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Topical Questions

Volume 582: debated on Monday 16 June 2014

At the weekend, Her Majesty the Queen was pleased to confer knighthoods and damehoods on a number of outstanding teachers. May I add my congratulations to those of others to Andrew Carter, Barry Day, John Dunford, Anthony Seldon, Nicola Nelson-Taylor and Erica Pienaar? There are many outstanding teachers in our schools today and we should celebrate their work. I am particularly pleased to acknowledge that there are teachers from the recently judged by Ofsted “outstanding” Warmsworth primary in Doncaster in the Gallery today, and I congratulate Mrs Marshall on her superb Ofsted.

The Secretary of State is right that there are many excellent teachers. Is he aware of the evidence that has been produced by the “too much too soon” campaign about play-based learning? What assessment has he made of the benefits of a sustained period of creative play-based learning before children are exposed to more formal learning environments?

Early years practitioners know that we need both structured play and appropriate introduction at the right time to more formal methods of learning to get the most out of every child. We are very fortunate that we have not just a revised early years foundation stage but more and more talented people teaching in the early years.

Order. It is of course disorderly to refer to the Gallery, but I feel sure that the occupants of it will be revelling in the praise that the Secretary of State has generously conferred on them. On this occasion, his disorderly conduct is readily excused, but only on this occasion.

I fully associate myself with such disorderly conduct in the House and congratulate those inspiring school and college leaders who have rightly been recognised by Her Majesty the Queen. Teaching is a moral mission, and it should be celebrated as such.

In 2010, the Department for Education was warned of threats to schools in Birmingham, but for four years, on the Secretary of State’s watch, his Department failed to act. The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is now urging the Government to provide greater public assurance that all schools in a locality, regardless of their status, will discharge the full range of their responsibilities. When will the Secretary of State accept that micro-managing schools from behind a desk in Whitehall does not work, and that we need a proper system of independent, local accountability?

I suspect that that question will be shown not only on BBC Parliament but on UKTV’s Gold channel, because it is a magnificent repeat. The hon. Gentleman asked precisely that question in his speech last week. The truth is that we took action to deal with extremism in schools, which the last Government never did. We have also taken action to introduce no-notice inspections, which will ensure that Her Majesty’s chief inspector has the powers, which he was denied under the last Government, to deal with the problems that started under the last Government.

The reason I am asking the question again is that we are still searching for an answer. Labour’s answer is absolutely clear: we need directors of school standards, independent of local authorities, to ensure a robust system of local oversight. The Secretary of State’s policy involves more Whitehall centralism, more unqualified teachers, and less collaboration and accountability. Is it not the case that even those on the Government Benches now realise that Birmingham has shown that his school model is bust?

I have to say that the hon. Gentleman did rather better at reading out his question this time than he did last week, so I suppose it really was worth that exercise in déjà vu all over again. The truth is that Labour’s policy is opaque and unclear. At different times, the hon. Gentleman has been in favour of free schools and greater autonomy, and against them. He is currently in favour of abolishing the national curriculum in all schools, but David Blunkett, the man who advises him on schools policy, is in favour of imposing it in all schools. As I have said before: inconsistency, thy name is Tristram.

Order. I think that the Secretary of State was referring to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett). I feel sure that he was.

T3. Last week, the Secretary of State described the safety of children as central to his Department’s mission. In March, prompted by information arising from the police investigation into Jimmy Savile, he ordered investigations into 21 schools and care homes. How will he co-ordinate that work with similar investigations in the NHS and report the findings to the House? (904225)

Clearly we remain committed to doing everything we can to learn from whatever happened in those cases. In his written ministerial statement in March, the Secretary of State set out the process for doing that. My Department will be working closely with the Department of Health, in conjunction with the work being done by Kate Lampard and the work that Lucy Scott-Moncrieff will undertake to provide independent oversight of the process. Discussions between the Departments have taken place, and we hope to be able to say more about the outcome of both the investigations in the autumn.

T2. Will the Minister tell us how many schools are being built as a result of his programme, and how many have had their conditions improved? (904224)

Yes, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are building, rebuilding and upgrading more than 900 schools during the course of this Parliament. We have also recently announced a Priority School Building programme to rebuild many of the schools that are in the worst condition, including many that were not even on the list for Building Schools for the Future.

T6. We are in the third year of phonics tests for six-year-olds, and I understand that the tests have shown an improvement in decoding skills. What action will the Minister take to ensure that we are stimulating the enjoyment of reading? (904229)

Last year’s results from the progress in international reading literacy study—PIRLS—showed that the number of children in this country who are reading for enjoyment is going up; it has resumed considerably over the past few years. We have fantastic schemes to encourage students to read, such as the summer reading challenge. This year’s challenge is the mythical maze, which will challenge children to find their way around a labyrinth and introduce them to fantastical creatures from the world of legend and mythology.

T4. Further to his somewhat unilluminating response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), will the Secretary of State tell the House—and if necessary write to me—on how many occasions his former special adviser Dominic Cummings has visited the Department for Education since he left the Secretary of State’s employment, and whom he met on each occasion? (904227)

I will consider carefully, as ever, the hon. Lady’s question, but it is instructive that with many educational challenges in her constituency, she chooses once again to disappear down the rabbit hole of Whitehall process, rather than seeking to stand up for her constituents.

T9. The Secretary of State will recall from our meetings in the Department that there is concern about the funding of the transition from three-tier to two-tier education, particularly in my constituency. Will he confirm that under this Government, funding for extra primary school places is nearly double what it was under the previous Labour Government? (904232)

I absolutely confirm that increase in funding, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has been as tenacious as a Doberman Pinscher with a bone between its jaws in ensuring that children in Bury St Edmunds and across Suffolk get the support they need financially and educationally.

Ambitious about Autism recently reported that some 28,000 children, or more, have been informally and illegally excluded from schools. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what action he will take to protect some of our most vulnerable children?

Children on the autistic spectrum often present with types of behaviour that can in certain circumstances lead to disciplinary and behavioural problems. The answer, of course, is to ensure that we are in a position to identify the needs of those children earlier. Later today the House will debate some of the consequences of legislation that we have introduced to improve identification and support of all children with special educational needs.

My constituent Jack Entwistle is a lively 11-year-old who suffers from autism. He is being denied education suitable for his needs by Lancashire country council, and unfortunately he is not alone. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to try to end the discrimination that Jack is suffering from the education department at Lancashire county council?

I will ensure that a Minister meets my hon. Friend, whom I thank for his dogged and determined work on behalf of his constituents. We have both had our frustrations with Lancashire county council over the years, but any vulnerable child in Burnley has a highly effective champion in my hon. Friend.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House exactly when Dominic Cummings ceased to hold the pass that allowed him access to the Department for Education?

I think it was Jimmy Carter who was once attacked by critics for worrying about exactly who was using the tennis courts at the White House. I am not responsible for the allocation of passes to the Department for Education, but I am always happy to welcome constructive critics such as the hon. Lady for an enjoyable discussion over a cup of tea whenever she wants to come to the Department.

The rise in the number of apprenticeships in my constituency has contributed to a 52% fall in youth unemployment since the last election. Will the Minister join me in congratulating local employers who are taking those youngsters on, and colleges such as Selby college and York college whose work in that area is doing so much to provide life chances and career prospects for those young people?

The increase in apprenticeships across the country is helping to tackle youth unemployment. There has been a sharp fall in youth unemployment in many parts of the country—including that of my hon. Friend— with a fall of more than 50% over the past year, which is seriously good news. There are many contributory factors to that, not least colleges that work extremely hard to ensure that young people get jobs, as well as employers who create that prosperity, thanks to our long-term economic plan.

What will the Government do about the fact that there are more than 4,000 infant school children in classes of more than 30 in the north-east and North Yorkshire?

That is precisely why the Government have doubled the allocation of money for basic need, by complete contrast with the previous Government who cut the number of places in primary schools despite the boom in the birth rate.

Thinking that it faces too many bureaucratic hurdles, the Local Government Association is looking for more powers to interfere in free schools and academies. All too often, local authorities are the bureaucratic hurdles, holding back inspired head teachers, inspirational boards of governors, and parents who want a better future for their children. Will my right hon. Friend resist these efforts by local government to take back controls?

My hon. Friend is a man after my own heart. There are some outstanding local councils, not least, for example, in the north-east and Darlington. They do a great job in supporting head teachers to raise standards and exercise a greater degree of autonomy. Sadly, however, there are those who want the creeping tendrils of bureaucracy once again to choke the delicate flower of freedom, and I am afraid that the Opposition Front Bench is a particularly rank unweeded garden when it comes to nurturing those tendrils.

Does the Secretary of State expect multi-academy trusts, which are significantly changing the way in which their services are delivered to their academies, fully to consult their head teachers and local governors before these changes are set in train?

I would expect all multi-academy trusts to do everything possible to ensure that the local community and those involved in the delivery of services were appropriately consulted. I look forward to chatting to the hon. Gentleman when the Education Committee next meets so that he can expand on that point.

The number of apprentices in Harlow has increased by more than 80% during the past year. Will the Minister look to increase the prestige of apprentices and create a royal society of apprentices, which would improve their status and encourage more people to do apprenticeships?

I am delighted that, like many other places in the country, the number of apprentices in Harlow is increasing, and the number of employers taking on apprentices is increasing. During the last year, the increase in those applying for apprenticeships through the apprenticeship vacancy website rose by 50% to 1.5 million, not all of them in Harlow, but many. The culture of apprenticeships is on the rise again in Britain.

Has the Secretary of State noticed the groundswell of opposition to the proposal that the Government might privatise child protection services in local authorities? Has he clearly got the message from people as diverse as Professor Eileen Munro and Caitlin Moran in The Times that that is an unacceptable place for privatisation?

I have enormous respect for both Eileen Munro and Caitlin Moran in The Times, and I have been influenced by both of them in different ways. I should stress that we are not proposing the handing over of services that are there to protect vulnerable children to people who are after a fast buck. We have an innovation programme that has been endorsed by many leading organisations, charities and third sector organisations that work with the most vulnerable children. The problem at the moment is that far too many local authorities either require improvement or are very poor in the way in which they look after these vulnerable children. We need to work with external organisations to ensure that those children have the best possible future.