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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 565: debated on Monday 24 June 2013

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

Apprenticeships

With youth apprenticeships down on last year and the demise of the professional careers service as most people recognise it, what are the Government doing to ensure that young people receive the correct advice on starting apprenticeships, and, in particular, the route to higher level qualifications that some apprenticeships can lead to?

The hon. Lady is quite right that we need to encourage all students to consider apprenticeships as a high quality alternative to the academic path. I commend the activity that Sunderland city council and Sunderland football club are under-taking to ensure that more young people in that great city consider apprenticeships as a viable role for the future. I should add that the recent diminution in the number of 16 to 19-year-olds taking apprenticeships was due significantly to the fact that we were reducing the number of low quality apprenticeships where the duration was shorter than a proper apprenticeship needs to be and the quality of tuition was less effective than a good apprenticeship needs to be, but there is still more to be done.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his Department’s success in raising the profile of apprenticeships and making them a genuinely attractive alternative to higher education? Will he join me in congratulating East Midlands Housing Group on its apprenticeships in my constituency, and on being an apprentice team of the year finalist this year?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the importance of construction and other sectors in helping to encourage more young people to consider apprenticeships. The Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock)—who sadly cannot be with us, Mr Speaker, because he is enjoying paternity leave—has I think done more than any other Minister, apart possibly from his immediate predecessor, to put apprenticeships on the map and to work with industry to raise the esteem in which vocational training is held.

Does the Secretary of State realise that many of us who believe passionately in apprenticeships are concerned that the people instructing apprentices should be of the highest order? What is this love affair between him and people who are unqualified working with apprenticeships and in schools?

I absolutely agree that those working with apprentices need to have either the best qualifications or the best experience in the relevant sector, which is why we implemented the recommendations of Alison Wolf’s report. We have allowed lecturers in further education, who are qualified in that sector but were not previously able to work in schools, to work in schools. We will also implement the Richard review, which once more puts employers in control of assuring the quality of vocational qualifications, so that anyone who secures an apprenticeship can be confident that it will lead to a satisfying job.

With youth unemployment at the 1 million mark, one would have thought that Ministers would do all they could to get young people into training and jobs, so why have the Government overseen a 12% reduction in young apprenticeships in the past six months alone, alongside a £165 million departmental underspend? Where is the determination to fix this crisis? Rather than writing eight-page letters and trying to become the pen pal of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), should the Secretary of State not be focusing on some policy work?

Rather than writing eloquent questions and reading them out with the rounded vowels of a public school educated champion of vocational education, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman concentrate on what the Government have done. I also suggest that he refer back to the wonderful Westminster Hall debate, held with the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk, in which the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that under the previous Government vocational education was not good enough, that there were far too many low standard courses, and that the Wolf report and the Richard review have been the two best pieces of work on vocational and technical education undertaken in the past 25 years. If he looked back at what he said then, he would face a dilemma: does he eat the words he uttered in Westminster Hall, or does he acknowledge that the question he has just asked was nonsense from start to finish?

Rural Schools (Funding)

Supporting successful rural schools is an important principle of our funding reforms. My Department has just concluded a review of funding arrangements for 2013-14, which included visits to North Yorkshire and several other rural authorities.

Does the Minister accept that the pupil premium has not worked its way through to rural schools in perhaps the way he had hoped, and will he join me in helping North Yorkshire council to put in place fairer funding for rural schools, particularly those with many service children?

The pupil premium has to be passed down properly to all schools, and before it existed, many young disadvantaged people were not getting any proper additional funding in many rural areas. My hon. Friend may wish to know that we also recently widened entitlement to the pupil premium to include pupils in families who had been entitled to free school meals at any time in the past six years. She will be pleased to know that as part of our recent funding review, we have introduced a sparsity factor of up to £100,000 that will allow local authorities to give extra money to schools in rural areas, and one of the big gaining authorities will be North Yorkshire.

Given that the Secretary of State has had meetings with devolved Education Ministers in Northern Ireland and Wales about other examination matters, will the Minister confirm whether the Secretary of State had discussions with them about the potential for rural schools, their potential closure and the need for them to be sustained?

Last week, the chief inspector of schools said that Ofsted’s report on unseen children painted

“a striking new picture of disadvantage and educational underachievement”.

In his speech, he said that we needed new policies and approaches to deal with underachievement in rural and coastal areas. If those policies are to succeed, they will need to be financed. Will the Minister commit today to a redistribution to rural areas, so that allocations are fairer and more equal?

We are committed to introducing a fairer national funding formula, and we hope to be able to say more about that once we are clear about the spending review announcements later this week. We also intend to ensure, through Ofsted and the accountability measures we publish, that schools in rural, coastal and other areas that may have small proportions of young people on free school meals or entitled to the pupil premium are still under intense pressure to narrow these gaps, which are as unacceptable in rural and coastal areas as they are in our inner cities.

A small village primary school near Melksham in my constituency has grown over several years to serve more than 200 pupils in seven classes, five of them in temporary buildings. Will the Minister ensure that through the targeted basic need programme rural councils such as Wilshire’s will get the help they need to meet the growing primary school pupil population?

We will certainly do that. The Government are spending more than double what the previous Government spent on capital to support new school places, and as my hon. Friend indicated, before too long we hope to announce the results of the targeted basic need programme, which will enable new schools to be established in areas of basic need, as well as the expansion of existing good and outstanding schools.

Adoption

I am determined to reform the adoption system to reduce delay for children. One of our most pressing priorities is increasing the number of approved adopters. We have already launched the First4Adoption telephone and online service to provide information to all potential adopters and published the adoption passport, and we are bringing in a quicker two-stage adopter approvals process from 1 July.

My constituent Helen Holgate is a respected and experienced foster carer, but she still tells me that there are considerable court delays during the concurrency process. What steps is the Minister taking to improve the concurrent care process so that children can be placed permanently and more swiftly with a loving family on a full-time, permanent basis?

First, I would like to pay tribute to Helen Holgate and all the other fantastic foster carers helping many vulnerable children in our country. We are working towards streamlining the approval process for foster carers. On court proceedings, through the Children and Families Bill, we are introducing fostering for adoption rules to ensure that children are placed earlier with prospective adopters, and with the work of the Family Justice Board, we are helping to strip out unnecessary delays in care proceedings. As a result, the average length of a care case has already been reduced from 57 to 42.2 weeks.

What more does the Minister think local government should be doing to support foster carers who, according to the Fostering Network, feel unsupported and often take in children when they do not feel quite prepared to do so?

With the Fostering Network and many other fostering charities, we have developed some excellent training materials for foster carers, to provide them with the support that they need. This will make them feel confident that they are in control of the placement, with the day-to-day decisions such as whether children get their hair cut or go on a sleepover being delegated to them. This will also help the children to feel that they have a normal family existence while they are in a foster care arrangement.

One of the many myths surrounding adoption relates to the age of prospective adopters. We want anyone who is interested in adopting to come forward and use the new adoption gateway, which is the easy way of getting the information and advice that they need. We do not want to put people off adopting; we want to welcome them with open arms and do all that we can to support them in providing children with the homes they desperately need.

Non-resident Fathers

4. What steps his Department is taking to support schemes to help non-resident fathers to learn parenting skills and engage with their children. (160852)

The Children and Families Bill underlines our expectation that children normally benefit from the involvement of both parents. In addition, the early years teachers and early years educators qualifications that we are introducing this year and next year will include training in engaging parents in their child’s development and education.

One of the most interesting and inspiring constituency visits that I have made recently was to the Oxhey early years centre, which is run by a fantastic person called Helen Walsh. While I was there, I saw an excellent programme for non-resident fathers run by the Sunshine Children’s Centre in partnership with Watford football club. It brings together children and fathers who do not normally see their children to play, and helps the fathers with their parenting skills. Will the Minister confirm that the Government support this kind of thing? If she has time, perhaps she would like to come to Watford with me to see the centre.

I completely agree that what the Sunshine Children’s Centre in Watford is doing is excellent; it is a very good example of best practice. I am delighted that the centre is working in partnership with Watford football club, which is the team that my dad supports. Perhaps he would be keen to visit the centre. We recently put out our new children’s centre guidance, which puts much more focus on getting parents involved in their children’s development and upbringing and on supporting families to be emotionally resilient. This is absolutely the kind of thing we want to see more of.

It is a new departure for Members on the Treasury Bench to subcontract ministerial visits to their parents. Who knows what else is in store?

Life-saving Skills

5. What consideration he has given to including life-saving skills in the physical education curriculum. (160853)

Our proposals for the new national curriculum were published for consultation earlier this year. They are based on the principle that the national curriculum should set out a body of essential knowledge that children should be expected to acquire in key subjects. We are considering the consultation responses, and considering the inclusion of life-saving skills.

I am conscious that we do not wish to be too prescriptive, but just two hours of training could enable help to be provided to those suffering the 60,000 cardiac arrests that take place outside hospital each year and give a real, tangible skill to those who wish to go into the sports and leisure industry.

I thank my hon. Friend for that, and for bringing a delegation from the British Heart Foundation to meet me. It made a good case for the introduction of live-saving skills. I also know that 86% of teachers support training in those skills. However, we have to strike a balance in the national curriculum between the flexibility that we give to teachers and what we prescribe centrally. Those factors will go into our final decision making.

On Friday, I visited Burnbush primary school in my constituency to meet a really lively group of year 6 pupils. They showed me the skills that they had learnt as a result of the Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust and British Heart Foundation programme that has been going round schools and teaching children about resuscitation and how to stop people choking. Does the Minister agree that we should be considering such training for the curriculum not only in secondary schools but in primary schools, as their pupils could also benefit from learning those skills?

I think it is a fantastic programme that the British Heart Foundation runs. One thing we have done is to provide finance to the Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education Association to work with partners such as the British Heart Foundation on providing programmes that really bring the subject to life in schools.

Primary School Places

6. What funding his Department is providing to local authorities to address shortfalls in primary school places. (160854)

By the end of this Parliament, we will have made well over £5 billion available to local authorities to support the provision of additional pupil places, which is more than double what was provided by the previous Government over a comparable period.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree with me that when we are dealing with a shortage of school places, the last thing we need is an assault on valuable teachers in the independent sector, who face being mummified with red tape to appease the vested interests of the Labour party?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the last thing we need is more bureaucracy and regulation in the school system.

The National Audit Office projects that there is a 240,000 shortfall of primary school places across England, and in fact there are now bulges in classes across Tameside and Stockport, the two local authorities covering my constituency. Given that, will the Minister explain what proportion of capital spend has gone to address this problem in the areas of need?

I certainly can. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that under this Government, the amount of money that has gone into funding basic need places has doubled in comparison with the amount available under the last Government. I can also say that the reason why there might be pressures at the current time is that the hon. Gentleman’s party removed over 200,000 primary places between 2003 and 2010—in spite of the warnings about higher pupil numbers from the Office for National Statistics.

The borough of Kettering has the sixth fastest household growth rate in the whole country, and the pressure on primary school places is getting more acute year by year. Will the Minister ensure that in his new funding formula, there is appropriate funding for areas of the country that are experiencing rapid population growth?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point because the Government are not only allocating much greater capital for basic need, but have changed the funding formula for distributing this money so that where there are pockets of basic need in areas that were previously not recognised, we are reflecting that fully in the distributions.

The Secretary of State was reticent last week when Sir Michael Wilshaw launched Ofsted’s report on closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children attracting the pupil premium. Was that because Sir Michael Wilshaw advocated Labour’s proven policy of greater collaboration between schools to raise standards rather than the Secretary of State’s desire for privatised schools for profit of the kind that have been such a failure in Sweden?

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. This Government are encouraging schools to collaborate; this Government are encouraging partnership; this Government are promoting national leaders of education; this Government are going to introduce something that their predecessors did not—tables of similar schools so that schools can learn from each other.

Children and Families Social Work

Building on the recommendations of the Munro review, we have put in place an ambitious reform programme for social work that seeks to improve initial social work education through the Step Up to Social Work and Frontline training initiatives to get the best people into the profession as well as improve the quality of front-line practice by revising Working Together to Safeguard Children and appointing a chief social worker.

I thank the Minister for his answer. How does he plan to ensure that newly qualified social workers both have a degree that best equips them for the front line and receive proper support in the first few years of their career?

My hon. Friend pinpoints a key area of our reform agenda. That is why we have asked Sir Martin Narey to look carefully at social work education and report back to Ministers later this year. It is also why we have introduced, along with the chief social worker, principal family social workers in each local authority area to help champion and challenge social work as well as to provide assistance and support in the first year, which we know has been so successful.

More than half of councils say that they are planning further cuts to children’s services. What impact does the Minister think this will have on social workers and their case loads?

To date we have seen strong protection of children’s services across local authorities, which recognise the importance of providing the best quality service in their areas. Social worker vacancy rates have fallen, not risen, from 10% in 2010 to 7% in 2012. Many local authorities are doing a fantastic job, but we need to ensure that all raise their game.

Given rising caseloads and the pressure exerted by the increase in child poverty up and down the country, does the Minister accept that more resources are needed to pay for additional social workers to deal with rising demand?

I explained in my previous answer the approach that local authorities quite rightly take to ensure that children’s services are the best they can be, but we can enable that through the revised Working Together to Safeguard Children, making it clearer who is responsible for providing which services while ensuring that the quality of social work is as high as possible. That is why I set out in my initial answer why this is such a high priority for the Government.

Has the Minister seen the recent survey of 2,000 social workers, which paints a shocking picture of, in their words, “crisis”, “breaking point” and “chaos”. It shows increasing caseloads, long waiting lists, the use of non-qualified staff to assess children, the use of agency workers, and children who need help being turned away as thresholds are revised upwards to cope with the situation. As one social worker put it, “amber is the new green”. Is it not time that the Government got on red alert and did something about this crisis?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady, who was so supportive of many of the measures we have taken to bring in the recommendations of the Munro review, decides to use this set piece to provide a dividing line that does not need to be there. We are all trying to achieve the same thing: to improve outcomes for children who come into contact with children’s services. We are seeing improvements in the country, but they are needed across the board, and we are introducing reforms to ensure that children and families get high quality social work and support when they need it.

Secondary School Places (Essex)

The hon. Gentleman may be keen to be a Minister, but he is not there yet, and I am in no position to appoint him.

I apologise, Mr Speaker.

Local authorities are responsible for ensuring that there are enough school places to meet demand in their areas. The Government are committed to improving quality and choice through the expansion of the academies programme, university technical colleges and sixth forms, and through the opening of free schools.

The Minister will be aware that Essex county council is currently consulting on proposals to close the Deanes school—most recently rated by Ofsted as “good” with elements of “outstanding”—in my constituency. Clearly, the loss of the school will greatly reduce choice for parents, so will the Minister meet me to discuss the options to try to resist the plans?

In spite of my tardiness in rising to the Dispatch Box, I am aware of the situation at the Deanes school and of my hon. Friend’s robust representation, as always, of the concerns of her constituents. Although the matter is primarily one for the local authority, as she will understand, I would be delighted to meet her to discuss the issues on the ground, which I know are of great importance to many of her constituents.

The last Labour Government’s policies, which were backed by Labour in Colchester, would have led to the closure of the Thomas Lord Audley school. Thanks to the coalition, that school has been saved and is going from strength to strength. The Secretary of State will recall from his visits to Colchester, however, that there is still a question mark over secondary school provision on the Shrub End estate. Will he agree to meet a delegation from Colchester to see whether we can save that school, which Labour also wanted to shut?

I am sure that either the Secretary of State or I would be delighted to meet a delegation from my hon. Friend’s constituency. Both the Secretary of State and I have been to his constituency a number of times, and I am sure that we will do so again.

Is my hon. Friend aware that 350 secondary school students in Harlow are eligible for free school meals, but because they go to Harlow FE college, they do not get them, whereas the kids who go to the one sixth-form school in the constituency do get them? Please will my hon. Friend remedy that anomaly and ensure that free school meals are available for all eligible students?

We are aware of that long-standing anomaly in the system, and we want to fix it. However, such matters depend on the budget allocations that we are given by the Treasury, and these are obviously difficult times. We shall have to look at the situation after the announcement of the spending review settlement.

School Funding Formula

The current school funding system is unfair, and is based on an out-of-date assessment of need. We have already introduced reforms to make the system simpler and more transparent, which will assist preparation for the introduction of a national funding formula in the next spending review period.

I welcome that answer and that recognition. The current formula has arbitrary consequences in constituencies such as mine. Because a rising birth rate and other factors are not taken into account, parents living in areas like Claygate and Thames Ditton are struggling to secure local places. When will the review start, and what efforts will the Minister make to consult Members directly on the key issues and criteria that are at stake?

I can tell my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State and I are committed to introducing a fairer national funding formula in the next spending review period, but we are currently waiting for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to announce our final settlement in his spending review statement this Wednesday. I assure my hon. Friend that we will engage in full consultation with all Members, including those who have particular interests in this area, as he has.

Pupils aged between 16 and 18 already receive significantly less funding than pre-16 and post-18 learners. Can the Minister assure 16 to18-year-olds that they will not suffer further detriment to their funding?

We cannot make any comments until the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced the spending review settlement later this week, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State and I are working hard to secure a good settlement for all parts of the education system, not just for schools.

I welcome the Minister’s comments about the unfairness of the current national formula. Having met members of the Worcestershire Association of School Business Management last week, I can tell him that that unfairness is very keenly felt at present. May I urge him to do all that he can to ensure that we move towards a fairer national formula both before and after 2015?

I assure my hon. Friend that we are taking these matters particularly seriously. We have had a very unfair national funding formula for many years, and, sadly, the last Government did nothing to address it. At a time when there are difficult decisions to be made in all areas of funding, it is especially important for underfunded areas to have a better settlement, because otherwise they will be the areas that feel the budget pressures most acutely.

Joseph Leckie academy in my constituency has missed out on funding for all sorts of reasons. May I ask the Minister to make good the Secretary of State’s promise to send a Minister to visit the school?

I am sure that, if such an undertaking has been given, it will be honoured, but I urge the hon. Lady to contact my office so that we can ensure that that happens.

Young Carers

The Department has developed an online training module for school staff. It is designed to raise awareness about young carers, including awareness of the potential impact that their caring responsibilities can have on their school attendance and attainment. Importantly, the Department of Health has recently started training school nurses to be champions for young carers, and to help head teachers and governors to decide how best to support them at school.

There are about 300 young carers in my constituency. As my hon. Friend recognised in his answer, young carers often reflect many of the best values, but their education suffers as a result of their caring duties. Will my hon. Friend write to me saying what he considers to be the best scheme to support them, and what impediments there are to the spreading of such measures, given that even neighbouring districts such as Fenland and Huntingdon take such different approaches?

I praise my hon. Friend for the work that he is doing in his constituency. He has led by example in writing to all local secondary school heads to remind them of the support that young carers need, and to raise their awareness of what is available.

As my hon. Friend has acknowledged, there is a wealth of good practice out there. We recently awarded a £1.2 million contract to the Children’s Society and the Carers Trust to work directly with local services, including schools, and help them to improve support for young carers. However, I am happy to write to my hon. Friend explaining what we are doing over and above that, and what more we can do collectively—at both national and local levels—to improve support for young carers in schools.

The Minister knows that many of us on both sides of this House care very deeply about the hundreds of thousands of young carers in this country and that they should get the support they need to fulfil their potential. He just cited the support role school nurses can play for young carers, but he must know from the parliamentary questions I have asked that the number of school nurses across the country is tiny—indeed, I think one answer stated I had one in the whole of Sunderland. If this is the solution, he might want to look at that. We welcome the assurances the Minister gave at the Report stage of the Children and Families Bill, but as it is due to be debated in the other place next week, will he give us and our noble colleagues a guarantee that he will make this work an immediate priority, so the Bill will make the changes we want to see for these young people, as the care services Minister, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), promised last year.

As ever, may I thank the hon. Lady for the tone she strikes with her question? We are at one in wanting to improve the support young carers receive. As she knows, I have met the Minister for care and support to agree some key principles for work in this area and to look at how we can use both the Care Bill and the Children and Families Bill to bring about a closer connection between adult and young carers, so there is a whole-family approach to the support they receive. We will use the stages through the other place to try to make that approach much clearer.

Pupil Premium

11. What assessment he has made of the effect of the pupil premium on attainment of children from socially deprived backgrounds. (160860)

Results for 2012, the first year to reflect the impact of a full year of the pupil premium, showed a larger than expected narrowing of attainment gaps nationally for both key stage 2 and key stage 4. Further improvement is expected as the funding levels increase and schools focus more on evidence-based interventions to help disadvantaged children.

That is very positive news, but schools are given a free hand to spend the pupil premium as they choose, rather than being required to target it on the most disadvantaged children who need the most support, and this comes at a time when the chief inspector is planning to get tough with schools that let poor children down. Will the Secretary of State get tough, too, and tell schools to concentrate these resources on the neediest children, instead of simply absorbing them into their budgets, as happens in some cases?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not going to allow schools to use this money for purposes other than that for which it is intended. Schools will have to use this money for the assistance of the most disadvantaged pupils. We are not prescribing the way in which they do that, because, unlike the last Government, we believe head teachers and professionals should be respected to choose their own interventions, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Ofsted will hold schools to account for using this money in the best way and narrowing the disadvantage gaps. If schools do not do that, they will face the consequences.

The two new academies in Hastings, the Hastings academy and St Leonards academy, were both rated 2 by Ofsted recently, which is a tremendous move forward for them. The Ofsted report particularly highlighted the fact that the pupil premium had made a great difference to the most socially disadvantaged. Would the Minister like to join me in congratulating the schools and their leadership?

I certainly would like to join my hon. Friend in congratulating those two schools, and I do believe that the combination of significant extra funds—after all, next year the pupil premium will be more than £1,000 per disadvantaged pupil—with scrutiny by Ofsted will make a big difference to the opportunities for disadvantaged pupils in the future, and narrow the totally unacceptable gap between the opportunities for young people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Results for pupils from deprived backgrounds vary dramatically in different parts of the country. Will the Minister continue to ensure that Ofsted’s monitoring of the way in which the pupil premium is spent feeds through into strong, effective action, with a particular focus on the parts of the country where the gap between rich and poor is biggest?

Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that, in holding schools to account for the use of the pupil premium, Ofsted will be looking not only at the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupil performance in particular schools, but at the performance of disadvantaged pupils in particular schools versus the national average, and that it will also be looking at the progress that is being made, so that, whatever school a disadvantaged youngster is in, they can be sure that there will be scrutiny of those who run it, to make sure this money is used effectively and the gaps are narrowed across the whole school system.

Careers Advice

12. What recent steps his Department has taken to improve careers advice and guidance; and if he will make a statement. (160861)

Schools are legally required to secure careers guidance for 13 to 16-year-olds. That requirement will be extended to 12 to 18-year-olds in school, and to young people in colleges, from September.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, more than half of employers think that young people lack career guidance and work experience. There are some very good voluntary schemes, such as Work Discovery, which I saw in action with year 6 pupils at Wendell Park primary school last week. Why are the Government not supporting more projects such as that?

It sounds like an excellent project, and I should like to do everything I can to support it, and other social enterprises and businesses, to help young people experience the world of work.

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of visiting a high-tech engineering company in Luton, and it was drawn to my attention, yet again, that we are having to recruit thousands of graduate engineers from abroad every year because we cannot train enough of them ourselves. When are the Government going to take real steps to encourage more youngsters to look for careers in engineering?

Our ministerial team, and, indeed, the superb team at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, take every opportunity to encourage young people to consider engineering as a career, but one of the problems we face is that the quality of the teaching of literacy and, in particular, numeracy and mathematics in science qualifications is often not good enough to give ambitious young people the chance to become engineers. That is why we are improving the quality of English, mathematics and science teaching, and reforming GCSEs.

Technical and Vocational Education

More than 60% of 16 to 19-year-olds now participate in vocational education. This Government have: raised the quality of vocational qualifications; expanded vocational education through studio schools and university technical colleges; and introduced tighter quality controls in further education and work experience. All those reforms build on Professor Wolf’s report on vocational education, which was welcomed across the board.

How can we ensure that high-quality non-academic learning gets the status and recognition it deserves, given that we need more practical on-the-job training, such as is being provided at university technical colleges?

My hon. Friend makes a typically acute point. The way in which we can raise the esteem and prestige of vocational qualifications and vocational training is by making sure they are every bit as rigorous as academic qualifications and the academic pathway—I say “pathway” for want of a better word, although I am sure there is one. The way in which we do so is by making sure that the recommendations in Alison Wolf’s report are implemented—recommendations that were once accepted by the Opposition Front-Bench team but now seem to be rejected.

The SKIDZ motor project in my constituency helps children achieve vocational skills pre-16. Will my right hon. Friend make sure that for children who need some context to help them with academic skills some vocational framework is available before they reach 16?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and it is one reason we are consulting on changing the way in which schools are held to account for the way in which they provide for students up to the age of 16, in order to ensure that vocational and technical qualifications are genuinely considered to be equivalent to academic qualifications because they are as rigorous.

Youth Services

In December 2011, “Positive for Youth” set out, for the first time, an overarching vision for youth policy, a key principle of which is that local authorities are best placed to decide how to shape their services to meet the needs of local young people. Their duty to secure sufficient services is outlined in the revised statutory guidance issued in June 2012. This Government have also spent an additional £141 million in a network of 63 myplace youth centres to support local youth service provision.

In the aftermath of the appalling killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, the Prime Minister heard at first hand while visiting Woolwich about, among other things, the importance of a more proactive role for the youth service in providing constructive alternative options for young people at risk of being sucked into extremism or criminal gangs. Has the Department for Education yet submitted evidence to the Government’s taskforce on extremism? If not, will this be given priority by the Department?

The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important and serious point, which is all the more echoed around this Chamber today, as we will hear later during the Home Secretary’s statement. This is a priority for this Government and this Department. We have already submitted some evidence to the taskforce, and we will play a full and active role to make sure it achieves its objectives.

GCSEs

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer Questions 15 and 17 together. We are reforming GCSEs to ensure that they stand comparison—

Order. May I just say to the Secretary of State that this is an attempted grouping on the hoof, of which I had no notice, but being the obliging fellow I am I will do my best to accommodate the right hon. Gentleman?

I apologise, Mr Speaker, and thank you. We are reforming GCSEs to ensure that they stand comparison with exams in the highest-performing jurisdictions. We are consulting on changes to subject content for GCSEs. Ofqual is also consulting on changes to the structure, grading and standard of the new qualifications.

I agree with the Secretary of State that many state schools do not stretch their brightest pupils enough to allow them to compete with pupils from private schools. In my constituency, only two out of seven schools reached the national average in GCSEs last year. I do not think there should be a school in the country in which fewer than 70% or 80% are getting five good GCSEs, including English and maths. Will he consider bringing back the black country challenge to boost standards in Dudley in the way the London challenge improved them in London?

That is a very acute point from a Member of Parliament who, I know, is passionate about education. I will do everything I can to ensure that all the elements that made the London challenge and black country challenge a success apply to schools in his constituency through collaboration and a culture of excellence. I look forward to talking with him about how we can work together to ensure that his championing of high educational standards can be extended across the black country.

Will the Secretary of State consider yet again the inclusion of British sign language as a GCSE subject? It is appropriate for those students who are less academic and is, after all, a language someone can use throughout the whole of their life.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) for making the point that British sign language was one of the few languages I learned when I was younger for family reasons. For that reason, I am committed to doing everything we can to encourage its take-up. We are working with Ofqual, the exams regulator, to see whether we can ensure that there is a qualification that is as rigorous as possible and that stands comparison with other GCSEs.

I thank the Secretary of State for cantering through the questions. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) that we need to drive up standards. What are the Secretary of State’s proposals for practical and vocational subjects? It is important that children who excel in those areas are given the reward they deserve.

I absolutely agree. One of the recommendations from the Wolf report is that instead of simply having a pass/fail mark for practical and vocational qualifications and allowing students to pass purely on the basis of what a teacher rather than an external assessor has assessed, we should have a more sophisticated grading system and more rigorous external testing to ensure that vocational and technical qualifications are seen, rightly, as equivalent. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the steadfast support he has shown for state schools in his constituency, including the outstanding comprehensive, Thomas Telford.

Academies

Academies are open to greater accountability and scrutiny than other state-funded schools. Performance data including exam results, inspection reports and financial accounts are published for each academy. Academies are also accountable through analysis from the Education Funding Agency, and through greater data transparency and an improved inspection system academies are more open to public scrutiny than ever before.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response, but schools such as Byrchall High in Wigan are refusing to provide written responses to MPs’ inquiries. Is it not clear that the Secretary of State needs to act if there is to be public accountability on spend in those schools and public accountability on policy?

It is absolutely regrettable if any principal or head teacher declines to respond to a request from an elected Member of Parliament. I will look into the case, but I should stress that academies are subject to freedom of information. The previous Government did not allow that, but this Government brought it in.

Topical Questions

My Department published destination data last week that showed how many schools are very successful in encouraging young people to go on to universities and into satisfying apprenticeships, but it is still a matter of regret that for one fifth of comprehensive schools not a single student makes it to a Russell Group university.

In the light of the recent conclusion of the Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment that children are more vulnerable than adults to an equivalent asbestos exposure, what reassurances can the Secretary of State provide that his Department’s policy on asbestos in schools will be reviewed rigorously, transparently and in a timely fashion?

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and I have been discussing today exactly what we can do to ensure that the arguments made in the committee’s report are taken on board and to ensure that when we think about how to invest in the future fabric of schools and about the state of the estate we take appropriate steps. I hope, following on from the spending review, we can be clear that the money we spend on maintenance will be spent in a way that takes account of the arguments made by my hon. Friend.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that, over the past year, the number of infants in classes of more than 30 has increased by more than 25,000—an increase of 50% in just 12 months? What proportion of free school places go to primary-age children in areas where there is a shortage?

I think the hon. Gentleman is right about those figures for infants, but I also think that the increase in the number is less in percentage terms than was the increase under Labour. [Interruption.] I think it is, actually. I have answered the question of substance; the rest of it was rhetoric, so over to you.

Three years ago, in the first comprehensive spending review, the Secretary of State got a truly terrible education capital spending settlement. His free schools programme fails to focus on areas where there is a shortage of places but opens new schools in areas with existing good schools with places available, and of course it allows unqualified people to teach. Is it not a policy driven by dogma, not by the best interests of children?

No, not at all. In these matters, I often pay close attention to what Lord Adonis, a former schools Minister, says. He argued last week that we need more free school places in areas where there is a lack of high-quality school places. That is a different view from the one taken by the hon. Gentleman. I take the view that Lord Adonis is right—we need to give parents a choice where schools are poor—and therefore, not for the last time, the hon. Gentleman is wrong.

T3. Tudor Grange is a good non-faith-based secondary school in my constituency, but the governors have angered many parents in the school’s catchment area by attempting to introduce a faith school as a feeder school, whose children would take precedence for admittance over children in the local authority catchment area. Will my right hon. Friend advise me on whether this would constitute indirect discrimination under the Equality Act 2010? (160876)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I know Tudor Grange and its outstanding head teacher, Jennifer Bexon-Smith. She is committed to helping children in difficult circumstances and is sponsoring an academy in Worcester, I think, so I cannot believe that she would take a decision that would discriminate against children in need of high-quality state education. The admissions code is clear about these matters, and I look forward to talking with my hon. Friend to make sure the public are reassured.

T2. In 2011-12, there was a 10% fall in the number of graduates applying to teacher training programmes; there has also been a 17% rise in the number of schools using supply teachers, and we see reliance on unqualified teachers. How will those approaches raise standards and improve the outcome for children? (160875)

I am pleased to be able to say that the statistics the hon. Gentleman quotes come from a period before the introduction of our school direct programme, which has achieved a dramatic increase in the number of highly qualified graduates entering the profession. In addition, thanks to the work we have done with the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, there are more graduates in shortage subjects with 2:1s and firsts coming into the classroom. The more people with great degrees from great universities, such as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), we have teaching in our schools, the happier I am—even if it runs contrary to Labour policy.

T4. There are 37 academy brokers on up to £700 a day. Are they bound by the civil service code of conduct? (160877)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. They are not bound by the civil service code, but they do have to have regard to the civil service code. I believe the question was raised in a Westminster Hall debate and he secured a partial answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss)—

I am terribly sorry, but I think that someone who makes a mistake and is happy to correct the record is in a rather better position than someone who attempts to belittle in a sexist fashion an honourable Minister.

T9. Teachers in my constituency tell me that teaching assistants make a huge contribution to their schools. Their work not only means that teachers have more time to teach, but has a big impact on things such as attendance and student discipline. In the light of recent press speculation, will the Secretary of State put on the record his support for teaching assistants and pledge to keep them in our schools? (160883)

T5. Academy@Worden in my constituency is now the highest achieving school in South Ribble, with the percentage of pupils who gain at least five A* to C grades increasing from 76% in 2010 to 100% last year. As a trustee of the school, which became an academy this year, I am pleased to ask my right hon. Friend if he will join me in congratulating Academy@Worden on its achievement, and if he will accompany me on a visit to the school, which is a great success story of the academies programme. (160878)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. It sounds like a fantastic result from that academy. Sponsored academies have improved their results at a faster rate than local authority-maintained schools, and I am sure that someone from the Department for Education would be delighted to visit the school.

Lilian Baylis school, an outstanding secondary school in Kennington in my constituency, will this month receive the dubious award of taking the longest time to become an academy—it is now more than 22 months—because of a dispute between the local authority and the Department over the fact that it is a private finance initiative, along with legal costs. In the meantime, the school is suffering, as it wants to get on with becoming an academy. Will the Secretary of State try to get that sorted out? Only a small amount of money is needed from someone, but clearly we need to get it sorted.

The hon. Lady is a brilliant campaigner for higher quality schools in her constituency, and we will do everything we can to help. I am afraid that her question lays bare the fact that there are some really good MPs on the Labour Benches who want their schools to become academies, but an insufficient number of Labour local authorities that are prepared to stand with us against the enemies of promise.

T6. Bewsey Lodge primary school is a very good school in a difficult part of Warrington. It has a large special needs unit that, although it is high quality, reduces the overall performance metrics, which affects morale. Better school comparability could be achieved if metrics were produced with, and without, special needs units. (160880)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his keen interest in schools in his constituency that provide important and excellent special educational needs provision. It is important that we have an accountability system that recognises the achievements of all pupils, which very much chimes with Sir Michael Wilshaw’s comments last week, as well as the strengthening of the SEN element of inspection from September 2012. We will launch an accountability consultation shortly, and doubtless my hon. Friend will want to contribute to it on the very point that he has just made.

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the heads of academies cannot create small sub-committees of governors that can then take crucial decisions about the general future of the schools in question?

It is absolutely the case that the principals of academies are tightly bound by a set of rules about how governing bodies or boards of trustees should operate. If there are specific cases about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned but which, for understandable reasons, he does not wish to raise on the Floor of the House, perhaps we can meet to discuss what is giving him concern.

T8. Does the Minister agree that making financial education a formal part of the national curriculum should ensure not only that every child leaves school with a basic understanding of personal finance but that those who seek to start their own businesses are better equipped with the skills that they need to succeed? (160882)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We have improved financial education in maths through the better study of interest rates, loans and mortgages. We have also included the subject in citizenship classes and, furthermore, we are participating in the PISA —the programme for international student assessment— comparison between different countries on financial literacy. We can therefore compare the capabilities of our 15-year-olds with those in other countries.

In response to a cross-party amendment to the Children and Families Bill proposing a continuation of funding to foster carers until care leavers reach the age of 21, the Minister said that he was reviewing the current arrangements and was prepared to legislate if necessary. Will he give the House an indication of the time scale for that review?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, both for his continued and passionate support for children in care and care leavers, and for his instrumental work in securing the junior ISAs—individual savings accounts—which have proved to be a great success, with over 30,000 in operation. We want to enable care leavers to continue to live with former foster carers where it is right for them to do so. I know from my own family experience that it can be a hugely beneficial part of their transition to adult life.

Although staying put policies have been clearly set out—and I wrote to all the directors of children’s services in October to lay out the terrain so that they can do more to support foster children in that situation—we want to see further improvements. More figures will be published later this year on the staying put pilots and how they are beginning to spread more widely. We will look at those keenly, as we want more progress more quickly.

School governance is an increasingly topical issue. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important to ensure that our school governing bodies are strong, courageous and capable of making sure that all schools provide decent education for all their pupils?

My hon. Friend is right. That is why I am so pleased that Lord Nash and Sir Michael Wilshaw are working together to raise the quality of school governance.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), both the think-tank Reform and the Treasury have raised questions about the efficacy and value for money of teaching assistants. Will the Secretary of State give his view?

I respect teaching assistants. I am also very interested in what Reform has to say, but above all I obey what the Treasury tells me.

Will my right hon. Friend give me his assessment of how well the new Harris academy in Beckenham has been doing since its foundation?

The Harris academy in Beckenham, like all Harris academies, is performing significantly better than its predecessor school. May I place on the record my gratitude for the visionary leadership shown by Lord Harris of Peckham, Sir Dan Moynihan and those Members of Parliament from Mitcham and Morden to Beckenham who have championed Harris academies, often in the teeth of opposition from the National Union of Teachers, the NASUWT and other unions that have acted as the enemies of promise?

Does the Secretary of State agree with his own chief inspector of schools that over the past 15 years standards across the urban population of this country have risen remarkably? Will he give the House the opportunity to hear him say, “Well done, teachers. You’ve done a good job. You could do more but you’ve done pretty well over these past 15 years”?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as he is increasingly becoming, for giving me this opportunity to underline that point. Let me first of all praise those politicians from the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) to Lord Adonis who, in the teeth of resistance from trade unions and others, pressed forward the case for reform. Let me praise the former Prime Minister Tony Blair for his courage in doing so. Let me regret that the momentum for reform was lost under the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), but let me above all praise teachers for the fantastic job that we are doing. We have the best generation of young teachers and the best generation of head teachers ever in our schools, and I had the opportunity of seeing some of them when I visited the constituency of Buckingham just over a week ago. In both schools that I visited, Buckingham school and the Royal Latin, I was privileged to see brilliant teachers doing a wonderful job for an MP who believes in the very best of state education.

I warmly thank the Secretary of State and I know that Angela Wells and David Hudson, the head teachers of the Buckingham and Royal Latin schools, will similarly thank the right hon. Gentleman.

In September this year in my constituency, a free school will be opening in one of the most deprived wards in Wolverhampton, providing an invaluable ladder for social mobility. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that a future Conservative Government will provide free school places and free schools to meet the needs of local people?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his consistent championing of greater choice for his constituents. It is absolutely the case that if a Conservative Government or indeed a Conservative-led Government are returned after the next election we will make sure that parental choice and higher standards are at the heart of everything we do.

May I give the Secretary of State the chance to say “Well done” to Labour-run Telford and Wrekin council, which is developing a co-operative academy model, bringing schools together, working as co-operative schools?

There are some great people in Labour local government and if they are friends of the hon. Gentleman, they are friends of mine.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the case of Geoffrey Bettley, who was a teacher at St Mary’s in Menston on the border of my constituency, who downloaded child porn images, was rightly sacked by the school and was put on the sex offenders register. Bizarrely, the Secretary of State appears to have allowed this gentleman to start teaching again. Surely he appreciates that people convicted of those offences are not welcomed back into the classroom by parents. Can he explain how he arrived at that decision, and what he will do to try to reverse it?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that very serious issue. Mr Bettley is not teaching at the moment and will not be teaching in future. The process we arrived at for ensuring that the National College for Teaching and Leadership reviewed cases was not as good as it should have been, to put it mildly. I do not put the blame at anyone’s door other than my own, but one of the things I have been anxious to do following the Bettley case is to make sure that we have new guidance in place to ensure that the decisions taken in future are appropriate to keep our children safe.