Government have indicated that future decisions on who will receive payments will be made at individual institutions. The coalition Government say that that is because the school or college is closer to students and
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can make better judgments, but those very institutions are opposing the withdrawal of EMA. If the Minister trusts their judgment about the administration of the enhanced discretionary learners support fund, perhaps he will tell us why he does not trust their judgement on the value of EMA as a whole.

I would like answers to the following questions. Will the new scheme take account of travel costs? A written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan shows that the last time the Government assessed the average travel costs per student was in 2003. How will we know what the costs are now if the figures are eight years old?

Will the enhanced discretionary learners support fund even include travel costs? At the moment, it does not. What safety net will be in place if too many students need funding, but not enough money is available locally to fund them? Will that mean less funding per student, will allocation be on a first come, first served basis, will students have to parade their poverty to see who is at the front of the queue, or will more funding be made available? If a college does not use all its grant, what will happen to the surplus? My constituency could be considered to be an area with a high level of student need, and those questions are important to me and the people who sent me here.

Katy Clark (in the Chair): Order. I have received written indications from 12 Back-Bench Members who wish to speak, and I ask hon. Members to bear that in mind when making their contributions.

4.21 pm

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): It is a pleasure, Ms Clark, to serve under your chairmanship, and I thank you for calling me. I know that many hon. Members want to speak, so I will try to keep my comments brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this undoubtedly important debate today, and I note that members of the public are also present. The debate is especially important given last week's prominent and controversial debate on higher education, so it is extremely timely to discuss financial support for students over the age of 16.

I want to make my position clear. I strongly believe that it is right for some form of financial assistance to be targeted at those aged 16 to 18 from the poorest backgrounds. That is really important. The key components of any post-16 education debate should focus on the education maintenance allowance. That has always been the case, and I want to focus my comments on that.

I am sure that some hon. Members here will have received a lot of correspondence about the matter. I have certainly seen a lot, and the principals of Askham Bryan and York colleges in my constituency have raised the issue. Among all concerned groups, there is a real fear that the loss of the weekly allowance will lead to the poorest abandoning their courses, and perhaps not starting them in the first place. That is an entirely understandable concern. However, I stress that the issue is not simplistic or clear cut. The impression portrayed in some corners suggests that the choice is between EMA and the end of all financial assistance to 16 to 18-year- olds. That is quite wrong. I suggest that the majority-I include myself-stand in the middle on this sensitive issue.

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Joan Ruddock: What does the hon. Gentleman think will be the consequence of students not knowing whether they are eligible for EMA? There might be a grant, but they would not know. When it comes to choosing a further education college, such as Lewisham college in my constituency, eligible students can get the money and have some certainty. They can make a real choice about where they take their education. What is the future?

Julian Sturdy: I accept the right hon. Lady's point. There is no doubt that we must ensure that the policy is clear. That has not always been the case, which is why I want to speak up. However, I broadly support the policy, and I will go into the reasons later. We must make sure that information is clear because it is important for young people to have it at their fingertips so that they can make the critical decisions that will affect their future lives. The right hon. Lady makes a valid point.

A matter that has already been touched on is that Government research shows that 90% of EMA spending is dead-weight, going to students who would have stayed in education regardless of the scheme. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead touched on that, and I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say. I share the Government's view that taxpayers' money deserves far greater respect. If EMA is truly only needed by just 12% of those who receive it-

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): My constituency is in the 19th most deprived local authority area in England. On the dead-weight issue-I do not accept the survey's figures-does the hon. Gentleman share my frustration about the way the argument is made? If young people say that despite abolition of EMA they will remain in education, that is being used against them. I met a group of students this morning who said that they would do whatever it takes to stay in education because that is their future, even if abolition of EMA means that they cannot have lunch for a few days a week at least, or pay for transport and will have to walk to college instead. The issue is not just about people being put off and abolition of EMA deterring young people from going into further education. A member of Lambeth youth council, Stephen, is sitting behind me and can back me up on that. For those who choose to stay in education regardless, the abolition of EMA will subject them to extreme hardship.

Katy Clark (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members that interventions should be brief.

Julian Sturdy: There is no doubt that there must be support for the poorest and most deprived areas to help young people into education, and I will come to that. Government policy allows for that, but the question is whether the money is best used and targeted at people who fall outside and are at the top end of the threshold. Perhaps it is not.

Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): Is the issue not about fairness? In my constituency, many children live in deprived areas with no state sixth form provision. Support should be effectively targeted. Am I not right in thinking that that is what the Government intend to do?

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Julian Sturdy: Absolutely, and that is what I want to go on to. For me, the fundamental point is ensuring that the money gets through to the people who really need it, and ensuring that they can make the decisions that could change their lives.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Julian Sturdy: I am not getting far, but I will give way.

Bill Esterson: The issue of how to tell who really needs EMA to attend college has been raised with me by a number of college principals. Does the hon. Gentleman have any thoughts-I hope that the Minister will also address the point-on how college principals are supposed to identify who really needs support, and who to withdraw it from and who to leave it with under the new arrangements? What will be the basis for those decisions? There is an estimate that 10% of students will drop out. How will they be identified?

Julian Sturdy: If I am correct-I hope the Minister will highlight this point-we are saying that we will give college principals the power to allocate funding. It is about devolving local decisions to local people and I will speak further about that later in my remarks. I am looking at this issue from the point of view of those in my constituency, including the two principals who have contacted me. I believe that such people are best placed to take such decisions because they have local knowledge, which is important. I am not present just to speak in support of the Government-I do broadly support them, but I have some concerns that I shall outline in more detail.

The flaws in the central administration of EMA are well known. Last year alone, the running costs of the scheme totalled a staggering £35.8 million. That is of concern and I welcome news of the increased discretionary learner support funds that will replace the EMA. That support will be targeted more directly towards those from the lowest income households to ensure that accessibility to post-16 study remains viable and attractive for all students. That is the crucial part of the policy.

I welcome the decision to localise the distribution of the learner support funds by empowering local colleges and educational providers to carry out that administrative role. That process will hopefully save money that should be going to students in the first place. Some will argue that such a transfer of responsibility will increase the workload for colleges, but in my view it is right for local education providers to use their local knowledge to tailor the support offered to young people in their specific areas. That is a local and flexible solution to the problems of poor and costly administration.

I am generally supportive of the measures outlined by the coalition but I hold two reservations about the new system. First, I am concerned about ending the scheme for those students who will be only half-way through their courses by next summer. I support the new system, but I believe that it would be better for those already receiving EMA payments to see the initial agreements honoured. My second concern, which has been raised already, relates to transport. Many students who attend colleges across York and North Yorkshire rely on EMA to help meet their travel costs. Many have
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£10 automatically withdrawn from their allowance in return for a free bus pass. Given the likelihood of cuts to local authority transport subsidies, I would be interested to know whether the Government are considering the introduction of any transport-related financial assistance for full-time 16 to18-year-old students. In essence, however, I hope that all of us in the Chamber today share the same goal to protect and enhance the accessibility to education that our 16 to 18-year-olds currently enjoy and deserve. That is a noble and worthwhile ambition, and countless colleagues across the coalition genuinely share that vision.

The choice is not merely between EMA on one hand and no financial support whatsoever for 16 to 18-year-olds on the other. If that were the case, it would be quite wrong. Instead, an unwavering commitment to those who face genuine financial barriers to participation can be delivered through a more localised and efficient scheme, and that is why I broadly support what the coalition Government are doing.

Katy Clark (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members that they must stand if they wish to speak.

2.54 pm

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and welcome the fact that there is a show of strength here today. That will give some heart to those students sitting in the audience or watching the debate on the television who will have been horrified to hear themselves described as dead-weight by some hon. Members. Hon. Members from all parties should be careful in the way that they talk about this important issue. Those students and their financial support are not dead-weight in any sense. They not dead-weight in the offensive way in which such language is used, and neither are dead-weight based on the evidence. I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) when she pointed out that the study on which the Government have based most of their evidence is highly unrepresentative of her constituency and of mine, and of most of those students who rely on EMA to finish their courses and ensure that they do not suffer extreme hardship as a result.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that before the EMA was introduced it was trialled in Hackney, which had an amazingly successful response and a much higher take-up of college places? That has now led to a much higher take-up of university places and the scheme has proved a success all along the way in what is Britain's poorest borough. Does she think that the Government study ought to look at places such as Hackney that have a much longer experience of such schemes, rather than looking at other places and coming up with those rather curious figures? EMA is the gateway to higher education, is it not?

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