HC Deb 09 September 2004 vol 424 cc844-6
2. Linda Perham (Ilford, North) (Lab)

If he will make a statement on the performance of specialist schools. [187695]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband)

There are now 1,950 specialist schools in England. In 2003 the percentage of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs or GNVQs at grades A to C was 56.7 per cent. in specialist schools, compared with 49.2 per cent. in maintained, mainstream non-specialist schools. Our value-added performance data for key stages 3 and 4 was also higher in specialist schools compared with non-specialist schools. Full data for specialist schools' GCSE performance in 2004 will be published as a statistical first release in October.

Linda Perham

Will my hon. Friend recognise the achievement of Hainault Forest high school, the local comprehensive that my daughters attended, in winning specialist school status in business and enterprise? From being in special measures since last December, it has now attained its best ever SATs results. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating head teacher Ian Wetherell and his team and wish them the success of other specialist schools in achieving their promise, with the increased investment that the Government have put into education?

Mr. Miliband

I am delighted to do so. I wrote to Mr. Wetherell in June and July, and it is fantastic that his good work and that of his staff is reflected in the results. I hope that the whole House will join us in saying that the GCSE, age 14 and age 11 results, which all showed progress in the right direction, are a tribute to good teaching in our schools. That progress is fastest in some of our toughest areas and historically weaker schools and is cause for celebration.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD)

Liberal Democrat Members congratulate not only the specialist schools, but all schools and further education colleges both on the outstanding GCSE, A and AS level results and on the vocational results, which are often not mentioned in this House or elsewhere. Does the Minister agree that the extra £500,000 that specialist schools receive enables them to do two key things: first, to lower class sizes; secondly, to recruit and retain high quality specialist teachers? Since the Government came to power in 1997, 375,000 more secondary school students are being taught in classes of more than 30. Given that many non-specialist schools struggle to provide teachers, that one in five teachers is now recruited from abroad and that key subjects such as literacy, numeracy, maths, English and science are taught by non-specialist staff in many non-specialist schools, when will the Minister get a grip on teacher recruitment?

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is enough.

Mr. Miliband

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question—I think it was a question—I am, of course, happy to associate myself with his remarks. When I used those words previously, however, he described them as "baloney", so I am glad that he has changed his opinion and is willing to congratulate the schools. Teacher recruitment and teacher retention have never been better in this country. Our specialist and non-specialist schools now employ 28,000 more teachers; primary school teacher recruitment is up; secondary school teacher retention is up; and maths and science teacher retention and recruitment are up too. The hon. Gentleman would do better to join the consensus rather than trying to stand outside it.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)

Does my hon. Friend agree that specialist schools are the most important Government policy for secondary schools? As such, it is important that we monitor it, evaluate it and get the basics right. Many educational researchers in this country, who have been hit hard by the Government's changes to research funding, are worried that they will not be able to track the success or performance of specialist schools because of the cuts in funding to their departments? Will he talk to the British Educational Research Association, which recently came to see me as Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee to express its concerns?

Mr. Miliband

I am happy to examine the points raised by the BERA. My primary responsibility is to teachers and, above all, pupils in schools, but the fact that the specialist schools programme has increased from 100 schools in 1997 to nearly 2,000 schools today means that the research base is outstanding. As we move forward with the Government's five-year strategy, by which every school in the country will become a specialist school, we will have a full test bed to see how that work goes. The ground for researchers is fertile, and I hope that they will add to the existing research to show the success of the specialist schools movement.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con)

The town of Taunton contains five secondary schools, every single one of which is a specialist school. Two of those schools are heavily and annually over-subscribed, and the local education authority has implemented a strict zoning policy, which means that some pupils from one side of town who show aptitude cannot get into a specialist school to help them with that aptitude. Is that fair and just?

Mr. Miliband

I am delighted to hear that pupils in Taunton are benefiting from the Government's education policies. Allocating pupils to schools according to distance is objective, independent and fair, and it commands confidence. In contrast, the Conservative policy to abolish the right of schools or LEAs to use distance as a criterion in determining admissions would take us backwards. Over the next eight or nine months, many discussions will occur around the country on whether it is sensible to abolish the right of LEAs and schools to use the independent and objective criterion of distance from a school to govern admission. If one believes in community schools, how can one believe in abolishing the right of those schools and LEAs to use distance as the basis for admission?

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab)

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Wardle high school, which was opened as a specialist arts college by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Monday? Further to that, will he note that one of the boroughs with the most improved exam result statistics was Rochdale borough, and add congratulations from the Front Bench to our congratulations locally on one of the most improved boroughs in the country?

Mr. Miliband

Of course I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the teachers, the pupils and the local education authority in Rochdale. As a high-performing and fast-improving local authority I hope that it will receive a letter from me congratulating it on its performance, but I am sure that the appearance of my right hon. Friend on Monday will have given those people a boost that a letter from me could not hope to match.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab)

My hon. Friend will know that I have a number of specialist schools in my constituency. One of the great aspects of these schools is the fact that they are opening their doors to the general public. What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that the investment that is placed in them equally benefits the community within which they appear?

Mr. Miliband

I am glad that my hon. Friend has given me the chance to deal with that, because in my excitement at the question by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) I forgot to point out to him that the extra money that goes to specialist schools is not intended only for the pupils in those schools, but to build key links with six partner primary schools and another secondary school, and to open up opportunities to the adult community. It is a requirement on every specialist school that it not only does right by its own pupils, but by the wider community of adults and pupils. I have been in touch with my hon. Friend about how schools in her constituency can fulfil that aspiration for the specialist schools movement, which is designed to bring wider opportunity right across an area, not just to individual schools. That is something that we are pursuing very hard.