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House of Commons

Thursday 26 April 2001

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

City of London (Ward Elections) Bill. (By Order)

Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be further considered on Wednesday 2 May.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Playgroups (South Swindon)

1. Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): What Government financial support was given to playgroups in South Swindon in (a) 1996-97 and (b) 2001-02. [157907]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): This year, generous financial support is being given to playgroups in Swindon, including £770,000 for direct grant for three-year-olds, funding for four-year-olds through the standard spending assessment, £415,000 in child care grant, £1.5 million over three years for the neighbourhood nursery initiatives and moneys from the new opportunities fund. Swindon playgroups can also access specific national funds for capital investment and sustainability to expand services to provide full day care and to support pre-schools in difficulties.

In 1996-97, Swindon pre-schools got nothing for free nursery places and a minute share of the miserable £9.6 million available nationally for out-of-school clubs. Unlike the Tories, we are putting our money where our mouth is, investing in the early years and supporting pre-schools.

Ms Drown: There is no doubt that under this Government there has been tremendous extra support for nursery education and child care, including playgroups, which is in stark contrast to the virtual abandonment of the sector by the Conservative Government. Will my hon. Friend assure us of her support for playgroups? What are the Government doing to improve the status of playgroup workers, who provide valuable support to our communities but are often poorly paid and lack recognition for their worthwhile work in playgroup sessions, in preparing for those sessions and in evaluating the work that is done?

Ms Hodge: I congratulate my hon. Friend on her long-standing commitment to the work that she has

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carried out to ensure that there is a choice of high-quality child care and education places for people in South Swindon. Of course we value playgroups and we wish to raise the status of those who work in them. It is an interesting fact that child care and early years education is now the second fastest growing sector in the labour market. With our investment in that sector, the establishment of a qualifications framework and the introduction of the child care tax credit and the working families tax credit, we are enabling playgroup workers to be properly rewarded for their work.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): When the Education and Employment Committee looked at early years provision in towns such as Swindon, we heard that a problem for playgroups is the pressure placed by schools on parents to bring their children into school well before they are ready. What are the Government going to do about that?

Ms Hodge: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the pressure on playgroups came from the previous Government's ill-advised and ill-conceived nursery voucher scheme, which led in one year to the closure of 1,100 playgroups. This Government have invested to ensure that playgroups have access to the nursery education grant for three and four-year-olds. That means that we have turned a corner, and last year there were 6,000 new places in playgroups in England.


2. Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): What plans he has to support schools in using information technology to tackle truancy. [157908]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Michael Wills): Last month, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), announced that £11 million will be available to introduce electronic registration systems into more than 500 secondary schools.

Mr. Taylor: Information technology may well cut 10 per cent. of truancy over the next two years, but our pledge at the 1997 general election was to cut it by a third by 2002. Are we on track for that? Is not parentally condoned truancy the real problem? Should we not invest in more low-tech attendance officers to try to combat that problem? Is there not potential in this place to combat Tory truancy from Question Time? The presence of only seven Tory Back Benchers at education and employment questions is dreadful.

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is not the way to proceed with questions on education and employment. I certainly hope that the Minister will not respond in kind.

Mr. Wills: Yes, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend is right that parentally condoned truancy is a major problem. I have some figures that we have just received from 112 local education authorities that responded with information on the effectiveness of truancy sweeps. Half said that most children stopped during sweeps were accompanied by parents or carers. In some areas, that was the case with up

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to 97 per cent. of truants, so it is obviously a big problem and we must address it. That is why we introduced truancy sweeps, which we announced last year.

We are making considerable progress on our manifesto pledge to cut exclusions and are well on track. We have cut 20 per cent. from the highest figure, and we are now introducing measures that will make a significant impact on truancy. The best way to reduce the rate of truancy is to prevent it from happening in the first place, and that is why many of the local projects that we support through our social inclusion pupil support grant target measures to do that. We also know that the use of electronic registration can cut truancy by up to 10 per cent. [Interruption.] Hon. Members might be more interested in this if they took more interest in education policy. We know that electronic registration must be an important part of our strategy to reduce truancy.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Every week I see groups of young people of secondary school age in my constituency and I try to discover whether they are at school or not. Every week, I find that many of them are not, and sometimes they have not been there for the whole period during which they should have been attending school.

Will Ministers consider seriously not just the option of daytime school-hours truancy sweeps, but of ensuring that we have enough people, such as detached youth workers, to engage with young people out of school hours at weekends and evenings? They could discover what motivates the kids and get them into some structure, whether through sport, an apprenticeship or work-related project, so that they can get back into the system. Could we not concentrate on such personal mentoring rather than trying to bribe young people into activity with CDs and other things?

Mr. Wills: The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of having a rounded strategy with a number of different instruments to tackle the problem of truancy. His constituency, I believe, is benefiting from the excellence in cities initiative and he will know, precisely for the reasons that he outlined, that personal mentors are an important part of that initiative, performing the kind of function that he described. The Connexions service will also provide personal mentors for older pupils to make sure that they get the kind of support that they need to overcome the barriers that divide them from school and education and that cause many of them to truant in the first place.

Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a wide range of difficulties and reasons why an individual may truant? Does he agree that the role of local education authorities is crucial for children with emotional and psychological problems, who are not truanting through choice, but have problems that need to be addressed? Will he ensure that local education authorities have sufficient resources to give back-up to schools, rather than taking cash away from local education authorities and putting pressure on schools, as large secondary schools with those problems cannot cope with the vast amount of work?

Mr. Wills: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of investment in those resources. It is all

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very well having the ideas, but unless there is money to back them up, they are meaningless, which is why we are now investing £174 million in measures to tackle exclusion and truancy. By way of contrast, that is 10 times the amount spent in the Opposition's last year in government.

Schools Expenditure (Worcestershire)

3. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): If he will make a statement on expenditure on schools in Worcestershire. [157909]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): In 2001-02, Worcestershire's education standard spending assessment increased by almost £9 million. In addition, its share of the £52 million education budget support grant will be £1.35 million. Following the recent Budget announcement, Worcestershire schools will receive almost £7.8 million as their share of the school standards grant, more than double their allocation in the previous year.

Mr. Luff: I think that the Minister, who is an honest woman, would admit that, under this Government, Worcestershire's share of national education expenditure has fallen very sharply indeed. Is she aware that the pressures that that is creating in Worcestershire schools like Droitwich Spa high school is leading to a crisis in retention and recruitment? I therefore ask her a simple question: will she commit her party to a clear and unambiguous timetable to end that unfairness?

Ms Morris: Where the hon. Gentleman is right is in saying that the formula that we use to distribute money from central to local government needs to be reformed. We are doing that; his Government did not. Quite honestly, had the formula been in a better state when we came to office, we would not be in difficulty now. It is interesting that the debate is now about what share of an increased budget Worcestershire schools get. Under the previous Government, the debate was about how those schools coped with their share of budget cuts.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a school which, presumably, is in his constituency. I should like to quote the head of an infants school in Worcester, who recently wrote to her MP and said:

That recovery is taking place after 18 years of underfunding. I am happy that the debate is now about how we split up the extra money going into Worcestershire schools. Our record is one of £1 million extra for his local authority to cut class sizes and a real-terms increase of 16 per cent. for every child in Worcestershire's schools. The position is not yet perfect but, as that infant school head said, schools are well on the way to recovery.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): What Worcestershire schools need is not yet more ministerial delay and dither, but a Conservative Government committed to a national funding formula. However, I expect that Worcestershire schools were pleased to hear the Prime Minister's pledge that he would raise the level of spending in state schools to

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that in independent schools. Was that spending level the same as in the public schools that the Prime Minister attended, or as in the so-called pretty standard grammar school attended by the Leader of the House of Lords?

Ms Morris: It is excellent news that now, for the very first time, we have a Prime Minister with such aspirations for standards for our children. The hon. Lady, and schools in Worcestershire and elsewhere, should look at what the Prime Minister has delivered in the past four years: three times as much capital spending, an increase in revenue spending of £540 per pupil, and a commitment to make sure that the share of the national wealth spent on education continues to grow in the next Parliament as it has in the present Parliament. We have a record of which we can be proud. Now people know that we have kept our word--education is the Government's top priority. As schools in Worcestershire know, we will continue to deliver, as we have delivered for the past four years.

Mrs. May: Parents and teachers in Worcestershire will be disappointed by the Minister's replies, which show how little she and the Government understand what is happening in schools in Worcestershire. On Sunday, when she was asked what the timetable was for the Prime Minister's pledge, her response was, "Well, you have to ask the Prime Minister." Is it possible that education Ministers were not aware of the pledge that he intended to give, or was it yet more prime ministerial hot air?

The right hon. Lady spoke of the Government keeping their word. Far from it; the Prime Minister committed the Government to spending a higher proportion of national income on education than the previous Conservative Government, but they are spending less. He gave a commitment that class sizes would be smaller--tell that to the parents of the class of 94 in Norfolk. He committed himself to the most fundamental reform of the teaching profession since state education began, which has led to teachers leaving the profession in droves. Is not the reality, as schools in Worcestershire know, that on funding, secondary class sizes and teacher numbers, the Labour Government are all spin and no delivery?

Ms Morris: That shows just how out of touch the Conservatives are with what is going on in the real world. Anyone who went round infant classes four years ago would have seen that three in 10 of those children were in classes not of 31 or 35, but often of 45. This September, whichever school one visits, whether in town or country, one will not find one five, six or seven-year-old child who is in a class of more than 30. We have delivered on class sizes. If one goes round schools, one will find 17,000 that have been invested in and improved. Schools that have needed to be rebuilt for generations have been rebuilt under this Government. On teacher numbers, there are 12,000 more teachers in post than in 1997.

I do not believe what the hon. Lady says about the views of Worcestershire teachers when I read the comments of the infant school teacher whom I quoted earlier. She continues:

Forget the figures--one does not have to believe them. After four years of Labour government, the result is that we have more 11-year-olds who can read and write than

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ever before in the history of the nation, and we have fewer children leaving school with no qualifications. We have made a difference. That is what parents wanted, and that is what we have delivered.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before we proceed, I should point out that the Minister's reply was far too long. I say to the Opposition Front Bench that the question was also too long.

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