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Norman Baker: I am saying what I was told by the Confederation of Passenger Transport. Immediately after the spending review, it indicated that in general terms it felt able to absorb the reduction in BSOG without an effect on services or fares. That is what it said. I am happy to provide the quote if the hon. Gentleman wants to see it.

It should also be recognised that, even in places such as Norfolk, about two thirds of journeys are on commercial services and are therefore unaffected by what local authorities decide in relation to their own budgets.

Let me turn now to concessionary travel and say first very plainly that, even in these times of austerity measures, the coalition Government are firmly committed to protecting the concessionary bus travel scheme. That was made clear in the coalition agreement, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer reconfirmed that commitment in the spending review. The scheme is of huge benefit to about 11.5 million people, allowing free off-peak travel anywhere in England. That generous concession provides older and disabled people with greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community. It enables access to facilities both within and outside their local area and helps them to keep in touch with family and friends. Travel to visit popular tourist destinations can also bring benefits to the wider economy.

The Government are aware of how precious the benefit is to older and disabled people, which is why we are focusing our efforts on assisting local authorities to find efficiencies through reforms to administrative arrangements for the scheme, rather than cutting back on the entitlement. For the avoidance of doubt, the free bus pass is here to stay.

Mr Andrew Turner: My hon. Friend is quite correct in what he quotes. I fell into the bear trap that the Labour party left for me, and so did my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, as far as I can see.

John Woodcock: We gave these people free bus travel.

Mr Turner: I was wrong to support the scheme, but I supported it and I will support it for the rest of this Parliament. What happens then is a matter that we will have to debate and develop.

Norman Baker: I can say to my hon. Friend to be helpful that a number of well-meaning people who are very committed to bus services have raised similar points to the one that he has raised. Those points have been noted and passed both to the Department for Transport and elsewhere in Government. However, we are clear about the commitment that we have made to the free bus pass, and that is not going to change.

I should at this stage pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth about trying to save money on administration in relation to the bus pass. That is right. We need to consider those types of saving. That is one reason why we were supportive of the idea of moving the administration from districts to counties, which saves considerable costs in the administration of the bus pass.

Only one small change has been made to the entitlement to concessionary fares: the age of eligibility has been increased in line with the changes taking place to the state pension age. That is right, as people are living

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longer, staying healthy longer and tending to stay in work until later in life. That change started in April 2010, just before the last general election, so local authorities are already making savings as a result. The change will assist with the financial sustainability of the scheme, while reserving the benefits of the bus pass for those with the greater need.

What has not changed at all—this is an important point—is that operators should be reimbursed for concessionary bus travel only on a no better, no worse-off basis. That is in primary legislation introduced by the previous Government. Nothing that this Government have done has changed that at all. Almost a year ago, the Department for Transport published revised guidance to local authorities to support them in determining their arrangements with bus companies, to make sure that they are no better and no worse off. I made that clear in my recent letter to the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), both of whom came to see me to talk about bus services in the county.

In a report published in May, the Competition Commission strongly commended the guidance issued by my Department, since it helps local authorities to take account of the impacts that the concessionary travel scheme can have on commercial pricing policies. The commission says that it hopes that the guidance will be followed to the greatest extent possible. In fact, the majority of local authorities are now using the guidance and should be reaping the financial benefits of taking it on board. I stress, however, that it is entirely a matter for them whether they use the guidance or not. There is no compulsion to do so. The only compulsion is the one that existed in legislation introduced by the previous Government to ensure that bus companies are no better and no worse off from operating the concessionary fares scheme. The guidance can be a useful starting point for negotiation between bus operators and local authorities and, so far this year, more than half of the appeals lodged by operators have been withdrawn—a significant improvement on previous years.

I remind Members that our funding for bus travel does not stop at concessionary travel reimbursement and bus operator subsidy. We have also provided almost £47 million to local transport authorities and bus operators to purchase 542 low-carbon buses across England, through our green bus fund. I would also like to refer to our new £560 million local sustainable transport fund, which this Government have introduced. There have been 39 successful bids in tranche 1, 25 of which have included bus-based elements to help bus travel locally.

Turning to the third element, I recognise that the recent local authority settlement has been challenging. There is no doubt about that. I have heard the argument that the distribution method used at the time does not reflect the particular circumstances facing each local council. That has been brought into sharp relief now that, since April, all funding for the statutory concessionary travel scheme has been provided as part of the settlement from the Department for Communities and Local Government. I should point out, however, that last summer’s consultation by that Department provided an opportunity to influence the final distribution method for the first two years of the spending review period. The overall funding then set was deemed by DCLG to

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be sufficient to enable local authorities to deliver effective local services, while ensuring that authorities do not set excessive council tax increases. Councils now have another opportunity to make their voices heard. DCLG is consulting on the broad options for a new way of funding local government, based on business rates retention.

The Government are clear that any changes must protect the interests of local taxpayers and the vulnerable, be fair for all councils and encourage growth. Councils that are more deprived—I accept the point that has been made about the definition of deprivation—will continue to receive central Government support. We recognise, however, that it may be possible to improve the way local council spending on concessionary travel reimbursement is treated in allocating local government resources. That is why, following my meeting in April with the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk, the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright), and the hon. Members for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), I wrote to the Minister for Housing and Local Government on 20 July about the way formula grant is calculated, the relative needs formula for concessionary travel, the so-called floor-damping mechanism, and the local government resource review. That is why the consultation considers whether to review the relative needs formulae for concessionary travel when establishing the baseline for local government funding from 2013-14 onwards.

Sarah Newton: I welcome the review of local government funding formulae. One area of reimbursement that the Minister has not mentioned, and on which I hope he will give an assurance, relates to parts of the country that welcome lots of tourists but are not, at the moment, reimbursed for the cost of honouring concessionary fares. Can he assure us that the review will consider that?

Norman Baker: I can give an assurance only that, first, that point was made to me in a meeting with Norfolk MPs, and secondly, that it has been reflected in comments that I have passed on to DCLG. I am happy to share the reply that I received from the Minister for Housing and Local Government. He confirmed that he had received the letter and that, in his view, the new business rate retention system is likely to address Norfolk’s concerns. That was the official response from DCLG and the Minister thinks that that is part of the answer. There is recognition, at least, from DCLG that Members in Norfolk have a legitimate concern about the matter, and it is therefore being factored, I think, into the Department’s thinking.

Let me now turn to reductions in tendered bus services, which in England comprise about 22% of bus services, while the rest are commercially provided. As I have said, the recent local government finance settlement has been challenging, but I am still disappointed that in some areas local councils have responded by taking the axe to local bus services in a rather unimaginative way. This hits particularly hard in rural areas where supported services make up a higher share of the total than in metropolitan areas. I am naturally concerned when I hear that vulnerable people with few other transport

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choices have lost their only bus service, or that children have reduced public transport access to the school of their choice. It would seem that there is also an impact on people’s love lives and on cats, but perhaps I should keep away from cats.

Some councils, such as Cambridgeshire, have unfortunately taken an almost slash-and-burn approach to bus services, while others, such as East Riding, where the percentage cuts are in single figures, have been much more considerate and careful in their decisions. There is therefore a big difference—this is part of localism—between the responses of individual councils. People are now empowered to ask why their council has made cuts in their area when similar cuts have not been made across the border. I hope that people will start picking up on these differences and challenge their councillors accordingly. That is part of the answer to the point that the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) made about North Yorkshire, because the position in North Yorkshire is very different from that in, for example, East Riding.

I was encouraged to read in a recent press release by Norfolk council that it has been able to make significant savings this year with

“very little disruption to bus services.”

Another example is Dorset, which I understand is making savings of up to £1 million this year through an innovative procurement model. That is something that I am examining to see whether there are lessons that can be rolled out to other councils throughout the country.

I am interested in the point made by the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) about feeder services in Shropshire. Section 22 community transport services can qualify for concessionary travel, so it is possible for them to be included in a proper arrangement for a planned bus network.

I am also keen that local authorities make the most efficient use of their resources, whether that means combining adult social care transport with patient and school transport, or providing more flexible forms of public transport in areas where commercial services are not available. In Cheltenham, for example, Gloucestershire county council has replaced a costly subsidised bus service with a route operated by a community transport

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group, which integrates school transport in the mornings and afternoons with a scheduled timetable open to the public in between. I think that that is the sort of initiative that the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth was suggesting might be applied more widely.

On community transport eligibility, as I have mentioned, section 22 services qualify. Section 19 services do not, because the Department has long held the view that, because they are on-demand services and available only to specific groups of people, it would not be fair to extend concessionary fare eligibility to them. It could also undermine existing tendered or commercial services. They qualify, however, for bus service operators grants, so there is support.

I am conscious of the time, but let me pick up one or two of the points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) made a point about integration across counties. Local authorities have powers to work together with operators of commercial services across boundaries to integrate timetables. That is done in some areas, such as Oxford and Sheffield, so the powers are there and were, in fact, reinforced in the Local Transport Act 2008. It is up to local authorities to use the powers that they have. There are no quality contracts in place at the moment. The legislation exists to allow them to be formed. There are statutory quality partnerships, which is perhaps what the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness was discussing. If local authorities want to avail themselves of the powers in the 2008 Act, they can do so. Some of the legislation is slightly complicated. In fact, when I was in opposition, I wanted to go further, in line with some of the comments made by Government Members during today’s debate, but that did not find favour with the previous Government.

The Competition Commission has produced this week its provisional remedies for the bus market. The Department for Transport may need to look at those carefully. Perhaps some solutions will help to address some of the issues that have been raised today. The hon. Member for Hexham talked about more council control, which is what the Competition Commission is suggesting, particularly in terms of multi-operator ticketing.

The hon. Member for South West Norfolk raised the issue of rail-bus integration.

Mr Lee Scott (in the Chair): Order. It is now time for the next debate.

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Education System (Dance)

12.30 pm

Mr Frank Doran (Aberdeen North) (Lab): There are few opportunities in the House to debate dance and I am delighted to have secured a debate on such an important topic. I have had a lifelong interest in dance, although only as an audience member. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and I formed the all-party group on dance some years ago, to support the dance industry.

The UK education system is a world leader in defining dance as a subject for study: its history, genres, choreography, aesthetics, politics and relationship to other art forms. In most schools it is taught within physical education, but it is unique because it develops both artistic and physical skills. Dance has an important role to play in getting young people physically active. It appeals to a large number of young people as an activity, including those who do not enjoy competitive sports and who therefore try to avoid PE in schools.

The Youth Sport Trust audit of dance in English schools and the audit carried out by school dance co-ordinators of the schools in their areas show a high number of schools providing dance in England and Wales. Nearly all—90%—of secondary schools provide dance of some form in the curriculum. Even very young children understand the power of dance to express what we think and how we feel. Studies have shown that dance can make a huge difference to a child’s overall performance at school, as well as developing skills to help them to communicate better, work as a team member, analyse further and imagine more. A physical education, school sport and club links scheme survey shows that in England dance is second only to football as the most popular physical activity for young people. The “Dance in Scotland” report published by the Federation of Scottish Theatre in August 2011 states that more people in Scotland dance than play football. That may have something to do with my country’s inability to qualify for international tournaments.

Participation in dance activity in schools is positive, because dance encourages young people to take part in and sustain physical activity—even those of us who do not enjoy competitive sport. That can help to tackle issues of obesity and other health problems. Dance has particular appeal to people who may not readily engage with traditional competitive sports, such as young women and some cultural and ethnic groups. Dance is the most popular PE activity for girls. As most girls stop doing any physical activity after the age of 18, dance offers the greatest chance to engage women in lifelong fitness. Identifying exceptionally talented young dancers at school will help to develop a highly skilled workforce, from diverse backgrounds, supplying the UK’s world-renowned performing arts industry, which contributes more than £3.5 billion annually to the British economy.

The work done in schools is supplemented by dance organisations across the country. Youth Dance England is the national organisation that champions excellence in dance for and with young people. In a recently published report on its performance over the past three years, YDE was shown to have made a remarkable impact on young people’s dance across the country. It worked in a unique way with nine leading dance and

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arts organisations, based in each region of England, to create the first national network to support the local delivery of dance to young people. That was assessed to be an inexpensive and efficient model, which other art forms were encouraged to adopt. Over three years, with a public investment of £5.5 million—that equated to 58p per school-aged child in England—390,425 young people participated in programmes at national and regional level. I am sorry to be so precise, but the figures are important. There were 1,889 performances and 376,133 people attended them; 15% of English schools took part in U.Dance, a programme to increase the number of dance performances. In comparison, over the same period, investment in music education was £38 per school-aged child.

Most of our dance companies do outreach work in schools. Internationally known organisations such as the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Ballet Rambert and many others reach thousands of school children every year, bringing a professional insight to the education system and encouraging, supporting and raising the sights of countless students. For most students, dance is an activity that they will enjoy and benefit from. Others see dance as a career. That used to be difficult, but the Dance and Drama Awards scheme, introduced in 1999, has opened up possibilities for many more young people. Those awards offer annual scholarships to exceptionally talented performing arts students studying at some of the country’s leading providers of vocational training in dance, drama, musical theatre and technical theatre.

DaDAs offer reduced tuition fees and assistance with living expenses for a two or three-year course and are funded by the Government through the Young People’s Learning Agency. The performing arts industry contributes more than £3.5 billion annually to the British economy, and students graduating from DaDA-funded courses comprise a high percentage of all new entrants to the British performing arts industry.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): I should perhaps mention that my son is a professional dancer, although he did not qualify for a DaDA. Does my hon. Friend have worries about the longevity and the effect, if DaDAs are not there in the years to come, on people moving into professional dance?

Mr Doran: That is a worry, but we welcomed the continuation of the scheme by the Government last year. We know that it is under review, and hope that it will continue. That is one point that I wanted to make. When the scheme was continued, that reinforced the view that investment in dance is money well spent. The quality and depth of talent in the British entertainment industry in every discipline is the envy of the world. The economic benefits are clear, and the reputational benefits to the country are immense. Economic and cultural priorities make it imperative that the cost-effective benefits of DaDAs should be maintained and should remain in line with new funding arrangements for higher and further education, which come into effect in 2012.

Those are the positives, and they are very significant. Dance is an activity that has benefits across a very wide spectrum. For every age group it has health benefits. It encourages people who might otherwise be shy of engaging in exercise or sports to take exercise. It teaches children

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discipline and how to work in a team. It raises their self-esteem and improves their confidence and motivation. At the top end, professional dancers help to contribute to the growing reputation of the British entertainment industry and its massive contribution to the economy, as well as to our image as a country in the rest of the world. In particular in the London area, but throughout the country, there has been an explosion in the number of musicals: I treat my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton as the world expert on those matters.

However, there are also negatives. Recently, the Minister for Universities and Science made remarks suggesting that dance and other subjects were soft options for university entrance and should not be treated on the same level as other more serious subjects. Those comments echoed remarks made by the Secretary of State for Education in opposition and in government, and they are, to say the least, troubling, particularly to a dance industry that has worked incredibly hard to get to the position it is in today. The view of Ministers is misguided and shows a lack of understanding of the benefits of dance and dance training. It seems to me that behind those comments is a very old-fashioned view of what subjects are suitable for academic study—that there are serious subjects that are worthy of study and support, and others that are seen as soft, easy and not to be taken seriously. I do not think that the Government should put dance in that category—if any discipline should be in it at all.

With the help of Dance UK, the industry body that has been central to much of the progress made in the industry in the past few years, I gathered a range of comments on those ministerial views. Most showed the reaction that might be expected when hard-working professionals feel that the work they do and their students’ aspirations are being undermined or not taken seriously. However, the comments that I think best express the reaction of dance professionals came from Andrea Martin, head of dance at the College of Richard Collyer, Horsham:

“Mr Gove’s comments are essentially insulting to both teachers of A-level dance and the young people who study it. I teach students who are taking four and sometimes five A levels, including subjects such as English, maths, further maths, biology, chemistry, law, history etc. Without exception, I am told by my students that dance is one of the most challenging, if not the most challenging, of their subjects. It demands creativity, physical discipline and academic rigour. The multi-faceted nature of the A-level dance course necessitates the development of vital life skills—time management, collaborative working, problem solving and critical thinking. The A2 dance written exam is a two-hour paper requiring students to write three essays using skills of critical analysis, historical contextualisation and knowledge of human anatomy and physiology.”

She asks a valid question:

“A soft option?”

It clearly is not a soft option, and it is important that Ministers pay more attention to dance and try to get some direct hands-on experience.

Gordon Banks: There is academic content not only in A-level dance, but in higher education training and degree courses in dance. That content does not stop once someone leaves school. If someone goes into professional dance training, there is an academic responsibility. I hope that my hon. Friend thinks that the Minister should take account of that as well.

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Mr Doran: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Two key elements of dance—we see them not just in performances or the way dance is tutored in school; there are many areas where they are crucial—are discipline and teamwork. The Home Office has been looking at dance as a way to help to reform the behaviour of prisoners, for example. Many children with severe learning difficulties or other problems are going into dance courses. Learning about teamwork and discipline is extremely important.

The Secretary of State and I were educated in the same education system, in Scotland. In fact, the school that he went to is in my constituency. I knew him well before he became the Secretary of State—even before he wrote for The Times. He knows that one strength of that system, and it has been for centuries, is the belief that every child should be given the broadest possible education, covering the humanities, technical subjects and the arts. In the Scottish system, children study a much wider range of subjects, but not to the same depth as in the A-level system in England. That comes later, at university. The aims are to avoid too narrow an education and to produce a more rounded adult. What we all want to see produced by our education system is those rounded citizens: people who have knowledge and skills, rigour and discipline, and the ability to think creatively instilled in them, and who have the flexibility to cope with changes in the modern workplace.

Dance is not a soft option for students. Studying dance can provide a child with substantial personal assets, which will prepare that child for his or her future in a complex world. I hope that the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Minister for Universities and Science will put aside their preconceptions about dance and take the trouble to see for themselves how dance training operates and what it achieves, and the progress that children, including many with difficulties, can make.

I can recommend one local authority that would be worth a visit: the London borough of Havering, where the Conservative-controlled council has initiated a programme of dance across all its schools and is reaping tremendous benefits as a result. That excellent example is worth examining. Ministers will find that dance is not a soft option, but rather a key element in training any child for adulthood.

12.43 pm

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I am pleased to be able to speak briefly in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing it. He spelled out clearly and powerfully the case for dance, both in the curriculum and in the life of our nation, and how it contributes culturally and economically to the United Kingdom.

In the Scunthorpe area, which I represent, dance has always been popular. There is a long tradition of dance being part of the local community. That is down to the contribution of many people in the community, including local dance schools and dance teachers, such as Kay Travis, who, even now, in her 80s, continues to inspire young people by encouraging them to participate in dance. Having been principal of John Leggett college in Scunthorpe, I concur with the points made by my hon. Friend about the rigour of the dance curriculum at A-level and his quote from the head of dance at the

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college of Richard Collyer. I saw the cracking work done by Bridget Jacques and Shelley Lee, dance teachers at John Leggett, to bring the best out of the young people who participated in dance. Those young people have gone on to contribute in all walks of life.

It is naïve for certain currents of thought within the Government to believe that dance is in any way a soft option. It is not, and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity today to dispel those myths. Dance is a demanding and challenging subject at GCSE and A-level. As I visited many schools in the past couple of weeks in my constituency, I saw dance being part of the curriculum at primary and secondary levels and the fantastic work that teachers were doing with young people. There are new facilities in schools, such as the Melior community college, built under Building Schools for the Future. Fantastic dance facilities are being used to good value. I was pleased to be at the opening of the new events centre at North Lindsey college in my constituency, when students on the BTEC dance course gave a fantastic presentation to the people there.

I am pleased to support my hon. Friend in the argument that he has made so clearly and cogently today—the argument for dance in the curriculum, for recognising its rigour, and for recognising the contribution that it makes to the UK’s cultural life and economy.

12.46 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this important debate. I know that he is a strong advocate for dance and for the promotion of dance for its health and social benefits and educational value. He pointed to the creativity and physical discipline involved in learning to dance, and, for some dancers, teamwork.

Dance is important to the cultural life of a country, and it is enjoyed by performers and audiences alike, be it classical, traditional or contemporary. Dance has something to offer to people of all ages, and if the popularity of “Strictly Come Dancing” is anything to go by, it is never too late to learn to dance. I just wish that my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), or indeed the former Member for Maidstone and The Weald, Ann Widdecombe, were here today; they could certainly contribute to the debate. It is also never too early to start to dance. Young children have a natural instinct for movement to music, and that should be encouraged along their path to adulthood. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North also alluded to that in his opening remarks.

The Government believe that every child should experience a wide variety of high-quality cultural experiences, including dance. In April, we commissioned an independent review of cultural education led by Darren Henley, managing director of Classic FM, who also led the review of music education. Mr Henley will be reporting on how we can realise the ambition of giving high-quality cultural experiences to our children while ensuring the best use of public money. That will include experiences within and outside the school day. I know that the main cultural groups have not only responded to the call for evidence, but taken the opportunity to meet Darren Henley to contribute to the review. His

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report and our response to it will be published later in the autumn. Dance has an important place in schools and I am confident that that will continue.

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that by introducing the English Baccalaureate, which introduces a hierarchy of subjects and excludes subjects such as dance and drama, and by cutting quotas for drama teachers for universities such as Durham, the Government are placing dance and drama in a serious situation for the future?

Mr Gibb: I do not accept that argument. I will come to talk about the English Baccalaureate in a moment. The E-bac has always been kept at a small enough range of important, facilitating subjects to allow scope within the school curriculum timetable for students to take a wider range of subjects, such as vocational ones, music, art and economics.

We know from previous surveys that dance remains the second most popular activity, after football, among young people. However, something that interested me, and probably many other people, was the statistic about Scotland that the hon. Member for Aberdeen North mentioned. Perhaps it is the prevalence of Scottish dancing that is the key there. It is true also that 97% of all schools provide dancing activity. The popularity of dance is not limited to primary schools, where dance is a compulsory element of the current PE national curriculum; it is also a feature of secondary school education, where it is optional.

As we set out in our White Paper “The Importance of Teaching”, we are embarking on a new era of freedom for schools—freedom from unnecessary bureaucracy and from an overly prescriptive national curriculum. The review of the national curriculum was launched in January and is being conducted in two phases. Phase 1 will focus on the overall shape and nature of the new national curriculum and will also consider new programmes of study for English, mathematics, the sciences and physical education. Those subjects will continue to be compulsory in all four key stages. The programmes of study will be finalised in autumn 2012, with first teaching in schools from September 2013.

Central to the Government’s educational philosophy is the view that not all that is good must be centrally mandated or managed. We believe that the new curriculum will allow schools greater freedom to teach beyond what children should be expected to know in core subjects. We are looking to create more room for excellent innovative teaching and curriculum design. We want more time available for teaching in areas such as dance, and the ability to create a broad and balanced school curriculum to meet pupils’ needs.

The hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) raised the issue of the English baccalaureate and her unease that dance is not included within its subjects. Although the English baccalaureate will give pupils the opportunity to study a core of academic subjects, it does not mean that we wish to restrict their choices or opportunities for wider study and the core of subjects is small enough to allow for that. We know that study in other subjects will be just as valuable to pupils, depending on what they go on to do after 16.

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Nic Dakin: Will the Minister accept that a relatively wide English bac will have a natural impact on the nature and number of minority subjects that any school can provide on its curriculum in key stage 4?

Mr Gibb: The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. If we go through the English baccalaureate subjects—English, maths, science, one of the two humanities and a modern foreign language—all of them, apart from a modern foreign language and a humanity, are already compulsory to 16. We are talking about two GCSEs: history or geography, and a modern foreign language. Modern foreign languages were compulsory until 2004, and there is a body of opinion that says that they should be made compulsory again. The debate is about history and geography, and there has been a significant decline in those subjects over recent years, which is a cause for concern. None the less, if we add up all those GCSE subjects and add on a humanity, it is still small enough for pupils to study one, two or three more GCSEs beyond those core academic subjects, depending on which combination of those subjects they take. That is right because the Russell group universities and others say that those subjects are the facilitating subjects that keep options open for young people to make decisions about their career choices later in life. International evidence has shown that countries around the world in high-performing jurisdictions are delaying young people from making decisions over career choices. They keep options open for longer so that young people can make the right choices.

Pat Glass: Clearly, if the Minister and the people around him feel that that is possible within key stage 4, they have never put together such a timetable. Moving back to dance, is the Minister aware that the highest increase in dance, movement and drama is among disaffected young girls who have a history of non-attendance? Given the Government’s view about the importance of behaviour and attendance, surely there is a good argument for including dance and drama at key stage 4 as a core subject.

Mr Gibb: The hon. Lady makes a good point, and I do not disagree with anything that she has said. At the moment, about 2.5% of the cohort are taking GCSE dance. I do not see why those figures will not continue, even with the popularity of the E-bac as a concept. I do not believe that the introduction of the new performance measure will have dire consequences for those selecting dance GCSE, any more than it will for those choosing other subjects that are not included in the E-bac combination.

When young people choose their GCSE subjects at key stage 4, it is important that they base their choices on what they need to progress. We recognise the wider benefits that studying subjects such as dance can bring. All pupils should be encouraged to study non-E-bac subjects alongside the core English baccalaureate to benefit from a well-rounded education.

To encourage talented young dancers, I am pleased to say that the Government maintain their support for

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low-income families through the music and dance scheme. The scheme represents the top of the pyramid for performing arts education and training and is the Government’s main vehicle for funding the training needs of exceptionally talented young dancers and musicians. Although small—the scheme is funded at £29.5 million this year—the scheme, its beneficiaries, its participating organisations and its patrons have a significant impact on the performing arts world. Although we have not made a formal evaluation, we know that MDS-aided pupils go on to become leading members of their profession in ballet and dance companies at home and abroad, some as soloists with international recognition and renown, such as prima ballerinas Darcey Bussell and Lauren Cuthbertson. Royal Ballet School students regularly win major competitions such as young British dancer of the year and the Lausanne international ballet competition in Switzerland.

In September, when I visited White Lodge, the Royal Ballet school, I could see that the standard of our young dancers is world class.

Mr Doran: Before the Minister finishes his speech, I would be grateful if he addressed the main thrust of my contribution: why do the Secretary of State and the Minister for Universities and Science suggest that the status of a dance A-level will not be the same as other A-levels? Why do they suggest that it should be downgraded and seen as a soft subject when it comes to university admission?

Mr Gibb: As I have heard the Secretary of State and the Minister for Universities and Science say on numerous occasions, it depends what the young person intends to study and what they want to go on to do. The tragedy is that there are young people who wish to go to a university to study a particular subject, but they have the wrong combination of subjects to help them to obtain a place at that university to study that subject. That is what the Minister is seeking to address. He wants to ensure that young people have the right advice on the right combination of subjects. That was alluded to not only by the Minister, but by organisations such as the Sutton Trust, which is concerned that too many able children from poorer backgrounds are choosing the wrong combination of A-levels, thus narrowing their range of options for universities and beyond.

Mr Doran: That sounds like the Minister is suggesting a disincentive to study dance.

Mr Gibb: A dance A-level may well be right, and probably is right, for students who wish to take an arts-related subject at university, but it could be wrong for someone who wishes to study a science at university. Two science A-levels and dance may not be the right combination for many universities offering science degrees. There are examples of young people taking the wrong combination to enhance their chances of getting on those competitive courses.

We remain committed to supporting talented young people and adults in accessing specialist dance and drama provision, with national grants also being available for out-of-school-hours training through 21 designated centres for advanced training.

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Marine Operations (Weymouth)

1 pm

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): Thank you very much indeed, Mr Scott, for calling me to speak. It is a privilege to be here in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship. I also thank the Minister for being here today; it is a privilege and an honour to see him here too.

Last week, the people of South Dorset delivered a petition to No. 10. “Save Our Lifesavers” was signed by 22,000 people, signalling their overwhelming concern about the regrettable decision to close Portland coastguard station. No other subject has galvanised such a reaction in my constituency in recent years. I would be very interested to hear whether the Minister has encountered such commitment from the Solent area, which I believe is the area favoured for the new MOC, or marine operations centre.

South Dorset is bounded on 180° by the ocean. That water forms an indelible part of our history, culture and everyday experience. Fishermen, divers, sailors, mariners, water skiers, day-boaters, cliff-walkers, birdwatchers, rock climbers—we all share that coastline, and as anyone who knows the sea will testify, it must be treated with respect. On land, as the emergency services will confirm, the “golden hour” is critical in the rescue of casualties; in the water, that period is down to seconds.

Our coastguard station is one of the busiest in the country. Currently, it is one of 18 coastguard stations tasked with protecting our waters, but after the Olympics it is due to close, with staff being offered posts at the new MOC, which might be at Solent. That new MOC, supported by nine 24-hour sub-centres, will undertake all the essential tasks of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency around our 11,000 nautical miles of coastline. Does the Minister accept that that will leave huge gaps in our defences?

For South Dorset, the loss of accumulated years of expertise, knowledge and good will is nothing short of catastrophic. However, in the face of a deeply regrettable and seemingly irreversible decision, we are determined to move on. We are nothing if not resilient.

The MCA has stated:

“There is no existing Coastguard facility on the south coast suitable for conversion into a MOC.”

I disagree. I want to draw the Minister’s attention to a significant proposal from Weymouth and Portland borough council that the new MOC should be located in South Dorset. He has already seen that submission; indeed, I see that it is on his desk now. In addition, I have handed him a newspaper, which I also see he has with him, that has been lovingly put together by the supporters of the petition, who feel so strongly about the issue.

South Dorset has the infrastructure, the expertise and the will to make that proposal viable and cost-effective. I will start by discussing infrastructure. The MCA proposal refers to the advantages of locating any MOC close to a large existing maritime sector. Weymouth and Portland has one of the largest maritime sectors in the country. As a former naval base, Portland’s deep-water port provides many built-in advantages. It is the closest point in the western channel to the main shipping lanes and is already in constant use as a busy commercial port. It has harbour revision order approval for significant

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expansion. Plans for further major marine-based operations, including ship repairing and refuelling, and servicing of the proposed giant wind farm off the Isle of Wight, are under way.

Five potential sites are identified in that bid and details of them are attached to the report in the appendices. Three sites are in suitable existing buildings that are available immediately, saving on new build costs. As the Minister knows, the Solent MOC will require an entirely new build and in these austere times I say to him that surely there are savings to be made by locating in an existing building rather than having to build a new facility.

We—South Dorset—have a magnificent former flag officers’ sea-training building, which was specifically designed as a command and control centre. The Minister can see details of that building at appendix 3. It would need only refurbishment. It sits in the harbour, providing easy access to the open sea, berths, and cliffs for training and operations. Other potential MOC sites include the former defence research agency at Southwell business park on Portland, which I know he knows well, and Pullman Court in Dorchester. South Dorset has good roads, twice-hourly rail services to London, four airports within a 90-minute drive and ferry services to the continent. In addition, our recently enhanced broadband and communication links, which are part of South Dorset’s Olympic legacy, can carry the MCA’s new integrated and networked service.

Secondly, we have the expertise. There is a strong local skills base in marine engineering, dating from Portland’s recent history as an operational naval base. A MOC sited in the area would tap into a rich vein of maritime knowledge and experience. The harbour at Portland is already home to the search and rescue helicopter that would enhance any MOC. Also, we already host the full complement of RNLI rescue services: the Severn class offshore lifeboat, the Atlantic inshore lifeboat, rescue craft and beach lifeguards. Furthermore, RNLI headquarters is nearby in Poole.

Portland port has existing relations with the Royal Navy, the Fleet Auxiliary, the Royal Marines, special forces, the Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and many other organisations, and the National Sailing Academy is based in the port at Osprey quay. In addition to the Olympics, which take place next year, Portland holds world-class sailing regattas, which boost the use of our waters.

Thirdly, we have the will. Dorset is dedicated to saving its lifesavers, as the petition and all the love and attention that have gone into the newspaper that the Minister has received demonstrate. Our proposal to site the new MOC in South Dorset has the unqualified backing of all Dorset MPs, including the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin). Bournemouth and Poole unitary authorities, Dorset police, Dorset fire and rescue service, Dorset county council and the Environment Agency all support the proposal too. Weymouth and Portland borough council, the author of the proposal, aims to develop the area as a centre for marine excellence, which is an aim entirely aligned with MCA objectives. In addition, the area can offer more affordable housing than Hampshire, good schools and an enviable quality of life, and the borough council has undertaken to provide dedicated staff to assist with relocation.

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I have already mentioned the petition that was given to No. 10 Downing street. The community has spoken loudly and clearly about a cause that is dear to its heart. I believe that the merits of the proposal—the infrastructure, the expertise and the will that already exist in South Dorset—deserve serious consideration and I ask the Minister to assure me that he will consider it. Can he give us any hope that he will do so?

Finally, I want to touch once more on the decision-making process that has brought us to this point. Wherever the southern MOC is sited, we are told that the professional coastguards at Portland will all be offered jobs there. Although that is good news, the ability of those coastguards to report daily on the winds, tides and other conditions that are currently outside their windows will be lost. The coves, caves and cliffs that locals know so intimately will be reduced to a grid reference on a computer screen. Some cynics call that process “rescue by Google” and I fear that it will not be adequate.

On a busy summer’s day, the calls will come in thick and fast. The minutiae involved in every rescue—the sheer volume of detail—could be overwhelming to an operator who is unfamiliar with the area. Inevitably, if delays occur rescues will take longer. I will not stand here and say that lives will be endangered, because I have no proof of that; it would be rash of me to say so. Inevitably, however, if rescues take longer and someone is in the sea, where seconds count, one can see that the consequence of that could be—I stress, could be—that someone who might have been rescued more quickly may possibly die.

We are told that the hardened communications within the operations supercentre will increase resilience and flexibility in a disaster, but are we not in danger of relying too heavily on the miracle of modern technology? We all know that technology breaks down; the NHS supercomputer is an acknowledged failure. The disastrous reorganisation—I know that the Minister is waiting for this line, and he was vociferously opposed—of the fire and rescue service, of which he was a member, which was shelved at a cost of £500 million, uncomfortably mirrors, in my view and that of many others, the plans for the coastguard.

We are responsible for 1,250,000 nautical square miles of water around our coastline, yet we are seriously considering halving the number of stations. Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole Local Resilience Forum is gravely concerned that we are spreading responsibilities too thinly.

As a former soldier, the Minister knows only too well the importance of local co-ordination, and to explain it I shall use a Northern Ireland scenario with which he is familiar. He, like me, served in the Household Division, and knows that a company needs a company headquarters, a battalion a battalion headquarters and a division a divisional headquarters. If the divisional headquarters is cluttered by information from the patrols on the ground—the platoons, of which there are many—communication will be blocked by unnecessary minutiae.

I want to emphasise the importance of local co-ordination, with which the Minister is so familiar, because it is absolutely vital. No officer commanding the regiments that the Minister and I served in would say, “Get rid of company headquarters. We’ll just have

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battalion headquarters,” because all the intimate detail at company headquarters is not necessarily passed to battalion unless or until it is necessary to call in more reserves or assets to deal with situations on the ground. Local people know their platoons—in this case, local watchkeepers know their area—and they make a difference. We have to accept that we are losing our station, but we urge the Minister to site the new MOC in Weymouth or Portland.

The MCA is a highly respected service that has evolved over 200 years to suit our island needs, so why reinvent the wheel? Technology is not necessarily the answer. I suspect that this has a lot to do with money, but money, or the lack of it, is not always the reason or the solution. The sea is unforgiving—the Minister and I know that, and the watchkeepers and the people who rescue know it—but the electorate will be more so. I most humbly urge the Minister to reopen the consultation and think again.

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. When we entered the House in 2005 neither of us would have dreamt that I would be standing here as the Minister and you would be in the Chair.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on initiating the debate. He served gallantly in the Coldstream Guards when I was a humble guardsman in the Grenadiers. I was moved by his question about whether we would get rid of the company headquarters. As a humble guardsman who never commanded a section let alone anything else, I can say yes, we would have done so many a time, because at my level we never understood what was going on.

Let me touch briefly on how we reached the current position, where we are in the consultation process and the decisions we have taken. I pay tribute to the community of South Dorset. I know that part of the world well, having spent most of my holidays as a young child on the beaches of Durdle Door. I dive at Lulworth now, although it is a bit too cold for me as I get older, and South Dorset is still one of the most beautiful parts of this great nation.

The community coming together to fight for what they believe in is what community spirit is all about. In the scrapbook that my hon. Friend gave me—I use “scrapbook” in its traditional sense; I do not mean that it was not a good thing to produce—I see so many press cuttings of rescues and lives being saved, and we are going to enhance and invest in that volunteer part of the coastguard. The RNLI, whose college in Poole I visited recently, does amazing work, all funded by people’s gratitude to the institution. The RNLI covers the whole of the island of Ireland and is the only organisation in the Republic that has “Royal” in its name. I have met three transport Ministers for southern Ireland, and they have paid tribute to the RNLI’s work.

When I inherited this position nearly 16 months ago, there was a set of plans on my desk for a reorganisation of coastguard co-ordination centres. It had been around for years. It was there when the chief coastguard, Mr Rod Johnson, arrived, and he had been in post for nearly

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two years. I understand why the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) is not here—it is a half-hour debate and I have debated the subject many times with him—but he freely admits that the proposals had been discussed. Members of the coastguard had, believe it or not, been in industrial dispute for years over pay and other issues. Their starting pay of about £13,500 is unacceptable for someone in an emergency service, and that was one of the things we looked at.

I had a choice: start from scratch or say, “We’ll go with a consultation but I promise the public and Members that we will come out with a set of proposals showing that we’ve listened and that the service will be different from the one we went in with.” I think that everyone accepts that the proposals the Secretary of State announced to the House in the summer were radically different, but contained the principle of resilience in the system that had not been present until then. Many people say to me, “Minister, this is just about saving money,” but we are investing huge amounts in the system to address the fact that we have a national emergency service with no national resilience.

When my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset and I served in the armed forces, the one thing we all relied on was resilience. When I was on the borders in Northern Ireland, I would be told on the system, “We will get someone.” I appreciate that there have been problems with communications over the years. When Bowman first came in for the military, there was a lot of concern about resilience, and when I visited an exercise as a new MP, I was told that Bowman stood for “better off with map and Nokia”, but it has developed a lot and I have seen it in use in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We needed to say to the public, “Let’s be honest with you.” We all have huge respect for the work of the professional staff and volunteers—predominantly they are volunteers—in Her Majesty’s coastguard. I pay tribute also to other lifeboat crews. Many lifeboats, particularly on the south coast, are not RNLI ones, and it would be improper of me to omit them from the praise.

In the responses to the first consultation, people were saying, “We know you’re going to have this new resilience and a new national co-ordination centre, but there will be a massive loss of local knowledge.” However, in the local coastguard stations I visited, some people said, “Save us; don’t look at any modernisation,” but others said, “We think there should be about eight, nine or 10 coastguard stations, not 18.” A good half dozen of the submissions, including from Belfast and Falmouth, were about how we could have a proper national resilient service. So I thought, “If the coastguards are telling me that they accept that 18 isn’t necessarily the way forward, and that eight or nine is, how would it work?” Then it became obvious that a pairing system had been in place within the coastguard for several years, for resilience purposes. Because the coastguard could not have national resilience, it created a pairing system in which one station would cover for another if it was short of staff, if communications went down or in the event of repairs or conversions. When I was at Swansea the other day to meet the coastguard, the station was completely switched off, and Milford Haven covered the whole area.

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Richard Drax: Bearing in mind that we have only 10 minutes left, we all understand where we are in the history. The issue now is whether the Minister can offer any light on whether he will move the new MOC from the favoured location in Solent to us. Our place has the history and environment to support such a centre. We also have buildings ready to go, which will save much money. That is what my constituents are looking for guidance on.

Mike Penning: I apologise, but I was answering the questions that my hon. Friend raised about local knowledge, resilience and so on. I have 10 minutes, and I assure him that I can answer his question.

We decided that we would change to a pairing system in which one of the pairs would be dropped, the two extremities—the Western Isles and Shetland, which were never paired before—would stay in 24-hour operation and we would drop one of the MOC national headquarters, because in the end, I could not condone how much two would have cost. We went to a second consultation on four specific points: whether Swansea or Milford Haven would close, whether Liverpool or Holyhead would close, whether the Western Isles and Shetland should run 24 hours and whether there should be one or two MOCs. That consultation has just finished.

I have listened carefully to the points that my hon. Friend has made—in his position as a Back Bencher, I would do exactly the same—but if I stood here today and said that I was willing to reconsider, I would have to reopen the whole consultation process, because this topic was not part of the consultation. To make that decision, I would have to consider several things. We said in the original consultation that we would like the MOC to be in the Portsmouth-Southampton area, for logical reasons. The MCA has a large footprint in that part of the country, particularly in Gosport at Daedalus and at its own headquarters. From a cost perspective, there was an obvious logic to building a new MOC headquarters on existing Department for Transport facilities, which is why we chose that model.

It would be difficult for me to change my mind in light of what I received from the people of Weymouth and my hon. Friend during the second consultation. I would have to change my decisions after not only the first but the second consultation and then reopen the consultation process on the MOC. I could not do that. It would not be cost-effective given the efficiencies that we need, particularly as we already have a large estate footprint available.

I am happy to be here to represent the Government and say where we are. I hope that I have answered most of my hon. Friend’s questions. Although I understand that he is, rightly, representing his constituents—I am also pleased to see the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) here; as another Minister, he will understand—I cannot give that light at the end of the rainbow and open up the whole process all over again for a further consultation. The reasons why we came to our previous conclusions still exist. All the premises in the Weymouth area to which my hon. Friend refers are premises that we do not own. Other Departments might, but we do not, and we would have to do an analysis.

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MCA headquarters are in the area where we propose to build. We might put the MOC within that building so as not to expand our empire, which I am trying desperately to avoid. We may be able to facilitate that. The Daedalus site in Gosport is huge, and the Department for Transport uses little of it; it already operates on a helicopter basis, and we own it.

I know this is difficult. I am the bearer of bad news. As a Minister, I always try to be as positive and helpful as I can with colleagues across the House, but I do not want to give my hon. Friend and his constituents the feeling that it is possible that we might change our minds and reopen the consultation on where the MOC will go, mostly because that was not part of the second consultation in the first place. The decision where to put the MOC was based on the first consultation; the only relevant decision in the second was whether to have one MOC or two.

I know that that will disappoint my hon. Friend and his constituents, but I reiterate that the issue of local knowledge in people who rescue was addressed many years ago in adaptations to the pairing system. Some stations have been down for months while work was being done on them, and the other stations have coped. However, what they could never do, to go back to an earlier point, was be controlled centrally by division or brigade headquarters—or even regimental; the numbers are not huge—and provide the sort of pay, training and promotion prospects that we would all like for anybody working within our constituencies.

Part of this is about money—there is no argument about that; I have had to make considerable savings in the Department—but actually, it is about resilience. The ex-Second Sea Lord is the chief executive. He has served his country all his life. The chief coastguard has been in the coastguard for most of his working life. They would not be sitting with me discussing the plan if we thought that there was a danger. There is a danger in leaving things as they are. We will phase in the changes. We are not going to wake up one morning to find it has

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all been switched off and closed. We will ensure that the IT and the communications systems in particular work before we phase out.

Understandably, staff members are leaving the MCA at the moment, particularly at the stations earmarked for closure. I cannot blame them. They are quality people; other jobs are becoming available, and they are taking them. However, I cannot recruit new people to those coastguard stations knowing full well that I am going to close them. We will look carefully at manning levels, but some stations might close slightly earlier than predicted, simply because we cannot man them.

Richard Drax: I hear the Minister’s argument. Clearly, my constituents and I do not agree, but we are listening to him. It is his decision, and he is saying that there is absolutely no chance. If that is the case in black and white—“Forget it”—it would be useful to hear that. Also, can he give any reassurance that our rescue helicopter on Portland will be there for the foreseeable future and is not under threat?

Mike Penning: I cannot say anything about the helicopters because, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, a criminal investigation of the procurement process is ongoing. At the moment, we do not know where our helicopters are likely to be. The Ministry of Defence has decided to withdraw, so it will be a civilian matter run through the Department for Transport and the MCA.

I did not want to be this brutal and straightforward, but I must. Where to put the MCA in the south was not part of the second consultation. That decision has been made. It will be in the Solent area. Although I respect enormously the work done by the community for the second consultation, I am afraid that that matter was not part of the second consultation, and sadly, I am not willing to reopen the consultation.

Mr Lee Scott (in the Chair): Before I call the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) to introduce the next debate, I remind hon. Members that unless they have put in to speak in a half-hour debate, only the lead Member and the Minister will be able to speak.

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School Places (Bristol)

1.30 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate a matter of great concern to many of my constituents and to parents across Bristol. I thank the Minister for having a meeting earlier today with all four Bristol MPs, the council cabinet’s lead member on schools, children and young people and the council officer who deals with those issues. It was a useful meeting, although, unfortunately, the Minister did not produce a large cheque at the end of it.

As I explained to the Minister this morning, Bristol faces a crisis in primary school provision: there simply are not enough primary school places. The number of four-year-olds—that is the age at which children start reception class—has increased by 20% in Bristol over the past four years. This year alone, we needed an additional 14 reception classes. Demand is projected to rise steeply over the next couple of years, tailing off a little, but then taking off again. It is estimated that Bristol will need a minimum of an additional 3,000 places by 2015.

Bristol has seen the fastest growth in pupil numbers in the country. The council estimates that the percentage change in primary school numbers is three times the rate across England. According to Office for National Statistics projections for population growth between 2008 and 2015, the increase on 2010 levels will be 11 times higher in Bristol than the national average. Judged against its own historical standards and national comparisons, therefore, there has been unprecedented growth in Bristol, and I ask the Minister to consider the city’s special case for urgent funding.

There are a number of reasons for the rapid increase in the primary school-age population. Bristol is a popular place to live for many reasons, including economic and cultural reasons. Immigration is also a factor, although it is not the only cause. This is a city-wide problem, as the Minister will have seen from the map we showed him this morning; it is not a problem just in the inner-city areas, where black and minority ethnic populations are traditionally concentrated.

In areas such as St George, which is in my constituency, the pressure on school places has come about as a result of gradual demographic change, as older people who have lived in these areas all their lives have died or moved to sheltered accommodation, and younger people have moved in because these are cheap places to live. Obviously, those younger people go on to have families.

The recession has meant that parents who might previously have opted for private education can no longer afford it. Equally, improving education standards in Bristol mean that parents might be less likely to opt for private provision or to take their children out of the Bristol local authority area and to schools in north Somerset or south Gloucestershire, which has been a major factor over the years. There have also been major housing developments, and there is an urgent need to build more housing in Bristol, so this problem will not go away.

This year, Bristol city council had to find an additional 250 places to ensure that all reception-age children could start school in September. It has had to resort to

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adding modular classrooms to already stretched schools. Although those classrooms are an improvement on the Portakabins and huts we might remember from school, they are still not an ideal, permanent solution. One school has had to convert its information and communications technology suite to classroom use, which, again, is not ideal.

The council has had to spend £5.3 million on such temporary solutions. There is no guidance from central Government and no clear view on the way forward to enable the long-term planning we need. Spending money on temporary classrooms, rather than permanent school buildings, is a quick-fix solution, and it might prove to be an inefficient use of scarce resources in the long term.

Some schools, such as May Park in my constituency, have increased from two to four-form entry. Obviously, that does not solve the problem in itself, because the new pupils will move up next year, and so on through the school, creating an additional need for classrooms if each year is to have four forms. Schools such as May Park are doubling in size, which creates additional pressures, because the dining halls and other facilities—particularly the play facilities—are not designed to cope with the numbers. When I visited Air Balloon Hill primary in my constituency last week, I was told that it had to spend £90,000 on a new electricity generator because the addition of a few extra modular classrooms meant that the existing generator was unable to cope with the demand.

The local authority has been quite imaginative, and it has done all it can to put in place temporary quick fixes, but we need more radical and lasting remedies. The task is becoming greater with year-on-year growth in the four-year-old population. By 2015, it is estimated that Bristol will need a minimum of 100 additional classes, which is equivalent to 14 one-form entry schools. Depending on housing development and migration patterns, the 3,000-place shortfall could be quite a significant underestimate, and it is suggested that the figure could be as high as 5,300.

The pressing priority is September 2012. The council has 11 months to find 15 additional reception classes. Legally, it must provide those places, but that is not the only reason why failure is not an option. As all the other MPs in Bristol will confirm, parents are coming to us because they simply cannot get their children into a school that they could physically deliver them to in time each morning. I have met parents who have a child in a school at one end of the city and who are being told that their next child, who is starting reception class, has to go to a school several miles away. However, public transport in Bristol is pretty abysmal; we have the worst traffic congestion of any city in the country. Parents tell me that they will have to give up work, particularly if they work shifts and can no longer use breakfast clubs and after-school clubs because there are fewer of them. Parents are also having their child care credits cut, so it is more difficult to fund child care. Physically, parents are not able to be in three places at once; they cannot get to work on time, get one child to school and get another child to a child minder. Parents cannot manage the logistics of getting their children to their schools. Even though the new term has started, some children still do not have a school place to go to.

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On a more positive front, the local authority has a strategy to resolve the crisis, as the Minister heard this morning. Its children and young people’s services have been working with the local education partnership and developers. They have detailed plans for rebuilds and have identified potential sites for new schools. The standardised designs can be constructed quickly and efficiently. Importantly, estimates suggest that they offer a 20% reduction in building bulletin guidance. Unfortunately, the stumbling block is a £110 million funding gap.

To give an example that I mentioned to the Minister this morning, Air Balloon Hill primary school has spent £500,000 on working up detailed plans for the major building works it desperately needs if it is to continue as a four-form entry school. The work must start by February next year if the school is to be ready for a four-form entry 2012 reception class, but it needs £4.5 million if that is to happen. As I am sure the Minister will tell us, the figures will be looked at in November, so it could be into the new year before the school has any idea whether it will get the additional funding it needs. Obviously, other schools across Bristol will be in the same position and will be seeking similar sums.

Capital funding for 2011-12 has been reduced by 20%, and the budget was necessarily strained by September’s pupil increase, leaving the council in a position where it cannot begin to address next year’s shortage. The Secretary of State announced an extra £500 million in July to fund basic need nationally, but the council needs a degree of certainty about what its share of the money will be and when it will receive it.

The methodology for allocating basic need funding also means that Bristol is unlikely to receive its fair share. The Department judges basic need according to the surplus of all primary school places across the local authority. That will change in the next few years as the increased population moves up through the school, but there is technically a surplus in primary school places in Bristol at the moment because there are spare places—classes of 25 or 26 pupils—in years five and six. However, that does not really help someone with a four-year-old who needs to start school immediately. I urge the Minister not to do this netting off of surplus places against shortfall, but to look at how many pupils we need year on year, because children will otherwise be sitting at home unable to go to school.

Bristol has recently—this September—received funding for a new school, but it is not the school that the city desperately needs. Following concerted campaigning from some parents in one part of the city and the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie), Bristol can now claim to have the largest free school in the country. However, it is a secondary school and it does nothing to address need in the city.

Charlotte Leslie (Bristol North West) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that, given there is a need for primary school places in the area, obviously there will be a need for more secondary school places in the future and that we have learned the lesson that forward planning goes a long way? Does she also agree that it was most unfortunate that discussions were not progressed more

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by the city council when it considered having an all-through free school on the St Ursula’s site? That would have been able to attract capital funding from the Department for the primary school places that she is making a good point in saying we need.

Kerry McCarthy: The point I am making is that there is a surplus in secondary school provision that is predicted to be in place until 2017. I suggest that the entire movement towards getting a secondary school in Bristol was misguided. The priority should have been solely to focus on the primary school need. I understand that the new free school has a capacity of 150 places and that only 82 children started there this September. The three closest secondary schools—Henbury, Oasis Brightstowe and Orchard—all have a significant surplus of provision. Indeed, the head teacher of Henbury, which already has about 145 spare places, has warned about the impact that the free school will have upon her school.

As I was saying, I do not believe that there was a need for a Bristol free school, particularly a secondary school. We should have focused on primary schools instead. The bizarre thing about what has happened with the Bristol free school is that the preferred site was the former St Ursula site bought by Bristol city council because it represented good value for money for a new primary school. However, it was confirmed last week that Bristol free school will remain on its temporary site on Burghill road, Southmead. It is worth noting that half the parents who supported the Bristol free school during the consultation stated that they would not send their children there if it were located on Burghill road, so not only is there no need for the school, but it may not even have the community support on which free schools are supposed to be based.

The strange thing is that the catchment area of the new free school is based on the St Ursula site that was the preferred location. Some 80% of the school’s places will be unashamedly given to the affluent BS9 community, which is in the top 5% of the most affluent areas in the country. At the same time, access will be restricted for families living directly around the school in the less prosperous area of Southmead. The school is actually outside its own catchment area. There seems to be a strange sense of what the priorities should be. We should be focusing on the need for a primary school instead.

There is now an E-ACT primary academy on the St Ursula site, but it has had to restrict its intake to two forms rather than the preferred three or four-form entry in case the Bristol free school also moved to the site. Bristol free school has diverted much needed resources from Bristol’s existing secondary schools and has enabled the Government to concentrate on the wealthier areas while completely ignoring Bristol’s actual needs.

Charlotte Leslie: Does the hon. Lady agree that, given the passionate case she is making for primary school places today, it is a great shame that the Labour Administration and the Building Schools for the Future programme concentrated on secondary schools and completely neglected primary school need? In 2008, it was a Labour council that oversaw a primary review that cut all surplus places in the primary schools. Although I very much welcome her concern for primary school places and for the really upsetting plight of parents in

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Bristol, does she not agree that it is a great shame that the matter was not sorted out when her party was in council power and in government?

Kerry McCarthy: Our party was leading on the council for a very short time, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows. I will not in any way apologise for the Building Schools for the Future programme and the academies programme in Bristol, as they made a phenomenal difference to standards in our secondary schools. She will know that there was a real problem with people taking their children out of schools in Bristol, particularly in years 5 or 6 of primary school, because they did not want them to go to Bristol state schools. We have seen a huge increase in standards in those schools built under Building Schools for the Future. That programme was not about addressing the places issue and the shortage of places; it was about addressing school standards. It is really important that we did that.

The case for investment in Bristol’s primary schools is not only pressing, but urgent. Building works must start within the next few months if we are to have enough classrooms in September. Some schools have been hesitant to commit to additional classes in case that pushes them into debt. We therefore need decisions to be made as soon as possible.

Bristol city council has made several representations to the Department for Education and, as I mentioned, local MPs met with the Minister responsible for schools earlier today. That meeting was originally set up just to discuss the case for extra funding for schools in Bristol West. That is the wrong way to approach the matter. This is a city-wide problem and all four Bristol MPs should be working together to help to resolve it.

It is also unfortunate that the letter from the Liberal Democrat council leader to the Secretary of State making the case for additional funding gives the erroneous impression that the problem is specific to the north of Bristol. As the Minister will have seen from the map that he was shown, the problem is not restricted to any particular area of the city. The issue occurs in pockets across the city and, although it is particularly a problem in the inner city, it affects all four Bristol constituencies.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Dawn Primarolo) is sitting here watching the debate because her post as Deputy Speaker means that she is not allowed to take part. However, she has told me that she has about 30 constituents who were not offered a school place in the local area and that the problem is particularly acute in the Southville and Bedminster wards. As in Bristol East, there are very limited opportunities to expand schools in Bristol South on their current sites, and my right hon. Friend rightly joined us this morning to make the case to the Minister.

There are major shortfalls in the number of primary school places across the city. It is a city-wide problem that needs to be resolved at a city-wide level in the best interests of all families in Bristol, not just a select few. I urge the Minister to work with the local authority to secure immediate and lasting solutions. I look forward to hearing what he has to say today.

1.47 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this important debate. I know she is no stranger to the issues surrounding

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education provision in Bristol, as she has served the community well in local and national politics for a number of years. As she said, earlier today we met with the right hon. Member for Bristol South (Dawn Primarolo) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) and for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) to discuss the issues facing Bristol in terms of population increase.

I am aware that the hon. Member for Bristol East has been active, as she has been today, in raising the difficulties faced by schools in her area, especially with respect to her concerns surrounding the establishment of the proposed Bristol free school. I hope that, by now, she has received a response from my noble Friend Lord Hill to the letter regarding the Bristol free school. There is overwhelming demand for a Bristol free school from parents in that area. She is right to point out that it was in the BS9 area that the community campaigned for a new school. That community felt that too many pupils had to leave the local authority to receive a good standard of education. In fact, hundreds of parents attended a recent parents’ evening for the September 2012 year 7 intake, which demonstrates that there is significant demand for the new free school.

The hon. Lady referred to capacity issues. She is right: the reception to year 6 primary population in Bristol is forecast to increase from 27,000 in 2009-10 to around 33,500 by 2014-15. She is also right to point out that, at the moment, there are 3,074 surplus places across 70 schools, 15 of which have more than 25% spare places. However, the council is also projecting a deficit of primary places from 2012-13 based on the May 2010 school capacity figures.

The greatest demand for places is in the east central area of the city, but the surplus places tend to be in schools located in the north and south city boundary areas. That is why the hon. Lady is concerned with the methodology of how capital is allocated to local authorities. She made that point powerfully, with other hon. Members, at the meeting this morning. I also understand, and am sympathetic to, the logistical problems. I think that representatives from the local authority said that 94% of parents in the Bristol area achieve one of their first three primary school choices, but that still leaves 6% who do not. Some parents find themselves having to travel significant distances to secure a primary school place.

The Government are aware of the pressures that many local authorities face in light of population increases and the very tight spending review capital settlement for the Department. We must never forget why we are in this difficult position and why we have to make these difficult decisions. It is, of course, due to the difficult state of the public finances that we inherited. That has made it necessary for our top priority to be to reduce the country’s budget deficit, rather than being able to provide significant additional money for capital funding of school projects. We are now paying £120 million in interest every day of the week. Those interest payments could have been used to rebuild or refurbish 10 schools every day of the year, but we are not in that position.

Despite the difficulties we face, we have still been able to announce that the Department for Education’s capital spending will be £15.9 billion in the four years of the spending review period. We know only too well that there are schools in need of refurbishment that missed

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out on the previous Government’s unsustainable capital programmes. We appreciate fully that some people will feel that they have been unfairly treated. Even though we have had to take some very difficult decisions on spending, we will still be able to continue putting money into the schools estate at an average of almost £4 billion a year. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that that is still a significant sum. More importantly, we believe that it is affordable in the current financial circumstances.

It is essential that we maintain buildings properly to ensure that health and safety standards are met and to prevent an increasing backlog of decaying buildings. However, by stopping the wasteful Building Schools for the Future project, to which we were not contractually committed, we have been able to allocate £1.4 billion to local authorities to prioritise their local maintenance needs. That includes £195 million of devolved formula capital that has been directly allocated to schools themselves for their own use. In addition—the important point as far as the hon. Lady is concerned—we allocated £800 million of basic need funding for 2011-12, which is twice the previous annual support for new school places in areas of population growth.

As the hon. Lady pointed out in her opening remarks, in July the Secretary of State announced that, in addition to that £800 million in 2011-12, he could announce a further basic need allocation of £500 million to provide extra school places where there was greatest pressure caused by the increasing pupil population. That additional funding has been made available thanks to efficiencies and savings that the Department, working with Partnerships for Schools, has been able to identify in the Building Schools for the Future projects that are continuing. Officials in the Department are working on the allocation methodology for notifying local authorities of their share of that additional £500 million. The intention is to use the 2011 school capacity and forecast information that was submitted to the Department by local authorities in August 2011. By using those data, we can ensure that the additional money is indeed allocated to those in greatest need.

Bristol’s capital allocation of the £800 million is approximately £9.36 million in 2011-12. In addition, in 2011-12 it has received more than £6 million in capital maintenance allocations, as well as £1.1 million in devolved formula capital. Therefore, Bristol is already due to receive £17.1 million of capital this year. Once we have allocated the £500 million, based on the 2011 statistics, other sums should be forthcoming to ensure that there are sufficient school places for primary school pupils, particularly in the Bristol area.

We have been working with stakeholders, including local authorities, to understand better their basic need forecasts and pressures. It is clear that some authorities face greater pressures, as the hon. Lady highlighted.

Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): Does the Minister agree that the key point that the four MPs and the city council tried to get across to him in his office this morning is that, while there are several authorities around the country that face population pressure, Bristol’s pressures are more significant than those for the family of core city authorities and indeed outstrip the population growth of inner London? Of all the family of urban centres in the country, Bristol faces the greatest pressure

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from demographic change, and therefore has the greatest need and perhaps the greatest call on that extra £500 million of welcome resources.

Mr Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a valid point; it was made strongly at the meeting this morning and I took it on board. A 20% increase is significantly higher than most others. There are one or two areas—such as Plymouth, I think—that have a higher increase. Nevertheless, looking at the country as a whole, Bristol is significantly high in terms of its population increase in that age group compared to other parts of the country. That will be taken into account when we analyse the 2011 data, which will be used to allocate the £500 million.

As the hon. Member for Bristol East knows, last year the Secretary of State commissioned, from Sebastian James, a full and independent review of the Department’s capital programmes. That review has been published and the Secretary of State has commented on—indeed, has already agreed with—some of its recommendations. The recommendations propose a new approach to the future allocation and use of all available capital funding, including that funding continue to be prioritised to the provision of pupil places and addressing condition needs. The Department is consulting on the proposals made in the James review. In fact, the consultation ends today.

Future capital allocations and the management of funding for 2012-13 until 2014-15 will be informed by the outcome of the capital review. That was raised in this morning’s meeting by the local authority and by the hon. Lady. They want a degree of certainty about future capital allocations. The outcome of that consultation and its conclusions will, I think, steer her and her local authority in that general direction. However, as I have said, the Secretary of State has already indicated that local authorities can expect that the headline amounts of capital available in future years will be broadly in line with those allocated for 2011-12. I hope that that will help her local authority to engage in a planning process to help to eradicate the shortage of places in the Bristol area.

As well as radically reviewing the way capital funding is allocated and spent, the Government are continuing to press forward with their academy and free schools programme. That includes a focus on funding an academy solution for the weakest primary schools in the country. Bristol has a number of open academies. Indeed, I had a very informative visit to Merchants’ academy in July. The introduction of the academies and free schools programme should be viewed as an additional tool in the armoury of local authorities as they seek to eradicate any basic need pressures that they are encountering. By giving those involved in education the chance and the freedom they need to shape the future of our schools, and by opening up the opportunities for others to enter the education sector, we believe that we are offering an education system that will meet the needs of local communities.

The meeting this morning with the hon. Lady and other hon. Members who represent Bristol was very constructive and helpful. Officials will continue to work with local authorities to find a solution to the basic need problems facing Bristol.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.