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Topical Questions

Volume 525: debated on Monday 21 March 2011

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.