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Topical Questions

Volume 552: debated on Monday 29 October 2012

Last week, I had the opportunity to write to hon. Members from Leicester and Derby inviting them to join me in raising standards in those cities, specifically by making sure that underperforming primary schools can be converted into academies. I look forward to working with those Members in the coming weeks.

This year, only 11 out of the 2,000 pupils who took A-levels in Knowsley took A-level physics, which compares with 971 who did so in Hampshire. Even when the population size is taken into account, I simply do not believe that pupils in Hampshire are 22 times more scientifically gifted than those in Knowsley. Will the Education Secretary commit to a one nation policy in which every pupil, regardless of their background, will be encouraged to study rigorous qualifications, as opposed to the previous Government’s two nation policy, which exposed this educational divide?

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election to the Education Committee? He is a distinguished historian and a long-time campaigner for improved access to rigorous academic subjects for all students. He is absolutely right to say that we inherited a frankly inequitable situation, and I hope that we can work across the House to resolve it.

The whole nation has been shocked by the allegations of child abuse surrounding Jimmy Savile, but Labour Members are also deeply concerned by the similarities with recent cases such as the one in Rochdale, where power relationships were exploited and cries for help were ignored. It has become clear that the BBC is just one of many organisations with questions to answer, so will the Secretary of State back our calls for a public inquiry, in order to gain justice for the victims and to ensure that in future young people are both empowered to speak out and listened to when they do so?

I do not think that any of us should seek, for any moment and in any way, to relativise the seriousness of the charges that the hon. Lady raises. The BBC certainly has some issues to investigate, and two inquiries are being undertaken there. Separately, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner has been conducting her own inquiry into the exploitation of young people by groups and gangs. I want to make sure that we can consider each of those reports, but I rule nothing out.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that parental engagement in children’s education is vital in raising standards? Will he continue to develop the close ties that exist between schools, parents and pupils? (125002)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ensuring parental involvement in children’s education is critical, and one way that that can be improved is through regular reporting of pupils’ progress. That is why I deprecate the action that has been taken by the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, which works against parental involvement by inflicting a work to rule on members.

T3. This summer, 97% of students at Bristol Metropolitan academy achieved five good GCSEs, which is a phenomenal improvement over the past few years. Sadly, only 37% achieved five good GCSEs in English and maths, but 46% would have done so if they had sat the exams in January. That means that the school is now below the floor standard, whereas it would have been above it. Is that not grossly unfair, particularly for those pupils who worked so hard to try to get that grade C? (125003)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and delighted that pupils in that academy are improving their education. As I have said before, the structure of the GCSE examination that those students sat, which was designed before this Government came to power, was unfair.

T5. I think I detect a bid for the regrading of football scores from the Secretary of State. Will Ministers confirm that the Government will do everything they can to ensure that the Southwark and Lewisham college campus site in Bermondsey gets not only a continuing further education college but a university technical college and, if space permits, a secondary school, too? (125005)

Yes, I can. I know that my right hon. Friend has met colleagues in the other place, and my colleagues in this place and I are happy to meet him too to ensure that we can sort this problem out.

T4. Does the Secretary of State share my concern at a recent Ofsted report that showed serious and ongoing issues in Birmingham social services? There is good news, however, in that under new leadership Birmingham is now showing greater vigour and strategy in addressing those issues. How can Birmingham be assured that it will have the resources it needs to address those issues, particularly given the doubt over matters such as the early intervention grant, which was discussed earlier? (125004)

First, let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that, because the early intervention grant is rising, the money will be there to ensure that safeguarding responsibilities can be discharged. Birmingham local authority has, under different political colours, had problems in both school improvement and child protection. I want to work constructively with local councillors and local MPs to ensure that we can make some improvements. Investment is required, but so is a far more rigorous attitude towards dealing with the circumstances in which many children at risk of abuse or neglect find themselves.

T9. A number of schools in my constituency struggle to get some of their pupils to grade C standard at GCSE, and some of the head teachers to whom I have spoken are concerned that the rigorous standards of the English baccalaureate certificate will prove unattainable for some of those pupils and might be discouraging, particularly for those who at age 11 are five years behind on reading? Will he assure teachers in my constituency that he is committed to raising standards for all, that those pupils should not be discouraged and that the EBacc is not out of reach? (125009)

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and that is why we are introducing additional support for all children who are behind their expected level of achievement at the age of 11. That additional support will go to those secondary schools that need it. I must be honest, however, and if there are primary schools in Wiltshire in which children are five years behind their expected reading age, that is just not good enough. The responsibility rests with the head teachers of those underperforming primary schools. If secondary teachers are saying that they cannot transform those children’s education in some of the wealthiest parts of Wiltshire, he should have a word with those head teachers, because as far as I am concerned they are falling down on the job.

T6. May I go back to the Minister’s answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) about tough new tests for new teachers? Will he clarify whether that will apply outside the state system—for example, to free schools? Will he answer that question directly? (125006)

Those schools that are already outside the state system—independent schools—have the opportunity to hire people who do not have qualified teacher status. That has led to Brighton college, for example, hiring a nuclear physicist. I am sure that the students in Brighton college and the parents who pay for that education are only too appreciative of it, and if we can have the same degree of spirit, invention and flexibility in the state sector, great.

I welcome the provisions on special educational needs in the draft Children and Families Bill, but will my hon. Friend carefully consider the case for a national framework within which those commissioning the new local offers can operate, similar to NICE guidelines in the field of health, for example?

I know my hon. Friend is a deeply committed and understanding champion of children with special educational needs and disabilities. He will therefore be aware that we have 20 pathfinders across 31 local authorities that are testing the formulisation and delivery of the local offer. We will examine their findings carefully to help sharpen up the development of the local offer as we go forward.

T7. Considering the need to preserve our Olympic legacy, what does the Secretary of State have to say to those 150,000 people who signed a petition against his plans which will come into force this Wednesday to scrap minimum size regulations for school playing fields? (125007)

Many children from my constituency with severe learning difficulties attend Doubletrees school in St Blazey. It has been reported to me that the move from EMA to bursaries for 16 to 19-year-olds represent a fall in funding for that school. Will he meet me to discuss their concerns?

T8. Bearing in mind that the Secretary of State has already said that the results of the GCSE fiasco this year were unfair, who would he advise the 137 pupils in my city who have had manifest injustice done to them as a result of the marking fiasco to put their faith in—him, to put the matter right, or the legal action against Ofqual? (125008)

It is anyone’s right to pursue action through the courts if they believe that is the only way to secure a remedy, but the point that I would make, and have consistently made, and a point which was reinforced by the Chairman of the Select Committee, is that the design of those qualifications was flawed from the start, and it was not this Government who designed them.

I am sure that forward thinking and value for money are part of the Department for Education’s thinking. With that in mind, does the Secretary of State agree that it would be silly to remove permanently surplus places in secondary education, when it is known, as is set out in question 24, that youngsters coming through the system will need those places in three or four years’ time?

I think my hon. Friend has specific concerns about issues in his constituency in relation to some of the smaller secondary schools. I would be happy to meet him to discuss whether there is some way that we can support his understandable desire to make sure that there is capacity for future children in those schools.

The Government’s decision to transfer funding for two-year-olds’ nursery education to the dedicated schools grant will mean an additional cut of 27% for the early intervention grant. Leicester will lose £4 million in 2013. It will have no option but to reduce support for children’s services and the troubled families programme. Can the Minister explain how this will get kids ready for school, promote social mobility or save taxpayers’ money in the long run?

I should have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome the additional investment in making sure that the very poorest two-year-olds receive 15 hours of free pre-school education—something that was never achieved under the previous Government. [Interruption.] I notice all sorts of sedentary chuntering from the Opposition Benches but there is a direct challenge to the hon. Lady and to the shadow Secretary of State. Last week I asked whether they would work with me in order to convert underperforming primary schools in her constituency into academies. She has said nothing yet. People are waiting. Is she on the side of reform or of a failing status quo?

I welcome proposals to continue the teaching of maths to age 18, both for those who get a grade C GCSE and for those who do not. Are any practical changes required in the timetable of those who go into employment at the age of 16 if they are to be able to continue to do maths and possibly literacy up to the age of 18?

The Government have already committed to a funding condition for students who do not achieve a C at GCSE to continue to study maths until 18 either in or not in employment. I am also concerned about the cohort who achieve a GCSE grade C in maths but who do not want to go on and study A level. We need to make it clear that there are qualifications for them, too.

I am interested in the logic of the Secretary of State’s position. If he believes it is right that academies and free schools should be able to take on whoever they like on the strength of the opinion of the head teacher, why is that not right for local authority schools? And if he believes it is right that we make the teachers’ training qualification more difficult, why is it right that academies can opt out of that?

Order. The hon. Gentleman is supposed to be an egalitarian. One question will do—an equal distribution of the available fruits.

I, too, am an egalitarian, which is why I believe that academy status should be extended to every school that believes in improving outcomes for its children.

As Wiltshire’s education settlement has historically been underfunded, we look forward to the new school funding formula, but Wiltshire council is concerned that it might have unintended consequences, especially in relation to support for small schools, so will the Minister please meet me to explore any scope for discretion in how the council can go about making those changes?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss these matters. He will know that in the past couple of weeks the Government have made two announcements to try to ease concerns in this area: first, we have committed to reviewing the funding formula for 2014-15; and secondly, we have promised to continue the minimum funding guarantee beyond 2015.

The special educational needs proposals currently under pre-legislative scrutiny will water down the scope of the SEN tribunal, weakening the rights of parents to get the help they need. Will the Minister give a commitment today to ensuring that parents of children with SEN do not lose out?

The hon. Gentleman should look carefully at the draft clauses and the subsequent regulations and code of practice that will follow, because it will be clear from all that that the tribunal processes will be strengthened, particularly for those over 16, who currently have little course for redress.

In the 2012 GCSE results more students in Medway achieved five or more A to C grades. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the parents, students and staff on that achievement?

I absolutely will. It proves that, even in tough circumstances, with strong leadership children can do better.

What evidence informed the Secretary of State’s decision to propose the removal of coursework and controlled assessments from the examination system?

A huge weight of evidence showing that the very best schools recognise that the most effective way of ensuring that children can be motivated is by having linear qualifications.

I, like many others in South Essex, believe that one way to improve educational outcomes in Basildon would be through the provision of a UTC specialising in both engineering and logistics. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he would welcome and support an application for such a college in Basildon?

Yes, I absolutely will. There is a commitment to have 24 UTCs by the end of this Parliament. The deadline for applications is next month and we hope to be able to announce which UTCs will go ahead by Easter.

I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that children learn properly when they eat properly, so does he share my concern that already more than 1 million children who live in poverty are not eligible to claim free school meals—a figure that is likely to increase next year with the introduction of universal credit? Has he made it clear to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that he should be seeking to extend eligibility rather than restricting it?

I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman. We are working across Government to ensure that as many children as possible who are eligible for free school meals receive that very important benefit and that it continues to go to those who deserve it.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the effects of the GCSE fiasco are now being felt by students not directly involved, because schools in my constituency are having to fund a legal action against Ofqual, because the Government, unlike the Welsh Government, have failed to act?

I have already made clear to the House my view of the mistakes the Welsh Education Minister has made. All I will say once again is that the flaw in the qualification was in its design, and it was not this Government who designed it.