HC Deb 22 March 1999 vol 328 cc21-36 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

Madam Speaker, with permission, I wish to make a statement on education excellence in cities.

On 11 March, I announced to the House that, with the extra investment in public services from the Budget, we would provide much wider access to information technology—with a clear focus on the inner cities. In our White Paper "Excellence in schools", we promised to modernise the comprehensive principle. Today, I can announce a major new framework for our inner-city schools—taking those principles forward in the six largest cities in England. It means shifting the focus decisively from the institution to the individual, irrespective of geography or birth, so that every gifted pupil will be stretched and special needs met. It means a substantial expansion of specialist and beacon schools promoting diversity and excellence. It means that every youngster who would benefit will have access to a learning mentor, with extra help available for those who need it most. This strategy will give every pupil an entitlement to new and more challenging opportunities.

There are particular problems in inner cities which have created a long-standing culture of low expectation. Today's action plan—which will be backed by £350 million over the next three years—will build on measures already taken to raise achievement. Sure start and expanded nursery education will give every child the best possible start in life. The daily literacy hour is teaching children to read, write and spell effectively for the first time in 30 years. From September, our numeracy strategy will restore mental arithmetic—including speed in performing it—to maths teaching. That is underpinned by a rapid reduction in infant class sizes.

Many teachers and pupils are already performing very well in difficult circumstances. We must build on and spread their success. Just as the city multiplies the barriers, we have to multiply the opportunities. Initially, our action plan will be taken forward in six areas—inner and north-east London; Manchester and Salford; Liverpool and Knowsley; Birmingham; Leeds and Bradford; and Sheffield and Rotherham.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

What about Bolsover?

Mr. Blunkett

Not the first time around. As the programme develops, we will link into other initiatives for regeneration and spread success.

We will strengthen leadership in our inner-city schools and provide gifted pupils with new opportunities to succeed. That means setting pupils into appropriate groups in their own schools as well as extra classes linked to specialist schools. If a child with a talent for languages wishes to study German or Italian, but their own school offers only French, that child should be able to do so.

All of us want to ensure that those who have the ability to go to university can do so. We will establish new university summer schools for 16 and 17-year-olds in inner-city schools and post-16 colleges. They will build on links already developed by individual schools and colleges with some universities.

Many youngsters in our inner cities lose out because they drop out. All secondary school pupils in those areas who need one will have access to a learning mentor to assist in overcoming barriers—someone who can cut through red tape to offer support. That will benefit those who have traditionally been failed by the system, especially children from minority ethnic and disadvantaged backgrounds. This year, we will make a start, with £17 million to employ more than 800 mentors in our schools. Mentors will guide pupils towards extra help and tuition when they are falling behind.

Nor can we allow disruptive pupils to wreck the chances of others. Excluded youngsters miss out on education and often turn to crime. Seventy-five per cent. of those on remand have a reading age of 10 or below. We are already acting to tackle those problems. I propose that every secondary school should have access to a learning unit for disruptive youngsters, who will receive a full timetable and will return to class only when they can do so without disruption.

Turnover and the use of supply teachers are major challenges to the continuity of education in our cities. We will introduce new measures to attract and retain good teachers through enhanced retention bonuses and targeted training and development programmes.

Alongside today's measures, we are strengthening diversity and excellence across the education system. I can announce the expansion of our existing target for specialist schools from 500 to at least 800 by 2002. That will mean that nearly one in four secondary schools in England will offer a specialism linked to neighbouring schools and colleges.

Our new network of learning centres will include specialist schools with strong information and communication technology and a focus on adult computer learning. The first 80 centres will be placed in our inner-city areas, at a cost of £100 million. I can also announce a fivefold increase in our beacon school programme, from the current planned number of 200 by September to 1,000 by 2002.

There has been great enthusiasm for education action zones, and we will invest up to £24 million to extend the programme to support an additional 40 smaller zones. We will also accelerate inspections by the Office for Standards in Education of inner local education authorities.

I am pleased to say that, to spearhead this drive, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has today appointed my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards to hold special responsibility for inner-city education. She will lead a strategy group that will include successful heads.

For too long, the specific educational characteristics of inner cities have been ignored. Today, I believe that we have set in train action that will lead to a step change in aspiration and expectation. Our ambition is real diversity and excellence, from world-class primary education to a comprehensive system that works for all our children, whatever their background.

I commend the statement to the House.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

I begin by asking the Secretary of State to clarify some important aspects of his statement. What does it mean when we are told that the networks for more able pupils will sometimes be based in beacon schools and that extra classes will be linked to specialist schools? Are Ministers seriously suggesting that more able pupils should be bussed to other schools for special lessons? Is that what the right hon. Gentleman is telling the House?

Will the Secretary of State also confirm that the Government ban specialist schools from selecting by ability? Such schools can specialise in music, but not in maths. Is the right hon. Gentleman now saying that one can be bussed to a specialist or beacon school because of one's ability in maths, but one cannot be enrolled there for that reason? Is the right hon. Gentleman not simply tying himself up in knots because of his record of hostility to selection?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he promised the Labour party that there would be no selection by examination or interview? So what procedure will be used to identify for special treatment the most able 5 or 10 per cent. of pupils referred to in his document?

As for the special classes that are to take place in pupil's own schools, but after hours or on Saturday mornings, why can those special lessons not take place during the school day? If they do, we will be back to setting in existing schools. We support setting, which should be spread further, but, on its own, it hardly constitutes the transformation of inner-city education.

The Secretary of State famously remarked: I'm having no truck with middle class left wing parents who preach one thing and send their children to another school outside the area. Who was he thinking of and is it now all right to do that, provided it is on a bus to a learning centre?

We welcome university summer schools and commend the work that Mr. Peter Lampl and others have already done in establishing them. Mentoring can also be a useful way to help pupils, and we welcome that too. But what qualifications will mentors have? Will they be members of the teaching staff? Will they be responsible to the governing body and the head teacher? How are 800 mentors to take responsibility for every child in every secondary school in the target areas.

What about access to a learning unit? How many places will there be? Will they be in each school or will they be external units? Will existing pupil referral units be closed.

The Secretary of State makes great play of the money that will go to inner-city schools, but will he confirm that it is part of the education settlement that has already been announced? How will the money get to schools? Is the Secretary of State aware of the frustration and anger in schools when they hear yet another announcement from the Government, but know that it is financed out of money that should have gone to them as part of their core funding? Instead, that money is held back for another departmental initiative.

Is there not hopeless confusion at the heart of the Government's education policies? The Government have spent two years attacking any attempts by schools to specialise in more able pupils. Schools are losing power over their admissions policies, they will no longer be able to select pupils by ability and, of course, grammar schools are under threat. Now, the Government have suddenly come up with this scheme for selecting more able pupils in inner-city comprehensives. Why is that form of selection by ability imposed, whereas all existing forms are banned?

Mr. Blunkett

I am grateful for the warm welcome that the hon. Gentleman gave to the statement about raising standards and giving real opportunity to inner-city children. I am only sorry that the Opposition have not got any ideas of their own, other than returning to the policy of taking some children out of the area to grammar schools and leaving the other 80 per cent. to sink. We are proposing not bussing children, but giving them enhanced opportunities based on the fact that the majority of children are rooted in and will go to their local schools. The very nature of supply and demand ensures that that is the case. Therefore, we have to deal with that reality.

It is essential that we build on the after-school study centres, the university of the first age, which has been pioneered in Birmingham, the summer and Easter school programme and the Saturday schools, which are so popular, in particular, with ethnic minority children, to ensure that we do what the rich have always taken for granted—give children extra tuition when they need it, whether they need special needs support or are gifted. The rich buy tutors for themselves, provide crammers at Easter and in the summer, and condemn anyone else who seeks to have such provision at public expense. Instead of bussing a handful of children into successful selective schools somewhere else, we are going to transform the level of education for the majority of our children in the schools that they have to attend. Everyone can benefit from the programme in those areas and, if the programme is successful, we shall spread it across the country. Selection was an anachronism; providing excellence in the schools to which children actually go is common sense.

The hon. Gentleman asked how we would identify pupils who had particular talents. As I described in my statement, teachers know that, when there is setting rather than streaming, those children who are in the top set and have a particular gift for a particular subject need extra support to stretch them. Giving them additional classes or extra help, perhaps through new technological links between schools—that is now being done not only within this country, but between countries—and using our imagination to develop real diversity makes sense to everybody. If we can make this programme work, sending children outside their area will be a thing of the past. We can ensure that children who are rooted in their neighbourhood can have the standard of education that others have taken for granted.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about mentors and learning units. The initial trawl of 800 for the coming year will be full-time professionals recruited from teaching and educational welfare officer posts and elsewhere. They will organise volunteers, as well as give direct help to pupils and their families. They will provide a link between the school and the home and will form a network giving extra support to pupils in and out of school. The learning units for disaffected children will be in-school units and will ensure that children return to the classroom if and when they are in a position to do so. There will be a full timetable—which never happened under the Conservative Government.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about new money. As I pointed out in my statement, £100 million of the £350 million is indeed money that was announced on 11 March as part of the investment in learning centres. The remaining £250 million over three years is money that was not previously announced; it is being taken from our reserves—because each Department now has reserves—and has been identified within our budget to take the programme forward. I am pleased that agreement has been reached with my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to make the programme possible.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North)

Unlike the gifted shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), I welcome the emphasis on highly able children. We must acknowledge that we have neglected the highly able for too long in our education system, under the comprehensive approach. The Select Committee report on highly able children will be published shortly after Easter.

May I ask my right hon. Friend what he thinks about the relationship between inner-city schools and disadvantaged schools, given that not all inner-city schools are disadvantaged and not all disadvantaged schools are in the inner city? Will it be possible for the extremely disadvantaged schools in outer-London boroughs, such as my own, and those in rural areas and out-of-town housing estates to be brought into the next phase of this excellent programme?

Mr. Blunkett

The document that we are publishing this afternoon addresses those issues throughout the country, as well as in the six identified areas. The specialist school programme, the expansion to 1,000 of beacon schools and the support necessary for them, including the mini education action zones, will deal with those issues and will include a specific concentration on the 200 schools across the country that face the greatest challenge. We are monitoring those schools, which will receive special support and help. The programme is targeted on the six areas outlined, but is available to support the work of those schools facing disadvantage wherever they are in England.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Liberal Democrats welcome anything that addresses the damage that took place over the past 18 years. Primarily, we welcome the recognition that in our inner cities, especially in failing schools, there is a host of very bright and gifted children. It is sad that the Education Acts of 1981 and 1996 failed to recognise such children under the category of special needs. Unlike the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), I spent a lot of time in Leeds in an inner-city school of exactly the sort that will benefit from the initiative. We saw the effects of pupils drifting away and of staff being unable to get to grips with gifted children because of a host of problems.

However, I have to tell the Secretary of State, with all humility, as one who has worked in that area, that the thrust of his argument today is wrong. By saying that children can succeed only if they move to specialist schools or into EAZs, we are telling the rest of those schools and their teachers that they are failing—that is the reality of what has been said today. Will the Secretary of State make clear how schools are to be selected, and how pupils within those schools are to be selected to comprise the 10 per cent. who will gain? Will he rule out another bidding process, which I see on the horizon? Will he consider the 1996 legislation on special educational needs and include gifted children as a category, so that all gifted children, whichever school they attend, can gain from new legislation?

Mr. Blunkett

First, I applaud the hon. Gentleman for his work in Leeds; we are aware of the excellent contribution that he made and the lessons that he learned, so I am happy to take on board his suggestions about the programme, whether he makes them here or at another time. However, I have to disabuse him of a misunderstanding: we do not intend to select individual schools which will then have their pupils picked out as gifted children; rather, we are talking about all gifted children who have the ability to be stretched being able to benefit from the programme after having been identified by teachers through the setting and grouping process, which I described earlier. The children will not be taken out of their schools, and the schools that will benefit are not confined to those in EAZs; this is a universal programme.

Learning centres and the development of specialist schools will provide a network which can be drawn on by all schools, which will be able to link into neighbouring schools. The fact that one in four schools will be specialist schools will enable that linkage to take place easily, without disruption, and it will ensure that staff, equipment, materials and expertise can be shared. The beacon schools programme will enable schools to link with other schools. It is about sharing and working co-operatively, and about having a family of schools, not the market that was created by the Conservatives. It is about the system as a whole being geared to developing and supporting the needs of the individual.

Yes, I believe that gifted children should be included in the special needs category. In the foreword to the Green Paper "Excellence for all children: Meeting Special Educational Needs", I said: Good provision for SEN does not mean a sympathetic acceptance of low achievement. It means a tough-minded determination to show that children with SEN are capable of excellence. Children, whatever their background and whether or not they have a disability, will get the education that they need and deserve.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the response of the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who, in a refined use of the verb, wants understanding of the issue, validates the statement made by Mr. Michael Portillo that, when one hears the word "teacher", one knows that that individual will not vote Conservative?

We who represent inner-city schools are well aware of the huge reservoir of talent among all children; it exists in the 14,000 children who attend state schools in my constituency, as well as in those who attend the three assisted places schools in my constituency. Their talents require encouragement at every level, and that is what my right hon. Friend is doing. Is he aware that schools that assist such striving for excellence should be encouraged?

My right hon. Friend speaks, rightly, about the inclusion of information and communications technology in his programme, so will he take account of the fact that Spurley Hey high school in my constituency, which he has just reprieved from closure but whose future remains in doubt, has a superbly equipped information and communications technology department, which should be allowed to continue its work indefinitely?

Mr. Blunkett

I knew that my right hon. Friend would get around to Spurley Hey high school. My hon. Friends and I will be happy to take account of the facilities and resources at that school. I agree entirely with the thrust of my right hon. Friend's contribution. I shall never forget the introduction to the Loyal Address when my right hon. Friend outlined clearly the disadvantages suffered by pupils in his constituency and the fact that so few of them were able to benefit from the resources available to Manchester grammar school.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

May I offer my full and enthusiastic support to the Secretary of State and his statement and sincerely congratulate him on his courage in facing up to the nightmare of class segregation education, which is the inevitable consequence of having comprehensive schools in inner-city areas? Is the Secretary of State aware of the one problem associated with having mini grammar schools on each subject within comprehensive schools—pupils will feel that they have been excluded unfairly? If there is to be no 11-plus exam or something like it, will the Secretary of State at least ensure that there is some kind of appeal mechanism to help parents who believe that their children have been excluded unfairly from special education?

Mr. Blunkett

I welcome the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. The admissions policy, which was agreed last Thursday, endeavours to square the circle when supply and demand are out of kilter and it is necessary to ensure that there are fair and transparent methods of allowing parents to allocate a preference in the face of competing demands. We face a real challenge in ensuring that specialist schools do not become the preferred beacon, but are able to share their resources with neighbouring schools, so that we may link schools together. School collaboration will overcome the inevitable demand on scarce resources that arises when parents perceive one school as being better than another.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this afternoon's statement, combined with the Government's other education initiatives, will be very welcome in inner-city Liverpool, where talent has been ignored for far too long? Will he explain how the initiatives announced today will further assist schools such as Windsor Street and Shorefield, which have already been identified as schools that are working hard to give added value to pupils in inner-city Liverpool? How will the scheme work? Will my right hon. Friend provide guidance on how proposals submitted for education action zones may be affected by this afternoon's statement?

Mr. Blunkett

I am happy to answer that question. The policy paper that we are publishing today provides further answers—although I appreciate the fact that right hon. and hon. Members have not yet had an opportunity to read it.

We will ensure that the mini-zones encompass a secondary school and a cluster of primary schools in an area. We will provide an additional £250,000 a year for three years, plus a matching pound for pound for the next £50,000 of sponsorship money that is raised by the schools. This is a mini-version of the broader education action zones, and it will benefit many schools when it is appropriate to focus on a group of schools.

The mentoring programme will be available directly to schools, as will the in-house units for disruptive and disaffected students. Pupils will be able to draw on the expertise of other schools through the linkage with beacon schools, which I described this afternoon. Excellence and experience will be spread to other schools—in the case of my hon. Friend, to schools in the Liverpool and Merseyside area. Much good work is going on. I celebrate it, and I applaud the teachers who are doing that work. This is an opportunity to back those teachers by ensuring that they are able to work better.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

Will the Secretary of State put a little more flesh on the bones of the issue of how the ability of the 10 per cent. of gifted children will be assessed?

Mr. Blunkett

I must stress that the initiative is not about a rigid figure of 10 per cent.; it is about recognising the particular talents or needs of individual children and saying that the historic situation arising from geography or birth will no longer restrain a youngster's ability to flourish. Wherever children are, they should be given the support that they need to be able to stretch their talent and do better.

If a school believes that, to develop a talent—whatever the subject—a child would benefit from extra help, it will be able to use the additional after-school facilities that we shall extend, the weekend and summer schools that we shall develop and the links with the expertise that might exist in another school. For example, only one state school in Sheffield, which has a population of 500,000, offers Latin. I should like other children in the city who think that they had an aptitude for Latin to be able to benefit from being taught it.

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Inner-city kids have long deserved such initiatives. However, I have a few words of caution for my right hon. Friend. On disruptive pupils, the proposals remind me of the old sin bins syndrome, against which a number of us fought. I hope that we are not returning to that situation, in which many black kids were put into sin bins because they were classed as disruptive.

Will my right hon. Friend pay attention to supplementary schools, such as Saturday and evening schools, many of which are provided by the black community? Those schools are financed by parents and, sometimes, by local authorities. Will he consider whether he can assist those schools in any way?

Mr. Blunkett

I welcome my hon. Friend back to the House after his period of illness. It is good to hear him speaking out and contributing once again on this important subject. I can make the absolute commitment that we shall not return to the use of sin bins, where students did not even receive an educational timetable and had no opportunity to improve their education, regain confidence or develop the ability to be reassimilated.

We shall, first of all, prevent children from being excluded. There is a need to prevent black, and particularly Caribbean, boys from being excluded from our education system. Secondly, where there is a problem of disruption and disaffection, we shall enable pupils to be helped and supported on site, rather than in external units, which inevitably divide them from the school.

Thirdly, I celebrate supplementary schools. It is precisely that model that I have been describing this afternoon. We shall now be able to help parents who have previously raised the money themselves to become, over time, part of the system of giving the extra help that supplementary schools have sought to provide. I know that people, not only those from the ethnic community but those from the most disadvantaged parts of our country, will welcome this statement irrespective of whether it is condemned by extremely well-off people in leafy suburbs who seek a return to divisiveness.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)

I am interested to hear the Secretary of State's announcement, but I want to question him about the provision of a learning mentor for every young person who needs one. Where will those mentors come from? He said that he would recruit 800 mentors, who would then find volunteers.

I want to make a suggestion to the Secretary of State that we have been working on in Southampton. One of the less-favoured areas of the city, the so-called "Flowers" estate, is next to a university, where the students, like all students, are short of money and could earn extra by working part-time. Would there be merit in seeking part-time volunteers in universities and twinning them with schools? Young people who have not long left school and remember what it was like would be in a good position to help the disadvantaged children to whom the Secretary of State has referred and whom his scheme is designed to help. Will he consider that suggestion?

Mr. Blunkett

We rejoice in that. We are glad that the hon. Gentleman has had the decency or the courage to ensure that he is able to welcome and put forward positive ideas. We welcome his ideas entirely. We think that there is a positive role in developing such links. There is an argument taking place around me, with some occupants of the Opposition Front Bench saying that the shadow Secretary of State welcomes my statement. Lord help me if the hon. Gentleman had opposed it. However, I welcome the suggestion of the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin), and we will build on suggestions of that sort. If postgraduate students are able to engage with inner-city schools, that will help not only the child or youngster direct, but will inspire them to believe that they, too, can go to university and succeed.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Will he congratulate and commend the very many teachers who achieve year-on-year improvement among pupils from deprived families in Birmingham and in every other big city in the country? Will he clarify whether the welcome extra assistance that he has announced this afternoon will depend not on geography, but on levels of deprivation, so that out-of-city schools in deprived areas will also benefit?

Mr. Blunkett

The assistance will be for schools in the areas that I have described, and how to accelerate and provide initial support will be a matter for local determination. It is not about geography, in the sense of proximity to a central shopping centre; instead, it is about levels of deprivation in areas, including out-of-city estates, which are often the most deprived and least gentrified of all.

Clearly, we shall want to celebrate the excellence of the heads and teachers, who often do a tremendous job against the odds. We shall want to reward that success, and we shall want to celebrate it by spreading it. Above all, we want to ensure that that success is rewarded through the proposals in the consultative Green Paper, which I hope teachers will read, rather than reading views about it from those who have been against it from the word go.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

We spent 10 years working in Brixton and Peckham with some of the most educationally disadvantaged young people, who were suffering from the socialist ideology of the Inner London education authority and its lowest common denominator philosophy. There were then 10 years during which the Labour party bitterly resisted the introduction of a national curriculum and tests of attainment. It is strange now to hear the Secretary of State trying to square the circle to satisfy the socialist chattering classes.

Surely the dilemma that the right hon. Gentleman faces with his statement is that he is proposing an entirely arbitrary system of endless selection of which schools and which pupils will or will not participate in the scheme. Diversity was provided by assisted places, grammar schools and the changes that were set in place. Is the right hon. Gentleman surprised that so many head teachers despair at the level of announcements, the glitz, the glamour, the documentation and the bossiness of the approach? Is it not time now to let the schools get on and deliver the results themselves, rather than introduce a highly complicated scheme where children will be hurrying and scurrying from school to school and centre to centre, unable to settle down and achieve results?

Mr. Blunkett

Having condemned the lowest common denominator approach in the opening part of the right hon. Lady's statement, she went on to condemn measures that ensure that we do not have that approach, and instead celebrate diversity and accelerate the meeting of the child's individual needs. There is no suggestion of hurrying and scurrying between schools, because, unlike the system that offered real opportunity only if we took children out of their neighbourhood school and their area through selection or assisted places, the scheme that I have announced is about helping children who remain in their neighbourhood schools. They would do so under any system, because selection and assisted places took only a tiny fraction of children out of the state system, out of the normal system, and left the rest to manage for themselves. The proposal is for real diversity within the school that a child attends, where the necessary support will be provided. The scheme, if I may say so to the right hon. Lady, is free of dogma, which is why her hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) had the decency to welcome it.

Mr. Eddie O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

It ill behoves Opposition Members to be so critical of such an important announcement for the state education system, where the vast majority of our children receive their education, given that, during the entire discussion, the maximum number of hon. Members that the Opposition have been able to raise on the Back Benches is 12.

I welcome the fact that my borough, Knowsley, has been included in the project. I seek clarification of various aspects. Will my right hon. Friend advise me whether, in the areas that have been identified, attention will be given to the range of subjects that are currently available? For example, I can think of only one school in Knowsley where Latin—a subject that my right hon. Friend mentioned—may be available. I can think of none where Greek is available, and none where Russian is taught, except possibly at the same school that offers Latin. Will my right hon. Friend make sure that, within the zones, the full range of opportunities will be available?

In that connection, does my right hon. Friend envisage pupils crossing the borders within the zones—for example, from Knowsley to Liverpool? That may solve some of the problems of provision in Knowsley, but even in Liverpool, in schools that are still in the state system, some of the subjects that I would like to be available are not taught in any school.

Finally, will my right hon. Friend clarify how the mentoring system will work? As a former chairman of education, I have had some experience of trying to get schools to co-operate in sharing their resources, when not every school could offer the full curriculum. I was disappointed to see how schools were prepared to give up their pupils to another school for enrichment.

Mr. Blunkett

On the final point, the mentoring system will enable the red tape, obstruction and difficulty to be unwound more easily, as the individual will have an advocate working on his behalf, supporting him directly and unravelling the bureaucracy.

On the question of working across boundaries, that will be important not only in Merseyside, but in other conurbations, particularly London, where it will be necessary and beneficial for local authorities to share expertise and resources.

It is indeed a challenge to provide scarce specialisms such as Latin. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has offered to assist with that, because, every time I mention Latin, he gives me the—

Mr. Skinner

Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant.

Mr. Blunkett

I am grateful. At this point, the late Derek Enright would have sung "Yellow Submarine" in Latin. I deeply regret that he is no longer with us to do so.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Time is moving on, and there is the business of an Opposition day to safeguard. Questions and answers are far too long. I shall not be able to call many more hon. Members, as it has taken such a long time to get through the few questions that we have had.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

The Secretary of State knows well that the family of schools in the borough of Trafford achieves the best results in Greater Manchester—indeed, the best results in the north-west of England. Perhaps he will reflect on the fact that that is not just because 35 per cent. or more of the children go to grammar schools and get a good academic education, but, perhaps more important, because the others who go to good high schools get a good technical or vocational education, as was recognised by the Secretary of State in response to a sedentary remark from the Government Benches. The right hon. Gentleman has made one of those schools a beacon school. Is he not concerned that the proposals that he outlined may give some academic benefit to a fraction of pupils, but will sacrifice the vast majority, for whom there will be no improvement in the technical or vocational education that they should have?

Mr. Blunkett

Exactly the reverse. I commend those schools for being excellent; precisely because they are so excellent, the bulk of parents in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, should they vote for a non-selective system, would want their children to continue to attend them.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be widely welcomed in the inner cities? He will be aware that one of the distinguishing characteristics of many inner-city areas is a high number of black and ethnic minority children. He will know that, last month, I held a conference in Hackney on black children in schools, which attracted more than 500 people from all over the country. I do not want to prolong my question; will my right hon. Friend build on the positive work that is being done in the community, exemplified by the Saturday school movement, and listen to what black parents are saying? They, too, want excellence for their children.

Mr. Blunkett

The answer is yes.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Would it not have been so much better to have kept the assisted places scheme in place, because it would have had universal benefit throughout the country? As for the leafy suburbs, of which the right hon. Gentleman speaks so disparagingly, will he turn his attention to how local parents would be better able to secure a place in their local school for their children? That really concerns them.

Mr. Blunkett

Those children need a local place—an excellent local place. They do not need a system that allows a few to escape from a local place that they do not find acceptable.

Mr. Skinner

The many, not the few.

Mr. Blunkett

As my hon. Friend once again says, so rightly, that is why we are in favour of the many, not the few.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement—which, on top of his wise decision to support the Bradford schools review with £170 million, is good news—but will he clarify whether the money for gifted pupils will be awarded per pupil, per school or per local education authority?

Mr. Blunkett

The resources will be allocated in relation to the needs of an area as a whole and will be discussed with those areas so that we can ensure that we can get the initial programme off the ground as quickly as possible.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Does the statement not show that the Government are suffering from a serious split personality? I welcome what the Secretary of State has said, especially as it endorsed the policies being pioneered in Conservative-controlled Wandsworth, but can he explain why the Government are still undermining the grammar school system if they are now committed to selection on the basis of ability?

Mr. Blunkett

I thought that I had just explained that we are helping children, whatever their ability, in the school that they attend. The hon. Gentleman described the excellence in Wandsworth, but it also seems to have passed me by that we have adopted such a system. There seems to be a degree of schizophrenia here; either we are adopting such a system, which he would welcome, or we are not adopting such a system, which he would oppose. I heard both in his question.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

My right hon. Friend will know how welcome his statement will be in Sheffield and in Rotherham. May I pick out two matters? First, I particularly welcome the widening of choice on foreign languages. My right hon. Friend will remember when Ecclesfield school, for example, offered a number of languages, including excellent provision of Russian, which was whittled down to nothing during the 18 years of Tory rule. Secondly, I welcome provision for the awkward squad coming back into schools and getting some education. However, both those areas require good specialist teachers. Will he say a bit more about how many extra teachers he expects to be involved with that provision, which will be so welcome in the inner cities?

Mr. Blunkett

I am pleased that my hon. Friend recalls her time teaching at Ecclesfield school, where she did an excellent job with special needs pupils. Not only will we seek to recruit and to accelerate those who have a specialism that is not readily available, but, as I have described, we will use technology to link up with schools that do not have those specialisms available. The experiment carried out in the Strathclyde region before the change in structure in Scotland was very interesting, because it linked small island and highland schools into a provision that was available only in a handful of urban schools in Strathclyde. That allowed pupils to link into classes and to teachers with such expertise. Although we need to do a great deal more, we can link up not simply across our country and across Britain, but across Europe and the world.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

I welcome what the Secretary of State has said about the pursuit of excellence for children with academic abilities in our inner cities. Some of those whom he despises—constituents of mine who live in "leafy suburbs"—go to school in Birmingham, alongside Birmingham children who are socially deprived and from ethnic minorities, because they attend the city's excellent grammar schools, which his Government want to abolish.

In the light of today's statement, and of what I believe to be his intention to raise standards for all, will the Secretary of State tell the people of Birmingham—the politically correct left-wing loonies, perhaps, who still want to use the mechanism introduced by his Government to abolish state grammar schools—to desist from doing so, in the interests of everyone, not just those in leafy suburbs?

Mr. Blunkett

In the interests of brevity, I shall not comment on that rant—except to say that, far from despising the hon. Lady's constituents, I want them to have the excellent education that some of them are seeking through the selective process which enables them to attend grammar schools in Birmingham, rather than the schools available to them in her constituency. This is the essence of our disagreement: at the heart of what we are doing is our wish for children to have confidence in local schools, rather than trying to escape from them.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I welcome the statement, as does everyone in Birmingham. I thought that I had heard the end of Conservative Members' referring to left-wing loonies and Birmingham in one breath—especially as I seem to remember a libel action some time ago which was most embarrassing for the then Secretary of State.

I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend refer to mobility. When he mentioned it first, I thought that he meant pupil mobility, which is a great concern of mine, but I welcome what he said about the need to reduce the number of supply teachers, and to provide more stability among teaching staff. Will he elaborate on that, and explain how we can work together to provide such a stable environment in schools?

Mr. Blunkett

I take to heart the need to ensure that teachers are attracted to, and retained in, the schools that face the biggest challenge. Pupils at a primary school that was referred to in our document had 25 teachers in one year, which caused immeasurable disruption to their education. If, by means of retention bonuses, special development programmes and the attachment of mentors to teachers and pupils, we can avoid such disruption, we shall do a great service not just to pupils and parents, but to teachers, enabling them to fulfil their desire to take on the challenge to teach in the inner cities, knowing that they have the necessary backing.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Does the Secretary of State accept that two improvements are necessary if the parents of bright children who live in inner cities are to feel more confident, and if more of them are to send their children to non-fee-paying, non-selective inner-city schools? First, more transparent application arrangements are required, involving a fair appeals system in every school—including, independently, city technology colleges, which are not yet required to have such arrangements. Secondly, rather than issuing directives to local authorities for the prospective contracting-out of services—such a directive was issued to Hackney on Friday—the Secretary of State should ask local parents what sort of management of their schools they want, and, if they want a change of management, let them, rather than Ministers, lead the debate.

Mr. Blunkett

We are digressing slightly, but, in any event, I am not going to organise a referendum on school management in Hackney or anywhere else. I shall ensure that there are proper structures enabling us to achieve the management and leadership that we need. Of course—as the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning—we need to get the arrangements right for individual children, and I should be happy for the hon. Gentleman to tell us, on the basis of his constituency experience, what he would like to see that is not mentioned in the document.

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

A young man who attends Windsor high school in the inner city of Salford wants to be a civil engineer. For the past year, he has had a mentor who has helped to shape and focus his ambitions, and I believe that, as a result, he will succeed in having a career that previously he did not dream of having. The proposals will help thousands of children just like him to flourish. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that those children have support not only in school, but at home in their communities? Will he confirm that the support for educational excellence will be linked to inner-city regeneration, to ensure that our success is long term and sustainable?

Mr. Blunkett

I can indeed. It will be rooted in the regeneration programme. Let me make it clear that, like everyone else, I accept that unemployment, poor housing, poor health and a poor environment have a dramatic impact on the life chances of children and on the schools and teachers who teach them. We need to compensate for and to overcome that disadvantage, not to excuse it. I take entirely the point that my hon. Friend makes. We will do that. We will provide those mentors. We will provide that support in Salford as part of ensuring that pupils such as the one whom she has mentioned have the aspiration and expectation that we take for granted.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

Earlier, the Secretary of State described selection as an anachronism. Will he confirm that, under the Government's policy, not only will some pupils be selected for their specific talents, but each school will be required to select 5 or 10 per cent. of pupils by ability, and to provide those pupils with a different teaching and learning programme from other pupils in the school?

Mr. Blunkett

No, I will not confirm that. I will confirm that the existing programme, which all pupils will go through, will remain, that those pupils will take that programme, but that it will be accelerated and extended where appropriate. This morning, I was at St. Paul's Way community school in Tower Hamlets, one of the most deprived areas of the country. Fifteen-year-olds there are taking A-levels, developing alongside their normal programme the ability to stretch and to extend their talent. I want every child to be able to do so, not just those who can buy private education.