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Topical Questions

Volume 573: debated on Monday 6 January 2014

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them to deploy their creativity, skill and intelligence to raise standards for all children, and not to stick to any outdated rubric in doing so.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 Is he giving any consideration to updating what many professionals argue is an outdated law that can hamper their ability to intervene and protect vulnerable children?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.