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Topical Questions

Volume 607: debated on Monday 7 March 2016

I hope that hon. Members will be glad to hear that today we have published proposals for consultation to start the process of introducing a national funding formula for schools from 2017-18. These plans will ensure that every school and local area, no matter where it is in the country, is funded fairly. It will ensure that pupils with similar needs attract the same level of funding and give headteachers far more certainty over future budgets. Areas with the highest need will attract the most funding, so pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds will continue to receive significant additional support. That is a key part of our core mission to have educational excellence everywhere.

Luton Girls’ Academy was given £100,000 by the Secretary of State’s Department but never opened. I have repeatedly asked the Department for Education to tell me whether that money has been paid back, yet neither written parliamentary questions nor freedom of information requests have garnered an answer. When will she tell me how much money was wasted on this free school project?

The hon. Gentleman received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State, Lord Nash, on 29 January 2015 telling him why the project could not go ahead and that it had fallen short of the rigorous criteria we have set. Total pre-opening revenue costs for Luton Girls’ Academy will be published by the end of March. In line with our transparency agenda, our policy is to publish expenditure data clearly, and that means that we publish the full pre-opening revenue cost of cancelled or withdrawn free school projects, once the amount of expenditure has been finalised and taking into account any repayments.

T2. When I was sitting over there on the Opposition Benches I asked Prime Minister Tony Blair what he was going to do about Staffordshire, which was always in the bottom 20 for funding compared with other local education authorities. He agreed with me and said it was very unfair, and then he did nothing. May I commend the Secretary of State for getting on with this wonderful consultation? What recommendation would she give to my constituents, teachers and parents, to ensure that we get fairer funding for schools in Staffordshire? (903921)

I thank my hon. Friend very much, and I am delighted that we are making progress on this important issue. Is it not typical that it takes a majority Conservative Government to do that? I urge my hon. Friend to encourage his constituents and schools in his constituency, such as John Taylor High School, which I recently had the pleasure of visiting, to ensure that they take part in this important consultation.

As the MP for the home of British cycling, may I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the amazing success of the British cycling team in the track world championships last week? On the day before International Women’s Day, the incredible Laura Trott should be singled out for her medal haul. Let us hope she is paid as much as her male colleagues, if not more—something that the Secretary of State does not seem very good at achieving for women in her own Department.

There will be 156 new GCSE and A-level specifications taught from September. With just 17 teaching weeks left of this school year, how many of those are ready?

I thank the hon. Lady. Is it not typical that she identifies an issue—the gender pay gap—which her party did nothing to address when it was in power? It is this party that is publishing the regulations to make sure that public sector and private sector organisations will disclose that. The gap is not widening; it is narrowing. I join her in congratulating the cycling team, including Laura Trott, on their tremendous achievements. Ofqual is working with the exam boards to make sure that all the specifications are ready. I understand that more than 65 are now ready, but there is further information on that to be made public by Ofqual.

That is right: just 65 or 66 of the 156 specifications are ready—less than half. Core EBacc subjects, such as sciences and modern foreign languages, are still to be approved. The Government’s own workload challenge promised teachers a lead-in time of one year for significant changes to qualifications, but as matters stand teachers will have just weeks or no time at all to prepare for these huge changes. Is not the truth that the Government’s fixation with micromanaging every part of the curriculum—including, we hear this week, the use of exclamation marks—is causing the delay, and that they are way behind with these new exams? It is no wonder we have a teacher shortage.

The exam boards have already published the specifications and assessment materials in draft. They are working their way through to make sure that the specifications are ready to be published. We want to give teachers as much notice as possible—[Interruption.] Is it not typical that the Opposition need to learn the lesson that the Vote Leave campaign needs to learn as well—that if they talk about the negatives all the time, they will find that those are self-fulfilling? If they want to set out an alternative, they need to do that with some policies. What we on the Government Benches are doing is raising the standards of our qualifications. I met Ofqual last week to talk about specifications. It is making progress. [Interruption.] Either the hon. Lady wants to raise standards in our education system or she does not. By the nature of her question, she clearly does not.

T4. Archie Hayward, a 15-year-old student from Warblington school in Havant, is the first British teenager to secure work experience at the CERN science laboratory in Switzerland. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Archie and confirm that the Government will continue to support careers in science and technology? (903923)

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Archie Hayward on his significant achievement, which I am sure will provide him with the insight and inspiration to continue studying science and mathematics. We want to see more young people studying those subjects, which can lead to so many rewarding and interesting careers in science and engineering, which the Government are supporting through a more challenging curriculum and qualifications, better teaching and improved career advice in schools.

T3. A headteacher in my constituency showed me the sample paper for this year’s key stage 2 SATs. The paper included questions about the subjunctive form, past progressive, subordinating, conjunction and many other such gems. I am tempted to ask how many Members here could answer questions on those topics, but the more important question is how many children could do so. Does the Minister understand the concerns put to me by head teachers that they want the very highest standards for the children they are looking after, but, far from helping to raise standards, such an approach runs the risk of setting 10 and 11-year-olds up for failure? (903922)

It is important to understand the scale of the reforms to the primary curriculum. In four or five years every child could be leaving primary school knowing their multiplication tables by heart and being a fluent reader because of our focus on phonics, eliminating illiteracy in this country, and for the first time in several generations primary schools are explicitly teaching English grammar. The hon. Gentleman should welcome these reforms.

T6. Virtual school heads are taking great steps in promoting the educational achievements of all children looked after by their local authority. Will the Minister join me in encouraging the progress of virtual school heads such as mine in North Warwickshire and ensure that they help to facilitate the entitlement to a good education for all children and young people in care? (903925)

I am more than happy to do so. The reason we put the role of virtual school heads on a statutory footing in the last Parliament is that they make a significant contribution, acting as the pushy parent promoting the educational progress and achievement of children in care by championing their needs and working closely with schools. Since March last year they have had responsibility for managing the pupil premium plus, which provides an extra £1,900 for every child in care to enable them to access the extra support that makes sure they can really fulfil their potential.

T5. This morning I spoke to the headteacher of one of Sheffield’s best-performing secondary schools, which is in my constituency. The Secretary of State talks about the need for certainty in the funding formula, but that headteacher is deeply concerned by the uncertainty created by the lack of detail in this morning’s statement. Like all good heads, he plans in advance, and he is now recruiting for 2017, but he is unsure what his funding will be in that year. When can I tell him that he will know whether he is a winner or a loser as a result of the consultation? (903924)

It is important that we understand the basic principles behind why we are having a consultation on the funding formula—that the same pupils, with the same characteristics, across the country need to attract the same amounts of money. There will obviously be another consultation on the details, but it is important that we know about the weightings behind the factors and that there is certainty and transparency for all schools going forward. We have said there will be a phased transition, and that we will be very mindful of those schools where there is potential for there to be less funding, to make sure they are not destabilised. However, it is absolutely right that it is this Government who have grasped this nettle after many years of previous Governments absolutely flunking that test.

T9. Will my hon. Friend please join me in recognising the vastly improved design and technology GCSE, which comes into play next year and which will help to inspire the next generation of technical and engineering professionals? (903928)

Yes, we have made some significant reforms to the D and T GCSE and A-level, working closely with the Design and Technology Association and the James Dyson Foundation to ensure we have high-quality D and T qualifications that lead on to higher education, apprenticeships and high-quality employment in the sector. I hope the qualification itself will lead to more young people taking it.

T7. Last week I attended an event organised by Positively UK and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in my constituency to celebrate the lives of women living with HIV. Does the Minister agree that not enough is being done to educate children in schools about HIV and the support available to women living with it? (903926)

The hon. Lady raises a very important issue. It is one of the very few explicitly statutory requirements that young people in secondary school have to be taught about the dangers of HIV. I share her concern. We need to improve the quality of PSHE education throughout our system.

The Minister will be aware of the huge pressure on school places in the London borough of Havering and in all outer London boroughs at the moment, particularly with the new bulge classes being imposed on primary schools, such as Gidea Park primary school in my constituency. What extra funding and support will the Government give to schools that face such pressures at this time?

Havering local authority received £23 million of basic need funding for places between 2011 and 2015, which helped to create nearly 3,000 new places. It has also been allocated a further £47 million to create the places needed by 2018. I should also say that we are pleased that a new free school is scheduled to open in Romford this September. Concordia Academy will provide 630 additional primary places in the area, and I hope my hon. Friend will work with other providers to encourage more free schools to be built in the local area.

T8. The recent, and latest, children’s home data-pack shows that there has been little change in the numbers of children placed at some distance from their home areas since 2012, despite the introduction of welcome new regulations. The underlying problem continues to be the unequal distribution of children’s homes across the country. What more can be done to support local authorities to work together and use their commissioning powers to ensure more local provision of children’s homes? (903927)

I share the hon. Lady’s concern that a large number of children are still being placed out of area in residential care—although of course there are always exceptions to the rule where it is better for them to be so. That is why we have commissioned the independent review from Sir Martin Narey to look at residential care in the round of all care options for children. The review will include how we can have a better spread of residential care in terms of geography and types of care on offer so that children who do see this as their best possible route through the care system have a better prospect than they do currently.

I welcome the consultation on a fairer funding formula, especially since it includes high-needs funding, which is underfunded in Kingston. What is my hon. Friend’s Department doing to support families navigating the new system in place for special educational needs provision?

One of parents’ biggest frustrations with the old SEN system was not knowing about, or finding it hard to access, the right support for their children. That is why I recently announced a further £80 million of support for the SEN reforms in 2016-17, including an additional £15 million for the independent supporters who act as catalysts for change in enabling families and young people better to navigate the system. Some 45,000 families have already benefited from that extra support.

T10. Free school meals are a lifeline for many vulnerable families in my constituency, yet there are still too few families getting the benefit. Does the Minister agree that local authorities that have the data required to identify these kids should have an automatic, perhaps a statutory, obligation to do so? (903929)

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I know that his colleague, the hon. Member for, I think—[Interruption.] His colleague, Frank Field, is proposing a private Member’s Bill on this issue. I agree that all families who are entitled to free school meals should be able to obtain them. There are issues to do with the collection of data and the sharing of information between different benefits, but I am keen, as I say, to make progress on this very important matter.

Given the strong link, in some cases, between early-age cannabis use and future mental health issues, what is the Minister’s assessment of efforts by schools to tackle and deter illegal drug use?

The Government have taken steps to tackle behaviour and discipline in schools, and teachers’ powers to search pupils for prohibited items, including illegal drugs, have been strengthened. They have the power to discipline pupils for misbehaviour and to confiscate, retain or dispose of a pupil’s property as a disciplinary penalty where reasonable to do so. A school’s behaviour policy should set out its approach to confiscating prohibited items.

Last week, Sir Michael Wilshaw warned of a brain drain due to the recruitment and retention crisis in teaching that the Minister is well aware of. I appreciate the Minister’s earlier answer about the use of qualified teachers in classes being up to schools, but does he share my concern that teaching assistants are increasingly being used to teach SEN and low-attaining pupils?

I do not accept the comments of Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools. We are doing everything we can to recruit. Despite increasing pupil numbers, and the challenge of a strong economy and the strengthening graduate jobs market, we are ensuring that there are now record numbers of teachers in our classrooms. There are 13,000 more teachers in our classrooms today than in 2010. Recruitment in teaching is a challenge. I use every platform I have to extol the virtues and rewards of teaching to help raise the status of the teaching profession. What does the hon. Lady do?

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the development of high-quality curriculum materials under the banner of Education Destination, which uses the Isle of Wight’s natural environment and attractions to teach outside the classroom?

Yes, of course. Field trips, and trips to the theatre and to museums and so on, are a very important part of education, and we would encourage more schools to organise as many such trips for young people as possible.