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Topical Questions

Volume 523: debated on Monday 7 February 2011

I am pleased to announce that, on 1 February, more than another 30 schools converted to academy status, meaning that there are now more than 440 academies. Tomorrow we will debate the Education Bill, which will give all Members an opportunity to consider the further advance of the movement, which gives all head teachers more autonomy, and promises all children the raising of standards. The Education Bill will also provide all Members with an opportunity to vote for measures that will ensure better discipline and higher standards in every school.

The Schools Minister, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), is fond of saying that there is adequate money in the early intervention grant to fund the network of children’s centres. An education authority such as Hammersmith and Fulham is cutting by half in one year the children’s centre budget, closing nine out of 15 centres, including phase 1 centres in deprived areas, and sacking 50 staff—does that give the Secretary of State and the Minister pause for thought? If so, what will they do about education authorities that are wrecking children’s centres?

The hon. Gentleman has expressed his concern to me about the position in his area, and we discussed it last week. I will say what I said in answer to other hon. Members: good local authorities are restructuring with care, and looking at methods of clustering centres to merge back-office functions, because they know that that is the way to benefit from the Government’s work on payment by results.

T3. One of my local head teachers said to me last year that it can take up to a year to move a teacher who is not up to their particular responsibilities. Given that that could be a critical year for the children concerned, what steps can my right hon. Friend take to speed up that process? (38245)

No one is served when people who should not be in the classroom continue there. It increases the burden on other professionals and deprives children of the highest quality education. We are reviewing the professional standards for all teachers to make it easier for head teachers to ensure that staff who underperform are given the support that they need to improve or to move on.

T6. Given that the cuts in EMA will affect more than 2,600 low-paid families in my constituency, is the Minister not ashamed of that policy? What will he do to increase the top-up learner funds to help at least some of those families? (38248)

I have made it clear that we are absolutely determined to ensure that the worst-off are not disadvantaged by the new arrangements. However, I believe that there is a strong case for greater discretion to target some of things that Opposition Front Benchers identified as salient in helping people to achieve their best.

T4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of getting more capital into free schools would be to enable them to obtain it on the open market by allowing them the freedom to make a profit, as they can in Sweden? When will my right hon. Friend have the courage of his convictions and enable free schools to have the same freedoms as they have in Sweden? (38246)

It is always a pleasure to hear the radical proposals of my hon. Friend, whose stewardship of money when he was a councillor in Wandsworth and a Minister in a previous Conservative Government is a model to all. I shall look carefully at the case he makes, but the one thing that is clear is that we already know that our programme ensures that more new school places are being provided more cheaply than was the case under the previous Labour Government.

T7. Today is the first day of national apprenticeships week. We know that one of the most significant barriers to young people taking up apprenticeships is getting the right advice at school. In fact, there is now a confused situation, because the Government want to end Connexions and introduce an all-age service. Will the Minister explain what extra funds will be available to schools to procure advice for young people? (38249)

The hon. Lady is right to champion apprenticeships week. Indeed, she has personally championed apprenticeships in her constituency, and she knows that the Government are having ongoing discussions to see how we can help with that. It is critical that people get good, empirical, independent advice and guidance on vocational options such as apprenticeships. In the Education Bill, which the House is about to consider, we will make it a duty for schools to secure that independent, impartial advice on vocational learning.

T5. Cambridgeshire gets less school funding per pupil than almost anywhere in the country. If we received the per pupil average across England, we would have some £34 million more for education. Can the Secretary of State explain why pupils in Cambridgeshire deserve so much less money, and will he review that? (38247)

They deserve to be treated like every other student. We are reviewing funding and will be publishing a paper in the spring to try to ensure greater equity in the allocation of schools funding.

All 19 of the children’s centres in Sefton are under review. Does the Minister stand by her statement that local authorities have a legal duty to maintain a sufficient network of children’s centres? If she does, how many of Sefton council’s 19 children’s centres should it keep open to meet those legal duties?

The hon. Gentleman and I discussed this matter in detail when he introduced an Adjournment debate last week. I stand by my statement. Similarly, the council has a legal duty to consult before closing, opening or restructuring in its area. I am sure that it is in the middle of that consultation at the moment, and that parents will make their views very clear.

T8. Can the Secretary of State assure me that changes to education maintenance allowance will not leave college students disadvantaged compared with school sixth-formers, who will still be entitled to free school meals? (38250)

That point is well made by my hon. Friend. We have an anomaly at the moment, whereby the position of those in colleges and those in schools is not the same. The whole thrust of our policy making has been to try to ensure a level playing field between schools and colleges. The point he makes with respect to EMA weighs heavily with my colleagues and me.

Staff at the Independent Safeguarding Authority in Darlington learned from The Daily Telegraph on Saturday that the vetting and barring scheme is to be significantly scaled back. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Home Secretary about the reduction of that scheme, which is likely to affect child protection?

I had the opportunity to visit the hon. Lady’s constituency on Thursday, when I spoke to staff at Mowden Hall, the Department for Education headquarters in Darlington. I am pleased to say that I am the first Secretary of State to visit Darlington and Mowden Hall since the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), which is indicative of this Government’s commitment to the north-east, which was sadly not shared by the previous Administration.

A response to the Government’s review of vetting and barring will be made. The House will be informed of the details first. The one thing that we know is that the bureaucratic burden on the voluntary sector will be lifted. We will not only have a more proportionate system, but more children will be kept safe. Above all, we will ensure that volunteers and those who do so much to help in our society are given the trust that they need in order to carry on doing the wonderful work that they do.

T9. Will Ministers be prepared to look again at the rather puzzling exclusion of classical civilisation from the list of humanities scored in the English baccalaureate? Is classical civilisation not a humanity? (38251)

I am tempted to reply, “Timeo danaos et dona ferentes,” which, broadly translated, means, “Beware of geeks bearing gifts.” However, my hon. Friend is an impassioned champion of both Latin and Greek and the wider application of the classics in state schools. Latin is now on offer in more state schools than independent, fee-paying schools, and Latin and Greek are included in the English baccalaureate, along with modern foreign languages. His impassioned advocacy of classical civilisation certainly weighs with me.

I recently met some of the 229 students at Lewisham college in receipt of education maintenance allowance who told me that they had spent hundreds of pounds on equipment, IT and books. The Minister knows that there is a difference between the aspiration to be at college and sustaining attendance over a two-year period. Will he guarantee that no student in that situation will be forced to discontinue their second year because of lack of financial assistance?

The right hon. Lady is a champion of Lewisham college, which I have visited twice—I have laid bricks at Lewisham college, by the way, although not with any great skill. I can assure her that the places of college students, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, will not be put at risk by changes we make, and we will certainly take full account of representations from her and others on that point.

T10. When will the Minister announce further details of the learner support fund, including the amounts and time scales of such support to colleges across the country? (38252)

My hon. Friend makes a strong case for colleges. Perhaps it is time that I put on record the fact that this Government believe that further education colleges are the unheralded triumph of the English education system. Furthermore, we will continue to give them greater discretion, greater opportunity and greater freedoms in order to allow those with the tastes and talents to pursue vocational and other kinds of learning to fulfil their potential.

Has the Secretary of State had a look at the letter from the headmaster of Tibshelf school explaining the difficulties of having to deal with the split school site in Bolsover and North East Derbyshire? Has he also received a letter from the Derby building company Tomlinson and Sons which expected to build the school, or does he have the same disease as the Deputy Prime Minister and stop dealing with his Red Box after 3 o’clock?

I am grateful for that well-crafted question from the eloquent, grammar-school-educated Member for Bolsover. I am well aware that Derbyshire county council, under many years of Labour rule, did not secure value for money for the taxpayer. I am pleased that the incredibly wasteful Building Schools for the Future scheme is being replaced with a more effective way of ensuring that money goes to the front line, and I look forward in due course to visiting Bolsover and North East Derbyshire with him and the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) in order to salute what a coalition Government are doing for a generation betrayed by Labour.

I know that the Secretary of State is a strong supporter of our state boarding schools, such as Wymondham college in my constituency, which is doing excellent work pioneering special needs and academy schooling in the area. As he may know, Wymondham college was recently awarded academy status in order to pursue that work. Today, however, I received a letter from the college saying that the decision has been inexplicably reversed by officials in his Department. Will he agree to meet me and a delegation of Norfolk MPs to discuss the matter?

I have to confess myself perplexed by what my hon. Friend tells me, but of course I would be delighted to meet him. I know what impassioned advocates he and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) have been for Wymondham college.

(North East Derbyshire) (Lab): Children, parents and their teachers were delighted last month that the Government changed their minds about scrapping school sport partnerships. Unfortunately, however, the Secretary of State forgot to reinstate the money for them. I know that he is a very busy man and it was just an oversight, but will he take this opportunity to reassure the House that he will give school sport partnerships their money back?

I am overjoyed that in all my meetings with Baroness Campbell, the head of the Youth Sport Trust, since the announcement, she has expressed her delight that the funding that we have made available will be sufficient to ensure that the good work continues. I am reassured by her enthusiasm for this proposal, and I hope that the hon. Lady will be reassured too.

As Ministers review policy for young people and the youth services, will they ensure that they engage with local authorities, young people themselves and the voluntary sector to ensure that no local authority withdraws youth services where, with a bit of imagination, alternatives are available?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point about the importance of youth services, particularly of local authorities speaking to the people for whom those youth services are intended—young people. Not only has my Department set up a group from the voluntary sector dealing with youth issues, but a group of young people representing many of those organisations will be meeting me shortly to discuss the impact of the current situation on the charities and services in their areas.

The Minister responsible for children’s centres repeats the claim that good local authorities will merge their back-room functions and protect front-line services. Flagship Conservative council Westminster is merging back-room functions with Hammersmith, yet we expect children’s centres to face a significant reduction in staff, in the range of services and in outreach facilities, which are anticipated to fall by 40%. Is Westminster a good council?

I repeat that we are encouraging local authorities to focus in particular on outcomes, rather than on inputs. That is why we are beginning the process of payment by results. Local authorities will need to ensure that their services are structured in such a way that they improve outcomes for the most vulnerable children and families, otherwise they will not benefit.

Will my right hon. Friend investigate the activities of the Anti Academies Alliance, which is threatening a series of political strikes against any school seeking academy status?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the House’s attention to the activities of the Anti Academies Alliance, a group that is sponsored by, among others, the Socialist Workers party. There are a number of politically motivated strikes that some have been contemplating. I hope that Members in every part of the House will condemn any politically motivated strike action that makes children a political plaything. I also look forward to hearing from the Opposition Front Bench a clear and unequivocal condemnation of such activity.