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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 570: debated on Monday 11 November 2013

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

Education Maintenance Allowance

1. What estimate he has made of savings to the public purse arising from the abolition of the education maintenance allowance. (900983)

By replacing the education maintenance allowance with the 16-to-19 bursary fund, we are saving £380 million every year and targeting help more sharply at the young people who need it most.

My local further education provider, West Cheshire college, is proving very effective at ensuring that the bursary fund helps those young people who most need it. What is my hon. Friend the Minister doing to ensure that the bursary fund is targeted at those most in need?

My hon. Friend’s local FE college is not only very good; it is also the FE college I went to. I am glad to say that the 16-to-19 bursary fund allows colleges to target support at those who need it most. The most vulnerable receive a bursary of up to £1,200, which is far more than they could have received from EMA.

The Merseyside Colleges Association told Merseyside MPs just this week that the bursary fund is nowhere near enough to deal with the need that it finds for food, travel, or books. Will the Minister seriously reconsider? It is not just the very poorest students who are missing out, but those just above them; colleges do not have the money to cover them.

It was found that the education maintenance allowance was paid to 10 times more people than needed it to access further education. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions food, because the Government are introducing free school meals for those who need them in FE colleges—something the Opposition never did.

Is the Minister aware that some people who attend college in Chester do get EMA? Those of my constituents who are from Wales get it, because the Labour Government in Wales provide it to all pupils. Will he accept that that EMA provision means that people stay on at school for longer, and improves their ability to learn at school?

No, because the 16-to-19 bursary fund is better targeted. It is typical of Opposition’s proposals that the shadow Secretary of State’s proposal to bring back EMA came with a measure to pay for it that would have raised just over £100 million, leaving yet another black hole.

Young Carers

On 8 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education issued a written ministerial statement announcing an amendment to the Children and Families Bill. For the first time, all young carers will have the right to an assessment of their needs for support as part of the consideration of the needs of the whole family. That amendment will help to achieve our aim of protecting young people from excessive or inappropriate caring roles.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Many of the young carers in my constituency and their families will be delighted with that news, but how will he ensure that this landmark law is backed up with the support that is necessary for it to be implemented successfully?

It is important to recognise that we are not coming at this from a standing start. Since April 2011, we have been funding work done by the Carers Trust and the Children’s Society to establish and share the best practice in supporting young carers that we know is already out there. To date, they have worked with more than 100 local authorities, and we hope that we can help to build that progress with them.

We have an excellent young carers project in Salford, but it can do its excellent work only if schools and teachers help to identify carers in the first place, so that they can get that help and support. Does the Minister agree that it is essential for schools, colleges and universities to have in place policies that can identify pupils and students who are young carers, and make sure that they are referred to that excellent source of advice and help?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She has been a strong advocate for young carers, not just in her constituency, but more widely. The Children’s Society has been awarded £1.5 million by the Big Lottery Fund to help ensure that teachers are better at identifying young carers in school, and that young carers are identified and get the support that they require. That is welcome news.

Child Protection

3. What recent assessment he has made of progress on inter-agency working for child protection; and if he will make a statement. (900985)

12. What recent assessment he has made of progress on inter-agency working for child protection; and if he will make a statement. (900994)

Professor Eileen Munro looked at inter-agency working in her widely welcomed review of child protection. We endorsed her conclusion that a strong culture of inter-agency working and information sharing is needed in child protection. That is why we have strengthened the statutory guidance, “Working together to safeguard children” 2013, setting out the core responsibilities and legal requirements for all who come into contact with children in order to keep them safe.

The Minister’s response goes some way to reassuring me but, like many colleagues, I find serious case reviews depressingly similar. We hear about the same failings time and again. What is the Secretary of State planning to do to make sure that reviews do not just examine what went wrong, but help us understand why?

The hon. Lady highlights an extremely serious issue which we have taken on board in relation to serious case reviews. It is important that we understand not only what happened but, as she rightly said, why that happened. We have seen in recent serious case reviews the need to get that analysis right so that in the future we see fewer of the problems of the past resurfacing. The Secretary of State will be making a speech later this week on precisely this issue and setting out his vision of what more we need to do to keep our children safe, but it is right that we keep that focus directly where it needs to be—on children—and that it remains our highest priority.

All too often serious case reviews feature a history of domestic violence in the family. What is the Minister doing across government to make sure that a range of professionals are properly trained in this area and are then able to identify and respond to domestic violence?

Before I came to this House and was practising in the family courts, it was a depressing feature of most cases that domestic violence was taking place in the presence of children and sometimes with children being the recipients of that violence. That is why we must be extremely vigilant in whatever work we do with children to make sure we root it out. The Home Office is doing work to try to address training and the understanding of domestic violence, and I know that that is one of the key areas on which the sexual violence against children and vulnerable people national group is working. I will encourage it to do so in collaboration with my Department.

Given the priority that the Government are quite rightly putting on child protection, can the Minister tell me what steps have been taken since I wrote in April to establish the name of the school attended by Adil Rashid, who defended himself against a serious sexual offence on the grounds that his school—his state-funded school—had taught him that women were worthless?

I have been able to identify the school and the steps being taken. I know that my hon. Friend has been in correspondence and the Secretary of State is aware of the issue. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and to write to him with those details so that we ensure that all that can be done is being done.

In conjunction with the need for inter-agency working, will teachers be given the duty of reporting child abuse when they come across it, and will there be a duty to report that to the local authority without any qualification whatever?

The new statutory guidance is crystal clear about the responsibilities of all those who work with children, including in schools, and if they have a concern about a child’s welfare, safety or care they should report that to the appropriate authority. We do not believe that making failure to report a criminal offence will improve the protection of children. There is international evidence that suggests that that can make children less safe, but of course we always keep these things under review.

Does the Minister agree that the Baby Peter case and the tragic event of the death of that little boy highlighted the need for inter-agency co-operation? Will he also associate himself with my view that we in this House should all be ashamed of the inappropriate hunting down and scapegoating of Sharon Shoesmith?

In the light of the recent tragic case of Daniel Pelka, we look carefully at what we could learn from the serious case review. It seemed clear to us that the most important focus of our work had to be on understanding what went wrong and why, as opposed to trying to single out individuals at that stage of the investigation. We want everyone to prioritise the protection of children, whatever role they have, whether it is at the level of director of children’s services or working on the front line. We need to send out the message, “We are there to support you in your work, but where you need to be challenged, where there are basic practice failures, we will do so and make sure we put it right.”

Primary School Places

4. What plans he has to ensure an adequate supply of primary school places; and if he will make a statement. (900986)

13. What plans he has to ensure an adequate supply of primary school places; and if he will make a statement. (900995)

We will spend £5 billion by 2015 on creating new school places across the country—more than double the amount spent by the previous Government in the same time frame. We have worked closely with councils on reforms to school place funding so that it is now more accurate than ever before.

Two years ago, Brent had a surplus of primary school places: this year, 614 children are without one. Has the removal of local authorities’ powers to plan and review school places impacted to more damaging effect in any other borough in the country than in Brent, where we now have a 12.5% shortage?

No, the hon. Gentleman has it completely wrong. What has done damage to place planning in large parts of the country is the removal by the last Labour Government of 200,000 primary school places, even after the Office for National Statistics reported the biggest increase in the birth rate since the second world war. I have some figures for the hon. Gentleman about his borough. Basic need funding for Brent in the last four years under Labour was £33.8 million, which I acknowledge is a lot of money. Under this coalition Government that has now risen to £114 million, an increase of 240%.

The Conservative manifesto promised small schools with smaller class sizes. Will the Minister confirm whether, in the last year, the number of infant classes with more than 30 pupils has more than doubled?

Of course the number has gone up, precisely for the reason that I gave: the Lady’s Government took out 200,000 places in primary education, even over a period when for seven years in a row the birth rate was rising. I also have good news for the hon. Lady. During the last four years of her Government, her area had a £3.1 million investment in basic need. Over a comparable period, that figure now is £11.7 million, an increase of 280%. She should be thanking us for that.

I thank the Minister for the recent funding that allowed a significant expansion of primary school places in my constituency. Will he confirm that the Government are spending twice as much on primary school places as the last Government?

I will confirm precisely that. Not only have we allocated £5 billion over this Parliament, more than double the amount that the Labour party allocated over the same period, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has succeeded in securing from the Treasury £7.1 billion of capital funding for basic need alone from 2015 to 2021.

In 2001-02, Labour-run Leeds city council forced through a raft of unpopular primary school closures against the wishes of the community. Now, Labour-run Leeds city council is saying that it does not have enough places and that it needs to spend lots of taxpayers’ money building more schools. How can we prevent such appalling planning in the future?

Now we have evidence from the ground, from Leeds, about the exact consequences of the last Labour Government and the mistake that they made by not investing properly in capital. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that the figures for Leeds are these: under the last Labour Government, £15 million over four years for basic need; under this coalition Government, £99.2 million, an increase of 560%.

24. The pressure on primary school places in north-east Leeds is so great that many parents do not even get their fifth choice. What advice would the Minister offer those parents who are forced to send their non-Jewish child to a Jewish primary school and their non-Christian child to a Christian primary school? (901006)

I would advise them to be very angry indeed about the last Government, who failed to invest in basic need. I would invite them to welcome the 560% increase in basic need funding under this Government and to draw the political conclusions from that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the shortage is the result of two factors: first, the loss of those 200,000 places; and, secondly, the unprecedented population surge resulting from the open borders during the second half of the previous Government’s time in office?

I agree that there has been a significant increase in population in some areas, and the number of places decreased by 220,000 under the previous Labour Government. This coalition Government are now making proper provision right across the country.

18. One of the issues in Corby, which has seen a 25% increase in the number of children in reception and has the highest birth rate in the country, is that we now have more provision through a free school at secondary level, where we already have a surplus of places, but insufficient primary school provision. I ask the Minister—in not too political a way, I hope—to look at that. (901000)

I am very happy to look at any issues the hon. Gentleman wants to raise about his constituency, but I point out that the funding that the Government secures for free schools is in addition to the funding for basic need.

This morning I met the leaders of Tresham college, who have been able to announce a multi-million pound investment in my constituency that will include an education village, part of which will be a new primary school. Labour talked about it, but it never happened. Under this Conservative-led Government it is happening. Is not that a good thing?

It certainly is a good thing that under this coalition Government we are seeing a massive increase in capital expenditure on basic need: £400 million was the pitiful amount spent in the last year of the Labour Government. Between 2013 and 2015 we are spending £2.4 billion.

Free School Meals

5. What plans he has to ensure that all primary schools are able to offer free school meals to all infants. (900987)

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has announced that every child in reception—year 1 and year 2—in state-funded schools will be entitled to a free school lunch from September 2014. The Government will say more about the detail of the policy over the next few weeks.

That is a very welcome announcement. On Friday I visited St Mary’s school in Broughton Gifford in my constituency, which does not have kitchen facilities and is no longer in a position to offer its pupils hot lunches. Will the Minister ensure that sufficient capital funding is available to enable small primary schools that do not have kitchen facilities to provide hot lunches to all their infants?

We are certainly ensuring proper capital provision. We have a proud record on not only basic need, but the amounts we are allocating for maintenance, free schools and other parts of the capital programme.

Does the Minister agree that the meals that are provided must be healthy? Some 31% of boys and 29% of girls between the ages of two and 15 are obese, and obesity leads to diabetes. Can we ensure that the meals provided actually help the nutrition for those children?

I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The challenge is to ensure not only that we expand entitlement right across the country by September 2014, but that the meals are healthy and are delivered effectively in every single school. We shall ensure that we do that exactly as set out in the school food plan published a few months ago.

Massive Open Online Courses

MOOCs present a huge opportunity for this country and are part of a technological revolution that we are seeing around the world. A student in Newcastle can now watch a lecture online from a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for free. I think that helps democratise education and open up knowledge.

Does the Minister agree that MOOCs are a way of ensuring that all children, from whatever background, can get an outstanding education from world-class communicators, thus freeing up teachers to help children with their online exercises?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Thanks to our new national curriculum and qualifications, which are much more flexible, we are seeing a rise in the number of MOOCs in this country. Cambridge university is developing a new MOOC for physics and there are online courses, such as our new core maths course for 16 to 18-year-olds, which is enabling students to study international baccalaureate maths online in their schools.

Special Educational Needs

7. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision of education for children with special educational needs; and if he will make a statement. (900989)

Many schools provide excellent teaching for pupils with SEN, but we know from reports by Ofsted and Brian Lamb that too often pupils are classified as having SEN but do not make progress. That is why our SEN reforms, including education, health and care plans, focus on the involvement of families and the agreement of concrete outcomes, so that parents are clear that their children are genuinely making progress.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response. The 17 October debate in this Chamber on funding support for deaf children and young people highlighted areas of excellence in deaf education across the country, but sadly that is not the case everywhere. What steps will the Minister be taking to support and promote best practice, and ensure that we can distribute best practice for deaf children across the whole country?

The hon. Gentleman has a huge personal interest in this issue, and he made an excellent contribution to that debate. He is right that we need to ensure that, where there is excellence, it can be spread as widely and deeply as possible. That is why we are providing £1.1 million of funding to the National Sensory Impairment Partnership, to help to benchmark local authority service and provide guidance on good practice to support sensory support services, in an effort to get more children to benefit from the excellence that we know exists.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will pay tribute to Dig-iT, the dyslexia group in Tamworth, which does great voluntary work for dyslexia sufferers in the town. Does he agree that we need a level playing field in the teaching of children with dyslexia and dyspraxia, so that they get the best possible chance of success?

I have no doubt that Dig-iT in Tamworth is doing some incredible work to support children with dyslexia and dyspraxia, and we recognise that we need to do more to ensure a level playing field for those families who require extra support. That is why, over two years, we are providing £5.5 million to a number of voluntary organisations, including the Dyslexia-SpLD Trust, so that they can give free advice and training on key aspects of SEN, to make that level playing field a reality.

I congratulate the Government on their education, health and care plans, which could make a real difference. The Minister will know that parents who are used to struggling for support are worried that the plans may be too difficult to access. Given the intention to suspend them in custodial settings and to abolish School Action and School Action Plus, there is a fear that the brave new world could be limited to too few. Will the Minister take those concerns on board? In fact, in this instance, why do we not try to work together and do what is right for those with special needs?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his co-operative spirit on this issue. It is important that Parliament and Government give a single, clear message on ensuring that all children with SEN get the support that they need and deserve. I am aware of a number of concerns that have been raised, by parents and others working with children with SEN, during the passage of the Children and Families Bill. The important thing to remember is that we are not reducing or diluting any of the existing protections or rights. In fact, we are expanding them in many cases, particularly for those young people over the age of 16. We will continue to work on some of the remaining issues as the Bill continues its passage through the other place.

Child Care

8. What steps he is taking to ensure there is sufficient supply of child care places for the 40% most disadvantaged two-year-olds. (900990)

After only one month of the programme being available, local authorities have reported to us that 92,000 two-year-olds have received an early education place. That is well on the way to our ultimate goal. In fact, it is 70% of it, which is a tremendous achievement by the local authorities and child care providers that participated. We are doing more work to make sure that childminders, nurseries and school nurseries are able to offer places for next year’s expansion.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but is it not the case that the latest figures produced by her own Department suggest that the take-up of the offer for two-year-olds has been lower than intended? This is a flagship policy of the Government, so will the Minister confirm whether she is satisfied with the information that she has just given us, or will she try to make the programme work even better?

I think that 92,000 places is a fantastic achievement for local authorities. There are disparities across the country, and we are working with local authorities that are behind. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that 400 two-year-olds have places in his local area of Tameside. We are doing more to ensure that childminders can offer places. All good and outstanding childminders will be able to offer places from this September.

Many parents want their young children to have home-based child care. What policies does my hon. Friend have to ensure that we can offer places to parents who want that kind of child care?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Unfortunately, the number of childminders halved under the previous Government. We are determined to see the number increase. We are allowing all good and outstanding childminders to offer early education. We are also enabling the establishment of childminding agencies, which will be a one-stop shop for new childminders who want to join the professions and will enable parents to find the home-based care that they want for their children.

The truth is that under the hon. Lady’s Government, the number of child care places has fallen. As a result, the costs are going up. Families who are already struggling to make ends meet cannot afford to work. When will she get a grip of the child care provision for two-year-olds and older children and tackle the child care crisis that is facing families across the country?

First, I welcome the shadow Minister to her new position and congratulate her on her well deserved promotion. I am delighted to be working with her on this issue. As I have pointed out, we reported today that 92,000 two-year-olds are in early education places. That compares with 20,000 two-year-olds in 2010. This Government have made massive progress.

To make a difference, the additional capacity must be delivered in high-quality settings. Will the Minister discuss with Ofsted the need to ensure that the inspection framework is sufficiently robust to ensure that those providers who want to expand their capacity are challenged to give those from poorer backgrounds the best start in life?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are ensuring that those places are delivered by good and outstanding nurseries and childminders. This year, the number of early years teachers entering the programme increased by 25%. Those teachers will have the same standards as primary and secondary school teachers. We are improving the quality of the work force, which will ultimately deliver better early education.

Special Educational Needs

9. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the training and support available for the teaching of children with special educational needs. (900991)

Teachers tell us that the quality of their training in SEN has improved significantly, with 69% of primary teachers and 74% of secondary teachers rating their training as “good” or “very good” in helping them to teach pupils with SEN. That compares with as few as 45% in 2008.

Just over 1,900 pupils in my constituency have special educational needs. Those children need teachers who understand their unique requirements as learners and adapt their lessons appropriately. Does the Minister accept that such pupils lose out in schools that have unqualified teachers who have never undertaken any special educational needs training?

Careers Advice

10. What assessment he has made of current provision of information, advice and guidance for young people. (900992)

We have introduced a new duty on schools to secure independent and impartial careers advice. For the first time, we have a National Careers Service and Ofsted will judge a school’s leadership on how well they deliver.

Careers Wales has referred 9,000 people to the Jobs Growth Wales programme and 75% of them are now in sustainable employment. Have the Government studied the Welsh experience?

Yes, of course; we have looked all around the world. We are increasing the amount of mentoring to ensure that we have the best people, including employers, to inspire young people to go into careers that will enable them to reach their potential.

Research conducted last month as part of professions week found that, of the 1,200 14 to 19-year-olds surveyed, just 40% had received any form of careers advice or guidance in the past year. In the light of Ofsted’s damning report earlier this autumn, will the Minister assure the House that further steps will be taken to ensure that the transfer of the duty to schools leads to an improvement in careers advice and guidance?

Yes, we are clear that we are going to strengthen careers advice. Ofsted’s statement that it will look into the quality of the advice that is given will ensure that schools deliver appropriate high-quality careers advice. That advice needs to be of a high quality, and it must be delivered by people who understand how to inspire and mentor young people to enter careers that will interest them.

The Government’s programme for school-based careers guidance has been slated by the OECD, Ofsted and the Chair of the Education Committee. Careers England found that the Government’s changes have caused a drastic reduction in careers services for some 80% of schools. What is the Minister going to do about that?

I am going to execute the plan that we set out last month. I welcome the hon. Lady to her post. The best way to solve careers advice is not to insist on a bureaucratic system of requirements, but to ensure that people in the workplace are closer to education and that schools communicate with employers, so that those who deliver careers advice understand the careers on which they are advising.

Does the Minister share my experience that it is quite unusual to hear someone of any age spontaneously talking about the excellent careers advice they received, and even rarer to meet someone who is in the job that they were once advised was for them? Is not the best advice often to keep one’s options open by choosing valuable, trusted subjects, hence the EBacc and TechBac?

It is undoubtedly true that the two most important vocational subjects are English and maths and that the best insurance against unemployment as a young person is to study more English and maths. I will, however, take my hon. Friend slightly to task. Many people were mentored by those who inspired them and from whom they learned a lot. Ensuring that all children have such relationships with people in the sort of careers that they want to enter is an important part of strengthening social mobility.

Ofsted reports that three quarters of the schools that it visited were not carrying out the duty to give impartial careers advice. That confirms what everybody out there knows: careers advice, information and guidance are in a state on this Government’s watch. When will they do something about it and protect our young people for the future?

Yes, indeed, we are acting, having inherited a complete failure in careers advice. The Connexions service that the Labour party keeps talking about was well known to be a failing institution, and when it was taken apart, it was agreed across the House that that was the right thing to do because it was not delivering. Instead, we have put in place the sort of guidance and inspiration that will help and support people all the way through and into their careers. Ofsted will hold schools to account, and that is the right way to proceed.

Head teachers

The welcome growth in the number of academies has provided more freedom for more head teachers to raise standards for more students, especially the poorest.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Although a formal teaching qualification may be a bonus, with Ofsted’s rigorous new inspection regime and performance-related pay, does he agree that it would be dogmatic in the extreme to force heads to fire 15,000 teachers, regardless of their impact in the classroom, just because they do not hold a piece of paper?

That is a characteristically acute point from my hon. Friend. The most important thing we need to do is ensure that the quality of teaching in our schools is improving. Ofsted tells us that it is, and I am delighted to report that to the House. That is a result of our reforms.

What will the Secretary of State do about Kings science academy in Bradford and the disaster that is that school? There are fines for admission policies, and it looks like criminality as well.

There are certainly questions to be answered by those responsible for Kings science academy, but I stress that all academies and free schools are more rigorously audited and held accountable than local authority schools. I also stress that for many years the quality of education in Bradford has been appalling, yet it is only when new providers come in to innovate that we hear from Opposition Members. They are prepared consistently to turn a blind eye to Labour local authorities that fail, yet whenever there is any challenge to that complacency, all they can do is talk cynically about those idealists who are trying to improve state education.

The Secretary of State will be aware from the recent Defence Committee inquiry that the education statements contained in the armed forces covenant clash with the Education Act 2011 on admissions to school. With that in mind, should head teachers of Army-focused schools have more authority over whom they admit to their schools?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. One thing that he has done consistently in his time in the House is to ensure that schools in garrison towns such as the one that he represents take appropriate account of the need of our armed forces and their children, particularly at times of movement and redeployment. I would be happy to talk to him more closely about how we can ensure not only that admissions arrangements but additional support are there for those families. We have introduced the service premium for the children of those in the armed forces. I hope that the introduction of that additional cash will help his constituents and those of every other hon. Member.

Does the Secretary of State share my expectation that head teachers, when they exercise greater autonomy, take account of the needs of the area in which they teach and operate, which we are trying to achieve in Birmingham? Will he encourage them to do so?

I absolutely would encourage them to do that. Let me pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work in bringing teachers together in Birmingham to introduce the Birmingham baccalaureate, which is a perfect preparation both for the world of work and for further and higher education. One problem in Birmingham for many years has been a culture of underperformance in far too many schools, and that has been insufficiently challenged by the local authority. It should not have to fall to her to do the job that the council should have been doing, but if I would trust anyone to do that job instead of the council, it would be her.

Free Schools

Well, that is a bit of a shock, because it is widely accepted that the democratic scrutiny and oversight of state schools is pretty intense but hardly exists at all for free schools. Does the Secretary of State not worry that that has led to the scandals of the past few months, which could well be the tip of the iceberg? We could see more scandals over the next few years because of that lack of democratic scrutiny.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was surprised by either the content or the brevity of my response, but let me spell things out in slightly greater detail. Academies and free schools have an accounting officer in the way that local authority schools do not; and academies and free schools have to file accounts every year in a way that local authority schools do not. The National Audit Office has pointed out that the scrutiny of schools by local authorities is not what we should expect. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are problems in individual academies and free schools, but there are also problems in individual local authority schools. We know what has gone wrong in academies and free schools because this Government have put in place an improved system of scrutiny for them.

20. Does the Secretary of State agree that the problems at the school in Bradford highlighted earlier are nothing to do with it being a free school? Will he comment on the One in a Million free school, which recently opened in Bradford? It was over-subscribed and is doing a fantastic job of providing the education that is much needed in that part of Bradford. (901002)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The highest-performing school in Bradford is, I believe, an academy. New free schools that have arrived in Bradford have, until recently, been welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Increased choice for parents and an increased range of schools have helped to drive up standards across the UK. It is striking that schools in England have consistently improved over the past few years in a way that schools in Wales have not. That is because we have not only parental choice, free schools and academies, but a rigorous inspectorate and league tables, which enable us to identify good practice and spread it more energetically.

I am pleased to hear what the Secretary of State has said on the rigorous oversight for financial purposes of free schools. The Ofsted report on the Al-Madinah school in my constituency has been published, but when does he expect to publish the report of the external funding agency?

The report is by the Education Funding Agency rather than the external funding agency, but I take the right hon. Lady’s point. We have published more about the Al-Madinah free school than has been published about other local authority schools in Derby. It is striking that she raises the weakness of the Al-Madinah free school when, as Ofsted has pointed out with respect to Derby, it is in one of the weakest areas of school improvement of any local authority. In consultation with the EFA, we will ensure that every piece of information necessary about the fate of that school is published at the appropriate time, in the appropriate way. However, it must be stressed that the action we have taken to deal with the Al-Madinah free school was taken faster than any action taken by Labour-led Derby council to deal with any of the underperforming schools in that great city.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the case of Al-Madinah school in Derby shows that the Government will not tolerate failure in education establishments, whether they are free schools or local authority schools?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Schools, including Sinfin school and Grampian school, were allowed to fail in Derby. When they were taken over as academies under this Government, they all saw real improvement in performance. Derby was among the 20% of local authorities that were the weakest when it came to school improvement. The right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) said nothing about that then, but she turns a Nelsonian blind eye to failure by Labour local authorities. When this Government take steps to improve state education, she has nothing to say.

I do not know what the Secretary of State is having for breakfast, but it is obviously achieving the desired effect.

The Secretary of State sat on the damning report on the Kings science academy scandal for more than five months. When was he planning to tell us that the school had been fined an additional £4,000 for refusing to implement the direction of the independent review panel? Why is there so much secrecy around these schools? Is it because, as he said earlier, he seems to think that fraud is acceptable as long as those responsible are innovators?

There is less secrecy around these schools than there is around local authority schools. We have published the internal audit report on what happened at the Kings science academy. We informed the Home Office of our concerns about that school, and the reason the hon. Gentleman knows so much about the school is that this Government have been far more transparent about institutional failure than the Government of whom he was a member. [Interruption.] However much he may prate and cry from a sedentary position, he knows that this Government have been more transparent about failure and more determined to turn schools around and generate success than his ever was.

Teacher Supply and Recruitment

We are improving initial teacher training in a number of ways. We are enhancing the Teach First programme and taking measures to increase the number of young people who can join teaching through the School Direct programme.

The primary duty of the Secretary of State is surely to provide enough good school places and enough good teachers. It seems that he is failing on both counts. Why have the Government not published the 2014-15 teacher training number allocation by providers, subject and phase, as normal? What is he trying to hide?

We are not trying to hide anything. We have already published the headline figures for allocations to initial teacher training. The detailed allocations, including the breakdown by subject, will be published in the next few weeks, once they have been confirmed by universities and schools. I will be happy to ensure that the hon. Lady receives a full set of figures.

Topical Questions

Next year, my Department will be joining the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that all children have the opportunity to learn from, and commemorate, the sacrifice of those who fell in the first world war. We will be building on the work of the excellent Holocaust Educational Trust, which ensures that children have the chance to travel to Auschwitz, so that children in all state schools have an opportunity to visit the battlefields of the first world war.

The Secretary of State will know that there is no requirement on schools to have a defibrillator on the premises. Is it not time for such a requirement, to ensure that all children and staff are protected? It cannot be right to leave it to parent teacher association fundraising and charities, which have so much else to do. What plans does he have to put that right?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) has been campaigning on this issue and I will be meeting him shortly. There is much to be said for supporting schools to ensure that defibrillators are in place. I want to work with the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole to do that in the most effective way.

T2. Last week, I was pleased to help launch “My Education”, a report produced by Teach First and Pearson, which surveyed 8,000 British teenagers on their education. The overwhelming majority said that more work experience and better careers advice would help them find the right future. Following that overwhelming response, can the Secretary of State assure us that the National Careers Service will be enabled to support the delivery of careers advice and guidance in schools to the betterment of our entire population? (901010)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is important to stress that we need to ensure more work experience opportunities for all young people, which is why we have changed how children are funded when they enter post-16 education to make it easier to offer the appropriate work experience. I also agree that we need to ensure that careers advice for young people is suitably inspiring and to see whether the National Careers Service or other institutions can help. In particular, it is important to work with businesses to ensure that young people have the opportunity to see and hear from the role models who will ensure they make the right choices in the future.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that under his plans, students who study only the English language GCSE will be excluded from studying the great works of English literature?

The Secretary of State is not aware of his own GCSE reforms. He has introduced the soft bigotry of low expectations into our education system. He might have enjoyed studying the works of Jane Austen and Wilfred Owen, but he is denying England’s pupils the same access to our national canon if they take only the English language GCSE. If it was all right for him, at Robert Gordon’s college, why is it not okay for kids in Harlow and Blackpool today? Will he now urgently review the changes to English GCSE, or will he continue to dumb down our syllabus?

Tragically, when I was a student at Robert Gordon’s college in Aberdeen, I was not able to take English GCSE, because I was in Scotland and GCSEs were not on offer at that time. As a historian, the hon. Gentleman could perhaps do with studying geography rather more.

Under our new accountability system, which I urge the hon. Gentleman to study and which his colleague, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), welcomed, English will not count unless students study both English language and literature, and the English baccalaureate, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) supports, will be conferred on students only if they study both English language and literature. He talks about Jane Austen. One of the tragedies about the current English GCSE is that fewer than 1% of students who sit it actually read a word of Jane Austen. Before he asks another question in the House, may I recommend to him one particular text of hers—“Pride and Prejudice”? A knowledge of both things would certainly help him to be a more effective Opposition spokesperson.

We have raised standards for early-years teachers so that they have to pass the same maths and English tests as primary and secondary school teachers, and this year we have seen a 25% increase in the number of students applying for those courses, so they are proving very popular.

T5. How is it possible to be an ardent champion of social mobility and at the same time have a close adviser who thinks that educational attainment is genetic? (901014)

Thank you. The hon. Gentleman is my hero.

As I have pointed out in speech after speech—I will send them to the hon. Lady—we must always seek to ensure that accidents of birth or circumstances never hold any child back. One of the great things about education is that children can constantly surprise us with their ability. To the historians on the Opposition Front Bench, I would recommend the words of my predecessor in my role as Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher: advisers advise, but Ministers decide.

T6. I welcome the Minister’s earlier commitment to healthy school lunches. Will he ensure that head teachers retain the autonomy to establish high standards in the provision of these lunches and are not, because of shared contracts, left at the mercy of one particular provider? (901015)

We will ensure that head teachers have proper flexibility and that they see the conclusions of the school food plan, which demonstrates precisely how head teachers and schools can not only deliver free school meals in the future, but do so in a way that ensures their high quality.

One of Labour’s greatest achievements was 3,631 Sure Start centres, such as Story Wood and Lakeside in my constituency, transforming the lives of children. At the last general election, the then Leader of the Opposition said:

“Yes, we back Sure Start. It’s a disgrace that”

Labour

“has been trying to frighten people about this.”

Since then, 566 have closed. Is not the real disgrace making a promise to our nation’s children and then breaking it?

Last week, we heard that a record number of parents and children—more than 1 million—were using Sure Start centres. In fact, we have increased the number of sites: there are 3,000 children’s centres and a further 2,000 linked sites. The hon. Gentleman is referring to where management efficiencies have been made, but more parents are accessing our centres than ever before, and I think he should congratulate the centres on their success.

T7. Last week, I was at the launch of the Sky academy in Osterley, which includes a Sky skills studio, scholarships for emerging talent, starting-out initiatives and living for sport. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can create similar initiatives in other sectors and establish a business ambassador for each school? (901016)

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. She failed to mention that David Beckham was also at that launch, which was no doubt an exciting moment. I pay tribute to the Sky academy and to the work that has been put in to ensure that people going into the media and the arts have not only the skills but the mentoring and inspiration to make the best of their lives. That is exactly what is needed if we are to see more people getting the chance and the inspiration to reach their potential.

Today sees the launch of Juice FM’s Knives Wreck Lives campaign in Liverpool, which aims to raise awareness among people on Merseyside of just how damaging knives can be. Will the Secretary of State welcome the campaign, and tell the House what he is doing in our schools and colleges to inform young people about the perils of knife crime?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing our attention to that exemplary campaign. I have campaigned against knife crime since before my time in the House. I worked with the widow of Philip Lawrence, who was the tragic victim of such a crime, in order to raise awareness of what could be done to tackle it in and outside schools. I also worked with two former Home Secretaries to ensure that combat knives were banned. I am delighted that head teachers in schools across the country are today using a variety of innovative methods and working with a variety of third sector groups to alert children to the dangers of carrying and using knives, but there is of course much more to be done and I look forward to working with the hon. Lady and other Members in that endeavour.

This is the first Government to use Government time and Government Bills to advance the cause and rights of carers. Having already taken the welcome step of ensuring that a whole-family approach is taken to young carers and the people they care for, will the Government consider what further steps they could take to extend that approach to parent carers of disabled children?

I know that my right hon. Friend worked hard on this issue in Government, and that he set up the carers strategy, which has done much to highlight this important area. We have made progress on young carers in the Children and Families Bill, and parent carers will benefit from the changes in our special educational needs reforms. I have met the Minister for Care and Support, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), and looked at the existing legislative framework relating to parent carers. We are satisfied that there is no evidence that it needs to be changed or strengthened, but I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss the matter further and to see what else we might be able to do to achieve the end that he seeks.

Following the abject failure of the Secretary of State’s free school experiment at the Al-Madinah school in Derby, will he now give the local education authority the ability to scrutinise the school and make it accountable to the LEA? If the school closes, will he ensure that Derby city council has sufficient resources to accommodate the children in council-run schools?

There are certainly serious issues at the Al-Madinah free school, as we all acknowledge, but it is important to put them in context. Of the first 24 free schools to be inspected, 75% were good or better, whereas in the first tranche of new local authority schools set up in the same period, only half reached that quality threshold. It is also important to recognise that the local authority in Derby has a poor record of helping to challenge underperforming schools, and that outside providers such as Barry Day of Greenwood Dale have done far more to improve education in Derby than the local authority has ever done.

Primary schools in rural communities face special challenges. In our recent report on rural communities, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee urged Ministers to give back to local authorities the flexibility to spend the most on those primary schools in the greatest need. Can we have that flexibility back?

There is flexibility in the current approach. There is a lump sum attached to every school that ensures that smaller schools that are doing a great job can continue to provide high-quality education for children in rural areas, but the changes we are making to introduce a national fair funding formula will go even further to meet my hon. Friend’s concerns.

Local head teachers tell me that Bristol city council is advising them to offer funded early education in just the mornings or just the afternoons so that they can avoid the cost of providing free school meals to eligible children. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that these children are missing out on their school dinners and that statutory guidance to offer education at times that best support the child’s learning is being breached?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing that to my attention. I would love to have a chance to know more about the particular situation that she rightly raises. It is important that all children get the nutrition and the education they deserve.

Some 1.2 million children living within the Government’s own definition of childhood poverty do not get a free school meal. Why do the Government consider it a higher priority to give free school meals to all five, six and seven-year-olds, 1.3 million of whom can perfectly well afford to pay?

I am pleased to be in a coalition Government when the Deputy Prime Minister has made a commitment to the extension of free school meals to five, six and seven-year-olds. We should never make the perfect the enemy of the good. Let me take this opportunity to praise Liberal Democrat colleagues who worked with us in order to ensure that more children have the opportunity to enjoy high-quality lunches. Let me say, too, to the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey), with whom I normally agree, that on this occasion I have to part company with him and say that his leader has done the right thing, with which I am delighted to be associated.

The Secretary of State has said that circumstances should never hold any child back. How, then, does he plan to respond to this week’s Institute for Fiscal Studies report that showed that grammar schools are five times less likely to admit poorer children than their state counterparts?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. The introduction of academies and free schools is making sure that more children have the chance to attend academically excellent schools. For those living in areas where there are grammar schools who feel that the quality of education they enjoy is not good enough, we are providing choice through the growth of academies and choice through the growth of free schools. Through the pupil premium we are investing £2.5 billion for the very poorest children—a commitment to social justice of the kind to which I know Mr Speaker believes we should all be committed.

The right hon. Gentleman is quite correct. That is quite a convenient way of trying to keep onside when time is pressing.

Is it appropriate for either teachers or pupils to wear the full-face veil in the classroom, and if the answer is no, what regulations are in place to proscribe the wearing of such?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Matters of school uniform are rightly questions that head teachers should decide on, or college principals should be responsible for. I hope it is clear that the wearing of any item that impedes effective teaching or effective learning is something that we should all ensure does not happen in the classroom. I am working with both the chief inspector of schools and officials within the Department for Education in order to ensure that schools and individuals receive an unambiguous message about the vital importance of ensuring that cultural or other barriers do not impede the capacity to learn of children from whatever community.

Does the Secretary of State agree with his most trusted adviser that “real talent” is rare among the nation’s teachers. If not, was it an error of judgment to give him free rein over education policy?

I agree with all my advisers that real talent is rare on the Labour Benches, which is why it is so important that we ensure that this Government are re-elected in a few years’ time.

May I be assured that the asbestos in schools steering group will continue, given the importance of developing a clear, up-to-date policy and strategy regarding asbestos?

We are still looking closely at the important issue of asbestos in schools, and we are beginning a review of this subject very shortly. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend has a full opportunity to contribute to the review.