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Volume 589: debated on Monday 1 December 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pupil Absences

In the autumn and spring of 2009-10, 45.8 million days of school were missed by pupils. By 2013-14, that figure had decreased to 35.7 million, the lowest number since comparable records began. The number of pupils who were persistently absent has also decreased, from 439,000 in 2009-10 to 262,000—again, a record low level. Time off for holidays has also dropped, by about 1.4 million school days, compared with the same period in 2009-10.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I also thank the Secretary of State for visiting Nuneaton last Thursday to hold a very positive round-table discussion with local head teachers. Good attendance is the bedrock of improving educational outcomes for our young people. Will my hon. Friend therefore join me in thanking the teachers, head teachers and governors in Warwickshire for the solid improvement in attendance in the past year?

The Secretary of State mentioned to me how much she enjoyed her visit to the George Eliot school in Nuneaton on Thursday and how valuable she found the round-table discussion with the head teachers from Nuneaton and north Warwickshire schools. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) is assiduous in fighting for small businesses and more jobs in his constituency, and that he therefore understands the importance of education. I join him in paying tribute to all the teachers, parents and pupils for their efforts to reduce pupil absences, particularly in Warwickshire, where the number of school days lost owing to absence has fallen from 5.7% in 2009-10 to 4.2% this year. There have been similar falls in persistent absence.

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to Perry Wood primary school in Worcester? Against a backdrop of falling absence levels in the county, the school has used pupil premium funding to introduce a walking bus and a breakfast club, and it has increased attendance from around 90% two years ago to an average of 96% today.

I pay tribute to the teachers at Perry Wood school for the innovative way in which they have reduced absence there. In fact, I congratulate schools throughout Worcester on improving school attendance. In Worcestershire as a whole, overall absence has dropped by a fifth and persistent absence by almost a quarter since 2009, and I pay tribute to all the teachers, parents and pupils for the work they are doing.

21. Another reason for school absence is that some pupils are young carers who have duties at home. The burden on young carers was shown tellingly in a BBC film called “Looking after Mum”, which was about a young carer who had been caring for her mother—my constituent—who had had a stroke when the child was four years old. What are Ministers doing to ensure that schools have policies in place to identify and support such young carers who have taken on a burden of care from the age of four? (906350)

Schools play an important part in identifying young carers and offering them appropriate support. To assist them in that endeavour, the Department has been working with the Children’s Society and the Carers Trust to share tools and good practice with schools, including a free access e-learning module for school staff. The Department of Health is also training school nurses to support young carers at school.

Is it still the case that, for the purpose of drawing up school league tables, a pupil in hospital receiving treatment for cancer would be marked as absent?

Schools use various codes to report absences. In the case of any illness, chronic or otherwise, there is a specific code. Schools are not judged on the absence levels of pupils who are suffering chronic or other illnesses.

Careers Education (CBI)

One of my priorities is to ensure that more of our young people are leaving education with the skills to succeed in modern Britain. In October, I hosted a round-table discussion with employers and education sector representatives, including the CBI, on this important issue. We are consulting representatives to examine what further steps we can take to prepare young people for the world of work more effectively, and to ensure that businesses are engaging with schools in meaningful ways.

The CBI business manifesto was published last month. It highlights

“the shameful state of careers provision in English schools”.

It emphasises that girls in particular are losing out, but states that everyone is suffering as a result of what seems to be the virtual collapse of careers education. Why has the situation been allowed to get this bad, and what is the Secretary of State going to do to fix it?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman; I was particularly struck by the paragraphs about the state of girls’ education and aspirations:

“We’re losing out on the contribution women can make because too many girls at school, college or in the workplace are writing off—or are written off from—particular jobs for no good reason…Choices should not be closed off to anyone, and the full facts about earnings and opportunities need to be available to all, especially women.”

That is why one scheme—there are many others—that this Government are supporting is the Your Life campaign, which is supported by more than 200 leading representatives from businesses, education, civil society and government to show how science and maths can lead to exciting and successful careers.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in impressing on local schools the importance of work experience? Will she also congratulate the York, North Yorkshire & East Riding local enterprise partnership on the work it is doing in placing people on work experience and giving careers guidance, together with local employers?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She rightly says that work experience is extremely important, and I pay tribute to the role that LEPs play—both her own and many others across the country. We are working to make the whole education system much more closely linked to the world of work, with more relevant respective qualifications, more emphasis on learning useful skills and greater employer influence over course content.

Will the Secretary of State work with the Association of Colleges to help deliver its call for a careers guidance guarantee?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion and I shall certainly take a look at that. I work closely with the college in my constituency in Loughborough. I will work with any organisations and do anything that will raise the aspirations of our young people and prepare them by giving them the skills they are going to need for life in modern Britain.

When I grew up and went to school in Herefordshire in the 1980s, we had a widespread and comprehensive careers service. That has changed under successive Governments, yet I meet more and more young people who are unsure, post-qualifications, what they want to do with their lives. What can we do to ensure that local and national employers, particularly Her Majesty’s armed forces, get access to schools?

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says. At the base of his question is the point that there is no such thing as a career for life any more and that we are all going to have to think about the skills we need to take the first job and then the next job, be it in the armed services, the public services, in business or through being self-employed. There are many examples of excellent schemes across the country where businesses and schools are working together, and our task is to make sure that that good practice is replicated throughout the country.

Quality careers advice is essential to support young people in making the right choice, be it academic or vocational. However, recent figures on youth apprenticeships confirm the concerns we have been raising for some time that Government policy is damaging the apprenticeship brand and leaving young people behind. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) is right to call out the Government on their failure to deliver for young people. Will the Minister explain why they have failed to deliver on apprenticeships as a quality route for young people entering the work force?

That is an extremely disappointing question because it bears absolutely no relation to the facts. We have the lowest number of NEETs—those not in education, employment or training—ever on record; and we have more 16 to 18-year-olds starting apprenticeships. The hon. Lady should not be talking down our young people and their opportunities—she should be talking them up. Our young people are learning fantastic skills. I do agree with her that the links between vocational and academic education should be treated completely equally. That is exactly what this Government have done with the delivery of almost 2 million more apprenticeships.

STEM Subjects

Under this Government we have seen record numbers taking STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—with maths now being the most popular A-level. That is due to excellent teaching and several supporting programmes, but of course more needs to be done. We have reformed qualifications and the curriculum; we are recruiting top graduates into teaching with increased bursaries and scholarships; we have established maths hubs; and, as I have mentioned, we have the Your Life campaign to change young people’s perceptions of science and mathematics.

What steps is the Secretary of State taking to make sure that business and education come together and talk to each other to ensure that we match up supply and demand for skills in the engineering sector?

My hon. Friend is right. I have previously said from this Dispatch Box that the estimates are that we need 83,000 more engineers every year for the next 10 years, and I have also said that they cannot all be male. That is why campaigns such as Your Life and other things such as tomorrow’s engineers week, which the Government are already supporting, are extremely important. I continue to look at all the best ways that businesses, schools and educators can work together to make sure that our young people are prepared for life in modern Britain.

The Secretary of State is aware that the earlier we can start loving numeracy, the better—it is so important. She was not there, but only last week one of her junior Ministers was with me, the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and Johnny Ball to launch the early years numeracy strategy that came out of our all-party group. Will the Secretary of State put a bit of muscle behind that?

Well, I’ll think of a number! The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this Government will put their weight behind the campaign to get more of our young people studying maths subjects and studying them to a higher level. We have already introduced the maths hubs, and are supporting teacher exchange programmes with places such as Shanghai, which are already leading the way in maths education. We are seeing more of our young people doing better at maths earlier, and, as the hon. Gentleman says, that is absolutely critical.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Fiona Kendrick, chief executive officer of Nestlé in my constituency, is providing inspirational leadership? She is leading the campaign to get more science, technology, engineering and maths into schools so that more young people, especially young women, can enter the fields of engineering and technology. Such an inspirational change will improve the quality of education in this country.

I agree with my hon. Friend and welcome Fiona Kendrick’s comments on the need to bridge the gap between education and employment and the need for industry to play its part. I think I was with my hon. Friend when I visited Bombardier, which is also in her constituency, and met the fabulous Kirsten, who is doing incredibly well as an apprentice welder.

It may be a “Blue Peter” link to say that I was at primary school in Heston with Zoë Ball. Very recently, I was talking to Heston residents about the opportunities for young people in the local economy, which is full of light industry. Exposure to the world of work at a young age makes a huge difference to confidence. What is the Secretary of State doing to improve work experience opportunities for under-16s in science, technology and maths subjects?

I agree that work experience is extremely important, and I should like it applied to pupils as young as possible. As a first step, I would like young people to get advice about the jobs that are out there—I am talking about labour market information. But if the hon. Lady’s Government had not introduced so much red tape and so many health and safety regulations, employers might not be so put off taking on people for work experience.

School Nursery Classes

Nurseries in schools are at the heart of our plans to offer flexible, affordable and high-quality child care. To deliver on that plan, we are removing the red tape that stands in the way of schools offering provision to two-year-olds. We have also invested £100 million in early years child care places, of which a third are being created in schools. We are allowing child minders to offer wrap-around care in schools, and championing calibration between schools and private, voluntary and independent nurseries.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Keeping a child in the same school when they transition from nursery to primary school is in the best interests of the child and indeed the school. Although I welcome steps to examine moves towards amending admissions codes for the most disadvantaged, may I urge him to keep an open mind about widening this policy right across nursery schools?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. In many cases, parents want their children to continue into reception year in the school in which they attended nursery, but that should not come at the expense of parents who, for whatever reason, choose different early years provision for their children. As my hon. Friend mentioned, we are amending the admissions code for the most disadvantaged pupils. Of course I always keep an open mind, and we will keep this matter under review and consider it later.

One of the best ways of extending nursery provision is to have supportive chairs and boards of governors. Many schools find it very difficult to find governors, and many are paying them. May I ask the Minister what his personal—not his departmental—opinion is on the principle of paying school governors? By the way—interest declared!

The hon. Gentleman is asking about the payment of governors in the early years sector. As he is aware, the early years sector is very diverse. Child minders and PVI nurseries do not have school governors. Some maintained nurseries do, but they do not have to pay them.

There will continue to be a shortage of nursery class places until we address the issue of pay for nursery school staff. Top bankers’ pay went up by 7% last year, and that of those working in nursery schools by barely more than 1%. What will the Minister do about that?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her post, but I do not agree with the numbers she cites. In fact, the pay of nursery staff has gone up, according to independent statistics. More important, most of the provision is in the private sector. The Government cannot prescribe wages for people in the private sector, but we can cut taxes so that people can keep more of what they earn, and that is why we have raised the personal allowance to £10,000.

Vulnerable Children

6. What recent assessment she has made of the vulnerability of children missing from school and home to child sexual exploitation. (906335)

Nothing is more important than keeping children safe. To better protect missing children, we have introduced tougher statutory guidance and regulations, improved national data collection and published new practice standards for social workers. Ofsted has found that many, but not enough, local authorities are making progress, so we will continue to establish where that is not happening, and why, and will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure children’s safety.

A recent Ofsted report entitled “The sexual exploitation of children: it couldn’t happen here, could it?” said that most local authorities inspected are not making the connection between child sexual exploitation and children missing from school. Does the Minister agree that every local authority should keep a centrally held persistent absence list that could be cross-referenced by police and children’s services to identify children at risk and patterns of local child sexual exploitation?

I begin by thanking the hon. Lady and acknowledging the significant and important contribution she has made over a long period, and more recently through her report “Real Voices” on child exploitation in Greater Manchester. It poses many of the right questions, as she has this afternoon. I agree that it is absolutely right not only that all schools must inform the local authority of pupils who are missing education but that local authorities must identify pupils missing from school and take action as a result. Those duties already exist and Ofsted’s thematic review made it clear that in many cases that was not happening because of very basic practice failures across a range of agencies and organisations. The number of persistently absent children has dropped by 40% since 2010, but we need to highlight even more those children who are particularly vulnerable for the reasons the hon. Lady has outlined. I know I have a meeting with her in a week or two to discuss these matters further and I look forward to having a conversation to see what progress we can make.

Does the Minister agree that protecting children from sexual exploitation must include better education of children and parents on the potential dangers of the internet? To that end, will he praise the work of Warning Zone in Leicestershire?

I agree that in the new digital age, when children come into contact with the internet at an ever younger age, we need to ensure that they have the understanding and skills to make good choices. Part of that is ensuring that parents and teachers can acquire those abilities. That is why we have ensured that internet safety is taught at all key stages at school, and I am sure that the work that has gone on on the ground—not just in his constituency, although I praise that, but throughout the country—is helping to ensure that we get that message across.

I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for her excellent report “Real Voices” and, in particular, for the consideration she has given to the voice of these young people. Her recommendations have a significance way beyond Greater Manchester. Anyone who reads the report cannot fail to be struck by the repeated references to the benefit that many of these vulnerable young people derive from working with peer mentors. Does the Minister share Labour’s interest in this approach, and does he have any plans to develop the model? Has he considered using the innovation fund as a means of stimulating it?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s insight, analysis and recommendations as to what more we can do to ensure that children who need their voice to be heard have the requisite support from people who can provide them with the guidance and trust that are often lacking among other professionals. I am happy to talk to him about his suggestion. We have had some extremely exciting bids in this area through the innovation fund programme, which I will be able to say more about in the coming weeks. As I say, I shall be more than happy to discuss the subject with him in due course.

Somerset county council has withdrawn regular checks on children educated at home, stating that it will contact families only if it is

“advised that Elective Home Education is not happening or is unsuitable.”

Does the Minister recognise that it is necessary to check systematically so that children at risk are identified, along with parents and carers who need support to deliver education, because otherwise school is often the only place where children at risk can have contact with other adults?

The hon. Lady refers to the recent Ofsted inspection in Somerset and the need for Somerset’s children’s services to make marked improvements in its response to ensure that children are safe. The example she has given is an element of that on which it needs to improve. I will not comment on the specific work that needs to be done, which has been well documented. She knows, as do her colleagues across Somerset, that I am determined to do whatever it takes to ensure the children in Somerset get the support and care they need so that they have a safe and fulfilling upbringing.

School Leaders (Recruitment)

7. What steps she has taken to ensure that the best school leaders are recruited to work in the most challenging schools. (906336)

From 2015 the Government-funded Talented Leaders programme will match up to 100 excellent leaders with challenging schools, including in Norfolk. We also fund the charity Future Leaders to develop the leadership skills of aspirant head teachers.

I welcome the extension of the Talented Leaders programme to Norfolk. Excellent leadership is vital, and turning around a struggling school needs a team effort, with teachers, governors and parents all pulling in the same direction. What efforts will be made to ensure that the Talented Leaders programme supports a whole-school approach?

My hon. Friend is exactly right that we need not only to get talented head teachers and leaders into those schools, but to ensure that other members of the school community are part of that. That is why, under this programme, each school will be entitled to a leadership sustainability grant of £50,000, which is ring-fenced for staff and governor development in order to build leadership capacity for the future.

For the third year running the Government have missed their teacher recruitment targets. For example, only 67% of physics places have been filled—the figures are 88% for maths and 44% for design and technology. Does the Minister accept that the teacher recruitment crisis is leading to real problems in key subjects and in leadership roles right across the country?

We certainly accept that for some time now there have been challenges when recruiting to some of the core subjects, including some of the core scientific subjects, and that is why we have significantly increased the bursaries available in those areas. However, we should also acknowledge the great successes there have been in recent years in getting more outstanding graduates into the teaching profession, and we will do more of that in future.

Some of our country’s best leaders can be found in Her Majesty’s armed forces. What success are we having in recruiting former soldiers, sailors and airmen to become teachers in our schools, and what success are we achieving in getting more male teachers into primary schools?

My hon. Friend is right on both points. The latest statistics show that we are having more success in recruiting male teachers into primary schools. We are also doing more, through our Troops to Teachers programme, to use the talents of many people who have served our country in the armed forces and can now serve our education system, too.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the leadership of Wellfield community school in my constituency, under head teacher Linda Rodham, on improving the school’s Ofsted rating from poor to good in four terms, and on the improvements we are seeing in qualifications year on year? Does that not prove that there is no smell of defeatism in the schools of east Durham?

I am delighted to hear about the success of that school in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I hope that other schools in the region, and in those regions where there has been underperformance, will look at was has been done there and realise that there is nothing inevitable about failure in any part of the country.

Nursery Schools

Many maintained nursery schools are delivering high-quality early education, often in disadvantaged areas where that provision can make the greatest difference. Our aim is to improve parent access to high-quality early-years provision, enable a diverse market and ensure that nurseries are part of that market. However, the current legislation does not allow maintained nursery schools to become academies, but we will keep that under review.

I welcome the Minister’s response—or I think I do—that this is going to be kept under review. Too many maintained nursery schools—centres of excellence anchored, for the most part, in the poorest communities in the country—have been lost under successive Governments. Would not academy status give them the opportunity to ensure that they continue to help the Government in raising standards for all and, most importantly, closing the gap between outcomes for rich and poor?

I welcome the enthusiasm of the Chairman of the Education Committee for maintained nurseries. I have visited Pen Green maintained nursery in Corby, which is an excellent example. He mentioned harnessing their quality. We have invested £5.5 million in teaching schools so that maintained nurseries can spearhead this and help to spread quality across the sector. He is right to indicate that 4,000 schools have benefited from academy status. As I said, we will keep the situation under review as opportunities arise to reconsider the legislative framework for maintained nurseries.

Many nursery schools would like to become co-operatives but, by law, they are not currently allowed to do so. I welcome the Secretary of State’s interest in this area. May I press the Minister on allowing for an amendment to be made to the Deregulation Bill? That could happen very quickly and it would allow nurseries to join other schools in becoming co-operatives.

The Secretary of State rightly takes an interest in this. In fact, all members of the Government recognise the quality of maintained nursery schools, and we will take all necessary steps to make sure that they can grow and continue to thrive.

Private Schools

10. If she will make an assessment of the public benefit contributed by schools in the private sector. (906339)

Public benefit tests are a matter for the Charity Commission. Schools in the independent sector make a significant contribution to the UK economy estimated at £9.5 billion per annum. Many have partnerships with state schools to share resources and teachers, drawing on the strengths of each member school to improve outcomes for all children across the partnership. One example is the Wimbledon schools partnership between King’s College school and over 20 state schools. Independent schools also act as academy sponsors, and 11 have been approved to do so.

Does the Secretary of State therefore reject Sir Michael Wilshaw’s assessment that public schools offer the state sector only crumbs from the table?

Sir Michael Wilshaw and I have had a number of discussions on many different subjects, including this one. I point out to the hon. Gentleman, as I would to all Labour Members, that this is happening already. We would like more partnerships to be growing, but there are already plenty of partnerships and collaborations between state and private schools. I wonder whether he would agree with Andrew Halls, the headmaster of King’s College school in Wimbledon, who recently said:

“The independent schools are under a bit more threat than we’ve been for a long time. The state sector has really improved.”

That is what happens with four years of a coalition Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one element that lies behind the debate on the public benefit of private schools is the need to ensure that pupils in the state sector have an ever-increasing chance of receiving the best academic education? Does she also agree that grammar schools play a significant role in providing this opportunity and that their work across the country should be suitably valued?

At the heart of what my right hon. Friend is asking—I completely agree with it—is that we want every child in this country to go to a good or outstanding local school. I welcome diversity in our schools system. I also welcome the fact that, after four years of this Government, over 800,000—heading towards 1 million—more children are in good or outstanding schools receiving a life-transforming education to prepare them for a life in modern Britain.

A prep school in Hampshire that claims £180,000 tax relief just for showing its pupils’ art work on the walls; a ladies college in Yorkshire that claims £110,000 tax relief a year while profiting from renting out school facilities: enough is enough. Will the Secretary of State now join Anthony Seldon of Wellington college, head teachers at the United Learning trust and the majority of the British people in supporting Labour’s plans to break down the barriers in English education and require private schools to work alongside state schools to share best practice and raise attainment across the country?

The hon. Gentleman appears to have answered his own question—in fact, his own policy—by pointing out the successful collaborative partnerships between private schools and state schools going on across the country. His previous school has decided that it will not be building any buildings or unveiling any statues to the hon. Gentleman any time soon. He ought to think about the Labour Uncut website, which said:

“It is not so much that Tristram Hunt has the wrong policies for education; it is that he appears to have none.”

Last week’s announcement has not changed that.

This is the politics of the status quo. Once upon a time the Prime Minister said—[Interruption.] I thought Members on the Government Benches would want to listen to their Prime Minister. He said he wanted to end the “educational apartheid” between private and state schools. Now we have a Secretary of State afraid to take on the vested interests, happy to allow £140 million of tax relief a year without demanding partnership and progress. Is this a principled stand against our policy or, like her flip-flopping opposition to gay marriage, is she just waiting for more people to get in touch before she changes her mind?

The hon. Gentleman has shown yet again by his question that he has no vision or plan for education in this country. He would be letting down the children of this country were he ever to be allowed anywhere near the Department for Education. In a recent GQ Magazine interview he said:

“But what I have found challenging is that you can be so busy without achieving much, meeting upon meeting and then I think, ‘Where is the outcome? What have I achieved?’ Sometimes you can tick boxes but not feel you have made progress.”

That, so far, is the story of Labour’s education policy.

Does the Secretary of State agree that there are outstanding private schools throughout the country, such as University College school in Hampstead and St Mary’s school in Calne in my constituency, which make a gigantic contribution to the local society, but nearly always under the radar, nearly always by secret means and through a thousand different links across the community? Those could never be judged or counted by any organisation; they are none the less to be encouraged.

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The issue with the recent policy announcement is that much of the collaboration and partnership between schools, whether private and state or within state schools, is already happening. I have already mentioned that 11 independent schools were approved as academy sponsors. Last month we announced that 18 new primary independent/state school partnerships had been awarded DFE funding, so this is already happening. As usual, Labour is late to the party with zero policy.

Priority School Building Programme

11. When she plans to announce the outcome of the next phase of the Priority School Building programme. (906340)

13. When she plans to announce the successful applicants for the Priority School Building programme 2. (906342)

Our Department is in the process of analysing the expressions of interest for the next phase of the Priority School Building programme, and we expect to announce successful schools in January.

I draw to my right hon. Friend’s attention the excellent applications from Humphry Davy school and Helston community college in my constituency. The successful applicants will be anxious to know how quickly they can crack on with their rebuilding projects and by what date they will need to complete them. Will the Minister elaborate on that?

My hon. Friend is a great champion of all the schools in his constituency and has been lobbying very hard indeed, as I am well aware, for the two schools that he names. I can assure him that we are processing these bids as rapidly as possible and that we will announce the successful schools in January. That will allow the project to move ahead as soon as possible.

The previous Secretary of State, when he visited Todmorden and Calder high schools in the Calder Valley, said that they were among the worst that he had seen in England, but they never qualified for rebuilding under Building Schools for the Future because they attained too highly and did not have deprivation. Can the Minister confirm that under the Priority School Building programme, the criteria of attainment and deprivation have been scrapped and that schools that are dilapidated stand a chance of being rebuilt?

I can confirm that. It is right that such a programme should look at the condition of all schools and prioritise those that are in most need of help, rather than targeting either attainment or deprivation. I am aware that there are a number of bids from schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We will look at those closely and announce the results in January.

Will the Minister give a higher priority to schools in areas where the number of pupils is increasing hugely year on year? In our areas, the amount of money available to spend per pupil is squeezed down because the numbers are counted in October one year, but the number of pupils in the following 12 months increases exponentially.

I think I have good news for the hon. Lady, because not only have this Government been considerably more generous than our predecessors in the allocation of basic need funding for our school system, but we are now allocating basic need funding for new school places for three years. In January, we will make another announcement of funding for basic need for 2017-18.

Free Schools

The performance of free schools is continually reviewed as more and more are inspected by Ofsted. Based on the inspections undertaken so far, the majority of free schools are performing well. With 24% rated outstanding, they are more likely to be rated outstanding than other state-funded schools.

In Weaver Vale, I am proud to have worked with the founders of the Sandymoor free school, which has grown from strength to strength since it opened in 2012. Will my hon. Friend join me in applauding the school’s achievements, including its first Ofsted report as a good school with outstanding leadership?

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the governors—I understand that he is one—and the staff at Sandymoor school. The school’s motto is “Ordinary people. Extraordinary achievements.” That is right in one respect, in that it is extraordinary to secure a good grading from Ofsted within the first two years of opening a new school, but there is nothing ordinary about the head teacher, Andrew Green-Howard, or his staff at a school where, to quote Ofsted, the

“majority of students are meeting or exceeding…ambitious targets…in mathematics, English and science”,

and behaviour “is very impressive.”

May I, through the Minister, thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for free schools, Lord Nash, for their visit to the Falcons school in Leicester? I know that they enjoyed their visit. We were disappointed not to see the Minister there as well. I know that, apart from the education provided, the Secretary of State particularly liked the vegetable samosas that the children had made for her. Does the Minister agree not only that the Falcons school is the first Sikh school in Leicester, but that it has a first-class future?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his praise of the Falcons school. I wish I had been there: I am a great fan of vegetable samosas, but I am more of a fan of free schools of whatever faith that provide high-quality schools and high-quality education up and down the country.

23. [906352] I have championed the New College bid for a new free school in North Swindon, which would help to deliver much needed high-quality school places in my growing constituency. Will the Minister comment on the importance of local groups coming together to set up free schools?

I thank New College and other proposers that have submitted free school applications for their hard work and commitment. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work and support for the New College bid. Free schools are giving local communities and teachers the freedom to come together and establish new high-quality schools that are raising academic standards. We are currently assessing all wave 8 applications against the published criteria, and we will soon write to applicants to notify them whether they have been selected for interview.

We are constantly told that free schools are outperforming all other maintained schools. Will the Minister comment on his own Department’s admission that not only have a very small number of free schools actually been inspected, but that the

“findings cannot be interpreted as a balanced view of the quality of education nationally”?

Of course, many of the schools have only just opened—they have been open for only one year or two years—and not all of them have yet been inspected. However, many have been inspected, and 24% of free schools inspected have been judged outstanding. That is under the tougher framework that Ofsted now applies. The rate is higher than for schools as a whole.

Social Workers

14. What steps she is taking to ensure that local authorities recruit and retain an adequate number of qualified children and family social workers. (906343)

Since 2010, we have invested more than £0.5 billion in social worker training and improvement. The number of registered children and family social workers has risen to 24,845. Programmes such as Step Up to Social Work, the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment and, more recently, Frontline are all righty focused on bringing high-quality people into social work to improve the retention and status of social workers and, most importantly, the outcomes for children.

I am grateful to the Minister for highlighting the need to attract more people into social work in the difficult area of child protection, but is it not important for councils to strike the right balance between newly qualified social workers and experienced staff? If we expect newly qualified social workers to carry too high a case load and we do not provide the right support, that will not only damage retention, but have a negative impact on vulnerable children. What will he do to address that further?

I agree with the hon. Lady. It is important that newly qualified social workers get as much support as possible when we bring them into the profession, so that they see it as a legitimate career to remain in and so that too many of them do not leave it too soon. That is why the chief social worker, Isabelle Trowler, recently proposed an approved child and family practitioner accredited status, and said that we must ensure that we have accredited supervisors and a practice leader in all children’s services to lead practice from the front. On top of that, there has been better collaboration across the local authorities in areas such as the north-east, where the hon. Lady’s constituency is based, to look at social worker need in the region and keep vacancy rates as low as possible.

Will my hon. Friend expand on the contribution that programmes such as Frontline and Step Up to Social Work are making to bring high quality people into social work? What plans does he have to continue with them?

Frontline and Step Up unashamedly attract the brightest and best graduates into social work, making them very much the Teach First of social work. They have been extremely successful, with 25 people applying for every place in Frontline. We have just announced the fourth cohort of Step Up to Social Work for January 2016 and we are supporting a third year of Frontline. That will ensure that high-quality graduates go into social work and will be its future leaders. It will also help to improve the status of social work across the country.

In-year Admissions

15. What steps her Department is taking to make additional resources available to schools in areas that experience high levels of in-year admissions. (906344)

We have allowed local authorities to use a mobility factor in their local funding formulae to target additional funding at schools that had a high proportion of pupils entering in-year in the previous year.

I am not sure whether the Minister has seen the figures for Bradford. If he has, he will know why I am asking this question. Recently, the Prime Minister said that

“there is no doubt that some communities face particular pressures… I think a fund that can more directly help those communities would be very worthwhile and that is what we are going to put in our manifesto”.

If there is a need right now, why should the money not be made available right now?

I would be very happy to talk to my hon. Friend about this matter. In 2014-15, Bradford local authority allocated almost £1 million to schools that experienced high in-year fluctuations in pupil numbers. In addition, it allocated £1.7 million to help schools provide new places to cope with population growth. In January, we will allocate further basic need funding across the country.

Academies and Maintained Schools (Oversight)

18. What recent representations she has received on the National Audit Office’s report, “Academies and maintained schools: oversight and intervention”, published on 30th October 2014, HC 721; and if she will make a statement. (906347)

I have received no representations on the National Audit Office’s report. The Department will reply to any recommendations the Public Accounts Committee makes in due course.

Is the Minister aware that the NAO report points out that the Department for Education finds it difficult to judge the value of various school interventions? Does he agree with that assessment? If he does not agree with it, why not?

We do not agree with that assessment. The report is factually accurate, but we do not believe that the interpretation the NAO has put on the facts is correct. The oversight of our schools is very clear: the oversight of academies is very clear, the oversight of maintained schools by local authorities is very clear, and the oversight by Ofsted is very clear. We are seeing a rise in academic standards across maintained schools and across academies and free schools in this country.

Topical Questions

On Friday evening, I attended the Social Worker of the Year awards, which is an inspiring occasion that recognises the work of many in the profession. I thank them for the warm welcome that they gave me and my team. Last week, the early years foundation stage results showed an increase in the number of children reaching the expected levels, which is an important step in ensuring that more children are ready for learning. I also welcome the recent figures that showed a drop in bullying. That is an important priority for me. We recently invested more resources in supporting schools to tackle bullying, including £2 million to help schools address lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender bullying.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the opening of a university technical college in my constituency, which is the first of its kind in Kent? Such colleges are a fantastic innovation that help to satisfy the increasing demand for skilled engineers and scientists. The UTC will add to the diverse range of educational establishments that is available in my Dartford constituency.

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning Leigh university technical college, and I am delighted that young people in his Dartford constituency now have the opportunity to attend a UTC. They are an important part of our education plan to ensure that young people leave school well educated and, as he said, well prepared for careers such as those in engineering.

Recruitment for initial teacher training was 108% against target in 2010, but it is now down to just 93%. Head teachers are having to travel abroad to recruit, and the chairman of the teacher training advisory group has warned that places such as Dover, Great Yarmouth and Blackpool will be at the back of the queue for teachers. We warned that that would happen, but there has been nothing but cold complacency from Ministers. I think it is one of the only policies that the Liberal Democrat Minister for Schools still agrees with. When will he get a grip on it?

I am sure that the Minister for Schools can answer for himself, but I doubt that that is the only policy he agrees with. Some 32,543 trainee teachers started undergraduate or postgraduate initial teacher training in 2014-15—236 fewer than last year. The shadow Minister might want to reflect on the fact that one reason more teachers are attracted to the profession is the recovering economy, yet the legacy that his Government left us was a weak economy. We want to make teaching an attractive profession. It is already highly respected, but it will be less attractive given the shadow Education Minister’s proposals to make all teachers swear an oath, which I think was met with universal derision.

T3. My right hon. Friend has a strong commitment to teacher training. Will he join me in supporting a Fens teaching and learning centre based in Wisbech that will support not just north Cambridgeshire but also west Norfolk and south Lincolnshire, and help with retention, recruitment and talent management? (906320)

I am happy to welcome that and to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that proposal. He will know that in the year ahead, as a consequence of representations from him and other hon. Members from Cambridgeshire, we are increasing funding for Cambridgeshire schools by 8%, or £23 million. That will certainly help with the recruitment problems and issues that he mentions.

T5. My constituent, Julia, came to talk to me about the plight of supply teachers who are now paid considerably less than the classroom teachers they cover, despite needing a wide range of skills and the ability to adapt quickly. What will the Minister do to regulate supply teacher companies to ensure that schools and teachers are not being ripped off? (906323)

We are not intending to over-regulate that sector, but I agree that we must ensure a proper deal for supply teachers. They form an important part of the school system, and the flexibility and freedom that we are giving schools to run their own recruitment, as well as additional resources through the pupil premium, are allowing schools to tackle those problems.

T4. Some Labour councils are frustrating the growth of primary free schools by building annexes to local education authority schools, even though they may be miles from the secondary school, which often means that a less rigorous process is followed to establish the new school. Will the Minister look into the matter, and would he welcome examples of where it is happening? (906321)

I would be happy to look into that. The hon. Gentleman will know that we allocate basic need and maintenance money directly to local authorities, and the free schools programme is managed directly from our Department. If he wishes to provide me with examples of this issue, I will happily look into them.

T7. The decision by the Education Funding Agency to halt the move by Academies Enterprise Trust to privatise a range of academy services from teaching assistants to ground maintenance in one huge £400 million contract, has been welcomed by schools, trade unions and staff, many of whom saw it as a mechanism to drive down wages and reduce other terms and conditions. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her personal intervention, but will she outline what advice she has given to academy chains such as AET about the need to concentrate on the poor performance of many of those schools, rather than on partnerships that drive money away from our children? (906327)

Academy chains want to find efficient ways of providing back office services, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that chains that are under performing, including the AET chain, are receiving the close scrutiny of the Minister responsible.

T6. With the advent of the new curriculum, the Government have moved away from a nationally recognised, standardised system based on levels, and schools are now free to choose from myriad different assessment frameworks. Is the Minister confident that consistency will be maintained, and what work is being done to ensure that all frameworks are fit for purpose? (906324)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The old system of levels was flawed. It merely gave the illusion of consistency. In reality, the standard of a particular level varied from school to school. The national curriculum, on the other hand, sets out very clear expectations for each key stage. The national curriculum tests in reading, maths, grammar, punctuation and spelling at the end of key stage 2 will tell pupils’ parents and teachers how children are performing against very clear expectations.

I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The logistics sector is probably, if one takes all elements of it, the biggest industry in the UK, yet all too often children in our schools have no knowledge of the career opportunities in that sector. What will the Government do to ensure that children in our schools get to know about the sector, the fantastic careers available to them and the fact that in some ways it could almost offer a job for life?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question. He was not here for the first bit of Question Time, but I am delighted he has turned up for the second bit—otherwise I was not going to get an outing at all. It is very important that young people understand the opportunities available in the logistics sector. The National Careers Service now has specific allocation to ensure that it does more work with schools. In any area of the country like his, where the logistics sector is vital, it should contact schools directly to seek opportunities. Schools are often crying out for employers who are willing to come in and talk to young people about the opportunities they can offer.

Schools’ efforts have ensured the successful launch of universal free school meals. In Chippenham, Redlands primary school is bidding for a kitchen pod so it can begin to serve hot lunches, and at Holt primary school lunches are served from the staff room, which is also where the washing up is done. Will the Minister look favourably on those schools, and other growing schools, that lost their kitchens long before we introduced free school meals?

I will certainly look further at this issue and at the particular schools my hon. Friend mentions. He will know that we have recently allocated a further £25 million for school kitchen and dining room improvement to allow us to tackle the neglect of school kitchens and dining halls, which has gone on for too long. I will look very closely at the bids he mentions.

Will the Minister, for the benefit of the House, enlighten us as to which independent statistics he prayed in aid in his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern)? My hon. Friend was using statistics from November this year produced by the Office for National Statistics’ annual earnings survey.

Last week, a primary school in my constituency at Middle Rasen was marked down from “outstanding” by Ofsted for being too British. That follows other faith schools that have been marked down because they are falling foul of the Secretary of State’s new British values. Let us be honest: not a single traditional Catholic or Anglican school preaches intolerance in this country. When will the Secretary of State take action to ensure that we have freedom of faith in our faith schools?

My hon. Friend will know, if he has read the Ofsted report carefully, that the school was marked as “good” right across all the categories on which Ofsted marks, not just on the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education that the school provides to all its pupils. He will also know that the requirements on schools to actively promote fundamental British values, to teach a broad and balanced curriculum and to have regard to the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education given to their children, have been long in the drafting. They have, of course, come into sharper relief since the events in Birmingham. I agree with him that all good schools—including all faith schools, of which I am a huge supporter, and Church schools—already do a huge amount to teach their young pupils about life in modern Britain. We want all pupils to have mutual respect and tolerance for each other and for people of all faiths.

The Minister knows that the number of children put forward for adoption has halved in the past year. The Government’s unrealistic time scales have meant that social workers are left with no option but to hold off issuing care proceedings, resulting in a logjam in social services departments and, in some cases, increasing delays for children. Will the Minister accept responsibility for this situation and urgently reconsider this ill-thought-out policy?

That is simply not true. We have seen a record rise of 60% in the number of adoptions under this Government. On the back of the judgment in RE B-S, there has been a misinterpretation of the law, but the law on adoption has not changed. We are prepared to do everything we can for all those children whose plan is for adoption, who still await care as we sit here and who still endure the delays and unfortunate practices preventing them from getting into loving, permanent, stable family homes. We will do everything we can to get rid of those delays and give them the best possible start in life, which is exactly what they deserve.

May I press the Secretary of State on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)? In its report, Ofsted marked down Middle Rasen school because:

“Pupils’ cultural development is limited by a lack of first-hand experience of the diverse make up of modern British society.”

Do the Government really think that that should be a factor in determining whether a school is outstanding? Most people in this country think it is a load of politically correct nonsense.

I have great respect for my hon. Friend, but on this occasion I am afraid I have to disagree with him. I think that what most parents in this country want is that their young children and students should receive a broad and balanced curriculum, to be prepared for life in modern Britain and have their horizons broadened, not for doors to be closed. That is exactly what we are looking for in all schools. The difficulty with his point is the assumption that children at that school will never leave Lincolnshire, which I do not think is the case.

Today’s report by the Children’s Commissioner for England has highlighted the increasing gap between rich and poor families and its effect on children. It states that in spite of measures such as universal free school meals for infants, the Government are failing to meet their commitment under the UN convention on the rights of the child, particularly to protect the most disadvantaged children. Does the Secretary of State regret the decisions of the Government that have led to such a damning report?

I will take a close look at the report, but what I most welcome is the fact that this Government have spent billions of pounds on the pupil premium, which schools are using and spending to raise educational attainment. We have seen the gap between the poorest and richest pupils narrowing as a result of the Government’s policies.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to award an additional £300,000 to Burnage academy for boys, reflecting an increase of nearly 100 extra pupils in-year. May I urge him, however, to bring forward a change to the funding formula to ensure that schools that suffer from dramatic changes in numbers in-year do not have to keep coming begging to the Government?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the very strong case he made for this school at the end of last week. As a consequence, this morning we approved popular growth funding of almost £300,000 for the school. It is particularly important to award such funding where the change in pupil numbers is due to popular growth changes, and I will look more widely at the points he raises.

What sort of spell has the Secretary of State cast on her Front-Bench team? I have never seen a bunch of numpties with such a lack of vision and passion. I went to five schools in my constituency on Friday. They are crying out for new teachers. They cannot recruit. What will she do about that?

If the hon. Gentleman wants to look for a team with lack of vision, he ought to look to his party’s Front-Bench.

Order. For the record, the use of the word “numpties” is arguably tasteless and a matter of subjective opinion, but I do not think it constitutes a threat to order.