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Topical Questions

Volume 593: debated on Monday 2 March 2015

As this is the last Education Question Time of this Parliament, I thank colleagues in all parts of the House for their questions, though I particularly thank all staff and governors at the thousands of schools up and down this country who work so hard every day to prepare our young people for life in modern Britain.

In this Parliament, the Government have established more than 4,200 academies, 255 free schools, 37 studio schools and 37 university technical colleges. More than 100,000 more six-year-olds are able to read because of our focus on phonics, and we have introduced the pupil premium, worth £2.5 billion this year. Our plan for education is working.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but one thing that the Government have not done is introduce a holistic approach to education for life. If we are talking about positive values and life skills, is it not time that first aid training was made a requirement in the school curriculum?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for spotting one of the things that we have not yet achieved in this Parliament. I agree with him that first aid skills are very important, and I was discussing that only this morning with Natasha Jones, who has been named Tesco community mum of the year for setting up a baby resuscitation project. We also welcome the work of expert organisations such as the British Heart Foundation to support schools in this aspect of teaching and we have been working with the Department of Health on helping schools to procure defibrillators at a reduced price.

T7. Today is national secondary offer day, yet 24% of the country’s secondary schools are full or over capacity. Given that this Government have wasted £240 million on free school places in areas without any real need for them, what does the Secretary of State say to parents whose children are being crammed into schools that are over capacity? (907814)

What I say to the hon. Lady, and therefore to anyone who wants to ask questions about this, is that when her party was in government, it stripped 200,000 places at the time of a baby boom and allowed uncontrolled immigration. At the last national offer day—[Interruption.] I suggest that she waits to find out what the offers are this year, but at the last national offer day, 82.5% of pupils were offered a place at the highest preference school and 95.5% were offered a place at one of the top three; and of course, seven out of 10 free schools have been opened in areas of basic need.

T2. Little Fatima at Fonthill school in Southmead made two years’ reading progress in just 16 weeks thanks to the “Read on. Get on” scheme. What support are the Government giving to reading recovery schemes such as this? (907809)

One of the purposes of the phonics check, which we introduced in 2012, is to identify early on those children who are still struggling with the basic reading skill of decoding. We expect schools to focus their resources on helping those children, which is why they retake the check at the end of year 2 to ensure that no child slips through the net. As a result of our policy on reading and the introduction of the phonics check in 2012, 102,000 six-year-olds are today reading more effectively than they would otherwise have done had Labour stayed in office.

Given that two secondary academies in my constituency have recently been judged inadequate by Ofsted—one having previously been judged as outstanding, the other as good—the Secretary of State will understand that many of those parents would like to see her working closely and quickly with those schools to get them back to where they need to be. What action is she going to take to ensure that those children in Stockport and in Tameside receive the life chances they deserve?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that a good education is exactly that: it is all about enhancing the life chances of all the young people at those schools. If he wants to let us have the names of those schools, I am of course happy to follow the issue up with DFE officials and the regional schools commissioner, as well as working with the heads directly.

T3. On that subject, does the Secretary of State agree that improving the links with local businesses and schools is key? Will she therefore welcome the interest that David Nieper Ltd has shown in sponsoring Alfreton Grange arts college? (907810)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s points, and I would like to congratulate the company he mentioned on its sponsorship. Professional standards of governance in schools are vital, and we want to make sure that governing boards are focused on recruiting people with the skills for the role. People from business have valuable transferable skills and benefit from board-level experience. I want to see more employers encouraging and supporting their staff to volunteer as governors. This is something I have discussed with the CBI.

Why does the Conservative party not value education? Why is the Secretary of State happy to see her budget slashed under any future Tory Government? Why will she not make a commitment, as the Labour party has done, to protecting the education budget in real terms rather than delivering a 10% cut to schools over the next Parliament?

Why will the hon. Gentleman not secure from his party leader a per pupil funding? Under our spending plans, the next Conservative Government will be spending £590 million more on schools than his party will.

T4. All Durham’s secondary schools were rated good or outstanding in 2013, and there was such a surplus of places that one school closed. That school became the home of the Durham free school, and I noticed that the Secretary of State was in Durham confirming its closure just last week. Why does she think her Department allowed this waste of taxpayers’ money, and what lessons has it learned? (907811)

I was pleased to meet some of the parents from the Durham free school, and we discussed various interests. I made it clear to them that my Department operates on the basis of putting the interests of children absolutely first. We will of course look at all the lessons to be learned from the way in which the application was processed and considered in the first place. Nevertheless, 24% of open or free schools have already been judged outstanding by Ofsted, and more have been judged as good. This is a successful programme, but there will inevitably be some issues, and we have taken swift action to deal with problems in this case.

What help can the Minister give to the Archbishop Sumner primary school—a school in my constituency that has been rated outstanding by Ofsted—which has been trying to become a two-form entry school for some years? Lambeth seems to have taken against that idea, despite it not affecting any of the local schools. Will the Secretary of State get involved in this issue?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising the matter with me. I would be happy to take a look. We can take further details, arrange a meeting and work out ways to raise this issue with the local authority. On the basis of previous conversations, I think both she and I want the same thing, which is for all young people to get the best possible education to set them up for life.

We have some of the best schools in the country in my Windsor constituency—and perhaps one or two of them are slightly over-represented here in the House of Commons! I speak, of course, of Windsor Boys’ school. Will the Secretary of State commend Windsor Girls’ school for forming a joint academy status with Windsor Boys’ school?

I add my congratulations to the two schools on becoming academies. On this side, we firmly believe that academy status puts power in the hands of heads and teachers who know how best to serve their pupils and give them the best possible start in life.

Does the Secretary of State agree that all our children should have a full chance of exploiting all their talents in our educational system? If so, why is she cutting further education again when FE is so important to the less privileged in our country? Why has nothing been mentioned in this Question Time about special educational needs or autism or about the fact that so many parents in this country have no chance of help?

The hon. Gentleman raised an important point at the end of his question, but to be honest, I am here to answer the questions, not to ask them. It is up to hon. Members to raise the issues, whether they be about special educational needs, autism, disability or any other topic. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), would answer any such questions brilliantly, as he always does. On FE, I have already explained that this Government have had to take difficult financial decisions as a result of the legacy that we inherited. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the decision to prioritise spending on early years and on schools for children up to 16 is right because that will be of most benefit to our young people.

T5. We may not have Eton in the Ribble Valley, but all our schools are of an incredibly high standard. To make parental choice effective, we must ensure that parents are not stung when youngsters decide to go past their nearest school to a grammar, a faith-based school or, indeed, a non-faith-based school. They might want to go and learn Russian. Will the Secretary of State ensure that she talks to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government so that we make parental choice effective? (907812)

My hon. Friend has raised this matter before. I know that he has campaigned on it, and that he feels passionately about it. I should be happy to talk to Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government. I believe that faith schools play an important role in our education system, and I support them. As my hon. Friend is aware from discussions that we have had, I want to encourage all local authorities to arrange school transport flexibly, creatively and innovatively, and to make the best possible use of any gaps in their existing school bus provision.

I understand that the Minister recently visited Shanghai to look at the education system in China. In this respect, the Chinese are more successful than we are in many ways. What is the key difference that makes China’s socialist state system so much more successful than our system, in terms of classrooms, culture and teaching methods, and what did the Minister learn from that?

In maths, 15-year-olds in Shanghai are three years ahead of 15-year-olds in this country in the programme for international student assessment tables. We look very carefully at international evidence, which is why we sent 71 teachers to Shanghai to study teaching methods there. Now 30 Shanghai teachers are in 20 primary schools in this country, teaching our teachers how to improve their maths teaching. They have a mastery model. Pupils face the front, learn their tables, concentrate for 35 minutes, and use textbooks. We are learning from the best in the world.

Order. I feel sure that there will be a full debate on this matter on one of the long summer evenings that lie ahead of us.

T6. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to maintaining a focus on social justice and rooting for those who do not go to university? Will he reject out of hand a policy that has been described by the New Statesman as “dire”, by Martin Lewis as “financially illiterate”, and by The Times as Labour’s worst policy? Tuition fees cuts amounting to £2.7 billion would subsidise the very richest at a time when we need to do more for the very poorest. (907813)

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. We are taking money from the welfare budget to pay for apprenticeships that will set our young people up in life, while the Labour party is taking money away from pensioners in order to fund a misguided policy on tuition fees. According to the vice-chancellor of my own university, Loughborough, that policy would make 500 people redundant. Which 500 people in Loughborough does the shadow Secretary of State think should be made redundant?

I have had a letter from the head teacher of the excellent Baylis Court secondary school in my constituency, pointing out that the cost of payroll changes involving, for instance, national insurance will be £222,000 next year, without funding. Moreover, the education support grant is to be cut by £53 a head. What difference will that makes to the girls’ learning?

As we have seen during the current Parliament, schools have been able to raise standards at a time of straitened budgets. I have every faith in them. I believe that they will continue to raise their standards, and that all the young people in that school will benefit.

The Secretary of State has been very supportive of the protection of schools against terrorism attacks, and my constituents and I are very grateful for that. Will she update the House on progress in the funding of counter-terrorism measures at independent Jewish schools?

My hon. Friend has raised an extremely important point. I do not want any young people to feel frightened of attending school or of their journey to and from school, and, sadly, that applies particularly to members of the Jewish community at present. I have had discussions with a number of Jewish organisations about the funds that are required and the estimates that they have provided.

Given that 30% of Birmingham’s population are under the age of 15, there are enormous pressures on school places, which will continue. However, there is no correlation between teacher training places and demand in regions where that demand will increase. Will the Secretary of State address the problem, and ensure that the availability of teacher training places matches regional demands?

That is a very interesting point. I shall need to look into exactly how the teacher supply model is calculated each year, but I can tell the hon. Lady that, during the current Parliament, the Government have invested £5 billion to create new school places, and that, because we continue to recognise that there is pressure on the system, we have announced further funding up to 2021.

We were delighted to see the Orchard special school in Newark added to a list of 16 schools in Nottinghamshire to which funding was provided last month for classrooms. Those of us who know the Orchard school believe it may be beyond repair; this school really is in bad condition. Will the Secretary of State agree to review this case and get back to us?

I was delighted last month to be able to announce £6 billion of investment in school buildings for school blocks in the worst condition, but of course, sadly, demand always outstrips supply. If my hon. Friend would like to send me further details, I shall ensure that I or one of the Ministers respond, and perhaps meet him to have a chat about it.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement that she is against top-down imposition. Will she therefore admit that her predecessor made a huge mistake when he ordered the decoupling of AS and A-levels, and put that right before it is too late?

I like the hon. Gentleman very much indeed, but I am afraid I am going to have to disagree with him on this, because the evidence shows that having linear exams, where students have much longer to study the subject, benefits them as they understand the subject in depth. This is an important reform and I wait to see the progress it makes.

This Government have protected school budgets, yet those at the secondary school in my constituency who wrote to me last week say that they are facing a cut of nearly 3% in their funding next year. Is that a result of the long-standing unfair budget formula, is it because of an imbalance between secondary and primary schools, or is it because of decisions taken by Somerset county council locally?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I suspect that it is a combination of factors, and I am sure that Ministers will be happy to look into this further, but he makes an important point about the need to push on with restoring the national fairer funding formula. Too many areas and too many authorities in this country have suffered from funding falling back over many years. We are making progress—small progress—in this Parliament and we hope to make greater progress in the next Parliament in restoring that fairness.