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Education

Volume 561: debated on Monday 22 April 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Literacy and Mathematics

1. What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils attain basic levels of literacy and mathematics before leaving school. (152074)

5. What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils attain basic levels of literacy and mathematics before leaving school. (152078)

15. What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils attain basic levels of literacy and mathematics before leaving school. (152089)

Before I answer the questions, may I say on behalf of the House that you, Mr Speaker, would want us to pass on our best wishes to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), who has recently suffered an accident from which he is slowly recovering. We all miss him. He was a fantastic constituency MP and great scrutineer of education [Hon. Members: “He still is!”] He still is, and we look forward to him being restored to full health.

The new national curriculum includes more demanding content in English and mathematics. In line with high-performing south-east Asian countries, mathematics will have more emphasis on arithmetic, fractions and decimals. There will be a new professional development programme for mathematics teachers at key stage 3, which will help them teach fractions more effectively, with robust evaluation of the results. We are, of course, also reforming GCSEs and making changes to nursery education.

Given the evidence that parents who have lower levels of literacy and numeracy can be motivated to improve themselves in order to support their own children’s learning, will the Secretary of State explain what measures are being taken to support family learning programmes?

It is absolutely right that if parents are given the opportunity to play a part in their child’s education and if they are given additional confidence in their own grasp of literacy and numeracy, the whole family can benefit from it. It is a commitment of myself and the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who has responsibility for skills and adult learning, to make sure that family learning programmes can be supported as effectively as possible.

A recent study has found that just under a quarter of residents in Wolverhampton have no formal qualifications, which is double the national average. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend make a commitment to ensure that learners of all ages have the necessary skills and qualifications to enter employment and bridge the skills gap?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to make sure, of course, that we intervene early to ensure that the next generation succeeds at a higher level than ever before, but we also need to ensure that older people who, for whatever reason, failed to benefit from the education on offer during their time, are given the chance to re-engage with the world of education to improve their literacy and numeracy.

Last year, the CBI reported that two thirds of businesses were complaining that too many school leavers were struggling with basic literacy and numeracy and were unable to use a computer properly. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is unacceptable to ask our employers to set up remedial classes in these most core basic skills?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. No young person can confidently take their place in the world of work unless they are secure in literacy and numeracy. That means having secured a GCSE equivalent or better.

Does the Secretary of State agree that teaching assistants play a vital role in raising standards in numeracy and literacy in many of our schools, especially those facing the most challenging circumstances? Can he therefore assure me that teaching assistants will not be the next target of his ever more regressive education policy?

The only target for our education policy is to ensure that all children have a chance to succeed. Of course it is the case that teaching assistants and others can play a part, but the single most important person is the teacher. We need to make sure that the changes we have made to attract more talented people into teaching, building on the work done under the last Labour Government, continues.

If the Secretary of State is to ensure that children attain basic levels in mathematics and since he is clearly in need of enough well-trained teachers to do the job, will he explain to my constituent, Stephanie, why she is unable to train as a maths teacher either through School Direct or the postgraduate certificate in education? With initial teacher training having moved out of higher education into schools, there is no capacity in Plymouth, so she has the choice of one school, which can take only one student. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain that?

I will be happy to do everything possible to help the hon. Lady’s constituent to be a maths teacher. We should encourage that aspiration among all people, but it is the case that School Direct, the new programme that allows graduates to train in schools, has been hugely popular. It is also the case that a higher proportion of people with great degrees in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—are choosing to enter teaching.

With the Secretary of State having given his support in principle to Labour’s concept of a technical baccalaureate, will he also support Labour’s requirement to ensure that, as part of the awarding of the tech bacc qualification, all students will have to study English and maths as a requirement?

It is certainly the case—I am glad there is consensus on this from both Front-Bench teams—that students who have not secured a GCSE pass at English or maths at the age of 16 must carry on studying until they secure it. Anyone who wants to apply for the technical baccalaureate—a new and explicitly demanding measure of achievement—will have to go beyond that and secure a level 3 qualification, a technical term, in mathematics and produce an extended piece of writing showing that they command the literacy skills necessary for the modern world of work.

The poet Ted Hughes said of children:

“When they know by heart fifteen pages of Robert Frost”

or

“Swift’s Modest Proposal… They have reefs, for the life of language to build and breed around. A ‘globe of precepts’ and a great sheet anchor in the maelstrom of linguistic turbulence”.

In the light of those words from the late poet laureate, will my right hon. Friend confirm—[Interruption.]

Members of the Labour party, the enemies of rigour, want to shout down any defence of standards. Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that he will ensure that there is a role for rote learning in the schools of tomorrow?

It was Mario Cuomo, the governor of New York, who said that we campaign in poetry but we govern in prose. This Government, however, are governing in poetic terms—heroic couplets, in particular. With the help of Andrew Motion, another distinguished former poet laureate, we have organised a competition to ensure that children learn verse by heart and that, for all the days of their lives, the great works of English literature can be there, ready to be recalled and to illuminate every corner of their minds and lives.

I am amazed that the Secretary of State thinks he can produce a nation of six-year-olds all of whom can spell Tuesday and know that there are two ways of spelling pear/pair. I think that even Hansard will have some problems with that! Is the Secretary of State not aware that pushing children to do things that they are not ready to do is totally counter-productive? In most European countries, they are not even at school at the age of six. Does the right hon. Gentleman not know that, according to the results of a UNICEF study, the one feeling that British seven-year-olds understood was how it felt to fail?

I feel sorry for some seven-year-olds because they will have lived through years of Labour government when failure was all around them, but at last there is a Government who have high expectations for every child. I am sorry that the spirit of consensus that has prevailed so far has been shattered by the hon. Lady, because I had assumed that Labour was committed to ensuring that children in their earliest years had an opportunity to enjoy the very best teaching. It seems to me that it is not just in east Durham that there is a poverty of aspiration on the part of the Labour party.

Teachers and School Staff (Training)

2. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of training for teachers and school staff on (a) autism and (b) fabricated or induced illness by carers. (152075)

All teachers are teachers of children with special educational needs, including autism. It is for schools themselves to decide what training their staff require to meet their pupils’ needs. We have contracted the Autism Education Trust to provide training for education staff, and it is the responsibility of local safeguarding children boards to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of local training.

Parents seeking a diagnosis of autism can be, and in some cases have been, subjected to unjustified child protection inquiries. Does the Minister agree that we need to look at the guidelines on fabricated and induced illness, and will he meet a family in my constituency who have suffered as a result of that very problem?

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the value to teachers of being aware of the needs of children with autism. That is why we are funding the Autism Education Trust, and why we are continuing to support the national scholarship scheme, which has elements relating to special educational needs, and the training of more than 10,000 special educational needs co-ordinators as qualified teachers. However, my hon. Friend is right to continue to think about how we can improve the guidelines that are made available in relation to both autism and fabricated or induced illness. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has issued such guidelines, but I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss them further and see what more we can do.

Has the Minister had an opportunity to attend a school that is participating in the Anderson Foundation schools challenge, which is encouraging pupils and teachers to complete 50 tasks to celebrate the 50 years in which the National Autistic Society has been raising awareness of autism?

I am aware of that schools challenge. I suspect that my hon. Friend’s question constitutes an invitation to visit Enfield, Southgate on some future date. I should be happy to learn more about the work that is taking place to support the National Autistic Society and many other autism charities for the great work they do, and I look forward to learning more with my hon. Friend’s support.

Education Funding (South Staffordshire)

3. What assessment he has made of the level of education funding received by children in South Staffordshire; and if he will make a statement. (152076)

In 2013-14, the Department for Education allocated £4,310 per pupil for pupils in mainstream schools in Staffordshire, plus an additional £900 for each deprived pupil through the pupil premium.

Our schools in South Staffordshire receive on average £695 less than schools in neighbouring Wolverhampton. Many of my constituents think that that is grossly unfair and want it to be rebalanced. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to rebalance it to ensure we get a fair deal for pupils in Staffordshire?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the last Government left us a funding formula for schools that allocates money across the country in an unfair and irrational way. That is why we intend to introduce a national funding formula, and in the meantime we are funding £20 million more to Staffordshire through the pupil premium.

Order. The question covered Staffordshire, but not Worcestershire. We can let in Mr Fabricant.

As you well know, Mr Speaker, Lichfield was, I like to think, the original capital of Staffordshire, and it was certainly the capital of Mercia and was the first place—even before Canterbury—to have an archbishop, but we digress. I am very relieved to hear that the funding formula, which is so unfair, will be addressed, but we heard that long ago from the Labour party when it was in government, so can my right hon. Friend the Minister give some indication of when it will actually happen?

I will not comment on the earlier parts of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but what I can tell him is that this issue is at the top of not only my in-tray but that of the Secretary of State.

Underperforming Teachers

We have introduced new appraisal and capability arrangements, which should make it easier for governing bodies and head teachers to tackle underperformance. These procedures are shorter and less complex than the previous ones, and make it possible, in some cases, for schools to dismiss incompetent teachers in about a term.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. What plans does his Department have to assess teachers, to prevent them from reaching that critical stage in the first place? Does he agree that failure in schools is often one of leadership and management, and is not necessarily the fault of the individual teachers?

My hon. Friend makes a characteristically acute point. The sharper Ofsted framework, with its greater emphasis on teaching, leadership and, critically, performance management, should ensure that, although these procedures will take less time to execute, they need not be used in many circumstances because heads will have done exactly as he suggests, in that they will have moved quickly to deal with underperformance.

I beg the Secretary of State to stop giving the impression that he believes that all teachers are incompetent. There are some incompetent teachers, and they should be guided and managed properly, but too many people—both parents and teachers—think he is against teachers. Please will he start working with them, have confidence in them and energise them, in which case children and parents will be very happy?

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to repeat in this House what I say in every speech I give, which is that we are uniquely fortunate to have the best generation of young teachers in our schools, and that standards are higher to a significant extent because of the commitment they make. I am also delighted that so many changes that are happening in education—from the establishment of free schools to the way in which teacher training is changing—are being driven by teachers, who are working with us in a spirit of collaboration.

While welcoming my right hon. Friend’s moves to give head teachers more power in this area, may I ask what he is doing, by way of balance, to attract the very brightest and best into the profession?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He is committed to helping ensure that there are more mathematicians of ability teaching in our schools, and as a result of the changes we have made, including working with organisations such as the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, more students with top degrees in science and mathematics subjects are now entering our schools, thus transforming the way in which those vital subjects are taught.

Heads used to turn to the local education authorities for support in dealing with underperforming teachers. Under the Secretary of State’s new regime, who would he expect academies and free schools to turn to?

As the hon. Lady knows, the Birmingham authority does not have a particularly good record, whether under Labour or the coalition, in providing an appropriate level of challenge. In Birmingham, it is head teachers who are providing the opportunity—people like Sir Christopher Stone are doing a fantastic job in making sure other schools improve—and the best school in Birmingham, Perry Beeches, has now opened a free school, which is showing the way. If we empower teachers in the spirit in which the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) suggests, we can do a lot more to raise standards than we ever did when we empowered bureaucrats.

Child Care and Early Intervention

There is consensus across the House that early intervention is both effective and necessary, and the Government are determined to build on that, with the Early Intervention Foundation, formally launched on 15 April, playing an important role in gathering information about what works. We already know how powerful high-quality education and child care can be as an early intervention tool, which is why we are extending early learning for two-year-olds from low-income families.

In Education questions on 4 March, I asked the Secretary of State about the cut of 27%, or £6.8 million, to Sheffield’s early intervention grant, forcing the council to make deep cuts in early years provision. In his reply, he cited a grant of £25.2 million, describing it as an increase of 3.9%. I have since confirmed the position with council officers, who said that they could only—I quote—

“assume the Minister made an error on this. The £25.2 million refers to the current year. The figure of £6.8 million EIG reduction was the figure provided by DCLG. The cut in fact was £7.4 million when the Government confirmed the Council funding for 2013.”

Will the Secretary of State apologise and accept that he was in error and that my figures were right and, more importantly, apologise to the parents of Sheffield whose child care is being threatened?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Secretary of State is always delighted to speak to people and professionals in Sheffield to see how the early intervention grant, which is rising from £2.3 billion to £2.5 billion, can be best spent in the Sheffield area. I am sure that is a discussion he will be happy to have.

In Blackpool North and Cleveleys, we eagerly anticipate the new statutory duty that will see 15 hours of early learning made available to two-year-olds from low-income backgrounds. Can the Minister speculate on the impact that should have on achievement levels for primary pupils in areas such as Blackpool and Cleveleys, which are deprived seaside towns?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who highlights a key component of our early years intervention programme, which will see a rise from 20% to 40% in the number of two-year-olds from low-income families benefiting from the statutory duty. We anticipate that it will ensure that they get high quality care at a much younger age so that their future outcomes will be much more positive. That can only be a good thing for the people and children of Blackpool and across the country.

First we had the pile ’em high, teach ’em cheap approach to child care, increasing ratios for child minders. Today, the children’s Minister was reported talking about chaos in nurseries for two-year-olds. Meanwhile, in my constituency, parents wait two and a half years for a place for their baby. What are the Government doing to increase the supply of child care for working parents?

I think what the hon. Lady said towards the end of her question is exactly why we need to push hard to create a high-quality child care system that is both affordable and flexible. Less than a third of nurseries currently employ graduate teachers, yet the importance of qualified staff is clear; it has a direct link to the quality of child care and therefore outcomes for children. The hon. Lady should welcome the moves we are making to increase flexibility and improve quality and affordability, so that more parents can have better child care.

Will my hon. Friend look at the early intervention situation for looked-after children, in particular the 28-day deadline that is being piloted in north Yorkshire? Will he give the House an assurance that where there are special circumstances, the 28-day rule will not be applied?

I will happily look at the point my hon. Friend raises. As we have done with the new “Working Together” statutory guidance document, we want to make sure that all children, whether they are in need or whether they require protection, are given the earliest possible help, so that the problems in their lives do not fester longer than they need to, but I am happy to look at what she says.

I hope that Ministers, especially the Minister responsible for child care, will set an example of the behaviour they clearly want to see from the nation’s toddlers, and that they will sit silently and listen and then answer politely. Professor Cathy Nutbrown is the latest expert commissioned by the Government to slam the Minister for her plans to loosen adult to child ratios, saying that they will

“shake the foundations of quality provision for young children.”

I know that the child care Minister has a touch of the Iron Lady about her—she might take that as a compliment—but will she ever be for turning on that? Will she or the Government ever listen to the experts they have commissioned and the tens of thousands of professionals and parents who disagree with her?

What I do know is that my hon. Friend is used to a maelstrom of linguistic turbulence coming from the Opposition, but I doubt whether that will turn her from her strong and well-evidenced reform programme, which ensures that ratios, which are not mandatory but which are, along with staff salaries, the lowest in Europe, are going to work towards our having higher quality child care which is more flexible and which parents can afford. The hon. Lady should welcome that and I hope she will listen attentively when the Minister with responsibility for child care makes that case in the future.

School Priority Building Programme

7. What recent assessment he has made of the school priority building programme; and if he will make a statement. (152080)

17. What recent assessment he has made of the school priority building programme; and if he will make a statement. (152091)

We are making good progress in delivering the first schools in the priority school building programme. Unlike previous programmes, we are tackling schools with the greatest needs first—those in the very worst condition and special schools. The first contracts for these schools have been let and building work is to start in the next few weeks.

In July last year Harrow council wrote to the Education Funding Agency seeking to secure some resources, in part from the priority school building programme, for the rebuilding and expansion of Vaughan and Marlborough schools in my constituency. Given that as of Friday, almost 10 months on, Harrow council had not received a reply to the letter, will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives from the schools to discuss how we might move the situation forward for Vaughan and Marlborough schools and secure the resources to facilitate their expansion?

I note that Harrow council has welcomed the fact that eight of its schools are within the priority school building programme, but I can only apologise to the hon. Gentleman that the local council has not had a response from the EFA after such a long period. That is clearly not acceptable. I believe, though, that the council has met EFA officials on a couple of occasions. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a letter will be going out this week from the EFA, and I am delighted to meet him if he would like to do so, after he has seen the contents of that letter.

The Minister may be aware that Luton has one of the highest proportions of school-age children in the whole country. Indeed, at one time a few years ago my constituency had the highest number of school-age children as a proportion. Will the Government continue to give serious consideration to Luton as a priority area, given that several of our schools are still bursting at the seams?

Yes, Luton is a priority area. Some of the first batches of the privately financed priority schools will be in the hon. Gentleman’s area and we expect those, after proper approval, to be released this spring. We are currently carrying out a survey of the entire school estate and later this year, when we have that evidence, we will be able to prioritise in a sensible way future allocations of capital.

I thank the Minister and the Department for enabling a much-needed and long awaited investment in one of my schools, Marling school in my constituency. Does he agree that this is an example of a paced and sensible capital investment programme?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. Compared with the Building Schools for the Future programme, this is a programme that is on time and on budget and is delivering extra investment in the schools in the country that need it most.

Will the Minister join me in celebrating the fact that Kettering Science academy and Kettering Buccleuch academy both have a complete set of brand, spanking new buildings and that, together with the dynamic leadership of the heads and sponsoring organisations, this will help transform two of the worst performing schools in Kettering into two of the very best?

I entirely agree. My hon. Friend will be aware of the additional capital announced by the Secretary of State at the beginning of March for all areas of the country, not only for new build, but to improve the existing school stock.

Thousands of parents are desperately anxious that their child still has no place at primary school next year, and others will be taught in larger classes further away from home. Will the Minister explain to those worried mums and dads why the Government are building two out of five of their flagship free schools in areas where there are already enough places?

I am delighted to explain the priority school building programme. Unlike its predecessor programme, it prioritises those schools in the worst need, and I am proud that it is doing so, in contrast to the previous scheme, Building Schools for the Future, which did not do so. On the issue of primary places, I caution the hon. Gentleman not to lecture this Government when his Government ignored the warnings of the Office for National Statistics and eliminated 200,000 primary school places.

History Curriculum

8. What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils gain a chronological understanding of British history. (152081)

11. What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils gain a chronological understanding of British history. (152084)

We believe that all pupils should be taught about the events that have shaped the history of these islands, and their understanding of that history is best developed when it is taught within a robust chronological framework. That is why we have published proposals for a new curriculum. Consultation on the draft closed on 16 April and we hope to publish a final version in the autumn.

The country will thank the Secretary of State for at last restoring British history to our schools, but will he also ensure that our pupils are taught about the proud history of our Commonwealth, the former British empire, and also the British territories?

On the eve of St George’s day, my hon. Friend makes an important point, and it is the case that the new draft national history curriculum explains how Britain has interacted with the rest of the world, from Wolfe’s victory over Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham, which ensured that Canada could remain British, to the influence of Britain on India. It is also the case that the period right up to the 20th century and the process of decolonisation that brought Jinnah, Nehru, Kenyatta and Nkrumah to power is in the national curriculum in detail that did not exist before.

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the comments of leading historians Niall Ferguson, David Starkey and Antony Beevor concerning his plans for the history curriculum, who all recognise that unless our children have a real understanding of British history, they cannot possibly know where we have been, where we are now, or where we might be heading in the future?

I am absolutely delighted that high profile historians, along with academics from Cambridge, such as David Abulafia, Professor Robert Tombs and Professor Jonathan Clark, one of the most distinguished contemporary historians of our time, Professor Jeremy Black at the university of Exeter and others have said that our direction of travel is right, but I want to make sure that there is the maximum possible consensus behind this necessary reform.

I support the chronological teaching of British history. Is he sure that the split between primary and secondary is correct in the date lines that he is talking about? Will he ensure that we are not just talking about the dates of kings and queens, but about the history of working people in this country?

I absolutely agree that we need to make sure that the division between primary and secondary is appropriate for both. As for the history of working people, this is the first draft of the national history curriculum that mentions not only the role of Annie Besant, who helped to lead the match girls’ strike in east London, but also the Tolpuddle Martyrs. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, like me, would celebrate an understanding of labour history alongside economic, political and social history.

Thirty A-level students from my constituency visited Parliament with their teachers recently, and they told me that they need a broad history curriculum for later on in life. They also told me that if the Secretary of State goes ahead with the kind of proposals that have been mentioned in the press recently, that will not be possible for them and he will see a sharp drop-off in the numbers taking A-level history.

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman says, but I am reassured by the enthusiasm that has been shown by parents and students for a deeper immersion in British history. It is sadly the case that an insufficient number of students leave school with a proper knowledge of Britain’s past. I want them to know about the achievements of heroes and heroines so that they can take pride in what these islands have achieved.

Pursuant to that answer, may I invite my right hon. Friend to tell the nation how important it is that our children understand those great heroes of the past? For example, Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane, a former Member of this House for this notable city of Westminster, not only captured 53 ships of the French flag when he commanded HMS Speedy, but went on to liberate Chile from Spanish rule and Brazil from Portuguese rule. As a result, in both those countries there is not a child who has not heard of Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane, while there is not a child in this country who has.

I had a feeling that the hon. Gentleman might want an Adjournment debate on the subject—and then I realised that he has had one.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. There are a number of British maritime heroes, and indeed heroines, of whom we should know more, from Grace Darling to Thomas Cochrane, and from Nelson to Mountbatten. We should be aware of the role that the Royal Navy, the merchant navy and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution have played in ensuring that people are safe on the high seas and, critically, that nations can enjoy liberty now in the same way we have enjoyed it for generations.

Under-fives Provision

We are reforming the regulations for providers for under-fives in order to give greater freedom and flexibility to high-quality providers. New childminder agencies will provide additional support for childminders and more choice for parents. We are reforming the role of local authorities to focus more on disadvantaged children. On Friday, Michael Wilshaw announced that early years inspections will be improved through greater monitoring and that Ofsted will introduce clearer reporting on the qualifications of child care professionals.

Those are laudable but contradictory ends. Last week the owner of a Montessori nursery in York told me that they believe that the dilution of staff-child ratios will lead to a two-tier system and result in fewer staff and lower standards for children from low-income households, yet we know that those are the children who need under-five provision most. What will the Government do to ensure that those children do not fall behind even before they start school?

At present, it is a sad fact that 33% of children arrive at school without the requisite communication and language skills to take part in school education. What Sir Michael Wilshaw has said, as well as Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, is that the most important factor in early education is the qualifications of staff. At the moment, only a third of nurseries have a teacher-led structure. Good providers, such as the Durand academy, provide quality, structured learning from age three, which really benefits children later on. We want to give more high-quality providers that flexibility, but we will do so only where they hire highly qualified staff.

In the early years, all the evidence suggests that structured group activities led by qualified graduates tend to lead to better education outcomes, so may I encourage the Minister to stick to her guns and continue her drive to improve standards in our nurseries?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. When we look at all the evidence from countries such as France, where there are much higher salaries and qualifications in the early years, we see higher quality provision, particularly for the under-threes. Every other country in Europe, including Ireland and Scotland, has higher child-staff ratios and higher staff salaries than we do.

Design and Technology Curriculum

10. When he will announce the structure and content of the design and technology curriculum; and if he will make a statement. (152083)

Following the national curriculum consultation period, which closed on 16 April, we are considering the responses received. We have been engaging with leading figures in industry, such as Dick Olver and Sir James Dyson, schools and academia to ensure that we have world-class design and technology education. We are also committed to providing a curriculum that ensures children receive high-quality cookery teaching and understand the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the thoughtful and intelligent way she has engaged with the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Design and Technology Association, and with Dick Olver, Sir James Dyson and others, in considering the new design and technology curriculum. May I encourage her to bring forward a curriculum for the 21st century that inspires young people, particularly girls, to understand the role of science, technology and engineering in solving the real problems of the modern world, environmental, social and economic?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his excellent contribution to the Westminster Hall debate we had on this subject. I would also like to thank him for his views on the maths, science and computing curriculum. We are now working on ensuring that design and technology is more closely integrated with those curricula and that there is an inspiring technological education that crosses many different industry types and gives schools flexibility to teach design and technology in the best way for the next generation.

The Opposition believe in academic excellence, but we also believe in a syllabus that reflects the demands of the 21st century. Does the Minister share my concern about comments from the CBI last week, which damned the new design and technology curriculum as

“out of step with the needs of a modern economy.”

It stated that the curriculum

“lacks academic and technical rigour”

and

“risks reinforcing existing prejudices about applied subjects being second-rate.”

When will we have a proper focus from the Government on a rigorous and relevant curriculum?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new position on the Front Bench. It is sad that we did not get to hear his views on the history curriculum earlier in the debate, but we will no doubt hear them at a later stage.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point about the future of British manufacturing and engineering. We are working with leading figures in the industry to make sure that we have a world-leading curriculum that is in line with what we have in computing, physics and mathematics. I would also point to the technical baccalaureate that we are introducing, which will, for the first time in this country, provide a rigorous, high-quality technical education that is truly aspirational and will encourage many more young people to study subjects such as engineering.

On a recent visit to the Corsham school, I saw the “making room”, which is staffed by a professional artist and is available to all curriculum areas. Ofsted says that it takes activity begun in the classroom and turns it into imaginative work, which extends learning. Does the Minister agree that making things reinforces lessons right across the curriculum?

I absolutely agree that it is very important that the practical and the academic line up to create a truly rigorous curriculum. We are also looking at the role of practicals in science to make sure that people get proper experience when they study chemistry and physics, as well as in the design and technology curriculum.

School Curriculum

12. What steps he plans to take to ensure that all children receive a broad and balanced education that includes the creative subjects. (152085)

All publicly funded schools must teach a broad and balanced curriculum, and Ofsted has a duty to inspect this. We have announced that maintained schools will continue to have a statutory requirement to teach music and art and design from the ages of five to 14. Curriculum entitlements are also in place at key stage 4. Funding agreements with academies and free schools also require them to teach a broad and balanced curriculum.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Bearing in mind how important the creative industries are as far as our exports are concerned—just to be pragmatic about this—will he give some assurance that music in particular will continue to play a part, and how will composition and other musical skills be developed at key stages 1 and 2?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. First, I thank Darren Henley for his report on music education, which we have had a chance to implement and which has helped influence our own approach to the national curriculum in music. We want children to learn to appreciate, but also to create, which, of course, involves learning composition skills. We also want to make sure that that is done in harness with the new music hubs that are being created. “Hubs” is not a pretty word, but they are a beautiful thing, because they are bringing instrumental tuition to many more young people.

Recently the Children’s Commissioner found that girls and boys too often do not know what a good relationship looks like, so, as part of a broad and balanced curriculum, why is the Secretary of State refusing to make sex and relationships education compulsory in our schools? Is he aware that this vacuum is currently being filled in some areas by extremist groups, which are targeting vulnerable young girls with racist literature that claims to keep them safe? If he is as horrified by that as I am, is it not time to act?

I am absolutely horrified by the extremist activity that the hon. Lady alludes to and if she could share that material with me, we will make sure that action is taken.

22. My right hon. Friend will be aware that his former Schools Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), looked into the rating of sex and relationship education in schools, particularly primary schools. At the moment this is an area that is completely unregulated and I know that the Government have been trying to make some moves to get the British Board of Film Classification to look at it. Does the Secretary of State plan to make some progress? (152097)

Yes, we do. My hon. Friend makes an important point. As the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) pointed out, we need to make sure that children have the information they need in order to make confident choices. We also need to take account of the fact that technology is changing rapidly. We all know some of the challenges that young people face—as a parent, I know them myself—and it is vital, as my hon. Friend says, to make sure that we do everything we can to keep inappropriate material away from children.

The Secretary of State knows that extended days are very important in getting quality education in the wider curriculum, so will he continue to back strongly Durand academy in its desire to have a boarding element in Stedham? Does he agree that this will be a wonderful opportunity to extend the academic achievement of those young people?

I owe a debt to the hon. Lady, because it was she who first invited me to visit Durand academy in her constituency. To this day I am grateful, because it is an outstanding school with a wonderful team of teachers. The fact that it is thinking of opening boarding provision for children after the age of 11 is a bright ray of hope. It is a pity that some unfortunate words have been said—[Interruption.] All I can do is quote Cardinal Newman:

“Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom”.

The same spirit of that great pioneer of education is operating in Greg Martin’s Durand school. I hope that it will come to Sussex as well.

Primary School Places

13. What recent assessment he has made of the availability of primary school places; and if he will make a statement. (152086)

We anticipate that 382,000 new primary places and 35,000 new secondary places will be needed over this Parliament. The latest data show that new places are being created at a good rate and that local authorities are keeping up with demand.

Record numbers of children will be taught in class sizes of 31 or more from September, following the coalition’s decision to ditch Labour’s class size limits. The Lib Dem spokesperson for children’s services in Newcastle said in The Guardian that

“schools should be allowed to raise the number of pupils in each class as they saw fit.”

Are we going to see a return to the bad old days of overcrowded classrooms under this Tory-Lib Dem Government?

We have not ditched the limit. We have almost tripled the investment in basic need compared with 2008-09, when the hon. Lady’s party was in power.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that between now and 2015, the Government will spend £5 billion on new school places, which is twice as much as was spent by the Labour party during a similar time frame, and that £1 billion of that is earmarked for areas that are under the greatest pressure?

I can confirm exactly that. I can confirm also that we would not have had to find that amount of capital had the Labour party not ignored the advice of the Office for National Statistics in 2003-04 about future trends in primary numbers.

Headteachers (Academies)

14. How head teachers of academies can be removed if their schools fail to make the progress that can reasonably be expected. (152088)

The responsibility for the performance of an academy rests with the academy trust. Academy trusts are free to set their own processes for managing the performance, and indeed any dismissal, of head teachers. They are free to adopt the procedures that apply in maintained schools, if they choose. If the Department has concerns about the leadership of an academy, we raise the matter with the academy trust.

Successful schools are vital to the well-being of the areas that they serve. Central Bedfordshire has many outstanding head teachers in academies and maintained schools. When an academy head teacher has not made the progress that could reasonably be expected, does the Secretary of State see that there is a role for the local authority in dealing with the issue?

Local authorities certainly have an important role in championing vulnerable children in particular. If they feel that any school, whether it is a maintained school, an academy or a free school, has a principal who is not doing the right job for their children, they should raise it directly with the Department and we will together take action.

20. Head teachers in Northumberland find it unacceptable that high local government pension scheme rates are set simply because a school decides to become an academy, and yet that is the policy of the county council. Does the Secretary of State agree that that policy is totally wrong and that head teachers who aspire for their schools to be academies should be encouraged and supported? (152095)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. He has fought like a tiger for the schools in his constituency and across Northumberland. I have been working with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to make progress.

Topical Questions

As was mentioned earlier in questions, the Under-Secretary of State for Skills and I today launched the new technical baccalaureate, which will make the recognition of vocational education even more demanding and aspirational. I am grateful to Lord Adonis for the work that he has done to shine a light on what is good in vocational and technical education.

I welcome the launch of the tech bacc today. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will not return powers from academies to local authorities, as the shadow Secretary of State seemed to recommend last week? Is that not a U-turn on what Tony Blair and the noble Lord Adonis said when they first set up academies?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was very worried when I read the latest issue of The House magazine. In an interview with the shadow Secretary of State that was generally quite nice—he is a nice chap—he nevertheless said that he had “great respect” for Lord Adonis but “differences of emphasis”. He wanted to put “less of an emphasis” on

“the independent governance that academies have”.

I am afraid that, once more, that is a retreat from reform. Unfortunately, if the Labour party were to return to power, reform would stop in its tracks.

May I echo the Secretary of State’s earlier comments about the Chair of the Education Committee, and wish him a speedy recovery? I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), who is acting in the capacity of Chair.

Last October, the Leader of the Opposition set out Labour’s plans for a technical baccalaureate. Today, we have the Government’s plans. Our plan included high-quality work experience. Will work experience be integral to the Secretary of State’s technical baccalaureate?

No, work experience is not integral to the technical baccalaureate. It is provided for by our changes to the funding mechanism for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds to ensure that rather than paying by the number of qualifications, which actually led to a prejudice against work experience, there can be a coherent programme of study for those who want to follow a vocational or technical path.

I am disappointed but not surprised by that answer, because for the past three years the Secretary of State has undermined technical, practical and vocational education by abolishing statutory work experience, downgrading the engineering diploma, removing face-to-face careers advice and narrowing the curriculum so that skills are undermined. I want the tech bacc to succeed, but does he not agree that if that is to happen, he needs to reconsider all the other policies that I have listed?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his points, but I am afraid that in many areas he is quite wrong. Before the Government reformed academic qualifications, we asked Professor Alison Wolf to help reform technical and vocational qualifications. The Labour party said that it endorsed the proposals, but when we have put forward individual policies to implement her proposals, it has opposed them.

We have not abolished work experience. It was an entirely different process that referred to key stage 4, and it was a recommendation of the Wolf report, which we implemented in full. The Opposition said they backed it, but now they U-turn on it. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s passion for vocational education will be credible only if he does his homework, which sadly he has failed to do so far.

T2. It is disappointing that before Easter, the National Union of Teachers and the NASUWT announced plans for strike action in the summer term, which will achieve little except disrupting children’s education and ruining parents’ working arrangements. Will my right hon. Friend do his utmost to ensure that teachers are aware of the folly of industrial action in the classroom? (152100)

I entirely agree. I meet more and more teachers who are in despair at how the NUT and the NASUWT affect to represent them. One thing worries me more, however—the principal party of opposition has not yet condemned the strikes and criticised those unions. When the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) had a platform at the NASUWT conference, he should have denounced its strike action, but I am afraid there was silence.

T3. The Daycare Trust reports that just 20% of local authorities have enough places for two-year-olds in their area. Why, then, are the Government abolishing section 11 of the Childcare Act 2006, and with it the child care sufficiency report that local authorities have to publish? (152101)

What we are doing is getting rid of unnecessary bureaucracy, but councils will still have responsibility for ensuring a sufficiency of child care in their area. In addition, we are creating childminder agencies, reforming provision and reforming the role of local authorities to ensure that it is easier for high-quality providers to expand, so there will be more places.

T4. I am delighted that seven of the eight children’s centres in Hastings are rated good or outstanding, and that despite scaremongering by the Labour party, East Sussex county council has plans to expand the service. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating East Sussex county council on its focus on helping families at an early stage in children’s lives? (152102)

I am certainly absolutely delighted that Conservative-led East Sussex county council is doing such a good job in the early years.

Last week, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children produced its report on child protection, in which it described child protection services as working in overdrive. It also estimated that for every child subject to a child protection plan or on the child protection register, another eight children have suffered maltreatment. Will the Secretary of State or one of his colleagues tell me what he is doing to ensure that children who are not on child protection plans but are clearly in need of services get help and support?

The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), had the opportunity to speak at the NSPCC conference, and I had an opportunity to read the report, which I found thought-provoking and challenging. In our reform of social work practice, we are attempting to ensure that social workers can spend more time with families in need where there are children who are at risk or face neglect. We will make more announcements shortly about how we are enhancing the way the social work profession works with families that need its support.

T5. Brymore school, a state-funded boarding school for 13 to 17-year-olds in Somerset, specialises in rural technology and has its own its own farms, stock, greenhouses, workshops, foundry and forge. Although it delivers exactly what the Secretary of State wants—vocational excellence, great maths and English teaching, and a rapid rise in exam results, having moved from the bottom 9% to the top 3% of schools nationally when looking at value added over the past two years—no land-based subjects will be included in the performance measures from 2015. Will the Secretary of State consider the recognition of agriculture and horticulture in a farm bacc, and meet parents from my patch, and others, to discuss the issue? (152103)

I am grateful for that question, because I am a fan of recognising high-quality vocational education, hence the tech bacc announced today. Agricultural and land-based qualifications will, of course, be eligible for inclusion in the tech bacc and for younger age groups. However, they must be of very high quality to ensure that we provide high-quality qualifications for those who take vocational routes. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.

Nursery providers in my constituency have expressed their approval of support received from the local authority in relation to good practice, providing support and raising standards. What guarantees can Ministers provide that such support will continue under the new regulatory regime?

I can confirm that Ofsted is currently recruiting more HMIs—Her Majesty’s inspectors—for the early years, and will increase the frequency of inspections of weaker providers. It will also give those providers support for improvement. Existing good quality support provided by local authorities will continue, provided that the providers agree. The issue is that such support is patchy across the country, and not necessarily the same in some local authority areas as in others.

T6. Given the vital role that vocational education plays in delivering the skilled work force of the future, will the Minister explain how the technical baccalaureate will raise standards of vocational courses and attract more learners? (152104)

The tech bacc is intended to recognise high-quality vocational education, including written work and maths. The key thing is that the occupational qualifications included will be developed and signed off by employers, because employers are vital to ensure that when we teach people vocational skills, those skills can be put to good use.

Changes to AS and A-levels are planned for 2015, as well as changes to GCSEs. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of that conflagration of curriculum changes on young people, schools and colleges?

T7. In the interest of transparency and to provide information for schools and local authorities, will the Secretary of State ensure that all reports on the asbestos incident in Cwmcarn high school in Wales, including the final report from the Health and Safety Executive, are made publicly available? I note that the local council has decided to remove asbestos from the school on safety grounds. (152105)

I will look at this matter on behalf of my right hon. Friend. We are keen to ensure that policy on asbestos is evidence-based, and that there is clarity about the inquiry carried out by the HSE.

The average age for leaving home is 24, yet currently only one in 20 foster children is able to stay with their foster carers beyond their 18th birthday. If the Secretary of State is as shocked as I am by that, will he lead and co-ordinate an urgent initiative aimed at ensuring that every foster child, like any child, can leave home when they are ready?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who I know takes a keen interest in this area. He will, I hope, be encouraged by the fact that I have written to every director of children’s services to re-emphasise the importance of the exact point he has just made. We have supported the “staying put” pilot, which continues in many local authorities, and I am looking at what more we can do to support care leavers, not only when they leave care, but also after they have left, so that they get all the support that they need and deserve.

T8. May I draw the House’s attention to the fact that I am going through the process of becoming a board member of the new Free the Children charitable organisation in Britain? The Government’s National Citizen Service positively engages young people during their school holidays. Does my right hon. Friend agree that charitable organisations such as Free the Children, which now exists in Britain, add value to children’s primary and secondary education throughout the year, and are an excellent example of the big society in action? (152106)

Free the Children is a wonderful charity and I look forward to supporting it later this evening.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who has responsibility for children’s matters, is concerned about the high numbers of children placed in children’s homes some distance outside their local areas, the difficulty of supporting those children, and their vulnerability to child sexual exploitation. I am pleased that he is planning to make changes to tackle that problem, but will he update hon. Members on progress?

I once again express my gratitude to the hon. Lady for the serious and significant contribution she has made to the work my Department has done to try to tackle the important problem of children who are placed out of area in residential care—the number is almost 50%, which is far too high. That is why we have already made one change, whereby Ofsted must now report to police the location of all children’s homes. We will go further with changes to much of the regulatory framework to improve the “out of sight, out of mind” culture. I am happy to discuss with her in the coming weeks how we implement that, as I have discussed it with her in the past. An announcement will be made very shortly.

T9. I have recently participated in a cross-party inquiry into unwanted pregnancy. We found that there were gaping holes in understanding not only of the mechanics of sex, but of how relationships work. In a letter to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), admitted that academies are not required to teach sex education. Given the life-changing consequences of such ignorance, does the Secretary of State agree that sex and relationships education should be compulsory in all schools? (152107)

All academies have the opportunity to depart from the national curriculum, which is entirely appropriate, but I do not think—[Interruption.] Honestly! This is a serious subject, and I am afraid the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is not doing it the service it deserves—[Interruption.]

Order. We cannot have a debate while a question is being answered—[Interruption.] Order. The Secretary of State will respond to the question as he thinks fit, without a running commentary.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

One inference of the hon. Lady’s question is that head teachers or principals in academies will be neglectful of the welfare of children, particularly with respect to sex and relationships education. As I have said, this is a uniquely serious matter. Given changes in technology and family formation, it requires the attention of all us if we are to get it right. One thing my Department has done is conduct a survey of best practice. Sometimes, best practice occurs in faith schools and academies and not in maintained schools. Simply prescribing something in the national curriculum does not mean that best practice will result. I am afraid that the debate deserves more than the catcalls and superficial sloganising we get from some people.

May I therefore ask the Secretary of State directly why he will introduce financial education as part of the compulsory national curriculum and yet denies that drug education, alcohol education and relationship education should have the same status?

As the hon. Lady acknowledges, the changes to the citizenship curriculum have been widely supported. She draws a distinction between what happens in one national curriculum area and others—as the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) has pointed out, academies are not subject to the national curriculum. If we look at the national curriculum overall, we see that there is an absolute requirement in science to teach sex education, and sex and relationships education is part of the national curriculum expectation for all schools.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the problems still being caused by the private finance initiative building programme? Miltoncross school in Portsmouth has ambitions to become an academy, but cannot make progress owing to unresolved issues in its PFI contract. Will the Secretary of State meet me regarding that problem and assist in getting it resolved?

How does the Government’s rhetoric on supporting catch-up literacy match the ongoing closure of libraries up and down the country? Do his Government ever attempt to join up, or are they just extraordinarily bad at it?

The hon. Lady again shows the devotion to partisanship that has characterised her time in the House. The truth is that some local authorities do a superb job in making library services more relevant and more effective, but others are not doing so effectively—as we are in an election season, it is probably worth pointing out that they are mainly Labour, whether, for example, it is Brent or Newham. If she is serious about raising standards in literacy and ensuring that children have the opportunity to enjoy great works of literature, perhaps she will throw her support behind the national curriculum reforms and the academy and free school reforms we are making. I fear that, once again, she will go into the default mode of Opposition Members, which is to make cheap sloganeering points rather than to care about children.

Owing to the sudden, serious illness of a head teacher at a school in my constituency, the names of a number of children who were due to sit the level 6 SATs test were not submitted in time. Despite these exceptional circumstances, which the local authority supports, the Standards and Testing Agency will not make an exception. Will the Minister intervene in this rather silly bureaucracy and allow the children, who have worked very hard, to take the test?

I am aware that this is a widespread issue; a number of colleagues have raised it with me. We will talk to the schools concerned to see what we can do, but it is difficult, when the STA gave appropriate notice, to necessarily make exceptions.

Following the Secretary of State’s visit to Stockton last week, does he expect any schools in the area, attended by children from my constituency, to close as a result of the creation of surplus places if a new free school is opened in the south of the borough?

It was great to visit Stockton South. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) is an outstanding MP and people were saying to me, “If only there were more Conservatives in the north-east.” People were also saying to me that they need a new school because, apart from the free school that is being built, provision in the north of the constituency is not good enough. I am only sorry that Labour-led Stockton council has stood in the way of parents who are working with us, and with the Conservative MP, to improve education. [Interruption.] Once again, if the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) would only haud his whisht and listen to the parents, he would be of far better service to the children of Teesside.