Questions were put to ministers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families department yesterday.
The very last question of the session was from John Bercow, Buckingham MP, and addressed the loathsome phenomenon of bullying:
"Given that approximately 6,000 children a year exclude themselves from school after suffering extreme bullying, approximately 50 per cent. of whom have contemplated or attempted to commit suicide, will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and a delegation of interested parties to consider the case for funding the network of Red Balloon learner centres across the country? They are doing fantastic work in restoring the self-esteem of those damaged children, and getting them back into school, into further education, on to university or into employment. They need a bit of help.
Ed Balls: I had the opportunity two weeks ago to meet a group of young people from Norwich and Harrow who were being given chances to get back into school through the support of Red Balloon. Such decisions are made by local authorities, and I urge all local authorities to support Red Balloon and such new opportunities for children. I would love to meet the hon. Gentleman and a delegation again, so that I can hear further inspiring stories of young people getting back into education because of this important voluntary organisation."
Mark Pritchard, who represents The Wrekin, asked about means testing:
"Does the Minister accept that there needs to be more flexibility in the means-testing criteria? For example, the circumstances of a household on an income of £30,000 with a single child in full-time education are entirely different from those of another household on the same income but with five children in full-time education. Such issues have an impact on whether some children fulfil full-time education.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The problem is that the more flexibility that we put into the system, the more complex it becomes. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but there will not always be the same number of young people in the 16-to-18 age group. It is that particular age group that we are trying to attract with the education maintenance allowance."
Shadow Secretary Michael Gove is concerned about the teaching of foreign languages:
"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 Government’s 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 Government’s 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."
David Evennett, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Universities and Skills, is worried about standards in primary schools:
"Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of educational standards in primary schools; and if he will make a statement. 
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 Minister’s 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 changes—moving away from facts, knowledge and rigour—will 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 children’s understanding does not mean that they will not be studying traditional subjects discretely."
Shadow Minister for Schools Nick Gibb shares Mr Evennett’s worries:
"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 to—an 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."
Ludlow MP Philip Dunne asked about school budget surpluses:
"Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What recent discussions he has had on the use to which schools put their surplus funds. 
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 schools—nearly 40 per cent. of the total—holding 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."
Shadow Minister for Disabled People Mark Harper had an exchange with the Secretary of State.
"Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What recent progress has been made in developing schemes for short breaks for families with disabled children. 
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. Speaker’s 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. Gentleman’s survey is somewhat out of date."
It is worth following this matter to see if the money is indeed drawn down for the purpose intended, not least in light of Shadow Minister for Children Tim Loughton’s intervention:
"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 breaks—14 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 children’s 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 investment—indeed, record amounts—will 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."
Shipley MP Philip Davies wanted to know how to get rid of bad teachers:
"A number of head teachers and other teachers in my constituency have asked for it to be made easier to get rid of poorly performing teachers. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the number of poor quality teachers in our schools, and what is he doing to ensure that schools can get rid of them, so that they do not damage the ethos of the school or the education of the pupils?
Jim Knight: The assessment that we have of the quality of teaching in our schools comes from Ofsted, which reports very favourably about it. It has said that we have the best generation of young teachers that we have ever had in our schools. As I said earlier, we now have an extra 23,000 of those high quality teachers in our secondary schools alone. We are always looking at ways of attracting new teachers, and I am pleased that we have had a 30 per cent. increase in the number of people applying to become science teachers. That is an extremely positive development. The hon. Gentleman might also know, if he reads The Times Educational Supplement, that there has been a bit of a debate about the number of head teachers who have been dismissed recently. As I commented in that article, the most important thing when teachers or head teachers are moved on is to ensure that the right ones are moved on, and that we hang on to the vast majority who are doing a really good job for the children of this country."
I think that constitutes an evasive answer.
Ann Winterton hasn’t been reading her memos from the modernisers:
"Is it not important for pupils to have a sense of identity with and a loyalty to their school, and cannot that best be achieved not just through good discipline and good teaching, but by the wearing of a school uniform and by having a daily assembly that includes an act of Christian worship?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: All schools must provide a daily act of collective worship for all registered pupils unless they have been withdrawn by their parents. A school can, however, apply to the local SACRE—standing advisory council for religious education—for a determination to have the requirement for collective worship lifted if it is not appropriate for its pupils."