Here are the highlights from yesterday's Children, Schools and Families questions.
Buckingham MP John Bercow advocated a more liberal exclusion policy:
"Of course, schools sometimes mistake disability for disobedience. Children with special educational needs are nine times more likely to be permanently excluded from school, and the Government are rightly committed to reducing the incidents of such exclusions. In the light of that, will the Under-Secretary of State consider the merit of amending the law so that a child with SEN or disability may be permanently excluded from school only if a review has taken place of the sufficiency and effectiveness of the reasonable adjustments that have been made under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to seek to accommodate that pupil?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I pay tribute to his expertise in this area of special educational needs, and we certainly share his passion and commitment to promoting improved outcomes for children with SEN and disabilities. I am, of course, aware that he has a private Member’s Bill that is due for its Second Reading on 15 May. I believe that that is one proposal that may be considered in it. We certainly look forward to debating that."
By contrast Shadow Minister for Children Tim Loughton stressed the importance of protecting pupils from violence:
"Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Government figures last year revealed that there was a drop of 13 per cent. in permanent exclusions between 2003 and 2007 despite a 50 per cent. increase in the number of children suspended for five times or more— 867 of them excluded for 10 times or more—at a time that saw 4,370 fixed exclusions for serious racist abuse and more than 207,000 serious offences, such as sexual abuse and violence. Yet, in no fewer than 40 per cent. of appeals against permanent exclusions, reinstatement was upheld so that pupils could return to the scene of their offences with impunity, most of them having nothing to do with SEN. Does the Minister think it right that a pupil who has been excluded for violent crime, racist or sexual abuse should be readmitted to schools under any circumstances against the better judgment of the head or the governors?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We are certainly committed to backing head teachers’ authority when pupils’ behaviour warrants exclusion. Last year, the number of successful appeals was just 1.2 per cent. of all permanent exclusions, so we must get this in balance. We obviously recognise, and we have said in response to Alan Steer's report, that repeated suspension should lead to permanent exclusion. We are certainly giving back head teachers authority in that."
Several members were concerned about funding for educational establishments in their constituencies. They suggested that rhetoric has not been matched with action. However, ministers went on the record saying that the Budget means that their commitments will be met.
Totnes MP Anthony Steen asked about Devon:
"We on the Conservative Benches support the Government’s approach to education. We are totally committed to it—we want more education, we want more jobs; we want all these things—but could the Minister please explain to the House why South Devon college, which is a showpiece in the south-west, has had its funding cut for this year and why Dartmouth college is falling to bits? The people there are ready to rebuild it, but they cannot get the funds.
Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman has come to see me to talk about Dartmouth college. We have discussed how we might be able to take things forward, as we roll out our Building Schools for the Future programme, which is a Government commitment to refurbishing or replacing every single secondary school over 15 years. I know that South Devon college does a fantastic job and I am keen to see it develop as an outstanding provider of education in Devon. However, if there are issues that I need to look at with the Learning and Skills Council, I shall be happy to do so."
Reading East Rob Wilson said that many institutions are feeling the pinch now:
"Many nursery providers in my constituency are under considerable financial pressure thanks to the changes made by this Government. A recent survey found that about half have considered closing. Many cannot meet the cost of free entitlement. How do the Government expect a broad range of nurseries to remain in business in Reading and elsewhere if they cannot afford to cover their basic costs?
Beverley Hughes: Frankly, that was nonsense. It is because this Government doubled the number of places for the under-fives that the private sector was able to expand in the way it did under the Government last year; there are now more than 1.3 million places. The funding that we are putting in for free entitlement is enabling those providers to stay in business largely. Certainly our independent research shows that the money that we are putting in—£4 billion a year across all early years provision—is sufficient for free entitlement. We want local authorities to be more consistent in the way in which they administer that, but it is helping the private sector to thrive."
Shadow Minister for the Family Maria Miller backed up Mr Wilson:
"My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) is absolutely right. When it comes to nursery places in Reading or any other part of the country, the Minister knows that the sums do not add up. Two out of three nurseries still cannot provide free places for the Government money that they receive. Why, when more than 9,000 families are predicted to see their child care close by the end of this year because of the financial crisis, is the Minister failing to take action to stop the instability that is so damaging for so many families up and down the country?
Beverley Hughes: The £1.3 billion per year for the free entitlement is enabling many nurseries in the private sector to continue. We are committed to continuing that funding, along with the funding for Sure Start children centres and all the early-years provision in our maintained schools. The question that parents want answered is whether the hon. Lady, if a Conservative Government came to power, would be committed to continuing that funding and continuing the provision for the under-fives"
Macclesfield's own Sir Nicholas Winterton said that sixth-forms are also under the cosh:
"The Minister always seeks to deal with questions in a helpful and sensitive way. Am I right to believe the information that is coming to me from a number of my local secondary schools that there is a problem in the funding of sixth-form education? This deeply worries me, because I believe that, at the sixth-form level, we really do dictate how people will succeed in their subsequent career and life. Is there a problem? If so, what are the Government going to do about it? As he knows, I come from what was Cheshire—now it is Cheshire East.
Jim Knight: I shall try to put this as helpfully and sensitively as possible. As we set out in response to earlier questions, in the Budget we announced more than £200 million for this year and more than £400 million for next year so that we can fully fund post-16 places and, indeed, an additional 55,000 extra learners. We are not just saying to schools and colleges, “Plan on the basis of what you had already predicted at the turn of year for post-16 places.”; we are also saying, “If you can stimulate more into learning, we have the resources to listen to what you are saying and to see whether we can do even better than you were expecting.”
Deputy Chief Whip Andrew Robathan cited a very specific example, and received an assertive response:
"In the middle of March, Lutterworth college—the biggest school in Leicestershire—which is in my constituency, was told that it would get a certain sum for post-16 education, but at the end of March, the Learning and Skills Council told it that the sum would be less. Now, after the Budget, the Government are saying that they are going to find the money after all. May I say sensitively to the sensitive Minister that the situation is chaotic—to say the least? Can he now guarantee that Lutterworth college will be able to fund every place that it expected to fund this coming September?
Fellow Whip Angela Watkinson was also told in no uncertain terms that the funding will be there:
"I am encouraged by Ministers’ comments about the reinstatement of sixth-form school funding. The Coopers’ Company and Coborn school in my constituency faces underfunding of 12 per cent. for its sixth-form pupils, while the Sacred Heart of Mary girls school faces similar underfunding of 10 per cent. They are eagerly awaiting a letter confirming that their funding will be reinstated. Will the Secretary of State confirm irrevocably that Coopers’ Company and Coborn and Sacred Heart of Mary will receive funding for all their pupils in this year and to 2010?
Ed Balls: The answer is absolutely and irrevocably yes. The Learning and Skills Council wrote to all schools this morning to say that its plans as of the beginning of March will be delivered. It will come forward with more detailed allocations in the next few weeks. What happened was the number of those wanting to stay on was much larger than our budgets allowed for, and the LSC—wrongly in my view—committed to schools that such numbers could be met, without the funding being in place. We had extensive discussions about the budget, which led to the £654 million, and that means that we can now meet the September guarantee. It is only when there is money in the budget that a commitment can be made, and we now have the money in the budget and are making a clear commitment. I urge the hon. Lady to ask her colleague, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), to reply to my letters, because he will not match my commitment at the moment."
So that is now clearly on the record.
Shadow Minister for Schools Nick Gibb cited Labourtie support for a Tory policy:
"At the weekend, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), in a widely acclaimed speech, announced a new Conservative policy that would extend the academies programme to include primary schools, freeing those schools from local and national bureaucratic interference. The former Labour education adviser to Tony Blair, Conor Ryan, welcomed the proposals in his excellent, well-written blog, but he expressed shock and disappointment at the response of Ministers to these proposals—particularly the “uncharacteristically sour” response from the Minister for Schools and Learners. He said that the Government’s response would send chills down the spines of “thoughtful Labour supporters”. Is the man who did so much to craft the education policies for the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) and Tony Blair wrong, and, if so, why?
Ed Balls: The hon. Gentleman is well known for his support for early reading, for literacy and for phonics. We have introduced a role for phonics and literacy in the national curriculum, and that will be strengthened on Thursday. The idea that he could support some successful primary schools opting out of the national curriculum beggars belief. This is not just about collaboration; it is also totally dishonest to come along with a policy to expand investment in academies while advocating cuts in the schools budget. That is what will send chills down the spines of parents."
Another Whip, Lichfield MP Michael Fabricant, asked about the relative performance of pupils from different economic backgrounds:
"Michael Fabricant: Both the OECD and the Rowntree Foundation agree that the great achievement of Labour over the last 12 years has been the widening of the gap between rich and poor in our communities. With 75,000 children receiving free school meals and 45 per cent. of them not getting a grade C or above at GCSE in any subject, what does the Government have to be proud of?
Jim Knight: We are proud that standards have risen in every authority and that the most deprived areas have made the biggest gains. We are proud that schools serving the most deprived pupils have made the most progress. We are proud that underperforming minority ethnic groups have made above average progress. We acknowledge that there is still a strong link, at individual pupil level and starting at 22 months of age, between disadvantage and achievement levels. Therefore, anyone serious about a progressive agenda would not cut Sure Start and children’s centres, would not oppose national challenge and personalised interventions such as one-to-one tuition and would certainly not abandon the national curriculum through primary academies, meaning that effective reading schemes such as synthetic phonics would not be mandatory for those who need them most. Those are the policies of the hon. Gentleman’s party."
Shadow Secretary of State Michael Gove wanted to know who is to blame for the shambles of national curriculum tests:
"All pupils, especially the most disadvantaged, need reliable assessments to ensure that they are making progress. However, I have serious questions about the Government’s handling of assessment and their ability to deliver reliable assessment this year. The Minister said last year that delivering national curriculum tests was a mission-critical issue for his Department. When we warned on 19 May that last year’s tests were going badly wrong, the Secretary of State said that it was an issue that he personally was monitoring closely. On 30 June the Government eventually acknowledged that the whole testing process had descended into shambles. Just how closely did the Secretary of State monitor those tests? How many times did he meet Ken Boston, the head of the agency charged with delivering the tests, between the alarm being raised in May and the end of June?
Jim Knight: The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was pressed throughout the whole of the debacle relating to the delivery of the SATs for which it was responsible. The QCA was pressed by officials, by me and by the Secretary of State. We commissioned an inquiry into these matters, so serious were the problems relating to test delivery. Lord Sutherland carried out that inquiry and he remains of the view, as confirmed in a statement last week, that no new information has come to light that changes his findings from that inquiry, which said that the responsibility lay squarely with the contractor, ETS, and with the QCA.
Michael Gove: The Minister, like the Secretary of State, is once again evading responsibility for the truth. Ministers’ testimony in the Sutherland report depicts them—the Minister has repeated this statement—as having regularly
“pressed QCA’s Chief Executive for answers.”
“pressed QCA’s Chief Executive for answers.”
“time and again…my officials and Ministers raised questions with the QCA”. —[ Official Report, 16 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 996-999.]
“I was not asked to meet…the Schools Minister in the months leading up to the delivery failure…including the critical marking period in the final eight weeks. Nor was I being ‘pressed’ by ministers for answers on the telephone or by e-mail.”
Jim Knight: The Secretary of State did press three times by mid-June. I have here a whole list of a series of meetings that I, officials and the Secretary of State had with officials from the QCA, including Ken Boston. There was one problem when I recollected his presence wrongly as regards two meetings a fortnight apart. At the second meeting, on 2 July, I met Ken Boston and David Gee. I previously met David Gee and I previously met Ken Boston on all those occasions— [ Interruption. ]
Jim Knight: The records of all those meetings were given to Lord Sutherland. He carried out his inquiry, which was described even by Dr. Boston last week as fair. That inquiry fairly and squarely laid the blame and the responsibility where they should lie."
Crewe and Nantwich MP Edward Timpson raised the possibility of online marking of exams:
"What is the Secretary of State’s position on the introduction of online marking systems for all exams?
Ed Balls: That was a recommendation of Lord Sutherland’s that we will seek to take forward in future years. In 2005, the QCA announced its decision not to proceed with online marking in 2006 and 2007, and in 2008, when Ken Boston, then chief executive of the QCA, wrote to me about the testing contract with ETS, he made no proposal for online marking. At no point has Ken Boston ever pressed on me the case for online marking. It is Lord Sutherland who is now pressing that case on the basis of his thorough, effective and independent review."