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Topical Questions

Volume 591: debated on Monday 19 January 2015

This is the first Education Question Time since the terrible massacre in Peshawar. I am sure that the House will want to offer our support to the brave students and teachers who have gone back to the school, and to offer our condolences to those who lost loved ones.

Since the last Question Time, my Department has announced plans to back a college of teaching, if that is what the profession chooses to opt for. Today we have published the Carter review of initial teacher training, as well as revised head teacher standards developed by those in the profession themselves.

I join in the condolences expressed by my right hon. Friend.

Given the vital importance of budgeting and money management in tackling personal debt, does my right hon. Friend agree that numeracy is more important than ever? Will she update the House on what progress is being made in our schools in this vital area?

I absolutely agree that numeracy is a critical life skill. Our new primary maths curriculum places a greater focus on understanding numbers and on calculation skills. To reinforce that, we have removed calculators from national curriculum tests, and new maths GCSEs will be more challenging and will ensure vital numeracy skills. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Skills and Equalities has said, young people beyond the age of 16 without a good pass at GCSE are now required to continue with mathematics, and for those with a grade C or above, new core maths qualifications that include financial literacy will improve numeracy further.

The whole House is united in its horror at the attacks in Paris, which, sadly, form part of a growing tide of intolerance that seeks to undermine civil society by targeting symbols of pluralism and tolerance. As the right hon. Lady has highlighted, from the assault in the school in Peshawar, to the kidnappings of Boko Haram, to the murder of Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse, Islamist terrorists hope to close down learning and debate. That is why it is more important than ever that we provide safe schooling for every English community. Following the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), will the Secretary of State join me in supporting the work of the Community Security Trust in providing security for Jewish schools across the UK? Will she join the Labour party in committing to retaining the CST’s funding for the entire Parliament so that whoever wins the general election on 7 May, the Jewish community knows that the education of its children will always be protected by the British state?

The hon. Gentleman is of course right to point to the terrible events in Paris and the importance of standing up for the values that we hold dear, including, obviously, freedom of speech, but also the values that we have previously discussed in this House and want to see taught in our schools: mutual respect and tolerance, democracy and the rule of law. I am happy to join him in promising to support the Community Safety Trust. I have already mentioned the £2 million per year provided since 2010 and the commitment already given by the Department for the next financial year.

Last week the Secretary of State told the “Today” programme that 100,000 infants educated in classes of more than 30 represented a “very, very small number”. It is not a small number to every child in that class and every parent concerned about overcrowding. In his 2010 manifesto, the Prime Minister promised us smaller class sizes, but he has failed to deliver, instead wasting money on free schools, such as The Durham free school, in areas with surplus places. Will the Secretary of State now come to the Dispatch Box to apologise to the parents of pupils in Bury, where over 50% of local primary schools are over capacity; in Reading, where nearly 30% of local primary schools are over capacity; and, indeed, in Leicestershire, where 53.3% of local primary schools are over capacity? In their final months in office, how about the Government ending the ideology and putting school places where they are needed?

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman was not Secretary of State in the previous Labour Government, but let me remind him that they took away 200,000 primary places at a time of a baby boom, a rising population, and the uncontrolled immigration that took place under them. There are 11,400 fewer pupils in primary schools operating over their agreed capacity since 2010, and 31,900 fewer such pupils in secondary schools. If he wants to talk about this Government’s approach, he should look at the chaos created by the previous Government’s failure to plan for an increase in the population.

T3. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating teachers and pupils at primary schools across Ealing on their latest key stage 2 standard assessment test results, which have taken them well above average? It is particularly good to note that pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have done especially well this year. (907075)

I happily join my hon. Friend in congratulating primary schools in her constituency on that achievement. It is true that during the last few years we have narrowed the attainment gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds. In particular, I cite key stage 2 reading, writing and maths figures, where we closed the gap by one percentage point between 2013 and 2014, which is a staggering achievement, but there is more to do.

T2. More than 10,000 people have now signed an e-petition urging the Government to introduce a VAT refund scheme for sixth-form colleges. Does the Minister now accept that it is time to drop this learning tax on sixth-form colleges, which does not have to be paid by schools, academies and free schools? (907074)

I am aware of this long-standing issue, which the last Government also failed to correct. One of the things that I am looking into is the possibility of enabling sixth-form colleges to change their status if they are willing to link up with other schools. But that is something that has to be brought forward by sixth-form colleges themselves, and it is still subject to discussions with the Treasury, which is always pretty fierce on these matters. [Interruption.]

Mr Campbell, calm yourself. All that hot curry in the Kennington Tandoori is making you fierier than ever. I have never known anything like it.

T4. Parents look for certainty when they are planning family finances and child care can be a considerable cost. Does the Minister share my concern that in announcing unfunded new child care policies, the Labour party could create real and unwelcome uncertainty in the child care market, which will help neither parents nor children? (907076)

My right hon. Friend has huge experience in this area, having held the portfolio that I hold when we were in opposition. It is absolutely right that we need to give parents certainty to plan their child care needs. Child care hits family finances, so it is right that the Government have a clear plan to give parents of all three and four-year-olds free child care. For parents who want additional child care there is tax-free child care, but the Labour party’s plan, funded by the bank levy, which has been spent 11 times and more, is not a clear plan. Certainly, given its economic stance, it cannot fund that plan.

According to the Minister, schools should be able to choose whether to teach emergency life support skills, but we do not allow a choice in other subjects. Does he not agree that it is worth two hours so that we can transform our society, make every school leaver a life saver, and so save potentially 150,000 lives a year?

I understand the hon. Lady’s passion on this, which is shared by Government Members as well, but what is taught in personal, social, health and economic education is up to the schools, and we do not want to have an over-prescribed school curriculum. We have created a carefully balanced curriculum between central prescription and autonomy for professionals, and this is a matter for professionals. All schools are free to teach these very important skills, but we must leave some matters to schools to decide.

T5. Is the Minister aware that Chulmleigh academy in my constituency has been three quarters rebuilt for just £3.7 million, compared with the £18 million it was due to have cost under Building Schools for the Future? Given the school’s superb record of delivery and astonishing value for money, will Ministers smile upon the bid now in for funding for the last stage of this superb project? (907077)

I agree with my hon. Friend that the Government have delivered far better value for money in the capital programme than their predecessor, and that is why we are able to do so much on the capital front. He will not expect me to make a final statement now on the bid from his constituency, but his strong support is carefully noted by Ministers.

When do the Government expect to produce the report on asbestos in schools, which was completed in June 2014 but has not yet been published?

T6. Will any of the capital programme be available for small village schools, such as Scorton and Winmarleigh primary schools in my constituency, so that real dining spaces can be created? At the moment, they face the daily burden of turning classrooms into dining rooms and dining rooms into classrooms as they carry out the new free school meals policy. (907078)

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government have now allocated a total of £175 million to support the universal infant free school meal policy with extra capital. In addition, local authorities have the £1.2 billion maintenance budget from the Department each year, and they are at liberty to use it in any way they want.

On Friday, I attended #NEDigitalGirls, at which girls from across the north-east saw the fantastic range of careers supported by science, technology, engineering and maths, or STEM, subjects—including politics, Mr Speaker. However, EngineeringUK’s recent report has highlighted the dire state of careers advice, particularly that for engineering, in this country. It has challenged the Government to offer every 11 to 14-year-old an engineering experience with a company. How will the Minister ensure that there is professional careers advice? Will she meet EngineeringUK’s challenge?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that the aspirations of girls in particular should be opened to engineering and other subjects that have traditionally been seen as something for the boys. I have frequently made the point that we need 83,000 more engineers every year for the next 10 years—and they cannot all be men. That is why the new careers enterprise company that I announced before Christmas is to be employer led. I fully expect that companies offering engineering careers will be heavily involved in going into schools. However, I think that the hon. Lady will agree that we are not doing children a favour if we advocate just one set of subjects.

T7. I thank the Government for their support for rural schools on the sparsity factor and dealing with Labour’s historic legacy of underfunding for Britain’s most rural schools. Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to schools such as Upper Wharfedale school in my constituency, which have federated with other primary schools around them, are taking responsibility for their own efficiency and are being more competitive? (907080)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that that is the right way for many schools to go. I agree that it should be on a voluntary basis—locally supported by the Government, but not imposed. I also agree that we have hugely helped schools in rural areas by addressing the historic underfunding in many parts of the country. My hon. Friend’s own area of North Yorkshire has gained £10 million per year from the changes that we have made.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me and the overwhelming majority of my constituents who think that the healthiest pattern for this country, its communities and society is for kids to go to school together? Is she not worried by the proliferation of faith schools in our country, in which children learn only in the shadow of their faith?

As I said earlier, I strongly support faith and Church schools in this country. They offer an excellent education, but the Government have already made moves to ensure that all schools have to teach a broad and balanced curriculum, which many, if not all—almost all—faith and Church schools already do. There is the importance of teaching values of mutual respect and tolerance of others with other faiths and beliefs. If that is not happening, we will not hesitate first of all to inspect and then to take further action.

T9. An hour ago, in Mr Speaker’s House, there was a broadcast edition of Michael Sandel’s “The Public Philosopher” and many parliamentarians were present. What are the Government doing to encourage philosophy and critical teaching in schools? (907082)

I am grateful for that question. There is already an Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, or OCR, GCSE qualification called “Religious Studies GCSE (B): Philosophy and Applied Ethics”. The philosophy of religion will feature in the new revised religious studies GCSEs. There are also post-16 level 3 qualifications in critical thinking and philosophy. There is significant choice in schools for students wishing to study philosophy.

The National Audit Office has raised concerns about the DFE’s accounts relating to the academies programme. The NAO qualified signing off the DFE’s accounts, given uncertainties and errors. What has the Secretary of State done to ensure that these serious financial irregularities have been addressed by her Department?

The hon. Gentleman will know that qualifications to accounts do not necessarily equal the same as the severe financial irregularities to which he appears to allude. I hold regular conversation updates with the permanent secretary and officials to look at the status of the Department’s financial statements.

The cluster academy of Montsaye academy in Rothwell, together with local primary schools in Rothwell, Desborough, Wilbarston and Rushden, is working very well in providing a more seamless education for local children from primary all the way through to 18. How might the best practice from clusters such as Montsaye be best spread across the rest of Northamptonshire and the rest of the country?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his involvement as a former governor at that school. The Government’s academies programme is actively encouraging schools to collaborate and support each other as part of developing a genuinely school-led system. We are encouraging groups of schools to form strong partnerships by converting to academy status like the Montsaye cluster. The Department is working closely with Northamptonshire schools and the local authority to support the development of strong clusters led by teachers and head teachers to secure the best education for pupils in Northamptonshire.

Order. I apologise to any disappointed colleagues, but we must now move on.

Bill Presented

Fixed-term Parliaments (Repeal) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Sir Alan Duncan, supported by Mr Jack Straw, Mr Kenneth Clarke, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Keith Vaz, Sir Peter Tapsell, Dr Liam Fox, Ms Gisela Stuart, Mr David Davis, Sir Gerald Kaufman, Mrs Cheryl Gillan, Mr John Redwood and Sir William Cash presented a Bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 March, and to be printed (Bill 156).