HC Deb 29 June 2004 vol 423 cc161-209

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

12.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to open a debate on London schools and set out the work of the London challenge. London's future will depend to a large part on the success of its education system. Our task is to make London the world's leading learning and creative capital city, striving for excellence for all, and using all the world-class resources in the city to achieve that objective. There is a clear moral imperative to ensure equality of opportunity for all London students; to provide a chance for each one to reach their potential; and to extend their horizons through education. In a London context, we must demonstrate that the longstanding link between social and economic deprivation and poor educational performance can be broken once and for all.

When the Prime Minister launched the London challenge strategy a year ago, he talked about an education system in London that is

not merely good, but world class.

We are starting from a strong base in London, underpinned by the enthusiasm and commitment of everyone involved in our schools. The London challenge works on two broad levels. First, it seeks to take up issues that are common to schools across the capital that affect staff, pupils and parents throughout greater London. Secondly, it seeks to recognise that individual schools in particular localities face challenging circumstances, so need extra support, encouragement and challenge.

London is unique because it faces the challenges that face other metropolitan areas as well as those that face other parts of the high-cost south-east of England. Two hundred of the 1,000 most deprived wards in the country are here in London, concentrated in the east of the city, but with pockets of significant deprivation across the capital. In inner London, free school meal eligibility is 43 per cent., compared with 17 per cent. nation wide in England. In London, great extremes of wealth and deprivation exist side by side. London's population is polarised: disproportionately many with incomes in the top 20 per cent. of national incomes, disproportionately many with incomes in the bottom 20 per cent., and relatively few in the middle, where most of our key workers would typically be.

That places great pressure on all our key public services, including education, in the form of problems recruiting and retaining essential workers. Annual teacher turnover in London is around 15 per cent., compared with an England average of 11 per cent. Just when many teachers are looking to move into middle leadership positions such as heads of year and heads of department in schools, the cost of family homes so often drives them out of London or out of teaching.

London replicates many of the divides of other parts of the country in terms of social background, ethnicity and gender, but the greater diversity of the capital city makes that especially crucial in London. Thirty-eight per cent. of the school population in London has English as an additional language, compared with 8 per cent. in England as a whole. London has not one, but 33 local education authorities, some of them very small, with high pupil mobility across LEA boundaries.

It is this unique combination of challenges that made the case for focusing attention and resources here in London, which is why the London challenge was launched a year ago. In many respects, London's schools are as good as or better than schools in the rest of the country. In recent years London's schools have improved one and a half times faster than the national average at GCSE, with just over 50 per cent. of students achieving five or more A* to C grades in London secondary schools. If we compare London schools with schools in the rest of the country in the free school meal band, London schools do better than schools in other parts of the country in every single free school meal band.

In an international context, educational achievement in this country is high, but not in every section of the community. The groups that are left behind are typically those from some of the most deprived backgrounds, especially black Caribbean and white working-class boys. As London is home to such a diverse population, the task is pressing for London schools. The data show unequivocally the great task that we face.

On average, as I said, about half of London pupils get five A* to C grades at GCSE, but for those on free school meals, that figure falls to 30 per cent., and for those from a black Caribbean background it falls to one in three. These effects are cumulative. For a pupil who is poor, black and a boy, the chance of getting five A* to C grades at GCSE is 15 per cent. For a pupil who is wealthy, Chinese and a girl, it is more than 80 per cent. The diversity of London is critical if we are to meet the challenge set out in the strategy.

In recent years we have seen significant improvements in attendance at London schools. The average attendance figures far London schools are now better than the average attendance figures for schools elsewhere in the country, but we know that behaviour remains a massive factor for London schools in the context of the local community, impacting directly on the school. We know the effect that that has on the reputation of the school and its ability to recruit and retain good quality staff, and the impact on children and young people. That is why 20 London authorities are part of the behaviour improvement programme, covering 380 schools across our capital city.

School leadership in London is better now than the national average. According to Ofsted, the percentage of inner London secondary schools rated good or excellent for leadership and management is 84 per cent., compared with 79 per cent. nationally, yet we also know that we have a shortage of middle leaders, and the age profile of heads means that we will lose a significant number of head teachers. We need to replenish the pool from which we draw head teachers.

A striking feature of London is the perceptions of parents and the wider public. Perception of education in London lags behind the reality. We conducted a survey of parents. Parents in London are more satisfied with their child's school than the national average figure: 51 per cent. of parents of secondary-age pupils in London are very satisfied with their own child's school, compared with 39 per cent. nationally.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

I am very interested in this part of the Minister's remarks, as that finding runs counter to the general perception. Does he have any figures for the percentage of pupils in London who are sent by their parents to independent sector schools, as opposed to state schools? Anecdotally, one is always led to believe that parents in London are so much more dissatisfied with the state sector that they tend disproportionately to send their children to the independent sector.

Mr. Twigg

I do have figures. The figures are collected according to the location of the school, rather than the location of the family home—that is a note of caution—but the indications are that the anecdotal evidence that the right hon. Gentleman mentions is correct. The percentage of pupils attending private schools in London is higher than the national average. It may be as much as twice the national average figure.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)

May I advise my hon. Friend that in the boroughs of Westminster and Kensington, where my constituency is situated, around 50 per cent. of all children are educated in the independent sector? As both of those authorities are Conservative-controlled, it would be unwise to read too much into that figure in terms of satisfaction with the Government's management of the education system.

Mr. Twigg

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I will come on to some of the broader figures, but the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) raises a legitimate point. [Interruption.] I am asked what the figures are. The national figure is about 7 per cent. The London figure is 13 or 14 per cent. I reiterate my word of caution: that is based on where the school is, rather than where the home is. If the figure were based on the location of the home, it might be a little lower. Part of the challenge that we face is to restore confidence in the system as a whole.

I cited the figure for parents' satisfaction with their own child's school. If we move on and ask people's views of schools in their borough, in the local area, the picture is quite different. Nationally, 71 per sent. are satisfied. In London the figure is much lower 53 per cent. That suggests that parents think their own school, generally speaking, is good, but that the schools in their borough are not so good and that schools in London as a whole are often a lot worse. That is a significant part of the challenge that we face.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend accept that school funding should reflect the difficulty of teaching those particular pupils? In a borough such as Croydon, about a third of the pupils are educated outside the borough, some in private schools and some in grammar schools in Bromley and Sutton, and a third of the pupils come in from Lambeth, Southwark and so on. The profile of funding reflects the profile of the pupils being taught in the borough, rather than the profile of those who live there, which should be reflected in the funding formula.

Mr. Twigg

I tread with caution into the area of funding, particularly in a borough such as my hon. Friend's, which has had a number of difficulties over the past 12 to 18 months. We have sought to ensure that the funding system treats identical pupils in different parts of the country identically. Per pupil funding generally in London is, rightly, considerably higher than in other parts of the country.

We now have in London more full-time teachers than we have had for about 20 years. There has been a rise in full-time teacher numbers of almost 5,000 since 1997, and a rise in the number of support staff from 19,000 to 32,000 over the same period. The number of teacher vacancies has fallen, but it is still significantly higher than the national figure.

The average per pupil funding in London has increased by more than £1,000 in real terms since 1997, and capital funding has increased considerably, from £80 million in 1997 to about £500 million in the last financial year. Real progress has been made—progress that matters to London's young people and the chances that they will have. The progress is accelerating, but we need to build on it.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD)

I do not want to be unfairly critical, but will the Minister confirm that the number of qualified teachers in primary schools has recently decreased, and that the student-teacher ratio has worsened in the past few years? Although the general movement may be in the right direction, two worrying elements remain, namely the pupil-teacher ratio and the smaller number of qualified teachers in our primary schools.

Mr. Twigg

The hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues. The latest figures show an overall national increase in the number of teachers in schools, but the number of teachers in primary schools has fallen. The main explanation is a significant fall in rolls—the number of children in primary schools has fallen. The picture on ratios is mixed: the average class size for key stage 1 in infant schools has decreased, but the average class size for key stage 2 is more stable. If we take into account other adults who work in our schools, however, the adult staff to pupil ratio is better than ever. The picture is mixed, and I do not underestimate the challenge in recruiting and retaining the best quality staff.

Some schools in London have achieved great success, and I shall mention one in particular. The Sir John Cass Foundation and Redcoat Church of England school in Stepney specialises in languages, and it serves a deprived community, where the majority of children—56 per cent.—are eligible for free school meals, and where three quarters of the children, 78 per cent., speak English as an additional language. Seven years ago, 8 per cent. of children at that school achieved five GCSEs at grades between A* and C; the latest figure is almost 80 per cent, which is a remarkable testament to what can be done with able leadership and effective teaching and learning in a school that serves a deprived community. That is one example, and I could cite a number of others, although there is no cause for complacency.

The London challenge is about recognising that the issues are serious. We have identified two areas of London—the north London boroughs of Hackney, Haringey and Islington, and the south London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark—where parental dissatisfaction is especially high when pupils transfer from primary schools to secondary schools, and we are working with schools and local authorities to transform the schools in those areas. We have published joint plans with schools and local authorities on investment, new schools, academies, improved sixth-form provision, the use of specialist schools and other diversity programmes and the creation of a more collegiate approach to improving schools.

Good signs are already emerging from those boroughs. Last year, for example, Hackney's GCSE results were up by 8.1 per cent., which was among the best performances in the country, and the other boroughs have also experienced significant improvements that have exceeded the national averages.

Mr. Forth

I do not want to interrupt the Minister's self-congratulatory flow too much, but will he give us his thoughts on the so-called Greenwich judgment? In boroughs such as Bromley, which is rightly proud of the excellence of its schools, parents complain bitterly about the influx of pupils from neighbouring boroughs, who, as the parents see it, displace Bromley children from our excellent schools. What is the Government's view on the Greenwich judgment?

Mr. Twigg

I do not want to be self-congratulatory or to take any great credit for the remarkable achievements of schools, pupils and teachers in the authorities about which I am talking. The Greenwich judgment occurred just before the right hon. Gentleman became an Education Minister, and he did not take the opportunity to overturn it. It creates winners and losers, and, like the right hon. Gentleman, I represent an outer-London constituency, where I meet both parents whose children lose out because of the Greenwich judgment and parents whose children benefit from it.

It makes a lot of sense to encourage effective and successful neighbourhood schools that parents want to opt for, and borough boundaries in London are often irrelevant to that process. The policy that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) launched today would allow schools to change their catchment areas, which means that pupils who live near a school would lose their advantage over pupils who live much further away.

The Greenwich judgment makes a lot of sense, because it enables young people to go to their nearest school. It recognises that the existence of 33 LEAs in London means that a child's local school will not necessarily be in the same borough as that in which they are resident, and it plays a positive part in our strategy to improve London's schools.

I shall proceed with the self-congratulation, or rather the congratulation of the achievements in London, although I recognise that we still have a long way to go. We have identified the schools that face the biggest challenges, which we have described as the "keys to success". The measure of success London-wide will be whether the most challenged schools with the poorest results can achieve performance levels exceeding those achieved by themselves in the past or by schools in similar circumstances. The early indications suggest that many of those schools are making progress, and we are working closely with them to ensure that that progress is built upon.

Some pan-London issues apply to north, south, east and west London and to inner and outer London, and ensuring that London's schools employ the best teachers is one such issue. The high cost of housing in London is one of the biggest challenges, and being able to afford a home is a crucial issue in keeping teachers in London, which is why we have launched a major new housing offer for teachers. The offer is based on the knowledge that many teachers, who have the potential to be future leaders in London's schools, leave London as they enter leadership positions because they cannot afford family homes. We are offering 1,000 of those teachers the chance to take an interest-free loan of up to £100,000 to allow them to afford a family home.

The second part of our package helps teachers who come to London early in their careers, but who leave after a short time because of the high cost of housing. Such teachers will be eligible for interest-free loans of up to £50,000, and they will not repay such loans until and unless they leave London or leave teaching in London. The programme has just begun—the early take-up is high—and will last for at least two years. It will play a critical role in recruiting and retaining the highest quality teachers in London.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con)

I applaud the Minister on the initiatives that he describes, especially given the soaring cost of housing in our capital city. Will he comment on an equally important matter, namely the relationship between London weighting and the high cost of living in London? The approach to inner-London and outer-London weighting must be more sophisticated, because inner-London weighting is resulting in a shortage of applications in some outer-London boroughs.

Mr. Twigg

My constituency borders the hon. Gentleman's constituency, so I am familiar with the issue, which has been raised with me by schools in both his constituency and mine. We must continue to address pay and allowances for teachers and other staff, because although outer-London weighting has improved in recent years, the improvement in inner-London weighting has been more significant. The School Teachers Review Body says that it wants to keep the matter under review, and that it wants to address the concern in some outer-London boroughs that staff are being lost to nearby boroughs that pay inner-London weighting. I imagine that that issue will arise again in the debate, and, if I have the opportunity to do so, I may say more in my closing remarks.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)

My hon. Friend knows the impact that the four rigid pay bands have on schools in my constituency and, indeed, in his constituency. He mentioned the School Teachers Review Body, which has made some recommendations that are currently being consulted on. Those recommendations would introduce greater flexibility in allowing schools to respond to teacher shortages. What is the Government view on those recommendations, and will they take them up when the School Teachers Review Body reports in September?

Mr. Twigg

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which it would be most sensible for me to take up in my closing remarks. At this stage, I want to emphasise that it is important to ensure stability of funding in our schools. That has been a priority for the Department over the past year following the difficulties of 12 months ago. For the medium and longer term, we need to consider how schools can be in a position to recruit and retain the best possible teachers and other staff.

I am conscious of the time and will draw my remarks towards a close. In doing so, I want to refer to some of the programmes that are making a real difference in London. I particularly commend Teach First, which is not a DFES programme, although we partly funded it. That is a business-led programme that recruits some of the best graduates from universities across the country. It has cross-party support and support from all the head teacher associations and teacher unions. It seeks out graduates who would not normally go into teaching. They commit themselves to at least two years teaching in London, usually in the most challenging schools, and acquire qualified teacher status at the end of year one. Last September, the first cohort of Teach First graduates—179 of them—started in London schools, and the aim is to recruit 230 for September this year, prioritising challenging schools. That is the kind of exciting and innovative programme that I am pleased to support for the schools of London and that I believe to be very much in the spirit of the London challenge.

Finally, I want to focus on the need to ensure that we have a range of secondary schools in London that meet the real needs of the children and young people of our capital city. London now has 196 specialist schools—nearly half of its secondary schools—with a further 50 applying in the current round, the outcome of which is due to be announced later this week.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend recognise the huge success of Deptford Green school in my constituency? When I first became an MP, parents begged me to get their child out of Deptford Green school; today, they beg me to get their child into it. That is a measure of its success. The school has done groundbreaking work on citizenship, and we very much hope for a favourable decision on its specialist school application, which will be largely centred on citizenship.

Mr. Twigg

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am not in a position to anticipate announcements scheduled for later in the week. As she knows, however, I have visited Deptford Green school, which is hugely impressive and has done groundbreaking work on citizenship. It was very much the influence of that school and one or two others that led to our creation of the new specialism of humanities including citizenship. I have every confidence that Deptford Green is a school that will continue to go from strength to strength.

Another school that has done very well, partly as a consequence of specialism, is Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in Islington. Just five years ago, 23 per cent. of its students achieved five A* to C grades at GCSE; last summer, that figure topped 50 per cent. That is a school in the heart of north London. The majority of its students are eligible for free school meals, and they are from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds; two thirds have English as an additional language.

The academies programme is critical to our chances of success in London. We are working with sponsors and local education authorities to broker academy projects across London. Six academies are already open, a further four will open in September, and we aim to have 30 by 2008. The academies have huge value in three respects: first, they break the link between deprivation and underachievement for students and families in the most challenging schools; secondly, they raise standards for the whole area by working with local schools and local government to share resources, facilities and professional development opportunities for teachers; and thirdly, they use the levers of innovation and diversity to bring new ways of working driven by the partnership of professional teachers and sponsors for the benefit of the whole school population.

We have begun to look across London to establish the demand for new schools and places. Our projections suggest that some 20 additional secondary schools will be needed over the next four years. We will achieve that through a mixture of traditional routes, academies, and the "Building Schools for the Future" programme. More widely, "Building Schools for the Future" will lead to the rebuilding or refurbishment of the country's entire secondary school estate over the next 10 to 15 years, and I expect many of the most challenging and deprived parts of London to be involved in the early part of that programme.

The improvements that we need to make cannot simply be left to the schools themselves. London has all sorts of other resources that we can tap into, including cultural, sporting, and business and employer resources. Last year, we launched the business challenge to offer every secondary school the opportunity to forge a high-quality partnership with leading London businesses. More than 100 businesses are currently involved in working with and getting behind the efforts of schools in the capital city. For many areas, notably Tower Hamlets, forging those links has already made a difference, and I am confident that it has the potential to make much more of a difference in the future.

There is a genuine sense of optimism. I recognise that there is an enormous amount to do if we are to recruit and retain the highest quality teachers. I also recognise that some schools that are key to success need to improve, and that we must work with them to ensure that they do. I do not underestimate the challenges that we face, but things are moving in the right direction. I am impressed by the broad support across London for the work of the London challenge. I am grateful to Tim Brighouse, who acts as our chief adviser, and to the London challenge team in the Department for Education and Skills. I invite the House's support for this important work, because that will show that Members on both sides of the House want to ensure that every London child has the chance of a world-class education.

1.17 pm
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con)

Having heard the Minister's comments, I am surprised at how much consensus there will be in most, if not all, areas. I suspect, however, that we may have sourced our statistics differently.

In terms of local environment and socio-economic profile, there are widely differing circumstances in the 2,300 maintained schools that serve 1 million pupils in the 33 London boroughs, which range from leafy suburbs in outer London to densely populated inner London. London has the highest levels of child poverty in the country, and its schools have an unequalled ethnic diversity, with 275 languages spoken. The map of London is like a patchwork quilt of affluence and poverty, which are never far away from one another. Not surprisingly, the schools in those areas produce widely differing results, and widely differing challenges face London schools to ensure that each one is the best that it can possibly be. Those challenges do not respond well to centrally imposed policies.

It is important to start by acknowledging the many highly successful schools in London. We should then look closely at why they are so successful and why others are failing their pupils. We need to examine best practice and the factors that lead to success in a school, and to use that information to raise the standard of failing or less successful schools to the same high standard. Levelling must always be up, not down. There is no merit in equality of achievement and opportunity if it is based on the lowest common denominator. The sky should be the limit for the educational aspirations of our school children. The different aptitudes, needs and interests of each individual child should be developed so that they are able to reach their full potential.

The picture across London schools is very patchy. Only one of the nine local authorities in London to be rated as excellent on education by the Audit Commission is Labour controlled, as is one of the lowest rated for comprehensive performance assessment. After seven years of "education, education, education", the performance of some of the capital's schools represents one of the Government's greatest failures. Some have the lowest results in the country.

One in three of London's 14-year-olds cannot read, write or count properly. That is a shocking statistic. Only half the pupils in London's schools pass five or more GCSEs by the age of 16. That means that the other half does not. What of their future career prospects? They must either go on to a further education college if they have the motivation and parental support to catch up on what they did not achieve at school or try to find a job that requires no entry qualifications.

To get secondary education right, we must start at the beginning and get early-years education right. Early-years education plays an essential foundation role in developing children's interpersonal skills in preparation for primary school. Those skills bring long-term benefits to pre-school children that are far greater than any early formal learning. If children arrive in their reception class reasonably self-confident, co-operative, already knowing how to communicate, play, give and take, share and simply get on with other children, their teachers have an ideal base on which to start their formal education. So often, teachers have to teach those essential basic life skills as well as the standard curriculum.

Inner London in particular has many children for whom English is a second language. Children in the same class often have a range of different first languages. My statistic for that was 42 per cent. and the Minister's was 38 per cent., so can we agree that 40 per cent. of children in inner London speak English as a second language compared with a national average of only 8 per cent.? Teaching those children a good command of English as early as possible to enable them to live and learn successfully alongside their peers is essential if they are to realise their full potential.

Seventy per cent. of all African-Caribbean pupils in the country attend London schools. They are concentrated in the boroughs of Hackney, Haringey, Lambeth, Southwark and Islington. They enter compulsory schooling as one of the highest achieving groups but, by the age of 11, their achievement begins to drop and when they leave at 16, they form the group least likely to have attained five high grade GCSEs. The "Aiming High" pilot project is working on the problem in 18 schools in London. Smaller projects, such as that in Winchmore school in Enfield, ease the transition from primary to secondary school. Developing interpersonal skills is an important part of those schemes. School life would be so much easier for those pupils, as well as their peers and teachers, if they acquired such essential life skills in their early years.

Recent examination results show that African, African-Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi students perform noticeably less well than Chinese and Indian students. That suggests that more individually tailored solutions might work better to raise achievement levels among black students, who also have the highest exclusion and truancy rates. Various other mentoring schemes have been introduced to tackle disaffection, substance abuse, social exclusion, truancy and discipline and, essentially, to involve parents so that one set of standards applies at home and at school.

Mentoring is usually for a defined period and there appears to be a dearth of evaluation of the effectiveness of the schemes in the short and long term and of the accountability of the mentors. However, the Dalston youth project in the London borough of Hackney and the Islington-based "Chance" were found to have achieved some success. Early anecdotal evidence suggests that other projects have had a measure of success in broadening horizons, raising achievement and self-esteem. However, there is a danger that it will be difficult to collate the results of so many concurrent schemes.

It is essential that the 10 new schools—seven of them city academies—that are being built in the five boroughs with the worst secondary schools have the freedom of management to succeed. In Hackney, Haringey, Islington, Lambeth Ind Southwark, new purpose-built schools alone will not lead to the improvements in standards that everyone wants for the pupils in those boroughs.

Choosing a school is an emotive task for parents. It is important to them that they get a place at the school of their choice because their child's future is at stake. Apart from the acknowledged reputation of the school, one of the biggest influences on that choice is the appearance and behaviour of the pupils outside school. Pupils are a school's best or worst advert as they wait for buses or use local shops when they travel to and from school. Responsible parents will not want to send their children to a school whose pupils look scruffy and are noisy and badly behaved in public. Enforceable home-to-school contracts will be beneficial in that regard.

The Government intend to introduce a joint admissions register in 2005 for 41 local education authorities in London and the surrounding areas. They say that that will "simplify and reduce confusion" in the allocation of secondary school places. Well, it might, but for whose benefit? The priority for a schools' admission system should be ensuring that as many parents as possible can send their children to the school of their choice, not making it simple to administer. Far from reducing parents' anxiety, the proposal has increased it.

Are all parents to be punished because some held multiple offers in the past? Parents will be able to express six prioritised choices, but what about those who are offered a place at school No. 6—the school that everyone is trying desperately to avoid; the one with the undisciplined children who could be a bad influence on theirs? The new system might be easy and convenient to administer, but will it leave parents with one take-it-or-leave-it offer from a command-and-control, nanny-knows-best state? That is the opposite of parental choice. I predict that many parents will not approve of the place that they are allocated and that admissions appeal panels will burn the midnight oil to resolve the muddle.

Simon Hughes

We all appreciate that the hon. Lady is considering a hugely important and controversial issue. However, does she accept that it must be fairer to have one system that everybody uses—such as that for university admissions—rather than different systems, whereby those who know more and are quicker off the mark can do better for their children?

Angela Watkinson

I do not believe that we shall ever have a system that is scrupulously fair to everybody. Life is simply not like that. The old system would have worked well had not some parents held multiple offers. We know that some parents held three and even four offers of secondary school places and that that made it difficult for other parents who were waiting for a place to be allocated. However, I should like more rather than less parental choice, and not merely one place being offered to everybody. On the rule of averages, that place will not be in the school that most parents have requested.

Geraint Davies

Does the hon. Lady accept that the problem with the old system was that many people held many choices for a long time so that many others had no choice? The point of the co-ordinated approach is that those with many choices must take one so that the other places become available to other people. It will therefore lead to more, not fewer choices.

Angela Watkinson

The new system will mean that parents will be offered only one school and it may not be the one that they want. Parents will be happy if they get their first or even second choice, but if they get a school that is lower down the list of their six nominated schools, they will be unhappy.

Mr. Love

The Greenwich judgment has stood the test of time under Conservative Governments and this Government. What is the hon. Lady's attitude to it?

Angela Watkinson

I should like schools to take complete control of their admissions so that they decide whom to admit. Popular schools will naturally be oversubscribed and they have to find some method of deciding which children to admit. Selection should be undertaken by the schools, not centrally by providing that parents have to nominate six schools and simply take pot luck. Most people want to send their children to local schools if they are good. They apply elsewhere only when they deem their local school to be unsatisfactory.

One good example of best practice is the Robert Clack school in Barking and Dagenham. This secondary school had a fairly undistinguished past but, with a committed and inspiring head teacher, has raised its standards to the extent that it has just received eight one ratings in its recent Ofsted report. When the inspectors asked the teachers what the school's failing group was, they were surprised to hear that there was not one. So positive is the attitude in that school that it simply would not be acceptable to allow any group to fail. Had there been such a group, however, its problems would have been tackled and the pupils involved would have been helped to improve. Improvements such as these do not come without a huge amount of sustained effort on the part of the head teacher to establish an ethos of high expectations, achievement, good manners and discipline, to which everyone in the school subscribes and which has the backing of the parents. That is the recipe for such success.

Recently, a group of children from the Clore Tikva primary school in Ilford came to visit the House of Commons, and I went down to meet them at what should have been the end of their tour. The tour guide told me that it was the longest tour that he had ever done, and they were only just beginning. The children were asking so many questions that they had not even reached the Chamber. This was another example of a successful school. The children were interested, inquisitive, assertive, polite and well-behaved. The reasons do not require much analysis. That, too, was a school with a dynamic head teacher, high expectations, involved parents and a shared ethos—that same recipe for success.

Pivotal to the success of all schools is the leadership of an especially talented head teacher who can inspire teaching staff, governors, pupils and parents alike to be proud of their school and to aim high. To succeed, however, head teachers must also be given the freedom to set standards of discipline and behaviour in legally enforceable contracts. They must have the right to exclude disruptive pupils who compromise the education of other pupils and breach the bounds of tolerable working conditions for teachers, and their authority should not be undermined by well-meaning appeals panels who overrule their exclusion decisions and force schools to readmit.

I am sure that many hon. Members have sat on exclusion appeals panels, and will understand that exclusion is used as an absolute last resort after all other available disciplinary measures have been tried, often on many occasions, and failed. Head teachers need to be freed from the stultifying, centralised top-down control of Whitehall, and from the plethora of inspections, performance targets, testing, and standardised teaching that currently sap energy and morale. They should also be free to allocate their budgets to suit the particular circumstances of their school as distinct from other London schools.

Last year's funding crisis was caused by the extra costs of inflation, the teachers' pay award, national insurance and pension contributions, and the additional administrative duties taken over by classroom assistants. Many London schools faced deficits of up to £250,000 and, of the 3,400 posts lost in English comprehensives, many were in London. Many London schools also spend more on staff than the assumed rate of 60 per cent. on teachers' salaries and 19 per cent. on support staff. Westminster schools' spending, for example, averages 84 to 85 per cent. of their budgets, with eight primaries spending more than 90 per cent.; one, Soho Parish school, spent 110 per cent. last year.

The difficulties of recruitment in the capital have had to be met by offering enhanced salaries, which has had a serious impact on schools budgets. The extended schools scheme—whereby schools open earlier in the morning and provide breakfast and, at the end of the day, homework facilities, among many other things—can be provided only at a higher staffing cost. In some areas of London, there are pockets of falling rolls. Future funding for the pupil-related part of the budgets in those schools will suffer from the decline in the local population, and they will find it increasingly difficult to maintain staffing levels and all these additional services, however popular and successful they may be. Indeed, breakfast at school is growing in popularity, and pupils from homes where breakfast is freely available now prefer to have it at school with their friends. It is becoming a social gathering.

Teacher vacancies across London have soared from 751 in 1997 to 1,020 in 2003, with some authorities, such as Bexley, experiencing a tenfold increase. The outer-London LEAs are feeling the effects of recruitment and retention problems badly. Head teachers from Havering have had to travel the world in search of teachers after repeated unsuccessful advertising, and this is also the case in other outer-London LEAs. Newly qualified teachers often accept posts in an outer-London school, only to find that they are unable to find affordable accommodation. Just a few miles down the road, however, the inner-London allowance is payable and accommodation is cheaper, and those teachers often have to change their plans and accept a job there instead. This is inner London's gain, of course.

There are other pressures on newly qualified teachers' working conditions if standards of discipline and behaviour in a school have broken down. It takes a very resilient NQT to withstand constant challenges to their authority, refusals to conform, or even assaults by disaffected pupils, and many of them change careers and are lost to the teaching profession. Add to this the incessant record keeping and form filling that has escalated beyond all reasonable bounds in the last seven years, and the future does not bode well for teachers. They must be allowed to concentrate on teaching their pupils, rather than writing about them, in safe and acceptable conditions. Even allowances for additional responsibility have little appeal if they lift a teacher's salary into the 40 per cent. tax bracket. After deductions, even the one-off reward of £1,000 for gaining chartered London teacher status will not make a very big impression on the net amount on a teacher's salary slip.

For schools to be able to enforce their disciplinary rules, all London LEAs need to have enough pupil referral units, located separately, to which excluded and disruptive pupils may be transferred and in which they can be taught, full-time, to behave in an acceptable way and to learn, with the aim of returning to mainstream schooling. The inner-London LEAs in which the problems are most pronounced need extensive PRU provision and exceptionally talented teachers to bring about the necessary changes to the behaviour of these pupils. But removing them to a different setting will enable those schools to raise the achievement levels of the rest of their pupils, who will benefit and thereby improve the reputation of the schools themselves and help to reverse their decline.

Truancy in London is above the national average for both the primary and secondary sectors, and it is highest in inner London at 1.11 per cent. and 1.73 per cent. respectively. That might sound insignificant until it is measured against the total of 1 million children being educated in London Quite apart from the missed education of each individual child involved, the dangers to children wandering about unsupervised in London are boundless, as is the temptation of falling into the company of drug users and criminals. Chronic truants are obvious candidates to be helped back to regular school attendance through a PRU, and schools must have an enforceable home-to-school contract with parents, to enable them to deal effectively with truanting children.

Geraint Davies

Does the hon. Lady accept that it is this Government who have required all excluded pupils to have a full five days education a week through a pupil referral unit? Under the previous Conservative Administration, such pupils were taught for only one day a week, and spent the other four days wandering around stealing people's mobile phones, getting into all sorts of trouble and missing out on their education, which would lead to a life of criminality.

Angela Watkinson

I wholeheartedly support full-time education for excluded pupils; they almost need it more than the others.

Like most hon. Members, I spend much of my time visiting the schools in my constituency. That is one of the most enjoyable parts of being an MP, and I am hugely encouraged about the future when I make those visits. The head teachers in my schools are providing dynamic, effective leadership that inspires and motivates teachers, governors and pupils alike. They are entitled to take much of the credit, but even in those advantageous circumstances, a school cannot achieve its aims without the essential ingredient of parental support and involvement.

The presence of parents in a school, helping in a variety of ways in addition to the parent-teacher association, and their involvement at home, ensuring that homework is completed on time and simply taking an interest in what has happened during the school day, give children a sense of security that enables them to make the very best of the opportunities that their school is offering. Of course, we all know that some children do not have such benefits, and parents whose personal experience of school was not positive are the least likely to be able to help their own children or to seek contact with their children's school. In schools with a large percentage of pupils who do not enjoy that support and encouragement, enabling those children to fulfil their potential is an additional challenge in terms of pastoral care.

I want to pay tribute to the splendid special schools in London, where pastoral care is especially important. I have three excellent special schools in my constituency, one of which I visited last night, to meet a group of parents of autistic children. The word "inclusion" strikes fear into the hearts of such parents, who rarely, if ever, enjoy an uninterrupted night's sleep, and for whom everyday activities such as having visitors to their home or going shopping are impossible. For such parents, and many others, special schools are an essential lifeline, and inclusion would be impossible. The inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream school needs to be very selective, and is only for those who can cope and for whom it would be a positive experience. Separate provision for many special needs children will always be necessary, and total inclusion would be damaging to them and to the interests of pupils and staff in the receiving mainstream school. I seek the Minister's assurance as to the secure future of London's special schools.

The test of a successful school has less to do with league tables and more to do with the difference between what goes in at one end and what comes out the other. The measure of real success is how much progress those individual children have made during their time in the school and under what circumstances. Nationally, of the 29 LEAs scoring 100 points or more with value added results, 22 were London boroughs, 12 of them in inner London. The head teachers of those schools have best practice to share with weaker schools. They know what works and what does not through practical experience. They must be given control over policies, budget, staffing and how their schools are run.

We have seen a plethora of initiatives in recent times, including the London leadership strategy, London business challenge, "Aiming High", the London Development Agency's education commission, "Presentation", Race on the Agenda—ROTA—excellence in cities, the youth inclusion programme, the national mentoring network, peer mentoring, "Chance", "Talented and Gifted", and the active community unit. But despite all this spending and frenetic activity, teacher vacancies have soared, one in three of London's 14-year-olds and one in four of London's 11-year-olds are still unable to read, write and count properly, and the extra costs facing schools this year put many budgets into crisis.

The Government have spent millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on initiatives. They need to stop their centralising, command and control style because it has only limited success. The freedom needs to be passed to individual schools, where the professional expertise is based. It is the role of Government to create the most favourable conditions possible in which London schools may flourish, and then to take a step backwards, allow the professionals to get on with the job that they are qualified to do, and provide parents with a range of good schools from which to choose for their children. That way lies real progress.

1.43 pm
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab)

I want to start by thanking my hon. Friend the Minister and Tim Brighouse for the fantastic resources that they have put into London schools. I listened with amazement to the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) talking about her visits to schools in her constituency. When she is there, I bet that she claims some of the credit for the improvements in London schools, but when she comes here, she tells us what a dismal picture it is. I cannot believe that she gets that message from her local teachers.

I would like to pay a similar compliment to Wandsworth, my local authority, for trying hard to improve schools in its area. I am afraid, however, that the report on Wandsworth would have to say, "Could do better." It has done little more than pass on to schools in Wandsworth the money that the Government have given them. On many occasions, it has failed even to do that, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows only too well from talking to Wandsworth. It failed to passport the full income to its schools this year, leaving them £460,000 short. It failed last year, leaving them £1.7 million short of the money that the Government were putting into Wandsworth education, which was not being matched by Wandsworth council. Actually, it held back some of that money for no other reason than to keep the council tax low. Of course, if we consider formula spending share, last year it was £7 million below that. The council has the lowest spending per secondary pupil in inner London.

I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State, in January next year, to use their powers under the Education Act 2002 to force Wandsworth council to spend the money that the Government are investing in Wandsworth education, and to pass on to the schoolchildren of Wandsworth the benefits of a Labour Government, rather than holding them back for its own reasons.

Although Wandsworth does not do as well as it should in terms of secondary education, there is no disputing the fact that the success of secondary schools in Wandsworth has increased impressively over the last few years, by some 12 or 13 per cent. The bulk of the credit must go to the staff, who prepare the pupils, and the pupils who sit the exams. They will be the first to say, as they say to me, that none of that could have happened without the resources that the Government have invested in education. Just in the borough of Wandsworth, the number of teachers is up by 120, and the number of classroom assistants is up by nearly 200, which is an increase of about 59 per cent. That has made such a difference to the effectiveness of schools.

Only last week, I held a small reception out on the Terrace for a dozen members of the staff of Salesian college, a Catholic boys school in my constituency, which has in the short space of five years nearly trebled the proportion of pupils gaining 5 good GCSEs from 18 per cent. to 51 per cent. I would be the first to say that 5 GCSEs is a very crude measure of a school's achievements and does not take account of half the things that a school does for its pupils. But I am sure that that statistic tells the truth about this school and thousands like it that struggled under the previous Government to maintain standards but have blossomed and been able to increase standards dramatically under a Labour Government.

There is only one other secondary school in my constituency. It has also more than trebled its GCSE score over the last five years, but from a much lower base. It started only five years ago at 4 per cent., one of the lowest in the country, and is now up to 14 per cent. That is in no way a lesser achievement, and may be an even greater one—it has burnt out one head teacher, and a superhuman effort has been required from the present head and his staff to get this far. Another superhuman effort will be required to achieve the target of 25 per cent. of pupils with five A to C grades this summer. The school is confident that it can achieve that, and I shall be the first to congratulate it if it can.

But what worries me, and what I want to draw to my hon. Friend the Minister's attention, is the range between different schools in the same borough. That school—let us call it school A, as I do not want the schools themselves to be the issue—has achieved 14 per cent. Another school in the same borough—school B—has achieved 84 per cent. While school A has improved—it has trebled its proportion—school B has improved even more. That is not because school A is in a low-income area and school B is in a high-income area. School A is next to an estate on one side, but on the other side, it is little more than 100 yd from Prince of Wales drive, which is one of the smartest addresses in south London, while school B is in a part of Tooting that, with all due respect to people who live in Tooting, is nowhere near as smart. It is not a question purely of income or area.

What worries me is that we have what educational researchers have identified as the star-school sink-school syndrome: one school on an upward cycle, and the other school painstakingly achieving progress, like pushing a boulder up a hill, but knowing that it is always precarious and unstable, and could so easily roll back down and get stuck in a downward cycle from which there is no escape. Of course, selection plays a role in that. School B was selecting 50 per cent. of its pupils only a couple of years ago. The adjudicator reduced that to 30 per cent., and then to 25 per cent. I want to return to the role of selection.

I think we should consider at a more fundamental level the way in which choice of school works in the inner city. We almost need to consult a philosopher on some of the basic questions, but even without one to hand—my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) is not here—I think we can say that choice is only real when it is a matter of personal preference. A choice between an arts-based and a sports-based school is a real choice, as is a choice between a technical and a musical school; but a choice between a good school and a bad school is no choice at all. By definition, people will choose a good school over a bad one: the definition of a school that people consider good is a school that they would choose for their own children.

Most parents in my area use the league tables as a crude good schools guide. Asking parents whether they want a school with an 84 per cent. or a 14 per cent. success rate is not really asking them a question. That is not the definition of a good school that I would use; I would say that good schools are those that achieve the best results in the light of the pupils that they have, not those that achieve good results by recruiting high-achieving pupils. We should look at the value-added tables rather than the crude league tables.

That, however, does not alter the basic point about educational choice and geography. In a small country town with only one secondary school there is no choice, but the very absence of choice guarantees that the school will have a good ability mix. In a larger town with two, three or four secondary schools there will be a choice, and if one school specialises in art and another in science there will be a real choice.

In London we have some areas where the policy of diversity seems to work, but in other areas diversity has rapidly turned into hierarchy. Despite all the progress it has made, school A is still the last choice for parents in the borough, even—indeed, especially—those who live nearby. Because it is under-subscribed, it is forced to take a higher proportion of hard-to-teach pupils from across the area, which reinforces parents' reluctance to choose it. The adjudicator's recent findings emphasise that over time the current admission rules have created a hierarchy of school and school A is perceived to be at the bottom of that hierarchy.

That has created a situation with which I am sure we are all familiar. Better-off parents can buy their way out of the dilemma through selective schools, aptitude, religion or train fares. In one way or another, they have a wider choice. Lower-income people are forced into the wrong school, which ends up reinforcing the problems of that school.

The challenge from London schools is for the Government to establish a system that encourages the fair distribution among secondary schools of the pool of children available each year, so that no London school need take more than its fair share of disadvantaged pupils, and so that every school in London benefits from a critical mass of high-achieving pupils whose high aspirations will set standards and, in the process, raise the aspirations of the whole school. Only then will parents be able to choose between different styles of school according to their specialism or ethos—all those schools being of equal worth in the eyes of both parents and teachers.

This year in Wandsworth we piloted the new admission system, which will operate throughout London next year. However, while it may be efficient, the new system will not tackle the issue of fair distribution. Secondary school places will still be allocated on the basis of the various existing admission criteria, which are often divisive and tend to be applied in terms of competition between schools for the brightest pupils rather than collaboration to share out those who are harder to teach.

We have seen the new co-ordinated admission system in action. The divisive admission policies promoted by Wandsworth over the years have continued to contribute to the polarisation of secondary schools in the borough. At one end are schools that no one wants to go to; at the other end are schools that parents fight to get their children into. At the beginning of April, 194 parents of year 6 children in my constituency were told that Wandsworth could not offer them any of the schools that they had requested, having been asked to offer at least four and up to six. Obviously offers will be made over the coming months, but Wandsworth's initial response was zero. Meanwhile, 670 places in Wandsworth had already been offered to out-of-borough applicants.

If we are serious about raising standards in London secondary schools, which I know we are, we need a system that financially rewards secondary schools with more inclusive admission policies. I believe that the technical term is "weighted capitation". Such a system would send all schools the clear message that adopting admission policies geared towards maximising the social mix is not just socially desirable, but financially beneficial to them.

Geraint Davies

Is my hon. Friend suggesting that much greater weight should be given to requiring schools to take at least a proportion of pupils from their immediate vicinity, and that in the case of voluntary aided and foundation schools with a wider catchment mobility should be limited? Is he saying that there should be more local choice?

Martin Linton

I am not really saying that more weight should be given to how far people live from a school. We have a problem with that in Battersea, which I will explain shortly. I am, however, suggesting that we should consider banding systems to ensure that schools take a certain number of pupils from each ability range and do not end up with a preponderance of more able pupils, which by definition would create schools elsewhere in the system with a preponderance of less able pupils.

I want to say something about the powers of the adjudicator, which are critical to the Government's attempts to allow parents to reduce the level of selection. We have had two or three adjudicator reports on secondary education in Wandsworth, supported by many north Battersea parents who feel that their choices have been artificially restricted by selective schools in other parts of the borough. That has led the adjudicator to force schools to reduce their proportion of selected children on three occasions.

Last year three schools were forced to reduce the proportion. One appealed through Wandsworth council, which took the Government to court and won. The adjudicator approached the position cautiously and conservatively, reducing the proportion incrementally from 50 per cent. to 30 per cent. and then from 30 per cent. to 25 per cent., but, extraordinarily, the few powers possessed by the adjudicator have effectively been overturned by the court. I think the Minister and his colleagues should look seriously at the Education Act 2002 to establish whether it call be strengthened to ensure that the few weapons we have enabling us to create a fairer education system in London are preserved. Otherwise there is the possibility of an appeal from parents to the adjudicator for an increase in the amount of selection in Wandsworth, as well as the possibility of the court's overruling the adjudicator in favour of a more selective approach. After all, that has happened twice already.

My hon. Friend mentioned the distance between people's homes and schools. The situation in north Battersea is anomalous: we have only two secondary schools, one of which is for Catholic boys. The other, which I have described, is still at a low level compared with some, despite its heroic efforts. The adjudicator found in his last report that

parents and children living in the Battersea area have a much lower likelihood of gaining a place for their child at schools with the highest levels of pupil attainment".

In other words, people who live in north Battersea are in the worst possible position to get their children into high-achieving schools. I would certainly recommend them to consider the schools that are there, because they will often educate their children far better than is realised, but I understand the feeling of many parents that they are in a black hole because there are no high-achieving secondary schools in their area.

Those are the people who lose out on distance grounds. A map in my office shows the radius from which the different secondary schools in Wandsworth will take pupils, and very few of those concentric circles, all based in Putney and Tooting, reach as far as anywhere in my constituency. On distance grounds, people living in north Battersea have no chance of qualifying for any secondary schools in the area except for the one or two that are so undersubscribed that they have no alternative but to accept any child who applies.

That means that parents have very little choice. We have to understand the special way in which school selection operates in a city such as London. Every child probably has 15 or 20 schools to choose from within an easy travel area. Many of those schools will rule them out on distance grounds, but there is still that possibility. The statistics suggest that on average, middle-class children in London travel 3 miles to school whereas children from lower-income families travel 1 mile. What prevents school choice from being a reality for many people in my constituency is not only that they do not have any high-achieving secondary schools near them but that they could not afford to pay the fares if they applied for a school in another borough or a long way away. My constituents are caught in a double bind, and it is very difficult for them to have the options that we want all children to have at their disposal: a choice of schools, a diversity of schools, well-resourced schools and high-achieving schools. I look forward to hearing the reply of my hon. Friend the Minister.

2.2 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD)

This is a welcome and timely debate for London Members. I pay tribute to the way in which the Minister and the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made their contributions, and I shall seek to follow in their positive, constructive style and manner.

I declare my interest: beyond being a local Member of Parliament, I chair the governing body of St. James's primary school, a Church of England primary school, and I am a trustee of Bacon's city technology college. Just so no one picks me up on this, I opposed the setting up of Bacon's city technology college, but I now think that I was wrong. However, I was not wrong about the fact that it should have an appeals system against refusal to admit a pupil. The Government still have not conceded that, and if I could have one small wish granted it would be that there should be an independent appeals system for all non-fee-paying secondary schools in London, including city technology colleges. That has been bouncing around on the Government's agenda for a while, and it is really disgraceful that it has not yet happened. I hope that it will happen soon for every London secondary school, whatever its name, title or status.

I join the Minister and others in paying tribute to all those who work in schools and for schools: the teaching staff and all the other staff making up the increasing numbers in the school family. We all agree that we have in London the biggest challenges of anywhere in the country, not just because of the diversity of our population and our language mix but because of the fantastic mobility of the teacher and pupil population. My constituency has about 25 per cent. mobility, so about one in four families move home every year. In looking at a school's success, that means that teachers there do much less well in adding value, because they have each year a huge churn of pupils with whom to work, than those in stable communities in rural England. When looking at relative performance, we have to be honest about the differential factors that apply, of which that is a crucial one. Informed people know about it, but it is easy to be ignorant of it.

I pay tribute to the Government, who since taking office in 1997 have clearly identified a need to examine and sort out London education. They have given great commitment to that, and I express my unqualified gratitude. The London challenge programme is very welcome, and local education authorities and local authorities of all political colours have sought to respond positively and constructively to it. I say that, too, without qualification. However, I will list, because it is my team duty to do so, those boroughs that are led by my colleagues, although they are doing the same as Conservative and Labour boroughs. They include two different types of borough. Kingston and Sutton have very different academic profiles and issues from Lambeth, Islington and my borough, Southwark, but all those boroughs are seeking to get much better education for all their pupils.

Some separate groups of people deserve to be applauded. The Minister rightly applauded the Teach First initiative. I have seen the initiative at work, and I second that. However, I shall list another four groups which make a huge difference in all our schools, certainly in my experience, and shall signal one example of good practice in each category. The first is the business community, which often comes into schools. At London Bridge in my constituency there is a large PricewaterhouseCoopers office, which has contributed phenomenally to the education system by bringing in business people to assist in mentoring and other ways. It has made an excellent contribution. The second group is the cultural community. An English National Opera production is being put on today at the Coliseum, involving lots of London schools who have been working on it for months. ENO has done brilliant work in schools all over London for many months, raising the sights and aspirations of people who would never even have thought about opera, let alone considered going to or taking part in one. They have realised that that can give them great added value.

The third group is those at the other end of the cultural spectrum. Millwall football club has been brilliant at going into schools in the community, with community programmes in and after school. Other football and sports clubs have also done that. Fourthly, there are faith groups. A Christian group which received the Queen's Jubilee Award in the voluntary sector, XLP, based in Peckham, goes to schools in lunch hours and undertakes assemblies and out-of-school activity. It has done brilliant things in getting youngsters to take part in all kinds of music and arts, and helping them to do so with a pride and quality that they might not otherwise have had. There are all sorts of people who make up the community of energy in our schools, to whom we must pay tribute.

We are obviously discussing at all types of school, including nursery, primary and secondary schools, sixth forms and pupil referral units, but, following the hon. Member for Upminster, I want to mention special schools as well. Throughout my career, I have always said that there is a good place for special schools and a good case for them to remain. A brilliant school in my constituency, Spa school, deals with children and young people with autism, and is excellent—a high-quality, caring school. A school for children with severe learning and other disabilities, including physical needs, Cherry Garden school, does work of huge quality in all sorts of ways. I would defend to the last ditch the right for special schools to exist and the right for parents to choose them, rather than have every special school pupil integrated where that is inappropriate.

We need to assess how we are doing, and I want to reinforce the plea that we should not just look crudely at league tables. They are an unfair, inappropriate way of making assessments. It is value added that counts: assessing children as they arrive and as they leave. Only that can be the measure of a school's success, and even that must be qualified by the variations in the school community when people move in and out of the school.

What has been happening? The Government have been going down the road of having different types of school, and I do not dissent from that. We are in the middle of a period of debate about choice. More different types of school, with more names and characteristics, are going to be proposed by different parties. In itself, that is not a bad thing. A city technology college that does its job well and enhances technology learning is a good thing, and the Minister knows that I supported the city academy idea before many of his colleagues in Southwark. I visited Ministers and people in Downing street about that, and the City of London academy, which happens to have been built in my road, although not by my choice, is a hugely welcome initiative. It started on a temporary site in Peckham and is moving to Bermondsey later this year. That is a brilliant development, involving nearly 700 new places, of which all but a few go to Southwark children, with a few going to the City of London.

Other schools have changed their status, including Warwick Park, which has become a city academy. I pay tribute to Lord Harris of Peckham, a Conservative peer who has put money into schools in his borough and into schools elsewhere in London. In doing so, he has begun to transform them into schools which people want to go to, rather than the opposite.

On recognising value, there are more such schools in the pipeline. Notre Dame Roman Catholic girls school near the Elephant and Castle has twinned with Sacred Heart school in Camberwell. Notre Dame and Sacred heart have language status, which is really important, because its community consists of people from all over the world. There is a huge Latin American community, for example. Archbishop Michael Ramsey school draws people from all over Southwark, and Aylwin Girls school is seeking new status. I should also mention St. Michael's Roman Catholic school in Bermondsey. Such developments give schools status and recognition, which is welcome.

I want to pick up on a hugely important point made by the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton). Every year, I go through the trauma and grief of having many families come to see me about their choice of London secondary schools. Such choice is often a tragic delusion. To say to London parents, "You have a choice" is just not true. At this time of year, there are thousands of families in this capital city who have made their choice of secondary school, but have not been given a place in any of the schools that they have chosen. Having more independent schools with a greater number of independent admissions policies does not produce a fair choice of schools for the pupils and families who are applying. It does not necessarily produce greater equality of opportunity for the people whom we seek to represent.

I am absolutely clear, therefore, that Londoners need a diverse variety of schools—so that they can choose one that specialises in sport, languages, technology, arts, science or whatever—but they must also have a common admissions system. Nobody would seek to argue that there should not be a common university admissions system; indeed, it would be bizarre to argue that there should not be equality of process. London schools must also have such equality, but all must take part. It would be completely unacceptable—I say this as a member of the Church of England—for Church schools not to take a full part. Church of England schools, Roman Catholic schools and all other faith schools must take part; indeed, it would be selfish and immoral of them not to do so.

I sincerely hope that such schools do play a full part, because it would be quite wrong for them to seek a status that separates them from the rest. The city academies and the city technology colleges must also take part, and all secondary schools in London must be part of that process; otherwise, it will not be fair. and the intended outcome will not be achieved. Our university admissions process does not take the view that, because Selwyn college, Cambridge had an Anglican foundation, or because University college London had a secular foundation, they should not be part of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. The reality is that one has to go through the system, and all London schools should do so as well.

Of course London needs to build new schools and to re-start failing schools, but success in this city will have arrived only when every parent and youngster is happy to go to every single school. We will know that we have arrived when every parent says of every school in Battersea, Bermondsey, Southwark, Upminster, Chipping Barnet or anywhere else, "It may not be exactly where I wanted, but I am very happy that my child goes there."

If we are going to have a common admissions system for all non-fee-paying schools, I hope that it will apply to all schools, process applications quickly and prevent people from holding on to more than one place, as currently happens. However, a second step is needed: to ensure greater reconciliation of admissions policies in each borough. As the hon. Member for Battersea rightly said, at the moment, if one conducts admissions by distance, the anomaly arises whereby places in certain boroughs do not get nearly as many opportunities as others, because they do not have as many schools near to them. In a borough such as mine, which has a lot of Church schools, one has a much better chance of getting into a secondary school if one is a Roman Catholic or an Anglican. Other boroughs have almost no Church schools.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab)

I am very interested in the hon. Gentleman's line of argument. Would he also argue that schools should not be able to select on the basis of sex?

Simon Hughes

No. There needs to be choice: we need boys schools, girls schools and mixed schools. As we know, the issue is that more parents of girls want their children to go to single-sex schools than do parents of boys. In Southwark, we have ended up with a shortage of boys schools, because the former Inner London education authority closed some of them. Now, we have suddenly realised that there is an imbalance. The issue is difficult. In my judgment, it is better to go to a mixed school because such schools are more like society in the real world; however, people should be able to choose.

Geraint Davies

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that all Church schools should be part of a co-ordinated scheme, or that the current common admissions policy should apply, whereby they cannot use religious criteria to filter out certain people? Is it by definition fair if they simply join the co-ordinated scheme?

Simon Hughes

The hon. Gentleman is right, and there are two issues. First, all schools in London should be in the system. People should not be able to get into a secondary school unless they apply through the common admissions policy. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman and I well know, we are long way from having a common set of admissions criteria. My personal view—I say this a Christian, a member of the Church of England and the chairman of governors of a school—is that no faith school or non-community school should be allowed to have more than 25 per cent. of pupils from the faith or denomination in question. Otherwise, there is disproportion, and problems can arise if one sets up Buddhist schools, Muslim schools and so on, because they can lead to racially divided schools. That is not my party's view, but it happens to be mine.

Angela Watkinson

I was dwelling on what the hon. Gentleman said about admissions to faith schools. Does he agree that one main reason for the success of denominational schools is that everybody—pupils and parents—subscribes to their ethos? If a significant proportion did not, the whole nature of such schools would change.

Simon Hughes

I understand that argument, but I do not accept it. I visited a Muslim school in Brent the other day and I have visited many other such schools. In my view, many people buy into a school's ethos even if it is not their own personal ethos. Many people who do not go to church want their children to go to a Church school because they like the ethos, and because they want their children to be brought up in a school that is run according to Christian principles. It is a matter of judgment as to whether 50 per cent. of pupils need to be practising Christians. In my judgment, one can sustain the ethos of any school—be it a Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim school—provided that a quarter or more of pupils come from the background in question. That said, the issue is of course open to debate.

I am clearly against the Greenwich judgment, which is wrong. It is sad that the Tories and Labour did not repeal it— [Interruption.] If I might have the Minister's attention for a second, I encourage him to repeal that judgment and I shall tell him why. Of course, there are schools that are near boundaries, but one builds up communities by allowing people to go to a school that is in their borough. A school must be able to say, "You live in this borough, so we are going to give you priority." At the moment there is flight all over London, as we all know, which does nothing to enhance community.

Of course people must be expected to travel to school; indeed, in rural areas there is often only one school and people have to travel for miles. But the Greenwich judgment is bad for communities and for community building, and I ask the Government to look at it again seriously. To do so would be of equal benefit to the much more prosperous boroughs such as Richmond, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) is the Member of Parliament, and to boroughs such as Lambeth and Southwark. It is not going to be more disadvantageous to inner London.

Kate Hoey

I agree wholeheartedly with that. Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the effect can be seen in the new academy in Lambeth, which was fought for and campaigned for so strongly by Lambeth parents, who were so short of secondary places, only for them to discover that nearly half the pupils would come from Wandsworth, making it no longer feel like a Lambeth school?

Simon Hughes

As so often, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and her neighbour agree across the borough divide.

During the year, people also arrive in London and seek school admission. We need the ability to tell a school that it must up its numbers to accept pupils who are without a school in the middle of the year. Only small numbers are involved, but taking a rigid view that no child can ever be admitted because the school is full is not right. In fact, the school may be full in notional number terms but net physically full and I hope that attitudes can be changed in that respect.

On pupil and staff numbers, recruitment and retention, I want to reinforce the point that I made earlier: we must look seriously into the falling number of qualified primary school teachers. I have the Government figures from parliamentary answers and it is clear that the pupil-teacher ratios are worsening in primary schools. Yes, school assistants and others are available, but at the end of the day we need enough teachers to do the job. How do we recruit more of them, and what are the priorities?

There is a real need to recruit more men to teach, particularly in primary schools. There is a real need in London to recruit primary school teachers from the minority ethnic communities and from the black community so that we have an ethnic mix with appropriate role models. There is also clearly a need to do something about senior management. The Government are alert to the view that some school principals, heads and senior staff are brilliant, but some, bluntly, are not. My view is that there should be a five-year contract, which would allow us to get rid of senior staff after five years if they were not up to scratch. We have to be ruthless about that. Unless there is a good person leading the school, the school will not do well. I hope that we will look further into that problem. Finally, we need to provide more housing in London. The Government have made a good start, but we are not nearly there yet.

I now have time only for a shopping list in respect of what further needs to be done. Please will the Government pick up on the point that one of the Minister's predecessors acknowledged was important some years ago—starting mentoring in the last year of primary school so that it follows through into the secondary school when, for all sorts of reasons, initiative may drop off?

Secondly, let us go on encouraging play and sport, recreation and swimming. The old political correctness of the 1980s—that competitive sport is no good—has left a sad legacy. Schools desperately need things for energetic young people to do. To be honest, the more swimming and other sports that schools can offer, the better.

Thirdly, the Minister is right—and the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has been brilliant on the issue—that unless we improve the performance of black teenagers and white working-class teenagers, London is in big trouble. In that context, we have to bring down the number of exclusions, particularly of black teenagers, because otherwise we will create an enormous social problem. I disagree fundamentally with what appears to be the new Tory policy. There should always be the possibility of appeal against a decision to exclude. Occasionally, schools can get into a mindset against a particular pupil without very good reason. In those circumstances, there must be an independent appeals system.

We must remember that, at 14, a non-academic pupil may want to go out and do some work. Sitting at the back of a boring class is not much use for such pupils and the more chance they have of gaining work experience from 14, the better.

New buildings are great and we should support the Government in replacing the poor buildings, but we need the buildings and facilities to be open throughout the week, not just in school hours. We also need genuine community facilities.

Finally, my colleagues in Southwark would never forgive me if I failed to mention the need for more money. We are waiting for the comprehensive spending review and I gather that the building schools for the future programme has not sorted out the funding gap between the resources provided by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and those provided by the Department for Education and Skills. My colleagues are awaiting the reconciliation that will allow the schools to be built.

I finish with the point that the best investment is not in the buildings, but in the people—the heads, the staff, the teachers and then the pupils. We can make do with a relatively ropey building if the right people are in it. We are moving in the right direction. I salute the Government, but I hope that they get admissions and appeals right and that we get the Greenwich judgment repealed. We will then be moving even further in the right direction than we are now.

2.24 pm
Roger Casale (Wimbledon) (Lab)

I welcome the Minister's remarks and his invitation to rise to the London challenge. Some people visiting my Wimbledon constituency today may believe that the only person facing a serious challenge is a certain tennis player called Tim Henman. However, not just Tim Henman, but every single child in our schools is important.

I hope that the people entering my constituency this week will take the opportunity to look around it. If they did, they would see a great deal of energy, adrenalin and excitement being expended in a range of activities in our primary schools. They would see the Priory Church of England school, which recently was awarded a gold arts mark for promoting arts activities for young children. A silver award was won by Merton Park school. They would see, as I have seen, citizenship classes taking place in primary schools to further citizenship education for young children. That is happening in Wimbledon Park school, Wimbledon Chase school, Dundonald primary school and many others. They would see AFC Wimbledon, the football club owned and managed by the fans, helping to promote sporting activities in schools such as Poplar first school, Joseph Hood primary and Hillcross primary.

Many activities are taking place that are enriching the curriculum and promoting a more rounded education. They are all taking place in an environment in which school buildings have been rebuilt, the infrastructure has been refurbished, class sizes reduced and much more care and attention have been given to the needs and aspirations of individual pupils. All that is a direct result of seven years of Labour Government providing the necessary investment and reforms—and long may that continue. I hope that all those who come to Wimbledon this week to see the tennis will see the improvements that I am describing in my constituency's schools and will also understand that the Labour Government are responsible for them.

The London challenge, as I understand it, is an invitation to take all that on to the next stage. Many hon. Members have been able to point to success and achievement in their constituencies and we celebrate the contribution of parents, children, teachers, governors and the local education authorities. The challenge now is to ensure that that achievement, that success and those new opportunities are available to all children from every community in London.

We need to tackle the barriers that are holding back certain parts of our community, not least the ethnic minorities. We know that Asian children, of which there are many in my constituency's schools, are performing well and above average, not least thanks to the great value that the Asian community itself places on education, parental assistance and back-up at school. Sadly, though, we know that in other areas, not least in respect of the Afro-Caribbean community, those rates of achievement have not yet been attained.

One of the most exciting aspects of the London challenge is that we learn to look at London as a whole. There has been a tendency to think of my borough of Merton, for example, as being a relatively affluent outer London suburb. Of course some parts of my constituency are affluent. Those looking down on St. Mary's church on people eating strawberries and cream at Wimbledon tennis and seeing the green around the area could not fail to think that it is affluent. However, one needs only to visit different parts of the borough to see some of the most deprived wards in London. The formula by which money is distributed in London, and the way in which we look at educational challenges from a strategic point of view, does not always properly reflect the special needs of pockets of deprivation within certain areas of London in the best possible way. I hope that the London challenge will give a new strategic focus to the Merton challenge—the challenge that my borough of Merton faces as we work to take forward improvements in our schools. It is the key to ensuring the life chances of the next generation of people in our communities, but it is also a very important political challenge. That is because there is a relationship between the decisions that Government take about funding and the reform of public services, for instance, and the results that are achieved.

In my constituency, many people voted Labour for the first time in 1997. They told me then, and afterwards, that they did so because they wanted improvements in our primary and secondary schools, and in the whole range of educational services. There are independent private schools in my constituency, and people continue to send their children to them. In my experience, they do so not for some sort of snob value, but because they feel that that is the only way to get the best possible education for their children. Our aim in government in the longer term must be to make sure that the best education is provided in state schools. That is why we must invest and make sure that we do not settle for average or second best. We must keep going, with new challenges being set year after year and Government after Government. It does not matter too much to me what the challenges are called, but we must keep finding a peg and a focus for the investment of more money. We must renew our determination to improve education standards, so that people want to send their children to state schools because they are the best.

We need to make a concerted effort, and there is no room for complacency, despite the many achievements that have been seen already. We can start by looking at the schools where there have been great successes and drawing lessons from them. I was pleased to be able to attend a special evening in honour of the outgoing head teacher of Wimbledon college, a voluntary-aided Catholic school for boys in my constituency. Father Michael Holman is retiring after 10 years of service, and the evening was truly inspirational. It showed how one man, through the care and attention that he devoted to each boy in the school, was able to achieve so much in such a short time. However, Father Holman openly acknowledged that those 10 years had included periods of both Conservative and Labour Governments. He knew that, under a Conservative Government, he did not have the resources that he needed to underpin the changes and improvements that he was making to the school. That has not been the case under a Labour Government.

The investment made by the Government has been important, but I also want to highlight the leadership shown by Father Holman as head teacher. During his incumbency, the number of students at the school has doubled, and there have been dramatic improvements in standards. Also, the facilities for all-round education—including for music, sport and the arts—have been expanded. We should acknowledge, of course, that there has been help from the Catholic Church, but that has been underpinned by the Government's commitment to education. That must continue.

Many other schools in my constituency have achieved dramatic improvements. Ricards Lodge girls school has achieved beacon status, Rutlish school is improving strongly and both it and Raynes Park high school are applying for specialist school status. In addition, the Ursuline convent high school had outstanding results in the most recent school year.

I want to pay tribute to all the head teachers of those schools, and to their governors and staff, for the results that have been achieved. Although those results have been underpinned by the substantial new investment that the Government have put in, they have been achieved at a time of great transition and change in Merton.

In contrast to other boroughs in the London area, in the past few years Merton has undergone a once-in-a-generation upheaval in the organisation of its school system. We used to have a three-tier system, made up of first, middle and high schools, but now we have primary and secondary schools, with the age of transfer at 11.

In 1998, the Merton local education authority finally decided to enter into the period of transition, and we are still feeling the effects. The final modifications and improvements to school buildings and infrastructure are still being made, and the new secondary school buildings will not be handed over until 6 August.

I shall devote my remaining remarks to the lessons that can be drawn from Merton's experience of providing new school buildings and taking forward the transition by means of the private finance initiative process. There is much discussion about how best to lever-in new resources and invest in new school infrastructure, but Merton has hard-won experience of having done that the PFI way. I want to share some of that experience with the House, and I hope that the Minister will respond—either when he winds up the debate or at a later meeting—to some of the concerns that have arisen about how the PFI scheme was put together.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and I sent a letter to head teachers and chairs of governors of all the secondary schools in Merton, and their responses provided much information for us about the PFI process—how it came about, how it has worked in practice, and how it looks for the future. The Catholic schools were not part of the PFI project but they also responded, and their experience means that, in a sense, we have a useful controlled experiment. If similar infrastructure renewal schemes are proposed in other parts of the country, Merton's experience offers important lessons.

My letter received very detailed responses. I shall not go into them now but, if I may, I shall forward them to my hon. Friend the Minister for his comments. I stress that although I say that lessons can be drawn from the Merton experience, I do not mean that I—or anyone who responded to the survey—think that the PFI is either good or bad in itself, from a philosophical or ideological point of view. My aim was to determine how it has worked out in Merton in practice. We have discussed PFI-funded public projects in the past, and all hon. Members who have an open mind can see the potential benefits. However, what are the real benefits of the initiative for an organisational change on the scale that we have experienced in Merton?

The benefits have included the radical redevelopments that I have described. We have upgraded a school infrastructure that in some cases was 40 or 50 years out of date, and we have prepared it for the 21st century. The sums of money involved have been extraordinarily large, and have included amounts of public money that have risen throughout the life of the contract. However, one head teacher—Ian Newman of Raynes Park high school—told me this morning that he considers it hard to avoid the impression that it might have been possible to do better with the amount of money that was involved.

One particular concern is the total cost of servicing the capital expenditure on the PFI project. It is now taking up 11 per cent. of delegated budgets from schools, whereas before only 8 per cent. of budgets was spent on maintenance. A further 3 per cent. of the schools budget is paid by the LEA. All that money comes out of the overall pot available to the LEA to fund improvements and changes in our schools. Another concern that has been put to me is that when the various funding streams are consolidated, will the proportion of 11 per cent. remain the same or will it fall? If it remains the same, the actual amount schools pay from their budgets will increase. Those moneys are badly needed in schools, but they would go to finance the PFI contract.

The head teachers who have written to me also said that the administrative savings that they thought would accrue to their schools as a result of outsourcing the management of their facilities have not yet materialised. On the contrary, several frustrations have occurred in the building and design phase and with the running of the facilities. That has resulted in increased administration costs in terms of the time that teachers and head teachers have had to spend writing to the facilities management company—in this case, Atkins—to try to resolve the problems.

The point has also been made that the PFI partners lack a community vision. For example, small changes could have been made to a sports hall that would have allowed wider community use of the facility, but they were not allowed by the PFI partner. Ricards school, which had another new sporting facility built, was forced into having girl-only changing rooms, which again means that it will not be available for wider community use. While we appreciate the extra investment and improvements, we are concerned about how they are financed and the way in which contracts have been put together. Those factors need to be examined, so that if the exercise is repeated elsewhere, the same problems do not recur.

I have described the problems of the management of the PFI contract, and I am grateful to Ricards school, Rutlish school and all the schools, who responded to my inquiry. The problems were compounded by the age of transfer changes and perhaps one of the key lessons to be learned is not to attempt a huge PFI project—I do not know whether any others are planned in London to improve school infrastructure—at the same time as undertaking a large reorganisation project, as has happened in Merton. Despite those concerns, we are now on the other side of the changes. The buildings are in place and we are starting to see the desired improvements, including better results at key stage 3 last year. The borough is now working strongly with Kingston LEA within the context of the London challenge, and has hosted the key stage 2–3 transition collaborative working group for several London boroughs. I believe that we can overcome the difficulties and see further improvements in the future.

The latest census figures demonstrate that my constituency has one of the highest birth rates in the country. I declare an interest as I have two young daughters, so my wife and I are partially to blame. Alongside the increase in the number of children in the borough, we need an increase in the provision of primary school places. Several hon. Members have referred to similar problems, but it is especially acute in my constituency—and has been so for several years, as my hon. Friend the Minister is aware.

Such difficulties can be exacerbated by building developments. New houses are built to encourage families to move into the area, but corresponding provision—such as primary school places—is not made. We have had acute shortages of places in Pelham primary school for exactly that reason. Hollymount primary school has suffered similar problems as a neighbouring site was sold off by the council to fund school expansion in other parts of the borough. The numbers were wrong, and the council had to strip primary school classes out of a different area and continued to face pressure on places at Hollymount.

As we work to improve education provision and standards, and to encourage people back into the state school sector by giving them more confidence in it, we need to take a long-sighted view of where and how expansion can take place. In particular, we must have more joined-up thinking by local authorities and in London as a whole to ensure that services—especially school provision—expand in line with new housing developments. I am sure that other hon. Members can point to examples where that unfortunately has not been the case.

As my constituency rises to the challenge that my hon. Friend has set forth, I can point to several exciting and positive developments. We are just leaving a difficult period of transition that was made more difficult by the way in which it was funded, including the way in which the PFI was put together. However, it was the only option on offer at the time. We are pleased to have the new investment, but we had no choice about how it would be funded. The way in which it has worked out has created some unforeseen difficulties and it remains to be seen whether they can be ironed out. It has also created extra costs that exacerbate the perennial problems of outer-London boroughs, such as the funding of teachers' salaries. As my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, we pay inner-London weighting to teachers in Merton, but no account is taken of that in the funding formula. All those cost issues will worsen with the passage of time.

My hon. Friend the Minister is familiar with many of those issues because we have corresponded and had several meetings about them. The problems are difficult to resolve, and many need London-wide solutions. We need a strategy for and a focus on London as a whole, not individual campaigns for each area. The schools in my constituency continue to face very real problems, including funding problems, some of which are getting worse.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look carefully at the experience of PFI in Merton and some of the lessons that can be learned from our experience. I hope that he will also look again at the overall London formula in the light of the representations that have been made to see what can be done to improve the situation not only in Merton but across London.

I finish on my first point: the exciting achievements and gains that we have already seen in our schools and rightly celebrate will not be sustained, or made for everybody in our community, unless we find new ways to tackle the problems that still exist and unless we convince everyone that we have the right focus to provide the best education for children throughout the capital, from Merton to north London and from east to west.

2.50 pm
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con)

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale). I am told that London's population is rising again; it has certainly gone up by about 400,000 over the past 25 years and the hon. Gentleman is clearly playing his part in that happy event.

I should be interested to learn whether the school population is rising, too. I have not been able to find statistics on that so it would be helpful if the Minister could tell us, as I understand that people are having fewer children, and at a later age. We used to think of the typical British family as a couple with 2.4 children, but the number is now nearer 1.6.

I come from a family of teachers, at least on my late mother's side. She was the head teacher of a state primary school, as was each of her two sisters and two brothers. It is with great pride that I tell the House that my daughter, too, has recently become a teacher and teaches in the state system in Puckeridge in Hertfordshire. It will thus come as no surprise to the House to hear that I believe that teaching is the most underpaid and undervalued of our professions and that that is a bad thing. I am also tempted to observe that my family has changed George Bernard Shaw's untrue, outdated and overworn adage; in my family, those who can, teach and those who cannot are sent into politics, although I must admit that I was for six years a teacher in a technical college.

We were almost assaulted by statistics from the two Front-Bench speakers, but one or two of those figures are worth repeating because, to put it neutrally, great challenges face the education system in London. The population is rising. There are 2,300 maintained schools, of which more than 400 are secondary schools, catering for 1 million pupils—a fair number.

I want to pick up on a point on which I have heard the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) wax eloquent—the extremes of wealth and poverty in our capital city. In some cases, a ward of immense wealth is cheek by jowl with a poverty-stricken area. Again, I shall rehearse one or two statistics to indicate the wealth of parts of London. Nearly a quarter—24 per cent.—of all households in London have a weekly income of more than £750, whereas the national average is 16 per cent. To take the obverse face of that coin, parts of London have the country's highest levels of child poverty and, as we have heard from both sides of the House, 43 per cent. of secondary school pupils in London are entitled to free meals, while the national average is well under 20 per cent.

Another important point is the unequalled ethnic diversity of our capital. I understand that 42 per cent. of children in inner London speak English as a second or additional language and I am told—although I cannot believe it—that 275 languages are spoken in London's schools. To be perfectly honest, I did not know that there were 275 languages in the whole world. Those points underline the immense challenges facing our capital city in the education of its children and the special need for extra consideration and extra financial resources.

One tends to get one's information and experience, and to draw one's conclusions, from one's own community and there is nothing wrong in that. We have teacher shortages and vacancies, although in fairness the situation has improved and the problem has lessened over the past year. However, the number of vacancies went up by 36 per cent. between 1997 and 2003, although I think the Minister will confirm that the problem has eased off. However, teacher turnover is well above the national average and in some schools it can be more than 50 per cent. a year, which brings particular problems.

Truancy remains a problem. The Minister said that there had been a slight improvement over the past year and I am glad to hear it but, on average, 50,000 London children are not going to school every day. Sadly, the Government have failed to meet the target for reducing truancy that they set a few years ago.

There are literacy problems. I am told that one in three of London's 14-year-olds is unable to read, write or count properly. That is an appalling statistic and it demands urgent action. Furthermore, one in four of London's 11-year-olds leaves primary school unable to read, write and count. However we look at those figures, even allowing for the ethnic diversity of London schoolchildren, they are appalling.

London has an extremely mobile population, which is reflected in the fact that the number of children changing from one school to another, whether in the primary or secondary sector, is double the national average. The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), said that he was very much against the Greenwich judgment and made representations to the Government to overturn it.

My current view of the Greenwich judgment is equivocal. I certainly was against it and thought that action should be taken to legislate, because in my constituency it seemed that a high proportion of secondary schools were close to the borough boundary. As the Minister knows, Ashmole school is literally on the border; his constituency encloses two sides of the school's curtilage, while my constituency encloses the other two sides. More than half the pupils are from Enfield, with slightly less from Barnet. I can understand the argument that it is better for pupils to go to a school in their own community, which is peopled from their community, but sometimes London borough boundaries cut across communities. If the Greenwich judgment was got rid of and Barnetonians were given priority to attend schools such as Ashmole, which is essentially in Southgate, although its address is Barnet, there is a strong argument that the community would be split. So it is horses for courses, and I continue to remain ambivalent about the issue.

I am not here to score petty political points—education is a very serious issue, and we want to find out how far we can achieve consensus—and I very much welcome what the Government have called the London business challenge to ensure that every secondary school has a link with a leading London business. For far too long in my political career, I have felt that our country's education system has been totally divorced from what children do when they grow up and, I hope, go into employment. I do not think that the linkage started with the London business challenge, but I very much welcome the greater social intercourse—I think that that is the unhappy phrase to use—between schools, business and, indeed, the rest of the community in which they exist.

I feel very deeply, and I am somewhat critical about this, that my borough has had a very bad deal in education funding from the Government, if not this year, particularly last year, but the problems remain this year. I want to rehearse the crisis that we faced at the beginning of the 2003—04 financial year, and I honestly do not believe that the Government realised the bad impact it would have on our schools in Barnet. Just to use the simplest statistics that I can, Barnet received from the Government an additional £8.1 million in revenue support grant for all services last year. That £8.1 million may be a meaningless figure, but it represents an increase of 3.5 per cent.—slightly above the then rate of inflation.

Although we received £8.1 million extra, we were required to pass an additional £14.5 million to the schools—equivalent to a 7.6 per cent. increase in funding. We did so because we value education very highly, but much of the huge, 24 per cent. increase in council tax was caused by the need to ensure that Barnet's schools received that extra £14.5 million. However, even that was not enough. The schools told me in no uncertain terms that they needed not a 7.6 per cent. increase, but at least an 8.1 per cent. increase to stand still. In other words, Barnet had to cover not just inflation and the above-inflation increase in teachers' pay, but find another £4.4 million for the increase in their contribution to teachers' pensions, and it had to find another £1 million on top of that in employer's national insurance contributions. All that happened when the previous year's specific grants were withdrawn and when the Government, rightly or wrongly, decided to change the schools revenue formula. So whatever happened in Barnet, some schools were less worse off, but other schools were even more worse off. Frankly, it was very difficult to find a solution to the problem.

When Barnet was criticised by Ministers, the local education authority called in independent experts who confirmed the state of play and that Barnet was in no way to be blamed. Of course, Ministers will also recall that the Audit Commission considered the problem and discovered that places such as Barnet—I do not know how many other London boroughs were affected—had a bad deal because of the policy to transfer funds from London and the south-east to the midlands and the north. So that was a very great problem indeed, and it resulted in the schools finding in April last year that they had a budget shortfall totalling £3.7 million, even though Barnet passed on the £14 5 million extra.

Twenty schools were forced to set deficit budgets, and the consequences were threefold. There had to be staff reductions. Although 34 redundancies are 34 too many, fortunately in one sense, 32 of them involved support staff, rather than teachers, but the tremors reverberated for many months. The schools had to resort to using so-called devolved capital, with the Secretary of State's permission. In other words, they spent less or nothing on capital development to pay for running and maintenance costs. Of course, there were reductions in school repairs and the training programme to prevent more redundancies. All that was very unfortunate. Things have improved slightly this year. The shortfall is only £1.9 million this year, but even so, 15 schools have set deficit budgets. The local education authority is working closely and carefully with those schools to discover whether those deficits can be got rid of over the next three years, but I shall return to that point shortly.

The Minister kindly let me intervene on his speech to mention this, but the staffing problem in Barnet relates to London weighting and it is exacerbated by the fact that it is not only too low, but not so high as it is inner London. I realise that that is an immensely difficult issue. In Potters Bar, which is just down the road from the Minister's constituency and mine, people do not get any London allowance. Lines have to be drawn somewhere, but we need a much more sophisticated approach to that issue. I just repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) said from the Conservative Front Bench: the tremendous increase in the costs of living and housing in London are playing havoc with ensuring that the vital public services have an adequate number of people. The only way to deal with that problem is to consider the whole weighting system.

The House will know that that average price of a house in the United Kingdom is now into six figures, but it is £250,000 in London and, indeed, it is £289,000 in the borough of Barnet and it is approaching £750,000 in Kensington and Chelsea. I welcome the housing initiatives, but they are only a start. The problem with London weighting must be tackled, as it is far too inadequate today, as compared with yesteryear. Of course this may be obvious, but pensioners in London receive just the same state pension as equivalent people in any other part of the United Kingdom, even though costs are much greater in London. I can only implore the Government to consider the growing problem of London weighting, especially in view of the fact that the number of applicants for teaching posts in Barnet has fallen.

I do not know whether other London Members have experienced a problem involving out-of-year children that has surfaced in Barnet and caused a great deal of anxiety. Some parents are told that if they want their children to attend a specific secondary school, the children must either go into the second year of secondary school, or miss a year of primary school. That is caused by the 1 September factor, because if children are born before 1 September, they may go to school at the age of five, but children who are born in the middle of September effectively miss a year. That is not the fault of parents, although I concede that some make a deliberate choice to keep little Johnny back from school for a year. However, it is wrong for local education authority policy to say that a child born after 1 September cannot start in his or her peer year and to insist that such a child must miss a year of primary or secondary school. The Government and local education authorities must work with schools to resolve the problem, and I know that the Minister received a delegation from the borough of Barnet last week.

I understand that the Government use broad indicators of deprivation and exam results to target capital funding, and there is nothing wrong with that, in theory. However, I would have thought that a major component behind decisions on capital funding levels and grants should be the state of the fabric of schools in a LEA. There is a desperate need to renovate or replace large parts of Barnet's primary school estate.

The Government have the right to boast that they have increased expenditure on education. Although that had increased during previous years, they have accelerated the rate of increase. However, when I look at the problems in Barnet, I sometimes think that the money is not reaching the coal face. The extra finance does not seem to be getting into the schools. The situation in the classroom is the all-important matter, and that will be the litmus test that my constituents and the people of the country will use when the Government try to persuade them that they are increasing funding in education, as well as in the health service and in public transport.

There is a London-wide problem that Governments of whatever hue must address in the years to come. The Minister will know that each year the people of London collectively put into the Exchequer through taxes £20 billion—the figure is certainly £15 billion, but it is £20 billion by my calculations—more than they receive for London's public services. If we say that we have a fair tax system, the situation occurs because London is richer than many other regions throughout the country, if not the south-east. However, in the interests of the whole nation, London, as its capital city, needs a decent system of infrastructure, and decent hospitals and schools. The £20 billion gap is becoming unfair on London, and Londoners are beginning to mind the gap—if I may use that phrase—between what they contribute to the rest of the country and what they receive to make their public services and transport systems work properly. Given the tremendous contribution that London makes, it deserves better from the Government, which is surely emphasised by the great disparity between wealth and poverty in our capital city. I started my speech by talking about that point, and I thank the House for listening to me.

3.15 pm
Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central) (Lab)

It is a great pleasure to follow the 25-minute contribution made by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman). I appreciate that he took a little time because he is the only Conservative Back Bencher in the Chamber for this enormously important debate, despite the fact that the Conservative party is launching its manifesto pledges on education today.

Our children's life chances are built on our educational investment and the standard of teaching delivery in our local schools. It is clear from the debate that we all know that London faces many specific challenges, such as the cost of housing, inadequate wages, the problems with London weighting that the hon. Gentleman outlined, the environment, multiculturalism, multilingualism and the problems of mobility mentioned by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). It is important for all those factors to be considered when calculating London's financial weighting, but despite the critical problems and the growth of costs and pressures, it is interesting to note that the formula spending share for London—the amount of funding for our schools in relative terms—has converged with that of the rest of the country over the past couple of years. Spending on London's schools is thus no longer obviously greater than that on schools outside the area, despite the fact that challenges remain.

I take this opportunity to congratulate warmly all people who are involved in our schools because, as the Minister suggested, evidence from the London challenge shows that despite the problems that I cited, more value has been added to our primary and secondary schools in London than to those in the rest of the country. That is of great credit to those who work in the profession in London.

We have made a lot of progress in London and elsewhere, especially on primary schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) talked about the possibility of people moving from the private to the public sector in the future, and I think that that is happening in primary schools. We have invested in provision for three and four-year-olds, and we are beginning to see the fruits of investing more in secondary school provision.

Recruitment and retention have always been big challenges for London, so I am pleased by new incentives to encourage further recruitment, which are making a difference in Croydon. I give a great welcome to the £100,000 grants, or interest-free loans, that are available for teachers who have spent between four and seven years in their posts, yet might move elsewhere in the country. That scheme is beginning to make a difference in Croydon. The new agenda to encourage face-to-face youth work is being embraced and represents a valuable re-engineering of the previous budget. I welcome the co-ordinated admission approach on which the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) commented. The bottom line is that a common application system with data shared among all schools will lead to pupils getting school places earlier because people will not hold on to an excessive number of places, which denies other pupils any place at all. The system will become more transparent and efficient, and although that will not deliver more choice in itself, choice will become available earlier.

In Croydon each year, about 1,000 pupils at secondary level—a third—move into schools in the borough and 1,000 move out. About 1,000 pupils come down from Lambeth and Southwark, while 1,000 move out to Sutton, Bromley and the private sector in three equal tranches. The pupils who go to Sutton and Bromley enter the grammar school system, so parents living in Sutton and Bromley whose children do not get into grammar schools and do not want them to enter the secondary modern system send their children to Croydon. In other words, Croydon takes some of the rejects from grammar schools in Sutton and Bromley, and people also drift down from Lambeth and Southwark. Funding is organised not on the basis of who goes to school in the area but who lives in the borough, which can cause problems. In recent years, the disparity in standards attained by children leaving Croydon and those arriving has narrowed significantly. The standard attained by children from Southwark and Lambeth, for example, has improved following the Government's investment in primary education. At key stage 2, for example, most children leaving Croydon and those arriving achieve level 4 or 5.

Despite capping, there is still a problem with funding in Croydon. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet alluded to the basic cause—a formula change at a time of rising pensions and salaries and the requirement that teachers work a little less to focus on their core duties. I am, however, happy to report to the Minister that despite the worst fears of heads in Croydon, there were no compulsory redundancies last year, the overall school balance did not fall from £11 million to £3 million as predicted—in fact, it is stable at about £10 million—and only two schools drew on their capital. Government money has been passported to Croydon schools, but we have other problems. Council tax has been capped and the formula change has resulted in less funding for schools, but the squeeze is harder in other areas. Croydon schools have enjoyed many successes, and New Addington education action zone—now an excellence in cities project—has been particularly successful under the leadership of Pat Holland. Various schools are pushing up their standards. Recently, Addington high school achieved improvements in pipeline results. Ashburton school is using the private finance initiative to regenerate itself. I hope that the lessons described by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon will be taken on board.

Pupil referral units were mentioned by the hon. Member for Upminster, but it is important to remember that under this Administration all children who are excluded will receive full-time education and will not roam the streets, as they did in the Tory days, committing crimes. Seventy per cent. of children in pupil referral units in Croydon go on to further education and do not, as they did under the Conservatives, take up a life of crime and repeat offending. The Minister and other Members said that we need to focus on how well black boys in particular do in school. We need to consider whether education is successfully delivered to those children, but we also need to consider whether there is a pervasive culture of it not being cool to study. Children must be told that their future financial welfare and what they can do with their life chances will be determined by their educational output, and we need attractive role models to deliver that message.

Other Members wish to contribute to our debate, so I shall conclude. In Croydon, the Government have invested in provision for three and four-year-olds, primary classes and secondary schools. It is crucial that we get it right in secondary schools if we are to fulfil our ambition of getting 50 per cent. of people into university. People opt out of the state sector and take up private provision so that their children can have a launch pad for university. The challenge for us is to bring those people back, as we have done in the health service and primary schools, through proper investment and quality control in secondary schools, and I am sure that we will rise to it.

3.24 pm
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD)

I thank the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) for making a brief speech. There have been some long speeches, so he has provided me with an opportunity to speak, and I shall try to speak for less than 10 minutes so that other Members may speak.

Our debate has clearly demonstrated a diversity of experience. There is an enormous gulf between the problems in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and those in Twickenham. None the less, our conclusions are broadly similar. My constituency highlights not merely the different problems of inner and outer London, but the differences between primary and secondary education. We have the best results in standard assessment tests for 11-year-olds, not just in London but in Britain, which is a remarkable performance. There is a sense of excitement and achievement in local primary schools, where positive thinking is in evidence. The population is highly educated and the staff are drawn from a large pool of highly educated, professionally qualified women. The council—Liberal Democrat for many years, but now Conservative—has funded the primary school sector above standard spending assessment levels, and that is one of the many reasons why our primary schools have done extremely well.

The secondary sector undoubtedly includes some very good schools and displays some good teaching standards, but a key statistic shows that 40 per cent. of parents migrate to the private sector. They are not escaping from bad schools—their experience is very different from that of parents in central London—but are going to the private sector because of head-to-head competition with some of the finest private independent schools in the country, including St. Paul's, Lady Eleanor Holles and Hampton. There is a graphic visual image in Hanworth road in my constituency, where two independent day schools—Lady Eleanor Holles and Hampton—are sited side by side. Next to them is a local community school, Hampton community college, which is much smaller and less well equipped. There is some good teaching there and some good pupils, but there are also challenging pupils. For a local parent with enough money to afford private education the choice is therefore a no-brainer. It is extremely difficult for the state secondary sector to maintain effective competition with the independent schools in the circumstances, and the problem is percolating down to primary schools. I recently had a slightly surreal interview with the head teacher of a highly successful junior school, whose SATs results are among the best in Britain. He was suffering from falling school rolls, because parents are taking their children out of his school to prepare them for common entrance, so that they do not miss out on an independent education.

What are we to do about that problem? We are long past the stage of arguing that we should get rid of the independent sector. That is not going to happen, and many independent schools are fine educationally on their own terms. What is the Government's agenda on collaboration between the independent and state sector? How can that be managed in a constructive way? There have been token efforts in the past, such as the joint use of rowing clubs. There have been attempts at joint projects, none of which, as far as I know, has led to anything. Is there any way in which the currently rather competitive and destructive relationship can be made more positive?

There is a link between that problem and the second problem, which is the Greenwich judgment. My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned that, and I echo his remarks about its damaging effects on constituencies such as mine. It just happens that there is a perfect symmetry between the large-scale migration of pupils into the private sector and the scale of migration into the borough from other boroughs. About 40 per cent. of all places are filled by out-of-borough pupils. The two problems are linked because as more out-of-borough pupils—many of them challenging, to use the jargon word—come into the secondary schools, growing numbers of local parents send their children into the private sector. The problem becomes cumulative.

The Greenwich judgment is damaging in several respects. Large numbers of parents feel a strong sense of grievance that they cannot get their children into local schools, whereas others from across the border can do so. That leads to a great distortion in the school building programme, because the local council of whatever party is unwilling to build schools near the frontier because they will be filled with out-of-borough pupils, so school-free zones are being created artificially by the Greenwich judgment problem. There are also serious anomalies in funding, as the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) said in an earlier intervention. Often, the migrant population coming in from other boroughs has totally different characteristics from that of the host borough. It just happens that in my case in the Hampton area, the migrant population is a deprived population, which is funded at the level of the host borough, not at that of the migrating pupils.

Martin Linton

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some local authorities encourage high achievers from neighbouring boroughs to come into their schools, and export low achievers from their own borough to other schools?

Dr. Cable

I am sure that that happens. It is the opposite problem from the one that I am describing, where challenging pupils coming into a borough clearly need extra funding, but are not getting it. The border schools are therefore seriously under-funded and have serious educational difficulties. I raised the issue in a debate three years ago with the then Minister for School Standards, now the Minister for the Arts. She agreed that there was a problem and cited an experimental arrangement in Solihull, I think, to try to overcome the problem of cross-border movement and funding arrangements. I urge the Minister to give it his attention.

The third issue that I shall touch on is the broader philosophy of choice and what it means. We have had sufficient examples during the debate to show the ambiguous and confusing way in which the word "choice" is used. Most of us think it means parents on behalf of their children having the right, in some sense, to choose a school. The Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), seemed to mean the opposite—the school having the right to choose its pupils. Even the choice of a school by the parents is an ambiguous concept, as we have heard. Preference and choice might mean quite different things—cross-border or not cross-border, faith or non-faith schools, for example.

I agree with the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that we need if not standardised systems of admission, at least compatible principles. The only reasonable arrangement to reconcile the demands of different groups of parents applying for different types of school is a criterion based predominantly on distance and possibly on sibling connection, or some mix of those two factors. There would be significant drawbacks to any other arrangement, such as a lottery—it was recently proposed that applicants should be chosen by lot, which has enormous disadvantages because it breaks down any sense of geographical identity and greatly adds to transport costs and all the environmental problems associated with that. What is needed is a common set of rules based on distance and sibling relationship. If that principle were applied, much of the sense of injustice would be substantially diminished.

I shall mention two other points briefly and then allow another hon. Member to speak. On capital funding, I echo the cautionary words of the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale). For many years my borough was unable to achieve any capital funding whatever. In the Conservative years it was effectively barred. With the new Government we have had a considerable amount of capital spending, which is welcome, but the only basis on which that could be arranged was the private finance initiative. No other vehicle was available.

On a purely pragmatic basis, I and my former Lib Dem council welcomed that and worked with the PFI programme. It has worked relatively well. Schools have been built and they have been completed on time. Ours is one of the few boroughs from which Jarvis emerges with a moderate degree of credit, but the programme is storing up problems. We should be frank about that. The hon. Gentleman spelled out the problems. Many schools have a commitment to a fixed set of repayment obligations, amortisation and maintenance costs that will have to be maintained, come what may.

We are currently in a good phase of school funding—that may be partly a reflection of the Government's resources being put into schools—but there will come a time when schools are seriously squeezed for funding and they will not be able to make any economies on the maintenance side. All the cuts will have to come out of teaching. I can see the crisis looming ahead. Many of our teachers are apprehensive about it. It may be useful to hear from the Government how they would deal with the rigidity in the funding of PFI schemes.

Finally, I shall ask the Minister about a sector of education that we have not touched on at all in the debate—the pre-school sector. There is a great deal of emphasis on the early years. I strongly support all the research showing how crucial that is to subsequent performance. My borough, together with Croydon, is one of the two that have not complied with Government requirements for free nursery education for three and four-year-olds. What action does the Minister intend to take to make sure that boroughs do comply? How does he intend to help them overcome their problem? There is a political issue. It is a Conservative-controlled council so I do not want to make excuses for it, but I am told that the council cannot meet the funding requirements for the Government's stipulations. Perhaps the Minister will explain the balance of the argument and how the council can be helped or made to comply with the statutory requirements for pre-school provision.

Geraint Davies

For the record, Croydon had a problem with compliance, but I understand that it now provides the pre-school places following negotiation with the Government.

Dr. Cable

In that case, my borough may be the last in the line. On that note, I shall allow another hon. Member a chance to speak.

3.35 pm
Jon Cruddas (Dagenham) (Lab)

Like the two previous speakers, I shall be brief, which should allow my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) to speak.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss education and schools in London and want to examine empirical data on outcomes. Debates about public services are too often based on an abstract conception of the efficiency of public or private provision. In contrast, I want to examine what is happening locally on the ground, with reference to education and attainment in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, where a dramatic change, which throws up important issues on the links between attainment and class, is occurring.

The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) touched on that point when she discussed Robert Clack school, which is situated in the middle of a series of housing estates and has experienced an extraordinary transformation under the headship of Paul Grant and his senior management team. The school is an example of good practice, which I am sure figures heavily in the Minister's approach, and it has broken some assumptions on class and attainment.

I shall briefly rehearse a couple of economic statistics about Barking and Dagenham, which is traditionally seen as a predominantly white, working-class community, but which is now one of the fastest-changing boroughs in Greater London. With a population of approximately 150,000, however, Barking and Dagenham is the smallest borough in London. Only 3.5 per cent. of its adult residents have a higher education qualification, compared with a London-wide average of 18.5 per cent. Poor levels of adult numeracy and literacy are recorded among the borough's population—it is respectively the second and fourth worst borough in the country on adult numeracy and literacy.

The long-term track record on GCSE results in Barking and Dagenham is poor—in 1992, only 15.5 per cent. of pupils achieved five or more GCSEs at grades between A* and C. Overall, the borough may be characterised as having historically low levels of attainment. The consequence of that record has been the production of stocks of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, who work in car assembly or construction in the immediate community.

Dagenham and Barking sits at the centre of the so-called Thames gateway. East London is beginning to experience an economic and social transformation, and Dagenham is at the centre of that process. Ford has diversified from car assembly to high quality engine production, and tens of thousands of jobs have been generated in docklands and Canary Wharf, which throws up skills-based challenges for my constituents.

On the role of the state, the two key transmission belts to enable local people to plug into that economic transformation are first, capital infrastructure to enable people to travel to the sites where jobs are generated, and secondly, the creation of a training and skills profile to allow local communities to access those economic changes. The real problem is that that unique opportunity for my constituents will be missed if we do not secure the right balance between capital infrastructure projects, skills provision and investment in education and training.

The evidence of change in the borough is overwhelming and dramatic. In 1996, 27 per cent. of pupils obtained five of more GCSEs at grades between A* and C. At that time, the national average was 45 per cent.—in short, the borough was 18 per cent. behind the national average. Last year, 49 per cent. of pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grades between A* and C and the national average was 53 per cent. The point is that the borough is only 4 per cent. behind the national average, and that the gap has been reduced by 14 percentage points since 1996. The key stage 4 results are paralleled by developments at key stages 1, 2 and 3. Overall, between 2002 and 2003 the borough secured a 7.4 per cent. increase in five A* to C grades—among the highest in Greater London and, indeed, the country. The average for Greater London was some 3.1 per cent.

Six of the eight secondary schools in the borough are in my constituency. I pay tribute to the heads—Des Smith, Paul Grant, Anne Brooks, Roger Leighton, John Torrie and Stephen Smith—for all their hard work. Last year, all those schools improved, and the A* to C grades of one, All Saints, improved from 68 per cent. to 87 per cent. Two others—Roger Clack and Sydney Russell—jumped by more than 10 per cent., and Priory and Eastbrook schools jumped by 5 per cent. Those statistics demonstrate that we are witnessing a major transformation locally. Our comparators now tend to have a different socio-economic profile from those of the past 10 years.

At the same time, a major push is occurring on adult learning. We are confronting the numeracy and literacy problems that I mentioned earlier, and the borough is working closely with the trade union movement to enhance the education and training that is available to its staff. For example, over the past 12 months, 75 out of 76 refuse collection workers signed up to a basic skills course. I pay tribute to the groundbreaking work of the borough's union learning representatives, especially those in the GMB.

A transformation is under way that is beginning to break the link between poverty and attainment—or at least to challenge some of the assumptions about that link. It is redistributing life chances to people in the borough and allowing them to plug into the process of regeneration that leads to better jobs and a material change in the conditions that they and their families experience. People often say that the Government are not radical, but what is happening as a result of the education and skills agenda in my borough is genuinely radical. I do not say that as a shameless advocate of all Government policy: I have problems with top-up fees and some aspects of academies, but those can be saved for another time.

I pay particular tribute to Roger Luxton and his team at our local LEA. They have done an extraordinary amount of work over the past few years and are trying to confront the long tail of under-achievement among many working-class white children in my community. There is a long way to go. It is a long-term process that takes time—there is no big bang—but the hard groundwork for implementing durable change year on year has been established. The focus is on basic literacy and numeracy, with resources and a strong strategic lead provided by the LEA. Staying-on rates are improving. Turning the situation around will take time, but we have found that change is possible. I believe that this agenda is consistent with the objectives of the Labour party in terms of delivering material, economic and social change for working-class people. For my constituents in London, our schools agenda fulfils that historic objective, and I very much welcome it.

3.43 pm
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) for being brief. I want to make only a couple of points.

I come to this subject not only as a politician representing a constituency that, despite its leafy-sounding name, has the ninth-highest entitlement to free school dinners in the country, but as the parent of a 10-year-old who will go into secondary school transfer in the autumn. From that perspective, I can see the best and the worst of the issues that affect London schools.

The best is represented by the state primary school that my son attends. My hon. Friend the Minister visited it a short while ago. Although it rarely troubles the upper echelons of the primary school league tables, it is a happy and successful learning community. In response to the negative coverage about multi-ethnic London that has recently appeared in the press, especially The Sunday Times, I would say that my son, who attends a school where his closest friends are Iraqi, Algerian, Libyan, Congolese and Kosovan, is not only accommodating as best he can a burden of multiculturalism, but experiencing the single best, richest and most life-enhancing aspect of education that any child could have. We must recognise that a multi-ethnic and multi-language community can enhance learning in schools. I am happy to say that The Independent wrote a good story about that at the end of last week. Although the mobility and poverty that are sometimes associated with the change to a more multi-ethnic educational environment can present problems, such an environment offers children an opportunity to enhance their learning ability and we should cherish it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) presented far better than I could the important argument that the advance towards the range of specialist schools that we are developing entails a genuine risk that a minority of schools will compound disadvantage. Speakers from all parties said that we want to capture whatever makes a successful school environment and ensure that that quality is disseminated more widely. I am not sure that we can capture that quality easily and without change when successful schools draw on selection and, in some areas—for example, in central London—there are single-sex schools and faith schools. Parents of no faith, those whose faith is not compatible with existing faith schools and parents of boys in areas where the gender balance in schools is distorted by the existence of single-sex schools nearby do not have such a range of choice.

My main point is about behaviour—we have heard much about that subject. Today, the Conservative party launched policies on exclusion and pupil referral units, although we did not hear about that in the debate. We all know that behavioural problems exist, especially in some schools. One school in my constituency struggles with an almost insuperable burden. More than a quarter of its children are looked after. That is a complete distortion of a balanced school environment.

The pressures and problems in schools that can lead to exclusions do not need to be solved by the removal of a stratum of pupils and their effective abandonment. Good pupil referral units can make a valuable contribution, but children should not be removed from a learning environment and abandoned in units or marginalised schools unless it is absolutely essential. An alternative exists in my constituency and I invite the Minister to visit it. Indeed, the Green Paper, "Every Child Matters" mentioned it. It offers a way through behavioural difficulties and exclusion, and, in my constituency, mental health problems, refugee trauma, alcohol and drug dependency and domestic violence. All those problems affect a child's behaviour and capacity to learn. The Marlborough education unit works to tackle that.

The Marlborough unit provides a superb support system to schools. It deals with some of the most disturbed children and families and provides an environment that allows them to cope with learning. It receives 20 family referrals a week and can cope with 60 family assessments a year. The scope for opening up such a provision so that it can conduct outreach work in schools and have pupils and families attending its service, thereby giving our most damaged pupils high level therapeutic support, is enormous. Investment in such facilities, especially the Marlborough unit, which has a superb record, but also many other sorts of facility throughout the capital, could do more to help our schools, reduce exclusion and enable our most damaged children to gain from their learning environment than any other measure.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will at least recognise that such valuable services are being provided in London and that there is massive scope for more. Assistance for that is as important as anything else we can do to invest in schools, welcome and necessary though such investment is. We need to look beyond the school environment as well as in it if we are to tackle some of the problems.

3.49 pm
Mr. Stephen Twigg

With the leave of the House, I shall endeavour to respond to as much of the debate as I can in my 10 minutes. It has been an excellent, wide-ranging and good-humoured debate, mostly characterised by consensus and constructive discussion about how to meet some of the challenges that we face.

There were two main issues up for debate, particularly in some of the earlier contributions, the first of which, the role of the Government, was introduced by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), whom I welcome to her new position in opening for the official Opposition. That issue strikes at the heart of the debate on education policy generally that is going on beyond the Chamber. She used the phrase "command and control", but what we are doing with the London challenge is very different from that. It is about sharing the best practice in what is happening in schools and communities in London, and it is critically important that that should he conducted in a spirit of collaboration. A concern that Labour and Liberal Democrat Members share about Conservative policy is that it seems to represent a return to a competitive ethos between schools in an era when we are increasingly encouraging collaboration between them.

The second issue is choice in our London schools. The small amount of time that I have now does not enable me to deal with all the thoughtful contributions that have been made by Members on both sides of the House on this issue. However, we can agree that, for real choices to be available in communities across London, capacity is required, and in many of our communities that capacity simply is not there. Diversity is also required, because if all the schools are the same, there is no choice. Information is required, because if information is not available to everyone, the process becomes very unequal; and for the process to be really effective, it requires collaboration Choice is not only about which institution parents decide to send their child to at the age of 11; it is also about the choices that are available within the education system for children and young people themselves, and that will be critical as we take forward the 14-to-19 curriculum.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) made a powerful case for the benefits that a multi-ethnic London brings. I totally agree with what she said, and I shall also take up her offer to visit the Marlborough unit in her constituency to see what lessons we can draw from it.

Our debate has mostly achieved consensus, but I want to take a moment to respond to some of the party political points that were made, perfectly legitimately, by the hon. Member for Upminster. I concur with the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who said that a feature of the policy announced by the Conservatives today about choice was a move towards schools having more choice about which pupils they took, rather than parents having more choice about the institutions that their children could attend. That would be a deeply damaging development and a move in entirely the wrong direction.

The hon. Member for Upminster also raised the issue of appeal panels, to which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) responded. It is worth getting this issue into perspective. I respect the fact that schools are concerned when they lose appeals, but there were only about 1,000 such appeals in the last year, of which 200 were successful. If we did not have independent appeal panels to address these issues, there would be a real danger that at least some of the parents involved would go to the courts. Do we really want to tie up our head teachers in defending their actions in the courts? The independent appeal panels provide a sensible way forward.

The hon. Members for Upminster and for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) referred to the number of children who cannot read or count at the age of 11 and 14. In doing so, they repeated some of the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition this morning. We all recognise the challenge of improving literacy and numeracy in our schools; too many young people leave primary school at 11 unable to read, write or do maths to the expected level. However, it does not help the debate to describe them as being "unable to read" or "unable to count", or by denying the very real progress that has been made in our schools. Last year's key stage 3 results in London were the best ever. We have moved from the position that we inherited in 1997, when the number of children leaving primary school unable to reach the expected level in English and maths was two in five, or 40 per cent. The present figure was rightly described by the hon. Lady as one in four, or 25 per cent. Twenty-five per cent. is too much, but it is a lot better than the 40 per cent. that we inherited from the Conservative party.

More consensually, the hon. Member for Upminster made a number of powerful points. She referred to the work that we are doing in relation to ethnic minority achievement with "Aiming High", and gave a plug to Winchmore school in my constituency. I want to reassure her on special schools, and the important role that they will continue to play within inclusive education, as they can contribute to an inclusive approach to education in London and other parts of the country. She praised Robert Clack school, and her comments were reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas), in whose constituency the school is located. She raised a concern about the new London school admissions service, and asked perfectly reasonably who will benefit. Her test is right—it is not about a more efficient bureaucratic process but about benefiting parents and pupils. All of us, as constituency MPs, will have visited schools in which there is a child in the front row who has three school offers, and a child sitting next to him or her who has none. Months of anxiety are suffered by that child and his or her parents and family, which is what we seek to address with the new admissions service—it is not a cure-all, it will not solve all the problems, but it will lessen the anxiety in the process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) raised the question of the School Teachers Review Body and its consultation process, and several related points were raised by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet and my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) on London allowances. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton was referring to proposals that the STRB has made on regional pay, to which, as he rightly said, the Department must respond in September. We are examining with interest the proposals on regional pay, including proposals for greater flexibility, on which a number of right hon. and hon. Members have made points. We will respond in the autumn. As a Department, we will examine the different challenges faced by inner and outer London in formulating that response.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) reminded me of the position with regard to Wandsworth and school funding this year. I concur with him that what we seek is for Wandsworth to passport all the money next year when it makes its budget. He spoke of measuring success and the importance of value added, and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey made the same point. I agree that a robust measure of the real progress made by children in a school is the best way of holding schools to account. It is not the only way—we need to examine all sorts of other factors, too—but the availability of that is important.

I thank the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey for his positive remarks about the London challenge generally, and was struck, listening to him in his constituency capacity, by how some of these strands are coming together positively to benefit the people of his constituency, particularly through the academy programme, but also in the broader sense of schools serving their community. I differ from him on the Greenwich judgment, very much for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet: communities in London do not necessarily match school boundaries. He gave an example from our constituency boundary, and my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) gave an example from Clapham, part of which is in Lambeth and part of which is in Wandsworth. Another recent example was of Camden trying to change its admissions practices, which would have had the effect that schools on the Camden-Islington border that traditionally served both boroughs might have served only one of them. The position in respect of the Greenwich judgment is more complex than the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey set out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon asked specific questions about the private finance initiative in Merton. I undertake to respond to him on that. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned funding in Barnet, and the issue of out-of-year children, with which I am involved—as he rightly said, I met a delegation on the matter last week. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) talked about some of the progress in Croydon, and how Croydon's schools have dealt with some of the funding difficulties a great deal more successfully than had been feared. The hon. Member for Twickenham asked about collaboration between independent and state schools, which is fundamental to our chances of success on the London challenge. I will write to him with more detail about how we are bringing that about, so that we can tap into all the educational success and excellence in London.

I thank everyone who has taken part in what has been a wide-ranging and important debate. I am confident that we will be able to take this area—

It being Four o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to Order [24 June].