HC Deb 25 October 1999 vol 336 cc782-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

8.35 pm
Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) to her first appearance at the Dispatch Box since her appointment in the summer. I am delighted that her debut is in a debate on the subject of state education for children of armed forces personnel—an issue which, while it is of considerable importance, is not party politically contentious.

This country owes a great deal to those who serve in our armed forces. Sadly, as a nation, we are short-changing the children of our soldiers, sailors and airmen and airwomen who attend schools with a large number of the offspring of service personnel. There are around 85,000 of school age.

Although this debate—quite rightly—will receive a response from an Education Minister, I must stress that the matters that I raise have an important bearing also on the interests of those serving in our armed forces. Therefore, I hope that what is said tonight will be drawn to the attention of Defence Ministers.

Representing a garrison town, I see the consequences of a numerically under-strength Army having to deal with an increasing number of commitments. The overstretch, including back-to-back tours of duty in various parts of the world—keeping the peace in Bosnia and Kosovo are the two obvious ones at present, but there are others, both past and on-going—that this causes, coupled with the need for regular training and other duties, means that many of our soldiers are absent from their families for months on end.

In many respects, their children are brought up for long periods as if they were from one-parent families. At such times, virtually every pupil in a school can come from a home with only one parent living there—a proportion considerably greater than would be found in just about every other school around the country.

Retention of skilled and professional military personnel is an increasing worry for our armed forces. Large numbers of people are leaving the services because of family unhappiness caused by the overstretch commitments. Education concerns about their children can be a contributory factor for a service man or woman in deciding to leave the armed forces. If joined-up government is a concept that operates in practice, the Department for Education and Employment—wearing both its hats—must consider defence matters when it comes to the education and well-being of service personnel.

The situation is not, of course, a new one, although it has taken on greater significance in recent years. However, perhaps it is only now that it has come to national prominence. I am delighted to announce that, next month, the National Association of State Schools for Service Children—formed earlier this year at a meeting in Colchester which I had the privilege to attend—will be holding a conference in London.

I am advised that Education Ministers have declined to attend the conference. I regret that, and I hope that, after tonight's debate, that decision will be reconsidered. The importance of the conference—entitled "A Fairer Deal for Forces Families"—warrants official ministerial recognition. The venue is within walking distance of this House. I am assured that it is on a safe route.

In welcoming the formation of the NASSSC, I wish to pay tribute to the pioneers—those schools in Colchester with a strong Army involvement who, in 1992, formed the Colchester Association of State Schools for Service Children. The schools involved are Kingsford infant and junior; St. Teresa's primary; St Michael's primary; Alderman Blaxill secondary; the splendidly named Montgomery infant and junior; and, from elsewhere in East Anglia, Wimbish and Debden primary schools.

The numbers of children from service families attending those schools range from almost one in five pupils at St. Teresa's Catholic school to 95 per cent. at St. Michael's.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

I concur with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. In my constituency, Coltishall Airfield first school, which was built as a middle school, has 100 per cent. service children, and we are campaigning on their behalf to turn it back into a middle school, because many service personnel and their children are being disadvantaged.

Mr. Russell

That story is repeated in locations throughout the United Kingdom where there is a major military presence. St. Michael's school was on 99 per cent., but two non-military families moved in and knocked the figure down to 95 per cent.

Word of the Colchester association gradually spread to schools in other parts of the United Kingdom catering for children of service personnel and, in March, nearly 40 heads came to Colchester to form a national association and to discuss "issues of turbulence", which I am advised is the official description of the special problems with which such schools have to contend.

Essex local education authority acknowledges the unique requirements of schools with large numbers of children from Army families and does what it can to make additional provision from its tight budget. It has always been supportive of the particular needs of schools with service children and has provided the local association with a link officer; but not all LEAs follow that good example.

I invite the Minister to regard special additional funding for the turbulence factor in such schools as a national issue, not to be determined at the whim of individual LEAs. In fairness, they are already under considerable pressure when allocating resources for all the competing demands that are made on them.

The cost of defending the realm is met centrally. I suggest that the same principle should apply to the special education funding needed at schools that admit as pupils children of military personnel, simply because the geographic locations of military establishments that serve the whole nation are not governed by LEA boundaries.

Head teachers from the national association are deeply concerned about the extreme turbulence experienced by the schools and their pupils, as well as about target setting and benchmarking. A further concern is the time of year when regiments and other units move to new bases in the United Kingdom or go overseas; and there is also the question of those returning to the UK. We are talking not about one family moving because a parent gets a new job, as happens from time to time in all schools, but about perhaps half the school population leaving in mid-term, to be replaced the next week by an equally large number of new pupils. That presents human and logistical problems with which no other kind of school has to contend.

At Colchester garrison, infantry regiments traditionally move after a posting of between two and four years. Next year, as a result of the recent formation of 16 Air Assault Brigade, two battalions of the Parachute Regiment will move from Aldershot to Colchester to replace the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment and 1st Battalion, Royal Scots. The massive pupil movements associated with the departure and arrival of the soldiers are set to take place in and around the period when the youngsters face their standard assessment tests and GCSEs.

One of the Colchester heads, Mr. Graham Eskell of Montgomery junior school, in a letter to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on 23 September, said: This kind of disruption to children's education is dreadfully disruptive for schools and makes a complete mockery of the investment of time, energy and money that has been expended in the previous months. The impact upon the children themselves promises to be potentially traumatic. While you are making every effort to prevent parents taking their children out of school during the SATs weeks the kind of disruption outlined above bears at least equal scrutiny. I would wish to stress that we have had tremendous support from our Army colleagues locally, and while local Military personnel are very well aware of the impact of movement at such an important time on children and families there would appear to be a significant lack of awareness at the very highest levels where strategic planning is taking place. The most sensible option as far as we are concerned would be that large strategic movements should only take place during the summer months once all the Key school examinations have been completed. May I invite the Department for Education and Employment to pursue that suggestion with the Ministry of Defence?

I am sure that the Minister will concede that target setting is almost impossible for schools with large numbers of children from the armed forces. I am sure also that she will agree that heads of schools with a large turnover of pupils—where incoming pupils will replace pupils two or three times before a class of four-year-olds comes of secondary school age elsewhere in the UK or overseas—cannot produce viable targets as there are no national benchmark figures to enable them to make comparisons.

That was confirmed earlier this year when The Times Educational Supplement quoted a senior official of the Department for Education and Employment as saying: It's difficult where you have got very high turbulence. How can you use benchmark data when you have service children who don't have free school meals? And how can you use teacher forecasts when two years' ahead it's going to be almost a different class? We accept it is almost impossible. Assuming that the Minister agrees with those observations, will she also accept the findings of a survey conducted by the NASSSC, which stated that turbulence figures that show the percentage turnover of pupils each year should be used for benchmarking schools rather than free school meals? No allowance is made for pupil mobility when compiling these statistics. Why not?

An Oxfordshire primary school, for example, noted how its low level of free school meals put it in the upper reaches of the benchmarking tables. However, 60 per cent. of the pupils taking key stage 2 tests had not been there for key stage 1. There can be no argument that children's progress often slows after changing schools, and children of service personnel experience several changes.

A report in March to councillors in the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead stated that the children of soldiers were suffering through having their education disrupted by the uncertainty of Army life. It was said that some children were displaying problems caused by the frequent moves as their fathers were given new postings. The high turnover of pupils at one school meant that there were only four children in year 4 who had been there since the reception class. The report stated: Some of the children display emotional and behavioural problems caused by changing school and home so often. Head teacher Mrs. Valerie Clark of St. Michael's primary school, Colchester, where there are only nine pupils out of about 200 youngsters whose mother or father is not serving in the Army, tells me: Our teachers work very hard and we do not want them to feel demoralised by inappropriate benchmarking or the setting of targets which may be unattainable if a cohort changes dramatically. The Association totally supports the Government's initiatives to raise standards and to improve the quality of education for our pupils, but the present system does not fully recognise the special characteristics of schools which can have very mobile populations in them.

Target setting for a cohort is problematic when a significant percentage of each year group changes annually. With records from other schools often being variable, to put it mildly, making teacher assessments and predictions is difficult at best and useless at worst. The Government's White Paper, entitled "Excellence in Schools", makes no mention of pupil mobility, yet many of the policies pose particular problems for the high-mobility schools which children of service personnel attend.

Dr. Janet Dobson of the migration research unit at the department of geography, University college London, is undertaking a research project on pupil mobility which is funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the Department of Education and Employment. The Department therefore knows the situation, but what is being done urgently to address the need to give a fairer deal for forces' families?

Writing in The Times Educational Supplement in February this year about the response from heads to her call for information on how pupil mobility affects performance, Dr. Dobson said: Schools close to Armed Forces' bases were described as having distinctive mobility characteristics in that large numbers of children could join or leave together at a particular time at the behest of a single employer and did so recurrently. In addition, individual families came and went for promotion or other reasons.

Dr. Dobson also observed: Schools with large numbers of children from forces' families expressed a particular concern about benchmarking as it currently operates. Not only did they have to cope with high levels of mobility and other aspects of family disruption associated with service life but their low level of free school meals meant that their performance was compared with schools that they perceived as being more stable and affluent than their own.

Analysis by Dr. Dobson of the responses from head teachers revealed that comparative performances of mobile and non-mobile pupils at different key stages showed that, in virtually all cases, the average performance of mobile pupils—the description given to children of service personnel—was below that of the non-mobile, often substantially so. Dr. Dobson went on to say: Data from individual schools showed clearly how good performance by children who had been taught in the same school from the beginning could be hidden in aggregate school achievement figures which included many recent arrivals.

The Minister will be aware that, with few exceptions, pupils who move from school to school do less well than their more settled classmates. During their years of education, children of service personnel generally attend several schools. That factor needs to be recognised and acted upon by the Government, with additional national resources being made available to help the children of those who defend our country's interests at home and abroad.

I repeat my earlier question: what are the Government doing to help to improve the education of the children of our service personnel? It is almost a year since a previous Minister with responsibility for schools told the House that insufficient priority had been given to the effects on schools of high pupil mobility and that Dr. Dobson's research project would provide the basis of any policy changes needed to take account of pupil turnover. What has happened to implement the spirit of what was promised? Issuing policy guidelines is insufficient. Schools that educate the children of our service personnel need additional help now.

The children of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and women deserve the best. At the moment, they are not being treated fairly. The nature of military life means that provision of education for children of service personnel will always have challenges and problems that are markedly different from those faced by children from settled backgrounds. The Government have a duty to do what they can to make life fairer and better for children from service families. Words are not enough: action is needed, and without delay.

8.52 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith)

I thank the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) for his kind words on my first appearance at the Dispatch Box. I also congratulate him on obtaining this important debate, and assure him that my Department is working closely with the Ministry of Defence on the issue.

The sons and daughters of service personnel are educated in three different settings: overseas, in UK independent schools and in UK state schools. I shall start with the first of those settings because it is important in the context of the education of service children.

Many children of service personnel are educated abroad at schools run by Service Children's Education, or the SCE, an executive agency of the Ministry of Defence. It is run largely along the lines of an English local education authority and operates in accordance with sound UK practice, including the delivery of the same national curriculum that applies in England and Wales. Its schools are supported by child guidance and careers guidance services. There are some 50 SCE schools in areas of the world where the British forces have significant numbers of personnel, such as Germany, Cyprus, Belize and the Falkland Islands.

It is a measure of the success of SCE schools that their examination and assessment results would place them among the leading education authorities in the UK. Reports by the Office for Standards in Education, which provides an independent inspection service for the schools, have been consistently good over a number of years. The work of the schools is backed by SCE's own inspection advisory service, which provides extensive and varied training facilities to ensure that staff in schools are conversant with developments in the United Kingdom. It is worth noting that the SCE is also matching the Government's ambitious plans for the expansion of nursery education in the UK.

There will be occasions when service personnel are posted to locations where there are no SCE schools. In those situations, children can attend the UK boarding schools—either maintained or independent—that are on the Ministry of Defence's admissible schools list.

I understand that the hon. Member for Colchester is largely concerned with those children of service personnel based in the UK who are usually educated near where their mothers or fathers are based. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, because of the nature of their parents' jobs these children may often have to change schools, sometimes at short notice. Our aim, and that of the Ministry of Defence, is to ensure that those children suffer as little disruption to their education as possible.

I deal now with the particular concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed. I am very much aware of the effects that the movement of Army personnel into and out of his constituency will have on service children and on state schools. Clearly, that problem also affects other hon. Members' constituents.

There are about 185,000 service children in UK state schools. The movement of armed forces families can therefore have an impact on certain parts of the school system. The Government, together with those local education authorities with high concentrations of service children, have taken steps to minimise that impact.

I take this opportunity to welcome the establishment of the National Association of State Schools for Service Children. Although Ministers will not attend the association's conference, officials from my Department will be there and will listen carefully to the concerns expressed and recommendations made. In addition, I can assure the House that Ministers are adopting a joined-up approach to the range of issues affecting service families, including education. We are doing so through the joint ministerial services families task force, of which I am a member. I have already attended a meeting of that task force, and understand that one of its early concerns in connection with education had to do with admissions. The Government recognise the particular needs of service children in that regard, and we have made significant progress.

In March, my Department published its code of practice on school admissions. The paragraph entitled "Children of UK Service Personnel and other Crown Servants" states: These families are subject to frequent movement within the UK and from abroad, often at relatively short notice. LEAs and School Admission Authorities in those areas with a significant standing presence of Service Personnel should ensure that the needs of Service children are taken into account, by considering inviting the Service Children's Education authority to the Admissions Forum. Similarly, the section headed "Admission Appeals" states: Any parent (except, temporarily, the parent of a child who has been permanently excluded from two schools and where at least one of the exclusions took place since 1 September 1997) who is refused a school place for which they have applied, has the right to appeal to an independent appeal panel. This right applies equally to parents returning from working abroad or subject to frequent movements within the UK, such as Service personnel and other Crown Servants.

The chief executive of the SCE wrote to the 12 local education authorities with the largest concentrations of service personnel in August this year to determine their progress in setting up admissions forums and in including the SCE's representatives as members.

Mr. Russell

The Department has recognised that 12 local education authorities have a particular interest in the education of children of service personnel. Does that mean that it will provide additional national resources for those 12 LEAs, as they have problems over and above those of other authorities?

Jacqui Smith

I was about to say that the chief executive has written in similar terms to a further eight LEAs, so it is not right to say that we can easily identify the LEAs. My Department's priority has been to encourage partnership between the SCE and the LEAs concerned. I shall touch on local funding later in my speech.

It may be helpful if I outline the background to current troop movements. Army personnel move in one of two ways—within formed units or as individuals. More than two thirds of moves are by individuals. Moves can take place at any time of year and must, of course, be subject to operational needs which, for a fighting force, must take priority. Having said that, the Army has in recent years attempted to concentrate such movements in school holidays, specifically the summer holidays. Service families want their children to complete whole years of schooling, and the Army is doing its best to meet that aspiration as far as is possible.

Certain units in the Army—the front-line units—move as formed units because that is how they fight. Those units, and their families, are based in a range of locations in the United Kingdom and abroad. Some of those locations are arduous, and units can be posted to them for only limited periods. The Army calls the process of rotating front-line units through locations the arms plot. Two factors drive the arms plot: the maximum amount of time that units can remain in an arduous environment, and the times of the year when they can be replaced. Most arms plot moves, like individual moves, take place in the summer holidays, again because the Army wants to reduce the impact of these moves on service children.

Two parachute battalions are being relocated from their long-established base at Aldershot to Colchester—the hon. Gentleman's constituency—as part of the strategic defence review. The Parachute Regiment will leave its home in Aldershot, where it has been since the second world war. Once in Colchester, it will form part of 16 Air Assault Brigade. However, space must be created to allow it to move to Colchester, which is why the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment will move out in April 2000, followed shortly next summer by the First Battalion, the Royal Scots.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman can appreciate that important operational reasons have dictated the timing of moves out of his constituency, which is why they are taking place during the period of children's standard assessment tests. I assure him that we recognise the concern that that has caused, and that such moves are exceptional. Furthermore, where a parent is moved at that time, his or her spouse and children can remain in the accommodation for up to three months to enable SATs to be completed. For exams such as GCSE and A-levels, the period can be even longer. That displays the importance that the Ministry of Defence places on service children's education.

My Department and LEAs recognise the turbulence that such changes can create, which is why LEAs—I am pleased to say that Essex is included—provide extra resources for the schools affected. That may partly explain why, according to research about to be published by Janet Dobson on the effects of pupil mobility, which is partly funded by my Department, the levels of achievement of children in schools with large numbers of service children seem to compare favourably with children in other schools where there is unusually high mobility.

The research looked at only a sample of service children's schools, but it found that a high proportion of such children do better than other children with high mobility. That is testimony to the hard work of schools, and the involvement of service parents, in overcoming the difficulties of high mobility in order to help to achieve our aim of raising standards in all schools. I assure the hon. Member for Colchester that we intend to use the results of the research on mobility to help to guide future policies.

In relation to target setting, I want to mention briefly our proposals for raising school performance. The Government strongly believe that setting specific, measurable targets at least once a year for pupil performance is a powerful lever for raising standards in our schools. That view was supported in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority consultation on target setting. Target setting should support school improvement and should not become a burdensome administrative procedure. Targets have to be set each autumn term. They must relate to those pupils who will take the national curriculum tests, GCSE examinations or equivalent towards the end of the following school year— that is, five terms later. Schools may want to augment those targets with others of their own choosing, to reflect their particular priorities. That may be especially important for state schools with high numbers of service children.

In addition, schools should discuss indicative targets for future years as part of their dialogue with LEAs within the education development plan process. We expect LEAs to take account of circumstances such as the mobility of children of service personnel when setting those targets. The introduction of performance targets in schools is sufficiently flexible to take account of individual circumstances.

To return to the hon. Gentleman's concerns about benchmarking, the effect of pupil mobility is also considered by Ofsted. In January 2000, we shall for the first time be collecting detailed information on pupils that will enable us to track the progress and the schools of individual pupils. We expect that that information about pupil mobility will thereafter be available to inspectors and will be included in the PANDA, or performance and assessment information, and PICSI, the pre-inspection context and school indicator, reports that are issued to schools by Ofsted.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that Ofsted's revised framework for inspection, to be published later this year, will require inspectors to collect data on pupil mobility when considering their inspections, and to comment on that where appropriate.

In conclusion, schools, LEAs and Ofsted can all take into account the needs and difficulties that may face service children in state schools. We accept the commitment mentioned by the hon. Gentleman on the importance of ensuring that, as with all our children, education for the children of those people in our services is of as high a quality as possible. I am sure that he shares our commitment to the standards agenda—to raise standards for all children, including those from service families.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Nine o'clock.