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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 578: debated on Monday 24 March 2014


The Secretary of State was asked—


Major reforms in the Children and Families Act 2014 will help to speed up the legal adoption process for children, support quicker matching and ensure the earlier placement of children with foster families who may go on to adopt them. We have also implemented a new adopter approval process and, in 2012-13, the number of adopters was 34% up on the year before.

I thank the Minister for his reply and welcome improvements that have been made to the system, but may I draw his attention to a Canadian couple who have been trying to adopt a child from north-east Lincolnshire to whom one of them is related? The process started in December 2012 but has still not been completed, and the child is now three. If the complications have arisen because the couple are from abroad, can anything be done to speed up the process?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that some adoption cases take far too long. The average time from care to placement is 22 months, which is why we have streamlined the approvals process and introduced regular scorecard data to show local authorities’ timeliness with adoptions. It is also why we have put more than £200 million into the adoption system to try to rip out unnecessary red tape and ensure that everyone keeps their efforts firmly fixed on children who badly need stable homes.

Adults who become special guardians face the same difficulties as parents who adopt, yet receive less support. My experience is that overburdened social workers are more likely to pursue a special guardianship order because the process is less intensive, but sometimes that lack of rigour leads to breakdown. Will the Minister try to bring the processes for SGOs into line with those for adoption so that children are protected by arrangements that are appropriate for them?

Of course, any special guardianship order must be signed off and approved by the court in the same way as a placement or adoption order. There has been a significant increase in the number of SGOs throughout the country in recent years, which is why we have commissioned for the first time proper research not only into the prevalence of the orders, but into who is taking them forward and what the breakdown rates are, as well as what is available to ensure that children who find themselves in such permanent situations get the support that they need. If the hon. Lady wishes, I will be happy to talk to her about that further.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his astonishing record and success on expanding adoption, but may I echo the comments of the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) by saying that there is still more to be done to speed up the process? One of the easiest ways of determining where the blockages in the system are is to compare neighbouring authorities that have similar socio-economic bases, but very different adoption rates. We must get out the message that speed matters when dealing with young children.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we must bring as much transparency as possible to the adoption process, which is why we have introduced the scorecard data and a national adoption register that is more open and available to prospective adopters. It is also why we have put such a strong emphasis on ensuring that local authorities’ artificial barriers do not get in the way of children finding a loving, stable family home, if adoption is right for them. I welcome his support for what we are doing but, of course, we must continue to exert pressure so that all the 6,000 children who are in care and waiting to be adopted this very day get the opportunity that they deserve.

I also welcome the improvements, but may I remind the Minister that, in England alone, 16% of all children put up for adoption are black, Asian or from the ethnic minority communities, and that adoption still takes three times longer for a black child than for a white child? What steps is he taking to ensure that more prospective parents come from the ethnic communities and that that difference is brought to an end?

The right hon. Gentleman is correct to raise that issue, of which I am conscious from the statistics that he shared with the House. That is why we have made it clear—not only through the Children and Families Act 2014—that although ethnicity is an important consideration when matching for adoption, it should not be the single guiding principle that determines whether prospective adopters take on a child with a different ethnic mix from theirs. It is also why we are helping to fund local authorities, in partnership with independent fostering agencies, to examine how they can recruit more widely across our communities so that we ensure that we have a good cross-section of people coming forward to adopt.

We need to make people aware that some of the myths and barriers that they think prevent them from adopting do not exist. We want more people to come forward, so we should do everything that we can to encourage them to do so.

Register of Foster Carers

We have no plans to introduce a national register of foster carers. Foster carers are approved locally by their fostering service, which helps ensure a good match between the foster carer and children. Introducing a national register would add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and make the approval process less responsive to foster carers’ and children’s needs.

I thank the Minister for that response, but does he not agree that it seems somewhat counter-productive to restrict outstanding carers to one authority or agency, forcing them, in effect, to go through that additional bureaucracy and vetting procedure should they move? What plans does he have to make the system less bureaucratic so that, particularly in neighbouring authorities, they do not have to repeat that process, wasting a lot of time?

I agree that we need to make transferring from one agency to another, or from one local authority to another, as streamlined and as simple as possible. That is why we have changed the regulations to make it easier for new fostering services to access the foster carer’s record, including the training that they have received, and why, more recently, fostering services have also been required to share relevant information about a person’s suitability to foster.

We have seen a 6% rise in the number of approved foster carers, as well as a 9% rise in the number of approved foster placements, but we need to go further and do anything we can to ensure that those who want to foster and want to continue to foster really get the chance to do just that.

I recognise the Minister’s concerns, and I suppose that the issue depends on what the register is intended to achieve, but the Department has had to address issues over the adoption register very similar to those to which he just referred. That register is managed by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. How would a fostering register differ dramatically from the adoption register, on which the Minister has been rightly lavishing praise?

There are more than 71,000 approved foster carers, so there is already a scalability issue. We also have a much more deeply entrenched local system in relation to the recruitment of foster carers. That is why we have given the fostering network £250,000 to try to boost recruitment at a local level to try to meet local need, but we also need to do everything that we can to ensure that the latent capacity in fostering across the country is utilised. Hundreds of thousands of people would consider fostering and we need to find them. That is why we are also funding Fosterline—an independent, free advice line—so that people can get the guidance that they need to come forward and, hopefully, foster.

Holidays in Term Time

4. What guidance his Department has issued to head teachers on what constitutes the exceptional circumstances in which children may be granted leave of absence for holidays during school term time. (903197)

There have been examples on the Isle of Wight, and I am sure elsewhere, of parents being told that the Government have banned all term-time holidays, which is particularly difficult for those who work during the holidays. Will the Minister confirm that the definition of exceptional circumstances is made by the head teachers, and not the Government, the council or even the governing body, and that the normal use of language should be sufficiently clear for heads to make those decisions?

As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: the decision as to what constitutes exceptional circumstances is a matter for the head teacher. It is important, however, to stress that children wherever possible should be in school and learning, and a drive to reduce truancy and push up the number of days and hours that children spend in school is at the heart of our long-term plan to raise standards in our state schools.

In 2013, Ofsted estimated that more than 10,000 children were missing from education—children more likely to have special educational needs and to be more vulnerable to child sexual exploitation. Will the Secretary of State look at ways in which the extent of the problem and the risk to the children involved can be better monitored, such as asking local safeguarding children boards to include in their annual reports information on children missing from school?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. The work that she has done on emphasising how much better a job we can do to help vulnerable children and young people has been exemplary, and I very much take her point to heart. I stress that local safeguarding children boards have had a bad press recently but it is important that we use all the agencies at our disposal to try to ensure that the most vulnerable are in school, where they can benefit from great education and appropriate pastoral support.


We are raising expectations in mathematics, in line with top-performing countries. We are strengthening the primary school curriculum to focus on core arithmetic and removing calculators from primary school tests this summer. We expect secondary schools to increase teaching time, with a more challenging maths GCSE that will, for the first time, be double-weighted in the performance tables. We are also providing £11 million to build a network of maths hubs across the country.

Will my hon. Friend join me in praising my constituent Mr Kevin Bennett, who is helping local schoolchildren to learn maths through real-life applications, using astronomy at his Caradon observatory in South East Cornwall?

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent, Kevin Bennett. It is really important that young people understand not only how to do maths, but how it can be applied, from astronomy to business. We know that maths qualifications command the highest earnings in the workplace, and it is really important that all our young people understand how valuable they are.

The Minister seems to agree that our primary problem in maths education is pre-GCSE, not post-GCSE. Does she therefore agree that it is unfair and unwise to press students to take mathematics beyond GCSE if their pre-GCSE performance is not sufficiently strong?

I agree that we have a lot to do to improve our performance in primary schools mathematics, but we have the lowest proportion of students studying maths from age 16 to 18 in the developed world. We need to do something about that, because it affects all kinds of things, such as the future supply of maths teachers and the number of people going into business and industry. What people in business tell me is that everything, from fashion to farming, now depends on having a good level of mathematics.

It has been said that MPs can be divided into three groups: those who can count and those who cannot. Can my hon. Friend tell us whether the people now going into primary school teaching are people who have enjoyed mathematics and are good at it and can pass on their enthusiasm and skills to those they teach?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am not proposing an entry requirement for Parliament, but perhaps that is something he might put forward. We have new maths and English skills tests for primary school teachers. We are also giving bursaries to maths teachers for primary school. One of the things we have been looking at in Shanghai is having specialist maths teachers in primary schools, which is an interesting model.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I think that we are at about 90% of our target for this year. It is vital that we get more people into maths teaching, so we have removed the cap on maths teacher recruitment and we are awarding the highest level of scholarships and bursaries to maths. Importantly, we also need more people doing maths at A-level, and we now have record numbers under this Government. We also have record numbers doing further maths at A-level and doing maths degrees. That will increase the supply of maths teachers in future.

Shakespeare Schools Festival

I am delighted to be able to support and fund the Shakespeare schools festival. We have provided nearly £500,000 to give students the opportunity to prepare and perform an abridged version of a Shakespeare play. More than 1,000 schools—over 62,000 students—have already benefited, and 50,000 more students should benefit this year.

In this special anniversary year, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s fantastic Shakespeare week has brought the works of the great bard to thousands of children across the country. Will the Secretary of State join me on 29 April to watch the talented students of Stratford-on-Avon mark the 450th anniversary of the bard’s birth in a special performance in the Speaker’s state apartments?

Mr Speaker, to visit your apartments,

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments.”

Yes is the short answer to my hon. Friend.

There is evidence that Shakespeare poorly taught can put children off English literature for a very long time. Do our children not need a broad diet, which might even include our famous poet John Clare this year, the 150th anniversary of his death?

Any author poorly taught can put children off for life, but more and more lessons are being taught well in our schools. As the chief inspector has pointed out, we have more good and outstanding schools than ever before. I had the opportunity recently to see children from a special school, a primary school and a secondary school—Burlington Danes academy—all perform Shakespeare productions in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s flat. I was blown away by the quality of their verse speaking. I believe that Shakespeare has the power to move and touch every child, and I know that John Clare would have thought exactly the same. That peasant poet understood that he stood in a tradition of great literary figures, of whom Shakespeare was another grammar school boy made good.


Apprenticeship reforms are putting employers in the driving seat of designing world-class standards for apprenticeships, and making it easier for them to offer apprenticeships in the future. I can announce to the House today that David Meller of the Meller Education Trust has agreed to become the new chair of the apprenticeship ambassadors network, with a brief of expanding and encouraging that network further and boosting apprenticeships once again.

I recently visited SMC Pneumatics in my constituency to meet its apprentices. It has an excellent apprenticeship programme, run in conjunction with Milton Keynes college. One suggestion made to me was that to get the most out of their apprenticeship, apprentices need a good mentor to support them. Will the Minister assure me that his Department will do all it can to facilitate a network of voluntary mentors?

Yes, I absolutely will. I have visited Milton Keynes with my hon. Friend and seen some of the excellent work on apprenticeships there. Of course, from time immemorial an apprenticeship has been not just a skills programme but a mentoring programme that shows people what it takes to work and succeed in a career. Modern apprenticeships do that too.

I have heard what the Minister has told the House, but in my area of south Yorkshire the number of apprenticeships available is down by 15% over the past year. Will the Minister consider taking special steps in areas where the number of apprenticeships is falling?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the number of apprenticeships has risen sharply over the past few years, but at the same time we have to drive up the quality of the programme. Of course, all steps that can be taken must be taken in all areas, and I will ensure that the issue of south Yorkshire is raised specifically at the next meeting of the apprenticeship ambassadors network.

A number of businesses in my constituency have been reluctant to take part in apprenticeship schemes, fearing that they are bureaucratic and do not address individual needs. Does my hon. Friend agree that the only way to bring true benefit to young people is to train them in the skills that business and industry actually need, which will also help to fill the skills gap?

I could not have put it better myself, and I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. That is what we are trying to do, by having a three-click programme for an employer to take on an apprentice and through wider reforms.

The number of 16 to 18-year-olds undertaking apprenticeships dropped by nearly 14% in the first quarter of the 2013 academic year. With 900,000 young people out of work, is it not time the Minister admitted that his boastful rhetoric does not match his hopeless record of failure?

Funnily enough, I do not agree with that one, Mr Speaker. The number of full apprenticeships—those longer than a year—has more than doubled for under-19s. In 2010, a 17-year-old could claim that they had an apprenticeship when they had a three or six-month programme. We do not think that is a proper apprenticeship. Funnily enough, nor does the Labour party policy review, so perhaps the hon. Lady should talk to some of her colleagues.

Child Care (Norwich)

It was a pleasure to visit the Magdalen Gates pre-school with my hon. Friend and see Norwich two-year-olds benefiting from our programme. I am pleased to tell her that 1,537 children in Norfolk are now part of that programme. Across the country, by the end of February we had more than 100,000 two-year-olds in the programme, which represents 77% of available places.

I welcome those numbers and all the recent announcements on child care because they give parents choice and support. I welcome—as, I know, does my hon. Friend—good-quality early-years education, because it can help children develop social skills and vocabulary, as we heard at that pre-school. What is the Minister doing to raise quality for all the children we have just heard about?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question, and I congratulate Paula Watts and her team in Norwich on their excellent work. We have seen a 25% increase this year in the number of people enrolling to be early-years teachers, which I think shows the level of confidence in our programme. Those trainee teachers have to pass the same skills tests in English and Maths as primary school teachers, and we know that children, particularly those from low-income families, benefit from high-quality teacher-led provision at that age, which can help them close the gap with their richer counterparts.

As the Minister herself widened the subject matter courtesy of her answer, I think we can safely make the journey to Reading.

A new Sutton Trust report states that 40% of children are missing out on the parenting they need to succeed in life. International evidence finds that under-threes who do not form strong bonds with a parent are more likely to suffer from aggression and hyperactivity when older, and they do less well in their education. In the light of that, is the Minister happy that parents are getting the full picture when making choices about the right balance of time spent in nursery and child care settings, as opposed to with their parents?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of parenting and early attachment, and that is why we increased funding for early intervention and child care from £4.3 billion to £4.5 billion over this Parliament. One of the key roles of children’s centres, which are being used by a record number of parents this year—more than 1 million parents are now using children’s centres—is to communicate best practice. Our new early-years teacher qualifications have a focus on attachment.

School Funding (Solihull)

Past school funding levels have been very unfair to some parts of our country, and we have announced that we will significantly boost funding in 2015-16 by more than one third of a billion pounds for the 60 least fairly funded local authorities.

The formula funding protection for Solihull sixth-form college, as with all sixth-form colleges, runs out in 2015-16. What advice would my hon. Friend give to the principal and governors in developing their strategic plans?

My hon. Friend will know that funding after 2015-16 will be determined in the next spending round, and we cannot make precise commitments now about funding in that period. We have been considering the options for funding large programmes such as those containing five or more A-levels, the international baccalaureate, and large vocational programmes, and we plan to announce how those will be treated after 2015-16 in the near future.

I welcome enormously the real progress made on fairer funding, and I salute the Minister and the Secretary of State for delivering in this Parliament on an issue that went unaddressed for decades. May I encourage the Minister to keep on engaging with the F40 campaign, which includes Solihull, Staffordshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire, and to ensure that all areas that have suffered from unfair funding for too long can hope to benefit—as Worcestershire and Buckinghamshire already have—from fairer funding?

We will certainly remain engaged in that debate, and I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend on the leadership that he has given to this campaign over a sustained period. That has led to our recent announcement, which has sought to resolve the issue in those parts of the country that have traditionally been very badly funded.

Primary School Places

We have more than doubled the allocation of money for basic need to more than £5 billion in this Parliament, and 260,000 additional places were created between May 2010 and May 2013, including 212,000 primary places.

May I declare my interest as a student working towards a level 3 teaching assistant qualification? I am currently undertaking placements in Victoria junior school in Barrow, and Oasis Academy Johanna in Lambeth. Barrow is one of the few areas of the country that has a surplus of places as a result of population decline in recent years, yet too many pupils are still being denied their first choice of school. If the Government were serious about making the education system work for pupils, and not for the convenience of producers, would they not give parents the right to send their child to the school of their choice, and place a duty on that institution to expand?

We are so serious about this issue that we have doubled the amount of basic need funding going to the hon. Gentleman’s local authority compared with the period under the Labour Government. We are seeking not only to improve the quality of existing schools but to make sure that parents can exercise their choices effectively.

In Luton we are 630 primary places short of the number we require—a situation that would be much worse had a free school not been built by an arms-length council body that had to jump through all the hoops of the free school system. Is it not perverse that local authorities are not allowed to build schools?

Local authorities are allowed to build schools. We have allocated £37 million to the hon. Gentleman’s local authority to do precisely that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is quite right to give local authorities the freedom to decide how to allocate this extra funding for places based on local need and local knowledge?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Local authorities do have that knowledge of local need, and they have the money from us to address this issue.

I recently attended a meeting with all the head teachers from the Otley family of schools, which covers Otley, Bramhope, Pool-in-Wharfedale and Adur, and they expressed concern about the chronic shortage of school places at primary level. After the debacle of Labour-run Leeds city council closing schools a number of years ago, and now that we need some, what work is going on to have discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government about how this problem can be avoided in future?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. One of the reasons there are pressures in some parts of the country is that under the previous Government over 200,000 primary school places were eliminated after 2003. He will be aware that Leeds is one of the areas to which we have given significant amounts of basic need funding, and it is now using that money effectively. I will be happy to meet him if it would be helpful to discuss this in further detail.


20. Acre Hall primary school in my constituency is growing, and it is well placed to expand its offer of small specialist classes for special educational needs pupils. However, the school is in a very poor state of repair and is in desperate need of rebuilding. Will the Minister urge the Education Funding Agency to reach a decision at the earliest possible opportunity on its application for capital grants? (903217)

I will certainly look into that particular case as a consequence of the hon. Lady’s question and write to her about it.

The Local Government Association recently warned that there is a need to create 130,000 new places by 2017-18. It also warned that because of the Minister’s ideological insistence that these places have to be in free schools and academies, they will not be created where they are actually needed. On what evidence does he believe that community schools and local decision making are always bad?

We do not believe that. Indeed, local community schools are expanding right across the country; the difference between the situation under this Government and under the previous Government is that they have the money to do so.

Regional School Commissioners

The Secretary of State will recognise that Al-Madinah and IES UK Breckland schools have not been the greatest advert for his policy agenda. How will these rather Soviet-sounding commissioners help to ensure that academy chains and free schools are properly overseen so that no more children have their education damaged in future?

I have nothing against anything that is redolent of a better past in Russia. In fact, the Office of the Schools Commissioner was introduced by the previous Labour Government. We are merely building on it to ensure that we have great head teachers and others who can ensure that the superb innovation that is occurring in academies, free schools and community schools across the country is supported, and that wherever school failure occurs we can take swift and rapid action.

Vocational Education

Driving up the rigour and responsiveness of vocational education is a critical part of this Government’s mission to give everyone the education they need to fulfil their potential.

How does the Minister respond to the Government’s own consultation, which proposes that an employer’s contribution for a hairdressing apprentice should be about £1,700, whereas for science, technology, engineering and maths trades such as engineering it should be more than £5,000, and construction specialisms would cost £7,000? Will he rethink these mad proposals?

I do not recognise any of those figures, but I do recognise the need to make sure that apprenticeships are driven by the skills that employers need, so that they remain high quality and increasingly fill the skills gaps that have been left by an education system that was far too divorced from the world of work.

What would the Minister say to Richard Wright, who speaks on behalf of Sheffield business as chief executive of the local chamber of commerce and who wrote to the Secretary of State saying that the funding cut for 18-year-olds in further education would remove money from where it can have the most effect in equipping young people with maths and English, and with the technical and vocational skills that are modern and relevant, to ensure that they are work-ready?

The first thing I would say is that we have ameliorated the change so that no institution will lose more than 2% in the coming financial year. The second thing I would say is that we had to make this change because of the mess left in the public finances by the Labour party. [Interruption.] Labour Members do not like it, but it is the truth, and until they get used to admitting their fault, nobody will trust them with the economy again.

Which does the Minister think causes most damage to vocational education in Blackpool—his 17.5% cut in college funding, which is capped for only one year at 2%, or his abject failure to promote or offer any properly financially supported traineeships for young people?

Of course, there would not be traineeships were it not for this Government. I would say that the most damaging thing to young people’s futures is a Labour Government.

In Northumberland we have doubled the number of apprenticeships and have outstanding vocational education at Northumberland college and at the Egger academy, which I opened last year. When I visited Release Potential in my constituency, people there stressed the success of traineeships and how they need to be promoted, not denigrated, as the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) has just done. Does the Minister agree that traineeships are part of the future that we need?

Absolutely. Traineeships are provided by good and outstanding institutions, because we want them to be a high-quality product to make sure that everybody gets the skills they need and the capability and character they need to hold down a job. They are filling a gap that was left before.

Independent Schools

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the important role that independent schools play in raising education standards in this country, and does he applaud the enormous contribution that fee-paying parents make in investing in our education system?

I take a close interest in the success of England’s independent schools. In particular, I reinforce the point that my hon. Friend makes. Those parents who support independent schools are supporting not just a great education for their own children. In many cases—for example, with schools such as Wellington and Eton college—they are also supporting improved state education by sponsoring free schools, which would not exist if Labour came to power. I stress that the head teachers of independent schools appreciate the changes being made to the state sector. Only this weekend the headmaster of King’s College school in Wimbledon pointed out that the state sector “has really improved” under this Government—so much so that it is totally different from the situation that prevailed 10 years ago under Labour.

I declare an interest as a governor of an independent school. Will my right hon. Friend in his various discussions promote the placing of looked-after and vulnerable children in boarding-school education, not least because this produces better results for them in examinations and better outcomes in life, and it is also considerably cheaper than the alternative?

I absolutely agree. The role that independent schools play in making sure that children from vulnerable backgrounds have access to boarding education is to be applauded, but it is vital that we stress that there are superb state boarding schools as well, and that there are a growing number of state schools providing excellent facilities for children from the most fragile of circumstances to flourish. It is important that we should recognise that whatever the type of school helping a vulnerable child, the actions of those who lead it should be applauded.

Engineering Apprenticeships (16 to 18-year-old Girls)

17. What steps his Department is taking to encourage girls aged 16 to 18 to consider taking up engineering apprenticeships. (903214)

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers says that 92% of girls choose not to take triple science as a subject beyond the age of 14, which effectively disbars them from a career in engineering. EngineeringUK says that 83% of all young people do not have access to STEM-related work experience. How on earth do the Government’s policies of ending face-to-face careers advice and downgrading work experience help to encourage girls into engineering?

I recognise the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes as the situation of a few years ago. Fortunately, a record number of girls are studying triple science at GCSE and a record number of girls are studying physics. That does not mean that there is not more to do for the Government in sorting out the problems that were left behind. We must ensure that people are given inspiration and mentoring through careers guidance, which was not available in the past. We must promote the highest-quality careers to boys and girls, and ensure that everybody knows how to fulfil their potential.

I congratulate the Government on their work in the STEM sector, and particularly in engineering. How many women have finished engineering apprenticeships and how many girls go on to gain a job in engineering? Will the Minister join me in recognising that women engineers are climbing to the top of the tree, since we have had a female president of the Institution of Civil Engineers?

I will. A very high proportion of those who go into apprenticeships, and STEM apprenticeships in particular, stay on in a job or continue into a higher-quality apprenticeship. That progression is one reason why apprenticeships are such a valued institution.

19. We know that girls and young women like to try before they buy. They therefore need practical experience of engineering before they will apply for it. Among other companies, MBDA in my constituency has a great programme through which it goes into schools and takes pupils on work experience placements. What is the Minister doing to ensure that every young person has a similar opportunity? (903216)

I pay tribute to MBDA, which I visited to see its work on apprenticeships. The apprentice of the year was a young woman from MBDA. It does great work, but there is much more to be done so that all employers can engage in schools and colleges to show young people what they can do.

When I visit engineering and manufacturing companies in my Bury North constituency, they often say that not just girls, but boys find the idea of taking up trades off-putting because they are noisy, dirty and sometimes smelly. Does the Minister agree that the teachers in our schools need to do more to encourage people of both sexes to take up such jobs?

Absolutely. The very best people to do that are the people who are in those careers themselves and who can show what a modern engineering workplace looks like. They tend to be problem-solving institutions that are exciting and that pay well, which I find is a message that goes down particularly well with apprentices.

Child Care Costs

18. What assessment he has made of the effects of the cost of child care on parents who want to work. (903215)

According to the recent Family and Childcare Trust survey, the cost of child care in England has started to fall in real terms for the first time in 12 years, whereas in Scotland, the cost of nurseries has gone up by 8% and in Wales, which is run by Labour, the cost of nurseries has gone up by 13%. That is because the Government are reducing red tape and enabling good providers to expand.

That was pure fantasy. One of the best and most effective child care solutions for working parents is Sure Start. Is the Minister ashamed that 600 Sure Start centres have closed under the Government and that some Tory councils, such as Hammersmith and Fulham, have cut their budget by half?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has got his figures wrong. In fact, Sure Start provides fewer than 4% of places. In London, which he represents, 45% of early-years places are in school nurseries. I suggest that he join the Mayor of London’s programme, which he is running with me, to encourage school nurseries to open for longer hours. What the hon. Gentleman says about children’s centres is absolute nonsense. We have increased the investment in those as well.

Unfortunately, the expansion of free places has resulted in the headmaster of Carterhatch children’s centre in Enfield asking fee-paying parents to take their children out of the centre to make way for those who are on the new scheme. What advice does the Minister have for the headmaster, who has chosen to discriminate against working parents, and for the parents who are fighting to keep their children at the centre?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We are working with London providers and local authorities to get them to expand the number of places. We have made it easier for private sector providers to expand without planning red tape, and we have made it easier for good and outstanding providers to expand without red tape. We also want to see school nurseries and children’s centres open from 8 am to 6 pm to provide flexible child care.

We welcome the fact that finally families will receive some much needed help in meeting their child care costs. However, does the Minister accept that by the time the tax-free scheme comes into effect in 2015, the support that families have already lost plus the increases in costs over this Parliament will mean that the vast majority of families will still be worse off? Can she also tell the House what assessment she has made of the impact on price inflation, given the chronic shortage of places?

I do not think that the hon. Lady heard my first point, which was that prices are falling in real terms in England for the first time since the Family and Childcare Trust study began. Under Labour, they went up by 50%. On Thursday, I visited the excellent Medlock primary school in her constituency, which offers places to two, three and four-year-olds. Staff told me of their plans to open from 8 until 6 to provide parents with more care. That is happening across the country—[Interruption.] I hear what the hon. Lady says. At present, most nurseries in Manchester are open from 9 to 3. If they opened from 8 to 6, that would be more than 60% extra.

Topical Questions

Thanks to the success of our long-term economic plan, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister were able last week to announce not just an extension of tax-free child care, but the extension of the pupil premium to the early years, marking a step forward in making this country not only more economically efficient, but more socially just.

I warmly welcome the additional money announced in the Budget to support early education for children from low-income families. What will that mean for nursery providers in Solihull?

We are consulting on exactly how we should distribute the additional cash in order to ensure that it goes to the very poorest families, but I am aware that in the west midlands generally—and in Solihull particularly—there are families in desperate need of support, and I hope we will be able to extend that to them as quickly as possible.

More and more research shows the importance of early-years development in a child’s education. The Labour party’s Sure Start programme was focused on supporting those vital infant years—a policy of prevention, rather than cure. We know that the Tories do not support Sure Start, but in 2010, the Secretary of State pledged to create 4,200 new health visitors. Can he tell the House how far he is from meeting that target?

We extravagantly support Sure Start and I am a great advocate of the great work that Sure Start children’s centres do, but the provision of additional health visitors is a matter for the Secretary of State for Health.

That is exactly the problem with this Government—no cross-departmental thinking about having health visitors focus on early-years development. [Laughter.] The Tories may laugh at the impact that health visitors have on early-years education, but the Opposition think that the early years are vital. As the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) suggested, research published by the Sutton Trust on Friday reiterated the impact that good parenting has on school readiness, educational attainment and progression into continued education and work. Will the Government’s commitment to 4,200 new health visitors be matched this Parliament, or is it another broken promise, like Sure Start centres?

The early years are indeed very important. That is when children often learn to spell. It is important that the Secretary of State can tell the difference between education, e-d-u-c-a-t-i-o-n, and health, h-e-a-l-t-h. Responsibility for health visitors, like responsibility for doctors and nurses, is for the Secretary of State for Health, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman address those questions to my right hon. Friend.

T3. Last summer the Minister visited Northumberland, where schoolchildren have, historically, been chronically underfunded, compared with those in other areas, by central Government. May I welcome the 6.4% increase in early 2015 and the ongoing consultation, and observe that the case for fairer funding is absolutely overwhelming? The Minister should prepare for a lot of representations from my head teachers. (903185)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome of our announcement. I congratulate him on his robust campaigning over a period of time to ensure this fairer funding settlement. As he knows, under our plans Northumberland’s per pupil funding rate will increase by around £269 per pupil per year, which will mean over £10 million more for schools in his area.

T2. Following a special educational needs tribunal ruling that children were unsafe in January 2013, at a ministerial meeting in March 2013 parents of abuse victims told a Minister that Stanbridge Earls independent school remained unsafe. I wrote to the Secretary of State in the same month to warn him that the situation was urgent. Despite this, a further child was sexually abused in July 2013. The school has now closed. Ofsted has apologised for its failures. Will Ministers now urgently consider adequate research into the funding of mandatory reporting in regulated settings? (903184)

I take these issues incredibly seriously and I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising them. I have had the opportunity, in a different context, to talk to one victim of abuse who, I have to say, made a compelling case for mandatory reporting in a regulated setting. I had hitherto been concerned that mandatory reporting might create more work for children’s services departments than it would generate safety for children, but the specific case for reporting in regulated settings is one that we are actively reviewing.

T4. Ministers are to be commended for their work to drive up educational standards for pupils in receipt of free school meals, and in particular for the appointment of John Dunford as pupil premium champion, whom we saw on his recent visit to Peterborough. What further work are Ministers doing to focus on this area of work with children in receipt of free school meals? (903186)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We are doing two things in particular. As my hon. Friend is aware, we announced in the Budget that we are extending the pupil premium into the early years, which I think has been widely welcomed. We are also ensuring, through Ofsted, that while schools have the freedom to spend that money in the most sensible way they think appropriate, they will be held to account and fully supported by Ofsted and the Education Endowment Foundation.

T5. The Minister is, I hope, concerned about the literacy levels of prisoners, 40% of whom have an average reading age of 11. Does he think that the policy of the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice to ban sending books to prisoners will make that better or worse? (903187)

I take a close interest in ensuring that we deal with the problem of literacy. I am hoping to visit the prison education programme in Wormwood Scrubs in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency next week. We should do everything possible to support literacy in prisons and in the justice system. If he looks closely at the work the Justice Secretary is undertaking to ensure that in secure settings for young people an appropriate emphasis is placed on education, he will appreciate that the Justice Secretary is more committed than anyone to ensuring that those who are incarcerated have the chance to educate themselves out of the path they have taken.

T8. Does my right hon. Friend agree that academies turn around some of the worst-performing schools in our country? Will the Government redouble their efforts to create the conditions to allow academies to thrive in Lancashire? (903190)

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. It is incumbent on the Labour leadership of Lancashire county council to do as other enlightened Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat local authorities have done and support academy providers in turning around underperforming schools.

T6. In a reply slipped out on Budget day, Ministers confirmed the hitherto secret list of 14 academy chains that have been barred from taking on further schools, and other unnamed chains are causing concern. Does the Secretary of State agree that such secrecy not only wasted months of work by Woodlands school in Southampton in abortive discussions with Academies Enterprise Trust, but is damaging public confidence? Is it not time to allow Ofsted to inspect academy chains, as it does local authorities? (903188)

T9. Is my right hon. Friend aware that a very important event will take place in September 2014, namely the opening of Harlow’s Sir Charles Kao university technical college following millions of pounds of Government investment? Is he aware that the UTC is proving to be incredibly popular among pupils and their parents, and that it will increase the choice that is available to many people in Harlow? Will he come to Harlow to visit it, and to see for himself how it will improve the quality of education? (903191)

Any opportunity to visit Harlow is always welcome, any opportunity to visit a UTC is always a joy, and the chance to combine both with the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend again is an offer that is simply too good to be true.

T7. Does the Secretary of State agree that every classroom in every school should contain a qualified teacher who is able to provide the best possible education for children, and that to deliver anything else is to deliver education on the cheap? (903189)

I agree that every classroom in every school should guarantee that children are receiving high-quality teaching, but I think it instructive to note that the hon. Lady’s attempts to breathe new life into the policy of her party’s Front Benchers has come a little too late. Nowadays, when the shadow Education Secretary is interviewed on the BBC, he is reduced to saying that our policies are a success, and when it comes to Question Time he cannot think of any education questions, and has to ask some health questions instead.

T10. This morning I attended the launch of “Get Tiptree Reading” at Tiptree Heath primary school in my constituency. This local reading initiative is led by some outstanding head teachers in the constituency, and is intended to inspire a love of reading among schoolchildren. Will the Secretary of State commend the leadership of that school and other local schools which are going the extra mile to support reading and literacy among the young? (903192)

Absolutely. I had the opportunity to visit Essex twice last week; sadly, I did not manage to make it to my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I hope to do so before too long.

The leadership being shown by primary head teachers, and teachers across the country, in helping us to eliminate illiteracy is inspiring. The introduction of the phonics check, which was the idea of my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), has really raised the level of ambition, and the new primary curriculum which will be introduced in September will help to reinforce that.

The Secretary of State said a moment ago that Ofsted could inspect academy chains. If that is the case, why is the head of Ofsted asking for the power to inspect them?

The chief inspector of Ofsted said some lovely things about me on the radio on Friday, and now I have an opportunity to say some great things about him. I think that the recent changes in Ofsted inspections that he had a chance to announce on Friday, in a wholly independent way, are wise and right, as he is himself in relation to every issue.

I welcomed last week’s announcement of an early-years pupil premium. Schools have benefited from access to the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit to use the pupil premium to best effect. Will the Department consider how best to make early-years pupil premium research available to providers?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We will ensure that early-years settings have the necessary information about interventions that make a difference, so that the new money that is going into the system can have an effect, especially for some of the most disadvantaged pupils.

The Under-Secretary of State rightly says that she is worried about the number of girls taking A-level maths, given that two thirds of A-level maths students are boys. Is she also worried about the fact that level 6 key stage 2 entrants are consistently more often boys than girls? She has announced changes in the maths curriculum, but what elements of that curriculum, or of teaching, will help to deal with this issue?

I agree that that is an issue. Information provided recently by the OECD’s programme for international student assessment showed that girls have as much confidence as boys at the age of five but begin to lose that confidence as they proceed through the education system, and that that contributes to feelings of anxiety about mathematics. One of the things that we must all do is end the culture in which saying “I am rubbish at maths” is acceptable, whereas it is not OK to say “I am no good at reading.” What is needed is a “can do” approach to mathematics. Our new maths hubs programme—there are 30 hubs across the country—will promote best practice in teaching, so that we can close the gap between girls and boys.

The Secretary of State recently saw basketball being taught in Mandarin at Bohunt school in my constituency. Will he join me in commending Bohunt on its immersion programme, and how can we get more people studying this strategically important language?

I hugely enjoyed my visit to Bohunt school, an absolutely outstanding school. When the Financial Times visited it, it said that it was easily better—like so many state schools—than independent schools. One of the great things I saw today when I visited Chobham academy in Newham was a year 7 class being taught Mandarin through total immersion. The transformation of modern foreign language teaching over the last couple of years is a wonder to behold, and the commitment of so many of our modern foreign language teachers to extending Mandarin, Spanish and French teaching is vital to ensure that this country escapes the insularity that, sadly, afflicted us in the Labour years.

The Secretary of State referred earlier to the reforms in Ofsted announced by the chief inspector last week. Does that mean he is now prepared to call the dogs off and reaffirm his support for a genuinely independent national inspectorate completely free from political interference?

As the Secretary of State who was delighted to appoint a Labour baroness to chair Ofsted, I think my commitment to the independence of the inspectorate is beyond question.

In Bedford the transition from three-tier to two-tier education remains stalled, and there is still no coherent strategy to resolve it. In the circumstances, will my right hon. Friend take a particular interest in applications for funding from schools seeking to achieve coherent change for their pupils?

Earlier the children Minister talked about the increase in places at school nurseries. Is she aware of the challenge that faces many working parents who cannot secure more than the 15 hours a week they are guaranteed and cannot buy extra hours in a school nursery, which reduces the choices for working parents?

That is why we are making it very clear to school nurseries that they are able to charge for extra hours and they can open from 8 until 6 to provide parents with that service. As I said, 45% of all early-years places in London are in school nurseries. There is huge potential there to get better service from our existing assets.

I welcome the new advice on the summer-born starting school at age 5 in a reception class, but are Ministers aware of just how varied the response to parental requests is between different school admission authorities, and what action will they take?

We are keeping the matter under close review. If my hon. Friend has any information on the way in which schools are implementing their responsibilities, I would be keen to hear from her, because we will take action if we find that schools are not paying attention to parental demand.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Many people in east Northamptonshire are worried by a council consultation on a move from the three-tier system to a two-tier system. May I ask the Secretary of State to impress it on the county council that any changes, especially the disruptive closure of schools, must be driven by compelling evidence that they will lead to a better education for local children?

I am grateful for the point the hon. Gentleman makes. Education standards in Northamptonshire have been low in the past. Reform is necessary, but reform always needs to be driven by evidence. That principle governs every single decision the coalition Government make.