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Topical Questions

Volume 584: debated on Monday 21 July 2014

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will shortly make a statement on flight MH17, but let me pay tribute in particular to Ben Pocock, a student at Loughborough university who lost his life along with the hundreds of other innocent victims.

I also pay tribute to the achievements of my predecessor as Secretary of State for Education. I believe that he will be remembered as one of the great reforming Secretaries of State for Education. Let me be absolutely clear that I share with him a total commitment to creating an education system that enables young people, regardless of their background, to unlock every ounce of their potential.

I join my right hon. Friend in sending our condolences to the family of the MH17 victim from Loughborough university. I also warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment as Secretary of State for Education. Will she join me in congratulating students from Oriel high school, Hazelwick school and Holy Trinity school in my constituency who recently won awards at the STEMfest, which I launched for the third year in my constituency, and does she agree that it is important that we encourage young people to consider science, technology, engineering and maths subjects?

I thank my hon. Friend and congratulate those schools in Crawley that took part in STEMfest and my hon. Friend, who is an excellent constituency Member of Parliament, on his continuing support for that valuable event. Such events provide students with an insight to future STEM careers and the importance of STEM to the UK economy. I hope those students who took part will be inspired to continue to study STEM subjects in the next stage of their education and beyond.

May I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new post? I also pay tribute to her predecessor. He was a man full of ideas; they just happened to be the wrong ones, which is why he had to go. After no change on AS-levels, work experience or free schools, will the Secretary of State explain to the House why she is also continuing with the flawed and unpopular policy of increasing the number of unqualified teachers in our schools? When will she make the break and put the interests of parents and pupils above those of Tory party ideology?

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much indeed for his warm words. He started off so well, but the theatrics were typical of somebody who took part in the Cambridge Footlights when he was there. I am not going to take lessons from the hon. Gentleman—oh, no! Wait a minute. He does give lessons, as an unqualified teacher, doesn’t he?

No change there, so let me try another question. The Government’s rushed curriculum changes risk undermining faith in the examination system, causing confusion for parents and pupils. Ofqual has already warned of greater than normal turbulence in examination results this summer. Is the Secretary of State fully satisfied that her Government’s changes will not compromise fairness and consistency as pupils receive their results in August?

I would like to answer that question with a one-word answer: yes. I am not going to take lessons from the hon. Gentleman, because under this Government there are 250,000 fewer pupils in under- performing schools and 800,000 more pupils in schools that are rated good and outstanding. That is the legacy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), which I intend to build on.

T5. Only one of the six secondary schools on the Isle of Wight, Christ the King, has been judged good by Ofsted. It is massively oversubscribed. Two new schools will open next term, but what is being done to encourage the remaining schools to become good or even excellent schools? (904943)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that educational standards on the Isle of Wight are unacceptably low. That is why, in July 2013, the previous Secretary of State issued a direction notice to Isle of Wight council to improve standards. My hon. Friend will know that Hampshire is now the island’s strategic partner, and that it is making good progress with the schools on the island. However, the Department for Education and all its Ministers will be keeping a close eye on the island to ensure that standards continue to improve.

T2. The Government’s own figures show that there are nearly 600 fewer children’s centres than there were at the time of the last election. According to the charity 4Children, a further 100 children’s centres are under threat of imminent closure as a result of cuts by this Government. Will the new Minister take the necessary action to halt the decline in the number of children’s centres and to remove the threat to services that are relied on by so many families and children? (904939)

We want to see a strong network of children’s centres in place across the country, offering families access to a wide range of local, flexible services. In fact, a recent survey showed that, under this Government, a record number of parents—more than 1 million—were now using children’s centres, and that the centres were reaching more than 90% of families in need. I guess that listening to the views of families is what is important here.

T8. I welcome the Government’s positive approach in creating a fairer funding formula for schools. That will mean that pupils in Macclesfield will be receiving a £125 cash boost. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that a fairer funding formula will continue to be a strong focus under this Government? (904947)

I can promise my hon. Friend that a fairer funding formula will be delivered in 2015-16. His own area will receive an additional £5.7 million. This is the biggest move towards fair funding across England in a decade, and it is long overdue. It should have taken place under the previous Government, and it will take place under this one.

T3. I was glad to read in the newspapers that the Minister had finally abandoned plans to allow firms such as G4S to run child protection services, but then I looked more closely and discovered that he now intends to allow those firms to set up not-for-profit subsidiaries that would run those services anyway. That would mean that the same firm could place a child into a care home and run that care home, and not be inspected by Ofsted. How on earth can the Minister think that that would be good for children? (904940)

I think the hon. Lady should talk to those on her Front Bench, as well as to her colleagues in the previous Labour Government who started this whole process by legislating on social work practices. We have been clear, following the consultation, that there will be non-profit organisations running children’s services but also that the same levels of accountability and oversight will apply as a consequence. She needs to look carefully at the detail and talk to her Front Benchers about what their position is.

Schools across Norfolk will every day serve an extra 21,000 free school meals to infant-aged children from September. Will the Minister join me in thanking head teachers and schools in my constituency that have worked hard to ensure that these meals are delivered, and will he update the House on how many schools are going to fulfil the policy?

I would like to thank head teachers, governing bodies and local authorities right across the country that are now delivering the policy. It is one of the most important social reforms introduced by our Government. It will raise attainment, raise the quality of food eaten in schools and help with household budgets. The vast majority of schools are on track to deliver it successfully in September, and we continue to work with the small minority that have further work to do.

T4. Many parents across Leicester, and I dare say across Loughborough too, do not think it unreasonable to expect teachers to be qualified. Why does the right hon. Lady disagree with them? (904941)

I think the hon. Gentleman ought to ask his own shadow Education Secretary, who himself has been teaching unqualified. Government Members believe that head teachers are the best people to know about the qualifications of those who teach children. We want to look at the outcomes, not to be obsessed always with the structures and the people.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a national scandal that under the previous Government an estimated 350,000 young people a year were studying for post-16 qualifications that offered no route into stable employment or higher education?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Government have got rid of 3,000 poor-quality qualifications allowed in by the previous Government who, in doing so, debased the currency of qualifications and led young people up the garden path with no real prospect of getting a job at the end of it.

T7. The Government’s flagship education policy—free schools— looks like it is fast becoming their greatest liability. When will the Department set out how it will encourage applications from areas with forecasts of high or severe need for additional school places, working with local authorities where appropriate? Will the Secretary of State give a commitment today to a timetable for that to happen, or is she content with business as usual? (904946)

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his question, but the plain fact is that two thirds of free schools have so far been judged good or outstanding. The tremendous policy of free schools is supported by parents, and we will continue with them.

State boarding schools are the hidden jewel in the crown of the state education system. It would benefit the taxpayer greatly if more service personnel’s children went to state boarding schools, rather than to independent schools. Will the new Secretary of State work with the Secretary of State for Defence to allow greater capital funding for state boarding schools to enable them to expand to take more service personnel’s children?

Two of my Ministers will speak to the relevant organisation later today. The Secretary of State for Defence is on the Front Bench, and I will certainly be happy to talk to him further about that.

Local authorities have warned of a £20 million shortfall in capital for the introduction of universal free school meals. What cuts does the Minister expect schools to make to deliver on this Government imperative?

Schools and local authorities are delivering on this policy. We have allocated an additional £150 million for 2015-16. In addition, local authorities have a budget for improving maintenance of £1.2 billion to call on, if they wish to do so.

Minutes of a meeting of governors at the Duke of York’s Royal Military school held on 26 November last year note that the Ministry of Defence, the school’s sponsor “were not keen” to be involved with military academies due to “reputational risk”. Will the Secretary of State elaborate on what that reputational risk comprises, say whether it applies to all military schools sponsored by the Ministry of Defence and enlighten the House about what discussions have taken place between her Department and the Ministry of Defence?

We support the contacts between the military school and state school systems. I am happy to look at the points that my hon. Friend has raised and to write to her about them.

The current problems in Birmingham academies and my experiences of Byrchall high in my constituency lead me to believe that the last Secretary of State left academy schools completely unaccountable. Will the new Secretary of State take action and change the regulations to force head teachers, at the least, to give a written response to MPs’ inquiries?

I expect all schools to work closely with their Members of Parliament. I will talk more about this matter tomorrow when I make a statement about the Clarke report. It is not true to say that academies are not subject to oversight. They are subject to more oversight from the Department for Education and the Education Funding Agency than maintained schools.

The Secretary of State’s predecessor was not radical enough on free schools. Will she take this opportunity to state unequivocally her support for free schools, and will she bring forward new ideas for a more rapid expansion of free schools across the country?

It is always exciting to be tempted to be more radical. My commitment to free schools is absolutely undimmed. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and Members from all parts of the House to get more free schools up and running.

The Secretary of State will know that I have worked for five months to uncover problems at Park View school. The leader of Birmingham city council has apologised for the city’s role in the historic failures. Will she apologise to my constituents for what Peter Clarke has called the “benign neglect” of Park View since it became an academy two years ago, and will she respond positively to my letter of last week, which called for a new joint director of school standards in Birmingham so that this never happens again?

The right hon. Gentleman will have heard my earlier answers in which I said that these matters will be discussed more fully tomorrow on publication of the Clarke report. I pay tribute to the work that the right hon. Gentleman has done. I have his letter and will respond to it.