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Topical Questions

Volume 561: debated on Monday 22 April 2013

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.