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Learning and Skills Councils

2. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What recent representations she has received on the responsibilities of the learning and skills councils; and if she will make a statement. [870]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge): We have received few representations on the responsibilities of the Learning and Skills Council. I have had several meetings with its chairman and chief executive in the past three weeks, and I am confident that the council will make a genuine difference over the coming years to widening participation in learning, driving up standards and improving achievement.

Miss McIntosh: I congratulate the Minister on retaining her post in the Government. I shall share with her some representations that I have received from local firms, which are confused about who is responsible under the new arrangements for the Investors in People initiative and want to know whether it is the Learning and Skills Council or the Small Business Service. Guidance would be most welcome. Can she assure me that businesses will continue to be involved in the delivery of training to young people, as they were so successfully under the training and enterprise councils?

Margaret Hodge: On the hon. Lady's second point, I can assure her that businesses will continue to be involved. On the first, the Learning and Skills Council is responsible for ensuring that we meet our Investors in People target, extend the system and ensure that more people participate in it. However, there is nothing to prevent the Learning and Skills Council from negotiating and contracting with local business links or the Small Business Service to ensure that it delivers. I am pleased to tell the House that in North Yorkshire, which includes the hon. Lady's constituency, 43 per cent. of medium and large companies have attained the IiP standard, as have 132 small and medium-sized enterprises.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West): How will the Learning and Skills Council increase participation in post-16 education? [Interruption.]

Margaret Hodge: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just said that I could write an essay on that. However, bearing in mind what you, Mr. Speaker, said about answers, I shall try to keep my response brief.

The Learning and Skills Council will set a strategy and business plan that will be implemented by the 47 learning and skills councils, which will work through existing institutions such as the further education sector and private providers, among others, as well as sixth-form schools and colleges to ensure that we extend participation. Extending participation is an essential part of the Government's manifesto commitment and is not only good for individuals, but key to ensuring that we build economic prosperity.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): One of the responsibilities of the Learning and Skills Council is the funding of school sixth forms. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), said earlier that there was no

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equivalence between schools and further education colleges, but the Government's funding arrangements are based on exactly that proposition. Many school sixth forms are under threat from the new funding arrangements under the Learning and Skills Council, which allow fees to be charged. Will the Minister give a pledge today that no school will face a reduction in its funding for pre-16 education as a result of the new arrangements, and that the funding allocated by the Learning and Skills Council to local education authorities for school sixth forms will all be passported to the schools?

Margaret Hodge: In fact, there have been no closures of school sixth forms since the Labour Government were elected in 1997. Any such closures took place under the Conservative Government, pre-1997. We gave a real-terms guarantee of funding at 2000–01 levels to all sixth forms when the funding was transferred to the Learning and Skills Council, provided that they maintained their pupil numbers. That is an unprecedented guarantee. We have instructed the Learning and Skills Council to passport through the entire funding to the sixth forms that will receive funding from it.

Specialist Schools

5. Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): What plans she has to increase the number of specialist schools. [873]

12. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): How many and what percentage of secondary schools in England are expected to have specialist school status by June 2005. [881]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris): I would not like Question Time to pass without extending the sympathy and thoughts of the House and the Department to those in Lambeth at the school with the child missing in the north of France. It is a difficult time for all concerned and it must be unutterably difficult for the parents and other members of the family who have to travelled to France this morning. I know that the whole House would wish to join me in sending them our best wishes and our thoughts. The Department will give whatever help might be appropriate in due course.

From September 2001 there will be 684 specialist schools and we are working towards a target of 1,000 by September 2003. The Government's target of 1,500 specialist schools by September 2006 represents 46 per cent. of secondary schools in England.

Mr. Rammell: I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Does she agree that eventually every school should have its own distinctive mission and ethos? In taking forward that agenda, should not the Government welcome associated bids from two or more schools, where such a bid can be shown to be in the interests of developing such an ethos within each of those schools? Were such a bid to be forthcoming from schools in my constituency of Harlow, would she consider it very seriously?

Estelle Morris: I agree with my hon. Friend. Schools do try to attain their own distinct ethos and we are working with the grain of schools in that respect. It is certainly our aim that all secondary schools develop their

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own ethos and mission. Some will find their voice in the specialist school movement and others will do so through training schools, beacon schools or church schools. That is the nature of diversity. However, I strongly feel that schools improve their standards most when they have a feeling of being different, of being special, and when they are proud of their children and their communities are proud of them. We want to help them work towards that. Although I welcome joint applications, I have a cautious word of advice for my hon. Friend. To be honest with him, I do not think that the existing rules encourage joint applications and my best advice to schools in his constituency would be to wait a while and see whether that guidance changes.

Mr. Prentice: If we are to have specialist schools, I am rather attracted by the Liberal Democrat policy, which is to make all schools special schools. We could then call them comprehensives. My attention was drawn to an article in the Financial Times yesterday stating that my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards plans to put private companies in charge of state school departments—presumably that includes specialist schools. As a member of the Labour party's national policy forum, let me ask the Minister where that idea came from. It was never discussed in any of the Labour party's policy forums and, as the Minister will know, it was never discussed at the Labour party's annual conference last September. If we are going to have bizarre suggestions on a regular basis, the Government should at least honour us by telling us who was responsible for the idea in the first place.

Estelle Morris: On the first part of my hon. Friend's question, I want all schools to have in place the key measures of improvement that will enable them to take up specialist status. This is about extra resources and the capacity to spend them effectively to bring about improvements.

On my hon. Friend's second comment, there are no circumstances in which I or my Department would force a school to outsource one of its departments. However, some head teachers may choose to do that. I want to make it clear that it would be their choice, with no instructions from me about the break-up of the school.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I welcome the Secretary of State and her ministerial team to the Front Bench, and we wish them well in their short careers. We also welcome the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who will be the first Member to cross the Floor in this Parliament. Liberal Democrats will welcome his wise views.

Does the Secretary of State agree that her policy on specialist schools is akin to creating a giant McDonald's-like franchise within our school system? The difference is that anyone can go into a McDonald's, but specialist schools will decide which students to take. Does she accept that by the end of the Government's second term in office, 60 per cent. of Britain's schools will remain bog standard—to use the phrase of the Prime Minister's press secretary? Given the failure of private

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sector investment in education action zones, will she today rule out the involvement of private sector companies in future specialist schools?

Estelle Morris: McDonald's restaurants are all the same, whereas our aspiration for the school system is that schools should have a common base but should be different, not the same. What upsets me most about the hon. Gentleman, who I know has education close to his heart, is that he has incredibly low aspirations for our school system. I believe that every school in the country can, with help and support, and with the will, passion and hard work of teachers, develop its own ethos. Schools try to do that, but in the past they have tried to do it by themselves. With our diversity agenda, we are bringing that approach into the national school system, so that we celebrate diversity. When schools are ready, we give them resources to help them to achieve that diversity. That is absolutely key.

On private sector involvement, the hon. Gentleman may, on reflection, regret his slur on many education action zones. Children and teachers in some of the most disadvantaged areas have worked their socks off to raise standards, and in doing so have worked with the private sector. The improvement in attainment rates in those areas is a cause for celebration, and should not be knocked down. I welcome the private sector's involvement in those achievements. It has provided cash, but as the hon. Gentleman knows there have also been hours spent in schools reading with young children, mentoring head teachers, allowing access to places of work and raising children's vision so that they can aspire to work in business. I have no intention of turning my back on the contribution that the private sector can make to raising aspirations and delivering the world-class education system that we want.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does the right hon. Lady, whom I congratulate and welcome to her post, realise that in her pursuit of true excellence she is more likely to engage the hearts and minds of Conservative Members than of Labour Members? In that context, what plans does she have to encourage young people who want to follow a career in the crafts? Does she agree with me that craftsmanship is of supreme importance, and that not enough encouragement is given to such young people?

Estelle Morris: I shall ignore the fact that, in 1997, six out of 10 children could not read properly at the age of 11. I do not know how that reflects on the Conservative Government's commitment to excellence in schools. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the importance of the range of subjects that are termed as crafts. Crafts have long been neglected and have been squeezed out of the education system. We want both to acknowledge and to promote them and give children who achieve in that regard the applause and credit they deserve.

The Government desperately want to give vocational education the status that it needs and deserves. We believe that our plans relating to vocational GCSEs and A-levels,

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and the policies that we are developing for 14 to 19-year-olds, will turn the tide that has been going in the wrong direction for the past 15 to 20 years.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): I welcome my right hon. Friend to her new position.

Will the Department be publishing clear criteria for schools applying for special school status? Some schools experiencing serious weaknesses or special measures apply for such status, only for the applications to be turned down because the schools have not been given a clean bill of health by Her Majesty's inspectorate or Ofsted.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Holmesdale community school, which was recently awarded special school status, and congratulating Ian Hobson—the head teacher—the governors and the entire Holmesdale team on their hard work?

Estelle Morris: I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the school. I believe that this is the eighth time he has mentioned it at Question Time; on seven of those occasions it had not yet achieved a special school status, so I am very pleased to be able to congratulate it today and to put on record my hon. Friend's contribution in supporting its application.

If the guidance is not clear I shall, of course, want to clarify it. I take my hon. Friend's point about schools experiencing special measures and serious weaknesses. Sometimes a school starts to experience special measures and serious weaknesses while it is putting together and submitting its application. When a school is in that position, it is pretty tough to get out of it; all efforts must be focused on the basics—on good teaching and leadership. I genuinely wonder whether, at that point in a school's development, it is able to take on special school status. It can, however, aspire to such status, and the prospect of no longer being subject to special measures and being able to apply for it may spur schools on.

I should be delighted to look at the guidance again. As I have said, if it is not as clear as it should be I will endeavour to remedy the problem.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I welcome the new Secretary of State to her job. I know that she will bring her characteristic commitment and diligence to the task.

Perhaps it was those qualities that encouraged the right hon. Lady to reverse the policy of exclusion targets that has been such a cause of dismay in schools throughout the country—special schools, schools experiencing special measures and other schools. She will know that heads, governors, teachers and, of course, the Opposition have mounted a vigorous campaign against the exclusion targets on which she has now performed a U-turn. However, uncertainty remains about the financial sanctions. The right hon. Lady will remember the punitive sanctions that the Government imposed on schools that did not meet those centrally defined targets. Will she confirm that, in that respect, DFEE circular 16/99 has been either rescinded or superseded by further guidance?

Estelle Morris: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments.

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The targets were reached, and we are not setting new ones. We have made that clear. I consider it cause for celebration that, under the present Government, schools have learning support units and learning mentors, and if they do exclude pupils they can be guaranteed a full-time education for those pupils to a greater extent than they ever were under the last Government. Schools have, however, reduced the number of exclusions from some 12,000 or 13,000, and rising, to about 8,600. I congratulate and thank them for that—and, as I have said, we are not setting new targets.

As for the money that the hon. Gentleman describes as a fine, there are some tough decisions to be made. We did something that I would have expected him to welcome: we made local authorities delegate money to schools, so that the schools could use it to try to retain children. That, I think, is the place for the money. It is better for it to be used to help schools develop preventative treatment to stop exclusions than to sit with local education authorities.

If a child is excluded after the money has been devolved to a school, I am adamant that that child will be given a full-time education and not left to roam the streets. Full-time education costs money, but the money has been delegated to schools, and must follow the child back to the local authority and then to the pupil referral unit. I think that that is right. It is delegated money to prevent exclusions, but if a child is excluded, the money guarantees full-time education. Again, I would have thought that the whole House welcomed that.

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