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Topical Questions

Volume 589: debated on Monday 1 December 2014

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.