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Free Schools (Funding)

Volume 580: debated on Monday 12 May 2014

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement on the allocation of funding for the free school programme.

I am delighted to be able to update the House on progress in providing new school places. Just last week, the Public Accounts Committee congratulated the Department on the clear progress that had been made in delivering new school places through the free school programme, with costs significantly lower than under the last Government’s school building programme.

Free schools cost about half what schools built under Building Schools for the Future cost. Thanks to the savings we have made, and thanks to the success of our long-term economic plan, we have been able to invest far more than the last Government in creating new school places, especially in areas of need.

We are investing £5 billion over the lifetime of this Parliament in giving money to local authorities for new school places. That is more than twice what the last Government spent over the equivalent preceding period, despite repeated warnings that the population was increasing. We plan to invest even more in the new Parliament, with £7 billion allocated in the next Parliament for new school places. As a result, we have delivered 212,000 new primary school places between 2012 and 2013, and we are on course to deliver another 357,000. Thanks to the efforts of many great local authorities, we now have fewer pupils in overcrowded primary schools than we had in 2010.

As well as the expansion of existing local authority provision, we have also, on top of that, created 83,000 places in new free schools. The budget for these schools has been just under 10% of the Department’s total capital budget, but free schools are so far outperforming other schools inspected under our new and more rigorous Ofsted framework. Schools such as Dixons Trinity in Bradford and Canary Wharf free school in Tower Hamlets have been ranked outstanding within months of opening. Free schools are now over-subscribed, with three applications for every place. Indeed, the longer that free schools are in place, the more popular they are, with schools such as the West London free school and the London Academy of Excellence becoming the most over-subscribed schools in their area.

It is important to remember that while we have met the demand identified by local authorities for new school places, we have also set up seven out of 10 free schools in areas of significant population growth. Indeed, as the National Audit Office has pointed out, £700 million of the £950 million spent on free schools so far opened has actually augmented the money given to local authorities for new school places. Other free schools have been set up to provide quality provision where existing standards are too low, or school improvement has been too slow.

We should never be complacent about educational standards, but we should today take time to thank good local authorities and all our school leaders and teachers, because no child in this country is without a school place, fewer children are in overcrowded schools and Ofsted reports that more children are being taught good and outstanding lessons by more highly qualified teachers than ever before. In short, thanks to the rigour with which we have borne down on costs, the innovation unleashed by the academy and free schools programmes and the success of the Government’s economic strategy, we have been able both to provide all necessary school places and to drive quality up across the board. I commend the free school programme to the House.

This afternoon, young people are sitting their exams, and we wish them the best of luck. They will be showing exactly the kind of self-control and focus so woefully lacking in Education Ministers. Indeed, the Minister for Schools has not even deigned to turn up.

The question today is: when we face enormous constraints on the public purse, how do we best prioritise spending for new school places? For every parent wondering why their child is taught in a class size of over 30 and for every parent angry that they cannot get their kid into a good local school, we now have the answer: the coalition—both parts—has raided the schools budget to pay for pet political projects in expensive, half-empty and underperforming free schools.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has reallocated £400 million from the targeted basic need programme to fill a black hole in the free school programme? Does he accept National Audit Office data showing that more than two thirds of the places created by the free school programme have been created outside areas of high and severe primary need? Why has the free school programme been so heavily weighted to secondary places during a time of national crisis in primary places? Does he agree with the Treasury that spending on this programme, like his leadership of the Department, is spiralling out of control?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. He asks where responsibility lies for a shortage of school places. The responsibility lies with the previous Government, whose Chief Secretary to the Treasury left a note to his successor saying that there was no money left. The responsibility lies with the Labour Government who, when they were in power, cut primary places—cut them—by 200,000 between 2003 and 2010. The responsibility lies with the Labour Government who cut funding for new school places by £150 million, or by 26%, between 2004 and 2009. The responsibility lies with the previous Labour Government, whose primary capital programme told local authorities to cut primary places, not to increase them.

This coalition Government have increased spending on primary school places and local authority need and, at the same time, we have provided excellent new provision through the free school programme. I note that the hon. Gentleman was silent on Labour’s position on the free school programme. Where is the consistency of Labour’s position on this policy? In May 2010, he said that free schools were a

“vanity project for yummy mummies”.

In May 2013, he reversed his position, saying that he wanted to put “rocket boosters” under the programme. In October 2013, he reversed again, saying that free schools were a “dangerous ideological experiment”. Later the same month, he said, “If you are a parent interested in setting up a free school, we will be on your side.” He has had more contorted positions on free schools than some Indian sex manuals that I could name.

The truth is that the hon. Gentleman has betrayed his inconsistency on free schools and the inconsistency in his support for the additional money that we have put in to provide not just local authorities but free school sponsors with the places that our children need.

I wonder whether we can clear this matter up, because the Minister for Schools appeared before the Education Committee during the school places inquiry. He said:

“We have got £12.5 billion or more for basic need that we are going to spend over the 2010 to 2021 period, which is absolutely massive. The Treasury have been very clear with us and we have been clear with them that basic need is the top priority. If we thought jointly that we couldn’t fund the basic need because of the free school programme, we would have to reduce the free school programme. But the free school programme is additional; it does not compromise our basic need objectives.”

Is the evidence that was given to the Committee correct or is what we heard in anonymous whispers over the weekend correct?

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Education Committee. I absolutely confirm that the evidence shared with him was 100% correct.

Surely the point of this urgent question is to ask the Secretary of State to clear up the unholy row not with the Opposition, but between members of the coalition. What is being lost is the right of children to have a decent education. Primary school places must be delivered where they are needed, not where they are not.

I have enormous respect for the hon. Gentleman and he makes three important points. First, as we have just heard from the Chairman of the Education Committee, the Minister for Schools has confirmed to the Committee that the hon. Gentleman once chaired that spending on free schools augments basic need funding. Secondly, he is absolutely right that we both share a desire to ensure that there are more good school places where they are needed across the country. Free schools are playing a part in that. As I pointed out in my statement and as I know he welcomes, free schools, academies and communities are all contributing to the fact that our teachers are delivering more good and outstanding lessons than ever before, and that no child is without a primary school place.

The Secretary of State will be as aware as I am—it has been communicated to me over the weekend—that many areas of greatest need are not getting free schools and need places to be provided. What is he going to do to ensure that the areas that have the need but no free schools get the places that they need?

My right hon. Friend makes a characteristically good point. I should declare an interest because at one point, he and my mother served on the governing body of the same school in Aberdeen. His point about the need to ensure that we have more good free school applications in those parts of the country that need school places is a very good one. Unfortunately, some local authorities—they tend to be Labour—are standing in the way of good new free schools. I am encouraged by the support that I have had from a number of Liberal Democrat colleagues, including the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle), who have backed free school applications when Labour local authorities have stood in their way.

The Secretary of State has confirmed that the evidence that was given to the Education Committee by the Minister for Schools was accurate. Would the Minister for Schools, had he bothered to attend today, agree with that statement and confirm that he still holds the same position?

The hon. Gentleman is asking whether the Minister for Schools agrees with the Minister for Schools. I can confirm that he does. I can also confirm that there is good news for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Under the last Labour Government, only £33 million was spent on providing new primary school places in his constituency. Under this coalition Government, £40 million is being spent. I am sure that he will welcome that additional investment, which has been secured by this coalition Government.

Clive Glover is leading a group of parents who hope to have a free school on the Harperbury hospital site. A feasibility study is happening now. What worries me, given that this might happen in 2015, is the lack of clarity about the position of the Labour party. It does not seem to have the same commitments. With local elections happening, I think that residents should know what the Labour party thinks about free schools.

Order. Although I understand the concern of the hon. Lady and the possible concern of her constituents on this matter, the terms of the question do not engage ministerial responsibility, which is the issue for the House of Commons.

The Secretary of State uses the phrase “quality and rigour” in relation to free schools. Will he look at the recent Ofsted report on Hartsbrook E-ACT free school in my constituency? It found inadequate reading, writing and mathematics, that it was inadequate in all classes, a school body that needed improving, inadequate safeguarding, and that it was inadequately and poorly organised. Is that quality and rigour, and does the Schools Minister agree with that report, and does the Secretary of State as well?

Obviously, we both agree with that report because it is an Ofsted report and we place an enormous amount of weight and confidence in the chief inspector’s scrutiny of underperforming schools. While there are free schools that underperform, it is only fair to say that there are also local authority maintained schools that are underperforming. It is sad that even as standards increase overall, every day that schools are open two local authority schools go into special measures. If we put that in the frame, we can recognise the context in which school improvement work is taking place.

Although Hartsbrook E-ACT free school was underperforming, in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency the Harris academy, which took over from the failing Downhills school—the right hon. Gentleman, of course, was sceptical about that takeover and forced academisation—is now flourishing. That shows that after initial teething problems, school reform under this Government has worked. I hope that we can work together to ensure that Lord Harris and other high-quality sponsors continue to create the academies and free schools that will help to bring young people in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency additional hope for the future.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am obviously a keen supporter of free schools. The Secretary of State will know that some free schools are keen to adopt approaches commonly found in the most successful independent schools, but some fear Ofsted inspectors brought up in progressive education. Will the Secretary of State ensure that Sir Michael Wilshaw’s statement that there are no Ofsted prescribed forms of teaching is adhered to by the thousands of inspectors engaged on the ground?

I take my hon. Friend’s point, and I read with interest and appreciation his article in The Daily Telegraph today. Sir Michael Wilshaw is an outstanding chief inspector—the best ever to hold that post—and he inspects without fear or favour. He has also been responsible for ensuring that the quality of inspection during his time has increased. He has led an academy and seen the benefits that academies and free schools can bring to parts of London, so I know that Sir Michael will bear in mind my hon. Friend’s words and ensure that Ofsted continues to do a highly effective job inspecting all schools and holding them to the highest standards.

I am surprised by the Secretary of State’s description of this report as “praising” his free school programme, because it raises more questions about that programme than he implies. I represent a town with many free schools. I have welcomed them because, as mums who were visiting Parliament said to me today, what we need is enough school places. The problem with the free school programme in a town as diverse as Slough is that it lacks planning and a community cohesive approach to free school places, to ensure that every community in my town has sufficient educational places. What will the Secretary of State do about that?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and she is right to say that Slough is one of the hot spots in the country where a significant increase in the population has placed pressures on the local authority. We have been able to fund the local authority’s school provision, and augment it with the provision of free school places. It is also striking that many of the applications for free schools in and around Slough have come from different communities, who at last have an ethos and a level of aspiration for the schools that they felt had not existed before. If the hon. Lady wants to bring me any specific examples of inconsistencies of provision, I will of course look at them. I am grateful to her for pointing out that she, like many Labour MPs, welcomes free schools in her constituency and is prepared to work with the Department for Education in the interests of young people.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Stour Valley community college, a first-wave free school in my constituency, is achieving outstanding academic and other results, while pursuing a very inclusive admissions policy? Not surprisingly it is heavily over-subscribed, and the view of people in Suffolk is that the best possible use of the Department’s money is spending on free schools, and we look forward to the day when private as well as public money can be invested in those schools.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making the point that in Stour Valley we have a school that is providing education of outstanding quality. He has been a consistent champion of providing new provision in the local authority of Suffolk, which has not always had the best schools in the past. The new schools provide not just choice but challenge, and have helped to drive up standards in Suffolk overall. I am grateful that Suffolk local authority has taken an enlightened approach to driving up school standards.

May I gently remind the Secretary of State that he has not answered the question put to him by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State? The National Audit Office report suggests that two thirds of the places provided under the free schools programme were diverted away from areas of high and severe primary need. Does the Secretary of State reject those findings or not?

The first point is that no money was diverted away. It is clear that free school spending augments spending on providing local authority school places. It is clear also that local authorities have sufficient funds. Under the previous Labour Government, the hon. Gentleman’s own local authority of Birmingham received £45 million to provide additional school places. Under this coalition Government, it has received £65 million. Some 87% of new primary school places through the free schools programme are in high or severe areas of need, so they are augmenting—adding to—the provision that those areas need. I should also point out that the hon. Gentleman is fortunate enough to be in a city that enjoys, in the Perry Beeches chain, one of the best performing chains of academies and free schools anywhere in the country. Thanks to the success of head teachers such as Liam Nolan, children in Birmingham are at last enjoying a high quality of comprehensive education of the kind that I know he and I want to see spread across the country.

As I am sure you will be aware, Mr Speaker, when I was elected to be the Member of Parliament for Watford at least half of the initial constituency inquiries and complaints were about the shortage of school places in the west Watford area. Since then, the excellent Reach Free school, which I have visited, has opened. Parents are impressed with it and so are the students, and there are two more in the pipeline. Given that this is clearly an area of need and that free schools are cheap and easy to operate, what possible complaint can the Opposition have?

Once again my hon. Friend makes a very fair and reasonable point. He also provides me with the opportunity to remind the House that in Hertfordshire, under the previous Government, £25 million was allocated for new school places. Under this coalition Government, £122 million has been allocated for new school places, and that is in addition to the free schools programme. This Government’s approach to fiscal discipline and greater efficiency, with school places costing less than half what they cost under the previous Government, means that we are able to meet need and to raise standards in every part of the country.

The Secretary of State may already be aware that Croydon has the biggest shortage of school places in the country. Before he quotes figures at me, the Tory council’s own papers say that funding

“only partially meets the costs…of places needed.”

Is it not perverse to deny places to children in Croydon, while funding new schools in areas with no shortage of places?

Again, I have to emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that it was the previous Government—I know he was not part of it—who cut spending on new school places and told local authorities to cut surplus places at primary. It is this coalition Government who have increased spending in Croydon on new school places: under the previous Government it was £17 million and under this Government it is £142 million—eight times as much. Before the hon. Gentleman asks for more funding, he should apologise to his constituents for the reckless profligacy and inefficiency of the previous Labour Government.

In September, for every place in a free school there will be three applicants. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should trust parents and pupils? They clearly like free schools and we should fund them accordingly.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is important that we do not just ensure sufficient school places everywhere in the country; we need to ensure that they are high-quality school places. One of the reasons why the free schools programme is succeeding is that it is both adding to the number of quality school places and providing an appropriate challenge and support to existing schools to raise their game.

When the Secretary of State came to office, he often quoted Sweden as a great example to follow because of their free schools programme. Now that Sweden is in flight from free schools, what lessons is he learning from that experience?

One of the things I have learned from Sweden is that their free schools outperform other schools in Sweden; the more free schools there are in the municipality, the stronger the educational performance of it. Sadly, Sweden has not benefited as we have from the full panoply of educational reforms needed to drive up standards. Sweden does not have an independent and authoritative inspectorate like our Ofsted under Sir Michael Wilshaw’s leadership; and Sweden does not have the programme of externally set and externally marked assessments such as those we have at the ages of 11 and 16 in order to ensure that all schools are held accountable.

Given that eight out of 10 new free schools have opened in areas where there is a shortage of places or areas of deprivation, does the Secretary of State disagree with the shadow Secretary of State’s view that these are simply a

“vanity project for yummy mummies”?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and he is not alone in backing free schools. Andrew Adonis has pointed out that free schools are actually a Labour invention. He, a genuine reformer, said that

“the issue for Labour is how we take them forward, not whether we are for or against them.”

The problem is that when we listen to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), we do not know from one day to the next whether Labour is for or against free schools, taking us backwards, not forwards.

The four non-executive directors of the Department for Education board demonstrated to the Education Select Committee their total lack of knowledge about children’s services and about the transfer of vast sums of money from children’s services to other education budget headings—even admitting that they had not even discussed our questions on the matter. In the light of their lack of understanding and failure properly to scrutinise the executive, will he review their appointments and find some people who do have the necessary knowledge and know what is expected of them?

I notice that the hon. Gentleman, recognising that the previous line of inquiry about free schools and basic need has been exhausted, has changed the subject to children’s services. Let me say that the non-executive directors of the Department for Education include Mr Paul Marshall, the founder of the Lib-Dem think-tank CentreForum; David Mellor, one of Britain’s most successful businessmen; Jim O’Neill, one of the most authoritative economists in this country; and Dame Sue John, an outstanding school leader. If one looks at their record and compares it with the hon. Gentleman’s, I know who I would prefer to have with me in the Department for Education pushing reform forward.

May I encourage the Secretary of State in his zeal for free schools? They are, after all, hugely popular with Conservative voters and they are all about Conservative thinking. If some Liberal Minister does not want them, he can always resign.

I am always grateful for my hon. Friend’s interventions. He, of course, was Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee when it pointed out that, under the last Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme, we had a degree of profligacy and waste that was a genuine scandal. My hon. Friend will know that it is not just Conservative voters who find free schools attractive. Like so many free schools opening in Labour areas, the Derby Pride free school, an alternative provision free school backed by Derby County football club—congratulations to them on making it to the play-offs—is outstanding in its provision for disadvantaged children in a Labour area, despite the fact that the Labour local authority did not want it to open. The truth about free schools is that they provide high standards for children who have been failed in the past.

May I take the Secretary of State back to the answer he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy)? If a free school is lamentably not performing—failing its children and failing the community—does he agree that it would be much better if that free school were within the orbit of the local authority, which could observe and spot what was going on, give the necessary support and bring the school back into the accountable public sector?

First, there is an area of consensus between the hon. Gentleman and me about the fact that there are good local authority schools and good local authorities that provide appropriate support and challenge for their schools. I absolutely accept that, but it is important to recognise that there are many underperforming local authority schools, and local authority oversight is very far from a panacea for school failure. As I pointed out earlier, every day that schools are open, two local authority schools and others go into special measures. It is also the case that so far, according to the tough new Ofsted criteria that we have set up, free schools outperform other schools. Furthermore, my Department has I think been faster in dealing with school failure, whether it be in Derby or Crawley, than many local authorities have, and I think it right to bear down on failure wherever it occurs.

I note that basic funding for schools in Gloucestershire will provide an additional 1,680 places over the next two years. Does the Secretary of State agree that the purpose of the additional funding for free schools is to provide choice for parents, and that the need for parents to have that choice is behind the drive for higher standards?

That is a very good point, and it is the point that was made by Tony Blair, the former Member of Parliament for Sedgefield, when he was Prime Minister. The purpose of new school provision is not simply to provide additional places where they are needed, but to provide a choice for parents when standards are low. It is critically important to recognise that the Government are both funding local authorities to ensure that there is a school place for every child and providing choice and quality in great schools such as the Krishna Avanti free school in Leicester, which I had the honour of opening alongside the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—another Labour supporter of the free schools programme.

A number of schools in my constituency have told me that the Government have stopped funding vital basic needs services, which has meant a real-terms cut in their budgets. We now know why. Is not the truth that when it comes to free schools, the Secretary of State is diverting much needed resources from teaching and learning for those most in need in order to benefit a few?

In fact, we are increasing funding for additional school places in Sefton by nearly 50%. We are doing that because, thanks to the reforms that we have made, we are in a position to provide school places more cheaply than the last Government. Of course I am always happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about ensuring that high-quality provision continues, but the fact remains that there is more funding under this Government than there was under the last.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the 1,950 extra school places that he has provided in Thurrock, including places at the Harris primary academy free school, which is due to open. After years of severe need in the Chafford Hundred area in my constituency, a free school is now delivering much needed provision, and is making a real contribution to under-privileged children as well as offering choice.

Education standards are rising in Chafford, thanks to the academy and free school programme. It was an absolute pleasure for me to visit a studio school in my hon. Friend’s constituency last week, when I had an opportunity to see how our school reforms are helping children in a disadvantaged part of Essex to achieve everything of which they are capable. I pay tribute to the energetic work that my hon. Friend has done in supporting that school and the many others which are raising standards in Thurrock.

Despite the best efforts of Lewisham council, many parents in my constituency are struggling to get their children into local schools because the local authority does not have enough money to fund an adequate expansion of primary places. What justification would the Secretary of State give to those parents, who see him spending money on free schools in parts of the country where demand for places is small, if not non-existent?

I am grateful for that question, because it gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to Frankie Sulke, the director of children’s services and leading local official in charge of schools in Lewisham, who has been doing a great job in helping to raise standards in the local authority. However, I also think it fair to point out that whereas the last Labour Government spent £25 million on new school places in Lewisham, the present Government are spending £78 million, triple that amount. I hope that the hon. Lady will acknowledge that that has been the result of the careful economic management in which this coalition Government have engaged.

Does my right hon. Friend understand the confusion felt by working parents who have striven so hard to establish a free school for five-to-18-year-olds at Heyford Park in my constituency when they hear the shadow Secretary of State for Education describe free schools as a

“vanity project for yummy mummies”?

Indeed, is not the very phrase “yummy mummy” the sort of patronising terminology that we now expect from so many members of the metropolitan elite that currently occupies the Labour Front Bench?

My right hon. Friend has made a very good point. Last week I had an opportunity to talk to a group of parents in Ealing, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray). Those parents were dedicated individuals from every social background and ethnicity who wanted to improve their children’s education. They were not “yummy mummies”; they were parents who cared, and we on this side of the House stand up for them.

The free school in Durham will be lucky if it achieves a total roll of 80 students next year at a cost of £30,000 per pupil. Does the Secretary of State think this is good value for money in an area of surplus places, and where local successful schools like St Leonard’s that are crying out for investment from his Department, have been told by his Schools Minister, strangely absent today, that no money is available?

The first thing to acknowledge is that the amount of money we are giving to Durham local authority for basic need is increasing under this Government, and the second is that the Durham free school will add to the quality of education that children in Durham enjoy. In the city of Durham there are some outstanding schools, like Durham Johnston school which has succeeded over generations, but across the north-east the level of educational ambition has been too low for too long, and we need new providers to help augment the quality of education, not just in County Durham but elsewhere.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his visit to Ealing last week when he met parents setting up Ealing Fields free school, and I gather that later this week he will also be visiting another free school, William Perkin, in another part of Ealing. Does he agree that the point about these free schools is that they are providing extra school places in areas where they are much needed, like Ealing? What’s not to like about that?

I am afraid that the last Government, even though they were warned that population figures were increasing, spent only £18 million on new school places in Ealing. We are spending £72 million on new school places in Ealing, and on top of that this Thursday I will be delighted to open a new free school, the William Perkin free school, which has been founded by Alice Hudson, an outstanding head teacher who does a brilliant job. I look forward to being joined there by the Labour Member of Parliament for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who has been a consistent supporter of this school right from the very beginning: yet another Labour party member and Labour MP who supports our free school programme.

Parents in Dudley are spending this week in appeals once again because their children have been allocated places in schools they do not want to send them to. Why should pupils be denied places in popular and successful schools because those schools just do not have the space needed to accommodate them? Why will the Secretary of State not promote competition and expand the market by enabling well-run, oversubscribed, financially sound schools to borrow the resources needed to provide those extra facilities and be able to pay them back with the revenue the extra pupils would bring?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I read with interest and appreciation the article he wrote in The Independent on Sunday outlining a similar case, and I have asked officials in the Department to see what we can do to give effect to his suggestion. If he would like to come to the Department and share his thinking with officials, I shall be delighted to see what we can do to take this forward.

In my constituency there are three free schools destined, of which two are open, offering 80 places, yet this is in an area in the top 10% of the country for childhood deprivation. I understand the Secretary of State has been accused, with results like this, of being an educational zealot. May I suggest he wears that as a badge of honour for the results he has produced for us in Enfield?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the point he makes. It is of course the case that there has been pressure on school places in Enfield. That is why we have been pleased to increase the amount we spend from £20 million under the last Government to £77 million under this Government. It is also why I am delighted that Patricia Sowter, an outstanding head teacher, has been able to increase the number of school places on top of that by expanding her wonderful chain of free schools. When the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) was shadow education spokesman, he paid tribute to Patricia Sowter for her fantastic work. I hope the current shadow spokesman will associate himself with those words.

I represent a constituency in the north-east that, as the Secretary of State knows, is consistently complimented by Ofsted on the standard of its education, and I would like him to bear that in mind when he writes off my region in the way he just did. I want to ask him about private schools converting to free-school status. Although it is welcome to see these private schools become non-fee paying, it seems that a sizeable debt is being written off when they convert. Will the Secretary of State say how much his Department is spending on settling the debts of private schools converting to free schools?

I absolutely shall. The first thing to bear in mind is that, as the hon. Lady rightly points out, Darlington is an exceptionally high-performing local authority. One of the reasons for that is that many of its schools have converted to academy status with the support of the local authority, and Darlington shines out as an enlightened Labour local authority. I will share the exact figures with the hon. Lady, but I should stress that many of the independent schools that have changed to become free schools are now open to all and an excellent standard of education is available to children on a comprehensive basis. Many of those arguing for independent schools to become free schools are Labour MPs such as the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) and the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), and I am delighted to have been able to work with two more Labour MPs supporting our free schools programme.

How many new places have been created by the free schools policy, and how does the demand compare with that for local authority schools?

So far, some 83,000 places have been created, and as I pointed out earlier, these schools are overwhelmingly over-subscribed.

In 2010, the Secretary of State cut Coventry’s schools programme. How much of that programme has now been reinstated?

It is important to bear in mind that the Building Schools for the Future programme was not the most effective way of allocating resources to local authority schools. We have increased provision for additional school places in Coventry, compared with the last Government: they spent £25 million and we are spending £41 million. Coventry is also the area that has benefited fastest from our new Priority School Building programme. Whitmore Park primary school was one of the first to open, just a couple of weeks ago, and there are other schools in Coventry in desperate need of maintenance money which we are now helping at a lower cost and faster than under Building Schools for the Future.

Was not the real vanity project the Building Schools for the Future programme that my right hon. Friend has just alluded to, which was hugely costly? Are not this Government now picking up the pieces of the last Government’s unbelievable lack of planning at primary level, and in a way that guarantees quality, diversity and choice to parents?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Again, it is important that the House recall that under the last Government the provision of primary school places was cut, and under this Government it has expanded. At the same time as increasing the quantity of school places, we have raised the quality.

The Secretary of State has allocated public funds to subsidise surplus places in under-subscribed free schools, while there is a shortage of school places in other areas. Will he now consider putting on hold plans for prospective free schools to open in September that still do not have applications for half their first cohort of places, and putting the money saved towards providing places where they are genuinely needed?

It is important to acknowledge that money is going to providing places where they are genuinely needed. One thing I did not have an opportunity to point out earlier—[Interruption.] Let me give the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) these figures, which have been audited nationally. In Stoke-on-Trent under the last Government, £2.4 million went to new primary school places; under this Government, the figure is £12.4 million—three times as much. The hon. Gentleman is benefiting, not for the first time, from a Conservative Government being in place. I am confident that in due course we will find that all the free schools opening this year will be popular, and if for any reason they fail or falter, we will be quick to close them down or put them under new management.

My wife is a teacher in a primary school in Stevenage that Hertfordshire county council is expanding, along with many others. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real root cause of the problem is the previous Government’s decision to cut 200,000 primary school places and remove surplus places?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the last Government cannot say they were not warned. The Office for National Statistics repeatedly pointed out that the population was increasing; we were living through an unprecedented baby boom, and many new Britons were arriving on our shores. All these trends should have been anticipated by the last Government, but they were not. It fell to us to increase spending on primary school places; unfortunately, the last Government did not take the action that was required in time.

Chapeltown academy, the proposed 16-to-19 free school in my constituency is being developed in the context of cuts in funding for FE, growing pressure on primary school places in Sheffield and Barnsley, and no demonstrable need for these proposed new sixth-form places—a point underlined by the fact that just 12 Sheffield youngsters have taken an offer from the academy as a first preference. The Secretary of State can surely see the need to redirect the resources being wasted on Chapeltown Academy to better use elsewhere.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that point. My understanding is that significantly more have applied—a significantly higher number—but it is the case that this new provision will help raise standards in Sheffield and that we are providing this new school alongside having increased the amount of money available for primary school places in Sheffield. Under the previous Government, £22 million was provided; over the equivalent funding period, we are providing £36 million.

Nothing matches the anger of parents denied a place in a good local school. In stark contrast to when Labour cut 200,000 places in the midst of a baby boom, the proposed New College free school in my constituency is the best opportunity to meet the shortfall in secondary school places. I hope that the Minister will fully support the bid, in stark contrast to Labour’s opposition.

I am sorry to hear that Labour is opposing that excellent additional provision. Swindon, in particular under Conservative leadership, has seen schools improve consistently over recent years. I hope that we see great additional state school provision in Swindon. I will do everything that I can to support the parents who are behind that bid.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he reallocated £400 million from the targeted basic need programme to fill a black hole in the free schools programme? It is a simple question. He did not answer my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt). Yes or no?

We are actually spending more on basic need and on free schools as a result of the wise decisions that we have taken. It was interesting, in the hon. Gentleman’s question, that he did not take the opportunity—but I shall—to praise Corby technical school, which is the wonderful new free school that has been opened in his constituency. It is providing an outstanding standard of education for young people in his area. I hope he will take the opportunity the next time that he speaks on education to praise those who have provided such an outstanding quality of education.

A moment ago, the Secretary of State mentioned a football club that is supporting alternative provision in a free school. Will he join me in congratulating the Worcester Warriors in its support of the Aspire academy, a free school soon to be opening in Worcester? I thank him for the fact that, along with that free school in one of the areas of highest need in my constituency, the Government are also investing in 500 more primary places in Worcestershire.

I am delighted to hear that. We are very grateful for the role that football clubs and other charities play in supporting free schools. One of the best free school applications that I have seen came from Everton football club and was enthusiastically supported by the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), another predecessor of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central and another Labour supporter of free schools—

The right hon. Gentleman wrote to support that bid. I am glad that there is growing consensus behind free schools. I am disappointed that the dwindling band on the Opposition Front Bench hold out against it.

The Secretary of State referred to the Priority School Building programme and the speed with which schools are being built under it, but is it not the case that only 10% of schools in the programme will even have been started on by 2015?

It is the case that the Priority School Building programme has had to have a number of individual projects rescoped, and some have encountered delays that we would not have wanted to see, but the programme has delivered more school places, at a lower cost and faster than the previous Building Schools for the Future programme.

In my part of Northumberland, we have neither the benefits nor the perceived burden of a free school. We have focused on more primary places; the rebuild, authorised by the Secretary of State, of Prudhoe community high school; the creation of the Haltwhistle academy, the first in my constituency; and the changes to the fairer funding formula, which will for the first time produce enhanced funding for Northumberland. I welcome the changes, I welcome his direction of travel and, in particular, I welcome the changes to the fairer funding formula.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Part of the progressive changes that have been introduced by my Department and which have been championed and designed by the Minister for Schools has been an increase in funding for the parts of the country that have suffered in the past. In particular, the delivery of the pupil premium ensures that disadvantaged children, wherever they are, enjoy not only a high quality of education but additional investment in a better future.

Why has £62 million been spent on nine 16-to-18 free schools, with little evidence of need and at a time when sixth-form colleges are experiencing very deep funding cuts?

I take funding for 16 to 18-year-olds seriously. That is why I am delighted that the London Academy of Excellence in east London, which was visited and indeed praised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, has helped to ensure that children in a part of east London who did not always have access to a high-quality academic education now enjoy it. Of course, my door is always open to the Association of Colleges and others to ensure that the great work that sixth-form colleges and that sixth-formers throughout the country do remains supported properly.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of Churchill free school in Haverhill, which makes provision for children with autism. I hope that the application in Ipswich will be similarly successful. He will be aware of the school in Saxmundham that was requested by parents and opened by the Seckford Foundation, because unfortunately the alternative was a school that was rated “inadequate”. Is it not right that free schools give parents and children a real educational opportunity at a time they desperately need it?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Free schools are providing parents with choice, not just in mainstream education but in ensuring high-quality provision for children with special educational needs. I am delighted that the Seckford Foundation is one of a number of charitable organisations seeking to augment the public money that comes to the taxpayer to improve our educational system.

The previous Labour Government’s overspending and my local education authority’s failure to plan ahead meant that Reading was left in 2010 with huge pressure on places. I thank the Secretary of State for the millions of pounds poured into extending existing primary schools, as well as three new free schools and a new Reading university technical college. The new schools are providing new opportunities and raising standards across the area. Should we not all welcome choice and diversity as part of driving up standards and delivering long-term success in the education system?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have increased the amount available for new primary school places in Reading from £8.3 million under the previous Government to £34.7 million under this Government. He also gives me the opportunity to say that in addition to the new school provision offered by free schools, university technical colleges are providing parents with high-quality options and choice at the age of 14. Let me take this opportunity to thank Lord Adonis and Lord Baker for the leadership they have shown at the head of the university technical college programme.

May I thank the Secretary of State for his role in securing the provision of an extra 2,660 primary school places in Northamptonshire since 2010 and congratulate him on securing the funding massively to increase this programme so that an additional 4,490 primary school places will be provided by 2016?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He, like me, is a hawk on public expenditure, but by making savings elsewhere we can invest more in primary school places where they are needed. He is right that investment in primary school places in Northamptonshire has increased: it was £29 million under the previous Government and in the equivalent period under this Government it has gone up to £55 million.