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Volume 525: debated on Monday 21 March 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Primary Schools (Halifax)

On 13 December, we announced the 2011-12 capital allocations to cover a growing demand for pupil places, especially at primary school. We also announced a sum for maintenance. It is for local authorities to determine how capital is allocated for pupil places, and the James review on capital will report shortly, following which we can decide other allocations for schools, and for the years from 2012-13 to 2014-15.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but may I ask him about a specific school in Halifax? Moorside primary school has been promised a new build, but under Government cuts the local community fears that the plans will be shelved. Will he confirm to the House if and when that will happen, as the school desperately needs modernisation?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making the case for that primary school. Sadly, the state of the school estate that we inherited from the previous Government was such that many schools, particularly primary schools, require investment. We will consider every case sympathetically, and I hope that I or a member of my ministerial team will have an opportunity to talk to her to see what we can do to help in that particular case.

Special Educational Needs

3. What proposals he has to improve the quality of teaching of children with special educational needs. (47459)

Our Green Paper on special educational needs and disability set out proposals to improve initial teacher training and continuing professional development so that leaders and teachers in schools and colleges are well equipped and confident to identify and overcome a range of barriers to learning and to intervene early when problems arise.

We will encourage schools to share expertise and learn from best practice and ensure sharp accountability for pupils’ outcomes.

Will the Minister look at how we can help young people with special educational needs make the transition into work, given that they are more than twice as likely as their peers to be not in education, employment or training?

Transition is at the heart of what we are trying to achieve with the Green Paper, and the reason for setting out an education, health and care plan from nought to 25. The focus is much more on outcomes, specifically to try to deal with transition, so that we start planning for independent life at a much earlier stage. The Green Paper sets out the direction of travel, and we hope to get input from across Government. I encourage people with a specific interest in the subject to respond to the Green Paper and give us their views on whether it meets young people’s needs and whether we should do more.

Is the Minister aware of the concern in local authorities about the impact of the cuts to councils on their ability to provide central advisory teams for SEN? Does she realise the impact that that has in dramatically reducing SEN provision when schools do not buy back into those services?

We recognise that local authorities throughout the country are having to make difficult decisions, just as the Government are. However, money is not always well spent at the moment. For example, much money is wasted on the adversarial system, with parents unnecessarily going through tribunals. There is often a real push to get expensive independent provision that can be a drain on local authorities’ resources when, if we could get some of the necessary health care delivered earlier, parents would not necessarily push to go all the way to the expense of independent provision. A lot more can be done to spend the money that we have better.

I thank the Minister for the Green Paper, which is a wonderful document. However, may I draw her attention to Tourette’s, which appears to have been lumped in with many other developmental disorders, when it is specifically a neurological disorder? That perpetuates many of the concerns of people with Tourette’s about how society treats them.

The issue of Tourette’s and ensuring that we provide for children and young people with that condition is extremely important. If my hon. Friend has specific concerns about the way in which the Green Paper tackles it, I would be grateful if he wrote to me. I will ensure that that is taken into account as we move on.

While I very much welcome the Green Paper and many of its aims and principles, especially proposals to improve teacher training, there is real concern across the sector that Ministers perhaps forgot to look out of their Whitehall windows to see what is happening on the ground now. Councils are laying off key SEN professionals, children’s centres are closing and disruptive reorganisations of our NHS and schools systems are making it harder, not easier, for local services to work together. Given all that, how confident is the Minister that the promises in the Green Paper can be delivered?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words of welcome for the Green Paper and recognise that she has spoken positively about it before. I hope all parties can work together, because on the whole, I have had helpful input on the Green Paper from Labour Members, just as I have had from Government Members.

As I just said in response to the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), we must recognise that, like the Government, all local authorities must make tough decisions, because of the state of the finances that were left by the previous Government. Nevertheless, the whole point of the Green Paper is to raise the bar to ensure that we have good quality provision right across the country. The pilots process will test how we deliver working together better, and I hope we will ensure such provision and raise standards everywhere.

School Funding

4. What his policy is on the future of devolved formula capital grant funding for (a) primary and (b) secondary schools. (47460)

We announced on 13 December 2010 the 2011-12 allocation of devolved formula capital money for primary and secondary schools, including academies. After the conclusion of the James review into capital spending, which will report shortly, I will decide on allocations for this programme for 2012-13 to 2014-15.

Research by the House of Commons Library shows that that funding which goes towards computers, building work and repairs, is due to fall by £26,000 per primary school and £86,000 per secondary school, which is on top of Building Schools for the Future cuts. That was first brought to my attention by heads of schools in my constituency. How does the Secretary of State expect to raise standards across the country when he is slashing funds to maintain the basic infrastructural fabric of our schools?

I am grateful for the moderate way in which the hon. Gentleman couches his question. The sad truth is that the Government did not have the information available to know quite how dilapidated the schools estate that we inherited was, because in 2005 the previous Government abandoned any systematic collection of data about the state of schools. More than that, we inherited a situation in which the Office of Government Commerce had warned the previous Government that there was insufficient investment in additional pupil places. That is why we doubled the amount of capital spending on additional pupil places. As a result, we have had to make economies elsewhere, but we have prioritised where the previous Government failed to.

Many urban areas in the south-east, such as Reading, will shortly have enormous pressure on their primary and secondary school places. For planning purposes, it is important that they can look further ahead than 2012. What can my right hon. Friend do to assist local education authorities that are struggling, and under the most pressure, with additional pupil places?

We have doubled the amount of money that local authorities have to spend on additional pupil places this year. The James review will give all local authorities a greater degree of confidence that every penny that is spent on pupil places can be spent more effectively and efficiently.

Special Needs and Disabilities

5. What plans he has for single assessments and education, health and care plans for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (47461)

6. What support statemented children will receive under his proposals for the assessment of children with special educational needs; and if he will make a statement. (47462)

The Green Paper announced that by 2014 we will replace special educational needs statements with a single assessment process and an education, health and care plan. The new plans will keep the same legal entitlements to provision as SEN statements and will build on statements with a commitment from all parties, including health and social care, to provide their services. We will be running pathfinders testing out the single assessment and plans from September.

Families will welcome the progress towards a simpler, single assessment system. Will my hon. Friend reassure families and parents that their protection under the current statementing system will continue under a single process?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that that is indeed the case, but I hope that we will have an improved process, because all parties will come together to do the assessment, and then agree a plan and how to pay for it. I hope that that will improve the situation for families who have to move between one service and another to try to persuade someone to pay for something, such as speech and language therapy, which happens all too often.

The Green Paper promotes a more sparing use of statementing, which is broadly and widely welcomed, but does the Minister appreciate that a statement is sometimes the only clout a parent has in ensuring that their child’s needs are met? In the future, how will we ensure that parents still have that clout?

Nothing in the Green Paper discourages local authorities from statementing. For example, we have tried to make it clearer that local authorities ought to be providing the same protection for under-fives. However, many children and young people will have a need below the level that we would expect to be provided for by a statement. Schools still have a requirement to do their best to serve those children, and I hope that our work on teacher training will improve that support. There is also the work listed in the Green Paper through which we want to provide a local offer, so that it is much clearer for families what should normally be available, and so that the process is less combative for parents trying to get help. I hope that that will support families who have a child with a special educational need or disability, regardless of whether it reaches the level of a statement.

Does the Minister recall that a review of these issues just a few years ago identified the issue of transition and concluded that we should address the problem of people leaving school and the educational system? That can be a traumatic experience. Is it still a focus?

Indeed. There is a whole section in the Green Paper on transition. As I said, the whole reason for changing to the education, health and care plan that runs up to the age of 25 is to focus much more on outcomes and to begin that planning process at an earlier stage. To make things better for young people, we need all Departments to work together. This is not just a matter of providing better educational opportunities. However, there is a lot in the Green Paper about what we want to do to improve the quality of provision, including, for example, in the further education sector and the quality of skills training there. This requires a whole-Government response. That is what we want, and the Green Paper is the first step towards it, but transition is an essential part of planning and one of the things that frightens parents the most about having a child with a special educational need.

About 18 months ago, I had discussions and introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on this very issue. Will the Minister say what happens beyond the statements she expects to be made in September?

I am most terribly sorry, but I could not catch the hon. Gentleman’s question. Would it be in order for him to ask it again?

Without going back over it all, will the Minister tell me what happens beyond the statements expected to be made in September from schools about what they are going to do about the medical situation of children?

I am most terribly sorry, but I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could write to me. I did not follow his question. If he writes to me, I will respond straight away.

Saxmundham primary school in my constituency has made remarkable adaptations in order to include the education of a child called Finlay. It might be useful for other schools to learn from that experience. I am particularly interested in his transition to secondary school.

While drawing up the Green Paper, we met people from schools with fantastic examples of good practice in working to help support young people moving from one stage to the next. We are grateful for all examples of good practice, and we want to encourage other schools to raise the bar. Some brilliant work has been done. For example, some schools have encouraged young people to set up their own enterprises and companies and in doing so given them real employment opportunities. I would be interested to hear more detail about the school in the hon. Lady’s constituency.


10. What recent representations he has received on the English baccalaureate; and if he will make a statement. (47467)

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): We have received a number of representations on the English baccalaureate since it was announced. Public opinion surveys have shown that this new league table measure is widely welcomed, and on recent school visits, I have been encouraged by the vocal support that teachers and head teachers have shown for this new measure of achievement.

Has the Secretary of State seen the survey of 100 school teachers by the National Association of Music Educators and the National Society for Education in Art and Design that suggests that in 60% of schools that responded there has been a narrowing of the curriculum as a result of the introduction of the English baccalaureate? Would he consider adding a further subject to the suite of subjects in the English baccalaureate, so that it is not all about writing and what other people do, and to ensure that there is an opportunity for young people to do something practical and create or make things themselves, so that we do not reinforce the division between practical and academic learning?

That is a very well made argument from the hon. Lady, and I sympathise with the case that she makes. It is important to appreciate that the English baccalaureate does not and need not take up the entire teaching time in any school day or week. The reason why it is constructed as it is, with just the five areas that we are familiar with, is to ensure time in the school week for other activities, such as art and design, music, physical education—everything that helps to build a truly rounded young person. There is no need to alter the English baccalaureate for schools to offer a truly rounded and stretching curriculum, and I would love to be able to work with her to ensure that the schools in her constituency appreciate that.

Schools across Skipton and Ripon are delighted about the E-bac, but there is concern about religious education. Are there any plans in the near or medium term to review the decision to exclude RE from the E-bac?

I know that a number of schools and hon. Members have pressed for additional subjects in the English baccalaureate, but the reason why religious education is not included is that it is a compulsory subject at all stages in the national curriculum to the age of 16. The reason why it is not included in the humanities section of the English baccalaureate is specifically so that we can drive up the take-up of history and geography, which are currently not compulsory after the age of 14.

Ofqual says that the Secretary of State has asked it to look at A-level and GCSE re-sits, including in the English bac subjects. We learnt this month that it took the accident-prone Secretary of State seven attempts to pass his driving test and that his car was badly damaged recently when he got it stuck in a car parking lift. If it is seven times for Gove, how many chances will mere mortals get to pass the bac?

I am grateful for the assiduous attention that the hon. Gentleman pays to the written work that my wife contributes to The Times every week. I will give him eight out of 10 for practical criticism and nine out of 10 for creative writing in that question. The truth, however, is that, witty as he is—and he always is—I note that there was no intellectual assault on the principle of the English baccalaureate. Just five weeks ago, the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), was denouncing the English baccalaureate; just two weeks ago, he was wearing a badge celebrating failure in the English baccalaureate. Now the hon. Gentleman wants us to help everyone pass the English baccalaureate. [Interruption.] I am afraid that his interventions from a sedentary position cannot hide the fact that when it comes to driving, there are two manoeuvres for which the Secretary of State—

Thank you. The two manoeuvres for which the shadow Secretary of State is preparing are: a U-turn on his academy position, which he has already executed, and now another U-turn, which I can sense him undertaking on the English baccalaureate. I celebrate the fact that he is manoeuvring out of the way of the criticism of those of us on this side of the House who believe in higher standards.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the English baccalaureate is not compulsory, that schools retain the right—indeed, the duty—to offer an appropriate curriculum to their pupils, and that schools such as university technical colleges will not be obliged to ensure that at least 80% of pupils’ time up to the age of 16 is spent on academic subjects?

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Education has not only asked an excellent question but given a superb summary of the beneficial effects of the English baccalaureate and the flexibility inherent in the coalition’s education proposals.

School Funding

I announced the capital allocations for schools for 2011-12 in December last year. The James review of capital funding is considering how we can get better value for money out of capital allocations in future years. When it reports shortly, we should be in a position to explain what capital allocations will be in place for all schools from 2012-13 onwards.

The excellent Prince Henry’s grammar school in my constituency was failed for many years by the wasteful Building Schools for the Future programme, so I warmly welcome that capital funding. How will the Secretary of State ensure that it targets schools such as Prince Henry’s, which have a clear need to get their buildings up to scratch—that is, to a standard that he and I would wish for?

My hon. Friend presents a very passionate and well-informed case on behalf of his constituents on this occasion, as he does in every case. The truth is, sadly, that the situation we inherited meant that money did not go to the schools that were most dilapidated but to those schools that were favoured for political reasons by the last Government. For that reason, we shall ensure that any system of capital allocation in the future focuses explicitly on need.

The Secretary of State will recall the correspondence and meetings that we have had about two schools in Coventry—President Kennedy and Woodlands—neither of which benefited politically in the way he suggests. Is there anything he can tell us today, or if not, could he write to me about those two well-deserving cases about which he and his Department are now so well briefed?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and to the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) and the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) for making the case for their schools. We know that there are schools in Coventry that are, frankly, in a terrible state and deserve support, and one reason I know that is that I have seen the evidence with my own eyes. What I do not have, I am afraid, is a detailed survey of the state of school buildings across the country, because such an exercise was abandoned by the last Government after 2005. For that reason, I am afraid, the Department for Education does not have adequate data about the state of our school estate. I am afraid it is the Ministers who were responsible for education under the last Government who are responsible for that terrible omission.

What lessons does the Secretary of State think can be learned from Mrs Pauline McGowan, the head teacher of Woodton primary school in my constituency, who, told by county hall officials that she could not make the required changes to her building for less than £200,000, worked with local architects and builders and managed to achieve exactly what she wanted for the £70,000 of capital funding she had available—just 35% of what public procurement officials had said would be required?

That is a very good point. The truth is that under the last Government the building regulations, the planning rules and the way in which capital was allocated under Building Schools for the Future was inherently wasteful. The people who lost out were those in constituencies—like that of my hon. Friend and that of the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson)—that were in desperate need of additional cash. Even though we have inherited a dreadful financial situation, we will ensure that every penny is spent more effectively in the same way as the admirable head teacher in my hon. Friend’s constituency has succeeded in doing.

The Secretary of State’s comments about the state of the school estate in comparison to what it was like after the Conservative Government in 1997 are nothing short of a disgrace. The reality is that this year the average secondary school has had its budget for maintenance and repairs cut from more than £105,000 to less than £20,000. The Secretary of State has spectacularly failed to stand up for our schools and our schoolchildren. Does that not fatally expose how vacuous his claims are to have found more resources for schools this year?

That question was beautifully written, almost as though it had been carved in marble by a master mason. The truth is that no one on that side of the House can afford to clamber on to their high horse when it comes to school buildings. It was that side of the House that inherited a golden economic legacy and squandered it. It was that side of the House that betrayed a generation of young people by giving us a record deficit and a record debt. It was that side of the House that presided over a schools building programme that was reckless, profligate and inefficient. It was that side of the House that put political convenience and partisanship ahead of our young people. Frankly, even though the hon. Gentleman was not in the last Parliament, every time he comes to that Dispatch Box to talk about the state of our education system or school buildings, there is only one word we need to hear from him, and that word is sorry.


9. What plans he has for the future of history teaching in schools; and if he will make a statement. (47465)

We believe that the teaching of British history is vital, and that is why we are reviewing the national curriculum in England. We will consider whether history should be a compulsory subject in the curriculum at each key stage, and if so, how the programmes of study should be revised.

Is the Minister aware that Ofsted has found a lack of chronological understanding of British history among many pupils? Will he tell us what the Government are doing to ensure that every child across the United Kingdom has a full understanding of the good and great traditions that have made our country what it is today?

There is no more robust or redoubtable advocate for our island story and the teaching of history than my hon. Friend. He is right that Ofsted has highlighted considerable weaknesses in how history is taught, and I can reassure him that, through the measures I have described, the Government will restore history to the heart of the school curriculum so that children learn that unless we can map the past we will not navigate the present or chart our way to the future.

Free Schools

11. Whether all those whose bid to open a free school in September 2011 was successful have been notified of the outcome of their bid. (47468)

We are delighted with the overwhelming response that have received from proposers wishing to set up free schools, and we are seeing no signs that the demand is subsiding. That is why we are introducing a new decision-making process for 2012. We have already notified all proposers who wish to open free schools in September 2011 of the outcome of their proposals, and the list of successful proposals is available on the Department’s website.

Constituents of mine who are members of the Oasis parents action group have been subjected to considerable angst because they have not been notified by the key bidders of the success or otherwise of their free school bid. They have been left very confused about the choices available for their children in September 2011. Will the Minister consider measures to ensure that that never happens again, and can he confirm that the Department is now working as fast and as strongly as it can on the only successful free school bid, from Bristol city council and local parents, to ensure that there is a school on the St Ursula’s site in September 2011?

I understand the concern felt by parents in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Our policy is to inform the lead proposers of the outcome of their proposals, and we expect them to inform all those involved. I assure my hon. Friend that we are actively engaged in discussions with all the parties involved with the aim of finding a solution in relation to the Bristol free school project. Indeed, the project’s lead official has been meeting and talking to officers from the city council.

Given that the Secretary of State seems to be unable to find money for schools that desperately need rebuilding, will the Minister tell us how much money his Government have promised or awarded to free schools?

We announced in December that the capital allocation for 2011-12 would be £800 million for basic need, £858 million for capital maintenance and £185 million for devolved capital, which amounts to £2 billion out of a £4.9 billion capital budget. The difference between those two figures covers the BSF commitments and an allocation for free schools.

The proposed King’s Science Academy in Bradford—for which, miraculously, £10 million has been found—has described itself in its application as a “non-selective” school. Is the Secretary of State as surprised as I am that it has already started sifting applications for admission, and, according to its website, intends to use a “non-verbal reasoning test”?

I should be happy to take up that case. If my hon. Friend will write to me, I will respond immediately.

The Secretary of State’s free schools policy seems to be shrouded in secrecy, rather like the whereabouts of 500 ministerial responses to Members’ unanswered parliamentary questions. At a time when mainstream schools face severe cuts in their budgets, local areas must be able to judge whether free schools offer the best use of public money. The Minister failed to answer the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), so I shall give him another go. Will he tell us how much money has been promised to free schools for 2010-11 and 2011-12, and where that money is coming from?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that £35 million has been allocated to free schools this year. We will be completely transparent about this. As soon as a free school opens, all the details of the funding agreement will be made public once all the figures relating to that school are known.

Free School Meals

Under current arrangements, eligibility for free school meals is focused on children in non-working families to ensure that those who are most in need receive that valuable help. Universal credit will replace existing benefits, and the Department is working with the Department for Work and Pensions to develop new free school meal eligibility criteria. We will also consider free school meal eligibility in 2012, in the light of the evaluation of the current pilot schemes relating to extended eligibility.

When I have visited schools in the more deprived parts of my constituency, it has been apparent that many parents are currently too proud to claim free school meals, feeling that a stigma is attached to them. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the free school meal criteria will be reviewed regularly, and that efforts will be made to inform parents of the importance of registering for them, given that the pupil premium is allocated according to free school meal take-up rather than eligibility?

I believe that 7,490 pupils under 16 in maintained schools in my hon. Friend’s area are eligible for free school meals. That is about half the national take-up. It is important for the pupil premium to be available to those in the most deprived areas, and we will of course monitor the situation to ensure that a perception of stigma does not prevent people from registering.

Is the Minister aware that the Liberal-led coalition at Northumberland county council is talking about taking hot meals away from all children in Northumberland? If he is, what is he going to do about it?

I am not aware of what Northumberland county council may be intending to do, but if the hon. Gentleman writes to the Department I am sure we can look into it. I hope he will acknowledge that the additional money that will come into his area for the most deprived children through the pupil premium will provide considerable help to those children who might not be getting a hot meal at home.

School Curriculum

Academies have total freedom to determine their own curriculum and our review of the national curriculum will ensure that more schools have flexibility over how they teach.

I welcome the proposals to relax curriculum requirements. It is vital to allow schools to innovate, but is there not a danger of some unwelcome innovations, such as the thematic curriculum approach that did much to damage Bishops Park school in my constituency? Will Ministers therefore make certain that schools are downwardly accountable to local mums and dads for what and how they teach to ensure that we have a creative approach to curriculum innovation rather than a kooky one?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the case he makes. I know that the school he mentions had to be closed under the previous Government because it was not responding to what local parents wanted and was not providing a high enough quality of education. The coalition Government are ensuring that there are measures in place—floor standards—to ensure that if any school falls below a particular level at GCSE performance, we will not be afraid to intervene to ensure that all parents have a guarantee that standards are maintained. We will also publish more data in weeks to come on how schools perform so that there can be that accountability, direct to parents, for what their children are taught.


We have been funding the Design and Technology Association to provide continuing professional development for design and technology teachers to enhance their subject knowledge, and we intend to continue to provide this funding while we are reviewing the position of the subject in the national curriculum.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response. I am sure that everyone recognises the need to build a more creative and innovative economy and the important role that teaching design and technology must play in that. Will he assure the House that the Government will continue to promote the teaching of design and technology within schools and inform us of any steps being taken to meet that end?

The white heat of technology has never been more important. Britain’s future chance of success lies in our being a high-tech, high-skilled nation, which is why the Government have agreed an unprecedented level of commitment and expenditure for apprenticeships, which are being taught in many schools. We will continue to build that high-tech, high-skilled nation. I recommend our strategy to my hon. Friend—signed copies are available.

Academies (Chatham and Aylesford)

15. What recent progress has been made by schools in Chatham and Aylesford constituency which are converting to academy status. (47472)

The Department has received three applications to convert to academy status from schools in the Chatham and Aylesford constituency. Of the three schools that have applied to convert, two have received academy orders and the Secretary of State will consider the third application for an academy order very soon.

The Minister will be aware that several schools across my constituency are keen to explore the possibility of becoming partnership academies. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the schools to discuss the viability and future progress of these exciting proposals?

Yes, I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and a delegation. Officials met officers at Medway council on Thursday and discussed proposals made by five of the schools in Medway. Officials propose to hold follow-up discussions with the five schools either individually or as a group. I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend and discussing this matter.

Sports Facilities

It is for schools and their sponsors and maintaining authorities to determine the range of sporting facilities in each school, consistent with statutory requirements. Education premises regulations include a requirement for access to playing fields as well.

I am grateful for that answer. Will the Minister tell me how he will support schools and governing bodies when local authorities withdraw from joint-use agreements, putting pressure on sporting facilities and their availability to not only pupils but members of the public?

My hon. Friend is right to say that it is absolutely essential that we have as many school facilities available as possible to people beyond those in the school cohort. Local authorities should remember that they have responsibility for determining non-school provision at a school site. Given that PE will remain a compulsory part of the curriculum, they really should be reminded of their duties, and of the fact that it is good for everybody to do more sport.

Teaching Standards

The single most important determinant of a good education for every child is having good teachers, which is why we have set out plans to raise the professional status and standards of the teaching profession in the White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching”. We will focus on recruiting the best candidates to become teachers. We will improve their training and give them more opportunities to learn from high performers in the profession.

I thank the Minister for that answer. A YouGov survey found that for undergraduates the No. 1 deterrent to becoming a teacher is violence in the classroom; that is being compounded by fear of false and malicious allegations. What steps are the Government taking to protect the physical and reputational integrity of teachers, so that a career in the classroom attracts the best and the brightest talent?

Of course, my hon. Friend is right: violence in schools is completely unacceptable. The Education Bill, now in Committee, includes a wide range of reforms to increase teachers’ ability to challenge poor behaviour. It introduces reporting restrictions, giving anonymity to teachers when allegations are made by or on behalf of a pupil. The reforms are intended to shift the balance of authority back to the teachers and head teachers in our schools, to enable them to provide a safe environment in schools where children are free and able to learn.

I am sure that Ministers will agree that the quality of teaching in schools is enhanced by the work of Saltmine, a fantastic charity based in my constituency that puts on plays for secondary school children to educate them about issues such as alcohol, drugs, racism and bullying. Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State to come and see one of these fantastic plays, and does he agree that despite the difficult decisions that schools have to make, reducing expenditure in that area would be very short-sighted indeed?

I do not know why the hon. Gentleman wants me to ask the Secretary of State to come along, and does not ask me to come along instead. I would be delighted to visit a school to see that work in action. The issues that the hon. Gentleman mentions are very important, and unless we get them right children will not be in the right place to access the curriculum and learn successfully.

I am concerned that some schools in South West Norfolk are struggling to recruit teachers in short-supply subjects and head teachers. Will the Minister consider improving the quality of teaching in Norfolk by rolling out Teach First to the county, and by relaxing rules on national pay bargaining to allow us to recruit teachers in those short-supply schools?

I appreciate the recruitment difficulties experienced in west Norfolk, and I am encouraged by the work being undertaken by Norfolk county council, supported by the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services, to develop local solutions to meet the demand for head teachers. On pay, my hon. Friend will be interested to know that a further remit will be issued to the School Teachers Review Body later this year, asking for recommendations on how the pay and conditions system can be made less rigid. That work will build on the current extensive flexibilities, which will allow schools to pay, attract and retain teachers.

Student Information

18. What assessment he has made of the effects of reductions in local authority funding for education on the provision of information, advice and guidance for students at secondary level in Blackpool. (47476)

We want to be helpful to local authorities and schools by giving them information on the changes taking place to careers guidance and the time scale for change. To that end, we will make an announcement shortly regarding the Government’s approach to careers advice and guidance.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he not realise that as a result of the Government’s cuts the Connexions service in Blackpool, and up and down the country, is already being shredded? Does he not realise that that needs to be addressed if he wishes to give emphasis to the policies he is proposing? Otherwise, when he has his new, all-age careers service, there will not be much of Connexions left for it to connect to.

The hon. Gentleman knows that local authorities will retain their statutory duty for all but careers, and the all-age service will make an immense difference in social mobility. It will give people a chance to fulfil their potential and be the best they can be. I do not want to be excessively critical, but I have to say that in many cases Connexions just did not do that adequately.

Education Maintenance Allowance

19. Whether children in care will automatically be eligible for funding through the scheme to replace education maintenance allowance. (47477)

We are considering the arrangements for the new funding and what assurances might be given to particular groups of young people who might be facing barriers to participation. We will announce details of the new scheme shortly.

We as a community have a collective responsibility for children in care, and it is crucial that they should have access to funding as a replacement for EMA. Will the Minister assure the House that he will really focus on that important group for which we have a collective responsibility?

I think the hon. Gentleman knows that children in care have been a particular interest of mine and that we are doing an awful lot to try to improve on the scandal of the poor outcomes they have experienced for too long. They will be at the head of the queue when it comes to the alternative arrangements for EMA, recognising the disadvantaged position in which most of the children in the care system find themselves, and we need to do everything we can to help them to catch up.

Topical Questions

I am delighted to be able to tell the House that the number of academies in the state education system has now reached 465, which is more than double the 203 that we inherited from the previous Government. Since the scheme for schools to convert was opened in September last year, 195 schools have converted. In the first three years of the Conservative Government between 1979 and 1997 during which grant maintained status was available, only 50 schools converted, so the rate of academy conversion, and indeed the rate of school reform we are presiding over, is the fastest ever.

Hull’s cut of £70 per child in children’s services means that 13 of the 20 children’s centres in Hull will effectively have to be mothballed and staffed only by a receptionist and a cleaner. I am sure that the Secretary of State will recall “Yes Minister” and Jim Hacker’s visit to a hospital that had no patients. Would he like to visit the children’s centres in my constituency that have no children?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, and I am always grateful for the opportunity to visit the East Riding—

Moving beyond history and geography, let me address this specific point. The amount of money available in the early intervention grant to ensure that children’s centres can stay open is higher than she implies, and sufficient to ensure that all local authorities can discharge their statutory responsibility to ensure that there are sufficient places.

T4. Montacute special school in my constituency is in desperate need of new facilities. It was quite reasonably removed from the Building Schools for the Future list as the plans for a rebuild were not satisfactory at that stage. Would the Secretary of State or his officials be prepared to meet me either at the school or here in London to discuss a way forward? (47485)

I shall specifically ask whether an official from Partnerships for Schools can visit the hon. Lady’s constituency, at a time that is convenient to her and to the staff of the school, in order to see what can be done.

We found out last week that Education Ministers were the worst in Whitehall at answering parliamentary questions, with 496 questions unanswered. Given some of the non-replies we have heard today, they might well have just hit the 500 mark, so let me give the Secretary of State an easy one. We read last week that the Government’s advocate for access to education, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), is negotiating with the Chancellor ahead of the Budget to secure more money for the replacement for education maintenance allowance. Assuming that the Secretary of State has been kept informed of those discussions, would he care to give the House an update on progress?

We are progressing very well in dealing with the problems that we were left by the previous Government, handling the deficit in our budget and the deficit in the number of students staying on after 16. I am pleased to say that we have already succeeded in securing more money for students after the age of 16, including £150 million more to help the most disadvantaged students who are staying on after 16. Participation is increasing, and we have managed to keep the number of 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training—NEETs—to an acceptably low level in this time of difficult economic news. We have done all this even though we were bequeathed a drastic fiscal situation by the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a part.

After that reply, I make the running total 501. More money for students after the age of 16? I should be interested to know how the Secretary of State would back up that claim. The truth is that he is repeating tired old lines, which were blown apart last week by a letter from nine leading economists to The Guardian, in which they said that

“the EMA…is not a deadweight loss as the government claims…The argument that there is no alternative to scrapping EMA is false.”

With youth unemployment at record levels, with fear rising of a lost generation, will the Secretary of State admit that he was wrong on EMA? Will he perform another of his famous U-turns and keep his party’s promises to young people?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question, but he should pay attention. It was pointed out at the time of the comprehensive spending review that we were spending more money on post-16 education. It is interesting that he should mention letters to The Guardian, because the one to which he refers was concocted by nine Labour-supporting economists as part of the save the EMA campaign, which is fronted by a Labour researcher, and is nothing more than a party political exercise.

If we are talking about letters to The Guardian, I recently read one from Professor Alison Wolf, who conducted a review of vocational education. She pointed out two things: first, hundreds of thousands of children were betrayed by the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member, because they were forced to take inadequate vocational qualifications. She also pointed out that the right hon. Gentleman was—

Order. The Secretary of State will resume his seat. This is not a debate—it is topical questions. I want brief questions and brief answers.

T5. On Thursday, I saw the beginning of construction for Strood academy in my constituency. Does the Secretary of State appreciate the extent to which confirmation of that investment is appreciated in the local community, and would he visit my constituency to open the academy when construction is completed next year? (47486)

T2. Laurence Jackson school in Guisborough is in the top 100 schools for sustained improvement at GCSE level, but, like Kilton Thorpe special school, its Building Schools for the Future budget has been cut, as has its harnessing technology grant, its extended schools grant, its gaining ground grant, its sports specialism funding, and its devolved capital funding grant. Have not Laurence Jackson and Kilton Thorpe school funds been redistributed to ideological free schools? (47483)

Once again, that was a beautifully scripted and delightfully read question from a Labour Back Bencher. There is only one word that we need to hear from Labour politicians about cuts, which is “sorry” for the economic mess they bequeathed us. It is monstrous hypocrisy and intellectually inadequate to prate about cuts when the Government they supported were responsible for them.

T7. I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that the cost of travel to and from a place of study may be a gating factor for disadvantaged students in accessing education. Will he take into account the cost of travel when formulating the enhanced discretionary learner support fund? (47488)

T3. There are many Members in the House, including me, who believe that religious education provides an important moral platform for life. There is a feeling, however, that the Secretary of State has downgraded religious education in our schools. Will he get up and confirm that he has not done so? (47484)

I do not know where that feeling comes from. Speaking as someone who is happy to be a regular attender at Church of England services, and whose own children attend a Church of England school, I recommend that the hon. Gentleman read the recent article that I penned for The Catholic Herald, a newspaper that is now required reading in the Department for Education. The article makes clear my commitment to faith schools of every stripe.

T8. Head teachers in my constituency have told me of their frustration at not being able to move teachers on who are not performing well enough, either to new responsibilities or, sadly, if necessary, out of the profession. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give me that he will take speedy action to ensure that pupils, parents and teachers get the best out of education? (47490)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Only two weeks ago, we introduced a new review of teaching standards to achieve a sharper focus on the quality of teaching in all our classrooms, and to ensure that teachers who fall below those standards are moved on. They should be helped to improve or, if necessary, helped to leave the profession.

T6. Sixth form colleges currently receive entitlement funding through the Young People’s Learning Agency. Colleges in my area face a 74% reduction in such funding, which they use to fund pastoral support, careers advice, sport, music, trips and visits—all the things that can fire aspiration and the imagination of young people. Will the Minister look at that again and meet me and someone from my local college, as I do not think Ministers quite realise the impact of their decision in this area? (47487)

In short, I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his representatives. He knows, as does the whole House, that I am a champion for sixth form colleges and FE colleges, and I would be happy to make that clearer when we meet.

T9. Has my right hon. Friend read the OECD’s latest report on the state of the UK education system? It says that “educational performance remains static, uneven and strongly related to parents’ income and background”and:“Despite sharply rising school spending per pupil during the last ten years, improvements in schooling outcomes have been limited in the United Kingdom.”Is that not a sad indictment of the past 13 years of Labour? (47491)

I read the OECD report with a mounting sense of sadness. It made the case forcefully by the deployment of facts and argument in a remorseless fashion that under the previous Government, for all the welcome additional spending on schools, standards had not risen to anything like the expected level. It was also striking that that report endorsed the case for the coalition’s commitment to spending more on the disadvantaged, the coalition’s commitment to creating free schools, and the coalition’s commitment to overhauling the league table system. For a respected international institution to give such a resounding thumbs-down to the previous Government and thumbs-up to the coalition Government is—

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is widespread concern that his national curriculum review might result in the removal of citizenship education from the core curriculum? Will he reassure the House that the Government remain committed to citizenship education in schools?

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great concern of some parents about the inappropriate material being shown to their five-year-old and seven-year-old children under the guise of sex and relationship education? Will he take steps to start a licensing regime to ensure that the material being shown is age-appropriate?

I share some of my hon. Friend’s concerns and I know that she has written to the Secretary of State on the matter. She will be aware that we are currently reviewing personal, social and health education, of which sex and relationship education is a key part. It is crucial that whatever we do should be age appropriate. I would welcome her further input into the review as it proceeds.

Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the future of buildings at Mowden Hall in Darlington? The local council, residents and a property developer have an alternative site that will save money and create jobs. It will require quick decisions and innovative thinking. Is he up for it?

I am always up for innovative thinking, and always up for a meeting with the hon. Lady. I take the point about Mowden Hall. I had the opportunity to visit it a few months ago—the first Secretary of State to do so, I think, since David Blunkett. I would be happy to discuss with her how we can help her constituents.

With my right hon. Friend’s encyclopaedic knowledge of schools in this country, he is no doubt aware that Haslington primary school in my constituency, under the headship of Jenny Fitzhugh, has moved from special measures to a school with many outstanding features in just over one year. Will he join me in congratulating that school and reassure similar schools that the new inspection regime will ensure that those that progress such as Haslington are able to demonstrate that in the future?

I absolutely will. I place on record my congratulations to Jenny Fitzhugh on her outstanding leadership of that school. Any new arrangements that Ofsted put in place, which we are consulting on at present, will provide an opportunity for her to demonstrate her excellent work once again to more schools.

Estimates from the House of Commons Library show that Liverpool council will receive a real per capita decrease of £80 per child for services such as Sure Start from 2012-13. How can Ministers claim to have protected Sure Start funding?

The reason we make that claim is that we have, as I mentioned in reply to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), ensured that the amount in the early intervention grant that goes to Sure Start children’s centres is sufficient to guarantee every child a high-quality place. I look forward to discussing these issues in greater detail with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), because we have a date this time next week.

At a meeting last Friday at the Grove school in Hastings, I learnt that a whopping 48% of its new intake are on free school meals. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that sufficient funds will be available through the pupil premium to support disadvantaged students, such as those in my constituency, through their education?

The number of students eligible for free school meals in that school is three times the national average, and I will ensure that the pupil premium provides them with the support they need to do just as well as students from more privileged backgrounds.