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Topical Questions

Volume 601: debated on Monday 26 October 2015

Since the last time the House met for Education questions, thousands of students across the country have taken key stage 1 and key stage 2 tests, GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels. I congratulate them all—and I am sure that all hon. Members, including the new shadow Education Secretary, would want to do so—on their results and thank the teachers and families who supported them. It is one year since the workload challenge was launched, and I would like to thank all those involved in our three working groups, which are making excellent progress on marking, lesson planning, resources and data management. I am determined to work with the profession to tackle these issues.

I, too, would like to congratulate all those who took their exams over the summer. Their success is often due to the hard work of teaching assistants who perform a vital role in the classroom, yet recent House of Commons Library figures show that they could lose up to £1,800 per year as a result of the tax credit cuts. Will the Secretary of State stand up for those working on the frontline who are enabling our children to get the best education possible?

The hon. Lady will be aware of the earlier questions asked about the state of school funding and funding for education. She will know that it is essential for schools to be properly funded and that those countries that have not brought their economies under control have sacked thousands of teachers and closed thousands of schools. She will also be aware that, because of the rise in the income tax threshold since 2010, 12 million women pay less income tax and 2 million women pay no income tax at all. We are also offering help to hard-working people with council tax freezes, fuel duty freezes and additional help with childcare.

T2. I support all those who have called for a fairer funding formula, but I would like to develop the argument a little further. Outstanding schools in my constituency, such as Bottisham Village college, do not do well on the funding formula at present, and as a result they are all the more reliant on grants for capital expenditure. Will the Secretary of State consider whether historic underfunding ought to be one of the factors taken into account for capital expenditure grant applications?

(901753)

All local authorities receive capital funding for schools, including for school places and conditions. Cambridgeshire has been allocated almost £160 million in capital allocations between 2011 and 2018. It is important that capital funding is targeted on the school areas that need it most. Academies can also bid for the condition improvement fund. Bottisham’s application to the fund was assessed in relation to other expansion bids. Although I understand my hon. Friend’s point for capital to be considered as part of the revenue funding formula, she must realise that capital is part of what is done on a needs basis, which is different from how revenue is allocated.

Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker. It is good to be here this afternoon.

Yet again today, Ministers are doing the rounds asserting that the expansion of free childcare is one of the measures that will offset the cuts in tax credits for families. As the Secretary of State knows, however, the increase to 15 hours’ free childcare will not take place until September 2017 at the earliest, well after the tax credit cuts. Given that the Department is, in its own words, “unable to understand” the costs of childcare following the Secretary of State’s review, there are now real questions to be asked about the deliverability of the scheme. Does the Secretary of State agree that families need help with childcare now, especially those who face losing vital tax credits? What help is she providing for families before 2017?

I would believe in the hon. Lady’s concern a little bit more if her party’s peers had not voted against the Childcare Bill last week, delaying the introduction of both the Bill and the new scheme.

Perhaps they would not have done that if the Secretary of State had provided adequate funds. Is not the truth that only a tiny minority of those affected by tax credit cuts will receive this childcare help anyway when it is eventually introduced? What is more, the Institute for Public Policy Research has said that the Secretary of State’s childcare pledge is underfunded by £1 billion. Given that the tax-free childcare is already 18 months behind schedule, the Government’s childcare policy is a mess. What has the Secretary of State to say to parents who, at the election, thought that they would be better off voting for her?

What I would say to the hon. Lady is that the reason funding in all areas of Government is so tight is the fact that we are dealing with the economic legacy left by the hon. Lady’s own party. If she were so interested in this, she would have allowed her peers to support the Bill.

If the hon. Lady wants to—[Interruption.]

Order. These are highly charged exchanges, but Members must not seek to shout down the Secretary of State. Let us hear the right hon. Lady.

If the hon. Lady had wanted people to believe promises, she would not have tried to carve them on the 8-foot six-inch “Edstone” that was unveiled by the former leader of her party. What we are seeing is a dearth of thinking from the hon. Lady. So far, in her short tenure as shadow Education Secretary, we have heard negativity about teacher recruitment, about childcare and about schools. Indeed, she has attacked a school in her own constituency, Manchester Enterprise Academy, whose headteacher claimed that she had misled him over what was going to be said about the school during the debate on the Bill’s Third Reading.

T8. What plans has the Government to meet the demand for school places in Mid Derbyshire, in the light of the pressure on local authorities to allow planning permission for more housing to be built on brownfield sites? (901759)

Helping local authorities to secure enough school places is one of the Government’s top priorities, and basic need funding is allocated to local authorities to support the creation of new places. Derbyshire will receive £12.8 million of basic need funding between 2015 and 2018.

When we came to office in 2010, we took the issue of providing more school places very seriously. We more than doubled capital spending, and we have created 445,000 new places since 2010. It is interesting to note that the Labour Government, during their last period in office, cut 207,000 places at a time when there was a baby boom.

T3. Some 150,000 families with a disabled child will be affected by the cuts in child tax credit. What assessment has the Secretary of State undertaken of the effect of the cuts on the additional number of disabled children who will be plunged into poverty, and, in turn, the effect on their development and their opportunity to succeed in education? (901754)

Yet again, all that we hear is the continual rumbling, if not outpouring, of negativity from the Labour party. The hon. Lady will know that the Government are spending more on disability benefits than her own party did in government, and also that all tax changes are subjected to the normal impact assessment.

T10. Hopefully, I will be positive and helpful. I went to both a comprehensive and a grammar school, and it seemed to me that there was much to be said for grammar schools. Would the Secretary of State like to encourage their expansion? (901761)

The Government believe very firmly in the expansion of all good and outstanding schools, regardless of what type of schools they are, because we want all children to have an excellent education regardless of birth or background.

T4. A part of rip-off Britain is increasingly affecting schools, which is the branding of every item of clothing by academies under the guise of school uniforms. As there is a monopoly supplier for every school, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that there is some competition so parents can have a choice and save some of their valuable earnings? (901755)

The admissions code is very clear: schools cannot use expensive suppliers for school uniforms. They cannot use the supply of school uniforms as a way of raising extra revenue for the school, and the schools adjudicator takes these matters very seriously, as do we.

Edward Saunders, a bright and promising student in my constituency, died tragically aged 18 of meningitis. Will my right hon. Friend make sure everything is done across Government to highlight, including in schools and higher education, the dangers to young adults of meningitis? When he was 11, Edward wrote a children’s book entitled “Robey and the Dentist”, which has now been published with all profits going to help raise awareness of meningitis and to treat it. Might I present my right hon. Friend with a copy at the Department to help raise the profile of this very worthwhile campaign?

I thank my right hon. Friend very much indeed for that question. I will be delighted and honoured to accept a copy of Edward Saunders’ book, and I will also undertake to look at what more we can do to raise awareness of this devastating condition.

T5. Now that the Secretary of State is allowing the expansion of grammar schools, will she consider amending the Education and Adoption Bill which is presently going through another place to enable us to tackle coasting in grammar schools, so that where coasting is identified they can swiftly be converted to academies? (901756)

I like the hon. Gentleman’s thinking in some aspects of that question. He is absolutely right to say that we are serious about tackling the continued underperformance of all schools across the country. I should be clear that there has been no change in policy on grammar schools or selective education. One particular school has been given permission to expand.

What assessment have the Government made of the need for greater capacity post-16 for special educational needs such as at the excellent new Pen’s Meadow post-16 facility in Pensnett, which I had the honour of opening on Friday?

I was delighted to hear from my hon. Friend about the opening of this new institution. It is incredibly important that the best possible opportunities are presented to all young people including those with special educational needs, and sometimes that is best done in institutions that specialise in that. I would be delighted to learn more and maybe visit with him at some point in the future.

T6. Further to the questions asked earlier, the Minister will be aware of the merger discussions announced between Barrow sixth-form college and Furness college today, and the fact that it is prompted by the dire situation the sixth-form college finds itself in. Will he agree to meet me and education representatives from the area to discuss the unusual situation Furness finds itself in, where it cannot put courses on with the same number of people and therefore does not have the same efficiency as it does in other areas? (901757)

Of course I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman. My understanding is that this is a proposal that has been brought forward by the sixth-form college, anticipating the problems it has and trying to get ahead of them, and that is an approach we entirely welcome, but I will be happy to meet him and representatives of both colleges to understand the situation better.

My hon. Friend will be familiar with the London challenge, which ran in the capital until 2011. As an MP for a very rural area, may I ask the Secretary of State to look at introducing a rural challenge to help support areas in North Cornwall?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He will be aware that our stated ambition is that all children should have an excellent education regardless of where they live and their birth or background. I am particularly conscious of the challenges facing rural schools, and I look forward to working with him and MPs across the House on these particular challenges facing their schools.

T7. Free school meals was a Liberal Democrat policy achieved by the coalition Government and the pilot areas show it has improved attainment particularly for lower-income children. Will the Secretary of State now give those families the assurance and certainty they need by saying that this programme will not be reduced in the comprehensive spending review? (901758)

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman was here for the earlier exchanges on this issue. For the avoidance of doubt, let me say to him that, like all Government Departments, we are having to look at all areas of spending and at every line in the Department. However, there was a clear commitment in our manifesto to free school meals, which the Prime Minister has recently reiterated.

Parents in Kent welcome the Secretary of State’s support for the expansion of popular grammar schools. Will she join me in expressing support for the commission launched by Kent County Council to ensure that children from low-income families get enough help to get into grammar schools, so that those schools can fulfil their potential to create social mobility?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I should apologise to all Kent Members of Parliament, who will have seen my face in far too many local magazines and newspapers following my announcement. I welcome the work being done by Kent County Council. The new admissions code will specifically allow grammar schools to give priority to disadvantaged children who are eligible for the pupil premium. I also know that schools and authorities across the country are introducing stringent ways of stopping people being prepared for tests through tutoring.

T9. A record number of teachers have left the profession in the past year—more than the number that have been recruited into the profession. What steps are Ministers taking to tackle this growing teacher shortage? (901760)

I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman has got his facts right. There are now more teachers in England’s classrooms than ever before. There are 455,000, which is 5,000 more than there were last year and 13,000 more than when Labour left office in 2010. Vacancy rates are stable. Almost 90% of teachers continue in the profession following their first year of teaching, with 72% of newly qualified teachers still teaching after five years and 52% still teaching after 18 years. I am afraid that he has got his facts wrong.

Charities such as Off the Record in my constituency help to facilitate safe spaces for young people who have faced traumatic incidents in schools. Does the Secretary of State agree that the creation of safe spaces in schools would have a dramatic impact and help to reduce mental ill health in schools?

That sounds like a very interesting project, and I would certainly be happy to look into that issue if my hon. Friend writes to us with more details. I was recently at Upton Cross primary school in West Ham, where the charity Place2Be is working with the school to provide a similar service offering spaces where children can share their experiences.

This term, schools around the country are rightly being asked not only to respect but to promote British values. Does the Secretary of State agree with the proposal in my early-day motion, tabled today, that it is time we added compassion to that list of values? My constituents think that that is one of the qualities that make this country great. Should we not start to celebrate it as such?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s commitment and his support for the teaching of fundamental British values in all our schools. He is absolutely right to say that those are the values that make our country great. I am very happy to look at this. We could have an endless debate on which values to capture, but the ones that we have, particularly respect and tolerance, are hugely important and I want everyone to get on with thinking about how best we can promote them.