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Topical Questions

Volume 570: debated on Monday 11 November 2013

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”


“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.