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Topical Questions

Volume 554: debated on Monday 3 December 2012

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.