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Volume 559: debated on Monday 4 March 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

School Information

1. What recent steps he has taken to increase the amount of information about schools available to parents and the public. (145452)

School performance tables now include four times as much data as those published before May 2010. In addition, since September 2012, schools are required to publish information on their websites on the use and impact of the pupil premium, their curriculum, their admission arrangements and their policies on behaviour, charging and special educational needs.

My right hon. Friend will know that the new school information regulations came into force on 1 September last year. Among other things, they require schools to publish details of the curriculum for every subject in each year. Looking at a sample of schools’ websites, I do not yet see widespread compliance with this regulation. Given the importance of this information to parents and of parental choice in driving up standards, will he take steps to publicise the new requirement and take measures to ensure compliance?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of ensuring that parents are well informed about schools and the curriculum they offer. The Department sends out termly e-mails reminding schools of their obligations under legislation, and most recently Her Majesty’s chief inspector has written to all schools reminding them of the requirement to publish information and pointing out that inspectors will use the publication of this information as a starting point when considering inspection of provision in the school.

Last week, the Secretary of State said of the schools in east Durham:

“When you go into those schools, you can smell the sense of defeatism.”

Will he tell the House which of those schools in east Durham he has actually visited since he became Secretary of State, and will he apologise to the people of east Durham for his outrageous remarks?

I absolutely will not apologise to the people of east Durham for standing up for better education for their children. Perhaps the most telling remarks about the lack of ambition in schools in east Durham were uttered by Lord Adonis. Having visited a school there, he said that a teacher had told him, “In the past children turned right to work in the shipyards or left to work in the coal mines. Now they might as well walk on into the sea.” That spirit of defeatism reported by the noble Lord is exactly what we need to attack. Instead of attacking the Government, the hon. Gentleman would be better off tackling underperformance in his own constituency.

I welcome the publication of the dashboards launched by Ofsted last week and recommend them to the public, parents and governors. Will the Secretary of State go further, though, and explain how we can reconcile some of the Ofsted judgments with the attainment and other progress reports?

The chief inspector is absolutely right to publish these dashboards, but they are only the beginning of how governors and others can hold schools to account for their performance. For example, if we look at the performance of schools under the English baccalaureate measure, we see that there are many schools across the country whose superficial headline GCSE figures flatter to deceive.

A number of parents have approached me with concerns about children who are particularly high achievers, whom they feel are sometimes not given the support they require in the classroom. Will the Secretary of State outline how he will ensure that schools provide more information to those parents in order to encourage people to achieve more broadly and ensure that high achievers with particular talents can flourish in our schools?

That is a very good question. We have introduced new papers in primary schools allowing children at the end of key stage 2—the end of their primary curriculum—to aspire to do even better by reaching a level 6, which is a higher level of achievement than was previously available to them, while the changes we hope to make to GCSEs will, I hope, drive a higher level of attainment as well. Furthermore, we have said to all state schools that they have an opportunity to visit for free a Russell group university on behalf of their students in order to aspire to do better. There is much more that we can do, however, and I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman to do it.

Schools: Curriculum

2. What steps he is taking to ensure that schools are able to shape the curriculum to their own pupils’ aspirations and priorities. (145453)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education recently announced our proposals to reform the new national curriculum. In addition to being more rigorous in the core subjects, the new national curriculum will also be much slimmer, meaning that schools will have greater freedom to design lessons that inspire and motivate all their pupils.

Will the Minister join me in encouraging schools to deliver a curriculum that not only meets the aspirations and priorities of pupils but reflects the needs of local employers—core skills such as maths and English as well as vigorous vocational qualifications in engineering, computer science and technology?

There is much more scope in the new national curriculum for schools to develop programmes involving design, technology and computing to prepare students for high-tech roles, as well as improving their maths and English core skills. The computing curriculum now focuses on programming and understanding how computers work, and has been developed with the British Computer Society. We are also introducing a new technical baccalaureate that will provide a high level of technical training, including maths for students up to the age of 18.

Flexibility for schools is welcome, but what is the minimum time parents should expect their children to spend on sport and physical activity under the new national curriculum?

We are ensuring that physical education is a core part of the curriculum for children aged up to 16, and we have introduced new topics to the subject.

I am worried about the curriculum for children who are currently being flexi-schooled. The Government recently announced—without consultation and without notice—the abolition of flexi-schooling, which has existed for decades and which meets the needs of many children. How will the Minister ensure that the needs of those children are met in the immediate future?

We will ensure that our attendance procedures are absolutely correct, so that we know whether students are at school or not. If they are being home-schooled, that is a decision for their parents; if they are at school, they must be properly at school, and their attendance records must be properly monitored.

May I take this opportunity, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, to wish Her Majesty a speedy recovery?

The Minister is actually making the curriculum less flexible. For instance, she is insisting that primary school children will have to study Dafydd ap Gruffydd. Can she tell us about Dafydd ap Gruffydd, and can she spell Dafydd ap Gruffydd?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, in that we are ensuring that students gain a good chronological understanding of history throughout their school career. During my own school career, I spent one lesson studying Sir Francis Drake and the next talking about the princes in the tower. I would certainly have preferred a school career that enabled me to learn about chronology and understand our island story.

Adopted Children

3. What steps he is taking to improve outcomes for adopted children in (a) Enfield North constituency, (b) London and (c) England. (145454)

Adoptive families can struggle to get the help that they need, and I am determined to change that. We have already announced measures that give adopted children rights to priority schools admission and free early education, and we are introducing an “adoption passport” so that adoptive families know about their entitlements. Further measures in the Children and Families Bill are aimed at tackling delay and improving outcomes for adopted children, including children in Enfield North.

Is the Minister aware that the children of adoptive adults who have died without locating their biological families are often left in a quandary, as they are unable to gain access to vital information about their parents’ families, including information about hereditary medical conditions? What steps will he take to rectify that? Will he agree to meet me to discuss this important matter, in which the British Association for Adoption and Fostering is taking an interest?

My hon. Friend is right to raise what is indeed an extremely serious and important matter. We must think carefully about the information that adopted people have to find out about their parents’ families, particularly when there may be hereditary medical problems. I know that the matter was referred to the Law Commission in 2010, but we must do more work to establish how we can ensure that more information can be provided when it is needed. I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss the matter in more detail.

Given that adoption is sadly never likely to be the solution for all looked-after children, may I ask the Minister what measures he is introducing to ensure that children in foster care or residential care homes also manage to bridge the attainment gap?

The hon. Gentleman is right: we need to consider all routes of permanency for children who go into the care system. There is no inbuilt hierarchy, although we know that adoption is a very successful route for many—we think more—children. Through the Children and Families Bill, we are trying to improve the educational attainment of children in care by introducing a statutory duty for local authorities to appoint a virtual school head, whose remit is specifically to try to improve the educational attainment of children in the care of local authorities so that the outcomes are better and they have the prospect of a fulfilling adult life.

Having visited on Friday a remarkable lady who both is an adoptive mother and advises Kent county council’s adoption panel, may I say that the measures the Minister has announced over the past year are extremely welcome but that the overriding need is to speed up the court processes, which are still much to slow?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why, under the Children and Families Bill and the work we are doing with the Family Justice Board, we are trying to drive every element of unnecessary delay out of the court process and are bringing in a 52-week maximum limit on the time a care case should take to ensure that, where there is an opportunity for a child’s adoption placement to be made permanent, that happens sooner rather than later and they can get on with their life and form those all-important attachments with their new family.

School Funding Formulae

4. What steps he is taking to ensure that the funding formula for school sixth forms and sixth-form colleges is fair and equitable. (145455)

In 2010 we committed to ending the historical disparity in post-16 funding so that by 2015 schools and colleges will be funded at the same level as one another for the first time, on a per-pupil basis. Transitional protection will apply for four years from 2011 to give institutions time to adjust.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer and to the Secretary of State for his correspondence. In Solihull and elsewhere, differences in funding for sixth-form colleges and state schools are putting sixth-form colleges under great competitive pressure. Will the Minister assure Solihull sixth-form college, and all sixth-form colleges, that he will introduce remedies as quickly as possible?

I am a strong supporter of sixth-form colleges, which do excellent work, including Solihull sixth-form college. I congratulate the newly formed all-party parliamentary group on sixth-form colleges. I regularly meet the ministerial working group on post-16 funding to discuss the implementation of the fair per-pupil funding system, and I will bear my hon. Friend’s comments in mind.

I thank the Minister for attending the all-party group’s reception last week. I think that he recognised at the meeting that sixth-form colleges, in particular, face a challenging funding situation because their learners are funded significantly less than those pre-16 or in higher education. Will he commit to addressing that issue as soon as possible?

Of course funding is tight, and it is important that we get it to the right place. The starting point is ensuring that, as far as possible, students doing the same sorts of courses are funded the same across different institutions and that, just as we do before the age of 16, someone in full-time education is funded by broadly the same amount as anyone else in full-time education.

As a vice-chairman of the newly formed all-party group, and as the Member who represents the finest sixth-form college in the country, Farnborough sixth-form college, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knows only too well, I welcome the Government’s commitment to ending the disparity. However, I have just been on the phone to the principal of the college, who tells me that even now it is looking at being between 9% and 15% less well funded than its counterparts in mainstream education. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend expedited his proposed changes.

The changes will be brought in by 2015. We have put in place transitional arrangements to ensure that institutions have time to adjust. Especially in sixth-form colleges such as Farnborough, which has an excellent track record—it is truly inspirational—it is important that we move to per-pupil funding in a considered way.

Sixteen to 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds studying at further education sixth-form colleges do not receive free meals at lunchtime, whereas their counterparts in school sixth forms do. Is not that another injustice that needs to be addressed?

Schools do not receive any extra funding for provision of that duty, so when looking at that question we need to be extremely careful not to add new duties without extra funding to go with it.


The phonics screening check confirms whether year 1 pupils can decode using phonics to an appropriate standard. In 2012, the first year of the national roll-out, 58% of children met the expected standard. We have commissioned an independent evaluation of the check over a period of three years, which will examine the impact of the check on phonics teaching.

I thank the Minister for that response, but many experienced, skilled and successful teachers of reading are a bit concerned about an over-reliance on phonics. What can she do to persuade them that the Government are not being a little doctrinaire in this area?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. A large body of research evidence shows that phonics is the most effective way of teaching literacy to all children. Last year’s phonics check identified 235,000 children who will now receive extra help, which is very important because PIRLS—the progress in international reading literacy study—showed that this country has one of the largest gaps between the strongest and weakest performers in reading. It is really important that we identify children who are struggling with reading early, so that they can receive help as soon as possible.

School Exclusions

6. What steps he is taking to ensure that no children with disabilities or additional needs are illegally excluded from school. (145457)

We have issued new statutory guidance setting out schools’ responsibilities on exclusion, making it clear that discrimination against disabled pupils is unlawful and emphasising the importance of stepping in early to address the underlying causes of disruptive behaviour. Early identification and intervention also underpin the Government’s planned reforms to the special educational needs system and a new approach to exclusion that the Government are trialling in a number of local authority areas.

I thank the Minister for that response, and he will be aware of Contact a Family’s survey of more than 400 families of children with disabilities and additional needs. It found that 22% of these children are illegally excluded at least once a week and 15% are illegally excluded every day for part of the day, with the most common reasons given being that there were not enough support staff to help or that the child had what the teacher described as “a bad day”. There are no sanctions against schools that carry out these exclusions and Ofsted does not take them into account in its reports, so what can be done to ensure that schools abide by the guidelines?

I am aware of the Contact a Family report, which was completely right to emphasise that schools should act lawfully and follow the correct procedures. Ofsted has an important role to play in this regard and, with the new criteria on behaviour and leadership, it will look carefully at where illegal exclusions are taking place, will take them seriously and will take them into account when making its overall judgment on a school’s performance. Our trials in 11 local authorities will give a greater incentive for schools to think carefully about what happens after they exclude a pupil and they will have to take greater responsibility.

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out how those trials are proceeding. Has he any information to share with the House on how the new process for dealing with exclusions is following on from the Education Act 2011?

My hon. Friend will have heard me refer to the new statutory guidance, which we issued last September, and the new code of practice will strengthen the arrangements for dealing with children with SEN to make sure that there is a clear focus on ensuring that no illegal exclusions take place in future. I am happy to discuss that with him if he wishes to do so.

I have already set out Ofsted’s role in this area and, clearly, we take any judgment of inadequacy that it makes extremely seriously. As a Minister in the Department, the Secretary of State has powers of intervention that we can use, if necessary, where we feel that a school is failing to provide a fair and adequate level of education; clearly, the factor of illegal exclusions will have to be taken into account.

School Improvements

We are determined to drive up standards in all schools. We are doing that by providing significant additional funding for disadvantaged pupils, through the pupil premium. In addition, Ofsted has implemented a more rigorous inspection framework. For the lowest-performing schools, we will look to secure a sponsored academy solution, with a high-quality sponsor.

Moorside community primary school in Halifax is driving up standards, but it has been waiting for investment in a new school building for far too long. Promises have been made, but there is still no new building. When will the school get that new building, to ensure that another generation of pupils does not miss out?

The hon. Lady will know that when the Government came to power we inherited from the previous Government a complete mess, through the Building Schools for the Future programme. It was over-extended, inefficient and unaffordable. We have now put in place an affordable school building project that is consistent with the finances this nation can afford.

One of the best ways of improving schools is by getting former armed forces personnel into teaching roles. What progress are Her Majesty’s Government making in turning troops into teachers?

My hon. Friend is quite right that we are pioneering that initiative. We believe that many people who were previously in the armed forces can make a major contribution to learning and we will continue to take forward that project.

Traineeships Scheme

9. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of his Department’s traineeships scheme on young people’s readiness for work and apprenticeships. (145460)

Last week, data showed the lowest number in a decade of people aged 16 to 19 who were not in employment, education or training. One NEET is too many, so traineeships will help young people gain the skills, attitudes and experience they need to get into an apprenticeship or a good job. They will combine substantial work placements and work skills training with English and maths and will help tackle the scourge of youth unemployment.

I thank the Minister for that answer. In Medway, the council-led SUCCES—or sustainable uplifting client centred employment support—initiative, which assists over-16s looking for work who have low skills and little experience, has been named as an example of best practice in Europe, helping more than 500 people. What plans does the Minister have to work with existing schemes and providers to deliver new traineeships?

I congratulate Medway council on its SUCCES initiative. Traineeships are being designed in a highly consultative way to support and enhance existing best practice not only from councils but from organisations such as the Prince’s Trust, which does brilliant work in this area. I am happy to look at the work that goes on in Medway and to ensure that what we do on traineeships supports it.

How will the Minister ensure that more apprenticeships go to younger people, as we know that the figures from last year showed that 9,000 fewer under-19s had gone into apprenticeships?

Of course, apprenticeships have been a huge success story and the number of 19 to 24-year-olds involved is rising sharply. We must ensure, too, that apprenticeships are rigorous and high quality, so we have taken steps to do that. I hope that the hon. Lady will join me next week, which is apprenticeships week, in celebrating apprenticeships. Every Member of this House has the opportunity to explain to everybody that apprenticeships are good for the apprentices, good for business and good for society as a whole.

23. Will my hon. Friend support the roll-out of the scheme initiated by the Department for Work and Pensions, which ensures that companies offering procurement contracts must hire apprentices? Will he ensure that the scheme, which has resulted in thousands more apprentices in the DWP, is rolled out across Government Departments? (145476)

I know the scheme well and it is both simple and effective. It also takes value for money into account. I was talking to a permanent secretary about it only this morning and I shall be doing far more of that.

I welcome investment in pre-apprenticeship training and preparation, but is the Minister not concerned about the accelerating decline in the number of apprenticeships available to 16 to 18-year-olds, which is down 7% from last year’s figure alone, and that the funding providers found a shortfall of £61 million in expenditure on that group last year? It is right and proper to invest in pre-apprenticeship training, but does he not agree that the bigger crisis is in whether those young people will have an apprenticeship to go on to?

The crisis would be if we did not improve the quality of apprenticeships, because they are vital in getting people into good jobs and ensuring that there is training in jobs. We took out some low-quality provision, which inevitably had an impact on the numbers, but that is a vital part of ensuring that apprentices are seen to be high quality and are regarded as such and that they are an attractive option for young people, adults and employers.

Early Intervention and Child Care

The affordability and availability of child care are a concern for many working parents, yet staff wages are often too low to support high-quality provision. “More great childcare” outlined reforms to improve quality and availability. We will introduce rigorous new inspection, new qualifications for early years teachers and new flexibilities to enable providers to deliver what is best for children. Childminder agencies will reverse the decline in the numbers of childminders.

Stoke-on-Trent has been hit harder than almost any other local authority in the country, including by a massive hit to early intervention funding—despite it being one of the most deprived areas facing the greatest need. If the Minister expects her claim to want to improve the quality of child care to be taken seriously, perhaps she will tell us what arguments she has had with Ministers in her own Department and indeed in the Department for Communities and Local Government to tackle these pernicious cuts?

Overall, we have increased early intervention funding from £2.2 billion to £2.5 billion. We are also introducing a new scheme for low-income two-year-olds, starting this September and the following September, which will make sure that those two-year-olds access high-quality provision from good and outstanding providers. Let us face the fact, however, that over 13 years of Labour government what we ended up with was the most unaffordable child care in Europe as well as the lowest salaries with staff paid only £6.60 an hour.

As the Minister said, child care workers in England are paid barely more than the minimum wage. Does she agree that the present rigid staff-child ratios place a cap on wages and therefore on the quality of staff?

I completely agree with what my hon. Friend has just said. Let us make it clear that we will allow more flexibility in ratios only for high-quality providers where high-quality staff are being hired. The aim, as advocated by the shadow Secretary of State, is to move to systems such as those of Sweden and Denmark, which have high-quality providers, high-quality staff and more flexibility and professional judgment operated at a local level. Everyone, from Andreas Schleicher of the OECD to Sir Michael Wilshaw, backs that plan to raise quality.

20. In welcoming the move to a better qualified child care work force, I raise the case of Becky, who has dyslexia and will struggle to achieve the necessary GCSEs for working in child care. Does the Minister accept that for people such as Becky there needs to be a balance between academic and vocational child care qualifications, which means that qualifications should be focused on identifying the people who are best at working with children, not just on those who can pass exams? (145473)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but all the international evidence from EPPE— the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education—to the OECD “Starting Strong” survey indicates a strong relationship between the qualifications people have, the quality of the child care provision and the outcomes for the children. I think there should be some flexibility in the system, however, so we can get high-quality people and improve vocational training and apprenticeships. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman respond to the consultation on precisely the point he raised.

Many people, including the shadow Education Secretary, have praised the Scandinavian approach to child care. Will the Minister confirm that in Sweden and Denmark there is no mandatory national child care ratio at all?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are no national ratios. Indeed, in parts of Sweden, no ratios at all are set for some nurseries. What the Swedes do is to rely on high-quality professionals exercising their professional judgment in the particular setting. That is the system we want to move to here. It is backed by the OECD and by Sir Michael Wilshaw of Ofsted, so I suggest the Opposition back it as well.

I am sorry to say that I truly believe that the Minister and the Secretary of State sat before us today are the most out of touch in the whole of Whitehall—apart from those in Downing street, that is. They pursue policies such as increasing child care ratios that generate almost unanimous opposition from across the country, to which they refuse to listen while systematically undermining popular services such as Sure Start by slashing the budget by almost half. When will they start listening to the people whom they are supposed to serve and put the best interests of children and families—rather than dogma and pet policies—at the forefront of their policy?

I have already pointed out that there is strong evidence for our reforms, and I point out to the hon. Lady that fewer than 1% of Sure Start centres have closed. They provide about 4% of full-time child care places. I would be interested to hear what the hon. Lady’s policies are for the other 96% of child care places and how she plans to make them more affordable. Under her watch, fewer women or mothers went out to work, and we were overtaken by countries such as France and Germany. What is her solution to that?

Careers Advice

Schools have a legal responsibility to secure independent and impartial careers guidance in years 9 to 11, and in years 8 to 13 from this September. This requirement will be extended to those up to the age of 18 in colleges. This will help those taking AS-levels to make successful transitions.

My very excellent Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) has quite properly highlighted the scandal that this country produces only 19,000 graduate engineers a year when we need 41,000 graduate engineers. Unless children take maths and ideally physics at AS-level we are not going to bridge that gap, so will the Minister make it clear to schools that when children make these vital choices, they are told that graduate engineers are being snapped up, the country needs them, and a graduate engineer creates 12 extra jobs in the economy?

I can think of few better people to make that argument than my hon. Friend or my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), with whom I am meeting Professor Perkins, the chief scientific adviser, later today. This is a huge and important area. The lack of engineering skills in this economy is a serious problem, the product in part of 13 years of failure to address the problem. We are working four-square towards that, and we will not rest until it is sorted out.

Is not the problem with that answer that the Government are proposing to downgrade AS-levels? Good advice is vital if we are to widen participation in higher education. Cambridge university’s response to the Government’s proposals on AS-levels is that they are

“unnecessary and, if implemented, will jeopardise over a decade’s progress towards fairer access.”

Will the Government think again?

We are upgrading AS-levels to ensure that we get the best possible and most rigorous education. The Opposition say they are in favour of rigorous education, then they oppose every measure meant to achieve it.

We absolutely oppose what the Government are proposing on AS-levels, as do the vast majority of people in the education system, including Cambridge university and the other Russell group universities. Which universities support the Government’s proposals on AS-levels?

Seventy-five per cent. of universities do not use AS-levels. What is crucial, therefore, is not only that we work with universities to reform A-levels, but most importantly that we have broadly a rigorous exam system that universities and employers trust. Not only do we in this country have youth unemployment that has been rising since 2004 and became much too high, but worse than that, we have skills shortages at the same time. That means that we need to reform radically the education and skills system that we were left.


My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of those schools is Colne Primet high school in my constituency, which converted to academy status as part of a multi-academy trust, the Pendle education trust, on 1 January this year. It has recently submitted an excellent bid for capital funding through the Education Funding Agency to carry out much-needed improvements to its school building. Will my right hon. Friend let me know how I can draw this excellent bid to his attention and that of the rest of the team?

Secondary School Curriculum

We recently published a number of proposals for the reform of the national curriculum in primary and secondary schools and those proposals are now subject to public consultation.

We know from industry that computing science is extremely important, and particularly coding skills. However, two thirds of schoolteachers do not have the relevant skills to teach coding. What does the Secretary of State intend to do about that?

That is a very good question from the hon. Lady. One of the things that we have done is disapply the existing information and communications technology curriculum that we inherited from the previous Government, which was not appropriate, was out of date and ensured that students did not acquire the skills they need. We now have a new curriculum and we are working with industry, including Microsoft, in order to ensure that that new curriculum teaches children the coding skills required. I had the opportunity on Friday to see a school in my own constituency doing just that.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on financial education for young people, I welcome the proposed inclusion of financial education in the maths and citizenship curricula. What more needs to be done during the consultation period to make sure that we deliver on our duty to equip the next generation of consumers to make informed and savvy financial decisions?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the tenacity and skill with which he has fought his campaign. It is important that all of us recognise that we need to equip children with both the mathematical skills and the strength of character to be able to navigate choppy financial waters.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to include financial education, but what about relationship and sex education? Should they not be part of personal, social, health and economic education, as a statutory part of the curriculum, especially in light of the allegations around Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith, to ensure that young people know how to deal with sexual predators?

Sex education is a statutory part of the national curriculum. The broader point about the nature of sexual exploitation is most effectively dealt with by ensuring that we can prosecute those people who are responsible for despicable crimes.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of “Informed Choices”, which was published by the Russell group of universities and deals with subject selection at GCSE and A-level. Does he agree that all young people, not just those designated as gifted and talented, should be made aware of the implications of subject choices at GCSE so as to maximise their opportunity to attend such universities?

My hon. Friend makes a characteristically good point. It is absolutely right that we do not prematurely curtail young people’s freedom of choice. In order to do that, we need to make it clear to them which subjects give them the widest choice later in life, and those are English, mathematics, the sciences, a modern or ancient foreign language, history and geography.

Special Educational Needs

16. What steps he plans to take to ensure that children with special educational needs receive a joined-up service across agencies. (145468)

Children and young people’s needs will drive local commissioning arrangements to deliver joined-up services. The Children and Families Bill will require local authorities and clinical commissioning groups to commission jointly the education, health and care provision needed for children with SEN.

What action is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that one of those agencies, the health service, can contribute fully to the provision of services for children and young people with special educational needs?

My hon. Friend highlights an important aspect of the reforms in which many parents are eager to see significant progress. Over and above the new joint commissioning and duty to co-operate, there will be clear and binding duties on clinical commissioning groups to ensure that services meet the reasonable requirements of people for whom they are responsible. The NHS mandate specifically references children with SEN, and we continue to have discussions with the Department of Health. I hope to make further progress in this area.

The Minister is aware of my concern about the gap between the ages of 16 and 18 where children with learning difficulties and special educational needs find that they have only three days a week rather than five. Is there any chance that the new regulations will lay down that such hours will be delivered over at least four days a week?

My hon. Friend has studiously raised this matter on every occasion that we have debated special educational needs in the House during the last four or five months, and I am acutely aware of the issue that he raises, which is relevant to his constituency. He had the opportunity to meet my officials in order to understand better how our reforms will affect the issue that he raises, and I am happy further to discuss that with him as the Bill now moves into Committee. Our overall objective is to improve outcomes for all children with special educational needs, and clearly making sure that they have quality support and provision is at the heart of those reforms.

Order. Having myself known the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) for three decades this year, I can testify that he is indeed a persistent woodpecker.

Priority School Building Programme

We are taking forward the delivery of schools being funded using capital grant. We have appointed contractors to build the first two groups of schools, and construction work is expected to start in May. We are also working with the schools that we believe will form the first three privately financed groups of schools.

The Minister is aware of the case of Hetton school in my constituency; it has been affected by delays to the PFI element of the programme. Parts of the school have been closed due to asbestos, there are falling drainpipes and the heating system is failing. Will the Minister resolve the funding issues as a matter of urgency? The situation facing teachers and pupils simply cannot be allowed to continue.

I am aware of the hon. Lady’s interest in this issue; she has written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about it on a couple of occasions. From the letter that she has already received back, she will be aware of some of the issues arising in getting the batch ready for private finance. I have seen the most recent letter that she sent to the Secretary of State and I would be happy to meet her to discuss the practicalities of these issues further.

Munro Review

18. What progress he has made on implementation of the recommendations of the Munro review of social work. (145471)

We are making a number of changes to the child protection system. “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, the guidance that provides support and advice to those who look after children potentially subject to abuse, risk or neglect, will be republished shortly in a tighter and more focused way.

We are two years on from the original work, whose aim was to reduce the amount of bureaucracy and the time that social workers were spending on form filling. Many social workers are reporting that the situation has not changed at all and that they are still in a system that does not give them sufficient time to work directly with children. Where have things gone wrong and what is the Secretary of State going to do about it?

The hon. Lady is right to emphasise how difficult life is for many social workers at the front line. Part of the problem rests with the complicated process that we inherited, which the revision of “Working Together” attempts to address. The space or gap between the initial and subsequent assessments that children at risk of abuse or neglect have to face is one of the changes addressed through the Munro recommendations. However, we also need to change how local safeguarding children boards operate and to make sure that the capacity of the social work profession to cope with the challenges thrown at it is greater. That is being addressed through the College of Social Work and the additional support that we hope to give through the launch of the Frontline programme.

Topical Questions

On Friday, I was absolutely delighted to publish details of the allocation of money that we are giving to local authorities to help them meet the need for additional pupil places, including in local authority areas such as Slough.

I am glad of the money for extra places, because we need them.

I want to ask the Secretary of State about his permanent secretary’s response at a Public Accounts Committee hearing last week. The permanent secretary said that everything that the Department for Education does is early intervention. Yet the National Audit Office report reveals that 40% of newly sentenced prisoners had been permanently excluded from school. What is the Department doing to prevent the failure in attainment among those 40%?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that there is an iron-clad link between under-achievement at school and the likelihood of someone’s becoming known to the criminal justice system.

The most important thing that we can do is address the particular problem that so many young men have in learning to read properly and in acquiring the qualifications that will give them good jobs. The changes we are making to the national curriculum, to Ofsted and in particular to how literacy is assessed at the end of primary school and through GCSE are all intended to ensure that young men do not continue to be failed.

T3. I commend my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Education on the Children and Families Bill, not least because it brings about welcome reforms to the special educational needs system. It is clear that pathfinders will have an extremely important role in informing the legislation and the new code of practice. What progress are pathfinders making in that area? (145479)

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the issue is not just about the legislation, but about how the reforms will be implemented on the ground. That is where the pathfinders are so crucial.

A progress report—an independent evaluation of how pathfinders are developing—will be published tomorrow. There has been good progress in the local offer and its development, in the engagement of parents and in the transition into adulthood, as well as in personal budgets and in the continued assessment process becoming more co-ordinated. Of course, pathfinders will continue to inform our legislation and the code of practice and regulation that will follow once we move into the consultation part of the process.

I want more people from all walks of life to come forward to adopt children, and when they do I want them to be welcomed with open arms and given all the help and support they need. Does the Minister share his predecessor’s view and recognise his Department’s own guidance, which states that adopted children may well need their own bedroom when they join a new family? If so, will he promise them and this House that no prospective adoptive parent will be refused permission to give a child a loving home because of the bedroom tax?

I know that the hon. Lady has taken an extremely keen interest in this very important issue. Of course we need more people to come forward to adopt, because we have a huge shortfall, and that is a national crisis that we need to address. That is exactly what we are doing through our Children and Families Bill reforms, which will help to drive up the interest and confidence of the many people who want to adopt and enable them to do so. One of the reasons we need to do that is that more children require adoption as their best route into permanency. We need to ensure that the people who come forward have the requisite skills and capability to provide a loving home. I am sure that as we move into Committee and hear evidence tomorrow on the adoption reforms we will enjoy discussing this issue further.

T7. In addition to improving children’s education across the country, the other great commission that Ministers in the Department are charged with is to strengthen family life. The Department runs some great programmes such as “Let’s Stick Together” and “Parents as Partners”, but given the scale of the challenge what more can be done to strengthen family life in this country? Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss this important issue? (145483)

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, who has a formidable record in campaigning to support family life. It is a massive challenge. No single set of Government interventions will help to sustain family life, but it is important that we do what we can. I look forward to working with him to ensure that we can support people who stay together and who demonstrate love and support for the next generation.

T4. The Government have cut Sheffield’s early intervention grant by 27%, or £6.8 million, forcing the council to make deep cuts to early years provision. Last week the Secretary of State was invited to present evidence to the council’s children, young people and family support scrutiny committee. As he missed that opportunity, will he now tell the House what he would say to some of the most vulnerable families in our city whose child care is threatened as a result of his decision? (145480)

I am reliably informed by the Department that in this financial year £25.2 million has been allocated to Sheffield in the early intervention grant. [Interruption.] It is a 3.9% increase on last year.

T8. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his progress with free schools, but may I urge him to go further and faster in opening up free school provision by bringing in profit-making enterprises paid by results and focused on the parts of the country where educational achievement is weakest and where free school take-up is scarce? (145484)

My hon. Friend is right. Free schools are making a significant difference in driving up standards in every part of the country from Merseyside to the Mendips. I am absolutely committed to making sure that everyone who is committed philanthropically to supporting state education is given the chance to do so.

T5. When I give the awards at Longley Park sixth-form college on 21 March, I shall pass on the enthusiasm of the Under-Secretary of State for Skills for sixth-form colleges. The college teaches maths and English to 16 to 19-year-olds, and through its teaching enrichment programme, which continues at over 600 hours per year, it has increased access in a way not seen in generations. Is it not strange, therefore, that £740 per student is going to be cut from its budget by 2016? (145481)

As we discussed earlier in questions, it is vital and fair that we move to a system where all pupils up to the age of 19, except those with specific needs or those studying particularly expensive subjects to teach, are funded on the same basis. Whether someone attends a further education college, a sixth-form college or a school of any description, we must have fair funding per pupil. That is what we do from the ages of five to 16, and raising the participation age to 19 is an entirely fair way to run the system.

T9. I welcome the Government’s move to introduce the pupil premium, which has helped schools in South East Cornwall, but more can be done. What further action is the Minister taking to assist the 40 education authorities, including Cornwall, that are listed by the f40 campaign as receiving the lowest income? (145485)

My hon. Friend is right that the introduction of the pupil premium has been very important across the country, and we will announce a further increase in its level for 2014-15. She should be reassured to know that, after we have completed the roll-out of the pupil premium, we intend to move to a fairer national funding formula, which will help many of those areas of the country that have been underfunded, unfairly and illegitimately, for many decades.

T6. The Government claim to be promoting family life, but the truth is that the bedroom tax will penalise non-resident parents who keep a room so that their children can stay with them on a regular basis. What representations have Ministers in this Department made to the Department for Work and Pensions? (145482)

I do not know why the hon. Lady and, indeed, all Opposition Members keep referring to this as a bedroom tax. It is not a tax. It is timely and necessary action to deal with our out-of-control welfare bills, and that action is needed because of the way in which our economy was driven into the ground by the Labour party. It was in power for 13 years, during which no effective welfare reform took place and during which money was spent on a series of vanity projects that only left the country saying, “Thank heavens that a coalition Government have two parties clearing up the mess left behind by that crew of socialist wreckers on whom we wish nothing but a rapid path to contrition.”

Over the past 15 years, professional, face-to-face careers advice has virtually vanished from our schools. Could the Minister advise us when it will return?

Yes. The new duty for independent and impartial careers advice came into place in September, and this summer Ofsted will do a thematic review to assess how well schools are implementing it, where it is being done excellently and where it is not yet being implemented correctly. I look forward to receiving that review.

T10. The Daycare Trust has warned that it will be children from low-income families in particular who will lose out as a result of Government changes to child care ratios. Will the Minister listen to the concerns of parents, child care staff and experts, and think again on the proposals? (145486)

Child care ratios will be flexible only where providers are of high quality and hiring high-quality staff. This proposal is designed to drive up quality in the child care sector, is supported by Sir Michael Wilshaw of Ofsted and Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, and is best practice in most European countries. Ratios for two-year-olds are higher in virtually every other country in Europe, including Scotland and Ireland. I advise the hon. Lady to look at what goes on abroad and see high-quality child care with well-paid staff.

We all want young people to be able to cook, but the design and technology curriculum on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is consulting at present is very important to the whole future of British industry and the British economy, so does he not think that giving primacy to cooking in that curriculum might be over-egging the pudding?

In design and technology, we absolutely need to listen to those sections of our economy that will generate prosperity for the future and that want people to be well trained. However, cooking is not just important, but critical as a life skill and as a means of ensuring that Britain remains a wonderful and attractive place for visitors and our own citizens. I pay tribute to Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent for the fantastic work they have done on the school food plan.

I hope that the Secretary of State will reflect on the inaccurate and deeply offensive remarks about teachers, pupils and parents that he made at a conference in London on Thursday. Given his own culpability and the unlimited finance available to his pet project of free schools, will he think again about the funding for schools such as Seaham school of technology in my constituency, which serves one of the most deprived communities in the country? I have a Latin motto for him: sublimiora petamus, or “We must do better.”

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the fair way in which he made his point. My comments were reported from a conference that I spoke at last Wednesday on educational underperformance. It is the case that east Durham performs less well than the rest of the county of Durham and that Durham county council has itself acknowledged that with its East Durham area action partnership. It is also the case that half the secondary schools in east Durham are rated by Ofsted as “requires improvement” or “inadequate”, which is worse than the national average, and that, whether at A-level, AS-level, GCSE or English baccalaureate, these schools are underperforming. I always enjoy my visits to the north-east, but we must work together to help these children secure a better future.

I am a governor of two academies in my constituency of Devizes, both of which have been asked to become sponsors of primary schools that are doing less well. We are happy to get involved in that process, but the due diligence process is very rapid and there is concern that if we rush, we may ignore important local interests. I have written to the Minister for Schools on that issue. Will he please meet me to discuss this important process as soon as possible?

First, we had the pile ’em high, teach ’em cheap approach to child care and in the Children and Families Bill, there is a move towards agencies, but there has still been no unveiling of the supposed policy on tax breaks for working parents. Will the Secretary of State let us know when that is coming and whether it will replace the tax credits that parents already get?

All tax issues are a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. His policies are always right and should always be announced when he wishes to announce them and not, however beseeching the hon. Lady’s questions are, when she wants them to be announced.

What advice would the Minister give to the governors of the school that I visited this morning, which, despite their best efforts, has a low take-up of free school meals and, as a consequence, is in receipt of considerably less pupil premium than similar schools nearby?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Many schools across the country could be receiving far greater amounts of pupil premium if they ensured that all their pupils were registered. The Department recently put out information showing the great range in the take-up of free school meals and advice on how schools should seek to raise that figure.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), the Secretary of State has failed to answer the series of questions from The Northern Echo after his disparaging remarks about some east Durham schools. Will he say how many of the schools he referred to he has actually visited or will he have the decency to apologise for his remarks?

I was first alerted to the problems in east Durham schools when I visited schools in north and north-west Durham and those who were responsible for raising attainment in those schools shared with me their concerns about the underperformance in east Durham. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman to deal with the problems at Dene community school of technology, Seaham school of technology, Easington community science college, Wellfield community school and St Bede’s Catholic comprehensive school, all of which have underperformed dramatically compared with the national average in English baccalaureate scores and all of which do not yet provide the quality of education that children deserve.

I am sorry to disappoint the remaining colleagues, but we must move on. Before I call Mr John Baron, I should as a courtesy explain to the House that since my selection of this urgent question, I have been informed that it is the intention of the Foreign Secretary to make an oral statement to the House later this week. That is welcome, although we had no way of knowing about it in advance of my decision. In view of that fact and the important legislative business to follow, I might not feel able to accommodate all those who seek to catch my eye today. I ask colleagues to understand that they may have to wait until later in the week to put their questions on this matter to the Foreign Secretary. In the approximately half an hour that is available today, we shall do our best.