Last week, I had the pleasure of marking the 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, watching a live stream of “The Merchant of Venice” at Lings primary school in Northampton—a school serving a disadvantaged area with 55% of its pupils getting free school meals. The inspirational headteacher there has shown how all pupils, regardless of their backgrounds and experiences, can develop an appreciation of and a love for great literary works. We want to encourage more pupils to experience Shakespeare, as countless previous generations have before. That is why the national curriculum requires all pupils to study at least three complete Shakespeare plays while they are at school.
We Conservative Members all welcome the Government’s decision to introduce a fairer funding formula for schools. Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that the particular needs of our rural and coastal schools will form part of the new formula so that children in my constituency are not disadvantaged under the current formula simply because of an accident of geography?
The fair distribution of funding is a priority for this Government. As we have already heard, fair funding will ensure that every school is allocated funding fairly and transparently according to need. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the formula we propose includes a lump sum payment for every school, with extra sparsity funding to support our smallest and most remote schools so that every child can access an excellent education.
This weekend, the Conservative-led County Councils Network added its very strong opposition to the Secretary of State’s plans to force all schools to become academies, adding to that already expressed by the National Association of Head Teachers, the Association of School and College Leaders, parents, the National Governors Association, leading names in the academies programme such as the chief executive of the Harris Foundation and the Freedom and Autonomy for Schools National Association, as well as a growing number of her own Back Benchers. It is hardly a list of what she might call—or, in fact, what she just called—the vested interests. Can she therefore clarify today for those who have these very serious concerns whether she will bring forward legislation to force good and outstanding schools to become academies against their wishes?
I have already set out very clearly our desire to make sure that every child gets the best start in life. We believe that academies, as the House has heard from other Conservative Members, are absolutely the right vehicle for innovation on curriculum, pay and freedom for headteachers. I wonder whether the hon. Lady in her vocal opposition has taken account of the writer on the Labour teachers blog, who said that
“we have people on the left describing thousands of schools, in fact a majority of secondary schools, and the hundreds of thousands of teachers who work in them, in terms that are so unjust as to be deceitful.”
Is that how the hon. Lady wants to be taken?
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The Secretary of State may not appreciate what a huge amount of upheaval, uncertainty and, frankly, panic she has caused by her announcement. Headteachers are already facing huge challenges trying to work around her botched new SATs tests, her massively behind-schedule new GCSEs and her real-terms cuts to school budgets, and those heads need and deserve more clarity from the Secretary of State than we have heard so far. Let me remind the right hon. Lady that she already has powers to turn underperforming schools into academies and that good and outstanding schools can already choose to convert, so the only remaining power she needs to deliver her objectives is to force any good or outstanding school that does not want to become an academy to do so. Is it still her intention to ask Parliament for these new powers—yes or no?
I have been very clear that I will not be the Secretary of State who leaves undone the job of making our school system as strong as possible for the benefit of all pupils. I hope that as she visits schools up and down the country, the hon. Lady includes visiting those that are already taking advantage of the new academy freedoms. Amanda Bennett from the Greetland primary academy in Halifax said, for example:
“As an academy we have had the freedoms to explore the specific needs of the children in our care—so our curriculum progression, pitch and expectations are able to adapt when we want them to, to respond to our changing needs. This has allowed us to be consistently in the top performing schools nationally.”
Conservative Members are all for improving opportunities and life chances for all children. Is it not interesting that we never hear the hon. Lady talk about pupils or standards, because she is so obsessed with one chapter in the White Paper?
T2. Digital skills are fundamental to the success of our knowledge economy, but evidence given to the Science and Technology Committee during its inquiry showed that only 35% of ICT teachers have a specialist qualification, and more than half lack confidence when it comes to delivering the new computing curriculum. What steps are the Government taking to train ICT teachers, and to ensure that we are equipping young people with the skills that they need not just for today’s workplace, but for a jobs market that may be unrecognisable in a decade? (904643)
Digital literacy is, of course, a core part of the national curriculum, and computing is a statutory subject in all four key stages in maintained schools. We are training a cadre of specialists who can cascade the knowledge that teachers require in order to be able to teach that very important subject.
T8. Charles Dickens Primary School is an outstanding foundation primary school in my constituency, which, along with the London borough of Southwark, rightly has great expectations for all Southwark students. The chair of its governors has been in touch with me to express his concern about the enforced academisation of schools. Why is the Secretary of State ignoring the concerns of staff, governors, parents and pupils? Why is she insisting on dictating a structure that offers no choice, but only the academy approach, which could damage the standard of the education that is currently provided? (904649)
I had the pleasure of visiting Charles Dickens Primary School during the last academic year. It is an absolutely brilliant school, with an inspirational head teacher. I want that head teacher not only to help, support and inspire the young people in her school, but to spread the excellence of her school to other schools in the area that are struggling. That is what we want to see in the education system. I am surprised that Labour Members are not interested in raising standards for all children in all parts of the country.
T3. Dig-iT, the dyslexia group in Tamworth, tells me that while provision can be good, it is all too often uneven across local schools. What can the Government do to maintain not just the quality of dyslexia and dyspraxia provision, but its consistency in schools in Tamworth, Staffordshire and England? (904644)
I commend the work of the dyslexia group in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can reassure him that we are investing heavily in practical and financial support for SEND—special educational needs and disability—including funds for a project run by the British Dyslexia Association to address issues such as early identification and effective provision, and funds to enable the Dyslexia SpLD Trust to provide expert advice, information and training for schools and parents. I can also tell my hon. Friend that we are procuring a new contract in 2016-17 so that we can continue to support children and young people with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties—including dyspraxia—in schools and post-16 institutions.
T10. Last year I spoke to the Minister about the difficulty of recruiting and retaining teachers in my constituency, which is partly due to its remoteness. He has talked a great deal about the recruitment of teachers, but what specifically is being done to encourage them to come to remote areas such as west Cumbria? (904651)
The National Teaching Service was established to second high-performing teachers to parts of the country with a history of recruitment problems. When a remote rural school is part of a multi-academy trust, that helps to recruit teachers, because they know that they can move, within the trust, from a rural to an urban school and back again. That makes recruitment and retention far easier.
T4. According to Ofsted, the best educational settings in the country are maintained nursery schools, of which 58% are “outstanding” and 39% are “good”. Remarkably, they perform just as well in poor areas as they do in less affluent areas. What consideration has the Minister given to allowing them to become academies if they wish to do so, in order to ensure that these great institutions continue their work? (904645)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although maintained nurseries provide only 3% of the places in early years, they offer excellent early-years education and, over the past few years, we have seen the structure of maintained nurseries evolve as a number have federated or joined multi-academy trusts. I know that my hon. Friend has a special interest in this area, and I would welcome the opportunity to meet him to discuss how we can promote the excellent work that those nurseries do.
On 20 April, the Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir Amyas Morse, provided an adverse opinion for the second year running on the truth and fairness of the Department for Education’s group financial statements. Sir Amyas said:
“Providing Parliament with a clear view of academy trusts’ spending is a vital part of the Department for Education’s work—yet it is failing to do this.”
How will the Secretary of State ensure that Parliament will be able to see whether extending academies is giving the taxpayer good value for money, when that clearly is not happening now?
I utterly refute what the right hon. Lady has just said. We have a more rigorous system for the governance of individual academies when they become academies. The issue with the Department’s consolidated accounts is a technical and accounting problem caused by academies producing accounts covering the academic year to the end of August, rather than to the end of March. We have now agreed with Parliament a new methodology for the current financial year that will better reflect the situation.
T5. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the excellent headteacher, staff, students and governors at Barnsole Primary School in my constituency, which has gone from “requires improvement” to “overall: outstanding”? (904646)
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I should like to thank the head, Sean McKeown, his staff and the pupils of Barnsole Primary School for an outstanding Ofsted judgment. It is an amazing achievement to move from “requires improvement” to “outstanding”, and I was pleased to read a report describing the high-quality teaching that leads its pupils to make accelerated progress in reading, writing and maths. I hope that the school will now consider sharing its experience and expertise by forming a multi-academy trust.
The vast majority of children entering the care system have experienced abuse and neglect and are particularly vulnerable in regard to their mental health needs. Will the Minister accept the concerns expressed by the NSPCC, which I share, that if the Department does not commit to counting and tracking abused and neglected children, those children will continue to be at risk of falling through the cracks and not receiving the mental health support that they need to rebuild their lives?
I had the opportunity to appear in front of the Education Committee during its inquiry into exactly this issue, which I welcome. The hon. Lady is right to highlight the fact that this area needs a better response. That is why we have set up a joint working group with the Department of Health to create new care pathways specifically for looked-after children to improve their mental health prospects. We also have the strengths and difficulties questionnaire for children who are looked after, which is collected every 12 months, but we need to look at what more we can do to follow their progress and ensure that they really achieve what they are capable of.
T7. At the end of last week, Tresham College, which has its headquarters in Kettering, announced draft proposals to end its A-level provision. I join local parents and students in opposing those plans but, should the worst outcome be realised, will the Minister make it clear to the college that it must do everything it can to ensure that those students who have already completed one year of their A-level course will be able to complete the second year at Tresham College? (904648)
I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that the college would have a clear responsibility to ensure that those students were able to complete their A-levels at another high-quality institution, and I would be happy to work with him to ensure that it lives up to that responsibility.
Does the Secretary of State accept that all the evidence shows that being an academy is intrinsically neither good nor bad for a school’s performance? With expert opinion now lined up from the County Councils Network to the Bow Group, it is surely time to revisit this flawed plan to force schools to become academies against their will.
The hon. Lady ought to take note of Andreas Schleicher, the deputy director for education and skills at the OECD, who says:
“What our data do show is that school systems which offer a greater deal of school autonomy tend to have higher performance, but they do not say anything about trends…I view the trend towards academies as a very promising development in the UK, which used to have quite a prescriptive education system, if you look at this through international comparison”.
I think we should take note of the international evidence.
As a school governor at the Bath Studio School, which is a member of a multi-academy trust, I must declare an interest. I have seen for myself the amazing performance that is being improved as a result of being a member of that academy chain. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the continued success of academies in Bath, and does she agree that having an increasing number of good and outstanding schools will ensure that our standards match those of our international competitors?
I had the pleasure of visiting The Bath Studio School with my hon. Friend, and it was excellent and inspiring for the young people there. Some 1.4 million more children are in schools rated good or outstanding than in 2010. We intend to push on with that.
I am of course concerned to hear about that. The hon. Gentleman and I have had conversations about academies and schools in his constituency. He can write to me with further details, but, yes, the pupil premium money has to be spent on those most in need and has to get to the frontline.
Teachers and primary headteachers in my constituency have contacted me about the additional workload that unexpected academisation could place on them. As a teacher, I share that concern. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that time, focus, energy and morale are not lost while the White Paper is discussed and that teachers continue to do what they do best—inspire young people and children?
We have set out that schools will have six years, from now until 2022, to become academies. However, the point is that teachers should be doing what they do best, which is teaching in the classroom. Support is available for schools that want to become academies, and the heads and governors of schools will be driving that process.