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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 554: debated on Monday 3 December 2012


The Secretary of State was asked—

Vocational Education

World-class vocational education is vital for a world-class economy, so we are bringing rigour to vocational education by recognising the best qualifications, strengthening apprenticeships and introducing a Tech Bac to reward and celebrate stretching occupational education.

EngineeringUK has today published a report showing that this country needs to double the number of engineering recruits and triple the number of engineering apprenticeships. It calls for face-to-face careers advice in schools and additional assistance to help schools appreciate 21st century engineering. The Government have had to U-turn over their engineering diploma, so will the Minister U-turn again and implement EngineeringUK’s recommendations in full?

I met EngineeringUK last week at the launch of its report, so I am well versed on its recommendations and very supportive of the need to increase the number of engineers in our country, something that has been sadly lacking for far too long. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are introducing, along with the Royal Academy, new qualifications that fit the accountability system. We will do what it takes to ensure that this country has enough engineers.

What assessment has the Minister made of the Richard report, which recommends that apprenticeships should last at least a year?

I warmly welcome the Richard report, which stresses the need for rigour in apprenticeships and for apprenticeships to be more employer focused. I am studying it in great detail. The hon. Gentleman says that apprenticeships need to be for a minimum of a year, and in almost all cases that is already happening, thanks to changes introduced by my predecessor, but we want to look at all the recommendations and see which we can implement.

I welcome some of the things the Minister said to the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) about engineering, but is he not concerned that Sir James Dyson—Dyson engineering is based in my constituency—said last week that he needs 200 new designers and engineers in Malmesbury alone but cannot find them and that across the nation we are desperately short of them. What will we do to improve science, engineering and design in our schools and universities?

Not only is the number of engineering apprenticeships up, but a higher proportion of young people are now starting STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—degrees at university. That is going up, rather than down, as it was before. This is an area of huge concern to me and I am working extremely hard to try to put it right.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the university technical colleges, one of which will open in Harlow in 2014, will transform vocational education and provide young people with a conveyor belt to pre-apprenticeships?

Yes, I do. I was almost expecting an invitation to visit the UTC in Harlow, which I would love to see. UTCs across the country are about trying to fill the gap that has been left for far too long, and this Government are dealing with it.

The Minister confirmed in The Times on Saturday the report that the Government

“is stealing the idea for a Technical Baccalaureate proposed by Ed Miliband”.

Does he agree that, in addition to high-quality apprenticeships, English and maths until age 18 and quality technical education before 16 will be crucial to the success of such a baccalaureate?

I am absolutely delighted by the positive tone coming from the Opposition Front Bench. The Tech Bac, as suggested by Lord Adonis, a man for whom the Government have huge respect, is one of the things we will do to ensure higher quality occupational and vocational qualifications and more respect for them. I look forward to consulting widely and will set out more details in due course.

But does the Minister agree that there is a real risk that this is out of kilter with the pre-16 reforms that the Government are proposing? Last week’s excellent report on schools by the CBI stated that the

“mistakes of the past… may be repeated in the”

English baccalaureate. It is urging a pause. Both head teachers and business leaders are now united against the Government’s EBacc reforms, so will they think again?

The CBI will be very surprised to be quoted in that fashion. The crucial point is that a common core of strong English and maths is vital for underpinning technical, occupational, vocational and academic qualifications. The single most important pair of qualifications that anybody can get for their employability is GCSE-level English and maths, and so making sure that there is a strong common core at the age of 16 is a vital part of stronger occupational and vocational education after that.

I am delighted that on 14 December I will officially open the new university presence in Crawley. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Central Sussex college on introducing STEM vocational courses, working with some of the first-class companies in my constituency, as well as extending apprenticeships?

Yes. I have not been able to visit the college that my hon. Friend talks about, but from what I have seen of it, it is exactly the sort of thing that we need to do in extending upwards the quality chain in vocational education and engaging with employers—businesses and public sector employers—to make sure that we provide the skills that they need in future.

Laptops and Tablets

Technology provides a great opportunity to get high-quality teaching materials and experiences from around the world into our classrooms, but it is key to remember that the quality of teaching is paramount in educational achievement. That is why we have given heads the power over their own budgets to decide how best to spend money.

The Minister will not be surprised to find me disagreeing with her analysis. The fact is that there is a growing digital divide between schools that take technology seriously as a way of learning and those that do not. It is up to this Government, who got rid of the Department’s e-learning unit, to realise that leadership in this respect will take us to an educational system for the future.

We are extremely keen as a Government that children do not just use technology but understand how it works because they are able to code and programme from an early age. We are working with leading experts to develop programmes in computing so that children are able to do that. In fact, the technology needed to achieve it is very cheap. A parent or school can get Scratch from Massachusetts Institute of Technology for free and the Raspberry Pi device for under £20. This is not an issue of funding but of teaching and inspiration, and the leadership that we are showing.

I know from my own time in the classroom how important digital media resources can be in helping to deliver first-class lessons, but too many schools in my constituency are unable to access fast enough broadband speeds. May I urge my hon. Friend to take up the mantle of schools on the Isle of Axholme, in particular, to ensure that our broadband delivery plans are rolled out as quickly as possible?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that high-speed broadband is important so that students can access the best-quality teaching materials from around the world. That is why, as a Government, we are pursuing high-speed broadband across the country.

Bridge academy in Hackney and our university technology college, among other schools in Hackney, provide proper digital learning for jobs for five years hence. Given the Minister’s words about the importance of learning in this field, what is she doing to make sure that the school curriculum is preparing students for the work force for businesses such as those in Tech City which require this home-grown talent?

We are working with leading figures in IT and computing to develop a programme of study that will encourage children to learn to code and programme from an early age. The problem with the previous information and communications technology curriculum, as everybody agreed, is that it was focused on using programmes instead of understanding how to programme.

I thank the Minister for giving that answer, which is very encouraging. However, what is the timetable for this new enthusiasm for programming?

School Discipline

We are taking decisive action to equip teachers to restore discipline in schools. No longer can a decision to exclude pupils be undermined by an appeal panel against the best interests of a school and other students in it. We are also strengthening the law so that teachers can issue same-day detentions.

What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that head teachers are able to exclude pupils whose behaviour becomes unacceptable, and what help is then given to those pupils?

We are making sure that the ultimate decision on exclusion is made by a school governing body. Under the previous Government, appeals panels had the final say and 810 permanently excluded pupils were reinstated in schools between 2002 and 2010. We are encouraging schools to take an interest in the long-term education of those students who are excluded and we are trialling approaches so that they take an interest.

One of the best ways of ensuring discipline in the classroom is well-trained, motivated teachers. Could the Minister therefore explain why Keele university, which supplies many excellent teachers to Stoke-on-Trent, is losing 100% of its capacity to train teachers under the new School Direct proposal? We know that if universities train locally, the teachers will go locally. Why are the Government undermining aspiration in Stoke?

We are giving head teachers the power over how they train up teachers and how to ensure that we have the best quality teachers in the classroom.


We treat maths as a very high priority and are working to attract the best graduates into mathematics teaching through bursaries of up to £20,000. From 2014, we will remove calculators from primary tests to ensure that pupils master the basics, and we are reforming the national curriculum to focus on core arithmetic, which is key to so much future success in employment.

With that in mind, what steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that children have a good basic grasp of mental arithmetic before they are able to rely on calculators?

At present, the evidence suggests that 10-year-olds in England are more likely to use calculators than those in virtually any other country in the world, and we are 28th in the world league tables for maths. It is important that children understand and are fluent in multiplication, division, addition and subtraction before they use calculators. That is why we are removing calculators from the primary tests, in line with high-performing countries such as Hong Kong and jurisdictions such as Massachusetts.

A dozen or so years ago, Lord Moser concluded in his report that more than 50% of people in Britain were innumerate and illustrated that by saying that 50% of the population do not understand what 50% means. Recently I attended a National Numeracy reception and spoke to Lord Moser again, and others, and the problem still exists. Are the Government able to put their finger on precisely what has gone wrong and is the Minister doing enough to put it right?

One of the issues we have identified is too early a reliance on calculators in some classrooms. There is also an over-focus on data in the primary curriculum at the expense of arithmetic and number, which are the basis of a strong mathematical understanding later in life. We are readjusting the balance to make sure that those core basics are secure first.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the formation of National Numeracy, which is a fantastic new organisation? It has expressed concern about the new maths curriculum for primary schools and says that there is too much

“rote learning and not enough emphasis on problem solving and using maths in real-life contexts.”

I agree with the Minister that numeracy is vital, but I fear that this may be a lost opportunity to improve maths education in primary schools. Will she work with National Numeracy and teachers to develop a maths curriculum that will really make a difference?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman visit Woodberry Down primary school in Hackney, which has already adopted the new national curriculum that we have suggested, including more advanced fractions, multiplication and division. I have seen the inspirational teaching at that school and the excitement on children’s faces as they play games using advanced fractions and grasp that the underlying principles of mathematics will help them for the rest of their lives. That is what our new curriculum does: it allows excellent teachers to inspire the next generation.

Religious Education

Ofsted’s subject report in 2010 found that religious education teaching was not good enough, but teacher quality is improving. In 2012-13, 78% of religious education teacher trainees held a 2:1 or higher degree classification, compared with just 70% in 2011-12.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. If he believes that the best way to achieve academic rigour is through the English baccalaureate, is he willing to reconsider the inclusion of religious education as a core subject, at least for faith schools, in order that they can uphold their ethos and parental choice, as well as their high educational standards?

I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman. He is a stout advocate for faith schools and I want to underline the important role that they play in state education. We have no plans to change the English baccalaureate, not least because religious education remains a compulsory subject in the national curriculum. Well taught, it can take its place alongside the subjects in the English baccalaureate in a broad and balanced education.

My right hon. Friend will know that I value faith schools and the teaching of religious education. However, what steps is he taking to ensure that religious hatred is not taught by some faith schools and religious teachers?

My hon. Friend has a distinguished record in fighting extremism of all kinds. That is why I am delighted to be able to say that we have set up a due diligence unit in the Department for Education to prevent extremism. It has staff from the security services and elsewhere, and will ensure that public money is not abused by those who would preach hate rather than love.

To follow on from the answers to the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) about the need for specialist teaching, the number of institutions training religious education teachers has declined. Will the Department keep a constant review on the number of teachers entering the profession in subjects that are outside the EBacc to ensure that there is adequate expertise across the specialisms?

My hon. Friend is quite right to hold my feet to the fire on that. The headcount for religious education teachers at key stage 4 has increased over the lifetime of the Government from 10,400 to 10,700 and there are two applicants for every available post for a religious education teacher, so there is no evidence of a decline in numbers or quality.

Vocational Education

School performance tables are being used to incentivise the teaching of the highest-value vocational qualifications. From September 2012, the vocational qualifications taught to 14 to 16-year-olds have had to meet rigorous new standards. From next year, we will identify the highest-value vocational qualifications for 16 to 18-year-olds, thereby removing thousands of weak and poor quality qualifications.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that employers have a greater role in designing the vocational qualifications that are taught in schools?

Yes, I absolutely will. I believe passionately that it is only when all vocational qualifications are high quality that all vocational qualifications are seen to be high quality. Employers have a critical role in making that happen.

The shadow Secretary of State and I recently visited Tresham college in my constituency of Corby and east Northamptonshire, where we met many apprentices who were not able to find work experience placements and, sadly, had little hope of local employment. What message of hope does the Minister have for those young people in my constituency?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to questions, having welcomed his eloquent maiden speech on a similar subject. We are looking to introduce traineeships, which will include English and maths for those who do not have level 2 qualifications, work experience and work preparation. That will ensure that as many people as possible are ready for work and know how to get and hold down a job. That will be another step in our important efforts to tackle youth unemployment.

Education, Health and Care Plans

8. What progress he has made on introducing education, health and care plans for children with special educational needs. (130877)

Education, health and care plans, which are an integral part of our reform of the special educational needs system, are being tested through 20 pathfinders across 31 local authorities. Independent evaluation suggests that they are making good progress in designing single assessment and planning processes. The pathfinders expect to have completed more than 300 plans by the end of December. They will continue to inform the development of our draft legislation.

I thank the Minister for that helpful response. What processes will there be to ensure that the plans remain accountable to parents and families, and to ensure that the provisions that are laid out are fully implemented?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Our proposed reforms maintain current protections for families, but they will go further in strengthening accountability by placing a duty on local authorities and health services to plan and commission services jointly, as well as to extend the current right of appeal to young people between 16 and 25 in further education and training.

Does my hon. Friend agree that unless joint commissioning works practically on the ground, with health and education working together, education, health and care plans risk not being as effective as we would like in the legislation?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we must make progress to integrate education, health and social care as closely as possible, from the formulation of a plan through to any dispute there may be between, parents, young people, local authorities and health services. That is why I am still engaged in discussions with the Department of Health, which continue to be extremely constructive.

I am glad that the Minister mentioned integration with social care. He will recall the recent debate I secured on the funding gap for those between the ages of 16 and 18. Further education colleges in the New Forest feel that they cannot offer support for more than three days a week instead of five days, and that has taken place progressively since 2008. I know the Minister intends to write to me in more detail, but is he concentrating on that important gap which places an extra burden on parents?

My hon. Friend’s debate highlighted an important area that we must get right. I will be writing to him in great detail about how we will ensure that, where appropriate, five days’ support for children with special educational needs and disabilities will be available through their education. I will be happy to discuss that matter with him as we proceed with the legislation.

Sponsored Academies

Since May 2010, 146 sponsored primary academies have opened, including two new provision sponsored primary academies. In addition, 15 underperforming primary schools have converted and joined an academy chain.

I was recently honoured to open a new classroom at Mottram St Andrew primary academy. That will not only help to enhance the facilities available to pupils, but will assist the academy’s work with School Direct trainee teachers in conjunction with the university of Manchester. Does my right hon. Friend agree that progress in outstanding schools such as that one helps to highlight the progress and steps that are being made by innovative academy schools, and that that should encourage other primary schools to seek academy status?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and that is a good example of the way outstanding schools can use the freedoms of academy status to innovate and improve their standards further. Too many primary schools in the country are not reaching the level of good and outstanding—we heard from the chief inspector that 2 million children are still being educated in schools that are neither good nor outstanding. Academy status is a potential way to improve the leadership and governance of those schools.

The Minister will be aware that Coventry primary schools are rated lowest in the country in the latest Ofsted report, and there is widespread dismay in Coventry about that. Although no one is convinced that sponsored academies are the whole or a necessary part of the answer, at the request of the Coventry council member responsible for education, I have written to the Secretary of State suggesting that resources in the Department for Education might help to rectify the situation. I am looking forward to an early reply. When might I get it?

The hon. Gentleman can expect a very early reply, and I am delighted that he and other hon. Members are taking seriously the conclusions of Sir Michael Wilshaw who has drawn attention to the massive disparity across the country in the proportion of schools that achieve good and outstanding status. There are boroughs in inner London, for example, where almost 100% of schools achieve good or outstanding status, right down to those local authorities where barely 40% of schools achieve that. Either I or one of my departmental colleagues would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue further.

Safeguarding of Children

The child protection system is not working. That is why we are undertaking reform. We are reforming the social work profession and removing the bureaucracy which holds gifted professionals back, and demanding greater transparency and efficiency from local authorities.

A recent all-party group inquiry highlighted the vulnerability of children who go missing from care, and the risks of physical and sexual exploitation. Does the Secretary of State therefore agree that local authorities and police forces should offer training to front-line and managerial staff working with children to raise awareness of the risks associated with running away and of the vulnerability of all children, including older children?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. My former colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), responded to that report and made a compelling argument for ensuring better data sharing between local authorities and the police on the location of children within children’s homes to ensure that we can provide yet better protection for them. However, that is only one part of a mosaic of policies we need in order to give those children and young people a better chance.

Given the Secretary of State’s opening remarks, could he start with Northamptonshire county council? Two foster parents came to see me. Two very difficult children were placed with them—they are the same ethnic background. They have bonded very well with the children and are now one family, but—would you believe it?—the county council is trying to break the family up to save money. Will the Secretary of State intervene in this matter?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this case to my attention—I shall look at it more closely. It is vital that all recognise that those who agree to foster children are responsible for bringing love and stability to some of the most damaged children and young people in our society. We should do everything possible to support them.

The Children’s Commissioner’s recent interim report was reportedly dismissed by senior Government Ministers as “hysterical” and “half-baked”. According to news reports, Government sources said:

“It is difficult to overstate the contempt the Government has for the methodology and analysis”.

Does the Secretary of State want to take this opportunity to reject those comments; to join me, the NSPCC and Barnardo’s in welcoming that important report on child sexual exploitation; and to tell hon. Members what concrete steps he plans to take immediately to ensure that the 16,500 young people identified in the report as at immediate and high risk of exploitation are protected before harm comes to them?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and to the deputy Children’s Commissioner for her work. I asked her explicitly to accelerate part of her report to inform our work on improving child protection. The hon. Lady says that 16,500 are at risk. The methodology used to identify them is not shared by every professional in the field, but we can put that statistic to one side. The urgency with which we need to tackle the problem is undoubted, and I commend to her the action plan that I outlined in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research I made just a few days before the report was published.

Creative Subjects

11. What assessment he has made of the likely contribution to the UK’s international achievements of studying creative subjects in school; and if he will make a statement. (130880)

The arts are mankind’s greatest achievement. Every child should be able to enjoy and appreciate great literature, music, drama and visual art.

But is the Secretary of State aware that Britain’s record in Nobel prizes—we have won 19 prizes for every 10 million of our population, whereas the USA has won 11 prizes per 10 million, and the EU has won 9 per 10 million—is achieved partly as a result of the combination of excellent science education and a strong creative tradition throughout our education system? At the same time, the Secretary of State’s EBacc proposals will result, according to research he has commissioned from Ipsos MORI, in something like a quarter of our schools dropping subjects such as art and design, design technology, music and so on. Will that mean that our international achievements, including in Nobel prizes, will slide down?

If I thought the EBacc proposals would lead to that, I would not be able to sleep at night, knowing that the ghosts of Rutherford and Churchill were hanging over my bed and chiding me for my failures. I had the opportunity to speak to representatives of a variety of arts organisations today. They applauded the work we have done, not least the report that Darren Henley authored on cultural education. Many of the initiatives that we have launched since that time are initiatives that the previous Government were capable of neither initiating nor funding.

One key factor when considering the subjects to be studied at secondary schools must be how well they prepare young people for further training or study at college or university. Professor Ebdon from the Office for Fair Access has said that it is “dreadful snobbery” to put pressure on schools to achieve places for their students at the best universities. As a former schools Minister, I share the uncertainty of another former schools Minister, Lord Adonis, about whether Professor Ebdon is the right person to lead an organisation committed to encouraging wider access to higher education. Does my right hon. Friend share that uncertainty?

When my hon. Friend and Lord Adonis agree, it is a brave and usually wrong man who disagrees.

The creative industries are critical to jobs and growth, and some estimates are that as many as half of all new jobs will be created in those industries in the coming years. Will the Secretary of State take on board the massive concerns put forward by the CBI among others about how the EBacc is pushing academic study at the expense of vocational, not least creative, subjects?

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools pointed out earlier that there has been a misreading of the CBI’s argument by those on the Opposition Benches. The CBI is not always right—it was not right about appeasement and it was not right about the euro. Historically, it has not been right about many things. However, on this occasion the CBI is applauding our policies. I do not know whether I should be delighted or worried, but I take comfort where I can that there are many people who are committed to improving our state education system who think our reform programme is right.

Learning to let creativity flourish will be enormously beneficial for the next generation and needs to be embraced right across the curriculum. The Secretary of State has been offered input by heads from the leading edge programme of the best-performing schools, among them Martin Williams from the Corsham school, to help to ensure that teaching is engaging and innovative for pupils learning in key stage 4. How will he respond to that offer from these outstanding schools?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I will respond with enthusiasm. I want to make sure that the very best, which succeed not just in the quality of academic and technical education, but in instilling a love of creative education in young people, have an opportunity to help schools that may not have those strengths. I have never visited a school that is strong academically that is not also strong creatively. The more we can learn from great schools, the better for all our children.

Education Funding

The current system for funding schools is unfair and out of date. In March, the Secretary of State announced our intention to introduce a new national funding formula which would redistribute funding on a fair, transparent and pupil-led basis.

The current formula, which we inherited, contains in-built bias and anomalies. Given that the Secretary of State and several Ministers are on record as saying that it needs to be replaced, why must we wait until 2015 before that process even starts?

My hon. Friend is right to chide by implication the previous Government for failing during a far more benign financial environment to tackle the unfairness of the national formula for funding schools. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are taking action. We are already, in 2013-14 and 2014-15, simplifying massively the funding formula for schools, paving the way for the national funding formula, which we will introduce in the next spending review period.

On a slightly different aspect of the education funding formula, Liverpool Community college has seen an extra 1,000 16 to 18-year-olds enrol this year. However, due to the current funding formula there is a gap of £6 million. Can the Government confirm that none of those young people will lose out and that they will all get the same high standard of education that they deserve?

I am not sure what that gap is, but even in difficult times this Government have produced a fantastic settlement for schools and are doing what her Government never did: deliver a £2.5 billion pupil premium which will get more money to the most disadvantaged youngsters in the country.

The Minister accepts that there are gross funding discrepancies among schools, not on the basis of need but simply because of the local authority in which a school sits. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State consider the f40 group’s appeal again and look to take action in this Parliament? Such gross unfairness cannot be allowed to last into the next Parliament.

I agree with my hon. Friend’s points. I met representatives of the f40 group recently and had a detailed discussion. As I have already explained, we are making the first moves to introduce a national funding formula in the next spending review period. I assure my hon. Friend that in the meantime I will keep a close eye—as will the Secretary of State—on the representations that the f40 group is making about how we get a fairer funding formula.

State Boarding Schools

13. What his policy is on capital allocations for state boarding schools; and if he will make a statement. (130882)

Capital maintenance funding for maintained state boarding schools is allocated through local authorities, and through the Education Funding Agency for schools that are voluntary-aided. In addition, devolved formula capital is allocated directly to boarding schools for their own use. Academies will continue to have access to the academies capital maintenance fund.

State boarding schools are the secret jewel in the crown of the state education system. However, the boarding parts of such schools and the maintenance of them are currently unfunded from capital allocations. Will the Minister take steps to resolve that, or at the very least allow state boarding schools to borrow against their boarding assets?

I know that my hon. Friend is a strong supporter of state boarding schools, and so are this Government. He will probably be aware that the State Boarding Schools Association recently met with Lord Hill to discuss some of these matters, and he may be interested to know that a further meeting is scheduled for the end of January next year. My hon. Friend will also know that my predecessor, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), took a sensible decision to include in the property data survey a review of boarding provision and the capital needs of boarding schools. My hon. Friend will be aware that the data survey will report back next year. At that time we will have the evidence base to make the right decisions to ensure that state boarding schools have good-quality assets.

Secondary Curriculum

We announced draft proposals for the new primary curriculum earlier this year and we will bring forward proposals for the secondary curriculum in due course.

When I visited award-winning St Lawrence academy in my constituency on Friday, I heard first hand how year 10 and year 11 students were gaining from accessing vocational courses at North Lindsey college. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he still supports Alison Wolf’s recommendation that 14 to 16-year-olds can benefit hugely from access to high-quality vocational education in colleges?

I often find myself nodding along whenever the hon. Gentleman makes a point, and I have never yet found a recommendation by Alison Wolf with which I have not agreed.

Given the cross-party support, public support and professional support, and because he can save 150,000 lives a year, why on earth will the Secretary of State not put emergency life support skills somewhere in the national curriculum, so that every school leaver is a life-saver?

The many heads and teachers who listened to the hon. Lady as she made her point will think that if they have not already incorporated emergency life-saving skills into the way they teach, they should do so in future. Indeed, with such brilliant advocacy, I am sure that even more lives can be saved.

Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that when reforms of the national curriculum are published, teachers will have more than sufficient time to become fully familiar with them?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is absolutely important that we ensure that teachers have an opportunity to absorb the changes that we want to make, so that they can do what I know they wish to do, which is to raise the bar for all children.

Would my right hon. Friend consider putting enterprise into the school curriculum? This Government are keen to see young people set up businesses, which will be important for the future growth of this country.

There are few in the Government keener than me on encouraging enterprise among young people—in fact, there is one: the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock). However, I would be wary of treating the curriculum as though it were Santa’s sack—as though we could shove into it everything that we wanted and it would magically expand. If we are to ensure that teachers are free from unnecessary prescription, we need to ensure that great teachers can build the curriculum they want with a proper balance between what we expect centrally and what they determine locally.

Ian McNeilly, the head of the National Association for the Teaching of English, has said of the Government’s new English curriculum:

“It is fantastic that Mr Gove has acknowledged that English as a subject needs to move into a different century. Unfortunately for all concerned, he has chosen the 19th rather than the 21st”.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will regard that as the highest praise, but does he agree that that is almost certainly not what was intended? Will he therefore reflect again on the omissions from the curriculum—particularly in areas such as writing, analytical and listening skills—that have been invoked by our friends in the CBI?

I do not see anything wrong with having the 19th century at the heart of the English curriculum. As far as I am concerned, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy—not to mention George Eliot—are great names that every child should have the chance to study. As for the National Association for the Teaching of English, I am afraid that it is yet another pressure group that has been consistently wrong for decades. It is another aspect of the educational establishment involving the same people whose moral relativism and whose cultural approach of dumbing down have held our children back. Those on the Opposition Benches have not yet found a special interest group with which they will not dumbly nod along and assent to. I believe in excellence in English education. I believe in the canon of great works, in proper literature and in grammar, spelling and punctuation. As far as I am concerned, the NATE will command my respect only when it returns to rigour.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley). I would have called him to ask a question if that oration had concluded earlier, but it did not, so I cannot. I will, however, look kindly on him in topical questions. We shall see.

Topical Questions

Order. On this occasion, an answer rather than a speech will suffice. I must also say that I richly enjoyed the Secretary of State’s Oxford Union oration.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have had lots of meetings today and they have all been fun. Getting advice from you is the most fun of all.

Last month, the Secretary of State attacked the National Audit Office for being one of the “fiercest forces of conservatism”, and that statement was raised with the NAO in the Public Accounts Committee last week. Is such a statement wise, given the helpful advice that the NAO has provided on matters such as the overspending on the academies programme? After all, we all want to defeat the forces of conservatism.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to expand briefly on those remarks. It is important that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee should strike a proper balance between respect for public money and the encouragement of innovation. As the NAO pointed out, the academies programme has been a success for this Government. We also need to ensure, however, that every penny that we have is spent wisely.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, according to Ofsted’s recent report, there are now 381 fewer children’s centres than there were at the time of the election, which represents a cut of 10%? In the same week, the Minister for Children and Families admitted that the number of centres providing child care had fallen by 30% in just one year, and that many of the closures were in deprived areas that have problems with the availability and quality of child care. How many of those services, on which families rely, does the Secretary of State think will be lost, now that the budget for Sure Start has been cut by 40%? Why does he not care about Sure Start?

It is because I care so much about Sure Start that I want to ensure that the quality of service that is delivered to young people is the most important criterion. We do not want to fetishise bricks and mortar; we want to ensure that the quality of the education that children receive is as high—[Interruption.] What sort of an example is that setting for the nation’s three and four-year-olds? I say that we should concentrate on the quality of education.

T3. Scope recently launched its “Keep us close” report, which found that six in 10 families with disabled children said that the vital services they needed were not available in their local area. What steps is the Minister taking to implement the report’s recommendations to ensure that local authorities make vital universal services such as schools and leisure services accessible to families with disabled children, so that they do not have to travel long distances to get to them? (130896)

You will no doubt be aware, Mr Speaker, that today is the international day for people with disability, so it is apt that my hon. Friend has chosen to ask that question. Our special educational needs reforms will require local authorities to involve local families in developing a published local offer of services for children and young people with SEN and disabilities to ensure that councils understand their needs and can plan local provision accordingly.

T2. Children with special needs, children who are in care and even children on free school meals are disproportionately represented among pupils permanently excluded from school. Many end up in pupil referral units, where the limited number of courses on offer can permanently damage their life chances. What is the Secretary of State doing to find out why that is happening and to provide more support to teachers in the classroom in dealing with such pupils? (130895)

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. We appointed a special adviser to deal specifically with disciplinary and behavioural issues—Charlie Taylor, who had experience in dealing with precisely the sort of children whom the hon. Lady and I care about. That is why we have a reform programme to ensure that the quality of education offered in pupil referral units improves and that teachers who are responsible for dealing with those children receive improved initial teacher training. If the hon. Lady would like to know more, I would be happy to arrange a meeting with Mr Taylor so that he can bring her up to date.

T4. Will the Secretary of State comment further on how he will address the concerns that creative studies might be squeezed out of the secondary curriculum? Furthermore, will he or his Minister for Schools meet the secondary heads in my constituency to celebrate their successes and to discuss the future direction of the secondary curriculum? (130897)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who always makes her points proportionately and wisely. I agree with her that it is important not just to reassure students and teachers, but to applaud the fantastic work that is being done in creative and cultural education. That is why I or one of my colleagues would be only too happy to meet those in the schools in her constituency that are doing such a good job.

T8. It is 20 years ago today that the very first SMS was sent by an engineer. Today also sees the publication of EngineeringUK’s report, setting out the need to double the number of students studying GCSE physics if we are to meet the engineering needs of the future. What is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that a doubling of the numbers studying physics will happen, particularly in academies, which as he knows are responsible only to him? (130901)

It is vital that we increase the number of engineers, and indeed, provide more physics, which leads on to engineering. The number of schools offering three sciences at 16 is now back up to 80% after falling precipitously in the past decade. The number and proportion of pupils studying physics is going up, too. We need to do much more, but we are on the right track.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend outline what plans he has to improve alternative provision, and will he recognise the role that sports, particularly boxing, can play in raising the educational achievements of our most disadvantaged and underperforming young people? (130898)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work with the all-party parliamentary group on boxing. I think boxing has had a great year: we have seen great performances, such as by Nicola Adams in winning a gold medal in the Olympics. That is a fantastic inspiration to many school students. We are encouraging more diversity in alternative provision. We want to encourage boxing alongside academic subjects so that students can get back into mainstream education.

T10. I listened carefully to the answer to my earlier question about Liverpool community college, but I must point out that Liverpool community college does not receive the pupil premium. Will the Minister responsible for skills answer my question? Will he approve the granting of £6 million, on which the college currently loses out because of the lagged funding formula, so that none of the extra 1,000 students who have enrolled will lose out. (130903)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for advocating so persistently and constantly on behalf of her constituents. I would say two things. First, we are doing everything to ensure that we can equalise funding between schools, school sixth-forms and colleges in the direction that the Association of Colleges has welcomed. Secondly, I am absolutely delighted that 1,000 more students have enrolled in Liverpool, thus proving that our reforms to the education maintenance allowance and its replacement by a bursary fund has been, as Government Members have said, a success—and not the failure predicted by Opposition Members.

T6. Salisbury has submitted an application for a science university, a university technical college and a free school sixth-form; we also have two outstanding grammar schools and a recent encouraging report from Sarum academy. Does the Minister agree that that diversity of provision allows opportunities for all children from all backgrounds? (130899)

I do agree, and I urge others to take the same view as my hon. Friend. We should ensure that there is a diversity of provision, including university technical colleges, free schools and academies, and also a diversity of high-quality qualifications on offer—both academic qualifications and occupational qualifications that will form part of the Tech Bac—so that we can provide the best education, highly regarded and held in high esteem, for every single student who wants it.

Last weekend the Secretary of State condemned a foster care decision made by social workers in Rotherham, who he said had made

“the wrong decision in the wrong way for the wrong reasons”.

He knew nothing about that complex case and had done nothing to check the facts, which was completely wrong for a Minister in his position. Will he now apologise?

T7. More than 80 independent day schools are backing the Sutton Trust’s open access scheme, which will make private school places available to able children from all backgrounds on the basis of merit rather than ability to pay. Does the Secretary of State agree that opening up 100% of such places would fundamentally change the social structure of the schools, accelerate social mobility, and give bright kids from poor backgrounds the chance of a fantastic education? (130900)

The Sutton Trust and Sir Peter Lampl have done wonderful work to advance social mobility. Not every aspect of the open access scheme necessarily recommends itself to the Government, but I applaud all the independent schools, such as those in the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham, which have done so much to extend a brilliant education to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Secretary of State spoke earlier about the canon. He may recall that, in 2009, he said:

“the greatest artists and thinkers are great precisely because their insights and achievements have the capacity to move, and influence, us all”.

Does he agree with the great artist Danny Boyle, who said recently:

“If there is any way you can help make culture, music, dance, theatre a core of the new English baccalaureate you will have given something beyond what you give every day”

As an admirer of Danny Boyle’s film-making, and indeed of the amazing work that he did at the opening ceremony for the Olympics, I hesitate ever to disagree with him in any respect. That is why I was so pleased this morning to be able to talk to representatives of the culture sector, including those responsible for dance education, drama and visual arts, and to agree on what we can do together to ensure that every child has access to the best that has been thought and written.

T9. Our schools in Elmbridge face serious financial pressures as a result of a spike in the birth rate, the large number of young families who are moving into the area, and small pockets of relatively acute deprivation. Those factors were consistently overlooked by the last Government. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that they are properly taken into account in the forthcoming funding formula review? (130902)

As my hon. Friend will know, we are simplifying the funding formula for 2013-14. We believe that it contains the right factors, which will be able to accommodate the real pressures throughout the country. My hon. Friend will also know that we are conducting a review of the formula for 2014-15. If he will write to me about the problems in his constituency, I shall be sure to look at them very closely.

Sales skills are crucial to British businesses, but although nearly 10% of people are employed in sales, fewer than 1% of apprenticeships are in sales. Having escaped the opportunity to become Alan Sugar’s apprentice, Kate Walsh is now heading the Labour party’s policy review body, which is looking into how we can ensure that more young people get into sales and recognise the value of such work. Will the Minister congratulate Kate Walsh on having engaged in the political process, and acknowledge the importance of sales in our schools and colleges?

I would commend any work intended to enhance the quality of apprenticeships, which are no longer restricted to one part of the economy but now extend to the whole economy. They are increasing in quantity, and we need to ensure that they increase in quality as well. I should welcome the contributions of anyone who can bring about an increase in the number of rigorous and employer-focused apprenticeships.

Many small schools in Cornwall are concerned about changes in the dedicated schools grant and the implications for their future. What reassurance can the Minister give that when the current minimum funding guarantee runs out in 2014, the Government will recognise the importance of funding stability to such schools?

I can give my hon. Friend the assurances first that the minimum funding guarantee will continue, secondly that this Government value the role of small schools, and thirdly that we are carrying out a review of the funding formula for 2014-15, to look very carefully at some of the concerns he mentions.

Has the Secretary of State read the Pearson report, published last week and written by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which shows that Britain has the sixth best education system in the world and the second best in Europe? Does he agree that that shows great advancement under 13 years of the previous Labour Government and following many years of hard work from our teaching profession, and does he therefore regret talking down our education system and our teaching profession, as he did earlier today?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her recent election to Parliament. She couched her question brilliantly, and I know she will be a superb asset to this House. She is right to draw attention to the fantastic work our teachers are doing. However, only last week I was talking to Arne Duncan, the reappointed Secretary for Education in Barack Obama’s Administration, and he outlined to me how important it is that the two of us work together on a reform programme identical in every detail, to ensure that, however well we have done in the past, we do yet better in the future on behalf of all our children.

Further to Question 6 on religious education teaching, the Bible gives accounts of Jesus healing the sick. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State put first aid training in the national curriculum?

On previous occasions I have observed that the hon. Gentleman has never yet said anything in Education questions with which I have disagreed. This is a first, therefore. It is miraculous that there should be any gap between us, but I look forward perhaps to talking to the hon. Gentleman to see what we can do.

Certainly there is very rarely any Question Time in which the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) does not say something. We are accustomed to that by now, and we are grateful to him for it.

All schools need to ensure that their children have access to high-quality sports and physical education facilities and, under regulations that we have brought in, for the first time ever all schools, including independent and free schools, will have to guarantee access to high-quality facilities.