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Topical Questions

Volume 531: debated on Monday 11 July 2011

I am delighted that my Department, following extremely hard work by the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), and our behaviour adviser Mr Charlie Taylor, has today published new behaviour guidance, which is significantly slimmer, and more focused and effective. It has been widely welcomed by teachers as at last getting to grips with the indiscipline in some of our weakest schools.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He recently mentioned that there were about 200 failing primary schools in this country, which is a shocking statistic. Although there is no list, I believe that Shelthorpe primary school in my constituency is one of them. When judging whether a school is failing, what allowances are made for pupils with moderate learning difficulties, cases of social deprivation, cases involving social care and the number of free school meals? Also, the school’s head teacher has asked me to invite the Secretary of State to visit the school.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. We specifically take into account not just raw attainment, but the progress that children are making in school to ensure that any judgment is properly contextualised. The 200 weakest schools are those that have been below floor standards for five years. Let me be clear: that means that more than 40% of students leaving those schools over the previous four years have been incapable of reading, writing or adding up to an acceptable level. We absolutely need to take action where schools are failing and where communities are aware that those schools are not performing as well as they should be. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will recognise that such action is necessary.

T5. Will the Secretary of State reassure the parents, teachers and governors of Moorside school in Halifax that they will get the necessary capital funding for the new build they have been promised for so long, and if so, say when they will get it? (64626)

It is vital to ensure that we have an accurate picture of the schools that are most in need of capital funding. One of the unfortunate consequences of decisions made by the previous Government is that in about 2006 we stopped collecting data at a national level on the state of school buildings, which means that we do not have an accurate picture of the schools that are most in need. The hon. Lady makes a very good case for a school in her constituency, which I know she represents effectively, but we have to look at the picture in the round.

T2. Five families have been refused admission to Wootton primary school on the Isle of Wight from the beginning of next term, which means that four-year-olds will have to travel to other schools, the nearest of which is 2.5 miles away. Mothers who want to travel with their child would have to pay for that, assuming that public transport was available. This is a complete scandal. Surely the ridiculous limits on the size of primary schools imposed by the Labour party need to be reconsidered, and before the beginning of next term. (64623)

I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point. It is not the first time that we have received reports of this nature, with families frustrated and confused by an admissions system that is too complex and bureaucratic and which effectively rations places in good and popular schools. That is why we are consulting on simpler and fairer admissions systems. The key point is that there are simply not enough good school places, so it was absurd that it was not possible before to raise the number of places in good schools. Increasing the flexibility to do so is therefore a major part of the new admissions code.

The baccalaureate’s emphasis on ancient history and Latin will allow our students to cope admirably with the Roman invasion 2,000 years ago, but leave them less able to cope with modern life, because of the neglect of IT. In which century are the Government living?

It is a source of considerable pride to me that the number of students studying Latin in comprehensives is the highest ever. We are presiding over the greatest renaissance in Latin learning since Julius Caesar invaded. [Interruption.] Those who are about to answer should be saluted, as we say in Latin. The critical thing is that we have to ensure that our examinations in every subject are up there with the best in the world. It is striking that before he went to university, one of the iconic figures of the 21st century—Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook—studied Latin, Greek and classical Hebrew.

T3. I recently met parents who send their children to Sceptre school, a Christian-based independent school that has decided to apply for free school status. They said: “Overall, we will be able to enrich the choice and diversity that will, in turn, drive up standards and increase opportunities.”Is that not an example of the Conservative-led Government delivering? (64624)

I am hugely grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the enormous interest in our free school programme. Everyone from former advisers in Tony Blair’s No. 10 through to figures from grass-roots faith organisations has embraced that reform. I fear that the only people who are still standing against that wave of the future are the isolated and neolithic figures of the Labour Front Bench.

The Secretary of State knows that one of the neediest schools that he has to deal with—and it was described as a compelling case by one of his junior Ministers—is Tibshelf, which was built before the first world war. Pit props are holding up part of the roof, and teachers have to tramp between one school and another to keep the show on the road. When is the Secretary of State going to give the Tibshelf people a chance to have their new school built?

The hon. Gentleman is a consistent and effective campaigner on behalf of the parents, children and teachers of Tibshelf school, and I congratulate them on having such an impassioned defender. However, that school is in such poor repair because, under 13 years of Labour rule, money was wasted. It did not go to the front line, and the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, like many poorer students around the country, were failed by an arrogant, unaccountable and out-of-touch Labour Government.

T4. The Sutton Trust has recently stated that under the previous Government, between 2007 and 2009, a group of 2,000 secondary schools and sixth-form colleges sent fewer pupils to Oxford and Cambridge than just five of our leading independent schools. Will my right hon. Friend join me in deploring that situation, and will he set out what this Government are going to do to put that record right? (64625)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that social mobility went backwards under Labour. Poorer students had a better chance of going to university before the Labour Government came to power than after they left office. We are changing that, and we are making sure that with increased investment through the pupil premium, higher standards in the English baccalaureate and a remorseless drive to get the best possible teachers into the classroom, standards rise for the poorest. It is a great pity that the once so-called party of progress is standing in the way of that necessary reform.

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), Ministers repeated the confusion about who will, or will not, be eligible for education maintenance allowance. Given the overwhelming evidence that young people need to know whether they will receive EMA so that they can make a decision to go to college, will the Government think again?

I am grateful for the point that the hon. Lady makes. We are doing everything possible to ensure that the replacement for education maintenance allowance, the discretionary learner support fund, is in place as soon as possible. We had consultations with college principals who said that while they accepted that these were straitened times, they would prefer to have discretion over how that funding was allocated, and we are happy to accede to that general advice.

T6. At Frogwell primary school in Chippenham I have seen for myself the success of the Every Child Counts drive for early intervention to aid numeracy in Wiltshire schools. How does the Secretary of State propose to monitor the take-up of such programmes now that the budgets that pay for them have been delegated to schools themselves? (64627)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Catch-up programmes in numeracy and literacy are hugely important. That is why we are making sure that in our reform of the accountability measures for all schools we take account not only of the raw attainment at the end of primary school but of how children do, particularly when they are from poorer backgrounds or have low levels of prior attainment. It is not for us to prescribe exactly the method, but it is for us to ensure that the poorest are better served.

Can the Education Secretary confirm that the objective of his schools reforms, particularly the introduction of free schools, is to provide an over-supply of schools, thereby inevitably setting some schools up for failure? Has he made an assessment of the costs and upheaval that that will generate?

That is an interesting ideological take, but I am afraid that the hon. Lady is wrong. If she wants to talk about setting schools up for failure, she should look at the at east 200 underperforming primary schools that we were discussing earlier. Free schools will introduce innovation and higher standards to some of the areas that are desperately in need of new schools. They will also ensure that the growth in pupil population at primary, for which the previous Government failed to prepare adequately, is at last addressed with innovative new schools in the places that count.

T7. How can parents of children with special needs be more involved in the education of their children? I recently met parents at Ripplevale school in my constituency who say that they must not only battle the difficulties and challenges that are obvious to all but battle the education authority, time and again, to get a fair, decent and proper education for their children. (64628)

We finished our consultation on the Green Paper on 30 June and received 2,300 responses along similar lines to those my hon. Friend has outlined. I feel very passionately about the need to involve parents better, particularly if their child has special educational needs. That is one of the reasons we are rolling out Achievement for All—a programme that does exactly that.

When do Ministers expect to come to a conclusion with the devolved Administrations on the replacement for the child trust fund for looked-after children, which was promised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer some months ago but which, as far as I can see, is still yet to reach its final stages?

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that over the past few weeks a lot of discussions have been going on between the Treasury, ourselves, some of the charities involved and hon. Members who have made these proposals. There are a number of practical problems that we have to overcome to make sure that we get the most cost-effective scheme that has the biggest impact for those who most need it, but I can assure him that it is going to happen.

T8. May I commend strongly to the Secretary of State the proposal for a free school at Breckland school in Brandon—a middle school that was set for closure under the previous Administration? If that happened, there would be no post-11 education in Brandon, but if it gets the go-ahead as a free school there will be education all the way up to 16. That will have a massively positive impact on the community, and I hope that he will commend it. (64629)

I agree with the Secretary of State’s aim to raise standards in primary schools. Will he therefore meet me to discuss why he is seeking to remove the outstanding leadership of a primary school in my constituency that has been praised by his permanent secretary and has this year taken children above floor standards, and where his proposals threaten to make the situation much worse?

T9. Over recent weeks, I have seen many parents in my constituency surgery who are extremely unhappy because they could not get their sons and daughters into the schools of their choice. What can my right hon. Friend do to end this school place lottery and get more good school places in my constituency? (64630)

My hon. Friend raises a good point, which is a major concern of this Government. More than one in six parents have children who are not offered a place at their preferred school. That has led to 85,000 appeals. We are reviewing the admissions process, which is far too complex to understand and administer. One of the proposals is to allow good schools to raise the pupil admissions number. We have had a very good response to the consultation so far and will announce our response in due course.

Order. It is much better when the hon. Gentleman addresses the House. We always look forward to that.

It appears that the 16 to 19 funding consultation for 2013-14 will not be published until September at the earliest. Will the Secretary of State take steps to ensure that that does not delay the publication of information about the 2012-13 budgets for schools and colleges?

The hon. Gentleman was a great FE principal and is a superb advocate for further education. We will do everything we can to accelerate this process.

T10. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the five schools in my city of Lincoln constituency that have converted into academies, the latest being Ermine primary school? Does he agree that academy status can bring significant benefits to schools across England by providing them with greater freedoms, rather than top-down bureaucracy, as was witnessed under the previous Labour Government? (64631)

That question was epigrammatically brilliant and requires no further elucidation from me, other than to say, “Hear! Hear!”

Order. I must say that as a quick learner, the Secretary of State is proving to be exemplary, and the House is grateful to him.

Every head teacher and teacher I have spoken to dislikes and has enormous disrespect for the E-bac. I have not come across a single educationist who supports the Secretary of State. It is causing chaos at key stage 4 and in our schools. Is that what he meant by giving more power and autonomy to teachers?

The hon. Lady is assiduous, but she has not yet talked to the head teacher of the best school in County Durham, Durham Johnston comprehensive school, who backs the E-bac, as do all the great head teachers to whom I have spoken recently.

Further to Question 13, successive Governments have failed on one area of music. Will the current Secretary of State for Education do something to promote English folk dance and song?

Oscar Wilde once said that one should try everything in life once apart from folk dancing and incest. I think that he was only 50% right.

Order. We always go away from listening to the Secretary of State not only entertained, but improved. We are grateful to him.