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Topical Questions

Volume 541: debated on Monday 27 February 2012

Last week I issued some direction on how we can encourage local authorities to prioritise the concerns of children in care who need to be adopted; today my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning has issued a written ministerial statement on raising the quality of apprenticeships; and later this week we will be saying more about how we can help children in the weakest primary schools to aspire to a stronger education.

On the subject of apprenticeships, may I thank the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning for his support of apprenticeship standards in his recent visit to my constituency? Could that enthusiasm be extended to support the expansion of the Department’s Let’s stick Together pilot programme, which recognises the value in respect of outcomes of mums and dads sticking together?

I know that the Minister of State enjoyed his visit to Enfield, Southgate and was impressed by the quality of apprenticeships being offered to young people there. I also know that my hon. Friend has been a principal campaigner for supporting the family, and the voluntary organisation he mentions is just one of a number that we need to support in the valuable work they do in helping parents to do right by their children.

Has the Secretary of State had an opportunity to read the Daycare Trust’s child care costs survey published today? The trust concludes that extending free early education to 2-year-olds is a step in the right direction, but that cuts to tax credit support and local child care services are two steps backwards. We know that in many areas breakfast clubs have been cut and children’s centres closed. As a matter of urgency will the Secretary of State conduct an audit of child care places across England?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I have not yet had a chance to read the report, but I look forward to doing so. May I take this opportunity to thank the Daycare Trust for the work it has done? It is important that we recognise that the additional investment that has been secured in extra places for disadvantaged 2-year-olds—championed by the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), and delivered by the Deputy Prime Minister—has done a great deal, but there are issues that we all need to address to ensure that regulation does not increase the cost of child care and, in particular, that the very poorest have access to the highest quality child care.

The Daycare Trust says that cuts to tax credits are forcing families out of work and into poverty. According to The Times this morning’s, the Secretary of State is one of three senior Conservatives who have plotted to scrap the child poverty measure. Might this be another example of the “friendly fire” to which the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), referred? Instead of trying to move the goalposts by changing the measure of child poverty, is it not time to change course?

I have often been tempted to move the goalposts, as a Queens Park Rangers fan, but I realise that the situation is more serious than that. The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the importance of making sure that we tackle child poverty. Following on from the work done by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and the recent work done by the Government’s adviser on social mobility, Alan Milburn, I believe that the really important thing to do is ensure that when we target child poverty we recognise not only an income measure but access to quality services. That is why it is so important that we make sure that more child care places are available and that those places have people of high quality and good qualifications supporting children to do better.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the announcement that further education colleges are to be reclassified as private rather than public bodies demonstrates the genuine progress that the Government have made to free colleges from unnecessary central control? (96408)

Yes, and I have a letter here confirming what my hon. Friend said: the Government have achieved what we set out to do, which was to free further education and sixth-form colleges from unnecessary intervention. The Office for National Statistics decision provides a resounding confirmation of our success in that regard. We are seeing colleges that are trusted, free, ambitious and, at last, treated as grown up.

T7. May I welcome today’s decision by the Secretary of State to allocate £2.7 million to English Heritage to encourage schoolchildren to access local history sites, which is often the best way of helping young people to understand history? Does he now regret the Government’s decision to slash English Heritage’s funding by one third and the absurd decision to leave Stoke-on-Trent, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, off the list of pathfinder sites? (96414)

Funding for English Heritage is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. I have never known him to make a wrong decision in his life, so I cannot imagine that he has done anything other than find the funding that English Heritage requires in order to do its superb job even better. As for Stoke, I have a confession to make. The hon. Gentleman invited me to the potteries and I welshed on the deal. I would love to come to Stoke, because I am a huge fan of that city and its contribution to our industrial heritage, and of the way in which he has championed its role as a model both of how we can improve education and of urban regeneration.

T4. Does the Minister agree that the National Audit Office report’s conclusion that supporting apprenticeships, such as through the excellent Beartown apprenticeship scheme in my constituency, which partners schools, local businesses, the chamber of commerce and Plus Dane, can generate a return of £18 for every £1 invested? Does that not confirm the Government’s wisdom of putting apprenticeships at the heart of vocational learning? (96410)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting that fact. As she says, the NAO report, which I have with me, is absolutely clear: for every £1 we spend on apprenticeships, we get a return of £18. Can you think of any aspect of Government policy that represents better value for money than that, Mr Speaker?

T8. To be topical, just a moment ago the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), rightly pointed out the importance of the English baccalaureate in encouraging young people at secondary school to learn modern languages. In order to gain the baccalaureate, young people also have to do well in maths, science and a humanities subject—history or geography. Why not also include religious education as a possible subject here? (96415)

There has been a large written campaign about religious education and I should make the point that we regard RE as a very important part of the curriculum, as it provides a rigorous subject. However, its study is compulsory until 16 and we were concerned that if we had included it as part of the humanities element, weaker schools would have dropped history or geography and focused only on RE. We want a broad and balanced curriculum taught in our schools, including not only a humanities subject, such as history and geography, but RE.

T3. The National Audit Office’s conclusions about apprenticeships are very welcome indeed, but can the Minister assure the House that young people who live in truly rural areas are also benefiting from the scheme? (96409)

My own constituency is one of those truly rural areas—true in every respect—that have benefited. In my constituency, the figure is 86%, in Banbury 33%, in Suffolk Coastal 56% and in Mid Norfolk 59%—across rural Britain, apprenticeships are growing.

The Secretary of State and the whole House will recognise the deprivation in Newham, Tower Hamlets, Haringey and Hackney. Why, then, has the Secretary of State decided to give more money in his pupil premium to Oxfordshire, Surrey and Devon?

We have not. The pupil premium goes to every child eligible for free school meals and is allocated precisely according to need.

T5. During a recent visit to a primary school in Clacton, the head teacher raised with me her concerns about Department for Education guidelines issued in March 2005 on the administration of non-prescription drugs by teachers to those in their care. The guidelines appear to rule out, for example, giving a paracetamol to a child in need of a paracetamol. Is that really the case? It does not seem very common sense or very big society. (96411)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point and I must pay tribute to the trade unions, who have been raising, in a similar tone to my hon. Friend, their perplexity that some of the rules and regulations about the administration of medicines are simply too bureaucratic.

May I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for correcting my vocab earlier? I would hate to be thought guilty of Cymryphobia, especially as someone married to a Welsh girl.

We are very grateful to the Secretary of State for that, for his knowledge and, indeed, for his pronunciation.

Rochdale will get a real-terms increase of less than 1% in its early intervention grant in the next financial year, despite being 25th in the indices of deprivation. Surrey Heath, home to the Secretary of State, is the third least deprived area in the country, yet the local authority is getting a real-terms increase of 7.2%, the biggest of all local authorities. Will the Secretary of State explain to Rochdale people why that is the case when that funding is supposed to tackle deprivation?

It is a fair point, but we are using the formula for allocating money designed by the Government so enthusiastically supported by the hon. Gentleman over 13 years.

T6. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the strong partnership working between MidKent college, based in my constituency, and the university of Greenwich, BAE Systems and the Royal Engineers to bring a university technical college to Medway? (96413)

That sounds like a model of the type of collaboration between local government, industry and schools that we would like to promote and that we are happy to see flourishing under the coalition Government.

Warm words and policy documents—and even Latin—are useless if they are not backed by action. Does the Minister consider that local authorities that have cut youth services completely are providing a sufficient service and, more important, what is he going to do about it?

If the hon. Lady had been listening, she would know that I have said exactly what we are doing about it. We are issuing a consultation in the next two weeks based on the findings that we have had back from youth services, youth workers and voluntary youth organisations. What matters—as I made clear, and as I hope she will agree—is what young people are saying and their experiences. We are giving them the power and the voice to be able to assess and audit their local youth offer, wherever it comes from, and that is a really important development.

T9. The Secretary of State will remember his visit to the wonderful Wellington academy, of which I am a governor. The Wellington academy is not eligible for the Teach First scheme, but we are very interested in setting up our own version of it. What advice could he give us? (96416)

I was tempted to say, “Come up and see me sometime.” My hon. Friend and I should meet, because Teach First is expanding and it is expanding nationwide. We have tripled the funding for that admirable charity and the organisation received plaudits from all three major parties in their election manifestos. We want to ensure that schools that serve very challenging areas, as that academy does, benefit from the superb work done by the organisation.

Students who have taken the English baccalaureate and been successful do not understand why they cannot have some acknowledgment of that success in the form of a certificate. The Department for Education website states:

“We are not currently issuing certificates. We are examining possible arrangements for issuing certificates and will confirm decisions in due course.”

Can the Secretary of State tell me when that decision is likely to be made, because students in Stockport would welcome the opportunity to have a certificate?

I am very grateful for the hon. Lady’s support for the English baccalaureate. We are talking to schools about how we can best recognise those students who succeed in the baccalaureate and generally.

Given the importance of the UK science base to our innovation economy, does the Minister agree that we need to do all we can to support basic science learning in the curriculum and to inspire our young scientists through industry? Will he join me in welcoming the Sir Isaac Newton maths and science free school in Norfolk and my campaign for a Norfolk science day to bring industrial researchers together with our teachers?

Yes, I have to say that Miss Rachel de Souza, the head teacher of the Ormiston Victory academy, who I understand is behind this initiative, is a visionary school leader. I absolutely agree that we need to do more to recognise how we can encourage mathematical and scientific learning among young people. The model of the 16-to-18 maths free schools, with which Ormiston Victory academy is engaging, is one of many ways of encouraging that helpful trend.

In respect of the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on early intervention, do the Government accept that progress in education and the putting into place of their plan in response could be undermined if there are not sufficient assessments in the health service? Can we look forward to greater integration?

Making sure that services join together properly is absolutely key to getting early intervention right. That is precisely why we are rolling out 4,200 extra health visitors and making sure that they work very closely with Sure Start children’s centres. That is really critical. Similarly, the work we are doing on reforming the early years foundation stage, making sure there is more information available to parents, and the check at two and a half-years will really help with all the points the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

I welcome the reforms to reduce the amount of paperwork that teachers have to complete, but may I ask the Secretary of State to focus particularly on newly qualified teachers? The amount of paperwork they have to complete in that first year is putting good entrants off joining this important profession.

That is a typically acute point from my hon. Friend. We are seeking to reform initial teacher training at the moment to make sure that there is more practical, hands-on experience of the classroom and that we reward high-flying graduates who want to enter the noblest of professions.

Could the Minister tell the House how many civil servants at the Department for Education are working on the introduction of free schools?

About 100. I popped into the Department on Saturday to see them as many had chosen, voluntarily, to work over the weekend. It is often the case in newspapers and elsewhere that criticism is directed towards public servants and public service, but the fact that people chose, of their own free will to come in and work to ensure that new schools could be established in areas of deprivation was for me an inspiration. It made me proud of the fact that I am the Secretary of State in a Department that has so many brilliant people working for it.

The number of apprentices in the north-east has gone up from 18,000 to 34,000 in my area. I added one when I became the first MP to employ an apprentice in my Hexham office. What more can the Minister responsible for apprenticeships do to encourage others, including MPs, to take on apprentices?

The answer is simple: we must evangelise the case for apprenticeships with all our might and power. It is about numbers but it is about standards too. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to our actions to raise standards, get small businesses involved and let people know that all this is good for apprentices, good for businesses and good for Britain.

I have been contacted by one of my constituents who adopted a child from care. She faces losing the only support she gets from the state—her child benefit. Given that the Secretary of State wants more people to adopt children from care and that they often have many needs that are ongoing for X number of years, will he put aside more money to support such children and their families in the years ahead?

That is a very good point. One thing we are looking at is how we can improve support for parents who do the right thing and adopt. We are looking at a range of ways of doing that. We are also looking at ways in which everything from the schools admissions system to the training of social workers can help to support those parents who are doing such a fantastic job by adopting children.

I have previously raised concerns about the way in which creativity and culture are being squeezed out of our schools. Tomorrow, in an attempt to resolve that problem, the Henley report into cultural education will be published. Will it get the Department’s full support and the funding needed for its implementation?

I do not want to upstage the curtain call tomorrow at the Royal Opera House for the Henley report, and our response to it is being launched. However, with your permission, Mr Speaker, may I just say that Darren Henley has produced a fantastic report? The leadership shown by the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), has been fantastic. The leadership shown by the Arts Council England, English Heritage and a variety of other groups that are interested in enriching the cultural life of the nation has also been wonderful. I am looking forward to the launch of the report, and I know that the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) has played a significant part behind the scenes in making it so good.

Time is against us, but I want to call someone who has not asked a question. I have a choice of two. I know the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) will forgive me on this occasion. I call Jessica Lee.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate all those at Long Eaton school in Erewash on the recent opening of the Malcolm Parry observatory? It is exactly the sort of innovative project that will encourage budding scientists of the future, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend would like to give his seal of approval.

Not only would I like to give my seal of approval, but I hope to visit Long Eaton before too long.