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Topical Questions

Volume 546: debated on Monday 18 June 2012

Today is the 80th birthday of the Oxford Professor of Poetry, Professor Sir Geoffrey Hill, our greatest living poet. I am sure that the whole House would like to join me in wishing him a very happy birthday, and thanking him for the fantastic work that he has done.

Sir Geoffrey was knighted in the new year honours. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) was knighted in the recent Queen’s birthday honours, and I am sure that the whole House will also want to join me in congratulating him on his well-deserved elevation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind comments. Is he aware of the work being done by the Oxford diocesan board of education in setting up a unit to give full support to Church of England primary schools that wish to become academies, and does he share my hope that other diocesan boards of education will do likewise?

The Oxford diocese is doing a fantastic job. The Bishop of Oxford, the Right Reverend John Pritchard, has been a very effective voice for the role of the Church in education. I know that there is a new diocesan director of education in Oxford, and we look forward to working with him.

Opposition Members support a national curriculum that combines high expectations for all students with freedom for teachers to innovate. Does the Secretary of State agree that curriculum reform should be based on evidence, not dogma? If so, why is his own expert panel so unhappy with his latest proposals?

The Secretary of State appointed four advisers, three of whom are deeply unhappy with his proposals. Professor Andrew Pollard described them as “overly prescriptive”, Professor Mary James said that they

“fly in the face of evidence from the UK and internationally and… cannot be justified educationally”,

and Professor Dylan William said

“"If you don't have a set of principles for a curriculum it just becomes people's pet topics”.

Is this not yet another example of an out-of-touch Government not listening to expert advice, concentrating on their pet projects, and preferring their own dogma to the evidence of what actually works, here and in the rest of the world?

That was beautifully read. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have learned it by rote: had he done so, we might all have had the benefit of his being able to look the House in the eye rather than reading out those quotations.

The truth is that the international evidence from Hong Kong, Singapore, Massachusetts and every high-performing jurisdiction specifies that we need to do better in maths, English and science. The quality of grammar, spelling and punctuation fell as a result of the curriculum over which the hon. Gentleman presided. We have brought back rigour in primary schools and aspiration in secondary schools. A few professors and some individuals seeking to curry favour in Ed Miliband’s Labour party may disagree, but parents and teachers who believe in excellence are united in supporting these changes.

T2. If Britain is to be competitive, apprenticeships need to be a route to higher skills and to a much more highly skilled work force. How many young people are now taking advanced A-level equivalent apprenticeships? (111858)

We have increased dramatically the number of students doing such apprenticeships to 153,900 starts in 2010-11, which is an increase of nearly 90%. The really exciting thing is that, by the end of this Parliament, we will have more than 20,000 people beginning level 4 —degree-level—apprenticeships. When I became the Minister, there were just 200. From 200 to more than 20,000 is our record and I am proud of it.

T3. Why has Moorside school in Halifax not been included in the latest round of funding for new schools, despite the fact that it did everything it could to meet the criteria for that funding for its much-needed new build? Will the Secretary of State reconsider that decision? (111859)

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this case. More than 500 schools applied for refurbishment under the priority schools building programme. We were able to guarantee refurbishment and rebuilding for more than 200 schools, many of which had never been included in the old Building Schools for the Future programme, but I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that that does not begin to meet the need for repairs and refurbishment across the school estate. One of the problems is that, under the previous Government, a comprehensive survey of the state of our schools was abandoned and the amount of money available for new school places for primary children was cut.

T4. What further steps will the Minister of State take to induce small and medium-sized businesses to create apprenticeships? In that context, I draw his attention to the excellent work of West Suffolk college, which is at the centre of my constituency and is now very much on board with his brilliant initiative for making vocational education “front of house” when it comes to improving the chances of our young people. (111860)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for working with his local further education establishment and for highlighting the opportunities available to young people. He is right that we need more SMEs to be involved. That is why I commissioned Jason Holt to conduct a review of how we can be more helpful on bureaucracy and on allowing people to navigate the system more straightforwardly. It is also why we introduced cash incentives of £1,500 for every young apprentice that an SME takes on. My goodness, the previous Government could not have dreamed of that kind of record.

New Labour in Bradford has achieved the seemingly impossible by presiding over secondary schools in the city that are even worse than they were when the Conservatives ran them. In the youngest city in England, we are the eighth worst in the country—eighth out of 150. What special measures can the Government take these schools into to save the youngest city in England from the perdition of ignorance?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that case. I know that during the by-election, which he won, the state of education in Bradford was one of the issues on which he campaigned. I offer him the chance to meet me at the Department for Education, where we can discuss some of the initiatives that we have in mind.

T5. What action are the Government taking to ensure that our vigorous vocational education at our university technical colleges leads to apprenticeships? (111861)

I share the view of my noble friend Lord Baker, who has been such an inspiration in respect of university technical colleges, that a key part of the offer should be apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds. Aston UTC, which opens this September, will offer those kinds of products for its students, and I expect many other UTCs to follow suit. We are doing what Rab Butler in 1944 asked us to do—delivering a vocational route as rigorous, as navigable and as seductive as the academic route.

On behalf of my parliamentary colleagues and the very brave young people who came to our inquiry and talked about their personal experience in care, I thank the Minister with responsibility for children for his positive response to our report on children missing from care. Does he agree that we need to take urgent action to improve a care system that is failing to protect and keep safe vulnerable children who run away and go missing?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments, and I congratulate her on the first-class report, which was published today. I will speak about it more fully in about an hour and a half’s time, when it is officially launched. That report, together with the special expedited report from Sue Berelowitz, the deputy children’s commissioner, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked her to produce, will inform our progress report on the child sexual exploitation action plan, which we intend to publish in the next few weeks. That will contain urgent recommendations and details of action already under way to ensure that those vulnerable children are kept much safer than they are now.

T6. There have been recent complaints about the rigour and discipline of beauty therapy skills academies. Although the Minister may have had less time for a pedicure or manicure recently, will he confirm that he will bring rigour and discipline to beauty therapy skills academies, wherever possible? (111862)

Yes, the national skills academies were an invention of the previous Government, but none the less we believe they do an important job of focusing on those parts of the economy where investment in skills can facilitate growth. The academies are an important part of what we intend, but it is vital that they are led by employers, so that the system is responsive to need and sensitive to changing demand. I accept my hon. Gentleman’s support for them. He can be assured that that support is endorsed by the Government, who will continue to invest in them.

The Minister will be aware that in Amnesty International’s recent young human rights report 2012, young students had written pieces on child brides and on human trafficking. Does he agree that teachers have a key role in both challenging and inspiring pupils to take up such causes?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. He has rightly made that into something of a cause, because those offences against children are going on too much and under the radar. First, we need to ensure that they come out into the daylight of transparency so that we can see exactly what is going on. We need to inform children better, within and outwith schools, on what they should be sensitive to. We need to work with local safeguarding children boards and with others whose job is to ensure that all the agencies work together to ensure that children are kept safe from those unhappy practices that are going on too often.

T7. The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning will recall visiting Warwickshire college’s Rugby site. This week, in support of vocational qualification day and together with Rugby borough council, the college has established the Rugby apprentice of the year award. I know how important he considers it to be to recognise the achievements of apprentices, so will he join me in congratulating the first recipient of the award—brickwork apprentice Lee Bradley? (111863)

I am delighted to do that; I look back on my visit to Rugby with great fondness. My hon. Friend told me then that every day spent away from Rugby is a day wasted. He is absolutely right that that college is doing exceptional work, and that award signifies it.

I do not wish to distract the House in celebration of today’s birthday of one of our greatest living poets, Sir Paul McCartney. However, may I say that the Secretary of State is no stranger to the Twyford Church of England high school in Acton, which is well known for its inspirational head teacher? An insanitary cordon of fast food outlets rings that school, selling congealed, deep-fried lumps of mechanically extruded neo-chicken sludge, thus fatally undermining any attempt at a healthy eating regime. Will he speak to his colleague in the Department for Communities and Local Government to consider whether any linkage can be brought to prevent those foul premises from springing up around some of our better schools?

T8. Thank you, Mr Speaker. For the past 10 months, I have had the pleasure of employing an apprentice caseworker in my own office, and I am about to recruit a new apprentice caseworker from Northampton school for boys in my constituency. What action is the Minister taking to encourage other colleagues to do likewise? (111864)

I have news for the whole House, Mr Speaker. I have asked the National Apprenticeship Service to organise a workshop for colleagues who want to find out more about how they can take on an apprentice. I have an apprentice in my office, my hon. Friend has one in hers and I would like every Member of Parliament to have an apprentice to show just how strongly we support opportunities for young people.

Joseph Leckie school in my constituency has now for the third time been refused funds for repairs under the priority school building programme. Will the Secretary of State meet me and the head, Keith Whittlestone, to see for himself and to say what can be done to access funds to repair that vital building?

T9. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the head teacher of Wilnecote high school, Stuart Tonks, who is not only entering into a foundation school arrangement with five local primaries but pursuing academy status for his own school? May I meet Ministers as quickly as possible to work out how those two laudable objectives can be conflated? (111865)

Of the 25 local authorities facing the highest demand for extra primary places, 12 are in London. Given that London has lost out in the most recent funding settlements, what assurance can Ministers give me that future funding allocations will reflect the need in the capital?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point, but London has not lost out. London received more than 50% of the additional money made available for primary school places in the last two rounds of additional funding. I should emphasise that we have increased the amount of money spent on primary school places, whereas the previous Government cut it.

T10. The number of apprenticeship places in Sherwood has risen from 640 to 990. That is excellent news, but what can the Minister do to ensure that the quality of those apprenticeships rises at the same time? (111866)

There are those, including many Opposition Members, who think that I have gone too far on quality. They want to return to the days when we did not have statutory standards, when we did not insist on a minimum length for apprenticeships and when we were not as demanding in terms of rigour. No, I say—we must focus on quality just as much as quantity, so I have done all those things. The previous Government could have done them and should have done them, but they did not.

Month after month, I ask the Secretary of State for Education about the need for a new school at Tibshelf, and month after month, he gives the impression that “It is a good case, but…” Whatever has happened to the plans for Tibshelf school? He has not left them in a pub somewhere, has he?

First, may I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the interview he gave in The Guardian today? In it, he pointed out that the quality of education that he received was a tribute to the grammar schools of the past. What a pity it is that a past Labour Government did such damage to the education system that allowed him to become such an effective advocate for the people of Bolsover. It is thanks to the election of a Conservative county council in Derbyshire that Tibshelf school will be rebuilt. Something that the Labour councillors of Derbyshire were never able to achieve, the Tories of Derbyshire are at last achieving. I hope that as the hon. Gentleman mellows with age, he will realise, like me, that true blue Derbyshire is achieving far more than it ever did when it was as red as Ed.

An earlier question linked aspiration and universities. Does the Minister agree that we need to avoid the situation in which those who do not go to university are regarded as failures and that the key thing is creating and supporting high aspirations in all young people and then giving them the opportunity to achieve what they aspire to?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and although we should always insist that young people’s aspirations should be raised so that they can consider university when they come from communities where that has not been an option in the past, we should also emphasise that there are high quality vocational and technical options that are every bit as demanding, impressive and likely to lead to the individual concerned fulfilling themselves. My hon. Friend’s words are absolutely correct.

May I ask the Minister whether it is the case that the further education sector is being asked to find a cut in funding of up to 5% in the next year, or to give an idea of its possible impact? If that is the case, what has been the response and will he resist any cuts to the further education sector, which will impact disproportionately on my constituency?

The further education sector has been given unprecedented support by this Government. When I think of the Opposition, I am reminded of Eliot’s words:

“Shape without form, shade without colour,

Paralysed force, gesture without motion.”

What advice would the Secretary of State give to parents of summer-born four-year-olds who, for very good reasons, wish to defer their child’s entry to school to next year, but feel coerced by the local authority to let them start this September?

Our changes to the admissions code have been intended to ensure that schools have a greater degree of flexibility in this area. I am disappointed to hear that the council has not perhaps been as sympathetic as it might be. I look forward to hearing more from the hon. Lady and talking to Dorset or, as it may be, Bournemouth or Poole council in order to try to ensure that this situation is addressed.

At this late hour and in the hope that it will bring a smile to the hon. Gentleman’s face, I have pleasure in calling Mr Rob Wilson.

Thank you so much, Mr Speaker. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the chief inspector of Ofsted that young people from challenging homes would benefit from a boarding school education?

I must be brief because, as Shakespeare said,

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments.”

The answer is yes.

If the Secretary of State believes in trusting professionals and autonomy in schools, why is a centrally directed Department for Education forcing teachers to teach reading through synthetic phonics alone? What is wrong with all the other methods, which we know and the evidence suggests are just as good?

I take a simple view on these matters. Children need to learn to read before they can read to learn.