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Topical Questions

Volume 557: debated on Monday 21 January 2013

More than 5,000 schools across the country are closed today as a result of adverse weather conditions. Thanks to changes that this Government have made, no school that ensures that it is open will be penalised if individual students cannot make it to school on that day. I hope that as a result more and more schools will recognise that while the decision on whether to remain open or closed is a matter for the head teacher, everything can and should be done to ensure that all children get access to a good education.

After the revelations about Jimmy Savile, Cyril Smith and other appalling cases, is it not time for the Secretary of State to stop dragging his feet over personal, social, health and economic education, causing its teaching over the past two years to decline, and instead to help equip our young people to better resist the efforts of predatory paedophiles?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that given their scale the recent revelations about the extent of child abuse and child grooming are uniquely worrying. In a speech that I gave to the Institute for Public Policy Research just before Christmas, I outlined a series of steps that my Department has taken, and will take, in order to deal with this.

T2. Given the evolving role of school governors, especially in performing accountability measures, and bearing in mind how Ofsted is focusing on school governors and their role in ensuring that higher standards are found in schools that have thus far not managed to achieve them, does the Secretary of State agree that we need to focus on skills and, in particular, the role of the chair? (137924)

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has done on how to improve school governance. It matters hugely and one of the successes of the academies programme has been to raise the quality of school governance. I agree that, while it is important that the community feels that its voice is represented on governing bodies, the single most important thing is the skills and capabilities of the governing body.

Last week, the former children’s Minister, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), said that the children and families agenda is a “declining priority” for this Government. The response from a senior official in the Department was to describe the hon. Gentleman as “lazy” and “incompetent”. The code of conduct for special advisers and civil servants precludes them from making such personal attacks. Will the Education Secretary investigate to determine whether a breach of the code has occurred and, if one has, will he take all necessary disciplinary action?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It gives me an opportunity to affirm the importance of child protection and of ensuring that this Government take all the steps needed to make sure that no child is placed at risk and to—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”] I think the first part of the question was about child protection and I regard that as the most important part, which is why we have taken steps to ensure that child protection is and remains a top priority. It is, of course, the case that leaks are a part of political life, and I tend to regard them all with equanimity.

T3. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to give head teachers and individual schools far greater autonomy over teachers’ pay, to allow them to reward, recruit and retain good teachers? (137925)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making a very important point. Changes to the way in which we pay and reward teachers will ensure that good teachers are rewarded better and that those schools in disadvantaged areas which, thanks to the pupil premium, are receiving more money will have the chance to get the high-quality teaching that their children deserve.

T4. Hetton school in my constituency was due to be rebuilt under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme. The school was then accepted on to this Government’s new scheme, but its head has now been told that, due to financing issues, the rebuilding will be delayed by another year. Will the Secretary of State explain the reasons for that? (137926)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and will investigate the specific case that she mentions. Sadly, the Building Schools for the Future programme had to be terminated, not least because of the inefficiencies within the scheme. The priority schools building programme will ensure that schools are repaired at less cost to the taxpayer and in a more effective way. If there has been any slippage in the particular case that the hon. Lady has brought to my attention, I will look at it and write to her.

T6. Today, the all-party group on archives and history has formally published its report, “History for all?” One of its principal recommendations is to consider whether there should be a British history qualification at 16 that would teach the broad chronological span of British history. Will the Secretary of State seriously consider this report and meet a cross-party delegation of MPs to discuss its findings? (137928)

It is an excellent report and I would love to meet a cross-party delegation of MPs to tease out the implications of some of its brilliant recommendations.

T5. The Secretary of State has spoken eloquently of the need for academic subjects to be taught in poorer communities, so why is Keele university in north Staffordshire seeing its allocation for secondary teacher core training cut by 100% in history, 100% in geography and 100% in English? Will he give me an assurance that the new teaching regime will not distort teacher supply geographically, so that areas such as Stoke-on-Trent are not deprived of well trained, well motivated teachers? Why this snobbery? Don’t Stoke kids deserve the best? (137927)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I read his column in the Stoke Sentinel on precisely this issue, with admiration both for his passion and for the quality of his prose. I assure him that we will absolutely ensure that, across the country, teachers who are well trained will be placed in the schools that need them most. That is why we have reformed pay and conditions—there is still silence from the Labour party on whether or not it supports our changes—and why we have made changes to teacher training through the school direct programme. Let me offer the hon. Gentleman a meeting with the head of the Teaching Agency, Charlie Taylor. After that meeting, if he is not impressed by Charlie and his commitment to helping the poorest children do well, I am afraid that nothing will convince him.

T7. I am sure that Ministers will be aware that Holocaust memorial day will take place this week and that the work of the Holocaust Education Trust has been commended by this and previous Governments. Are they also aware that the Lord Merlyn-Rees memorial lecture will take place this evening here in Parliament—in the Attlee suite—at which the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), and Mr Danny Finkelstein of The Times will speak? I hope that Ministers will implore their constituents and colleagues to attend. (137929)

I look forward to listening to both the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) and Mr Finkelstein of The Times this evening. Let me place on record my gratitude to the last Government for instituting state support for the Holocaust Education Trust, and particularly to my predecessor as Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), for the courage and commitment that he showed to the fantastic work of the HET. I extend my congratulations also to its chief executive, Karen Pollock, who is an inspirational public figure and richly deserved her recent recognition in the honours list.

T8. I have just come from an excellent event hosted by Newham council called “Every child a musician”. It is a scheme that was launched in 2010 to give all children from whatever background access to a musical education. It has been rigorously evaluated by the Institute of Education, and Professor Graham Welch has stated that evidence already exists of“a link between progress in EcAM and progress in writing and English.”Can the Secretary of State explain, therefore, why arts subjects will not count towards the English baccalaureate? (137930)

I congratulate Newham council on its leadership, and I congratulate all those involved in music education, who have been supported in London by the Mayor through the scheme that he has introduced to ensure that more children have access to instrumental tuition.

Darren Henley’s report on music education was greeted as probably the best report on the subject that had been written, and enacted by any Government, since the dawn of time. I am grateful that there is such widespread recognition of our commitment to school music.

T9. Some 18,000 young people and teachers have had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz thanks to the wonderful work of the Holocaust Education Trust. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should commend those who are organising events across the country to commemorate the awful evil of the holocaust, and that it is important that all young people learn the lessons from the past so that it is not repeated in the future? (137931)

I absolutely agree, and at a time when we are seeing the effects of prejudice and anti-Semitism on the rise—all of us will have been watching news programmes over the weekend horrified at the re-emergence of murderous prejudice in north Africa and the middle east—we will all affirm the vital importance of the work that the Holocaust Education Trust continues to do.

Youth services are being wiped out up and down the country. Why will the Secretary of State not collect the data from local authorities and ensure that they meet their statutory duty to provide a sufficient youth service?

The hon. Lady will know that there are duties on local authorities to ensure that there is adequate provision of the services that she mentions. We work closely with many youth services, and I spoke at the National Youth Agency only last week about the innovative and creative practices that are now developing in a lot of areas, which are delivering excellent services for young people. That includes the £240 million capital investment that we have recently put into myplace centres, which are benefiting many of the poorest parts of our country.

T10. In recent years, more premature babies, who are being born even earlier, are surviving in good health, albeit that they start school with development that, when measured from their birth date, is delayed. Will the Minister consider fresh evidence, especially about severely premature summer-born babies, and give their parents the final say on when they start school? (137932)

We are certainly prepared to consider that further. My hon. Friend will know that in the simpler code that was introduced on 1 February 2012, we clarified some aspects of the admissions situation and made parents’ rights on deferral much clearer. The Department is also meeting parents who are affected by such issues to consider any further changes.

Earlier, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), hinted again about changes to child care. A week or so ago there were major trails in the Sunday papers about imminent announcements. Has she been thwarted in her ambitions by members of the Government who do not wish to see women back in the workplace and contributing to the Government’s tax take?

We will shortly announce proposals on child care. As I mentioned earlier, we are not getting value for money for the £5 billion that we spend. In the mid-term review, we said that we would put forward a new offer for working parents. At the moment, our parents pay more than those in virtually any other OECD country, after 13 years of Labour creating a system that does not work. We are going to fix it.

We heard earlier about the success of Northamptonshire in introducing academies. We have not been as successful in Staffordshire, and one reason for that has been peer pressure by headmasters on those headmasters who want to establish academies. What steps can the Department take—if any—to encourage headmasters to have a little bit more courage to go ahead and take that step?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I fear we have reached a tipping point in the number of schools that have become academies at secondary level, with more than 52% of pupils now educated in academies. As a result of that, even in local authorities where there are perhaps one or two more small c conservative head teachers, I believe that the overwhelming evidence of the benefits that academies bring will ensure that we see more schools going down that path.

I know that the Secretary of State shares my determination to improve social mobility. Will he therefore support my constituent, Damien Shannon, who has been prevented from taking an MSc place at St Hugh’s college Oxford simply because he cannot lay his hands on £21,000 immediately? How does that help social mobility?

May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the right hon. Lady’s commitment to social mobility and the work she has done in encouraging internships in this House? I shall look as quickly as I can into that case and discuss it with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

I look forward to the Minister’s proposals for improving outcomes for children with special educational needs. However, for those parents who are still forced to use the tribunal process, the delay before they get to that tribunal is considerable and can lead to additional pressure and for too long leave children without the education they need. Will he agree to discuss the matter with the Department, and seek to improve those outcomes?

I know my hon. Friend has a lot of experience in his family of these issues, and we are working hard to ensure that we move away from the adversarial nature of our system which means that far too many cases end up in a tribunal. We have looked carefully at the report from the Education Committee and will be responding shortly with—I hope—answers that it will find helpful.

At Christmas, officials from the Department for Education held a party at which they were encouraged to wear silly hats and not remove them until they had identified what cuts they wanted to make. Another official blogged that he would like a barge on which to sail between the different offices outside London. The one he could not reach was Darlington, which is under threat of moving to Newcastle. Does the Secretary of State see how insulting that is to 450 of my constituents who might be losing their jobs?

The hon. Lady has made a good case for the continuation of Department for Education provision at Mowden hall in Darlington. It is important for us all to recognise that the work of civil servants engaged in the DfE review has been typical of the committed work they do across the Department to ensure that we have better services for less money. I am looking forward to working with her to ensure that we examine the case for either Darlington or another location in the north-east providing an even better service for all children in the future.

In light of the report by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) earlier in this Parliament, will the Secretary of State say what steps he is taking to improve the parenting skills of parents who have children under the age of three?

We are currently undertaking three pilots to see how parenting classes can enhance the capacity of parents from a variety of backgrounds to provide children with the support they need. I am particularly open to innovation in that field, and those three pilots should help us to decide the best way to move on.