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Topical Questions

Volume 605: debated on Monday 25 January 2016

First, let me congratulate the 107 people who were recognised for their services to education and children’s services in the latest new year’s honours list. They include headteachers, classroom teachers, school governors, foster carers, children’s social workers and people working in adoption and early years settings. I am sure the whole House will want to congratulate them and thank them for the work they do.

May I also extend my support to all the pupils, teachers and communities affected by the recent floods in the north of England? I saw for myself the impact on schools in Carlisle recently, and the Minister for Schools has visited Yorkshire and Lancashire to see the impact for himself.

The Minister will be aware of the case of Poppi Worthington, a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), and her tragic death. Does she support the calls from both sides of the House for an independent investigation into the circumstances and failings before and after Poppi’s death?

Poppi’s death was clearly an absolute tragedy. It is vital that we understand what has happened and have the opportunity to learn any lessons. The serious case review into her death will be published shortly, and I welcome the announcement by the Crown Prosecution Service that it will review the case. We do have concerns about Cumbria children’s services. They were inspected in May last year and found to be inadequate. There have been some improvements, but not enough. We will review progress in the workings of the children’s services in March and take a further decision. It is right to wait for the serious case review and the CPS review, but of course we will keep this matter actively under review, including the demands for an independent inquiry.

T3. As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day this Wednesday, will the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools reaffirm her Department’s commitment to continue funding the Holocaust Educational Trust’s “Lessons from Auschwitz” project, which has enabled 28,000 students and teachers to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau? (903191)

My hon. Friend is right: every young person should learn about the holocaust and the lessons it teaches us today. In recognition of its significance, teaching of the holocaust is compulsory in the national curriculum. For the past 10 years the Department for Education has funded the Holocaust Educational Trust’s “Lessons from Auschwitz” project, which, as my hon. Friend said, has taken more than 28,000 students to visit the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. We will continue to promote, support and fund teaching of the holocaust.

Of course, as some Members will know, we commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day in a reception in Speaker’s House last week. Many survivors of the holocaust were there, and I do not think anybody present is likely to forget the occasion.

As somebody who went on a “Lessons from Auschwitz” visit with schoolchildren from Manchester in the last few weeks, may I echo earlier comments about how moving and important it is?

In their manifesto of 2010—notably dropped in 2015—the Conservatives pledged to

“close the attainment gap between the richest and poorest”.

Revised GCSE results published last week showed that, despite Lib Dem policies such as the pupil premium, the GCSE attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and their peers has actually widened since 2010. With the Conservatives now governing alone, can the Secretary of State tell the House whether closing the attainment gap is still an objective and, if so, why she is allowing it to widen on her watch?

I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments about the “Lessons from Auschwitz” project. Like her, I have visited Auschwitz with schools in my constituency. It was an incredibly moving experience, and I recommend that all Members of the House take the opportunity to do so.

Of course closing the attainment gap remains absolutely a goal—and not just a goal, but something we are moving and working towards in Government, which is why we continue to fund the pupil premium. [Interruption.] The difficulty with the hon. Lady’s statements on this and other matters is that she needs to understand and interrogate the figures that are published, because the changes we have made to the accountability of the examination system make it impossible to compare GCSE threshold measures across the years. If she had interrogated them, she would know that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has narrowed by 7.1% at key stage 2 and 6.6% at key stage 4 since 2011.

The Minister is moving the goalposts, as ever. All the evidence tells us that the most important factor in determining how well children do is the quality of teaching, especially for the most disadvantaged, yet at the start of this academic year half of all schools were struggling to cope with unfilled teaching positions, relying on supply teachers, non-specialists and unqualified staff. Teacher shortages are particularly acute in maths, science and English. Talk to any head anywhere in the country and they will say that such challenges are the biggest challenge they face. Given that the situation is getting worse, will the right hon. Lady, first, admit to this House that there is a problem—indeed, a crisis; secondly, agree that she should urgently look again at her Government’s chaotic and confusing approach to recruitment; and, finally, come forward with a proper strategy for retaining excellent teachers by looking at workload issues and the constant chopping and changing being inflicted on schools by her Department?

What the hon. Lady calls moving the goalposts, I call restoring rigour to the exam system, making sure that our young people are getting qualifications that will set them up for life and for the world of work. Yet again, I am afraid to say that she has missed the point, because we have already talked about teacher recruitment and we have already announced plans for the National Teaching Service to help schools to recruit. Again, if the hon. Lady interrogated the figures properly rather than jumping for the quickest soundbite, she would know that not only have we increased the number of teachers we are seeking to recruit in subjects such as English and maths, but we have exceeded our recruitment targets for precious years—in fact, we have recruited more postgraduates in both English and maths, and we recruited 116% of the teachers that we needed at primary schools. It is extraordinary that she should seek to give lessons to this House, as she was the lady who not only commissioned the “Ed stone”—the carving of the promises—but then managed to lose the receipt.

T6. Will the Secretary of State join me in encouraging schools in my constituency and right across the country to participate in Clean for the Queen from 4 to 6 March this year and help to tidy up their local communities ahead of Her Majesty’s 90th birthday? (903194)

What an invitation! Just as my hon. Friend has the Litter Free Evesham campaign in his own constituency, so we have the Crewe Clean Team and Nantwich Litter Group in mine and they do fantastic selfless work. They set an excellent example to schools and others, all of whom, I am sure, would be delighted to get involved with the Clean for the Queen campaign. As we know, through the National Citizens Service, social action is a wonderful way for young people to build those all-important character traits—respect, motivation and community pride.

T2. St John’s infant school in my constituency is struggling to obtain support for its breakfast club because eligibility is now linked to pupil premium funding. With free school dinner already provided for all pupils, there is no incentive for parents to apply for the premium, despite the vast majority of pupils coming from some of the most deprived areas in the country. Will the Minister take action to ensure that children from deprived backgrounds do not lose out on breakfast because they have lunch? (903190)

We do not want any pupils to lose out, which is why we have continued with the pupil premium in this Parliament, having spent more than £6.5 billion on the pupil premium in the previous Parliament. It is also why we introduced the universal infant free school meals. There are some fantastic breakfast club schemes. If the hon. Lady wants to write to me, I or one of the Ministers will happily have a further conversation with her about this.

T7. We have a desperate need for extra school places in my constituency, most acutely secondary school places in Wharfedale. Bradford council says that it received only £727,000 for school place funding for 2017-18, compared with £9.6 million in the previous year. Will the Minister ensure that sufficient money is given to resolve the issue of school place requirement in Wharfedale, and will he ring-fence any such money given to Bradford council to ensure that it is spent in Wharfedale? (903195)

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government allocate funding for new school places on the basis of forecasts of need provided by local authorities, and these forecasts change from year to year, reflecting local demographics and the effect of previous years’ capital spending. I know that the Department’s officials are in close contact with Bradford Metropolitan District Council, but I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend if he would find a further discussion helpful, and perhaps liaise through him with Bradford council.

T5. Swiss Cottage School in my constituency is an outstanding school that looks after children with special, complex and emotional needs. Regrettably, it is having to turn away pupils because of limited capacity. Does the Secretary of State believe that her Department is doing enough to look after children with special, complex and emotional needs, and does she believe that there is adequate provision for such vulnerable children across the country? (903193)

I actually visited the school in the course of the past year and found it to be truly exceptional. It is staffed by a wonderfully talented headteacher and members of staff. We have invested in all schools, both those catering for special educational needs and those in the mainstream, but there is more we can do to prepare teachers for teaching children with special educational needs. We have a dedicated capital funding stream for schools catering for children with special educational needs. I strongly encourage her school to apply.

T10. Many headteachers in Amber Valley report that they have real problems supporting pupils who are keen to learn but who suffer from chaotic home lives. What more can the Government do to help headteachers in that situation so that they do not end up being a co-ordinator of a social services operation? (903198)

My hon. Friend raises an important question that many schools raise on how they ensure that every child is in the best possible place at home so that they can learn at school. He will know that the troubled families programme during the last Parliament, which turned around 99% of the 120,000 families, was extremely successful in supporting schools with those difficult families. We now have a more ambitious programme over the next five years involving 400,000 more families, including in the Amber Valley, to ensure that they get the support they need so that their children can go to school to learn and make a good future for themselves.

T8. Becoming an adoptive parent or a kinship carer marks a lifelong commitment to a child, and yet social services do not have that ongoing obligation to parents. Will the Minister urgently review the long-term support available to parents and kinship carers and fund that vital provision? (903196)

The hon. Lady will know that, through the work we did in the last Parliament, support for kinship carers through the family and friends guidance has set out very clearly the expectations on local authorities. Through the review of special guardianship orders, we have looked at the support that is needed post-placement for children who find themselves in that type of arrangement. Part of our overall strategy that we set out last week on children’s social care shows the ambition we have to ensure that every child gets the support they need, whatever the type of long-term placement they happen to be in.

Order. I would like to get a couple more in if possible, so pithy questions and pithy answers.

According to analysis in The Daily Telegraph, Kingston was the best local educational authority in the country for GCSE results. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to teachers and pupils in Kingston? Will she explain to the House how learning from the best schools will be rolled out across the country to help those schools that still have some way to go?

As somebody who was educated in Kingston, I pay tribute to all the schools and teachers who operate there—they are much better than they were in my day. I pay tribute to the fact that my hon. Friend is talking about excellence and positivity, and about learning from other schools, which is much better than the constant negativity we hear from the Opposition.

Is the Secretary of State as alarmed as I am that Poppi Worthington was not previously known to social services despite the fact that her mother had previously had a child taken into care, and her father had been investigated on two separate occasions due to child sexual abuse?

I pay tribute to the work the hon. Gentleman has done as the local Member of Parliament in speaking up on this case. Yes, I am alarmed. As I said in my earlier answer, Cumbria is in formal intervention from my Department and is being supported by an interventions adviser. In the most recent inspection, the services were found still to be inadequate. As I have said, we will review progress in March this year as part of the broader package of reforms we know we need to introduce to tackle failing children’s social services departments, which only let down the most vulnerable.

East Sussex County Council offers award-winning children’s services, but there is always more to learn. What plans do the Government have to reform child and family social work?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising an important point, which my hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families has already touched on. We are looking at raising the qualifications of social workers, attracting the brightest and the best into the profession, and making sure there is strong leadership for them to benefit from. We are also looking at setting up a new body to regulate the training of children’s social workers, who form a hugely vital, but often under-appreciated service, and we want to make sure that it gets the same attention as our teachers and schools rightly do.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Many churches, youth groups and youth organisations are concerned that they may be subject to Ofsted regulation as a result of the nationwide registration scheme. The Prime Minister has said that they will be exempt: the head of Ofsted has said that they will not. Will the Minister tell us who is right?

It is right that we are asking the question about registration of out-of-school settings and therefore inspection, but the Prime Minister and I are clear that that is not to apply to organisations such as Sunday schools. Indeed, I am a Sunday school and Bible camp teacher myself. The hon. Gentleman should also look at the statement issued by the head of Ofsted after his recent appearance, in which he clarified that he was not correct and that we are right to say that Sunday schools and others will be exempt.