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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 573: debated on Monday 6 January 2014


The Secretary of State was asked—

Primary Schools (Academy Status)

1. What assessment he has made of the performance of primary schools which have attained academy status. (901738)

I associate myself and those on the Front Bench, Mr Speaker, with your generous words towards Paul Goggins and his family. We all wish him a very speedy recovery.

In 2013, the proportion of pupils who achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics improved significantly more in sponsored academies than in local authority schools.

I wish you, Mr Speaker, and the whole House all the best for 2014.

I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Having been judged inadequate by Ofsted in each of the past two years, Elton primary school in my constituency is now the subject of a consultation with a view to its becoming an academy. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me and those parents who have concerns that all the evidence suggests that such a move is more likely to be beneficial than detrimental to their children’s education?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Parents are naturally nervous whenever there is a change of management or leadership in any school and so they should be—they care about their children. The evidence points to the fact that when primary and secondary schools have been converted to academies, they have made significant improvements. One of the most controversial academy conversions happened in Haringey when Downhills school was taken over by the Harris chain. That met furious opposition from the unions and some Labour MPs, but children in that school are now flourishing at last, as are children in so many other academy schools.

Does not the evidence show that the most important factor is the quality of teaching in our schools? Thousands of schools around the country have chosen not to go down the academy route. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Ranworth Square primary school in my constituency, where the majority of children are on free school meals but where last summer 93% achieved at least a level 4 in English, maths and writing?

That is a significant achievement and I am delighted to be able to congratulate the head and the team of teachers at that school. Many schools that I hugely admire have chosen not to go down the academy route. Thomas Jones primary in west London is one of the most outstanding schools in the country—100% of its children reach the level to which the hon. Gentleman refers—and is not an academy. For schools that are foundering or facing difficulties, however, academy solutions have, in an overwhelming number of circumstances, brought the improvement in results that we would all love to see.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on what steps he has taken to enable good primary schools to expand, and parents to open new primary schools, in areas where new housing has created high demand for places?

To facilitate expansion, we have made sure that all local authority schools receive additional support through the targeted basic need and basic need funding, which the Government have made available in more generous terms than any previous Government. We have also seen 174 new free schools open, giving parents a choice of new, high-quality schools to ensure that their children have the best possible start in life.

When a primary academy in a village goes belly up and all the parents start moving their kids, who will step in to bail out that school and ensure that the village retains a school for the future?

Without knowing the specifics of the case to which the hon. Gentleman alludes, I am cautious about venturing into too much detail. Whenever any school enters difficulties, whether it is run by an academy chain or a local authority, the Department for Education is always ready to ensure that an appropriate sponsor is in place to rescue that school.

How many academies were there in May 2010, how many are there now and what has been the improvement in educational attainment as a result?

There were just over 200 academies in May 2010—203, I believe—and there are now more than 3,000. As Ofsted reported in its most recent annual report, the biggest increase in the quality of good and outstanding lessons ever in the history of the inspectorate has occurred under this Government.

Free Schools

2. How many applications his Department has received to establish free schools; and what proportion of such applications have been successful. (901739)

The Government received 1,103 applications to establish free schools in the first four rounds of applications and 27% of those applications were approved.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his response. Why has his Department been using all its legal might to prevent the release of free school applications and decision letters, even after the Information Commissioner ruled that there was a strong public information argument in favour of releasing them? Surely if public money is being used, in the public interest there has to be an absolute right for that information to be put in the public domain.

I note what the hon. Lady says, and we have extended the freedom of information legislation to cover academies, which was not the case before this Government came to power. It is, however, important that we protect those individuals who made proposals for schools that were not accepted, from the programme of intimidation that has been directed at many brave teachers by the National Union of Teachers and other extreme left-wing organisations. I make no apologies for protecting from intimidation those public-spirited people who wish to establish new schools.

One of the great things, however, about the free schools programme is that it implements Green party policy. In 2010, in the Green party education manifesto, the Green party leadership said that we should

“Move towards ending the need for private education by creating a programme of voluntary assimilation of private schools into the state sector.”

That is just what we have done.

I hope that the Secretary of State will shortly announce the approval of the Maiden Erlegh free school in my constituency, but is he as concerned as I am by Labour’s secret plan to review free school premises and buildings? Is that not simply a back-door way to destroy the free school movement? [Interruption.]

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns absolutely. We all know that, despite the occasionally brave forays into no-man’s land by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who has tried to defend parent-led academies, the majority of Labour Members—as we can hear from their catcalls and jeers—oppose free schools and greater parental choice and support the attempt of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) to undermine those schools. We will fight them every step of the way.

On behalf of the Opposition, I should like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for your words about our colleague, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), and his wife, Wyn. Our thoughts and prayers are with them for a speedy recovery.

In December, we learnt that the Prime Minister’s flagship Discovery free school will be closed. The failings of this episode have let down the people of Crawley, who will hold the Government to account. We know that the Discovery school was opened against the advice of the Montessori Schools Association, so will the Secretary of State tell the House how many free school applications Ministers have approved against the advice of Department officials?

The advice of officials in this case was quite clear, and we accepted it. That is why the Discovery free school was opened.

That says it all, does it not? We in the Opposition are in favour of innovation and autonomy in schools, but all we ask is that that is underpinned by basic safeguards and standards. National Audit Office reports reveal that low-scoring applications were waved through by Ministers against official advice, so let me give the Secretary of State another chance to set the record straight. Did Ministers approve applications for the Al-Madinah free school, the Discovery free school or the Kings Science academy free school against the advice of officials—yes or no?

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would know that I answered the question that he has just asked first time round. I pointed out that the advice from officials was to open the Discovery school. It was also the advice of officials to back Kings Science academy and to back Al-Madinah school. In all three examples, we took the advice of officials, but let me make it clear that it is entirely appropriate for Ministers to overrule officials at any given point. Officials advise and Ministers decide. But in these three cases, we took the advice of officials and appropriate safeguards were in place. One of the problems that Opposition Front Benchers have is that they support free schools in the abstract, but when it comes to the tough decisions necessary to improve education in this country, at the first whiff of grapeshot, they shy away and surrender.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the delight with which the rebuilding of Newark academy has been greeted in Newark, yet the establishment of the free school at the same time seems to be competing for small numbers of students who are needed inside the maintained schools. How does he answer that charge?

I will look closely at the particular case that the hon. Gentleman raises. I know that he has been an effective champion for good school provision in Newark, and I shall ensure that I look closely at the pupil numbers to which he alludes.


There were 868,700 people undertaking an apprenticeship last year—more than ever before. We have already taken steps to increase standards and remove low-quality provision, and we will take further such steps.

I am pleased to hear that our Government are providing more support to young people who do not wish to pursue an academic course at university. Does the Minister agree that we need more participation in the apprenticeship scheme by small and medium-sized enterprises such as PK Automotive in Lincoln, which has joined larger firms such as Siemens in my constituency, and worked with local institutions such as Lincoln college and LAGAT, to help to deliver real opportunities for young people?

Yes, I do. I am delighted to say that 2,200 people in Lincoln are participating in apprenticeships. As is the case in many other places throughout the country, that is a record number. Of course apprenticeships are valuable in companies large and small. In fact, a majority of apprenticeships are in small businesses, but we need to ensure that the benefits of apprenticeships are communicated to all employers.

Sara Underwood, a higher apprentice with Rolls-Royce at Barnoldswick in my constituency, was recently awarded the Mary George memorial prize as part of the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s young woman engineer of the year awards. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Sara on her achievement and Rolls-Royce on its exceptional apprenticeship scheme?

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in recognising the work that Sara has done not only to win the prize that she so thoroughly deserves, but as a true ambassador for apprenticeships as she goes around explaining the benefits of apprenticeships to young people, employers and the wider economy.

A recent survey by The Times Educational Supplement showed that three quarters of young people did not receive information about apprenticeships in their careers lesson, so does the Minister still stand by the words of the Secretary of State to the Education Committee in December that the Government have no plans to address and amend careers guidance?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said to that Select Committee, we will shortly publish new guidance on careers education. As we have set out many times, a far more important—if not the most important—thing for young people’s inspiration and motivation is people who themselves are successful in their careers, so that is what our careers advice policy focuses on.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his replies to these questions, but how does he propose to deal with the real dearth of engineering apprenticeships—female ones—when frankly there will not be enough role models to go around? We need good careers advice in classrooms, but it needs to be targeted so that we get young women, especially, into engineering and STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects.

Of course role models can be of either gender, and I am sure that many men can think of women who would be role models for themselves. Under this Government, the number and proportion of applications for apprenticeships in engineering are up, and the number of applications to study engineering at university is up. There is much more to do, but we are moving in the right direction.

Does my hon. Friend agree that university technical colleges will make a huge difference to apprenticeships? May we have a commitment from the Government that we will have one in every town after the next election?

I am a great enthusiast for UTCs, not least because they prepare people to go into not only apprenticeships, but an academic career. They can open up opportunities for young people, and we work hard in the Department for Education to ensure that as many people as possible get those opportunities.

Does the Minister believe that schools are providing adequate careers guidance about the availability of apprenticeships in the light of Sir Michael Wilshaw’s comments:

“It is worrying that the new arrangements are failing to provide good guidance or to promote vocational training options and apprenticeships”?

I am clear that the strength of guidance, inspiration and motivation needs to increase, and that the best place to get that motivation is from people who are in careers. We have inspirational apprentices such as Sara Underwood, who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who explain the benefits of apprenticeships. I explain the benefits of apprenticeships, and it should be incumbent on all of us in the House to explain that opportunities are available to allow people to prosper.

Academies and Free Schools

The Department monitors schools through scrutiny of performance data and Ofsted reports. All free schools are visited by an education adviser in the first and fourth term of opening. Concerns are investigated immediately. It is for an academy trust to ensure that appropriate action is taken to bring about rapid improvement. If it does not, we use the intervention powers in the funding agreement.

The recent action taken on Al-Madinah and the Discovery New School by Lord Nash, the Under-Secretary of State, followed his setting out in detail the requirements those schools had to follow in order to turn themselves around and required his personal supervision of those schools. What role will school commissioners have in future to ensure that we no longer have Ministers trying to run schools from a desk in Whitehall?

Inevitably, we inherited a situation in which funding agreements were the principal method of ensuring that both academies and free schools acted in conformity with the principles that all of us would expect. We are not intending to abandon the principle that it should be for Ministers to sign and, if necessary, revisit funding agreements, but a new system of regional schools commissioners working to the Office of the Schools Commissioner can ensure that we have the local intelligence that we need in order to respond more quickly, and that there is a greater number of high-quality sponsors to help drive school improvement.

Fulwood academy in Preston had a recent Ofsted report that stated that pupil achievement, quality of teaching and leadership and management were inadequate. The head teacher Richard Smyth has received extra funding for free school meals, disabled pupils and special educational needs. Why should that man remain in post when he has been at the school for three years and is himself inadequate?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to those concerns about the principal. I am aware that there are concerns more broadly about Fulwood academy, and I will write to him about what we propose to do.

The key point is how swiftly responses are made to those schools that are failing. Does the Secretary of State agree that the important thing is leadership and management, and that includes the role of governing bodies, which should contain fully skilled governors to do the job?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am grateful to him for his work not just on the Education Committee but more broadly in making it clear that we need to recruit an even stronger cadre of school governors. I pay tribute to the many thousands of superb school governors that we have in place at the moment, but we need to attract more people, particularly from business, to take on that role in what is an increasingly autonomous school system.

The Secretary of State said to the Education Committee that he would consider publishing the list of failing free schools and saying whether they had been approved against the advice of officials. Will he give us that list now?

I was asked earlier by the shadow Secretary of State whether I would specifically refer to the three schools that have, understandably, been brought to the attention of the public because of their difficulties. I made it clear to him, as I am happy to make it clear to the hon. Gentleman, that in all of those cases, the advice from officials was clear that the school should open.

GCSE and A-Level

5. What progress he has made on encouraging the take-up of academic subjects at GCSE and A-level. (901742)

Since this Government took office, we have seen the number of students taking EBacc subjects, core academic subjects, rise by 60%. We are also seeing record numbers of students taking maths and science at A-level, which is good news because those are the subjects that universities and employers want to see students study.

I want to raise with the Minister the issue of academic subjects, and languages in particular. I am glad to hear that the introduction of the EBacc has reversed the decline, but what is she doing to ensure continued success?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s concerns. Under the previous Government, we saw a drop in compulsory languages in 2004 and a decline in the numbers of students taking languages. Over the past year, we have seen a 14% rise in the number of students taking languages at GCSE, and we expect that to feed through to A-level. From this September, we are introducing compulsory languages from the age of seven, so that all our children get the experience of learning languages and are able to build up a level of fluency that will help them in their future careers.

Does the hon. Lady agree that where it is right for a young person to pursue academic subjects it is good that they do so, but many young people in our schools are never given a full choice and the option to do more practical subjects? Is that not part of the reason why the excellent report “One System, Many Pathways” by the Skills Commission, which I co-chair, should be looked at closely by her Department?

I think it is good for students to be doing both academic and practical subjects. In countries such as Germany and Poland, which have improved their programme for international student assessment— PISA—scores, all students do a core of academic subjects, including languages, sciences, history and geography, until they are 16. It is an important principle that students need to do both, because that is what will help them to get good jobs when they leave school.

Given that the new primary maths curriculum no longer includes the chunking method in division calculations, will the Minister confirm that the revised key stage 2 assessments in maths will give credit for a pupil’s working only when the traditional long or short division methods are used, and not when the discredited chunking method is used?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work he did on the maths curriculum, which is now a world-leading one. Some of our teachers recently went to Shanghai to see how maths is taught there, and they found that Shanghai is three years ahead of England in this regard. One thing they noticed was that the chunking method is not used in Shanghai—long division is used instead. When those teachers brought that back to England, pupils said, “This method is great. Why aren’t we doing this? This long division is much easier than the confusing strategies we have been taught.” So I can say that when we introduce the standard assessment tests with the new national curriculum, chunking will not be rewarded in method marks—long division will.

On the take-up of academic subjects at GCSE and A-level, does the Minister accept that we should all be careful about making a direct link between educational underachievement in our coastal towns and part of East Anglia, and recent high levels of eastern European migration, because there were educational challenges in those areas long before eastern Europeans showed up and children of immigrant descent can be some of the most aspirational in our schools system?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. I certainly notice in schools in my Norfolk constituency that emigrants from Poland have helped to improve results in some subjects, and I completely disagree with her leader, the shadow Secretary of State, in respect of making implications about the impact of migrants on academic performance.

Further Education (Funding)

6. What plans he has for future funding for students in the further education sector; and if he will make a statement. (901743)

We announced the 16-to-19 funding policy changes for the academic year 2014-15 last month, and we will confirm the allocation of funding for individual institutions by the end of March.

Oldham sixth-form college and Oldham college were notified, without any consultation, that their funding would be cut by 17.5%. That has a devastating impact on young people in our area and it is anticipated that 700 young people in Oldham will be affected. Long-term youth unemployment in Oldham has more than doubled since November 2010, and we know that the national figure is 1 million people. Given the Prime Minister’s pledge that our young people should “earn or learn”, is this move not another example of this Government’s hypocrisy?

Not only are unemployment and youth unemployment falling—thankfully—from the very high levels we inherited from the Labour party, but we have had to make savings in the 16-to-19 budget. We think it is fair to make this change affecting those who have already had two years of post-16 learning; many 18-year-olds in full-time education do not study as many hours as 16 or 17-year-olds. I also say to the hon. Lady that her Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), said on television earlier that she wanted the deficit to fall faster. I am not sure that she got the memo from the shadow Chancellor, but Labour has opposed every single cut, no matter how difficult.

College principals from around Southampton have been keen to emphasise the valid reasons why 18-year-olds may need an additional year at sixth form, which include ill health, their possibly suffering from disabilities, and, of course, the need to improve GCSE results so that they can go on to study their A-levels. What reassurance can the Minister give me that these young people, who are in need of the most support, are not going to be penalised? They are the most at risk of becoming NEETs—those not in education, employment or training.

When my hon. Friend sees the impact assessment, I think that she will be reassured on some of those points. As I have said, this is a difficult decision and not one that we will take lightly, but the alternatives are also difficult, and 18-year-olds have already had two years of study post 16 and, indeed, they often study for fewer hours than 16 to 17-year-olds. I look forward to discussing with her, once we have published the impact assessment, exactly why that decision was made.

I am afraid that the Minister has not answered the point that the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) raised. Some 71% of the over-18s in further education are on vocational courses and they are often the people who need a second chance and additional support, yet he is cutting funding for them by 17.5%. Why is he hitting those who need support?

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), once the hon. Gentleman sees the impact assessment he will be able to have a full view of the value of the policy.

I was looking for Dr Huppert. He popped up a moment ago but has popped down again. Never mind. We will accommodate him on some other occasion.

My experience of the Banbury and Bicester job clubs is that young people who have dropped out of education or training often find it difficult to get back into education and training. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that those youngsters who have been NEETs but want to get into further education will be given support to do so?

Of course. The massive expansion of apprenticeships and the introduction of traineeships were designed to do precisely that. There is a huge focus on ensuring that those who are in education and those who are NEET get the opportunities to fulfil their potential. Raising the participation age is another part of the plan for dealing with the problem. There are many policies designed to have that effect. The changes across the piece are all about ensuring that, within the funds available, we give everybody the best possible opportunity.

Publicly Funded Schools (Oversight)

We have reformed Ofsted’s inspection framework to make it clearer, tougher and fairer. We are also introducing new, more intelligent accountability measures in school league tables.

Ministers say that the Education Funding Agency is the only means of oversight for free schools. How many free schools are currently being investigated by the EFA?

The EFA is not the only means of oversight for free schools. As we know, Kings Science academy has been the subject of a specific investigation by the EFA. We also know that the Al-Madinah school, which has come to the attention of the Department and Ofsted, has also been facing a difficult scrutiny process.

My right hon. Friend, along with Lord Nash, has been assiduous in responding to colleagues’ concerns about academy chains. Will he consider changing some of the Education Funding Agency’s requirements so that in future pre-warning actions can be delivered when schools go into improvement status, not just into special measures?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that we are energetic in using the warning notices. More than half of local authorities have not used warning notices when schools have been underperforming, but where the best local authorities have used such notices, and indeed where the Department, on the advice of the EFA or others, has used them, we have seen real improvement.

Does the Secretary of State believe that it is acceptable for head teachers of academies to refuse to respond to complaints taken up by MPs? If he does not, when will he act to ensure that MPs receive proper responses?

I think that MPs deserve proper responses from all those charged with spending public money. I will look more closely at the specific case the hon. Gentleman mentions, but it is important to recognise that the principals of academies are more accountable than the heads of local authority schools—[Interruption.] “Facts are chiels that winna ding”. That is as a result of the greater accountability they face, and not just to the taxpayer through the EFA, but to the Charity Commission. We should be satisfied that the improved governance that academies and free schools have means that they are more directly accountable to taxpayers and elected representatives.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the changes to the accountability system for schools will benefit all their pupils, not merely those on the C-D grade borderline?

My hon. Friend is typically acute in getting to the heart of the matter. The change to judging schools on how well each student progresses from the moment they arrive until the moment they take their GCSEs, across a broad range of eight GCSEs, will mean that not just academic excellence but creativity and technical accomplishment will be counted in determining how well each school has improved—and of course we will move away from the distorting impact that a focus on the C-D borderline has had in the past.

Child Care Costs

First, we are increasing the supply of child care to bring down costs, reversing the decline in childminders by giving top childminders automatic access to Government funding, enabling the creation of childminder agencies which will be a one-stop shop for parents and childminders, and getting better value out of school sites by encouraging schools and nurseries to open from 8 am to 6 pm to support working parents. Secondly, we are supporting parents with costs through tax-free child care, which will be available from next year and give working parents up to £1,200 per child.

Despite budget cuts of £100 million since 2010, Salford council is aiming to provide 25 hours of nursery care for our three and four-year-olds. This extra funding for our nursery schools will make a great difference to hard-pressed families. However, 56 out of 76 schools in Salford will lose out from September because of Government changes to their funding allocations. Why are the Government acting to undermine the attempts we are making in Salford to support our hard-pressed parents who need child care?

I assure the hon. Lady that we are in fact increasing spending on early intervention and child care across the country. We have increased early intervention spending from £2.1 billion to £2.5 billion, and we are increasing the funding for two, three and four-year-olds as well. The reality is that under this Government the costs of child care have stabilised, whereas under the previous Government they went up by over £1,000 a year.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s urgent drive to ensure that parents get the places to which their children are entitled. I welcome it in Norfolk, where £33 million is allocated for more school places. I also welcome it in terms of child care, for which 500 more two-year-olds in my constituency will be eligible. Will she join me in getting more information to parents on how they can access that flexibly?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are keen that school nurseries, which typically operate two sessions a day, do it more flexibly to help to support working parents so that they can take up three five-hour slots a week that may fit in with their part-time jobs. At the moment, too many school assets are empty between the hours of 3 pm and 6 pm or before school. We can use them better and get better value for money.

Given that under the hon. Lady’s Government the cost of child care has risen by 30%, or five times faster than wages, and by a staggering £304 on average in the past year alone, what help with these costs is she providing to parents during this Parliament?

The hon. Lady is cherry-picking her statistics. Many studies show that costs have stabilised under this Government, and they are in line with inflation. Her colleague in the House of Lords, Baroness Hughes, admitted that she got it wrong when Labour was in power, when costs went up by £1,000 a year. We have upped the amount of free child care for three and four-year-olds from 12 and a half hours a week to 15 hours a week, supporting hard-working families, but we are not making unfunded promises such as spending the bankers levy 11 times.

I congratulate the Minister on what this Government have done on child care. There have recently been proposals for universal child care. Will she give an estimate of the costs that that might entail?

The Department for Education has worked out that universal full-time child care for children aged one to four would cost £18 billion.

PISA Report

10. What assessment he has made of the findings of the recent PISA report as they relate to England; and if he will make a statement. (901747)

The PISA results for 2012 showed that England’s performance has stagnated in the league tables, with no improvement over the entire period of the previous Government’s time in office. In contrast, Germany and Poland reformed their education systems and saw a significant improvement in their results, and east Asia also moved ahead. That is why this Government are learning from the success of those other countries by increasing school freedom and accountability and focusing on core academic subjects.

The PISA results also showed that things in Wales have not only stagnated, but gone backwards, and that educational standards in England are still far higher than they are in Wales, where the Welsh Assembly’s Labour Minister recently had to make a fulsome apology on the front page of the Western Mail for his party’s abysmal failure. Why does my hon. Friend the Minister believe that educational standards in England are so much higher than those under the Labour-run Welsh Assembly?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and the Welsh Minister was right to apologise for letting children in Wales down. The reality is that the Welsh Government caved in to the unions and abolished national tests and league tables, and their results in maths have plummeted to lower than 40th in the PISA tables. That shows how vital it is that we increase accountability in this country and keep up the pace of our reforms to make sure that we push ahead like countries such as Germany and Poland, rather than fall behind like Wales.

The PISA report emphasised the potential benefits of raising standards through collaboration between schools. The 2010 teaching White Paper committed £35 million to school collaboration. Why has that commitment not been fulfilled?

We absolutely encourage collaboration, which is one of the reasons why we sent 50 teachers over to Shanghai to see how they do things there and to put that in place in our classrooms. We have already seen the results in some of our schools in England, including improved practice in the classroom and improved teaching results.

Education Attainment (Disadvantaged Pupils)

11. What steps he has taken to raise the attainment at school of children from less affluent backgrounds. (901748)

Disadvantaged primary pupils each attract £953 of pupil premium funding this year, while secondary pupils attract £900. Next year this will increase to £1,300 and £935 respectively.

According to research recently published by the Department, more than 23,000 disadvantaged children in the east of England are entitled to, but are not claiming, free school meals. What steps is the Minister taking to increase take-up and to ensure that schools do not miss out on valuable pupil premium funding?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise this very important issue. It is a concern that the take-up of free school meals varies so much across the country. That is why the Department has now introduced an eligibility checking service to make it easier and quicker to check which families are entitled to free school meals. I can tell my hon. Friend that under-registration for the east of England has actually fallen from 23% to 18% over the past year.

Children from disadvantaged homes and those with special educational needs are most likely to be hit by the cuts to 18-plus funding. When the Secretary of State met the Education Committee just before Christmas, he told us that he regretted the cut, but that it was the best worst option. These children are the closest to being not in education, employment or training; are they really the ones who should be hit hardest and first?

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise, who covers this area, has already responded to this point. These are very difficult decisions that we are having to take as a consequence of the budget deficit we inherited from the previous Government. It is a difficult decision, but I believe that the analysis will show that it is justified.

21. Obviously, the pupil premium plays a great part in providing help for disadvantaged children, including those at Woodrow First school in one of the most deprived areas in my constituency of Redditch. Will the Minister congratulate head teacher Richard Kieran, who provides an imaginative curriculum due to the pupil premium? (901760)

I am delighted to be able to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the head teacher of Woodrow First school. I was particularly pleased to be able to visit that school with my hon. Friend at the end of last year to see the fantastic work that is being done, and I was also encouraged by the strong support she is giving to all the schools in her area.

Is the Minister really satisfied that the cut in 18-plus funding, which will hit youngsters from the least affluent backgrounds, is the best he can do for those young people?

As has already been made clear, this is not a cut that will disproportionately affect those from the backgrounds mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Kings Science Academy (Bradford)

12. What steps his Department has taken in relation to the principal of Kings science academy in Bradford following the conclusions of his Department’s audit report. (901749)

Responsibility for a principal’s performance rests of course with the governing body of an academy, not the Department for Education. One thing I should say is that, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there is an ongoing police investigation, which I have to be careful not to prejudice.

That is disappointing, because of course the head of a maintained school would have been on his bike long ago. May I ask the Secretary of State about a comment made by a spokesperson for Alan Lewis who said:

“At no time has Mr Lewis had responsibility for the financial management or governance of the academy”?

If, as I have been told, the report by the auditors recommended to the school by Mr Lewis was presented directly to him and amended as a result of his comments, does the Secretary of State agree that that provides evidence of involvement in both financial management and governance within the school?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, and for the dogged and persistent way in which he has sought to ensure that we can improve the situation at Kings science academy. I would say that Mr Lewis was responsible for commissioning a report, to which the hon. Gentleman quite rightly draws attention, that has played a part in helping to ensure that Kings science academy moved from a difficult position to a better one, but I must stress that I do not want to say anything that might prejudice an ongoing police report.

I can understand why the Secretary of State wants to protect his flagship policy, but we have had mismanagement, nepotism and fabricated invoices. Mr Lewis is not just a benefactor; he is a landlord who will receive £12 million in rent in years to come from the school, as well as a vice-chair of the Conservative party and a major Tory donor. Is that anything to do with the fact that the Secretary of State has refused to take any action whatsoever against anyone since this scandal broke?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. It is important to place on the record the fact that Mr Lewis is receiving for the property an appropriately guaranteed market rent—less than he was receiving for it beforehand. It is important to stress that, and it is also important to state that as soon as my Department was made aware of allegations of the misappropriation of public money, it contacted Action Fraud and a police investigation is now ongoing as a direct result. I should also add that my Department was in touch with the economic crime unit of West Yorkshire police to ensure that appropriate steps had been taken; it was reassured that those appropriate steps had been taken. The law must follow its course. It is entirely right for the hon. Gentleman to raise questions in Parliament, but it would be entirely wrong for me to prejudge the police investigation.

Tablet Devices (Use in Schools)

13. What assessment he has made of the benefits and disadvantages of the use of tablet devices in schools. (901750)

Technology, well used, can be a powerful tool to help teachers drive up standards, and evidence shows that the use of technology can have the biggest impact on those most disengaged from learning.

Technology such as tablets can be very beneficial in the classroom, but it can also put huge strain on parental finances. What support can the Government offer to make sure that all children, irrespective of their family circumstances, have access to the technology that they need in the classroom?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In fact, during the past year the number of tablets in secondary schools has gone up by 50%, and the number in primary schools has more than doubled, while we also have a special capital fund for colleges to fund such IT. However, this is about more than physical resources; it is about changing the way teaching is done to make the best use of this tool to drive up standards.

Topical Questions

It is important that I draw to the House’s attention the fact that Ofsted, the Government’s school inspectorate, has changed its guidance to clarify the vital importance of not favouring one style of teaching over any other. In the most recent guidance that Ofsted has issued, it stresses that inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style.

I use the opportunity that you have given me at the Dispatch Box, Mr Speaker, to emphasise that point in order to stress to all teachers that we want them to deploy their creativity, skill and intelligence to raise standards for all children, and not to stick to any outdated rubric in doing so.

I welcome the Government review of less well-funded local education authorities, such as North Yorkshire, but there is a very urgent problem with transport for 16 to 18-year-olds attending sixth-form or higher education colleges. Will the Secretary of State address that problem as urgently as possible?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. We are looking not only at how we can better support all schools in sparse, rural areas, but specifically at how disadvantage funding for institutions that educate 16, 17 and 18-year-olds can better take account of transport costs.

Has the Minister had any recent discussions with ministerial colleagues about the law on child neglect? Is he giving any consideration to updating what many professionals argue is an outdated law that can hamper their ability to intervene and protect vulnerable children?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question, if for no other reason than that I get to answer a question. This is an extremely important issue. I know that he agrees with me about the utmost need to make further inroads into eradicating child neglect in our society. There are two definitions of child neglect which relate to criminal law and civil law. I assume that he is talking about the criminal aspect and the work that is being done in the Ministry of Justice, with which I have had discussions. This is an ongoing issue and I am happy to discuss it with him further.

T2. What steps is my hon. Friend taking, working with the Treasury, to equalise the VAT treatment of sixth-form colleges, such as the outstanding Mid Cheshire college in my constituency, to bring them in line with school, academy and free school sixth forms? (901809)

I am a passionate supporter of sixth-form colleges. I recognise the work that they do, in particular Mid Cheshire college with its outstanding status. I have regular discussions with the Treasury. However, we do not think that we will be able to find the resources in the current spending round to solve the problem with VAT that my hon. Friend raises. I will continue to work with the Treasury to try to find a solution.

T3. Ofsted inspections often critique, but usually deliver only advice from a small bag of short-term fixes, many of which have failed before. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how Ofsted can be given the power to deliver 10-year strategic interventions to help schools deliver school readiness at four and 11, so that improvements are sustainable, unlike Ofsted’s short-term fixes? (901810)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I believe that we will have an opportunity to meet and talk tomorrow. I met some great head teachers from his constituency last year and their direct testimony weighed heavily with me. I know that he has talked to them about how we can ensure that Ofsted provides even more support in the future. Other schools have noticed a significant change in the way in which Her Majesty’s inspectors provide support after an inspection, which is sometimes necessarily tough and stringent.

T5. There is a theme to my questions today. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Arrow Vale RSA academy in my constituency, which he also visited recently? It has gone from strength to strength since it converted. Will he commend Guy Shears, the principal, for being an outstanding leader and for leading it into being an outstanding school? (901813)

I am delighted to do so. Again, I was delighted to join my hon. Friend in visiting that school. It was impressive to see how rapidly that head teacher and his senior leadership team have turned around a school whose performance was previously extremely disappointing.

T4. The Association of Colleges has said that young people from disadvantaged areas and black and minority ethnic groups will be hardest hit by the cut of 17.5% in the funding for 18-year-olds. That is borne out by the assessment that has been carried out by my local college, Greenwich community college. Why have the Government not issued an impact assessment on this proposal, given the severe impact that it will have on disadvantaged groups? (901811)

As I said in my earlier answers, we will publish the impact assessment very soon. The crucial question is how, in the context of getting the country out of the budget deficit mess that was left by Opposition Members, we can make decisions that will have the best possible impact on the ground. Is it fair to fund 18-year-olds, who usually take fewer hours of education per week, at the same rate, or should we reduce the funding for all 16 to 19-year-olds instead?

T6. Does the Minister agree with the shadow Secretary of State that Labour failed on vocational education, and does he agree with me that the Government’s rectifying of that mistake means that we now have more employer-led apprenticeships than ever before? (901814)

I try not to be partisan at the Dispatch Box, as you well know, Mr Speaker, but it is absolutely true that we are driving up standards in vocational education across the board and in apprenticeships. It was a real pleasure to visit McDonald’s in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which does a brilliant job on vocational in-work education. The previous Government made the intellectual error of thinking that just because people have not attained yet, we should not have high expectations of them. We are reversing the consequences of that error.

T7. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), will the Secretary of State tell the House now which free schools were approved against the advice of officials? Will he commit to publishing a full list of them? (901815)

I pointed out that three schools had been the subject of concern for the Education Funding Agency and others, and as I pointed out to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), the overwhelming majority of schools put forward for approval were turned down. Something like 17% of the lowest-scoring schools were approved, but no school that has subsequently caused concern to the EFA or anyone else was approved against the advice of officials.

T9. I thank the Secretary of State for listening to North Yorkshire MPs about the sparsity factor in the schools formula. Will he meet me about Upper Wharfedale school, deep in the Yorkshire dales, which is suffering from cuts in bus services for out-of-catchment parents and high demand for special educational needs places? (901817)

T8. When does the Secretary of State expect that builders will start on site rebuilding Carr infant school in York, which he wrote to tell me about last June? The school asks whether it will now get a dining room big enough for all 320 pupils who will become eligible for free school meals under the Deputy Prime Minister’s proposal. (901816)

A feasibility study is being undertaken, and building work should commence within 12 months. I should say that thanks to the reforms introduced in our free schools programme, schools are being built more cheaply and faster than ever before under this Government.

As was previously mentioned, Discovery new school in my constituency had its funding withdrawn last month. Would my right hon. Friend consider a reapplication for continued funding from a reconstituted trust?

We will look at any proposition to open a free school to ensure that it will provide welcome additional capacity. The decision that we took with respect to Discovery was difficult, but it emphasises one thing about this Government: we acknowledge that some schools will fail and some will fall into difficulties, but we have been faster and more determined than any previous Government in turning around or closing failing schools. The fact that things will go wrong in the education system is an inevitability, but having an Education Secretary who is prepared to act quickly and determinedly to deal with that is not an inevitability, it is the dividing line between the Government and the Labour party.

Is the Secretary of State aware that since his decision to make school-based work experience placements optional rather than compulsory, an estimated 64,000 school pupils have missed out on work experience in the past year? Will he explain why he is taking opportunities to access the world of work away from young people, particularly when we have almost 1 million young people unemployed?

We have not abolished work experience, we have removed work-related learning at key stage 4. That was a recommendation of Alison Wolf’s report on vocational education, which the Opposition Front Benchers welcomed 100%. If the hon. Lady has a problem with that policy, she should take it up with them instead of merely reading out a question from a Whip who has not bothered to do his research.

British success in the north American war of 1812 to 1814 was as important to this country as the victories at Trafalgar in 1805 and Waterloo in 1815. Does the Secretary of State agree that it should be part of the history curriculum, particularly as this August will be the 200th anniversary of when the White House was burned down by the East Essex Regiment?

On all the visits that I have made to my hon. Friend’s constituency, I have always had cause to thank people not just for the superb way in which history is taught in Colchester and across Essex but for the distinguished contribution that public servants in Essex, both in uniform and out of it, have made to this country. The war of 1812 to 1814 was a cousins’ war, and it is only appropriate that we remember that as we attempt to—[Interruption.] I see that one of my ain folk is objecting to that. All I would say, brother mine, is that in the shadow of Burns week, we should extend the hand of amity, as I do to my American cousins. Even as we remember their valour, we should also celebrate the fact that we work together in the brotherhood of man today.

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise is struggling desperately to understand the impact of his policy on the most deprived 18-year-olds, so let me tell him about the impact of that policy in Chesterfield. It means that 655 students in this year’s cohort would not get the funding, which the principal of the college in Chesterfield tells me will directly impact on those students who do not achieve well in GCSEs, and clearly be very divisive. The principal told me that the assumptions made for this policy are alarmingly naive and fundamentally incorrect—

I think much as I thought about five minutes ago when I last answered that question. This is a difficult decision, but the impact assessment—which, of course, I have studied—is very clear about taking difficult decisions to deal with the catastrophic mess left by the Labour Government. We are having to take decisions, and we will take them to put this country on the right track.

What would be a realistically ambitious date by which to expect significant improvements in England’s programme for international student assessment scores?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he intends to visit Northern Ireland very soon, and that he will meet educationists there and convince them and confirm that A-level and O-level students will not be wrongly or poorly affected because of their A-level qualifications or transport ability, regarding qualification to colleges and universities on the mainland UK?

I absolutely will. It is vital that we reassure students and teachers in Northern Ireland that the qualifications they sit will be valued, and that access to universities in the rest of the United Kingdom will be upheld. I am proud that our kingdom is united, and that there are students in Northern Ireland who see themselves as part of a family of nations and a community of learning across these islands. I will uphold their right to equal access to institutions of higher and further education in these islands as long as I hold this office.

Proposals and actions for a royal college of teaching continue apace. Although I am sure the Secretary of State would agree that it is not for politicians but for teachers to drive that potential body, can he provide assurance that the Government will give all appropriate support and as fair a wind as possible to the proposal, which could be a game changer for teaching and, of course, ultimately for our children?

The more that teachers take control of their own destiny, and the more the profession is in charge of improving education, the better. I think the best thing about a college of teaching is that the Government stand well back and wish it well.

One of the discoveries in the OECD PISA research is that Britain is one of only five countries in that study where a child’s achievement in reading is more closely connected to their parents’ education and achievement than to any other factor. What will the Secretary of State for Education do about the poor achievement in reading by children of poorly educated parents?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and that is one reason why we are working with schools across the country to ensure that children have the chance to decode fluently through the phonics screening check highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb). That is why I have encouraged every primary school to expect that children will read at least 15 if not 50 books a year, and why I believe we must ensure that the scandalous level of educational inequality to which the hon. Lady draws attention is at the heart of everything the Department for Education does. Whether it is the pupil premium, which was drawn up and brought into Government by my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and the Deputy Prime Minister, or the academies and free schools programme that we are highlighting, everything we do is intended to erase the scandalous level of educational inequality that we inherited and to which I know the hon. Lady objects.