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Topical Questions

Volume 528: debated on Monday 23 May 2011

One of my Department’s aims is to ensure that the most talented people possible are teaching our children. Teachers from the European economic area can already teach in our schools. Today I want to extend that freedom to teachers from Commonwealth countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and I hope that other Commonwealth countries such as South Africa, Jamaica and Singapore can join in due course.

Would the Secretary of State like to compare the answer of the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, when he talked about the ecumenical nature of the Government in wanting to meet the needs and hopes of young people in education, to his own horribly brazen party political response, when I asked him about school building for children in inner-city areas? Will he come to Manchester and see some of these schools so that we can discuss how to improve the situation?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning is blessedly ecumenical, but I am afraid I am sometimes more narrowly Presbyterian in my approach. However, it would be a pleasure to visit Manchester again. I have enjoyed it in the past, and I know that when it comes to speaking up for his constituents, the hon. Gentleman does a great job. I would be happy to work with him.

T4. Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is unfairness in the level of per pupil funding for Cambridgeshire schools when set against the national average? Will he join me in urging schools across Cambridgeshire to respond to the Department’s consultation on school funding reform, which finishes on Wednesday? (56601)

Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the mean-spirited actions of Tory-controlled Wandsworth council, which plans to introduce a charge of £2.50 for children to play in a publicly funded playground? Children there play together regardless of income or background, and for many local children the playground is their back garden, because they live in high-rise flats. Is this localism in action, or will the Secretary of State assure the House that the Government will press councils to ensure that this is not a slippery slope towards a price tag on playtime? [Interruption.]

As my hon. Friends point out, a slippery slope is often something we would want in a playground. In fairness, however, as the hon. Lady pointed out, we want to ensure that children have the opportunity to play and enjoy play without fees or bureaucracy getting in the way. It is one of the responsibilities of local authorities to ensure that children have an opportunity to play freely, but it is also the responsibility of central Government to sweep away some of the ridiculous health and safety regulations that the previous Government put in place to prevent our young children from enjoying themselves properly.

T6. Within just a few weeks of beginning their initial recruit training courses for the Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force, individuals joining the forces who have been let down in the areas from which they come have had their educational attainment transformed. What lessons can mainstream schools learn from Her Majesty’s armed forces? (56603)

That is a brilliant point from my hon. Friend, who, as some may know, is a Territorial who served in the Parachute regiment. Our proposal to allow people who have been in the armed forces to enter the classroom—our Troops to Teachers programme—will ensure that precisely the sorts of virtues that he talks about become more widespread and are targeted at the most disadvantaged children.

T2. Bristol is facing a crisis in primary school provision, with an estimated shortfall of at least 3,000 places by 2015. Instead of supporting gimmicky measures such as the 150 places at the new secondary free school in Bristol, will the Minister concentrate on the real needs of parents and pupils in Bristol, and help us get primary school provision in place? (56599)

I note that the hon. Lady is opposed to new secondary school provision in Westbury on Trym. I am sure that her constituents will want to know that she is against an excellent new secondary school—that is very instructive to know—and that she is diverging from the view of her Front-Bench colleagues, who I think are in favour of free schools. There is an urgent need for more primary school places. The last Government were warned by the Office of Government Commerce that they needed to act, but they failed to do so. That is why all local authorities are receiving more money from us to provide more school places for primary school children.

T7. In Tamworth and around the country, A-level students are now preparing for their examinations, and many will have offers of university places based on their predicted results. Is it not time that we ended this unsatisfactory arrangement and timetabled university applications to come after A-level examinations and results, thereby ending the bureaucracy of clearing? (56604)

It is an intriguing idea. It is not quite as simple as it seems, but we and colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are looking into it.

T3. Following the abolition of education maintenance allowance, further education colleges are finding it difficult to plan ahead for pupils on low incomes, those who may have been on free school meals and those from low-income households. How on earth will colleges be able to plan ahead if they are not receiving information about the people trying to enrol? Can the Minister say what he is going to do about that? (56600)

That is a perfectly fair question. It is important that colleges have information as soon as possible to make the kind of provision that the hon. Gentleman suggests. I will ensure that further discussions take place between my officials and colleges to guarantee that they have that information.

T8. Does the Secretary of State agree with Ofqual that the OCR—Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations—GCSE history pilot should end? Shaun Connelly, the head of humanities at Colne Primet high school in my constituency, has contacted me, as he believes that the course has allowed students of all abilities to achieve their potential in history. (56605)

A judgment about which qualifications should or should not count is properly a matter for Ofqual, the independent regulator. One of the points that it makes is that although that particular qualification may have some teaching attractions, only 25% of the content is assessed by an external exam at the end; 75% of it is teacher-assessed. Many of us would argue that the balance between teacher assessment and external assessment should be got right, and that we should have more external assessment.

T5. Under the Protection of Freedoms Bill, an individual who is barred from working with children can volunteer in the classroom. The school will not be notified that that person has been barred by the independent safeguarding authority. Many parents are worried about this development. Is the Minister? (56602)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that point. We are working on a number of scenarios to ensure that people who are not entitled to work should not be there. However, it is up to everybody to be vigilant—not least the head of a school—and to take appropriate references on the background of the person concerned. I would much rather have a system with a common-sense and proportionate approach which does not drive out adults who willingly want to give up their time to work with young people and make them into better members of our community, and not wrap them in cotton wool.

T9. A survey for the Prince’s Trust shows that one in five children from deprived homes believes that they will end up in “dead-end jobs”. Does the Minister agree that this highlights the importance of implementing the Wolf review, and in particular recommendation 7, which says that the lowest-attaining learners should focus on English and maths, backed up by practical work experience? (56606)

I am familiar with the Prince’s Trust report to which my hon. Friend refers. It does indeed describe the under-achievement that he highlights, but it also says that often people do not get adequate advice and guidance—the wherewithal that they need—to achieve their ambitions. That is precisely why we are so committed to filling that gap.

T10. Head teachers of eight secondary schools serving children in my constituency have taken what they describe as the unprecedented step of writing to the parents and carers of years 11 and 12 students about the impact of Government cuts on sixth-form funding. They are considering cutting the range of courses, increasing class sizes, ending the teaching of some subjects, and reducing guidance and enrichment sessions. They say in their letter:“we have never been subject to cuts of this magnitude,”which— (56607)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to that letter; I hope that he will send me a copy. I know that he is a new Member, and that he is passionate about raising standards in his constituency, but the reductions in public spending are a direct consequence of the mistakes that were made by the Government who preceded us. I am afraid that the reply that he should give to that letter should graciously acknowledge that fact.

Too many special needs children are being denied education because a school place travel grant or a statement has either not been granted or not been honoured. Is it not time, when there is clear evidence of special educational need, that we allow a child’s educational funding to follow them to their school of choice, whether or not they have a statement?

The proposals in the Green Paper that we are consulting on aim to make it clearer when a child should have a statement. Schools should therefore be much clearer about what is normally available, and I hope that that will make it easier for parents and schools to understand whether there should be a statement. The new proposals for an education, health and care plan ought to join up funding to make things much simpler for families.

Further to Question 13, we have been told for nearly a year that an announcement on the replacement for Building Schools for the Future is imminent, yet we are still waiting. We are now being told that there might be one before the summer recess. The fabric of some schools continues to crumble, and a few are now in a dangerous state. Will we hear an announcement in the next couple of weeks telling us exactly where we are going to be?

No, I am afraid. I would make two points. Over the comprehensive spending review period we will be spending more every year on school capital than the previous Government spent in every year of their first eight years. It is therefore simply wrong to say that there is no investment in school buildings, because it will be greater than it was in the first eight years under the previous Government. Also, more than 700 schools in the BSF programme are still having their renovation work carried out. Of course we would like to do more, but our capacity to do so is impeded by the bureaucratic mess that we were left by the last Government and by the fact that there simply was not any money left after their comprehensive mismanagement of the economy.

Schools in Hastings have been bitterly disappointed by the recent decision of the local authority, guided by the schools forum, to devolve £1.4 million of excellence cluster funding that had been intended for the most deprived schools. It is now to be shared throughout East Sussex. The rationale appears to be that the pupil premium will make up the additional costs. Can the Secretary of State please clarify whether additional funds from the pupil premium are considered as part of the overall funding when the assessment is made of the minimum funding guarantee?

I have to say that I am very worried about that. I know that it is a Tory authority, but it sounds to me as though it is doing the wrong thing.

Good careers advice is absolutely vital to those at risk of falling into neither earning nor learning. Following the demise of Connexions, will the Secretary of State say who will own the administrative data, counting in real time the numbers of young people who are not in education, employment or training?

The hon. Lady is right about good careers guidance, but she will know that a survey conducted by Edge found that 51% of young people regarded the advice from Connexions as inadequate. In moving to the new service, we will of course take on board those data, but we are also putting into place for the first time an all-age database to give people the advice they need in order to fulfil their potential.

We all agree with education for life, but will the Secretary of State find time to provide education for saving life as part of the school curriculum?

My hon. Friend has lent his considerable weight to that campaign and it is important, whether we are thinking about swimming and physical education or more broadly, that we do everything we can to ensure that life-saving and first aid skills are part of what happens in our schools.

Twelve months ago, the Secretary of State said that there was a compelling case to rebuild Tibshelf school. Meanwhile, the teachers are travelling 6 miles every day, tramping between two schools—Tibshelf and Deincourt in North Wingfield—yet we have heard nothing more from the Secretary of State. It sounds to me as though, like many of us, he is very good at talking the talk, but in government, you are supposed to walk the walk. When is this going to happen?

It is good to see the hon. Gentleman walking the walk without any mechanical or medical aid of any kind whatever; we are all reassured to see him in fine form. I have to say that the hon. Gentleman, as a former grammar school boy himself, should accept one thing: the difficult economic situation that we inherited and the difficult position that Derbyshire county council put us into after years of Labour rule mean that it is very difficult for us to do the work necessary to repair the school which needs our support so desperately.

What happens to children under seven when they are the only ones sent to another village because there is no place for them in the local school?

We are doing everything possible with our reform of the school admissions code, which will be published shortly, to ensure that all children have a high-quality school place. I know that my hon. Friend has argued vigorously to ensure that every child on the Isle of Wight has a school of high quality close at hand. I look forward to working with him and the council.

Parents, staff and students across Sefton have raised concerns about the plans to create academies. Does the Secretary of State understand the need to gain support from parents, staff and students—and, indeed, the wider community—before converting schools to academies? Will he ensure that such major and irrevocable changes cannot be carried out by governing bodies without full consultation?

The popularity of academies is attested by the increasing number of parents who want their children to go to those schools. I am sure that every governing body contemplating this step will take the appropriate procedures and will ensure that this transformative change benefits all the students.