Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 575: debated on Monday 10 February 2014

I had the opportunity last week to congratulate the nation’s teachers on the fantastic GCSE performance recorded in our league tables, which show that the number of students being educated in schools below floor standards at secondary level has diminished dramatically under this Government. I would like to take the opportunity once more to thank the nation’s teachers for the superb work that they do.

I echo the Secretary of State’s comment.

Following a unilateral decision by an academy upper school in my constituency to change the age of transfer from 13 to 11, assuming that the local authorities carry out a feasibility study and full consultation, and demonstrate that pupil outcomes will be improved, what assistance can the Government give towards capital expenditure for any reorganisation of the feeder schools, as that clearly is not in any plans?

My hon. Friend raises a very specific case, although I understand why she has brought it to my attention. I hope that we will have the opportunity to talk afterwards so that I can ensure that the Dorset local authority is provided with all the support it needs to make sure that children’s educational standards improve.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Halton (Derek Twigg) have shown, the Opposition recognise the essential role that Ofsted plays in driving up standards in schools. I want to place on the record our continued support for Sir Michael Wilshaw. However, since we last met, the Secretary of State has, in the words of Sir Michael, unleashed a “smear campaign” against the chief inspector. He has also sacked Baroness Morgan as chair of Ofsted, despite the fact that the Minister for Schools thinks that she has done a “fantastic job”. Why is the Secretary of State so intent on undermining England’s independent school inspectorate system?

I am sure that the chief inspector will be touched to hear the hon. Gentleman’s words of support, but I think that he will also be disturbed to hear that he is alleged to have uttered words that he did not utter. This is not the first time that the hon. Gentleman has sallied forth without being in secure possession of the facts. It has been the case beforehand that his facts have been wrong about the situation in the South Leeds academy, and it has been the case that his facts have been wrong, on broadcast, about the number of unqualified teachers in our schools. His facts are wrong again in the allegations he makes about the chief inspector. I hope that he will take this opportunity to ensure that the House knows that he has unfairly and wrongly put words in the chief inspector’s mouth that he did not utter.

We see that the Secretary of State has refused to condemn the campaign against the chief inspector. Is not the truth of the matter this: Ofsted is inspecting his free schools without fear or favour, and he does not like it? The chief inspector wants to inspect academy chains, and he does not like it. On Friday the Al-Madinah secondary school closed, and on Sunday we learned of a new Ofsted purge. Surely the Secretary of State should focus on raising standards, not politicising our school inspectorate system.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to be taken seriously, he must pay close attention to the facts. The facts are these: I have been zealous in ensuring that we apply a tighter and more rigorous inspection framework to all schools—free schools, academies and maintained schools—and in so doing I appointed Sir Michael Wilshaw and I appointed Sally Morgan. I have been the person who has been leading change in our schools. I have been the person who has been insistent that we hold our education system to the highest standards. I am the person now demanding once again that the hon. Gentleman withdraw his earlier statement when he put words into the mouth of Sir Michael Wilshaw that he did not utter. If he does not, we will draw the appropriate conclusion, as the New Statesman already has, which is that his policies are both “timid” and “incoherent”.

T3. I recently visited Havering college in my constituency and Barking and Dagenham college just outside it. The Secretary of State will be pleased to know that we have excellent standards there, but one thing that is lacking is the importance of teaching our young people about the British constitution, our history, political affairs and so on. What do the Government intend to do to ensure greater awareness of those subjects among young people? (902496)

From September, the new history curriculum will ensure that children understand the history of these islands as well as a coherent chronological narrative. In citizenship, they will learn about the United Kingdom’s constitution, about the precious liberties enjoyed by citizens of our country and about their role as citizens and how they can participate.

T2. Given the well documented problems that whistle- blowers encountered in reporting their experiences at Barnfield Federation to the Department for Education, will the Secretary of State commit to publishing all inquiry reports in full, including all the versions that have circulated outside the Departments involved? (902494)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that case. As we both know, very serious allegations have been made in connection with the Barnfield Federation. They are currently being investigated, and nothing I say, do or publish should prejudice those investigations. However, as has always been the case, whenever there is information that it is right we should share with those affected and with the public, we will share it in due course.

T4. What action is the Minister taking to support parents and children in deprived areas, particular those in temporary accommodation and without access to IT facilities, to access and retain permanent school places, and is he willing to look at the system in place at Barnfield primary school in my constituency, with a view to seeing how the Government might encourage effective support in other schools? (902497)

I would be delighted to look at the situation in my hon. Friend’s constituency to see what we can learn from it. During this Parliament we have more than doubled the capital budget for basic need compared with the budget under the previous Labour Government, and that is helping us to deal with such pressures across the country.

T5. I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your earlier kind comments, and the Children’s Minister for the same. Given such warmth towards me today, perhaps the Secretary of State will tell me why, given that in 2007 the Prime Minister spoke of a new generation of Co-operative schools and said that they had been welcomed across the board, not one of the Ministers will agree to meet me to discuss these issues and the Bill that I put forward which would put Co-operative schools on a firmer footing. (902498)

Any opportunity to spend time with the hon. Lady is one that I would rush to take. The cause of the Co-operative movement is very close to my heart, so I would be delighted to talk to her, perhaps over a cup of tea, before too long.

T6. Will the Secretary of State make it 100% clear that he is totally supportive of teachers who want to use their judgment and common sense to apply discipline and punishments that are sensible and proportionate? (902499)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. A third of teachers do not feel they know exactly which sanctions they are able to use. That is why the Secretary of State outlined sanctions such as writing lines, running around the school playing field and picking up litter, so that proper discipline can be imposed. It is vital that students are able to learn and that there is an end to low-level disruption in the classroom.

The Facebook drinking game Neknomination has gone viral, and very sadly young people have died as a result. What role do schools have in building resilience in our young people to resist peer pressure?

The hon. Lady is right to be concerned about some of the ever-changing risks, as well as opportunities, for young people through the internet. That is why we have brought in the teaching of online safety at every key stage so that from the earliest opportunity children are getting the benefit of sound advice. It is also important that parents play their role so that children are getting a consistent message both at school and at home.

T7. The 17.5% cuts in spending for 18-plus learning announced last year by the Education Funding Agency, the changes in the 16-to-19 funding formula and the unfair treatment of sixth-form colleges compared with schools regarding VAT have put sixth-form colleges under serious strain, with cuts to courses and staff. Will the Minister, or even the Secretary of State, meet me and the principal of the excellent Barton Peveril college in Eastleigh to discuss the impact of these cuts? (902500)

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the principal of his local sixth-form college to discuss how to make sure that in these tight spending times, which we all know exist, sixth-form colleges can maximise the flexibilities at their command in order to continue the excellent education that most deliver.

Many children who are entitled to free school meals do not receive that benefit, often because parental embarrassment or a lack of English mean that the application is not made. Will the Minister ensure that those children are passported through on the basis of benefit assessments already made in respect of those families?

This is a very important issue, because take-up of free school meals is quite low in some parts of the country. We are working with local authorities to improve the identification of the children who are so entitled, with some considerable success. As we introduce universal infant free meals, we will also look at ways in which we can make this more automatic for all the pupils who are entitled to extra funding for free school meals and the pupil premium.

T8. I have recently had to deal with a number of bullying cases in my local schools. The root cause of that bullying appears to be very poor discipline. Too often, this indiscipline is caused not by bad teaching but by bad parenting. Will my right hon. Friend do something to improve the situation? (902501)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that parents and teachers need to work together in order to ensure very high standards of behaviour. It is often the case that what happens before children ever attend school—in the earliest years—matters. That is why the programme of work that the Government are undertaking, led by my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions and for Communities and Local Government to help troubled families is so important.

University technical colleges are an increasingly important and positive part of our education system. Do Ministers share my dismay that, despite the Baker Dearing Trust making it very clear that one would be welcome in Leeds, Leeds city council refused to put one together for the important West Park centre site, which is now a pile of rubble?

I am genuinely sorry to hear that and I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman in order to make sure that opportunities for children in Leeds are not thwarted by the Labour council.

Contrary to the information given earlier, the Secretary of State is well aware that the attainment gap between the wealthiest and the poorest children in this country grew in every region apart from London last year. Does he accept any responsibility for that?

I absolutely do, but I think the hon. Lady is in error. As has been pointed out by Dr Becky Francis, among others, the attainment gap actually narrowed in primary schools, where our reforms have had more of an opportunity to have an effect on a percentage of children’s lives. At secondary level, of course the problem remains. That is why it is so disappointing that the Labour party is opposed to initiatives such as the free schools programme, which Andrew Adonis has greeted so warmly, but which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) would halt.

I and parents, teachers and local councils in my constituency are supporting a bid for a studio school at the site of the Grange school in Warmley. Will departmental representatives agree to meet me and a delegation to discuss the bid, which will be absolutely vital for raising standards in my constituency?

I would be delighted to do everything I can to support that bid, not least given the fact that new school provision, studio schools and free schools are threatened by the Labour party’s ideological opposition to new provision.

At a time when there is overwhelming evidence about the value of physical activity to improving health outcomes and learning in classrooms, why on earth is the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), defending the right of teachers to use running around the playground as a punishment, rather than using the bully pulpit of the Dispatch Box to condemn such outmoded practices?

As a great admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, I am happy to use whatever bully pulpits are available. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the Prime Minister and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), on securing a sports premium in our primary schools, which ensures that more physical activity is available than ever before. I also thank the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for the work he has undertaken with me to bring an independent school into the state sector—using the free school programme—in order to give more children opportunities I am afraid his Front-Bench colleagues would, for ideological reasons, deny them. He is a good Blairite; they are the bad ones.

School holidays are an important time when families can spend time together, but does the Secretary of State agree that there is a difference between legitimate travel companies making a profit and profiteering?

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a very acute point. One of the flexibilities we have given—not least to academies and free schools—is the ability to vary school holidays in order to make sure that holidays can be cheaper and parents can take them off-peak. That is another school freedom that, for ideological reasons, I am afraid Labour Front Benchers would deny. I do not understand why they are so keen to make holidays more expensive for hard-working families.

I am rather perplexed. Are Government Front Benchers able to help me? A written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) said that there was no idea how much it cost to create 138 new sixth forms in schools. Given that we want value for money, I found that very difficult to understand.

The point I was making is that the amount of resource spending for each pupil aged 16 to 19 is the same, with an additional amount for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those studying more high-cost programmes like engineering, our support for which is vital for our national economy.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the sentence handed out in Amersham Crown court last week to the former head teacher of the Caldicott preparatory school after years of abuse of children in his care. Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to my constituent Mr Tom Perry, who was brave enough to speak out about his own abuse? Will he agree to meet Mr Perry and me to discuss the possibility of mandatory reporting, as Mr Perry believes it would better protect our children in the future?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and Mr Perry for their leadership on this issue. I would like to invite him to the Department to discuss exactly what we can do in the future to ensure that this sort of horrific abuse does not happen again.