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Topical Questions

Volume 578: debated on Monday 24 March 2014

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.