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Topical Questions

Volume 567: debated on Monday 9 September 2013

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.