Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 612: debated on Monday 4 July 2016

The Minister for Children and Families has mentioned today’s publication of “Putting Children First”, which provides much-needed reforms to children’s social care—often a much under-sung service. I am sure that colleagues will condemn tomorrow’s strike action by the National Union of Teachers, which is both unnecessary and counter-productive. It will harm children’s education, inconvenience parents and damage the profession’s reputation in the eyes of the public. Finally, I would like to send my appreciation to teachers and students across the country who will receive their key stage 2 results this week.

Following the safe and successful return of Major Tim Peake from the international space station, what plans does the Secretary of State have to work with the UK Space Agency to promote space and science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, especially among women and girls?

The hon. Gentleman raises a really important issue, and we of course want to see more young people studying STEM subjects. My first boss in the House in the last Parliament, now Lord Willetts, told me that there were two ways to engage young people in science—space or dinosaurs.

T2. Following a rather poor Ofsted report for the local authority in Portsmouth, will the Secretary of State outline what support her Department can give to help schools in Portsmouth to become centres of excellence? (905634)

My hon. Friend is a strong promoter of educational excellence in Portsmouth. Centres of excellence in initial teacher training will be designated on the basis of criteria such as the quality of trainee teachers recruited, the quality of training courses, the outcomes for trainee teachers and training providers’ effectiveness in recruiting. We expect to confirm the schools and universities that have been designated as centres of excellence for the 2017-18 academic year when the allocation of training places is made in the autumn.

Ten days ago, we had the Government’s latest figures for apprenticeships. They showed that only one in four apprenticeships was going to young people under 19, whether it be in the number of starts or participation, and, even worse, that there were only 12,000 traineeship starts compared to 109,000 apprenticeship starts for under-19s. Does this not show that, after all the time and money Ministers have devoted to apprenticeships, they are still flailing around for a coherent strategy to get young people under 19 to the starting-block—either for traineeships or apprenticeships?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong. Following the apprenticeships review in 2012, employers are designing new apprenticeships that are more responsive to the needs of business. More than 1,300 employers are involved; 241 standards have been published; and more than 160 new standards are in development. In the last Parliament, there were 2.4 million apprenticeship starts, and the reforms to technical education will build on that. This is a very successful part of our education system.

T3. One of the concerns about the fairer funding formula is what happens to sixth-form students. Can Ministers confirm that fairer funding will apply to sixth-form students in particular, and clarify what is proposed for sixth-form colleges? (905635)

My hon. Friend will be aware that in the spending review, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirmed funding of £4,000 per pupil for post-16 education, and that remains the case. Obviously, where there are school sixth forms, reforming the national funding formula will impact on the whole school budget. I do not what to pre-empt what the consultation will say, but I am sure we can have a discussion once we have published it.

As the Secretary of State knows, there are already examples of academies ignoring the concerns and views of parents, and removing the requirement to have a parent-governor or parent-governors will make matters worse. The White Paper proposes that parents should be able to petition to have their academy moved from an under-performing multi-academy trust to a different MAT, will she tell us how that will work?

I refute the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question. I do not know of any academies or schools that ignore parents’ concerns. As for the second part, we will make that clear when we have published the Bill. I very much hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be part of the Committee that scrutinises the “education for all” Bill.

T4. Some schools and headteachers are nervous about becoming academies. I believe they need not be, but what reassurance and guidance can the Minister give them on the path to academisation? (905636)

The process of conversion to academies will be assisted by the Department and once a school notifies the Department it wants to convert to academy status, with all the professional freedoms that that brings, there will be a named official who will help it through the process.

T9. When research shows that six out of 10 LGBT students have experienced homophobic bullying, there is much to be done to improve life for LGBT pupils. Following her support for UK school diversity week, what plans does the Secretary of State have to ensure schools offer an LGBT-inclusive education? (905642)

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must ensure that there is an absolutely inclusive education. I do not want to see any young person missing a day of education, and certainly not because they are worried about being made fun of or not being able to be who they are. The hon. Gentleman will know that I have already announced over £3 million for specific homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. That is having an effect. I pay tribute to the charities who are working across the country to roll that out and I look forward to continuing to support, and to expand, that work.

T5. As my right hon. Friend knows, before coming to this place I was a teacher. Teaching colleagues have concerns, which I share, about the appointment of Amanda Spielman as the new chief inspector of Ofsted. She does not hold a teaching qualification or have classroom experience. Does this appointment risk eroding the standing of the teaching profession and teachers’ esteem and morale? What assurances can my right hon. Friend give? (905637)

I thank my hon. Friend for her very heartfelt question. [Laughter.] Well, I do not think that the appointment of the new chief inspector is funny, but a recent shadow Education Secretary, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), apparently does. Amanda Spielman has a passion for improving children’s lives through education. Her work at ARK has transformed the life chances of children in some of our most disadvantaged areas.

I know parents and teachers want Ofsted to inspect in a fair, consistent and reliable way that supports improvement. The chief inspector’s role is not to tell teachers how to teach or to second-guess them; it is to run Ofsted, to provide an inspectorate, to build on evidence and tell the Secretary of State what sometimes she does not want to hear. I know that Amanda Spielman will do that on behalf of teachers across the country.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the recent report by the Traveller movement showing that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children are four times more likely to be excluded from school than other groups, yet 100% of appeals against exclusions from Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children are successful. What action is the Secretary of State taking to address this state of affairs?

We had a group in the last Parliament to address this very issue, and we are considering how to take that work forward. It is very important that all children, regardless of their background, attend school and we do not have any lesser expectations for children from different ethnic groups. This is a particular group that is underperforming in our system and we need to do more to ensure that they attend school and achieve.

T6. The principal of Paignton academy, Jane English, recently received a lifetime achievement award for teaching and inspiring generations of students, yet the school has been held back by having some elderly buildings that urgently need replacement. Can the Minister update me on when funding will be made available to do this? (905639)

First, may I take this opportunity to congratulate Jane English on her lifetime achievement award? She has done a tremendous job. The condition improvement fund was three times over-subscribed this year, which is why the school was unsuccessful—there were a lot of quality bids. I can give my hon. Friend the reassurance that the next fund will be opening in autumn 2016.

Durham county council is part-way through the legal process of merging South Stanley infant and junior schools to form a primary school, but on Friday the Department issued a notice that the infant school will now be part of Greenlands junior school as a new academy, completely ignoring any consultation with local parents. How does that fit with what the Minister has said about the involvement of parents in these decisions?

That decision will have been taken after consultation. It will have been taken by the regional schools commissioner, with his local knowledge, in the best interests of pupils in that area.

T7. More schools in Medway are now being rated outstanding and good. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the excellent work of Councillor Mike O’Brien, the cabinet member for children’s services at Medway council, who, alongside council officers, school leaders and parents, is working hard to raise standards in Medway? (905640)

I pay tribute to the work of Councillor Mike O’Brien and I am sorry to hear that he is not well. He is a hard-working and conscientious Medway councillor who is dedicated to serving his constituents and to improving education. His nine years’ experience on Medway Council and his years on Gillingham Borough Council have made him a very effective local representative. Our thoughts are with him and his family at this time.

The children of Thoresby primary school have an abundance of common sense and kindness, and I was delighted that they were awarded the National Character Award last week by the Children’s Minister. Does he agree, however, that we also want to instil determination, grit and tenacity in our young people?

T8. I thank the Schools Minister for his recent visit to the Acorn alternative provision academy in my constituency to see the excellent work that it is doing. Does he agree that the delivery of high quality and innovative alternative provision education is vital to raising the life chances of children who find themselves in the most difficult and challenging situations? Can he update the House on the work that his Department is doing to support alternative provision across the country? (905641)

I was actually expecting a question on term-time holidays from my hon. Friend, but I am nevertheless delighted to join him in congratulating the Acorn AP academy. It is an excellent alternative provision academy with a real focus on academic achievement for vulnerable pupils. I certainly agree that outstanding alternative provision is vital, and in our education White Paper we set out reforms that will help to build a world-leading system of alternative provision. The reforms will incentivise schools to commission high-quality provision and make the schools more accountable for the outcomes of alternative provision pupils.

I can authoritatively pronounce from the Chair that the screeds written for Ministers at Education questions are significantly longer than those written for other ministerial Question Times. That is not a compliment.

The Secretary of State was telling us earlier about her plans to support young people who leave care, whether it is foster care or residential care. Will she tell us where the new members of staff are going to come from to support them and where the young people are going to live?

The hon. Gentleman needs to look carefully at Martin Narey’s report and at our response in the social care policy paper. This is not a question of simply expanding the current provision; we are trying to find innovative ways of supporting young people out of care that will serve them much better in the long term.

Ensuring that students have access to the latest technology is key to raising standards in schools. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Havant College on its pioneering partnership with Google, which ensures that every student has access to a tablet computer?

Yes, I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Havant Sixth Form College on harnessing the expertise and ingenuity of Google’s staff and products. The intelligent selection and use of technology in schools and colleges can be a great asset in helping to improve educational outcomes. I hope that this screed was within the time limit, Mr Speaker.

Is the Minister of State surprised to learn that when I shared his latest response to my correspondence about teacher shortages in Slough with our local headteachers, they found it cynical and said that it failed to address the real recruitment and retention problems that they face? Will he meet me and those headteachers to discuss a practical arrangement to deal with the teacher shortages in our town?

Of course I will meet the right hon. Lady and the teachers from her constituency to discuss this issue, which we take very seriously. We are competing for graduates in a strong economy, and we have recruited 15,000 more teachers since 2010. There are 456,000 teachers in the teaching profession, and 14,000 more teachers returned to teaching last year. That is a higher figure than in previous years. Teaching is still a popular profession, but we are dealing with the challenge of a very strong economy and competing in the same pool for graduates. We take this issue seriously, which is why we have very generous bursaries to attract the best graduates to teaching.

I was rather surprised to find that the number of children being home schooled in Warwickshire had trebled over the past three years. There are 452 such pupils in the current year. Will Secretary of State tell us what provisions exist to ensure that such children get a full and rounded education?

We have already made it clear that we want to know more about what is happening to children who are home educated. The majority will be educated extremely well, but we believe that there is more to do on this. We also want local authorities to know when children are being withdrawn from schools in order to be home educated, and I expect further proposals to follow.

Last month, Baker Small gloated on social media about a win in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal. Since then further information has come to light, revealing that Baker Small is advising councils on making it harder for children to be given assessments for an education, health and care plan to help cut costs. That goes completely against the principle of the Children and Families Act 2014, which is to create a less adversarial system. Can the Minister assure me, the House, and parents of children with SEND that he is doing all that he can to end the practice, and may I ask what he is going to do about Baker Small?

Let me put on record that practices of that kind are totally unacceptable. The new tribunal arrangements that we introduced were intended to make the system less adversarial and more inclusive for parents and young people, so that we could achieve a better resolution of any problems that emerged. We will continue to watch carefully how matters develop, but the hon. Lady can be reassured that we do not accept that that practice is appropriate.