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The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight):
Secondary school standards have never been higher. A sevenfold real-terms increase in investment in school
buildings and technology since 1997 has supported rapidly improving learning environments. The 25,900 extra secondary school teachers and more than four times as many teaching assistants mean more individual attention to pupils. That is why standards are improving, as reflected in record results at GCSE and A-level.
Mr. Hands: As the Minister will know, schools in Hammersmith and Fulham get well above average GCSE results and are improving, and some 62 per cent. of parents there get their first choice of secondary school. However, we also have an important, dynamic and forward-looking academy programme, including a proposed new Mercers school in Hammersmith. May we have a commitment from the Minister that the academies programme will not be watered down further and that councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham can continue to innovate and deliver in their secondary school provision?
Jim Knight: There has certainly been no watering down of our commitment to academies; indeed, the pace of their development has increased. Just today, I was looking at issues to do with the Hammersmith academy that the Mercers Company and the information technology company are both sponsoring. I am continuing to be as helpful as I can to ensure that the improvement needed for that school is secured through the academy process.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): There are, of course, many ways to measure improvements in schools. One has come to my notice today; it is the massive improvement in the number of young people from my constituency who go to university. Government Front Benchers are to be congratulated on the policies that have led to that. There has also been dedicated teaching, leadership and parental involvement. That result has been achieved in my constituency by really hard work, and without the assistance of one academy or trust school; in fact, it has been impeded by selection in other schools.
Jim Knight: It is with great pleasure that I am able to agree with my hon. Friendthat does not always happenabout the take-up of higher education in Wolverhampton, which has been a huge success. I know that many attend the local university. Wolverhampton university does a good job and is doing a good job in supporting schools in the black country. As my hon. Friend says, that sort of school improvement is down to great teaching, great leadership and good involvement with parents.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) and I represent inner-London seats. As the Minister is aware, there is a big initiativeAimhigherto try to encourage children from such areas to go to our top-flight universities. Can he give us some indication as to how successful that has been?
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab):
I thank my right hon. Friend for the letter of congratulations that he sent to King Edward VI school in Stafford for being in the top 100 most improved schools in the country last year.
Another school in Stafford is in the National Challenge programme. I want to assure him of my full support for the improvement programme and ask him to reassure me that the Department will give its full support, too. Does he agree that that programme holds out the prospect of achieving the aim, long held by Labour, of making every school a good school?
Jim Knight: My hon. Friend is right. This is a good opportunity to reinforce my congratulations to King Edward VI school in Stafford on its great improvement. National Challenge provides an investment of £400 million in order to ensure that every school gets above the floor of at least 30 per cent. of pupils achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE, including in English and mathsa figure that more than half could not achieve when the Conservatives were in power.
Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): Is the Minister happy that there is no requirement to study any foreign literature in the foreign languages syllabus at A-level? Is he also happy that there is no requirement to translate directly from one language to another at GCSE?
Jim Knight: I remain happy with the standard of foreign languages GCSEs and the programme of study. I want to see greater take-up of foreign language learning, which is something that we were developing with the late Lord Dearing. This is an opportunity for me to pay my personal tribute to the work that he did with his language review.
Michael Gove: We all acknowledge the debt that we owe to Lord Dearing. However, it is also the case that the catastrophic fall in the number of students taking modern languages at GCSE has followed this Governments policies.
The Minister will be aware that last week Manchester grammar school became the latest school to abandon the GCSEs for which he is responsible to opt for the independent international GCSE, or IGCSE. The Minister says that he is satisfied with exam standards, but clearly those with the freedom to escape his strictures are not. In GCSE biology, candidates are asked, Which is healthier, sausages in batter or grilled fish?, while IGCSE science is rated by the Governments own officials as broader and deeper, with content comparable to an AS-level. Why will he not fund state students to do these rigorous exams? Is he happy with educational apartheid?
Jim Knight: I know that the hon. Gentleman is wedded to wanting a two-tier system, but we want a GCSE system that caters for and properly assesses people of the full range of abilities. We are implementing the Dearing review on languages in full; that is why we are moving from five years to seven years of compulsory language learning by starting that learning at the age of seven. In respect of science, the GCSE tests the full range of ability. When he was on the radio, John Dunford from the Association of School and College Leaders rightly said that young people who need to be stretched at the top level may not need such assessment, because they can be engaged with and stretched through, for example, the Young Gifted and Talented programme and, if desired, starting AS-levels and A-levels early.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): As in secondary schools, standards in primary schools have never been higher. In 2008, provisional key stage results show that 81 per cent. of 11-year-olds achieve level 4 or above in English and 78 per cent. achieve level 4 or above in mathematics. There have been consistent and significant improvements in our primary schools over the past decade. This year, over 101,000 more 11-year-olds achieved the target level for their age in reading, writing and mathematics than in 1997.
Mr. Evennett: I note the Ministers response. However, there are real concerns about the move away from traditional subjects in the primary curriculum to softer options. When will the Minister accept that these changesmoving away from facts, knowledge and rigourwill lead to an erosion of standards for our young children?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Jim Rose is currently conducting a review of the primary curriculum, and it is quite clear from the interim report that he is certainly not advancing soft options. The use of cross-curricular studies in order to broaden and deepen childrens understanding does not mean that they will not be studying traditional subjects discretely.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The Minister who is about to answer me is the one Minister in her Front Bench team whom I have not nobbled on this issue. Primary schools and secondary schools in Slough are popular because parents are opting into the Slough system. As a result of that, combined with increased migration, the fact that the Office for National Statistics cannot count the population of Slough and a 10 per cent. increase in the birth rate, we do not have sufficient places in our schools. Even at primary level, children have to travel a very long distance. Can the Minister offer me any comfort about extra investment in our primary schools, so that excellence is available to parents in Slough?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank my hon. Friend for her question; it echoes the Westminster Hall debate that we had on certain schools in London which are facing similar problems. I would be happy to offer to meet my hon. Friend and her local authority to discuss how we can take this matter forward. The problem arose because in the past, local authorities requested certainty about their forward funding, and we gave them three-year certainty on capital funding. We do not hold funds back, because those authorities asked for that consistency and certainty. Some local authorities have been able to manage within that and some have not. If there are exceptional circumstances, I would be happy to discuss them with my hon. Friend.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con):
Will the Minister accept that many of us are extremely concerned about the Rose proposals? We believe that
there should be real rigour in teaching in primary schools. Will she assure me that there is no question of the Government telling primary schools that they should no longer teach subjects?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I refer the hon. Gentleman to Sir Jim Roses interim report and to the comments in which he clearly states that it is not a question of discrete subjects not being taught. However, they will be taught within areas of learning, to give young people a deeper understanding of how those subjects fit together. The final report will be published at the end of this month, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be looking forward to what is in it.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): We should all congratulate the staff and students in our primary schools for the extra success they are achieving year after year, but is the Minister satisfied that the assessment at the end of primary school is the best one we can make? Does she not find that the hot-housing and coaching for standard assessment tests, which can result in young students falling back in the first year of secondary school, might place them at a disadvantage? Is there not a better way of making an assessment of the progress that they make in primary schools than SATs results?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I assure my hon. Friend that our testing and assessment regime at the end of primary school is not set in stone, which is why we have an expert group to advise on our assessment processes. We are piloting single-level tests, testing when children are ready. The best schools achieve without having to hot-house or teach to the test, as people say, which is why we have asked our expert group to look at this matter, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested in its report.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Given that one in five 11-year-olds are leaving primary school still struggling with reading and that 40 per cent. are leaving without having mastered the basics in reading, writing and arithmetic, why does the Minister think that it is beneficial for primary schools to be told by her Department to teach the curriculum through six areas of learning, or through cross-curricular topics and themes, as recommended by the Rose review that she referred toan approach to education that failed so badly in the 1960s and 70s? Why does she think that the review managed to consult only eight parents during its consultation process?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I shall take the last point first. Jim Rose consulted very widely, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that in his recent online surveys, nearly 1,000 parents were consulted, not just eight. Secondly, in the interim report that Sir Jim Rose produced, he made it very clear that we have to concentrate on literacy and numeracy.
I am getting a bit fed up with the idea that somehow there was a golden age of literacy. Some research by the National Foundation for Educational Research has shown that standards of literacy stayed broadly the same from the end of the second world war to 1996. Only this Labour Government have improved standards of literacy.
The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I reported to the House last month that net surplus balances across schools totalled £1.9 million in the past financial year. My officials have held a number of discussions recently with local authority representatives, head teacher and teacher associations and other interested parties. Local authorities have powers to claw back excessive surpluses, and I expect them to use those powers.
Does the Minister share my view that with some 8,500 schoolsnearly 40 per cent. of the totalholding excessive surplus funds, it is no wonder, considering the present allocation of school funding, particularly to rural areas, which are significantly underfunded compared with the average, that school governors and heads are more or less obliged to hold back surplus funds to ensure that they have money to fund their schools for the full school year?
Jim Knight: I have had discussions with the hon. Gentleman about this matter. There is a debate to be had, but the case about the underfunding of rural areas is not helped when in an area such as Shropshire, 44.6 per cent. of schools have excessive surpluses totalling £2.2 million.
Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): It is difficult to understand why the Government should choose to criticise school governors for being prudent with school money at a time when we all wish the Government had been a bit more prudent with our money. If the Minister still believes in autonomy for schools, will he assure the House that there are no hidden plans for him to come in and plunder school reserves?
Jim Knight: We have always been perfectly clear that a small level of surplus is prudent for schools to carry over, but excessive surpluses of the sort that the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) mentioned comprise £1.9 billion that was given to schools to spend on this generation of children, not to save for some fictitious moment in the future. That is not acceptable. We have said that local authorities need to manage that, and if they do not, we will look at it again in 2011-12.
The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): We have allocated £430 million to the Aiming high for disabled children programme, of which £370 million is to transform the provision of short breaks over the period from 2008 to 2011. As the House will know, the child health strategy allocated an additional £340 million over the same period, which takes the total funding for the provision of short breaks and other services for disabled children and young people to £770 million. Progress in our 21 pathfinder areas is going well, and all areas will receive funding from April.
Mr. Harper: When I questioned the Secretary of State on this matter last year, he said that primary care trusts would be expected to match the funding from his Department. He said that Members would hold them to account, and I have done so. I have written to every PCT in England, and two thirds have written back. All of them confirm that they have had no specific money from the Department of Health to pay for short breaks for disabled children, and because of that, almost half of them have not provided any money for that purpose. What is he going to do to put that right?
Ed Balls: I refer the hon. Gentleman to Mr. Speakers comment a moment ago that it is wise for hon. Members to listen to the answer before reading out their supplementary. As I said in my answer, the Department has allocated £370 million, which has been matched by £340 million from the Department of Health. In the child health strategy, indicative allocations for every primary care trust were announced. It is now for PCTs and families to ensure that that money goes towards short breaks. I have written to every PCT, along with the Secretary of State for Health, to ensure that that is happening. I am afraid that the hon. Gentlemans survey is somewhat out of date.
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Further to that point, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that parents of disabled children are aware of how much money their primary care trust has from the Government for that purpose? Although I have done my best to publicise it in Milton Keynes, I do not have a hotline to the local press, and I am fearful that the money will disappear into the general PCT budget.
Ed Balls: The child health strategy made clear not only the overall total, but the allocations to every primary care trust. It is important now to ensure that the money is spent. With Contact a Family, we are funding a parents forum in every area to ensure that parents are consulted about how the moneyDCSF and Department of Health moneyis spent. The best way of ensuring that the money is spent is to maintain our commitment to budgets in 2009-10 and 2010-11. To be honest, the £300 million planned by the Conservative party would mean cuts in that budget.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con):
The announcement of £370 million investment in transforming short breaks for families with disabled children was warmly welcomed by hon. Members of all parties, and the Secretary of State can take his share of the credit. However, the announcement was made in
January 2008, and £20 million of the money was supposed to be used to set up projects in the 21 pathfinder areas before the end of the current financial year in a few weeks time. Mencap reports that, far from things going well, not one of the families with children with profound and multiple learning disabilities that it follows in the pilot areas has had any increase in their package of short breaks14 months on, and there has been no transformation at all. Why is it taking so long and when will families at breaking point get the help that they were promised?
Ed Balls: The total spending in the next three years, including this year, is not £370 million but £770 million. It will mean a transformation in the provision of short breaks. The work was put together through consulting widely the consortium of childrens charities, including Mencap and Contact a Family. Those organisations expressed a clear view that we should spend a small amount of money in the first year while we piloted how to spend the money well. A substantial amount of investmentindeed, record amountswill be made next year and the year after. I met the people who are running the pathfinders a few weeks ago and their advice to me was that the pathfinder areas are all going well.
To destabilise and demoralise families with disabled children when we are a third of the way into what will be record investment in short breaks seems exactly the wrong approach. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) shouts across the Dispatch Box that I promised investment for short breaks and that I have not delivered. That is absolute nonsense. I have campaigned personally, as all Labour Members have done, along with hon. Members from across the House, with some exceptions, to ensure that the money is well spent on short breaks. The provision will be widely welcomed by parents throughout the country, and I commend to the House the £770 million for those families.
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