Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 603: debated on Monday 30 November 2015

Last week my Department published a call for evidence to help broaden our understanding of out-of-school education settings and the potential scope of the system of oversight announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last month. We are committed to safeguarding all children and protecting them from the risk of harm and extremism, including in out-of-school settings, many of which provide valuable learning opportunities. I would ask all interested parties to make a contribution before 11 January.

Local education authorities are Ofsted-inspected, which is a good and rigorous system. What plans are there to inspect academy chains, by Ofsted or any other means?

It is very nice to hear the hon. Gentleman, who I believe is his party’s education spokesman, although we have not heard much from him on education since he took up that position. He will be aware that these matters were explored fully by the Education Committee in the previous Parliament. We want Ofsted to inspect individual schools and the support they get. It is able to question multi-academy trusts and chains as part of those inspections.

We have heard from the hon. Gentleman twice today, and it is worth pointing out that he is a philosopher. That we know: it is on the record on his CV.

T2. What are the Government doing to encourage more young people to study maths and numeracy subjects in school? (902400)

Our ambition is that by 2020 the vast majority of young people will study maths to the age of 18. We have strengthened GCSE maths, to provide a more secure basis for studying the subject at A-level. We have increased mathematical content in science GCSEs and A-levels. We have introduced the new core maths qualifications so that all students have the opportunity to study the subject after the age of 16. We have also launched the Your Life campaign, to promote to young people the value of studying mathematics and science.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to arrive a few moments late, as I had to attend a very high-profile meeting elsewhere on the estate. Members can read all about it in the papers later.

Does the Secretary of State now accept that there is a growing teacher shortage in our schools?

I hope the hon. Lady might be able to tell us whether she is going to continue to be a member of the shadow Cabinet after this very exciting vote, but let us talk about the issue at hand. We have always been very clear that there is a challenge in teacher recruitment. Although the overall vacancy headline rates are low, we are aware that there are issues in certain subjects and in certain parts of the country, which is why I announced the creation of the national teaching service earlier this month.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. It is good to hear that she now accepts that there is a growing problem of teacher shortage. That stands in contrast to some of the earlier answers given by the Minister for Schools. Last week an important report showed that half of all schools had unfilled vacancies at the start of this academic year. To try to plug those gaps, one in four schools are increasingly using supply teachers; one in six are using non-specialist teachers to cover vacancies; and more than one in 10 schools are resorting to using unqualified staff to teach lessons. Does the Secretary of State think that that is good for raising standards in schools, or does she think that that is not happening?

What is needed is for all Members on both sides of the House to recognise the enormous contribution that teachers make. Those who try to talk down teaching at every opportunity by talking about the problems do not help our schools and education service at all. One of the subjects where recruitment is hardest is modern foreign languages, so the hon. Lady might like to reflect on the fact that in 13 years of her party being in power, the number of those teaching, studying and taking exams in modern foreign languages plummeted. That means it is now much harder to find students to teach modern foreign languages.

T4. What steps have been taken to encourage more schools outside London to work with charities such as Free the Children? (902402)

I recall meeting my hon. Friend a few years ago to discuss the benefits derived from the work of Free the Children. It is good to hear that she remains a strong advocate of extracurricular activities that support academic attainment and employability skills and that help children to become active citizens. That is why this year we have invested more than £5 million in building children’s character resilience, including £3.5 million in grants to help organisations across the country, not just in London, to deliver competitive sport, volunteering and social action projects.

T3. A number of parents whose children attend the Hewett academy in my constituency have made complaints about the implementation of a new uniform policy. At short notice, parents are being told that they must buy a new, full and costly uniform. Children who do not do so have been forced to attend the learning support unit—what is, in effect, an exclusion room. With limited academy accountability, what can Ministers do better to protect parents who cannot afford such upfront costs from their children being punished? (902401)

I am very happy to look into the individual case, but I am afraid to say that this is about the hon. Gentleman and others yet again putting more barriers in the way of that school dramatically improving. Since 2005—for more than 10 years—the school has been below the national average for five A* to C English and maths GCSEs. It is now an academy and it is sponsored by a trust, which the hon. Gentleman knows has done extremely well for another school, Norwich primary academy, in his constituency. I am happy to look at the individual case, but the hon. Gentleman would do better as the local MP to work with the school to raise the educational attainment of all children.

T5. The Government’s ambition to make sure that every child, regardless of background and circumstances, receives a high-quality education extends to children with special educational needs, including those at the fantastic Tor View school in my constituency. One year on from the special educational needs and disability reforms, will the Minister update the House on what progress is being made? (902403)

I am pleased to hear about the work that my hon. Friend is championing in his constituency. The reforms we have brought in represent the biggest change to and the biggest opportunity for special educational needs and disability support in a generation. Good progress is being made. This is a three-year transition, but to date all councils have published their local offer, setting out the support for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities in their area. Integrated education, health and care plans are also available for the more complex needs that have to be addressed. As I mentioned a few moments ago, we are now working, with Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission, towards the introduction of the first ever SEND inspection framework to ensure parents and young people know whether they are able to access the range and quality of services that they need.

T6. Following the Paris attacks, there is a real concern that intolerance towards ethnic minority pupils could intensify. How will the Secretary of State ensure that ethnic minority pupils continue to participate fully at school, and what plans does she have to prevent religious intolerance? (902404)

The hon. Lady asks a very important question. Sadly, it is ever more becoming something that we are all having to think about. Religious intolerance in schools is unacceptable. All schools are required to promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. Schools should be places where we promote community cohesion—for example, through the national curriculum programme for citizenship, and the National Citizen Service—and, of course, such curriculum subjects teach about the importance of respecting others. I am pleased that many schools already do that in very diverse areas, but we will continue to focus on this important matter.

T7. When considering the review of schools funding, will my hon. Friend ensure that it addresses the problem that has arisen in recent years with the underfunding of the two grammar schools in Chelmsford and other grammar schools in Essex? It seems particularly unfair that they should suffer in the way they have from the current funding formula. (902405)

As my right hon. Friend is aware, we have protected the core schools budget in real terms, and we intend to make the school funding formula fairer. I can assure him that King Edward VI grammar school and Chelmsford County high school for girls will receive funding that reflects their pupils’ needs transparently and fairly.

On Friday, I had a meeting with the Glasgow English for Speakers of Other Languages Forum, whose funding is under pressure at a time when demand is increasing. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether any funds from the refugee resettlement programme will be made available for ESOL? Generally, what steps is she taking to promote ESOL as a means of cultural understanding?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The speaking of English is hugely important for integration. For anyone who comes to this country in need, we can support them if they want to become full members of our society, so English is very important. I am very happy to take this matter away and to talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. There are strict rules about what overseas development aid money can be spent on, but I am happy to take that away and to write to the hon. Gentleman.

T8. Constituencies such as mine have an increasing need for school places and for new schools, but a lack of suitable sites for new schools. Will the Minister visit Twickenham with me to see what more the Government can do to help local authorities find suitable sites for schools in places such as mine? (902406)

As the Secretary of State said at last week’s London education conference, we recognise just how challenging affordable sites and buildings are in our capital. We will work with local authorities to support our dedicated property team in the Education Funding Agency by identifying any potential sites. When it comes to school buildings and repairs, the Government are creating places and fixing the school roof while the sun is shining. I will of course be happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Following last week’s devastating report from the Children’s Commissioner about 450,000 children being sexually abused in the past two years, does the Secretary of State still disagree with me and, now, with the Children’s Commissioner that healthy relationships education should be compulsory in all of our schools?

I do not disagree with the hon. Lady that such education should be compulsory, but I think it should be age-appropriate. Just because something is in statute, which is what I think she is referring to, does not mean that it is always taught well. On these issues, I would rather see that there is a good curriculum, and that it is taught well by confident teachers or people coming in from outside who will inspire young people.

T9. Will the Secretary of State join me in saluting the work of STEM ambassadors and tell the House what further steps have been taken to ensure that more children do STEM subjects in schools? (902407)

I join my hon. Friend in saluting the work of STEM ambassadors. Since 2010, A-level entries into STEM subjects have increased significantly by 15% for chemistry, 15% for physics and 18% for maths. Maths is now the single most popular A-level choice, with 92,000 entries last year. We want to go further. The Your Life campaign, for example, is targeting year 11 pupils as they make their A-level choices, with the aim of increasing the uptake of the physics A-level by 50% in three years.

Prince William school in Oundle recently converted to an academy, but for many years it has suffered from a chronic lack of investment. I am grateful to Ministers for the interest that they have shown to date, but what reassurance can they give that such schools will be at the top of the Government’s investment priorities?

We are planning to spend £23 billion on school buildings between 2016 and 2021. In February, we announced allocations of £4.2 billion for between 2015 and 2018 to improve the condition of existing schools. That includes the condition improvement fund, for which Prince William school is eligible to apply. The core priority of the CIF is to keep buildings at academies and sixth-form colleges safe and in good working order. I am happy to discuss the issue further with my hon. Friend.

In June, the Scottish Government launched the new children, young people and families early intervention fund, which is focused on reducing educational inequality and allowing young people to achieve their potential. Given that today is St Andrew’s day, are the Government prepared to say that they will look at that fine example in Scotland and implement something similar down here in England?

We have already had a lot of jokes today about being better off together and I am always happy to look at what is happening in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman and the Scottish Government might want to look at what we have done in England to narrow the attainment gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged. They might find that they can learn something from us.

We do not collect data on that, but it is an issue for the headteacher and governing body of a school. By law, they have to act reasonably and as a public body.

The Government’s own findings show that the 26-week timescale that is applied in care proceedings is leading to rushed and unsuitable placements for children under special guardianship orders. In the light of that, will the Minister accept what the social work profession has known all along: that 26 weeks is not sufficient to plan properly for a vulnerable child’s life?

From memory, the hon. Lady was on the Children and Families Public Bill Committee, so she will know that when we brought in the 26-week timescale for care cases, the average length was over 55 weeks. In anyone’s view, that is well over what it should be for a decision about a child’s long-term future. We have managed to bring the average down to close to 26 weeks. In relation to special guardianship orders, we need to ensure that the assessment of the potential carers for those children is as robust as it is in respect of any other decision about a child’s long-term permanence. There is a concern that, in too many cases, that is not happening.

Many headteachers in my constituency are reporting an increased prevalence of mental health problems among young people in schools. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need better integration between schools and child and adolescent mental health services to deal with that growing problem?

My hon. Friend is a passionate campaigner on mental health issues. He will be aware that we have funded a £1.5 million joint pilot with the Department of Health on a single point of contact between schools and CAMHS, so that parents do not have to go through the aggravation of trying to work out how to access those vital services to support their children.