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Topical Questions

Volume 538: debated on Monday 16 January 2012

Today, one of the powers contained in the Education Act 2011 comes into effect: teachers will no longer be required to give 24 hours’ notice before imposing a detention on a child who breaks school rules. That is a useful new weapon in their armoury in the constant battle to ensure that all children are well behaved and that all students can learn.

What advice would the Secretary of State give to parents in my constituency, where the teaching unions are consistently telling them that if their school converts to an academy or co-operative trust, it will lead to less local accountability and parental control?

I would advise parents in my hon. Friend’s constituency to listen to their very shrewd and effective elected Member, who has consistently pointed out that academy status means not only more resources for students but greater flexibility for teachers and heads and higher standards all round. It is an increasingly welcome aspect of the political consensus that is emerging around academies that so many Labour Members are flocking to their banner.

Can the Secretary of State give the House an absolute assurance that neither he nor his special advisers have deliberately destroyed or deleted e-mails relating to Government business that he has sent or received through private e-mail accounts?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. As he will be aware, we changed the information and communications technology curriculum just last week, and many of us were brought up when the old ICT curriculum was in place and may not always have been as handy with the cursor as we should have been. However, every single aspect of communications policy in the Department for Education has been in accordance with the highest standards of propriety, as laid down by the Cabinet Office.

T2. My right hon. Friend may remember our discussions about how to help independent day schools increase the number of places available to our brightest, yet poorest, children. In the light of today’s impressive report by the Sutton Trust, will he re-examine my proposals to open up those schools to access based on merit, rather than on the ability to pay? (89274)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a consistent advocate for helping disadvantaged children to access excellent schooling. I am encouraged by the work that the Sutton Trust has done, but it is important that we ensure not only that individual children of merit have access to the best schools, but that all children from disadvantaged circumstances have better education. That is why I want to see private schools playing a larger part in the academies programme.

T4. The Co-operative Education Trust Scotland and other co-operative education bodies are doing fantastic work across the UK to support schools and to embed co-operative enterprise education into their curriculum. How are the Government ensuring that schools promote the co-operative model as a viable option for young people who are thinking about starting their own business? (89276)

First, let me pay tribute to the work of the co-operative movement. Since it started in Rochdale, many of us have been inspired by its achievements. I believe that the academies programme and particularly the free schools programme provide an opportunity for the ideals of the original co-operative movement to be embedded in our schools. The idea that all work together for the good of their community and for the fulfilment of higher ideals is one that Government Members wholeheartedly applaud.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the extensive process that parents and schools go through when undertaking testing for special educational needs for children. What advice does he have for parents in my constituency when schools refuse to test their children for special educational needs?

Parents’ views about their child should be central. One thing that we are looking at in the Green Paper is how we can make clearer what should normally be provided in schools and what local authorities should normally provide. It should therefore at least be simpler for parents and teachers to understand whether a child’s needs are greater than those normally provided in the school, and much clearer whether they need a statutory assessment.

T6. The Prime Minister said before the election that there would be no return to selection at 11, so why are the Government making it easier for grammar schools to expand by taking away the rights of local parents to object? (89278)

We are allowing all good schools to expand. I am an unalloyed fan of all good schools, whether they are comprehensive or selective. No new selective schools will be created under the coalition Government, but all successful schools have the right to expand, and any parent who believes that any school is in breach of the admissions code has an expanded right to complain to the schools adjudicator. Good schools doing a better job for more students: that is what the coalition delivers; I am amazed that the hon. Lady objects.

T5. Last Friday, I had the great pleasure to visit Paddox primary school in my constituency, which is an outstanding school where significant improvements have been made in recent years. Parents have told me that much of the positive atmosphere at the school is attributable to the drive and ambition of the head teacher, Brenda Oakes. Does the Minister agree that strong leadership provided by head teachers such as Miss Oakes is essential in delivering a first-class education to all our children? (89277)

I certainly agree with that and add my tribute to that school. The early years of a child’s education, when they are learning to read and to become fluent in arithmetic, are key to their success in secondary education and beyond. I would like to pay our tribute to the work that that head teacher is doing. Government Members agree that the autonomy and independence of head teachers, and their ability to run their schools as they see fit, are key to raising standards. That is what all the evidence suggests internationally. That is the drive behind the academies programme.

T8. As we approach Holocaust memorial day on 27 January, how is the Secretary of State ensuring that lessons from the Holocaust and other genocides, including in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, are taught in free schools, academies and other schools not bound by the national curriculum? (89280)

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s point. Let me pay tribute to my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls). His decision to increase funding for the Holocaust Education Trust was one of many good things that he did, and I was honoured to be able to honour a pledge I made before the election to secure its funding. The trips that it offers to schools of all kinds help to ensure that we remember, and that that indescribable evil is never repeated. Let me take this opportunity to affirm the importance of all MPs meeting Holocaust denial and relativisation head on. Any attempt to undermine the singular historic evil of that crime is utterly wrong, and we should unite in condemning it.

T7. Having opened just last September, the West London free school has had more than 5,000 visits from interested parents, its places are now heavily over-subscribed and it has just applied to set up a new, free primary school. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that all goes to demonstrate just how enthusiastic parents are about these new free schools? (89279)

My hon. Friend makes a brilliant case. The West London free school was attacked and criticised by many on the left of the political spectrum. Fiona Millar said that the idea would never take place. Now it is the single most popular and over-subscribed school in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, providing a superb education of a comprehensive kind for all children. I recommend it to you, Mr Speaker, for the future.

I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for his helpful advice. I was not asking for his advice, but I am grateful for it anyway.

Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide or commission sufficient youth services, but many of them are not now fulfilling that duty. What will Ministers do to make them fulfil their statutory duty?

The hon. Lady is a long and tireless advocate of the promotion of youth services and she has rightly pointed to the section of the Education Act 1996 that places that duty on local authorities. We are looking to rewrite that duty and streamline it to ensure that local authorities cannot shirk their responsibility to ensure that positive activities are available for young people in their area, and that it is clearly understood.

As part of “Positive for Youth”, I have said that we will look closely at what activities for young people are going on in local authority areas and I invite young people to ensure that they are auditing the youth offer in their areas and reporting back to the centre. That is part of “Positive for Youth” and I hope that she will encourage young people in her area to do that.

T9. British banks employs hundreds of thousands of people and many of them are hard-working young people. Does the skills Minister agree that it would be a fantastic achievement to see an apprentice in every branch of every high street bank, and what can he do to help achieve this? (89281)

There are few greater champions of apprenticeships or learning in this House than my hon. Friend, although I notice my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) sitting next to him, and he is just as worthy a champion. Just this week I will meet banks to discuss exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) proposes. It is right that apprenticeships are seen as a route into the professions, and we will make them just that.

Stockport council estimates that it is notified of only 60% of looked-after children placed in the borough by other authorities. This is not a problem specific to Stockport and, as the Minister will appreciate, it is very difficult for authorities to plan the provision of resources that will achieve better outcomes for children in care without adequate information. What more can he do to make local authorities meet their obligations?

The hon. Lady is right to raise this subject and it is a problem in many parts of the country, especially when children from London boroughs are placed in areas such as my own part of the country. I issued new guidance that came into effect last April, which made it absolutely clear that local authorities have a responsibility to keep children for whom they are responsible for caring as close to home as possible. If children are placed further afield, there must be a good reason, and local authorities must ensure that they maintain the responsibility to monitor how the child is doing. In too many cases, they do not notify the host authority, and I plan to ensure that every authority is reminded of its responsibilities.

Market Field school is in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin). It caters for children with special needs from both our constituencies and from the Clacton constituency. Will the Minister agree to meet the three of us to consider why Essex county council’s promise—made by the previous leader to the head teacher, Mr Gary Smith—has not been carried out?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question. I hope to speak to the lead member for children’s services in Essex county council later this afternoon and I shall raise the issue with him. If I do not get satisfaction, I will pursue it. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his well-deserved knighthood.

Now that the Secretary of State for Education has accepted Bolsover Labour party’s campaign for a new school at Tibshelf—a most unlikely Minister, I agree—will he tell us who will bear the cost, how much central Government will pay and how much the council taxpayer will have to pay?

The hon. Gentleman has been a fantastic campaigner on behalf of Tibshelf school and, as he has often pointed out in this House, the school has had to be kept aloft by pit props and is not fit for purpose. We want to ensure that the priority school building programme, to which I think he refers, will provide the resources from the Department for Education’s budget, but we will work with the local authority to ensure that we refurbish the school appropriately. I should stress, however, that final decisions on each school in the programme will not be made until at least next month.

I had a very good morning on Friday when I went to two infant schools. Both say that a larger number of children are coming in with speech and communication problems. What measures will we take in response to Jean Gross’s communications strategy, and how will we make it a priority to support those children at a very early age to resolve such problems?

As the hon. Lady says, there is a very particular issue with communication problems and ensuring that we identify them early. That is part of the reason I am working closely with colleagues at the Department of Health to implement significant numbers of new health visitors and to ensure that we commission services better. The education health and care plan, which will integrate services, will, I hope, make a real difference to children in that position.

The Secretary of State will be aware of my ongoing correspondence with him about Woodlands school in my constituency, which is held up not by pit props but by equally unsightly and unacceptable scaffolding. It seems that the school will be denied any access to the priority school building programme by an anomalous set of circumstances. It does not need extra places, yet the state of the buildings means that it obviously needs priority status and access to funds, but it has been denied that as more than 30% of the buildings are listed. What can the school do? We are due an answer. May we have it soon?

When we had to close the Building Schools for the Future programme, it was inevitable that a significant number of schools in urgent need of repair would be just the wrong side of where the line was drawn. I know that in Coventry a number of schools are in desperate need of refurbishment. The priority school building programme is designed to ensure that as many schools as possible qualify and we will not be able to make an announcement until next month because we want to be absolutely sure that marginal cases such as this school, as it appears from the information the hon. Gentleman has shared with us, are fairly treated.

The Minister is well aware of my support for steps taken to prepare young people for apprenticeships and the world of work, but is he aware that an arbitrary decision about payments due for academic work undertaken in apprentices’ own time towards their qualification might threaten the ability and willingness of small employers, such as Amazon World in my constituency, to take them on?

I am aware of the specific issue my hon. Friend raises. I understand that the problems arose under the stewardship of a Minister in the previous Government, but none the less there are ongoing repercussions and I am happy to consider the specific matters raised by my hon. Friend. He will know that there are now national minimum standards as there is a national wage for apprentices and it is absolutely right that the deal an apprentice gets should be fair and proper.

A university technical college for Dudley would not only transform the education available in the town but help address the skills shortage and rebalance the economy while encouraging young people to pursue careers in high-tech manufacturing. I am sure that the Secretary of State will be as pleased as I am that a bid has now been submitted for the Aston university technical college in Dudley. Will he take this bid from me today and ensure that it is approved as early as possible so that we can get the changes made that we need in Dudley?

I shall take the bid and look on it sympathetically. I know that the Prime Minister, as a Villa fan, would want me to do everything possible to satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

Is the Minister as concerned as I am that some teachers in schools today qualified only after re-sitting their basic numeracy and literacy tests on multiple occasions—in some cases, more than 30 times—and what steps will he take to ensure that this is not repeated?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We want to raise the bar for entrants into the teaching profession, which is why we are limiting the number of retakes for those tests, which will be taken before trainees start their course, not at the end.

Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), would the Secretary of State like to congratulate the Holocaust Educational Trust, which works tirelessly visiting schools and educating students in the horrors of the genocide of the second world war?

“Lessons from Auschwitz” is a model project, and I am so delighted that in the new year’s honours list the chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, Karen Pollock, received a long-overdue award. She is one of the unsung heroes of British education, and her work has been absolutely fantastic. I recommend to all Members the opportunity to attend the forthcoming Merlyn-Rees memorial lecture, which the trust is organising and which will remind us all of the timeless enormity of that evil and of the need to remain vigilant to this day.