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Topical Questions

Volume 533: debated on Monday 17 October 2011

I was delighted that last Friday, Her Majesty’s new chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was appointed. I am confident that under his leadership, Ofsted will continue to do its fantastic work in driving up standards in state education. May I take this opportunity to pay an appropriate debt of gratitude to his two predecessors, his acting predecessor Miriam Rosen and, of course, Christine Gilbert, who did such a distinguished job as Her Majesty’s chief inspector?

Many mums and dads in my part of Essex would like to see local free schools, but for all their enthusiasm there are still too many obstacles and obstructions. What will the Government do to make it easier to establish free schools? Will they perhaps allow specialist charities and businesses to do so? May I bring a delegation of mums and dads to discuss with officials how it can be done?

We will do everything possible to support the establishment of free schools, but there is one barrier that I can do nothing about—the confusion on the Labour party Benches. Just last Friday, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) said that he would back the setting up of free schools, but yesterday he said on Sky television that the Labour party opposed the free schools policy. That U-turn within 72 hours leaves parents and teachers in a quandary, which is why so many of them are saying, “Thank heavens it’s a coalition Government in power rather than Labour!”

May I first join the Secretary of State in welcoming the appointment of Sir Michael Wilshaw, who has a fine track record, and in thanking Miriam Rosen and Christine Gilbert for their service?

May I take the Secretary of State back to my earlier exchange with the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb)? I welcome the increase in the number of young people taking history, geography and modern foreign languages, but schools are getting very mixed messages about the E-bac. Will he answer the question that I put to his colleague? Will he look to create a technical baccalaureate, as proposed by many including his noble Friend Lord Baker? If he does not, the UTCs and others will simply be frozen out of the improvements to education that he says he wants to deliver.

It is a curious type of freezing out that has seen the number of UTCs increase by 800% as a result of the changes that we have made. If we are going to talk about freezing out and frostiness, what about the cold shoulder that the hon. Gentleman is turning to the parents and teachers who want to set up free schools everywhere? If we are talking about a chilling effect, what about the chilling effect on all those who believe in education reform, who will have seen his brave efforts to drag the Labour party into the 21st century, only to see him dragged back within 72 hours? We detect the cold and pulsate hand of his leader dragging him back from a posture of reform to one of reaction.

T2. Recently, at the WorldSkills competition in London, Britain came fifth out of 49 countries that were entered, above Germany, France and the USA. However, we still face a skills gap, and in some areas of the country, such as the area just north of Wolverhampton where there are new developments involving, for example, Jaguar and Land Rover, worries are high that jobs will not go to local graduates. What measures are in place to ensure that school leavers are in a position to fulfil the needs of business and manufacturing in the 21st century? (74445)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that WorldSkills was a triumph. In an event involving 1,000 competitors from 52 countries and more than 40 skills, Britain achieved its best ever result. It is our commitment to excellence and our belief in rigour that combines our approach to academic learning and vocational learning. Whether it is Pliny or plumbing, or Plutarch or plastering, we believe in excellence, excellence, excellence.

T6. Labour Members believe that the E-bac might be for some, but certainly not for all. Some people are better suited to more vocational courses rather than purely academic routes. Why does the Secretary of State not believe in parity of esteem? (74449)

I certainly do believe in parity of esteem. In particular, I think that we should esteem working-class students in the same way that we esteem those from other backgrounds. The fact that under the previous Government working-class students were too often denied the opportunity to study the academic subjects that would lead them to university is a contributory factor in the freezing of social mobility over the course of the past 15 years. A fatal flaw in this country’s approach to education is that we automatically assume that just because children come from poorer backgrounds, they cannot succeed academically. At last, under this coalition Government, that unhappy prejudice is being uprooted from the education system.

T4. Will my right hon. Friend send a message to Enfield council—two days ago, such a message would have been endorsed by my predecessor, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)—which has a policy of opposing free schools despite a shortage of primary school places, and which decided last week to sell off the old town hall rather than offer it up for a free school? (74447)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Just last Thursday, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby visited an outstanding free school in Enfield. I would have hoped that that would have been a powerful signal to the reactionary elements within the Enfield Labour party that they should support education reform in the interests of the poorest rather than stand against it. However, I am afraid that his words on Sky television will have given heart to those reactionary elements rather than put them in their place. He has a direct responsibility to reassure reformers that he is on their side.

Order. That is quite enough. Could I just remind the Secretary of State—I know that he tends to make this mistake—that he is not today at the Oxford Union making a speech, but answering questions in the Chamber of the House of Commons? He does so brilliantly, but from now on he will do so more briefly. That is the end of it.

T9. Charities play an increasingly important role in education—indeed, the Secretary of State has been involved in a variety of charities. Can he assure the House that he took all appropriate steps to ensure that Atlantic Bridge did not abuse its charitable status? (74452)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I was proud to play my part in ensuring that the relationship between this country and the United States of America was strengthened, and I will always stand in favour of the Atlantic alliance. As a member of the advisory board of Atlantic Bridge, I took the opportunity, as I will on all platforms, to say that I believe—

Order. The Secretary of State will resume his seat. He will answer questions on matters for which he is responsible, not on other matters. I have made the position clear, and no dilation from the Secretary of State is required.

T5. My right hon. Friend will be aware that so far two secondary schools in my constituency have become academies, and that a further two are applying to do so. However, one of those schools has run into problems because it runs a nursery. Rawlins college tells me that it has received unclear advice from his Department on the best way for the nursery to be constituted, which must be sorted before the college can become an academy. Will he agree to assist me in finding the most effective solution to this problem, so that Rawlins can hit its preferred conversion date of 1 November? (74448)

I have been contacted by parents and teachers about the difficulties of online registration for school milk. There have been reductions in the past year of between a quarter and a third in some schools in Ashfield. Are Ministers aware of that situation, is it a national trend, and what can they do about it?

I am now aware of that situation. I do not know whether it is a national trend. Of course, every child deserves the opportunity to have school milk.

T7. In light of the recent UK adoption rate figures, will my hon. Friend set out what steps the Government are taking to continue to encourage prospective adopting parents to come forward to be assessed? Those in Erewash and throughout the UK could provide much-needed homes for looked-after children. (74450)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and she knows that the Government are absolutely committed to improving the lot of looked-after children in this country and getting more of those for whom it is appropriate into adoption. We need to get the message across loud and clear that people who want to do the noble deed of coming forward and showing an interest in adoption should be welcomed with open arms at the town hall door and given every encouragement, rather than the “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” attitude that has prevailed in too many places up to now. We will make that change.

Further to that question, will the Minister update the House on plans to introduce savings accounts for looked-after children?

The right hon. Gentleman and I had a conversation on this matter recently when I was on my way from Leeds airport, and I hope to be able to update the House on it shortly, because we are committed to the scheme. Sorting out the practical details has been a complete nightmare, but we are now close to doing so and I hope that he will welcome the good news that will be coming soon.

T8. I am sure that the Education team will be delighted to hear that the highly acclaimed Manor Church of England school in my constituency has experienced a smooth transition to academy status. Now, however, it is moving into its second year as an academy, and it has raised concerns about the delayed allocation of its annual budget. Is the Secretary of State aware of these issues, and will he be addressing them before the next round of budget allocations? (74451)

I am very aware of these issues, and that is one of the reasons we are consulting on replacing the system of funding that we inherited from the previous Government.

Many 16 to 18-year-olds choose to study at a college rather than in a school sixth form, and they are therefore not eligible for free school meals. How and when are the Government going to address that anomaly?

I am familiar with that anomaly; it is a situation we inherited from the previous Government. We are seeking to ensure that funding is equalised between colleges and school sixth forms.

Following the very popular announcement that there is to be a university technical college on the Southwark college site in Bermondsey, may I encourage the Secretary of State to complete the set by allowing a college, a UTC and a secondary school all to be on the same campus, given the breadth of experience that many youngsters in an inner-city seat such as mine are really looking forward to?

I will do everything I can. How lucky Southwark is to have such an outstanding MP, and what a pity it is that the local authority has taken a grudging response to new school provision.

Ministers will have been horrified to see that the UK Border Agency is still routinely detaining children, and that it does not know where, for how long or how many there are. Will the Minister responsible for safeguarding call on her colleagues urgently to investigate this matter, not only to meet the coalition’s pledge but to ensure that the Government whom she represents are not actively putting children at risk?

The hon. Lady will be aware that we have a commitment to abolish detention—[Hon. Members: “By last Christmas.”] We have already set up the panel, and that is now beginning. I am aware of the article that the hon. Lady mentioned, and the reports that have appeared in the press. This is a matter of concern to me as well.

In Calderdale, 15% of all schools have now converted to academy status, but that is unique in our region, particularly because of the disinformation that is being peddled on the subject. Will the Secretary of State consider increasing the amount of communication to schools on conversion to academy status to help to dispel many of the myths that are being peddled?

I will certainly do everything in my power. We could of course be helped by the Labour party, and not least by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, who says that he is “relaxed” about an enormous expansion of academies. Let us hope that the next time he has an opportunity to share his views with us, he will be enthused about this.

I was very pleased that the Government continued the capital funding for myplace, and the Fuse has now opened in my constituency, but we are very concerned about revenue funding to ensure that we are not simply left with a beautiful empty building. Can the Government offer any advice or assistance that would help to make a difference to some of the most disadvantaged young people in my community?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight myplace, and I was delighted that we were able to find £124 million for the building of some 63 myplace centres. I want them to be the hub of communities up and down the country. If there are particular problems with her myplace, she should speak to the Big Lottery Fund, which manages the scheme on our behalf. We will be putting forward our policy in “Positive for Youth” later in the autumn, which will set out how we can bring in new, mixed sources of revenue that I hope will help myplace centres and other youth provision.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that his Department has received a bid from Patchway community college in my constituency for investment under the Government’s priority schools building programme. Given that the school was overlooked by the previous Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme, will he look seriously at Patchway’s deserving bid? I must tell the House that one of my children still goes to that school.

A beautifully tailored bid from my hon. Friend! We will look as favourably as we can on all schools that were overlooked by the previous Government’s BSF programme.

The Association of Colleges has surveyed its members and found a fall in recruitment to colleges this autumn. What steps is the Secretary of State putting in place to monitor and evaluate the effect on student recruitment, retention and achievement of his decision to scrap the education maintenance allowance?

I was interested to look at the Association of Colleges survey, which showed that an equal number of colleges were, in fact, attracting more students. The truth is that there is increased competition among colleges to attract students, with strong colleges, like the one of which the hon. Gentleman used to be the principal, doing a fantastic job, but with weaker colleges—of which, sadly, there are still one or two—having to up their game.

Last week, the governing body of the historic Prince Henry grammar school, which is a comprehensive school in Otley, voted by 10 to nine to become an academy, although one governor, who had made it clear that she was going to vote against it, was away. Regardless of that decision, does the Secretary of State understand the concern that such an important decision has been taken on such a close vote?

When schools become academies, it is important that governors are clear about the advantages and the issues. It is always difficult, when the vote is narrow, to discern what any individual who was not there, having heard all the arguments, might have done when the decision was taken. I would be happy to discuss the pros and cons of this case with my hon. Friend. If the school does become an academy, I am sure it will flourish as one, but if it chooses to keep its current status, I am sure it will benefit as well.

How many children do not have access to a breakfast club or an after-school club place because of the removal of extended school funding?

I was delighted to attend in Leeds recently the Magic Breakfast charity, which has done fantastic work. It is a social enterprise that has worked its brilliant magic on schools up and down the country to make sure that kids get a healthy breakfast. We want to see more of that through organisations such as Magic Breakfast. I would hope that the hon. Lady supported such organisations.

There is a strong feeling in Bromley, which is in the vanguard of the academies movement, that the proposed formula for the top-slicing of LACSEG—local authority central spend equivalent grant—unfairly penalises very efficient local authorities. Will the Secretary of State agree to a meeting to discuss this concern?

Strong feelings in Bromley always weigh with me. It is the case that the approach to LACSEG needs reform, and we are consulting on it. I expect that, as ever, voices from Bromley will be among the most persuasive.

I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State and his colleagues for those brilliant and brief replies over the last few minutes, which meant that I was able to accommodate more colleagues than would otherwise have been possible.