By Joseph Willits
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In yesterday's Adjournment debate before the start of the Christmas recess, a mix of topics were raised by MPs.
Chris Skidmore MP (Kingswood), who also wrote on ConservativeHome yesterday about making history a compulsory subject for under-16s, spoke of the study of history reaching a record low. Skidmore said that "in 77 local authorities fewer than one in five pupils is passing history GCSE". Despite these figures already being low enough as it is, there was a need to break them down, he said, "because in places such as Knowsley under 8% of pupils are passing history GCSE".
"Often it is the Daily Mail or academics who discuss what type of history should be studied in schools, whose history should be studied, how history should be studied in the curriculum, whether we should have a narrative form of history or a more interpretive form of history that looks at sources, and whether history should be seen as a framework of facts."
Whilst this debate was important, he warned of history "becoming a subject of two nations" and Britain's isolation in Europe, if people were not united in the view "that history is a crucial subject that binds us as one nation".
By Joseph Willits
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Yesterday in the Commons, Home Secretary Theresa May reaffirmed her commitment to tackling and ending domestic violence, stating that the Government had fulfilled its pledge. Asked by Devizes MP Claire Perry, about the ways in which the Government was trying to deal with domestic violence against women, May cited a "cross-Government action plan on tackling violence against women and girls", published in March by the Home Office. May said:
"It includes 88 commitments from 12 Departments to improve the provision of services for victims of violence and to prevent violence from happening in the first place. We have already delivered 22 of those commitments."
Perry spoke of the successes of a pilot scheme running in Swindon and Wiltshire, "in which perpetrators of domestic violence are effectively banned from the family home, rather than the family and the women being forced to move out, as happened previously". Due to the scheme, she said, "82 abusive perpetrators have been removed from family homes", and had been "reaching women who have never been helped before" according to the head of Wiltshire victim support unit said that the programme. The BBC reported in November that 65 Domestic Violence Protection Notices and Orders (DVPN/DVPO) had been issued.
By Paul Goodman
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Here is the Defence Secretary's statement, and below are questions from Conservative MPs with his answers. It's worth noting that Fox went out of his way to disagree with former serviceman Kris Hopkins - who features in Gazette this morning - that the incident was a dark day for the army as a whole, rather than for the individuals responsible. Ministers usually strive to avoid disagreeing with colleagues on the floor of the Commons, and Fox is an extremely skilful performer in the Chamber. That he felt he had to make the distinction reflects its importance to him (and I think he was right).
Yesterday evening, Edward, together with Henry Bellingham from our front bench, forced the Government to climb down over the courts, families and reporting.
The details are perhaps hard to follow. But the big picture issue is simple to grasp: family courts and reporting restrictions. Camilla Cavendish of the Times and others campaigned to reform court procedures – arguing that they were so restrictive as to be “the secret state that steals our children”.
Last April, the Government allowed the gist – through not the substance – of County Courts and the High Court family proceedings to be reported for the first time.
Ministers proposed a two-part further easing of restrictions in the Children, Schools and Families Bill. First, they’d further loosen the reporting reins if the bill becomes law. Second, they’d allow a further loosening once the Lord Chancellor had carried out a review – after a minimum of a further 18 months.
The proposals weren’t considered in committee. So yesterday, at report stage, Henry and Edward argued in their “new clause 2” that the review should be independent – not undertaken by the Lord Chancellor. And that pilots of anonymised judgements should be completed before the start of the review.
The Minister, Bridget Prentice, began by saying just after 8.30pm that she had “no objection” to the new clause in principle, that there was “much to be said for some of things in it”, but that it was “unnecessary” because Government amendments would meet the same aims.
Just after 8.45pm, Edward pointed out that there was no guarantee in the bill as drafted that the pilots would be completed before the independent review takes place.
A few minutes later, Henry pressed the Minister again. She caved in:
“I am with the honourable gentleman – I accept new clause 2.”
So if the bill - or at least these parts of it – pass through Parliament, there will be an independent review of the loosening of family court reporting restrictions based on the assessment of evidence. And all because of the persistence of two MPs on the floor of the Commons – one of them the backbench winner of a by-election.
Who says that the Chamber doesn’t matter?
The Children, Schools and Families Select Committee has published a report today on the National Curriculum. Three Conservative members of the Committee - Graham Stuart, Edward Timpson and Douglas Carswell - have published a minority report.
They argue that that the National Curriculum has failed, and that "a major rethink is needed". They say that "the curriculum has reduced the ability of teachers to do their jobs as respected professionals or to innovate. Inflexibility and constraint have been the hallmarks of the national curriculum under every administration." The report recommends:
"a) A national curriculum that sets out broad goals to be reached by the age of 16. The curriculum would set out a framework of the core subjects and would include no further instruction as to what aspects of those subjects should be taught or how subjects should be taught.
b) All schools, as well as independent schools and academies, would be free to opt out of the national curriculum where their governing bodies voted to do so and were supported by a majority of parents who would vote in a ballot. This would act as a safety valve against further interference with and overloading of the national curriculum.
c) The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is ineffective and should be scrapped or much reduced in size. In its place, each university would be invited to send a representative to a “National Curriculum Board.”"
Mr Stuart has added this comment:
"The National Curriculum as it currently stands has had its day. Ministers and unelected quangos have used it to meddle and interfere over what is taught in classrooms, instead of trusting the instincts and professionalism of teachers. If we are to have a curriculum at all it should be a significantly scaled down version that sets out a number of broad aspirations and goals and doesn't try to micro-manage every day of a child's life. It's also vital that schools have the option to opt out of the curriculum altogether, if parents and school governors so wish. This will be an essential valve to stop future governments, of whichever colour, imposing more central direction on schools. Overall we need to get out of the current mindset that Ministers know best. This has stifled innovation in schools and damaged the quality of learning that is provided to the nation's children."
I agree with the trio that something has to give. Under normal circumstances I think all kids should learn English, maths, British history and some science, but the current system is far too prescriptive.
There needs to be proper controls on and scrutiny of teachers, but in the final analysis schools will only work if teachers are given their heads and allowed to flourish. That's the way to let pupils flourish too.
Mr Gove compared the refusal to publish the details of a child's death to keeping the information from an aviation black box secret after a crash, in that it prevents us learning all we need to. This is a persuasive argument.
The full case details of Baby P (a child who was brutalised to death despite being visited by 60 professionals) are being kept secret - and one can't help wondering if that is because they would bring shame on influential politicians. They should be made public immediately.
The text of Mr Gove's speech follows.
Questions were put to ministers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families department yesterday.
The very last question of the session was from John Bercow, Buckingham MP, and addressed the loathsome phenomenon of bullying:
"Given that approximately 6,000 children a year exclude themselves from school after suffering extreme bullying, approximately 50 per cent. of whom have contemplated or attempted to commit suicide, will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and a delegation of interested parties to consider the case for funding the network of Red Balloon learner centres across the country? They are doing fantastic work in restoring the self-esteem of those damaged children, and getting them back into school, into further education, on to university or into employment. They need a bit of help.
Ed Balls: I had the opportunity two weeks ago to meet a group of young people from Norwich and Harrow who were being given chances to get back into school through the support of Red Balloon. Such decisions are made by local authorities, and I urge all local authorities to support Red Balloon and such new opportunities for children. I would love to meet the hon. Gentleman and a delegation again, so that I can hear further inspiring stories of young people getting back into education because of this important voluntary organisation."
Mark Pritchard, who represents The Wrekin, asked about means testing:
"Does the Minister accept that there needs to be more flexibility in the means-testing criteria? For example, the circumstances of a household on an income of £30,000 with a single child in full-time education are entirely different from those of another household on the same income but with five children in full-time education. Such issues have an impact on whether some children fulfil full-time education.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The problem is that the more flexibility that we put into the system, the more complex it becomes. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but there will not always be the same number of young people in the 16-to-18 age group. It is that particular age group that we are trying to attract with the education maintenance allowance."
Kettering MP Philip Hollobone has received an extraordinary written answer:
"To ask the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families how many pupils dropped out of school before the age of 16 in (a) Northamptonshire and (b) England in the last 12 months. 
Jim Knight: Information on pupils dropping out of schools is not collected, nor can it be accurately derived from the data currently collected on pupils."
It is quite staggering that the of all the statistics ministers swim in, this one is not available to them. It is surely a key measurement of the effectiveness of their education policy.
Yesterday the House of Commons had oral questions on Children, Schools and Families.
Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green poured scorn on coursework as a method of assessment:
"May I ask the Minister also to consider the means of assessment and, in particular, the use of course work for GCSEs and AS-levels? As a parent of teenagers, I know that many of them regard this form of assessment as laughable. It might be assessing the candidates, but it might also be assessing the work of their elder sibling, their parents or their friends—no one can be confident that it is assessing the work of the candidates themselves. Will the Minister accept that this experiment is failing, because it is not providing fair assessment, and look again at how best to obtain accurate results in these important exams for young people?
Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that they are important exams. Indeed, my son is currently doing his course work for his second year of A-levels. He is taking the work extremely seriously—I hope—and this is the subject of much discussion. Course work is important, and it is important that it is completed properly. It varies between different subjects, and we have reduced the amount of course work as a component of certain GCSEs. I am confident that we have now struck the right balance in each of the different subjects. For example, as someone who studied geography to degree level, I know that course work is a really important element in that subject, and it should remain so."
This is a tricky area. On the one hand coursework is open to massive abuse, on the other exams really don't favour everybody, and indeed an ability to complete an ongoing project successfully is arguably a more useful skill in the workplace than being good at tests.
Shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove suggested that school examinations are also inadequate:
Lord Hanningfield, who leads Essex County Council and is a Shadow Transport minister, has had a written answer about school meals:
"To ask Her Majesty's Government how much is spent each day on school meals for pupils attending (a) primary and (b) secondary schools in Essex. [HL89]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Baroness Morgan of Drefelin): The department does not collect this information. However, the latest annual survey undertaken by the School Food Trust reports average costs across all authorities as follows:
This seems very good value. However, is the food good quality? What do ConservativeHome readers make of school meals?
"I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Government Front-Bench team for their understanding in allowing me to leave the Chamber briefly earlier in order to see my daughter’s nativity play. Even though we all face tough economic circumstances, I know that all hon. Members will want to find time in their schedules for seasonal festivities.
I was particularly pleased to read about the great fun had by all at the Christmas party held by the Secretary of State at the Department for Children, Schools and Families. I understand that, as well as wine and canapés, the Secretary of State also laid on for members of the press a Scalextric demonstration, a Nintendo Wii and some Star Wars light sabres. Those were not products acquired during the seasonal sale that Woolworths has just launched to celebrate the life-saving effects of the recent VAT cut; nor were they the toys that the Prime Minister threw out of his pram on hearing what the German Finance Minister thought of his policies. They were, in fact, there to help members of the press celebrate the first anniversary of the children’s plan.
I also understand that the climax of the party was a light sabre duel between the Secretary of State and Mr. Michael White of The Guardian, modelled on the epic duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars—these are serious times and we need serious people. I also understand that the Secretary of State won, and I am sure that, as he triumphed, he uttered the words that the Home Secretary spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) just the other week—“May the force be with you”. But whether or not we believe in the force, and the power of the dark side, I am sure that we can forgive light-heartedness at this time.
Of course, some hon. Members may have been in good spirits yesterday for reasons other than the formal anniversary of the children’s plan. They may have been listening to the Prime Minister taking pride in his global rescue plan. Well, we now know what the man in charge of Europe’s biggest economy thinks of that. The Prime Minister may believe, in his more modest moments, that he is Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the truth is that he is closer to a political Max Mosley: he thinks he is king of the world and he has clearly got money to burn, but all people remember is that he got a terrific spanking in German. [Interruption.] Thank you."
Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families Michael Gove spoke in the House of Commons yesterday, in light of the Baby P case.
Mr Gove and his Opposition colleagues are quite right to raise these concerns. It is not about pointscoring, it is their statutory and moral duty.
"Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Secretary of State has rightly pointed out that after the Victoria Climbié tragedy, Haringey should have been an exemplar authority for child protection. I am sure that he will agree that the Government should show exemplary energy in pursuing concerns about child protection in Haringey. Six months before baby P died, Ministers received a warning letter from a former Haringey social worker. It was passed to the Commission for Social Care Inspection, which held a meeting in which Haringey council promised speedily to improve its policies on safeguarding children. Two weeks later, responsibility for inspecting child protection passed to Ofsted. What steps did Ministers, Ofsted or anyone in the Government take to ensure that Haringey lived up to its promise to improve child protection?
Ed Balls: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the review into Haringey social services that I instigated last Wednesday, and for giving me notice that he would raise the issue today. I sent him and other Opposition spokespeople a copy of my letter to Lord Laming.
A letter came from a lawyer for a former employee of Haringey, which went to the Department of Health. It was passed to the former Department for Education and Skills. It was not seen by Ministers. It was handled in the normal way through official channels. At that time, a reply was written to the lawyer to say that Ministers could not be involved in a particular employment case and that the right way to take the matter forward was through the social care inspectorate. That was done by the lawyer, and that process was followed up by a meeting in which the inspectorate confirmed that it was content that things had been done properly by Haringey in that case.
On the wider issue of Haringey social services, there was a review in 2006, and a further review by Ofsted in 2007, which gave a good report. It did not look at the particulars of the legal case; it looked at matters more widely. An investigation is now going on because I have sent the inspectors in. They will report to me in two weeks’ time, and I will take whatever action is needed to ensure that children in Haringey are safe.
Baroness Morris of Bolton is a Shadow Minister for Children, Schools & Families, as well as covering women's issues and being a Whip in the House of Lords. A former Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party with responsibility for candidates, she stood out at Conservative Central Office as highly capable.
Yesterday she spoke about children.
The Government has agreed to place a duty on the UK Border Agency: along with its primary duty to secure our borders, it must protect children. (The Government has decided that instead of using the Children and Young Persons Bill, which only covers England and Wales, it will use the Immigration and Citizenship Bill.)
Baroness Morris remarked:
"I am delighted that the Government have looked so favourably on placing a duty on the UK Border Agency to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the exercise of its functions. The phrase that I used on Report was,
It is a testament to the enormous support received throughout your Lordships' House that the Government now agree.
Barnardo’s has voiced a number of concerns, which the Minister has addressed. However, we share with it one concern: that the transition between the code of practice to safeguard children, to be issued under Section 21 of the UK Borders Act 2007, which will be laid before Parliament shortly and come into effect in the new year, must take into account the new stated policy intention of promoting children’s welfare. There must be a seamless transition between the codes and the guidance for staff working on the ground.
I said that the Bill has seen true cross-party co-operation. We on these Benches have been encouraged by the Government’s constructive approach. We look forward to the outcome of the pilot social care practice schemes, and hope that positive findings will be acted on in due course. We of course welcome the greater support offered for disabled children and their parents, and the greater emphasis that is to be placed on family fostering and fostering closer to home.
Baroness Morris is surrendering her position as Opposition spokesperson for children and families at the end of this parliamentary Session. Her advocacy on these issues will be missed.