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Topical Questions

Volume 598: debated on Monday 20 July 2015

Given that we are at the end of the academic year, this is the right time to thank all teachers and all staff working in schools and educational establishments up and down the country for their hard work in this academic year. I am sure all Members will want to wish all pupils who have taken exams this summer and who are nervously waiting for their results the very best of luck when those results are received.

The Government are investing in making it easier for schools to equip themselves with defibrillators. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in addition to contributing to the safety of staff and pupils, this is an excellent way for pupils to learn about first aid and to increase awareness of health problems, as well as being a practical incentive?

I know just how important this is from my own constituency experience and the work of the Joe Humphries Memorial Trust. My Department is encouraging schools to purchase automated external defibrillators as part of their first aid equipment. New arrangements to make these life-saving devices more affordable were launched in November last year as a result of collaboration with the Department of Health. We might make a special arrangement for the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, who said last week that his party’s leadership debate needed shock treatment with a form of defibrillator.

It is Stoke-on-Trent Central.

I join the Secretary of State in thanking teachers and headteachers for all their hard work this academic year and wish pupils the best of luck with their exams. Last week Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools warned of serious safeguarding concerns resulting from inadequate systems for tracking in-year transfers of pupils. There are 350 cases where the destinations of pupils were not clearly recorded. Will the Secretary of State confirm that she has confidence in the system for reporting and tracking in-year transfers, and is entirely satisfied with the regulations as they relate to faith-based independent schools?

I am grateful to the chief inspector for raising these issues. These are concerning matters. That is why we are going to amend the current regulations on the information that schools collect when a pupil is taken off the register, to make it easier for local authorities to identify children who are missing education. We are also stressing the importance of schools and colleges following their existing procedures for dealing with children who go missing from education, particularly on repeat occasions. If we need to do more, we will do more.

Does that mean that for the purpose of ensuring the safeguarding of children the Secretary of State is no longer happy with generic descriptions such as “moved abroad”? Are those the regulations she will be changing? As we enter summer there is a risk that more young people could be drawn to travel abroad to Syria. The Labour party welcomes the Prime Minister’s announcements on children’s passports this morning, but what discussions has the right hon. Lady had with the Home Secretary and the Communities and Local Government Secretary about preventing young people from travelling to Syria? What actions are being taken by Ministers across Whitehall Departments to mitigate this risk to young people over the school holiday period?

I have had extensive discussions with fellow members of the Cabinet, including the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, on those important issues. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that this is a difficult time of year, in relation both to young people who might go abroad to places such as Syria, and in particular to vulnerable girls, who may be persuaded to undertake some sort of forced marriage or female genital mutilation. We will take—and, indeed, have taken—action by issuing guidance to schools and working with other authorities to ensure that we know where young people are and that we work with parents and communities to make sure that they are not going abroad unnecessarily.

T2. What support will the Minister offer primary schools that are trying to improve literacy standards for all pupils so that no child leaves school unable to read and write? (901077)

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government place phonics at the heart of the early teaching of reading, and that is reflected in the new national curriculum. The coalition Government provided £23 million in match funding to more than 14,000 primary schools to boost the quality of phonics teaching. In 2012, we introduced a phonics screening check to identify those children still struggling with reading. Three years on from its introduction, the screening check shows that over 100,000 more six-year-olds are on track to becoming confident readers.

I am told that, having forced schools across the country to become academies, the Department now finds that the bureaucratic oversight is too difficult and is trying to force them all to become part of large academy chains. That may work for normal schools, but it is very difficult for studio schools and university technical colleges. Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is no truth in that rumour and that there is no pressure on schools to join academy chains?

I do not know where the hon. Lady has got that from. Being part of a chain and having that support can offer advantages to schools, but the whole point about the self-improving, school-led system that my Department oversees is that it is exactly that: school led. It is for schools, governors, heads and teachers to make decisions about the way in which the schools are run.

T3. We have spoken an awful lot today about fairer funding, and I welcome the extra £390 million that came my way, to Cambridgeshire, last year, and the fact that it will be consolidated for next year. We have talked about consultation to understand the best process for moving forward. Will the Minister or one of his representatives join me on 21 August, when I will host a meeting with key stakeholders, headteachers and Ofsted representatives in South Cambridgeshire to discuss why our schools still need more? (901078)

I note my hon. Friend’s invitation on 21 August, which I sadly cannot accept because I will be on my summer holiday. However, I welcome the invitation and will be delighted to meet those representatives on another occasion.

On every educational and efficiency measure, sixth-form colleges outperform all other sixth-form providers. When will the Government treat sixth-form colleges fairly in taxation terms and take steps to establish many more sixth-form colleges throughout the country?

Mr Speaker, as you know, I am a shy and retiring type, so I was only too happy to remain unheard on the Front Bench.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s questions. He is right that sixth-form colleges make strong arguments on this matter, but the blunt truth is that extending the same VAT provisions to them would cost the Chancellor £30 million every year, and those sorts of decisions will be considered in the spending review. However, the arguments that sixth-form colleges have made have been heard loud and clear.

T4. I, too, hope that the Minister has overcome his shyness because this question is also coming his way. Colleges in my constituency complain about in-year cuts to funding and the lack of a three-year funding programme. What representations are being made for a three-year settlement for 16-to-19 education so that colleges can plan for the future rather than having to deal with sudden crises? (901079)

I hope that my hon. Friend therefore welcomes the fact that 16-to-19 funding allocations to further education colleges, sixth-form colleges and similar have been confirmed and are not targets for in-year cuts this year. The allocations that were announced in March have been maintained for this year. He is right to point out that the ability to plan ahead makes life much easier for any organisation, and I will certainly take into discussions on the spending review that argument about the value of stability.

Landhead primary school in Ballymoney in my constituency was one of the recent winners of the national flag display to celebrate Magna Carta. There was a celebration here in Parliament square and at Runnymede. Now that the celebrations are starting to draw to a close, what are the Government’s long-term proposals to ensure that Magna Carta and, indeed, the celebration and support of Parliament continues to be part of the education process?

I congratulate that primary school on taking part in the important celebration of Magna Carta. We have reformed the curriculum, both at primary and secondary school, to ensure that it is more knowledge-based, particularly in history. That will ensure that future school leavers will understand and know more about our important British history.

T5. The latest figures on the dedicated school grant for 2015-16 show that pupils in my urban Torbay constituency receive significantly less per pupil than their counterparts in other urban areas such as Nottingham. What steps will the Secretary of State be taking to address that funding imbalance, as highlighted by the Campaign for Fairer Funding in Education, or f40? (901080)

That is yet another clear example of why the school funding system needs to be reformed. Torbay receives £1,530 extra for each pupil on free school meals, while schools in other parts of the country can receive £5,000. However, as a result of last week’s announcement, Torbay will receive an additional £1.52 million and will continue to receive that funding because of the £390 million being baked into the school formula.

So why exactly have 800 children’s centres closed since the Conservatives—and, previously, the coalition—came to power?

Yet again, the Labour party decides to confuse mergers with closures. As was said earlier—before the hon. Gentleman came into the Chamber—what we should care about is the outcomes for parents, rather than simply counting buildings.

The hon. Gentleman signals from a sedentary position that he has been present throughout the proceedings, so that is on the record.

T6. I recently joined pupils at Paddox primary school in Rugby for a class in their outdoor forest school, and the school recently made a successful bid to the Aviva community fund for permanent structures that will enable students to use it all year round. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to encourage other schools to follow Paddox primary’s lead on outdoor learning? (901081)

My hon. Friend brings a whole new perspective to the issue of school building design—a very in-tents form of education. Paddox primary school is, of course, an outstanding school and the Government’s approach is to give such schools the freedom to make such decisions, particularly if they believe it will help children to learn their multiplication tables.

Primary schools in Brent regularly have classes of 29 children with 21 different mother tongues. How is it possible that a fairer funding formula can discount against such schools relative to others that do not labour under such difficulties?

We need to consult widely to understand the issues, but what we do know is that, around the country, the funding for schools with the same characteristics are based on historical allocation, rather than on the needs of either the school or the pupil.

T7. Too many families in Brierley Hill and Wordsley in my constituency are unable to secure places at local schools. What plans do the Government have to meet demand for places in Dudley South? (901082)

Supporting local authorities to deliver sufficient places is one of this Government’s top priorities. Dudley local authority has been allocated £8.9 million of basic need funding for the period 2015-18. This will help to create the places required.

Surely a review of provision in an area ought to include all provision in that area, so why, in their publication “Reviewing post-16 Education and Training Institutions”, are the Government not including all provision, such as schools, UTCs and so on?

I welcome the chance to clarify that regional schools commissioners—they are of course responsible for all schools, sixth forms and UTCs—will be involved with and invited to area reviews of post-16 education provision.

T8. Children in Kingston and Surbiton perform above the national average in speech and language at age five. However, the poorest children are still almost twice as likely to fall behind later in their education, despite the best efforts of their teachers. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is evidence that high-quality early education, linked to the presence of well-qualified staff in the early years, has a positive impact on speech and language development for the poorest children? (901084)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and that is why we extended the free entitlement to disadvantaged two-year-olds, and we extended the pupil premium to three and four-year-olds so that toddlers are not behind when they turn up at school.

Apparently, the Minister has questioned the value of free school meals for young children. Has he read the excellent evaluation of the universal free school meals pilot in County Durham, and if not, shall I send him a copy?

I believe the hon. Lady is referring to an article in The Mail on Sunday. May I say that the incident in question, to go back to my own school meal days, is a mere trifle? We are absolutely committed to free school meals, as she can see in our manifesto.

T9. Is the Secretary of State aware that many schools in Norfolk, particularly in Norwich and King’s Lynn, are doing a huge amount to help children with special needs to be integrated into the mainstream? However, the statementing process still takes far too long. What does she propose to do about it? (901085)

I commend the schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which provide some outstanding education for children with special educational needs. We brought about comprehensive reforms to the special educational needs system because the statementing process was not centred around the family, took too long and did not necessarily embed the quality of assessment that we need. We have moved to education, health and care plans—a single assessment involving education, health and social care services—so that the child and their family get a truly comprehensive support service to enable the child to achieve their academic potential.