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House of Commons

Monday 15 June 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Secondary Schools

1. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of educational standards in secondary schools; and if he will make a statement. [279159]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): Let me take this opportunity to welcome the new schools Ministers, Mr. Vernon Coaker and Diana Johnson, the new Children’s Minister, Dawn Primarolo, and the new 14 to 19 and apprenticeships Ministers, Mr. Kevin Brennan and Mr. Iain Wright. May I also thank Jim Knight, Bev Hughes and Sarah McCarthy-Fry for all that they did to improve the lives of children and young people in our country, and congratulate them on that? As a result of their efforts, standards in school have risen. In 1997, more than half of all secondary schools were below our benchmark of at least 30 per cent. of pupils getting five good GCSEs. When we launched our national challenge a year ago, that number of schools had fallen to 631. Today it is down to 440 and we are on track to meet our goal of zero by 2011. To help ensure that we do, I can tell the House that I have today approved seven new national challenge trusts to raise school standards in Birmingham, Torbay, Nottingham, Rochdale, Staffordshire, Chester and the Medway. In recent weeks, we have approved four new academies to replace national challenge schools in Bradford, Bournemouth and East Sussex.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I visited a secondary school in my constituency—Tytherington high school—last Friday and it is doing an excellent job. The Secretary of State will know that the well-known independent education foundation, Edge, recently stated in a report that one in four pupils are being failed by their secondary school and that a quarter of parents are also deeply concerned that their child is being let down and believe that the education system needs an overhaul. That is slightly different from the response that the Secretary of State has given. Is there not a problem? Will the right hon. Gentleman give the matter serious consideration, as it is an issue of concern to a lot of parents?

Ed Balls: I repeat what I just said. In 1997, more than half of our secondary schools were below our basic benchmark. That number is now down to one in seven—from more than 1,600 to just 440 today. We have further to go, and that is why we are taking forward our national challenge reforms. I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to praise the children in Macclesfield, who have seen a 17.9 percentage point increase in their GCSE results since 1997. That is ahead of the Cheshire average. He should be congratulating pupils in his constituency on their efforts rather than running down the state school system.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that standards have improved quite dramatically in our secondary schools? If he had a priority list, would it include improving the quality of teachers—that is vital—improving transition from primary to secondary and looking again at the national curriculum?

Ed Balls: We are always looking at that curriculum. In fact, we have made important reforms to the key stage 3 national curriculum. I am very proud of the fact that, according to Ofsted, we have the best generation
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of teachers that we have ever had in our country. However, there is more to do to ensure that we get more people to join the teaching profession. The transition from primary to secondary school is crucial to ensuring that children flourish in secondary school, so I was very concerned to see Sir Jim Rose’s comments yesterday that the Opposition’s proposals to shift testing to year 7 would set back that vital transition, to the detriment of children’s learning across our country.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): May I also welcome the new ministerial team and, of course, congratulate the Secretary of State on managing to keep his position in the Department? The Government used to say that they would help to improve standards in secondary schools through the Building Schools for the Future programme. Given that the Government are planning a 50 per cent. cut in real capital spending after 2011, will the Secretary of State tell us how much of that programme will survive the Government’s axe?

Ed Balls: If I remember the content of a private conversation involving the leader of the Liberal party that was overheard on an aeroplane, I think that the hon. Gentleman’s job was rather more insecure than mine. As for Building Schools for the Future, I think that he has got the parties confused; it is the Opposition who are proposing a £4.5 billion cut in that programme. We are determined to ensure that we keep our school building programme moving forward. I wish the Liberals would support investment in our schools rather than choosing to cut it.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): May I first congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on their new appointments? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware that different high schools and secondary schools with identical pupil intakes perform very differently, which in my view is overwhelmingly due to teaching methods and classroom regimes. Has he made specific comparisons and will he ensure that in future schools adopt the best forms of teaching and the best forms of classroom culture?

Ed Balls: A very important report from Ofsted published just a few weeks ago considered the 12 top performing secondary schools in the most disadvantaged areas and showed that the vital factors were the quality of their leadership, their commitment to consistency, the quality of their teaching and the high expectations that they had of every child. The fact is that many schools in challenging circumstances are delivering brilliant results. We want to make sure that that happens everywhere, at all times. That is why we are the party that is taking forward the expansion of trusts, academies and specialisms, to make sure that the best leadership is put to work in schools right across the country.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): The Secretary of State seems to have dismissed out of hand the innovative proposals from my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) for ascertaining the quality of children leaving primary school and entering secondary schools. Should he not listen to his friends in the National Union of Teachers, or his friends who are heads of secondary schools up and down this country? They will tell him about the need to understand the capabilities of children when they enter schools—information that standard assessment tests simply cannot provide.

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Ed Balls: It is very revealing that the NUT executive leadership should be making Conservative party policy. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that does not happen on the Labour Benches. I have looked very closely at the arguments, and the conclusion that I have reached on the basis of the expert group report is that objective measurement of the performance of primary school pupils is vital if we are to keep raising standards. As for the Opposition’s proposals, they were roundly criticised yesterday by teaching unions and experts alike because they would lead to less accountability and a poorer quality of marking, with parents being denied the information that they need to track the progress of their child. If I were the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), I would not be bowing to pressure from some unions. I would be doing the right thing by the children of our country—which is what I, unlike him, am determined to do.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): On the quality of teaching, the Secretary of State was unable to tell me in a written answer what proportion of lessons in state secondary schools are taken by people who are not qualified teachers. Why is that? Does he not care who is teaching our kids?

Ed Balls: I care very much about who is teaching our kids, which is why I am proud that, as I said earlier, we have the best generation of teachers that we have ever had. If the previous schools Minister did not provide a proper answer to my hon. Friend’s question, I will make sure that the new one does so forthwith.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): May I join the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), and indeed the Secretary of State, in wishing well all those Ministers from the Department who have gone on to higher things? May I also commiserate with the right hon. Gentleman on remaining in his current post? I assure him that that is not a commentary on his Department’s Aimhigher programme.

I also congratulate the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), on being appointed Minister for schools and learners. He is a member of the NUT, and I am delighted that his union endorsed our proposals yesterday, calling them “imaginative” and in the interests of pupils. It is good to have his support, and I look forward to more of it. The Minister is also a member of the Socialist Education Association, which is committed to equality. Like me, he will be disturbed by the fact that barely 2 per cent. of pupils eligible for free school meals sit physics or chemistry GCSE, with under 4 per cent. sitting biology. Such pupils are 25 times less likely to sit any of those subjects than their wealthier peers.

While the numbers of poor children getting competitive qualifications are declining, so are standards. This will be of interest to the Secretary of State: in the latest GCSE biology paper, students are asked if we sweat through our kidneys, liver, lungs or skin. Was not the Royal Society of Chemistry right to suggest that Government changes to the science curriculum had been “a catastrophe”? Is it not true that the poorest pupils are being hit hardest?

Ed Balls: The fact is that it is our national challenge programme and our approach to school improvement that will drive up standards in schools across the country,
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including in the most disadvantaged areas. It is hugely disappointing that the hon. Gentleman refuses to support the school improvement steps that we are taking. He is the shadow schools Minister, and it is a great relief that he is finally willing, for the first time in five months, to ask me a question. The actions that we are taking to drive up standards in all schools, including those in the most disadvantaged communities, are consistently opposed by the Opposition.

Michael Gove: Actually, I asked the Secretary of State questions on “The World at One” just 90 minutes ago, and I am surprised that that experience has been wiped clean from his memory, because once again his figures and arguments were utterly discredited. Will he answer the questions that I asked, which were about the science curriculum? The people who work for the right hon. Gentleman point out that, under him, that curriculum has, I am afraid, deteriorated. Ofqual, the exams watchdog, has said that there has been a fall in the quality and rigour of science exams since 2006. Sir Peter Williams, who chaired the Government’s maths reviews, has said:

Sir Adrian Smith was No. 2 at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—remember that?—and he has said that the Government’s plans for science diplomas are wrong, that they simply have not got their GCSEs and A-levels right, and that their whole approach to science is poorly thought through. Until recently, Ralph Tabberer was the man responsible for schools in the Department, but now he has blown the whistle by saying that current education policies fail to emphasise scholarship and high-quality study, and that the Secretary of State is simply going in the wrong direction.

All those experts have worked up close and personal with the Secretary of State. Are they all wrong?

Ed Balls: I was very pleased that the hon. Gentleman was willing to go on “The World at One”, and the fact that he has matched that with asking questions in the House of Commons is a real step forward.

I have written to the hon. Gentleman seven times asking for a commitment to match our September guarantee to young people in our country, and seven times there has been no reply to my letter. On the issue of science, the fact is that the number of children doing single, double and triple science exams in state schools has risen year on year in recent years. As he knows, Ofqual had some concerns about the quality of the new science exam, and they are being addressed, but the fact is that across English, maths and many of the single sciences, we are maintaining standards as take-up increases. He is wrong to spend the whole time running down the achievements of pupils in our state schools, who achieved half of the increase in three A-level passes in recent years. The fact is that we are investing and raising standards through policies that are consistently opposed by the Conservative party. The fact that he will not reply to my letters is very revealing indeed.

Macdonald Review

2. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): When his Department will respond to the Macdonald review of personal, health and social education; and if he will make a statement. [279160]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ms Diana R. Johnson): Sir Alasdair Macdonald’s review was published on 27 April. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s statement of the same day welcomed the report, and particularly its recommendation that personal, social and health education should become part of the national curriculum at both primary and secondary level. We are consulting on that and on other recommendations that would require legislation; we are also taking forward action on those recommendations that do not require it.

Mr. Allen: May I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box, and to a well-deserved promotion? May I also congratulate Jim Rose and Alasdair Macdonald on their excellent reports, and the Government on their response to them? Both reports underline the fact that a whole package of early intervention measures must be introduced to help young people to attain in the way that we would like. Will my hon. Friend follow some of the examples of our practice in Nottingham, where we have 11-to-16 life skills lessons starting this September in every secondary school that wants them? Will she please make sure that we call the subject “life skills”, which people on estates in my constituency will understand, rather than PSHE or any other of the obscure acronyms in which we delight in education?

Ms Johnson: First, may I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks and welcome? I pay tribute to his chairmanship of One Nottingham, which has at its heart early intervention strategies to make a real difference to the life chances of children and young people in Nottingham. I think that the Department for Children, Schools and Families will watch very carefully what happens with the life skills programme from September onwards, and I am sure that there will be lots of lessons that we can learn. The issue of PSHE is out for consultation at the moment. One particular question is what the lessons will be called, and I would urge anyone who has a strong view about that to make sure that they take part in that consultation, which runs until the end of July.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I noted the Minister’s answer to the last question, but will schools have to pay from their own budgets for the new training and necessary specialist staff to deliver the new, improved personal, social and health education?

Ms Johnson: I understand that there is money available—I think that it is £2 million—for the change to be implemented, and resources will of course be made available.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): May I add my welcome for the addition of the hon. Lady to the Secretary of State’s burgeoning team, and the addition of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), who will be the third Minister for Children that I have faced in recent years? Can the Parliamentary Under-Secretary tell me why, after 12 years of Labour Government and all the changes made to PSHE, we still have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe, and still have a soaring rate of chlamydia and other sexually transmitted infections? Why do we have an under-age drinking problem that is among the
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worst in the world, according to the World Health Organisation, and why are the Government falling woefully short of providing the promised number of school nurses to work with clusters of schools as a major means of promoting better children’s health?

Ms Johnson: Of course the hon. Gentleman will know that there has been a reduction in teenage pregnancies in recent years. The reason why we are consulting on making PSHE statutory in schools is to make sure that there is a step change in that important area, so that young people and children have access to good information about the life skills that they will need. There is also an issue about making sure that resources are devoted to that, but his party’s planned cuts would mean not dealing with some of the real issues with which we are trying to deal.

Sexually Transmitted Infections

3. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on provision of health services in schools for children with sexually transmitted infections. [279161]

The Minister for Children (Dawn Primarolo): We are working with the Department of Health to improve young people’s access to contraceptive and sexual health advice services, to help them avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. This includes support to develop services in settings that young people can access more easily, such as schools and further education colleges.

Ann Winterton: The number of under-16s having contracted sexually transmitted diseases in the past four years, on the Government’s watch, has risen by a mammoth 58 per cent., but I am sure the right hon. Lady will agree that prevention is better than treatment or cure. Will she ensure that in future, parents and responsible families are encouraged to work with good quality relationship education to try to reduce under-age and unprotected intercourse, which has such adverse effects, both physical and emotional, on our young people?

Dawn Primarolo: As the hon. Lady knows, screening for STIs and chlamydia in particular, which is being extended all the time, is giving clear indications of the number of young people who may be infected. She is right that we need decent sex and relationship education for young people that enables them, with their parents—but young people in particular—to resist the pressures when they do not want to be sexually active. Regrettably, a quarter to a third of under-16s choose to be sexually active, and we must ensure that services are rapidly available to them to enable them to be safe and to protect their health. I am sure she would welcome properly directed advice being made available to young people, through work with schools, parents and the health service.

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