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Topical Questions

Volume 549: debated on Monday 3 September 2012

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.

T4. Carshalton boys sports college, whose pupils are active in the community, has been badly affected by the AQA blunder. What reassurances can I give those pupils that their futures are not going to be blighted? (118489)

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?

It was a Labour Government who introduced modularisation of GCSEs. We made it clear that we thought that was a mistake and we moved as quickly as possible to end it. I hope that we can count on the hon. Gentleman’s support in making that reform.

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.

T9. Apprenticeships are being promoted vigorously by the Government, but what progress is being made on the higher levels and, in particular, on their quality? (118494)

Proust said:

“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.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He has raised the case of the academy in Wallsend in his constituency brilliantly. My officials are looking at what we can do to build on that school’s successes.

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—

Hackney is a model authority when it comes to educational reform. I mentioned earlier, and I underline again, that if MPs feel there are cases of specific schools that it is worth investigating, they should bring them to Ofqual’s attention.

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.

Although I represent a garrison town, I do not agree with having cadet forces in schools. Will the Secretary of State tell the House where all the cadet officers and leaders will come from?

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.