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Topical Questions

Volume 597: debated on Monday 15 June 2015

It is a great honour for me and all the Ministers on the Front Bench this afternoon to have been asked to continue as Ministers in the Department for Education and to implement our manifesto commitment to build a Britain that gives every child the best start in life. It is right to pay tribute to our coalition colleague, the former right hon. Member for Yeovil, David Laws. We did not always agree, but I hope that the House will appreciate the impact of his hard work and his dedication to raising standards in England’s schools.

In this Parliament, we will continue with our plan for education, which has led to higher standards, to discipline being restored, to expectations being raised and to 1 million more children attending good or outstanding schools. Our mission is to provide world-class education and care that allows every child and young person to reach his or her potential.

On Friday, I had an urgent meeting with Victoria Bishop, the principal of Sir Christopher Hatton Academy, which has just been given outstanding status by Ofsted. It wants to become a teaching academy—[Interruption.] This is particularly pleasing as the intake is from a multi-ethnic, multicultural part of my constituency. Would it be possible for the Secretary of State to meet Mrs Bishop as soon as possible?

I think the sound went off or died down during the hon. Gentleman’s question. The idea that he should not be heard is beyond even the most vivid imagination. I have never known such a thing, and I doubt that he has either. I am sure Mrs Bone hasn’t.

Fear not, Mr Speaker, I heard my hon. Friend very clearly. He spoke of a school in his constituency that has been rated outstanding, and I know that that was the result of hard work by the school leadership and no doubt by everyone else working in the school. I am delighted to hear about such achievements and I hope that I will have an opportunity to visit the school in due course.

Let me congratulate the right hon. Lady on being reappointed Secretary of State for Education. Let me also, on behalf of the Labour party, extend our thoughts to Mr Vincent Uzomah, who was stabbed last week while simply carrying out his job as a teacher at Dixons Kings Academy.

No parent wants their child to attend a failing or coasting school. As we approach the Second Reading of the Education and Adoption Bill, I am sure the whole House will support any measure that is shown to raise standards in our schools. In 2012, the National Audit Office condemned the cost of the Government’s Academies Act 2010 that had resulted from poor ministerial planning, but it looks as though we are now facing a similar scenario. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to set out her legal definition of a coasting school, and tell us what measures her Department is taking to prevent another black hole in the Department for Education budget?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. He is also right to pay tribute to the teacher from Dixons Kings Academy who was stabbed last week. Members will be relieved to hear that his injuries do not appear to be life-threatening.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Education and Adoption Bill. I am sure that he will have seen the answer to the written parliamentary question tabled by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), which stated that we intend to publish the definition of “coasting schools” when the Bill reaches its Committee stage. I am glad to hear that he wants action to tackle failing schools, and I wonder whether he stands by the comments that he made in February 2011, when he said:

“I think when a school is not delivering for its pupils it’s quite right that you have a change of governance.”

I hope that he will remember that as he supports our Bill.

I must gently point out that we cannot have the Front-Bench exchanges taking up an excessive proportion of the time. I want to get Back Benchers in, and pithiness is of the essence.

I will be very pithy, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State does not have a handle on her own Bill. One week before we are being asked to vote on the Bill, she cannot explain the first words of the first clause on its first page. She cannot tell us what the words “coasting schools” mean. It is great, inspiring teachers who turn around coasting schools, but teacher vacancies in crucial subjects are soaring. If she cannot tell the House what her Bill means, will she listen to the headteachers when they tell her that the Tories’ teacher recruitment crisis is undermining the efforts to turn around coasting schools?

May I say in the nicest way at the start of this Parliament, without discrimination between the sides, that this must not happen again, because it is not fair on Back-Bench Members, for whom topical questions are especially designed.

The hon. Gentleman clearly does not know the meaning of pithiness. I have explained when the definition of “coasting schools” will be published. He has admitted that he failed to convince his former leader of the merits of campaigning on education policy, and I am beginning to understand why he is so failing in his persuasiveness.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a local education authority should not be allowed to give itself planning permission to build a school on green-belt land, in breach of the local core strategy? That is exactly what Dorset County Council is proposing to do in Marsh Lane, Christchurch. If the Secretary of State cannot answer today, will she have a meeting with me to discuss this important matter? (900286)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The national planning policy framework contains clear guidelines on building on green-belt land, and of course he, like others, has the opportunity to call in any planning application for determination by the Secretary of State. If he wants to give us further details, I am sure we will follow them up.

T3. On 3 June, during an interview on “BBC Breakfast”, the Education Secretary was asked five times, “How many academies are inadequate?” She has had two weeks to find the answer, so how many academies are failing, and what is she doing for children who are being let down in those schools? (900287)

I welcome the hon. Lady to her position. The answer is 133. As I have set out, this Government take swift action to turn around all failing academies, and we want that same opportunity for children who are in failing local authority maintained schools.

T7. Many parents in Rugby have told me of their concerns about the dangers posed by congestion around school gates as they drop off their children for school. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to encourage more children to walk and cycle to school? What discussions has she had with other Departments about enforcing parking restrictions around school gates? (900291)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, because we have the same problem in my constituency, too. The local authority is responsible for enforcing parking restrictions around schools, and it should do that. The authority must also promote sustainable travel and transport, in order to reduce the number of car journeys to schools.

T4. May I declare a yet greater interest in the education of the nation’s children, as I became a grandfather when our first grandchild, Molly O’Neill, was born on Saturday morning? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.] Thank you very much. May I also press the Secretary of State on the issue of coasting schools, as it does cause great concern and uncertainty, and this would be the ideal opportunity to send some reassurance to parents and grandparents as to exactly what she has in mind? (900288)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on becoming a grandfather and I wish him and his family, including his new grandchild, all the very best of success.

I have been very clear that the right time to publish the definition is when the Bill reaches the Committee stage. It is significant that the Labour party appears to be rowing back from wanting high standards for all children in all schools.

T8. Will the Minister welcome the new apprentice teaching sports assistants coach programme put on by Gillingham football club in my constituency, which is working with primary schools to get more sports coaches into primary schools? (900292)

I can do that. It is always encouraging to hear of programmes such as that being run by Gillingham football club, which bring the expertise of community sports clubs into schools. The quality of expertise that coaches provide in schools is of paramount importance, and it will be supported by our physical education and sport premium—£150 million that goes direct to primary schools every year to make sure that every child gets the best possible PE and sport on offer.

T5. I have worked with lots of children who have suffered domestic violence, rape, grooming and exploitation, and I have seen the damage it does to their lives. When will the Government respond to the Education Committee’s fifth report from the last Session and the recommendation that the Department for Education should “develop a workplan for introducing age-appropriate…SRE—sex and relationships education—as statutory subjects in primary and secondary schools”? (900289)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and welcome her to the House. I take great personal interest in that issue. We have until 26 June to respond to the report and we intend to do so by then.

T9. What assurances can the Secretary of State give to this House on the strength of the flexibility and accountability system of academies and free schools, especially the new 500 free schools that we expect to open? (900293)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and I am grateful to him for his support. I was delighted to visit his constituency and hear more about the Berkeley Green University Technical College. Free schools are accountable to me, through their funding agreement, for operation, governance and finances. They are responsible through the Ofsted inspection framework for the quality of their education and they work closely with their relevant regional schools commissioner.

T6. I am absolutely delighted that the brilliant headteacher at Ellowes Hall school in Dudley, Andy Griffiths, was honoured with an OBE at the weekend. Popular and successful schools such as his have to turn away countless children every year because they do not have enough space. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the discussions that he and I had with her predecessor and Lord Nash about putting parents in charge, thereby enabling well run over-subscribed and financially sound schools to provide the places that are needed and to pay off the loans with the revenue that the extra pupils will bring? (900290)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I too welcome the honour awarded to the former headteacher of Ellowes Hall sports college. He and I have discussed that matter already; we want to look at it again. Academies can apply for loans for capital works as part of the condition improvement fund. I understand that the college did not apply for such a loan in the last CIF round, and it is something that we will consider further.

Spending a third year in sixth form can be vital for some students, particularly if they have suffered from mental or physical illness or have come from challenging backgrounds. Will my hon. Friend tell me whether he has any plans to review the funding rate for 18 to 19-year-olds, which is currently 20% lower than for those in the 16-to-18 group?

My hon. Friend asks a very good question. We had to make a difficult decision about whether to continue to fund particularly heavy programmes more generously, which meant making savings elsewhere. The cut in the funding rate for 18-year-olds was the saving on which we decided. I accept her argument that there are some individuals for whom that third year is vital. All of those things will be considered in the spending review, but for this financial year, the funding rates will be as announced.

T10. On 5 June, the Chancellor, rather unusually, announced amendments to the budget for further education. I do not think that we have yet had full details of how that will affect those 14 to 18-year-olds in further education. Perhaps the Minister could update the House on that matter. (900294)

If I am right in understanding that the right hon. Lady wants to know whether the 16-to-19 funding rate will remain as was announced in March, I believe that I gave an answer in a reply to an earlier question. I am happy to restate that the funding rate for 16 to 19-year-olds for the 2015-16 academic year will remain as announced in March.

Last year, Dorset schools welcomed £3.1 million in additional funding, and Poole schools £3.2 million in additional funding. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give me and schools in Poole and Dorset that this was but a downpayment for fairer funding for our underfunded schools in Mid Dorset and North Poole?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and I welcome him to the House. As I said in reply to an earlier question, I recognise the need to look at all aspects of school funding in the round, and we will take further decisions on fairer funding and implement the fairer funding commitment in our manifesto after extensive consultation with parents, schools, local authorities and any other interested parties.

The apprenticeship programme is demand-led, because we require employers to create jobs. That is what apprenticeships are under this Government, unlike under the Government the hon. Lady supported, when they took place at college full time. We have seen a dramatic expansion in the apprenticeship programme, and we will see a further expansion. I would have thought that she welcomed that. I am absolutely sure that one reason she is sitting on the Opposition Benches rather than on the Government Benches is the success of our apprenticeship programme.

Schools such as Tuxford Academy near Newark, which were built under poorly worded private finance initiative contracts, are finding it expensive to maintain their buildings because the maintenance costs set out in the PFI agreements are higher than school funding. Will the Minister look into that and come back to me?

We are aware of the costs involved in the PFI agreements. In some schools, we are having to put walls back into schools so that there are individual classrooms. We are keeping that whole matter under careful review.

We have touched several times on failing academies. Will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that Grace Academy in Coventry should rigorously enforce and increase standards in the interests of pupils and of their parents?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I am not aware of the circumstances that surround that individual school, but he can rest assured that the Government’s determination to raise standards for all pupils extends as far as all schools in Coventry, too.