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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 567: debated on Monday 9 September 2013


The Secretary of State was asked—

Primary Schools: Sport

Making physical activity integral to every child’s life from an early age is the key to an enduring, active and healthy lifestyle. That is why the Prime Minister announced cross-Government funding of £150 million each year for 2013-14 and 2014-15, to go to every state-funded primary school. This must be spent on improving the provision of physical education and sport. Ofsted will review schools’ use of this funding, and PE will remain compulsory in the national curriculum at all four key stages.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he join me in welcoming the benefits of the FA Tesco skills programme for primary school pupils, which aims to coach 4.7 million children by 2014?

I am happy to welcome the benefits of the FA Tesco Skills programme, and to congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent appointment as the FA’s parliamentary fellow. I can see huge benefits in sponsors such as Tesco and other well-known supermarkets working closely with national governing bodies to improve children’s access to high-quality coaching in different sports, which Lord Coe believes is an important aspect of our strategy going forward.

Sport and healthy eating are vital in tackling childhood obesity. How does the Minister plan to encourage more primary schools to spend more time teaching those skills in a busy curriculum?

With a third of children leaving primary school with a problem with their weight, that is a concern for us all, and as I have said, the final national curriculum, which is due to be published shortly, will make PE compulsory at all four key stages. The status of cooking and healthy eating will reflect the recent school food plan, so it is right that we do that, but ultimately it should be up to individual schools to plan their own curriculum to ensure that ample time is available to cover all subjects.

Does the Minister agree that taking part in competitive swimming should be available to school pupils? Will he discuss with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government the unfair funding for my home town of Hull, because our swimming pools are being closed, including Ennerdale, which is the only competition-sized pool in the city?

I am happy to look at the particular situation that the hon. Lady has articulated, but it is up to local councils to make those decisions. Many councils are opening swimming pools around the country, and swimming will be a compulsory activity in the new curriculum, as we have seen the benefits that it can bring to a healthy lifestyle for many children across the country.

The Government were warned when they cut the money for school sport partnerships in 2010 that there would be fewer children in schools doing sport. Survey after survey has shown just that. The Taking Part survey, which was published last month, showed that there had been a 10% cut since 2009 in the number of children aged five to 10 doing sport in school. What are the Government going to do to turn that around?

It is disappointing to see the results of the Taking Part survey, but the Opposition and the hon. Gentleman have to make a decision soon about where they stand on school sport, and whether they are going to join the consensus that recognises that intervening early in a child’s life and making sport, through the work that we are doing with primary schools, an integral part of their life is the way forward. I am happy to discuss with him how he can join us to make sure that the huge amount of investment that we have made in school sports, which is ring-fenced and will be inspected by Ofsted, will have a real impact in the long term. I am open to those conversations, but he has to make a choice as to whether he is going to continue to carp from the sidelines or engage in the real debate.

Primary School Places

2. What steps he is taking to ensure a sufficient supply of primary school places; and if he will make a statement. (900159)

We are spending £5 billion in this Parliament on creating new school places—more than double the amount spent by the previous Government over the same time frame. We have worked closely with councils on the reforms to school place funding, so it is now more accurate than ever before, targeting money to the places where the demand is greatest.

The Department for Education will be well aware of the concerns of parents in Walthamstow about the lack of school places, 400 of them having written to the Department. The only new school which has opened on its watch, a free school, has no outdoor play space. Are the Government happy, especially given the previous comments about sport, that this is good enough for kids in my constituency?

We are very proud of our record, not just across the country, but in the hon. Lady’s area. I looked at the figures in preparation for today’s session, comparing the amount of basic need funding under the Labour Government with the allocations during this Parliament. Under the previous Government the allocations to her authority were £1 million, less than £1 million, less than £1 million, and so on—£11.2 million in total over the previous Parliament. Under this coalition Government the allocation will not be £11.2 million. It will be £126.7 million.

Does my right hon. Friend think the policy of uncontrolled immigration pursued by the Opposition has led to some of the pressure that we see on primary school places in areas such as Rossendale and Darwen?

There certainly are pressures from immigration, and there are other pressures on the birth rate too. These pressures have been known about since 2003, and in spite of that the Labour Government took 200,000 places in primary schools out of circulation, notwithstanding the warnings from those now on the Government Benches.

We have heard an incredibly complacent answer from the Minister. In 2010 the Secretary of State promised a new generation of good small schools with smaller class sizes. Since then we have seen a trebling of the number of very large primary schools, and in the past year a doubling in the number of infant classes of more than 30 children. Does the Minister not regret the decision in 2010 to cancel Labour’s primary school building programme?

The hon. Gentleman needs to acknowledge, in fairness, that this Government are allocating more than twice the amount his Government allocated for basic need. He needs to acknowledge that his Government made a mistake in withdrawing 200,000 places from primary education in the period from 2003. If he really is concerned about our capital expenditure on schools, perhaps he can tell me whether the Labour party is planning to increase it.

It is time that this Government took some responsibility for their own decisions. They have been in power for three and a half years and we have a crisis in primary school places. Last week the Secretary of State told us that free schools would solve this. Next year only one in three of the free schools that will open will be primary schools. How does that solve the problem? Will he change course even at this stage and give top priority in capital spending for new school places in areas that need extra school places?

If the hon. Gentleman were doing his homework, he would know that the vast majority of new free schools are in areas of basic need and that almost half the free schools that we have just announced are in places such as London. I gently say to him that I did not hear an answer to the question of whether he is really suggesting that we need additional capital expenditure. What many in the House and outside will detect is the Labour party, in the same way as it did over Syria, offering criticisms but no serious policy solutions.

Further to my right hon. Friend’s answer concerning the impact of free schools, can he assure me that those that are planned in areas where the need may not be as acute will remain under review, so that any further capital investment can be prioritised to deliver the places that we need?

I can absolutely guarantee that we will continue to prioritise areas of basic need for free schools, and that we will make sure that we have the allocations of money to deal with the basic need problems left to us by the previous Government.

Will the Schools Minister welcome the willingness of Rotherham council to add to the money that the Department is providing under the basic need funding to allow Cortonwood infants school and Brampton the Ellis junior school to expand their places? Why is it that half the free schools open already are in areas where there is no need for extra places?

The second statement is simply wrong. The overwhelming majority of free schools are in areas of basic need. On the first question, I would be very happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss his specific proposal. We want to be as pragmatic and helpful as possible to councils that face these pressures.

Following the recent Public Accounts Committee report, it is clear to me that we have pressure on primary school places because Labour was obsessed with building landlocked expensive private finance initiative schools and decided to remove a quarter of a million primary school places during a baby boom. What is the quickest way for local communities to respond?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that from 2003 onwards, the Office for National Statistics was pointing to one of the biggest increases in the birth rate for many generations. Those who are now on the Government Benches were warning the Labour Government that there would be a real crisis in primary school places. In spite of that, 200,000 places were removed between 2003 and 2010. Labour Members will be pleased to know that almost all the 200,000 places have been replaced by this coalition Government.

Ofsted Inspections: Free Schools

3. What assessment he has made of the outcome of Ofsted inspections of the first free schools. (900160)

The first 24 free schools to open have been inspected by Ofsted and three quarters were judged to be either good or outstanding. One school was judged to be inadequate and we expect it to take urgent action to bring about rapid improvement. It is being closely monitored by Ofsted and the Department.

What advice has my right hon. Friend given to Ofsted on the assessment of free schools, such as the Discovery New School in my constituency, given that they do not always meet the rigid national criteria of other schools?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Ofsted has, in its new revised handbook, taken account of the fact that more parents are exercising choice in a way that inevitably compels Ofsted to review its guidance, and explicitly it says:

“Certain types of schools (such as faith, Steiner and Montessori schools) exist as maintained or independent schools. When inspecting such…provisions, inspectors should familiarise themselves with the background information to these types of schools”.

We heard at Prime Minister’s questions last week about the impact of free schools on the cost of school uniforms. Whatever the rights and wrongs of free schools or uniform policy, may I give the Secretary of State a second chance on this, and will he explain what steps he has been taking, in relation to free or other schools, to keep the cost of school uniforms down for parents?

This is an important issue. Parents need reassurance that we are doing everything possible to keep down the cost of school uniforms. Clear guidance is issued by the Department for Education on how costs can be kept down. I subsequently read the report that was mentioned at Prime Minister’s questions last week and it referred to 13 schools, a small sample, but there were one or two worrying cases. I believe that those worrying cases may well be voluntary-aided schools rather than academy or free schools, but we shall keep the issue constantly under review.

During the past 20 years, many Ofsted inspectors have required schools to adopt particular teaching methods, which some would call progressive, but which the evidence suggests have failed. The new Ofsted inspection framework now makes it clear that

“Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of teaching or show preference towards a specific lesson structure.”

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that message is heard loud and clear by both inspectors and teachers, as he did in his excellent Policy Exchange speech on Thursday: that teachers who want to adopt a more effective teacher-led approach to teaching are now free to do so?

My hon. Friend is right. One of the many reasons why Sir Michael Wilshaw is proving an outstanding chief inspector is that he has moved away from the rigid prescription that forced methods of teaching on schools which were not in the best interests of children, and he has ensured that we now have an approach that encourages teachers to teach, and that once more says that direct instruction, and the pedagogy that concentrates on knowledge, should be at the heart of what happens in our schools.

It has been reported that the Durham free school has nine staff for 30 pupils. Does that, in addition to its unlimited capital, represent good value for the taxpayer or is it an act of political folly?

I think it represents excellent value, because for far too long, as the hon. Gentleman knows, schools in County Durham, particularly in the east of the county, have not been good enough. The fact that parents at last have a challenger school, helping to raise standards in an area where, frankly, working-class children have been let down for far too long by a complacent Labour party, is to be welcomed. A genuine progressive would welcome it instead of carping and reading from the NASUWT National Union of Teachers hymn book.

One in a Million free school opened last week in Bradford and was over-subscribed. I am sure that it will have excellent Ofsted inspections in the future. May I thank Lord Hill for the work that he put in to ensure that the school opened successfully, and will the Secretary of State confirm that either he or another Minister will visit One in a Million free school in the very near future?

My hon. Friend has been a great champion for the school. I will do everything possible to ensure that I or another Minister visits Bradford as soon as possible. It is instructive that in Bradford politicians of every party—including Respect—apart from Labour are backing free schools. Why is it that Labour stands out against them?

Unqualified Teachers

Under Government changes, more than half of all secondary schools can now employ unqualified teachers on a permanent basis, yet the Tory manifesto of 2010 stated:

“The single most important thing for a good education is for every child to have access to a good teacher. We will take steps to enhance the status of the teaching profession”.

Is it not now clear that the Government are going in precisely the opposite direction?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to point out that the proportion of postgraduate trainees in every subject, including non-target subjects, who have a 2:1 or higher degree, or a comparable overseas degree, has risen in each of the last three years. Teachers in our state schools are better qualified than ever.

I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s robust answer. Does he agree that the people who are qualified to teach maths might in fact be those with good maths degrees, rather than teaching qualifications, and will he commend the university of Oxford for including teaching in schools as a possible module in its maths course?

The hon. Gentleman’s natural modesty prevents him from pointing out to the House that he is himself a distinguished mathematician, but that is now a matter of record.

My hon. Friend is a very distinguished mathematician and Member of this House, and he is absolutely right: we need to ensure that gifted mathematicians, both recent graduates and those who are changing career, have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation are introduced to the wonder and beauty of mathematics.

Does the question the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) just asked not emphasise the point that we need highly trained teachers? We need to get the best out of teachers. They might be good at their academic subjects, but I believe that teachers are made, not born. Is that not right? Will the Secretary of State disassociate himself from the statement by the head of Brighton college, who thinks the reverse?

It is difficult for me to disassociate myself from anything the headmaster of Brighton college says, because he was at the same college as me, in the year ahead, and is a much smarter guy. I owe almost everything I learnt at university to cribbing off him. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The whole point about teacher training is that it is not just a matter of one year of postgraduate study; it is a matter of continually refining one’s craft and profession collaboratively with other great teachers.

I recall enthusiasm being expressed in the past for retiring members of Her Majesty’s armed forces being recruited as teachers. Can the Secretary of State indicate how many people retiring from Her Majesty’s armed forces have become teachers?

I do not have the numbers in front of me, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact figures. Our Troops to Teachers initiative has ensured that a growing number of those officers, both non-commissioned and commissioned, who have left the armed forces are now entering teacher training.

I can assure the Secretary of State that I wish him no harm, but if later today he was taken ill and rushed to an accident and emergency department, would it be enough for him that the doctors and nurses were outstanding and talented individuals? Would he not expect them also to be qualified?

I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman wishes me no ill. The one thing that I would take comfort from would be if the school had been ranked good or outstanding by Ofsted. I am pleased that the national health service is adopting our method of grading schools and applying it to hospitals, and I am pleased that under this Government, according to the chief inspector today, we have seen an unprecedented rate of school improvement.

GCSE Results (South Essex)

There have been some very good results at GCSE in south Essex. In common with the rest of the country, we have seen a big rise in the number of students doing core academic subjects, thanks to the English baccalaureate. We have seen a 16% rise in modern languages and a record number of girls taking chemistry and physics as GCSEs.

So will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Belfairs academy in my constituency on a staggering 21% increase in the number of pupils obtaining more than five A* to C grades and a 23% increase overall? Will she congratulate all Southend West schools on their wonderful results, which underline why Southend should have been named city of culture 2017?

I congratulate the students and teachers at the school, and across Southend, on their excellent results. I hope that some of those students will be the upwardly mobile political giants that my hon. Friend wants in the House of Commons in future.

19. Does my hon. Friend agree that exam results would improve even more in Essex and across the country if further education college students who were eligible for free school meals, got them? (900178)

We are rightly ensuring that all students who do not achieve a C in English and maths at GCSE continue to study them at FE colleges and beyond, so that they get the results that they need for their future careers.


I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments. Academies have had freedom over the curriculum that they teach for some time. When is he going to extend that to all schools—and if he is not going to, why not?

It is perfectly possible for any school to apply for academy status, but we need to make sure that the leadership team are capable of taking advantage of all the freedoms. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for endorsing academies; I wish that more of his colleagues, such as the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), who is no longer in his place, would do so.

I hope that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) will recognise, as I and academy sponsors do, that it is not only freedom over the curriculum that matters, but freedom over staffing and freedom to pay good teachers more. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in condemning the strike by the NUT and the NASUWT, which his Front-Bench colleagues have so conspicuously failed to do.

Academy sponsorship is transforming education in Hastings. The Hastings and St Leonards academies have just been rated good by Ofsted, which represents the long journey they have been on. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming ARK, which has taken over the sponsorship of two of our other secondary schools in Hastings?

I am absolutely delighted that the number of sponsored academies is increasing in areas where educational performance has been too low for too long. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for being such a doughty champion of the children of Hastings, who were let down under the last Government and are being rescued under this one.

Further to the Secretary of State’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) earlier, I put it to him that the reason for the spiralling costs of school uniforms is that new free schools and academies are requiring branded items available only from special shops. That is the problem.

At one Manchester academy, the back-to-school costs were £302. I should say to the Secretary of State that, following last week’s question to the Prime Minister, I received feedback from all across the country that the issue was a problem. It could become a barrier to parents’ choice of schools. What action is the Secretary of State going to take?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for directing me towards the Family Action report, which I found interesting and sometimes sobering reading. The report identified 13 schools; they are not a representative sample. Those with the most significant additional costs for uniform tended to be voluntary aided schools rather than academies or free schools. There is no evidence that academies or free schools impose any additional uniform costs over maintained schools and there is no evidence that the overall increase in uniform costs has run out of kilter with other costs that families face. However, the Department is renewing its guidance to make sure that schools make the right choice for parents.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is particularly exciting for the academy programme when primary and secondary schools are brought together in the same academy structure, such as the Montsaye academy in Rothwell and the Kettering Buccleuch and Kettering Science academies in Kettering itself?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Northamptonshire has been one of the counties most transformed by academies involving a range of sponsors. I thank my hon. Friend for the energetic work that he has done on behalf of the children of Kettering, making sure that standards and expectations are increased.


8. What proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds were not in education, employment or training in (a) the UK and (b) Isle of Wight constituency in the latest quarter for which figures are available. (900166)

Some 9.1% of 16 to 18-year-olds in England were not in education, employment or training in April to June 2013. This is a fall of 1.4 percentage points on the same period last year and the lowest figure in a decade.

Some 4.7% of 16 to 18-year-olds in the Isle of Wight were NEET at the end of 2012. That is a fall of 0.5% on the same period in the previous year. The progress is good, but there is much more to do.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he clarify whether schools and colleges are required to get young people a GCSE in English or maths at level C or above or whether that is an aspiration? What sanctions will be imposed on those that fail to achieve it?

It is a requirement on schools and colleges that students who have not achieved a C in English and maths GCSE will continue to study those subjects. From next year they will lose funding if they do not, because English and maths are the most important skills. They must study towards GCSEs but can take interim qualifications, such as functional skills, as a stepping stone.

Surely if we want post-16-year-olds to stay on in education, young people of that age who attend further education colleges should be eligible for free school meals in exactly the same way as if they were at school.

The question of free school meals post-16 is very important. However, schools are not funded to provide them after the age of 16, so making sure that we have a level playing field requires that we get the funding organised as well.

Ahead of tomorrow’s Ofsted report on careers guidance in schools, does the Minister agree on the importance of careers advice in schools? Does he also agree that it is not working well and that it would be much improved if the National Careers Service were funded to provide support and a challenge for schools in fulfilling their duty?

As my hon. Friend well knows, I am a passionate supporter of the inspiration and mentoring of children in schools and adults of all ages. It is important to make sure that the right people—pupils and students—get the right advice. I am looking forward to tomorrow’s Ofsted report. We will respond and make it very clear what we are going to do to ensure that as many people as possible have such inspiration, mentoring, support and advice.

Free Schools

My right hon. Friend is aware that I am a huge fan of free schools, which not only offer extra school places but massively increase choice. As he will also be aware, there is great pressure on school places in Ealing. This week an application is going to his Department for a new free school, Ealing Fields, which has the support of the parents of 1,200 pupils, and counting. Does he agree that that application should be considered positively and favourably? We are all keeping our fingers crossed.

Of course we will look at this application as we look at all applications. Every time my hon. Friend has recommended that I meet a head teacher from Ealing, whether Lubna Khan or Alice Hudson, I have been overjoyed to do so. I am delighted that outstanding head teachers working in our schools are being celebrated by my hon. Friend, and that people such as Alice Hudson are providing the opportunity to open new free schools so that more children can benefit.

The Secretary of State and the shadow Education Secretary have visited and praised Cuckoo Hall academies in Enfield. Does my right hon. Friend share the frustration felt by me and by parents in my constituency that when there is the opportunity to spread the excellence of free schools in my constituency—for example, in the old Southgate town hall—it is repeatedly blocked by the Labour council?

I do share my hon. Friend’s frustration. It is incumbent on Labour Front Benchers to show leadership and to call out the local authorities, from London to the north-east, that are standing in the way of opportunity. Until they do so, I am afraid that we will have to conclude that Labour is still too weak to govern.

Achievement Levels

Girls outperform boys at key stage and at GCSE by about 10%, except in the subject of mathematics, where boys slightly outperform girls. As everybody is aware, that is the subject with the highest earnings premium. Girls are also less likely to study the high-value subjects of physics, maths and chemistry at A-level.

Our biggest educational problem is the long tail of underachieving boys in the system. What measurable progress, compared with international standards, have we made with this very stubborn problem?

Ultimately, schools are best placed to improve the attainment of low-performing students. From 2012, we have given schools extra information about the gap in performance between boys and girls so that they can address it. The introduction of the phonics check at age six means that we can identify boys, in particular, who are struggling with reading and give them extra help. The introduction of more focus on arithmetic in primary schools, with times tables and better testing, means that we can make sure that girls get up to the standard they need to be at before they reach secondary school.

The Children’s Commissioner has shown that black Caribbean boys are three times more likely than white pupils to be excluded from school. What is the Minister doing to understand the reasons for that disparity in school exclusions and to make sure that no injustice or unfairness is seriously impacting on the performance of those boys?

As I said in my previous answer, it is up to schools and teachers to identify underperforming students and groups. The important thing is that we focus on this as early as possible. That is why we are focusing on improving quality in early-years education in order to make sure that students get the basics in terms of vocabulary and counting, which will lead to better performance later on.

Study Leave

12. If he will make an assessment of the effects of the provision of study leave for students in years 11, 12 and 13 on exam performance. (900170)

On analysis of the absence data, we have found that when schools use study leave sparingly and ensure that students are doing the right thing, it can be beneficial for academic outcomes.

Study leave before key exams can help high-performing students reach their potential, but can be to the detriment of lower to middle-performing students. Some schools are therefore cancelling study leave for all students. Will the Government advise schools to tailor their study leave policy so that students who would benefit from study leave are able to do so?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right that some students benefit from greater independent study and that others need more support at school. The Department’s work indicates that teachers are making those decisions. They are offering supported study, learning opportunities and drop-in sessions at school for some students, while others have the benefit of study leave. We issued advice to schools in August to make that clear to them.

Study leave may well allow some pupils to develop independent study skills, but does my hon. Friend agree that ultimately it is for schools to decide the best policy for their pupils with regard to studying for exams?

Yes, I completely agree with my hon. Friend that it is the responsibility of schools. It is also in a school’s interest to make sure that students are given the best possible study opportunities. We think that schools should use study leave sparingly and make sure that there are opportunities to study at school when students do not have a home environment conducive to study.

When the Secretary of State said recently that every child should have a room of their own in which to study, was he deliberately undermining the Government’s bedroom tax policy or was he using his platform as Education Secretary to push back the frontiers of ignorance a bit further by giving us a practical demonstration of the concept of irony?

My Secretary of State was making an absolutely clear case for a better planning system in order to ensure that we have the homes we need across the country. As I have said, there should be opportunities available, both at school and in the home, for children to study.

Child Guardians

13. What assessment his Department has made of the role of child guardians and their effects on the length of court proceedings in public law cases. (900171)

The length of care proceedings and the role of the children’s guardian were examined as part of the family justice review by David Norgrove. Factors such as the early appointment of a guardian to a case can be particularly important. Performance on this continues to be closely monitored. I am pleased to report that appointments are consistently taking place within the agreed two-day target, with the average appointment taking place in half a day.

In my experience it is often the case that, despite the best intentions, children’s guardians add another layer of complexity to an already cumbersome court process, causing delay and introducing children to yet another unfamiliar face. What action is the Minister taking to improve the effectiveness of guardians in putting the interests of children first?

I spent the best part of a decade working in the family courts on exactly these sorts of cases, and many people, including myself, value the independent voice that the guardian gives to children who are in care. We know from the public law outline, which has recently been updated, that since the publication of our Children and Families Bill the length of care proceedings has already fallen from 56 to 42 weeks and that the quality of the reporting from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service has continued to improve, as has its timeliness. I will listen to what the hon. Lady has to say about the role of the guardians, but at the moment I believe they play an extremely important role.

I am aware that the Government are trying to reduce the length of the court proceedings for care orders, but is my hon. Friend mindful of the fact that when a parent wishes to maintain custody of the child and there are circumstances that the court has to investigate, the case will take as long as it takes?

Our reforms to the family courts system do nothing to undermine the discretion of the judiciary in ensuring that cases are considered justly. No decision is made without the best interests of the child being at the forefront of their minds and that will continue to be the case. I reassure my hon. Friend that the issue that she raises has been very much addressed.

Young Apprenticeship Starts

14. How many young apprenticeship starts there were in the latest period for which figures are available. (900172)

Given that the number of young apprenticeships is going down, has the Minister given any thought to the proposal of the Institute of Directors that there should be an adjustment in favour of young apprenticeships to take account of how difficult the job market is for under-19s?

The number of apprentices in that age group is 10% higher than it was. I saw that report and it makes an attractive argument. We pay twice as much for the training of apprentices who are under the age of 19, but I will certainly pay regard to that report.

Sure Start

The Department issued guidance in April to make it clear that the core purpose of children’s centres is to support families and improve outcomes for children. We want to see a greater emphasis on evidence-based policies. Ofsted has also sharpened its focus on outcomes for children.

I thank the Minister for her response. However, the Government’s own figures show that there are 562 fewer children’s centres than at the time of the last election. How many more community assets does the Minister want to see lost?

The reality is that the vast majority of those centres have been merged or have seen their management restructured. Only 1% of children’s centres— that is 45 children’s centres—have closed outright. The hon. Gentleman is using a misleading figure. The fact is that Labour Members would rather have bureaucracy and management than outcomes-based front-line work. Are they seriously saying that they would reintroduce the managers and the bureaucracy?

That is 562 fewer children’s centres already. [Interruption.] Those are your figures. Another 23 children’s centres are scheduled to go in Tory Kent. According to last week’s report from the Children’s Society—[Interruption.] The Children’s Society is rubbish—is that what he has just said? According to the report by the Children’s Society, which is anything but rubbish, there will be a budget cut of more than 50% over this Parliament. While millionaires enjoy their tax cuts, vital public services such as Sure Start are left to wither on the vine. When will these Ministers admit that their choices will cost all of us much more in the long run and apologise to the parents who have lost such valued services?

I do not think that the hon. Lady listened to my previous answer. Those centres have not closed. The Government and local authorities have been saving money by reducing bureaucracy and management and running things more efficiently, which is what Conservative-led Governments do. She will be pleased to hear that our recruitment of early-years teachers is above trajectory, so there will be even more quality personnel in our children’s centres and nurseries.

Care System

16. If his Department will publish a strategy setting out plans for children in the care system; and if he will make a statement. (900174)

Early last year, Ministers considered whether to develop an overarching strategy for children in care. It was decided that, as there was general consensus about what needed to improve, it would be better simply to get on and drive a programme of change. Since then we have set in place reforms to ensure that all children have strong and stable placements, achieve good educational outcomes, and receive ongoing quality support when they leave care.

On strong and stable placements, when children in care are in social housing, foster carers still have to pay the bedroom tax. The Secretary of State says that he wants children to have a room to study in, but that just cannot happen however many houses there are and however strong the planning system. Will he urgently encourage his colleagues to provide an exemption from the bedroom tax for all children in foster care?

The hon. Gentleman will know that, prior to taking on this position, I worked closely with the Fostering Network to ensure that the exemption already in place for foster carers came to fruition. I reassure him that, through the work I am doing across Departments with Lord Freud and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, we will continue to review the matter carefully through a proper evaluation of the impact that the measure may be having. I have that reassurance and will continue with that work.

I am grateful that the Minister is getting on with doing things rather than writing reports. One thing the Government could do for child victims of human trafficking who go into local authority care is identify them as victims of trafficking, so we can see whether they are re-trafficked. That is a flaw in the system at the moment.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes an important and serious point about a problem that still blights too many children, and which continues in our communities, often under the radar when it needs to be more prominent. I will look carefully at what he says and I am happy to discuss the matter with him further to see what more we can do.

Ministers’ plans to outsource children in care placements to private companies such as Serco were recently blocked by the House of Lords after an evaluation of similar trials under the previous Government raised serious concerns about the impact on children, questioning the continuity of knowledge, skills and care in the private sector. Will the Minister tell the House in whose interest he is pressing ahead with these plans, and say why he does not consider it reckless to remove at the same time essential independent checks on those companies?

We must be honest about the fact that the current system is failing too many vulnerable children, and it cannot continue. The previous Government introduced in legislation exemptions to the status quo to allow social work practices to develop, which is outsourcing some of the children’s services functions. We think that that is an encouraging way to look at innovative ways of bringing people into working with vulnerable children, so that they get the best possible care. The hon. Lady should look carefully at what we are doing, because it is in the interests of children. That is why we need it to go forward.

Topical Questions

Today Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools reported that his inspectors have recorded a rate of improvement in our schools that was “unprecedented” in Ofsted’s 21-year history. He said figures show that 600,000 more children

“are now getting at least a good standard of education”

when compared with the beginning of the last academic year. He records his thanks to the best generation of head teachers ever for that improvement in our schools, and I would like to record my thanks as well.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. To give

“every parent access to a good school”

was the Tory party manifesto commitment to parents, but the reality could not be more different for many of those parents, given the Secretary of State’s crisis in primary school places. Given his obsession with spending money on free schools in areas where there are already enough school places, meaning that class sizes are at bursting point in other parts of the country, does he accept that that policy is denying many children the good start they deserve?

The chief inspector’s words stand by themselves. Never in the history of Ofsted over the past 21 years have so many children been enjoying a good education. I hoped that the hon. Gentleman would have wanted to congratulate teachers on that.

The other point is that we are spending more than twice as much on providing new school places in primary schools as the previous Government. They were warned repeatedly by Conservative Members of Parliament, but they did nothing because they were recklessly committed to a programme of spending and borrowing in a wasteful fashion, which betrayed a generation. Now Opposition Members may mewl and puke as they wish, but I am afraid the guilt is written all over their faces and is there in the National Audit Office report.

T2. I was shocked to learn that the London School of Economics made only four offers to students in the entire borough of Dudley this year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that secondary schools should be doing more to encourage students with academic potential to choose courses at GCSE and A-level that will enable them to apply to our top universities with a reasonable chance of success? (900199)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—I was delighted to visit an outstanding sixth-form college in her constituency that is leading the way. In a spirit of bipartisanship, her commitment to higher standards in education is shared by the Labour Member of Parliament for Dudley North, Mr Austin, who has worked hard with her and with Chris Kelly to ensure that we can persuade children to read the subjects in university that will give them a better chance to get great jobs. That is why the English baccalaureate, which Labour Front Benchers so denounced, has been such a good thing.

Order. The Education Secretary’s study will be complete when he recognises that it is not appropriate to name Members in the Chamber. I know he has been here only eight years. He will get there eventually.

Nearly 1 million young people are unemployed in this country and school leavers are desperate to make the right decisions about their futures, yet, as the Chair of the Education Committee has pointed out, the Government are overseeing the destruction of professional careers advice for 14 to 16-year-olds. Why does the Government’s National Careers Service make 17 times as many interventions for adults as it makes for young people? Does the Secretary of State really believe that his careers strategy is delivering for today’s schoolchildren?

May I give the hon. Gentleman some careers advice? When his boss’s job is under threat and in jeopardy, asking a question of that kind is ill-advised. The truth is that more young people than ever before are studying subjects—physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics—that guarantee a great future for them. The single most powerful intervention to ensure that young people are studying the right subjects was the introduction of the English baccalaureate, which he supported, but which all the other Labour Front Benchers opposed. They are divided on aspiration and, I am afraid, weak when it comes to rigour.

T3. The Government have introduced a variety of initiatives to support small and medium-sized enterprises to take on apprentices, which are welcomed by Lowestoft college in my constituency. However, there is a concern that a postcode lottery is developing, in that a number of different schemes and levels of support are available across the college’s catchment area. Is the Minister aware of that, and does he agree that local enterprise partnerships could have a role in co-ordinating such schemes? (900200)

As my hon. Friend knows, I am a passionate supporter of small businesses and of apprentices in them. The majority of apprentices are in small businesses and the Government do what we can to encourage that. In some places, local authorities top up the support we give. I am thrilled when they do so, but if we can do more to ensure that provision is consistent across LEP areas, we should do it.

T8. Both the Minister for Schools and the Secretary of State completely failed to address the question they were asked about free schools policy. Fifty-one per cent. of all free schools have been built in areas where there are surplus places while there is a crisis in primary school places elsewhere. Is not the point that free schools policy has failed to deal with the shortage of places where they are most needed? (900206)

No, the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. The vast majority of places in free schools are in areas of basic need. As I indicated earlier, of the recent free schools announced, around half are in the London areas where the pressure is greatest, so the figures he gives are simply inaccurate.

T4. In the past four years, Windsor high school, Earls high school and St Michael’s high school in my constituency have opened excellent sixth forms, adding to the excellent work done at Ormiston Forge academy and the local further education college. What is the Secretary of State doing to allow high- performance schools to set up sixth forms and to give them the necessary resources to expand? (900201)

I welcome all schools that wish to set up sixth forms. One of the easiest ways to do so is to acquire academy status.

The Schools Minister was confident that the money set aside by the Government to meet rising demand for primary places will be sufficient, but parents in Lewisham do not share his confidence. Will he meet me and a representative from the borough to explore the significant shortfall it has identified in its primary capital programme?

I would be delighted to do that. I just gently point out to those in local authorities who have been raising fears recently, that the statistics they put out a few days ago included projections of future increases in the primary population, but without giving consideration to the additional places that will be created beyond 2012 from the additional capital we have allocated. Local authorities need to be very careful with the information we have given, but I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady.

T5. It was recently reported that the Government taskforce on tackling extremism was looking at encouraging Muslim soldiers to visit schools to improve community cohesion. How far has the scheme got? (900202)

This is an excellent idea put forward by my noble Friend Baroness Warsi. We want to ensure that we use the commemorations of the beginning of the first world war, in which so many empire and Commonwealth soldiers fought so bravely, and other opportunities in which we can affirm the strength of modern multicultural Britain, to do what she has outlined.

Further to the questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), and the recent report that one in four parents are having to borrow to pay for school uniforms, the Secretary of State will be as shocked as I was to learn today that food banks, including in Liverpool, are now having to distribute uniforms to parents who cannot afford them. I listened carefully to his responses earlier concerning the report and guidance, but what more can he and his Government do to ensure that no students turn up to school embarrassed because they do not have the right clothes?

The hon. Lady and her colleagues raise an important point. I had a look at the Family Action report, which details some of these concerns. As I said, the examples it used were not entirely representative. I had the opportunity to visit a food bank in my constituency on Friday. I appreciate that there are families who face considerable pressures. Those pressures are often the result of decisions that they have taken which mean they are not best able to manage their finances. We need to ensure that support is not just financial, and that the right decisions are made.

T6. I listened carefully to the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), in response to a question from the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who raised the issue of Sure Start children’s centre closures in Kent. One of those centres is Woodgrove children’s centre in one of the most deprived areas of Sittingbourne. Will my hon. Friend take steps to reassure herself that Woodgrove’s closure is justified, and will she persuade Kent county council to change its mind if it is not? (900203)

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of local authorities to ensure that parents get the support they need and that children get the right outcomes. We are refocusing the system on outcomes and quality, and that is what Kent county council should be looking at.

More than 100 civil servants are working on the free schools programme—a testimony to its popularity. Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to talk to them and share a drink—in my case, apple juice—to congratulate them on their work. I was overjoyed to discover that this has been one of the most successful and inspiring things they have done in their distinguished careers in public service.

T7. My right hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of the extra costs of funding rural school places. Will he tell the House what steps the Government are taking to ensure that school places in Lincolnshire are adequately funded? (900205)

My hon. and learned Friend raises an important issue. For too long Governments have been aware that there is not fair funding of schools throughout the country, yet in the past no action was taken. That is why the Chancellor announced in the spending review that we will be holding a consultation into a fair national funding formula for schools, which will deal with precisely the issue my hon. and learned Friend raises.

Given the further squeeze on the funding of education for 16 to 19-year olds, is it not now the time for the Government to give sixth-form colleges the same freedom on VAT that is enjoyed by universities, technical colleges, free schools, academies and maintained schools?

I am highly aware of the pressures on sixth-form college budgets, and of the work they do to ensure standards are very high. I am in constant dialogue with sixth-form college leaders to explore all options to ensure that they can continue to deliver the very high standards they achieve today.

T9. A recent National Audit Office report showed an encouraging 10% rise in adoptions. What is being done to help even more potential adopters to have the confidence to come forward and to support them through what can be a trying process? (900207)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the encouraging rise in the number of people who want to adopt coming forward and the number of adoptions taking place. However, we still need to do more to ensure there are no barriers in the way of anyone who wants to come forward and give a child who needs the best possible start in life that permanent future, and we are determined to see it through.

The Secretary of State said last week that poor children who do not have their own room to do their homework in do not achieve their full potential. Can he explain the policy implications of that statement, and can we assume that he will be arguing against the bedroom tax?

The policy implications are clear: every Member of this House should support the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), in his planning reforms, which will ensure that the price of houses falls and that more big family houses are built. It is shameful that the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has taken the Labour party into a position where it is the party of nimbys, the party opposed to opportunity and the party opposed to growth and development. That is an example of how weak the Labour party is: it blows with every wind instead of standing up for the next generation.

Last week, I had the pleasure of welcoming to Parliament Brad Hodgson from BAE Systems, who is currently north-west young apprentice of the year. Does the Minister agree that driving up the quality of apprenticeships is every bit as important as increasing the numbers, if they are truly to have parity with universities?

Next week, I am looking forward to going to see BAE for myself, because it has one of the best apprenticeship systems in the country. A higher quality of apprenticeships is undoubtedly just as important as the number of people going through them, and that is what we will continue to focus on.

The youth service has always been the fourth arm of education. Now that responsibility is transferred to the Cabinet Office, how will the Secretary of State ensure a robust educational curriculum in the youth service and youth work?

I am absolutely delighted that my gifted colleagues, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), are now leading on youth policy. The huge success of the National Citizen Service, which has seen more and more young people from every community working together in the spirit outlined by the Prime Minister, shows that the right men are leading the right policy for our country. What a pity that Labour will not back it.

Support for bus travel is not available to my constituents in sixth forms or similar in rural Dorset—a problem added to when they now stay on for an extra year—which is placing a great burden on hard-working parents. Will the Secretary of State discuss that issue with Ministers in the Department for Transport?

I have received representations from the hon. Lady on that issue. Ensuring that the costs of transport are represented in the bursaries available to young people is an important issue that we are looking at closely. I will ensure that the right representations are made to the Department for Transport, and I am happy to meet her to take that forward.