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Topical Questions

Volume 559: debated on Monday 4 March 2013

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.