The Secretary of State was asked—
Children in Care
Let me welcome you, Mr Speaker, back from the recess—without a tan. In July I published a report describing extensive progress on implementing last November’s “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation” action plan. Although all children are potentially at risk, particular challenges arise for children in care, especially those in children’s homes. Accordingly, I announced urgent action to improve children’s residential care, including developing a clearer understanding of when children go missing, allowing Ofsted to share the locations of children’s homes with the police and examining out-of-authority placements.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that 45% of children who are in care and looked after are in homes away from their borough. They are removed from their networks of support and the familiarity of adults whom they can trust, which makes them more vulnerable and more prone to abuse. Does he agree with the report by the deputy Children’s Commissioner that children should be cared for as close to home as possible, and, if so, what steps are we taking to ensure that happens?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that point. That is why I launched the progress report jointly with the deputy Children’s Commissioner, picking up what I believe to be the scandal of too many vulnerable children—almost half, as my hon. Friend said—being placed a long way from familiar environments. We have set up a task and finish group specifically to look at the problem and at how we can keep children closer to home and familiar environments when that is in their interests. The group will report back to me within the next few weeks and we will take specific action as a result.
May I thank the Minister for including me, as chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, on the working group on children’s homes? If we are to safeguard children in care from sexual exploitation, we need to improve the quality of care in some of our children’s homes. Does he agree that we need to move to more robust inspections that measure outcomes for children in terms of improving their well-being and safety?
The hon. Lady is entirely right and I thank her for her work with the working group. I should also mention that she joined me at the joint press conference to give the useful and detailed findings of her report. The third task and finish group we set up—into which I very much hope she will have some input—is looking at the quality of residential children’s homes and the quality of the work force working in them, where I think we can do an awful lot better. Inspection needs to be better and more appropriate, and we need to ensure that any authority placing a child in a home is absolutely convinced that the quality of care is appropriate and the best available.
My hon. Friend mentions a particularly horrific case that shocked the whole nation when it appeared in our headlines. It is very important that we raise the profile of this insidious force—which I am afraid is present in too many communities—and ensure a joined-up approach, involving the Home Office, police, local authorities and our schools, so that this is not happening beneath the radar and so that children are educated and know what to do to avoid such tragedies happening again.
Although Ministers are right to focus attention on the sexual exploitation of children in care, such children continue to face many challenges in their lives. Today’s report by the all-party group on looked-after children and care leavers reveals that, shockingly, only 12% of children in care get five good GCSEs, despite efforts by two successive Governments to change that. Will he tell us why the important strategy on children in care, which was promised to us for this summer, has been delayed?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but she has failed to notice the fact that throughout the last year the Department for Education has announced a series of practical measures to help children in care in all sorts of destinations, to tackle the very scandal that her Government left of the huge gap of achievement in education between children in care through no fault of their own and their peer group. That is why, for example, every child in the care system automatically qualifies for the pupil premium. That is real, practical, tangible action, which her Government never took for those kids who need it most, and there are many more things still to come over the next few weeks and months.
Further to the Minister’s answer on reducing the number of out-of-area placements, will the Government do more to ensure that information is adequately shared between police forces and those who inspect homes and local authority departments, to ensure that any problems can be addressed?
My hon. Friend gives me the opportunity to shout “House”; that is the full set. We have set up three task and finish groups, and the third is looking specifically at the anomaly left over from regulations in the Care Standards Act 2000, whereby the police are unable to access information about children in children’s homes who go missing or get into trouble, in order to co-ordinate the action that needs to be taken to prevent those children from ending up in the hands of sexual predators and others. That situation will be changed. The group will report its findings to me in the next few weeks, and urgent action will be taken as a result of them.
In May, my Department published scorecards for local authorities to enable them to identify and tackle the causes of delay in the adoption system. My Department will shortly launch a consultation on changes to speed up processes for prospective adopters, and we plan to introduce legislation thereafter.
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise that issue. There have been a number of occasions in the past when, for the best of motives, social workers have felt it inappropriate to match children with prospective adopters because faith might have been seen as a barrier. I do not believe that faith should be a barrier to ensuring that children find a loving home.
We know that some 5,000 children have placement orders, but the number of approved parents is less than a third of that figure. Does not this highlight the importance of hammering home to social services authorities the need to welcome prospective adopters and push the process through so that they can adopt children today?
I absolutely agree. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of my job is reading about parents who want to adopt children but who have found that, for understandable reasons, the system has been far too bureaucratic and slow in allocating children to them. Working with the best in local authorities, I am sure that we can all do better.
It is welcome that the speed of adoption is being looked at, but will the Secretary of State confirm that the safeguards of the Hague convention will still apply to inter-country adoptions, and that the adoption panels’ functions will not be watered down?
It is vital that we ensure that international safeguards are present in respect of inter-country adoptions. When we come to look at the adoption panels, we will want to strike a balance to ensure that the right people are coming forward and being scrutinised appropriately with the minimum of delay.
We can do that by making it clear to all local authorities that age should not be a barrier. I understand the pressures on social workers, and I empathise with them, but in the past local authorities have sometimes made the best the enemy of the good. Notwithstanding the fantastic work that is done in children’s homes and by foster carers, we know that adoption is for good, and that the sooner we can place a child permanently in a loving home, the better it is for all concerned.
One of my constituents, who is here today, has spoken to me about her continued grief at having been forced to give up her son for adoption in the 1970s. Will the Secretary of State take a moment to read about the experience of my constituent, and give her the recognition that she is seeking of the fact that the forced adoption practices that used to exist in this country were traumatic and absolutely wrong, and should never have been allowed to exist by any Government?
The hon. Lady makes an effective point in a very effective way, and I absolutely agree with her. It is one of the blessings of the past 30 years that attitudes towards adoption and conception have changed so much, and that the stigma that used to be attached to children who were born out of wedlock is, mercifully, no longer there. It is quite wrong to force a mother to part from her child when she is capable of providing that child with a loving home. Anxious as we are to ensure that children in need are adopted, we must be equally anxious to ensure that single parents are supported.
The Government have extended free early education to 15 hours a week for all three and four-year-olds, and plan to extend this to around 40% of two-year-olds from September 2014. We recognise, nevertheless, that families might face difficulties with child care costs for older children or those beyond the free entitlement. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have asked the Minister for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), and me to lead a commission to look at the affordability of child care, and we will report in the autumn.
First, I hope that we are going to get an apology from Ministers for the way in which they have treated the One in a Million school in Bradford.
The Minister will be aware of the Daycare Trust’s survey that came out during the summer, which showed an 18% increase over 12 months in the cost of a week’s holiday child care. What are Ministers going to do to support hard-working families and parents who are struggling to meet unaffordable child care costs?
This Government are investing more in early years education than any previous Government: £760 million is being invested to extend the free entitlement down to disadvantaged two-year-olds. As I said in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s initial question, we have set up a commission to look at these issues, especially those relating to wrap-around care and holiday care, which we know to be particular issues for many parents.
I agree that this is a particular issue. My hon. Friend may be aware that today we published the draft provisions for special educational needs, which we hope will go into the Bill next year. We are particularly looking at extending down the support and protection offered for children in the school system so that nought to fives get similar support. She will also be aware that in the specific guidance to local authorities we highlighted the issue of making sure that they should provide more information for parents who have a disabled child.
As the Minister said, she has today published the draft legislation on the provision for children with special educational needs and disability, so how does she intend to address the shocking fact that 87% of local authorities reported that they do not have enough holiday child care for children with SEND?
I think there is a particular issue to address on the availability of holiday care for many children, not just for disabled children, and the commission is looking at holiday provision. Similarly, we are trying to encourage local authorities to put in place a local offer as part of the draft provisions we published today. That will include making sure that adequate respite care is available, and holiday provision is a prime example of that.
I am very glad that my hon. Friend is looking into holiday provision of child care, as many parents who use child minders outside term time find that they need to pay them a retainer—sometimes as much as £1,000 a year—to keep them when they start using the free entitlement during term time. What can be done to help ensure that such families get the full benefit of the free entitlement?
I should like to answer Questions 5 and 21 together, Mr Speaker, as they are identical, but I seek your permission to do so.
The proportion of young people not in education, employment or training has been too high for too long. It is a structural problem, reflecting wider changes in the labour market, which we are determined to tackle. This month sees the start of our £126 million youth contract programme for 16 to 17-year-olds supporting some 55,000 young people who are not currently participating. That is on top of our record spending of £7.5 billion on education and training places for young people.
I thank the Minister for his reply. The latest increase in the number of NEETs seems largely to be a result of the drop in employment in the 16 to 18 age group. Local manufacturers in my area report that they have great difficulty in getting young people to go into manufacturing, but that those who do have successful apprenticeships have normally done work experience. Will he lobby his colleagues to reintroduce compulsory work experience in secondary schools to overcome this problem?
The hon. Gentleman is a champion of apprenticeships, as am I. He will be delighted that there are now a record 104,500 apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds, but he is right to say that the engagement of employers is needed, and employers do indeed say that early contact with the world of work is important. He is right to make that case and I share his argument. We will continue to pursue that course of action.
Order. The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), who has Question 21 on the Order Paper, is not in the Chamber and is under no obligation to be as he had not been notified of any intended grouping. So no blame attaches to him, but I will call another Member to ask a supplementary.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Erewash jobs fair that I have arranged for this Wednesday is an excellent opportunity to showcase to young people, and indeed to those of all ages, the employment opportunities and opportunities in training and skills that are currently available?
In Erewash, they speak of little else than the hon. Lady’s job fair and her continuing work in the interests of young people and local employers. She is right that through marketing manufacturing opportunities of the kind she mentions we will seed a thirst for such work, which is so vital if people are to fulfil their potential and the economy is to prosper.
May I remind the Minister that there is nothing amusing about the 1 million young people who are unemployed? Is it not a fact that the lack of leadership and imagination in our schools and in the leadership of this country means that those people are languishing with little hope? Can we not use unemployed graduates, working with NEETs, to make something happen and make it happen soon?
The hon. Gentleman is right that this is not a matter for levity, but he is also wise enough to acknowledge, I hope, that it is a structural problem. The number of young people not in education, employment or training began to rise, as he knows, long before the current economic challenges. It requires a structural solution and at the heart of that is building the skills people need to get and to keep jobs, which is precisely what this Government are doing.
The Minister has been good at understanding that we need good careers guidance for young people, but if we are to have fewer people out of work and doing nothing at all post-16, high-quality work experience for all young people must be delivered in every school and college. Will colleagues in the Department for Education work with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that such a programme is in place very soon?
I am the personification of the relationship between the two Departments to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. It is essential that our strategy for growth and our approach to business work in tandem with what we do in schools. Although he cannot welcome it, as he has already asked his question, I am sure that he will want at least to contemplate the excellent advice to schools on this very subject that I issued just before the summer recess.
The Department for Education will publish tables of provisional GCSE results for 2012 in October. In 2011, 84.3% of pupils in state schools in York achieved five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C and 94.3% achieved five or more GCSEs at grade A* to E.
York’s schools continue to perform better than the national average, but I have faced many complaints from parents and teachers about the English marking fiasco. The head teacher of one of York’s best performing schools, Steve Smith, says:
“It is morally wrong to manipulate exam results in this way—it is playing with young people’s futures.”
Will the Secretary of State advise Ofqual to re-mark the papers according to the old criteria while the inquiry goes on and will he publish all his correspondence with Ofqual on this matter?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question. Let me take this opportunity to underline my admiration for the work done by York schools and York head teachers. I share the sadness that many teachers and students will feel about what happened with GCSE English this year. It is appropriate that we should all learn lessons about some of the mistakes made in introducing an examination, modular in style, that was not best equipped to ensure that all students could perform well and be treated fairly.
The hon. Gentleman invites me to tell Ofqual what it should do. I will not, because the Secretary of State for Education when the hon. Gentleman supported the Government, Mr Ed Balls, pointed out that Ofqual was an independent regulator of standards, independent of Ministers and reporting directly to Parliament and he said:
“I am not going to second-guess its work.”—[Official Report, 23 February 2009; Vol. 488, c. 27.]
I hold to that position.
Our aim is for all pupils to be offered good food in schools and to understand the importance of good nutrition. That is why the Secretary of State has asked the co-founders of the Leon restaurant chain, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, to examine school food, determine what more needs to be done to make nutritious and healthy food available to all school children, and ensure that children understand the importance of healthy eating.
Free school meals are a lifeline to many families living in my constituency and there are concerns that the Chancellor has now called for a further round of expenditure cuts. Will the Minister give an assurance that no category of child eligible for free school meals at the moment will lose their eligibility during the life of this Government?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He knows that, to make work pay, we are reforming the benefits system and introducing universal credit. We are working with the Department for Work and Pensions on how that translates into eligibility for free school meals, but we are determined to see no drop in the numbers of parents and their children eligible for free school meals.
July’s independent NatCen report on the two-year free school meals pilots in Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton showed a very positive impact on healthy eating, attendance and pupil attainment, just as in Hull when we had free, healthy school meals for primary and special school pupils, so why do not the Government now act on the evidence and have free school meals in our primary schools?
I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of a healthy school meal to children’s behaviour and their concentration at school. To extend free school meals to the whole population would cost £3.4 billion. The state of the public finances that we inherited from her party’s Government means that we have one of the highest budget deficits in the G20. We have reduced the budget deficit by a quarter in the first two years of this Government, which is a tremendous achievement, but we cannot, however worthy the spending programme, undertake new spending programmes of that order.
Is the Minister aware that, according to the School Food Trust’s own survey, almost half of all state secondary schools offer non-permitted foods, and over a quarter offer non-permitted snacks at mid-morning break? Does not that show that it is nonsense to suggest that academies are the only schools not meeting those standards?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The evidence suggests that there have been improvements in maintained schools and in academies, but that more needs to be done in both types of school, which is why we have established the school review under Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent. There have been improvements over the past seven years in the proportion of healthy food taken at lunchtime. More pupils ate a balanced meal in 2010 than in 2004—67% compared to 60%, but that still means that a third of our youngsters are not taking a healthy meal at lunchtime. That is what we seek to address.
Does the Minister not agree that if the capable and intelligent people who have been given the opportunity to run their schools under academy status, and also free schools, are able to decide complex things such as finance and how the school is run from top to bottom, it is only reasonable that they should be given the opportunity to decide the nutritional value of school dinners?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government’s direction of travel is to give the professionals who run our schools more autonomy to run their schools as they see best. If regulation were the answer to all our country’s problems, every child would be a fluent reader and know their multiplication tables, and every local authority school would be in full compliance with the school nutrition regulations.
The coalition Government will shortly announce their proposals for the future of exams at 16; we hope to ensure that future examinations work in the interests of all young people. We need exams that will keep pace with the best in the world and meet the demands of children, teachers and employers.
Today is the start of the new school year. Thousands of 16-year-olds in my constituency and across the country have had their hopes dashed and their plans devastated by this summer’s grading fiasco. When will the Secretary of State accept that it is his responsibility to tackle this injustice, and call for a regrading?
I quite agree that it is appropriate that we should tackle the problem, which arises from the structure of the GCSE examination. That is why we are removing modules and reforming examinations. For years, under Labour, Ministers sat idly by as we endured grade inflation and dumbing down. At last the tide is turning.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the challenges in setting the grade boundaries in the new GCSE English qualification this year highlight the need to end modular exams, restrict controlled assessment, and end the lazy devaluation of the GCSE currency that has gone on for too long?
Over the past 10 days, there have been countless examples of people getting a D for work assessed this summer that would have got a C grade in January. Sally Coates, head of the excellent Burlington Danes academy, who spoke alongside the Secretary of State at last year’s Conservative party conference, said:
“It is blatantly unfair to move the goalposts, without warning, midway through the year”,
and described it as “rough justice.” Does the Secretary of State agree?
I agree that these examinations are unfit for purpose and need to change. I also agree with Labour Ministers, who, when they were in power, said:
“The objective of Ofqual is to ensure consistency between the modular GCSEs and their non-modular predecessors. How it does that will be up to Ofqual.”––[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 24 March 2009; c. 597.]
So it should be. Ofqual is an independent regulator, accountable to Parliament. If Ministers were to interfere in Ofqual’s decisions, they would be meddling where they should not interfere. It is deeply irresponsible, cynical and opportunistic for the hon. Gentleman to make the case that he is making.
No wonder the Secretary of State did not want to answer my second question, because I have been looking at what he said when issues to do with exams and tests arose when he was the shadow Secretary of State. In 2008, he said that
“ministers must be held accountable when the regime fails.”
He went on to say that it was time to end what he described as
“This ‘it weren’t me, miss’ approach”.
Was he not right then, and wrong now? And what was the title of that article? “Minister, you failed the test”.
For 13 years, Ministers under Labour did fail the test. They failed to ensure that our examinations were modernised and reformed so as to be among the world’s best. This is a test that we are determined to meet. It is a great pity that the Labour party is not joining us in making sure that our state education system is one of the world’s best.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The greater the transparency in the grade setting and marking process, the better. That is one of the reasons Ofqual exists as an independent regulator, and one of the reasons it should continue to do that job, not Ministers.
If, when Mo Farah had run the 10,000 metre final in the Olympics, he had been told he had to run a further 10,000 metres before he could claim that he had won the gold medal, he would say that that was wrong, so why is it right to change the way GCSE exam results are marked halfway through the academic year, which is what happened this year?
May I ask my right hon. Friend to take heed of the message I have received from businesses in my constituency? When it comes to looking at changing the GCSE’s structure, what young people need, and what is fair to them, is a sound GCSE system that allows employers to know that the people who they hire are able to do the job, and that therefore does not put undue pressure on people who would not be able to do the job.
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely critical point. We need to make sure that standards are comparable over time. The process by which Ofqual ensures that standards are comparable over time was introduced under the last Labour Government. It is a process that Labour Members now disavow for opportunistic reasons, and in so doing they make it more difficult to ensure that our examination system can be reformed on a sound basis. It is a pity that a party that once led on education reform is now clambering on to any bandwagon that passes.
Positive for Youth set out for the first time an over-arching vision for youth policy. One of the key principles of its vision is for local leadership and greater partnership in the delivery of services for young people. Local authorities are best placed to decide how best to shape their services, and their duty to secure sufficient services is outlined in revised statutory guidance which we issued back in June. This Government have invested an additional £141 million in a network of 63 Myplace youth centres to support local youth service provision as well.
Will the Minister comment on my local authority’s plans for the youth service? It is cutting its budget by half, closing four of the seven permanent youth clubs to obtain their sites for market sale, and now plans to sell free-for-use sports pitches in a public park to a private company for commercial letting.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s record on accounting for supposed children’s centres closures in his constituency, which turned out not to be the case, one needs to scrutinise some of his comments rather more closely. What I do know is that there is some very innovatory work going on in the youth field between the three boroughs in the tri-borough experiment. [Interruption.] Within the hon. Gentleman’s own constituency, in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, they are leading the way in youth innovation zones, showing new, practical, innovatory ways of bringing services to young people that they need and will use. [Interruption.] He should go and visit them.
Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Ifield youth services on providing a broader range of services to younger people through voluntary sector involvement? Does he agree that voluntary sector and faith involvement in providing youth services is extremely important for local communities?
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. We share the same local authority—West Sussex—where there is some innovatory practice in youth services, provided not just by the local authority but in partnership with punchy voluntary organisations which know what young people want and can engage with them and make sure that they are engaging with useful services that will aid their well-being, which is what youth services are all about.
We already know from parliamentary answers that youth services have suffered a disproportionately large cut in public expenditure, but last month the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action released a report which found that its members had experienced a drop of around a fifth of total expenditure, 40% of them making redundancies, and that children’s and young people’s organisations were being disproportionately hit. As the Minister has expressed concern about local authorities disproportionately cutting youth and children’s services, what precise steps is he taking to make sure that local authorities and the voluntary and community organisations that he rightly praises are not targeting youth services for a larger share of cuts?
The hon. Lady makes my point. I have expressed my concern about the disproportionate effect—in some cases— on youth services that some short-sighted local authorities have exercised. That is why we consulted on and revised the statutory guidance which we issued back in June, and why also, at the core of Positive for Youth—the most comprehensive policy, which her Government never even attempted—are those best placed to have a voice and scrutinise the value of their youth offer: young people themselves. That is why I am about giving a voice to young people and making sure that they have a place at the top table in the town hall—something that her Government never gave young people.
The Government have introduced a higher level test in mathematics for primary pupils to ensure that stretch is provided for the most able. More students are able to study further maths A-level as a result of the Department’s further maths support programme. We are also introducing specialist maths free schools for 16 to 18-year-olds, which will offer our most talented young mathematicians the chance to excel in maths.
I know that my hon. Friend is aware that we need to do more to encourage the 250,000 students each year who achieve a good GCSE in maths but are discouraged from taking it at A-level. Will the Government introduce a new maths qualification for 16 to 18-year-olds who have a grade C at GCSE but for whom A-level is not suitable?
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of maths. We need to do more to encourage even those who have an A to C grade in GCSE maths to continue studying maths, including those who choose not to take an A-level. We want to see the vast majority of students studying maths to age 18 within a decade. The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education is consulting on options for new qualifications and will provide advice to the Department in the autumn, after which we will decide on the Government’s role in the design of any such qualifications.
Sport should be a central part of any school. Great schools know that sporting and cultural opportunities go hand in hand with high academic standards. We are introducing a revised programme of study for physical education with a greater focus on competitive sport. We are also encouraging more schools to sign up for the highly successful school games. We will make a statement about further measures shortly.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that energetic answer. Does he agree that the Government need to focus on improving competition in school sport to counter the culture that existed under the previous Labour Government whereby teachers sought to reward all competitors for fear of dividing children into winners and losers? [Interruption.]
Judging by the reaction from the Labour Benches, that question was, to use a fencing term, a palpable hit. I agree that it is important that we support the growth of competitive and team sports in all our schools. One of the things I have been most impressed by when visiting state schools is the way so many of them are using academy freedoms to provide not only greater facilities but more sporting opportunities for our young people.
Free schools are already doing a fantastic job in providing that opportunity—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman, having missing the penalty the first time, is trying to come back, put the ball on the spot and have another go. The whole point is that free schools are doing a superb job in providing great sporting facilities, and the reason for that is that they are free of the sort of centralist interference that old socialists like him, in their sweet but frankly out-of-touch way, are still nostalgic for.
We will continue to increase funding through the pupil premium for the benefit of disadvantaged pupils so that by 2014-15 it will amount to £2.5 billion, double the £1.25 billion we are providing this year. No decisions have been taken on funding beyond 2014-15, which will be part of our spending review considerations.
Any increase in the pupil premium will be enormously welcome in Worcestershire and other F40 areas where schools rely on it not only to help deprived pupils but to meet their basic funding needs after decades of underfunding. The Secretary of State has said that the funding formula is unfair and needs reform. I urge the Minister to ensure that that happens as soon as possible during the lifetime of this Government so that the pupil premium can reach all those for whom it was intended.
I understand that this is an issue my hon. Friend feels particularly strongly about. The Government agree that the school funding system needs reform. We have already announced changes for 2013-14 that will make the local funding system simpler and more transparent. We will introduce a fair national funding formula during the next spending period. I understand that that is rather longer than he is hoping for, but it is important that we make any changes at a pace that schools can manage.
From this September, schools are required to publish what money they receive through the pupil premium and what they do with it, and to do so online so that councillors, governors and parents can scrutinise what is happening with that money. Similarly, Ofsted is focusing much more on the efforts schools are making with disadvantaged students. Of course, we are publishing key stage 2 and 4 results for students eligible for the pupil premium separately. This is all part of a picture of increasing transparency. Of the schools I have visited, many are already using it for innovative and interesting projects. I encourage the hon. Lady to ensure that all the schools in her constituency have all the children who should be on free school meals claiming them to ensure that they actually get the money they are owed.
As co-chairs of the executive board of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, the Minister for Equalities, who is also responsible for criminal information, and I launched a consultation on parental internet controls on 28 June. The consultation closes on 6 September and the final number of responses will not be known until then, but to date there have been no fewer than 600 responses from parents, members of the public, charities and businesses.
Members across the House will pay tribute to the Minister and his UKCCIS team for setting up this important inquiry.
We know that 83% of parents are deeply worried about how easy it is for young people to stumble across or find adult material online. Does the Minister think that enough of those parents’ voices are going to be heard in what is quite a technical consultation? Is he looking forward to getting a 110,000-name petition from parents, proving that parents are very interested in this point?
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done on this important issue. She is absolutely right. I absolutely want the internet to be a safer place for our children, and I am open to any suggestions to bring that about. However, a joint effort is needed, which is why UKCCIS is a union of lots of different interested parties. But parents are absolutely at the heart of the issue: they need to know what to look out for in respect of their children’s internet access at home and to talk to their children to make sure that they are safe. We all have a role in this, and I praise the contribution that my hon. Friend is making.
School Playing Fields
No disposal of publicly funded playing field land at an academy may take place without the Secretary of State’s consent. The Government will agree to the sale of playing fields only if the sports and curriculum needs of the academy and its neighbouring schools can continue to be met. Sale proceeds must be used to improve sports and education facilities.
The Secretary of State made sure that academies were accountable only to himself and then decided that all state schools should become academies. But he gets his figures wrong on playing fields, overrules his own advisers, exempts academies from most of his own policies and, in any case, focuses all his time and his Department’s money on free schools. How can we have confidence in him on sport or anything else?
I am proud of the success of academies and free schools, but they are not the only thing that the Government are doing; we are also making sure that we improve inspection, teacher recruitment, the curriculum and examinations. As for playing fields, we have ensured that the rules have changed so that they are better protected under this Government than they were under the last one.
It is a pleasure to announce that 55 new free schools are opening this year. They will provide young people across the country with a high standard of education and the facilities that they deserve. I am delighted that we are building on the good work of Labour reformers such as Lord Adonis in bringing forward the programme.
How on earth can it be fair that pupils in Dyke House and High Tunstall in my constituency, as well as those in other constituencies, could obtain the same mark in the same subject from the same examining body in the same year and yet get different grades? What urgent work is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that pupils affected are not disadvantaged and that they will be able to take up the college place or apprenticeship course of their choice?
The hon. Gentleman has been a highly effective Minister in his turn and he knows how important it is, when dealing with questions of examinations, to ensure that there is consistency over time. He will also be aware that Ofqual, the regulator, is the appropriate body to look into these matters. It published an interim report last Friday, which I hope he has had the chance to read. He will be aware that Ofqual is doing more work this week and will be talking not just to teachers’ representatives but to all interested parties. I hope that he will make a submission to Ofqual.
The hon. Gentleman will also know, as a former Minister, that Ofqual is accountable to Parliament and not to Ministers. That means that if there are further questions to be asked of Ofqual beyond those that I and other Ministers are asking, it may be appropriate for the House to ask those questions, through the Select Committee or other means.
Again, I stress that Ofqual is the appropriate regulator and will want to hear from all schools affected. The report that I hoped would be delivered and which Ofqual did deliver rapidly this Friday dealt in broad terms with the issues about grade boundaries. However, there may be school-specific cases that, like the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), my right hon. Friend, as an assiduous constituency Member, may want to bring to Ofqual’s attention. I encourage all MPs who believe that there are specific cases that defy logic in schools of which they are aware to bring them to Ofqual’s attention.
The Secretary of State said earlier that this year’s problem arose because the modular English exam was “unfit for purpose” so nothing could be done to rectify the injustice this year, yet the same exam will be sat next year. Is he saying that next year’s pupils can look forward to the same injustice on his watch?
T5. My right hon. Friend will know that schools will shortly have a duty to provide comprehensive and independent careers advice to their pupils. What support will he provide to schools to ensure that that they meet these important new obligations? (118490)
My hon. Friend will know that this Government take careers advice very seriously, which is why we established the National Careers Service. He will also know that we have not only changed the law, ensuring that schools secure independent advice and guidance, but introduced statutory guidance for schools and, furthermore, a practical guide to how they should go about it. This is a record that we can be proud of and that the whole House should enjoy.
T3. Where was the Secretary of State when so many parents and young people were traumatised by what was happening with GCSEs? Why did he not go on radio and television to explain his position? None of us wants him to interfere with Ofqual, but over the past two years he has been responsible for producing a climate of fear in which Ofqual and the examination boards operate. (118488)
I am grateful to the former Chairman of the Select Committee for his points about Ofqual. The most important of his series of comments was his assertion that none of us would like Ministers to interfere in Ofqual’s operations on grade boundaries and grade setting—a mature and appropriate point. More broadly, he asked where I was when the GCSE results were announced. On that day, I took the opportunity to give interviews to the BBC, ITV and Sky to explain my concerns about the situation that we inherited from the previous Government. Ever since then, I have been doing everything I can in my Department, with the help of my Ministers and the superb team of civil servants we have, to ensure that we can reform examinations for all students.
T8. I welcome the help that the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning and the Skills Funding Agency have provided in showing flexibility over the number of 16 to 18-year-old apprentices taken on by my local college in Stafford. How can he ensure that this common-sense attitude always prevails? (118493)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a doughty champion of his local college and has visited me with its representatives to make its case. The answer is that we need to give colleges more freedom and flexibility to respond to local demand. That is why I simplified the funding regime, why I cut the number of statutory duties that colleges are burdened with, and why we removed a number of intermediary bodies. We believe in trusting colleges to respond to local learners and local businesses in Stafford and elsewhere.
T6. We should be incredibly proud of Team GB’s Olympic success, including that of my constituent, gymnast and bronze medallist Kristian Thomas. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Government’s own school sports adviser, Dame Kelly Holmes, that two hours of PE per week should be compulsory in schools? (118491)
Let me congratulate the hon. Lady’s constituents on their achievements. I know that Wolverhampton, which I think held a marathon only this weekend, is a place of sporting excellence. Dame Kelly Holmes has done a fantastic job as adviser and continues to help us in every way, but although we should do everything possible to encourage the maximum participation in and enjoyment of sporting and physical education, compulsion of the kind that she has called for is not something I believe in.
“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey”,
and a journey from the age of 16 to higher learning can be a journey down a practical pathway—no longer a cul-de-sac but a highway to higher learning. To that end, I am working to create 25,000 higher apprenticeships during this Parliament; when I became a Minister, there were 180.
T7. The Department’s consultation on the future of child care ran for all of 44 days over the school summer holidays, greatly limiting the potential for parents to make their views heard. Given the importance of this issue, will the Minister reopen the consultation for at least another six weeks? If not, is that because she and her colleagues have already decided what they are going to announce during conference? (118492)
We have had a lot of responses, but I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the precise number. If he has constituents who wish to make their views known, I would be happy if they were to write to him and he were to write to me. If he does that quickly, I will make sure that I take them into account.
T10. Today I visited Burnt Mill school in Harlow. Three years ago, 27% of its pupils had five good GCSEs with maths and English. This year, the figure was 72%. Does that not show that with the right vision, leadership and teaching, the best academic results can be achieved? (118495)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I offer my congratulations to the head teacher, Helena Mills, and all her staff on the tremendous achievement that that school has delivered over the past few years in raising the standard of GCSE achievement of its pupils. That shows that with good leadership and high expectations, all our children can achieve to the best of their ability.
I thank the Secretary of State for meeting me to discuss cadet forces in state schools. The problem remains: how does the BTEC in uniformed public services count towards the performance tables? If he can find a way to resolve that issue, he will have the gratitude of my constituents.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that from this month it will no longer take a whole year for schools to dismiss the very small minority of teachers who turn out to be professionally incompetent? Will he reassure us that that is just one of a series of future reforms that will give schools and head teachers more control over their own schools?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The rules have changed and we will make it easier for head teachers to deal with underperforming staff. In the most extreme cases, that means that the underperforming staff will have to go. I want to ensure that head teachers are given the resources and time to ensure that underperforming staff can improve, because we all know that every child deserves to have a high-quality teacher for every moment in class.
As one of the MPs representing Hackney, which 10 years ago was one of the worst performing boroughs in education, I want to draw the Secretary of State’s attention to our excellent exam results, with more than 60% of pupils getting five A to C grades at GCSE, including maths and English. Mossbourne community academy gained a result of 89%, which is exceptionally good. However, within that there were real challenges for pupils sitting the English exam. At BSix college, for example, for the previous three years, 83%, 86% and 83% of pupils respectively gained a C or above, but only 36% did so this year—
When a youth service is failing to meet the needs of its local communities, would the Minister support switching the funding to organisations such as sports groups, scouts and guides, so that they can extend their constructive engagement with young people?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We have some fantastic youth groups, voluntary organisations and people around the country with a passion for engaging young people and a knowledge of how to do so, who in the past have been frozen out too much from the local offer. In future, they need to be part of the offer for young people locally, and must work with local authorities and schools to ensure that young people get the very best opportunities.
In Darlington, 50 young people at St Aidan’s academy should have got a C this year but got a D. That is not a one-off case; there are schools like it up and down the country. The Secretary of State has said that he is sad about this matter. Does he think that it is fair?
I think that the GCSE, which was introduced under the last Government and was sat by students this time around, is not fit for purpose. Any specific questions about grade boundaries are properly a matter for examination boards and for Ofqual, the independent regulator. As I mentioned earlier, it would be quite wrong for Ministers to attempt to mark exam papers.
This is a first—I do not think that until now I have ever disagreed with any word that the hon. Gentleman has said in Education questions. Thanks to the fantastic work of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), and his team, and the UK Reserve Forces Association, great steps forward are being taken to ensure that more schools have cadet forces. I was overjoyed a couple of months ago to read an op-ed article penned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), which said that there should be more, not less, military involvement in all our schools. I am pleased to see that there is a pact of steel across the Front Benches on this issue.
The regulator has said that if the marking for this summer’s English exams had been the same as the marking in January, it would have made a 10% difference to results. Given that fact, might not the Secretary of State have a word with the regulator to encourage the re-marking of borderline cases in grade D, with that 10% being added to the score?
I am sure the regulator will have heard the right hon. Gentleman’s case, but it is vital that we maintain its independence. If we were to subject it to ministerial inference, that would undermine the point of having an independent regulator in the first place.
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the start this month of IES Breckland in Brandon, a free school? It means that there will be secondary education in Brandon thanks to the free school programme, which there would not have been without it. It provides a local future for the schooling of people in Brandon.
There have been three reasons to celebrate in Suffolk over the past four weeks: first, a new free school in Brandon; secondly, a new free school in Beccles; and, thirdly, my hon. Friend coming first in a handicap race at Newmarket in his constituency and, in so doing, raising money for some of the most deserving cases in the military and equestrian worlds.
GCSE English is a progression qualification. From my 30-plus years in education and from listening to heads, teachers and local young people, it is clear to me that this year’s marking is a fiasco. Will the Secretary of State urge Ofqual to ensure fairness across the whole of this year’s entry group and not hide behind unacceptable comments such as that the entrants in January “got lucky”?
I am sure the regulator will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s case. As I have said before, he was the head of an outstanding further education college. However, it is only appropriate to say that when the regulator appeared before the Education Committee, she made it clear that she saw it as her mission to deal with problems associated with grade inflation. It was on that basis that a Committee of this House approved her appointment.
More than 20 children in my constituency have not been allocated any of their three preferences for primary schools, leaving some children without a school place this year. Will the Secretary of State meet me to hear a solution proposed by a local headmaster, which Lancashire county council refused to discuss?
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) to ask his urgent question, I should emphasise to the House that owing to the pressure of business, I intend to let the exchanges on the urgent question run for no longer than half an hour. I hope that is helpful to the House.