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Topical Questions

Volume 565: debated on Monday 24 June 2013

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.