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Topical Questions

Volume 615: debated on Monday 10 October 2016

This Government are determined to make this a country that works for everyone, and education is at of the heart of that ambition. I have already had the opportunity to see some of the excellent work being carried out in our classrooms. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools has said, there are now 1.4 million more children in good or outstanding schools than there were in 2010. The Department for Education has an expanded role, taking in higher education, further education and skills. That was reflected in my first announcement as Secretary of State of the six opportunity areas where we are going to trial a new approach to boosting attainment and outcomes in social mobility coldspots that have been identified by the Social Mobility Commission. We will work inside schools and outside them, with communities and businesses, to make sure that we can turbo charge those children’s opportunities.

The Secretary of State clearly does not wish to be outdone by her hon. Friend the Minister of State. That much is clear.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her place. The reputation of Scotland’s higher education sector is of huge significance at home and in the wider world. What assessment has she made of the damage that could be caused to that reputation by the marketisation of the HE sector opening it up to unknown and disreputable new providers?

That is not at all what the Higher Education and Research Bill seeks to do. It is about opening up the higher education sector, so that we have the next wave of institutions that can provide fantastic degrees, and about making sure that there is teaching excellence. It is a strong Bill that will move the sector forward for the first time in 25 years.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating my constituents Councillor Sarah Aldridge, Donna Smith-Emes and the rest of the Aspire special school team on securing permission to proceed to the next stage in their bid to set up a free special school that will help meet the need in my constituency and the wider area for school places for children with high functioning autism? (906482)

I am of course more than happy to congratulate Sarah, Donna and the team on the progress they have made with the Aspire special school application, as well as on their clear commitment to children in their area with special educational needs and disability. The free schools programme has already supported the opening of 345 schools, including 13 schools with a specific focus on children with autism. I am aware that the Aspire special school aims to provide a further 112 places for pupils with autism and speech, language and communication needs.

I would like to come back to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell). The fairer early years funding plan has created a ticking time bomb for nurseries. Figures revealed by the Secretary of State’s own Department show that 25% of local authorities across the country will lose out financially. I am afraid that her earlier answer will do nothing to reassure the National Association of Head Teachers, which believes that that will lead to the closure of hundreds of nurseries. Will she today commit to a funding pledge for nurseries for provision for after the first two years, so that the pledge of 30 hours of free childcare will be honoured for all?

I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the hon. Lady to her place on the Opposition Front Bench. I can reassure her that the funding formula that we have consulted on will make funding fairer, more transparent and more sustainable. Indeed, she is misinformed: our proposals mean that 88% of local authorities and their providers can expect to see their funding rates increase.

T5. As part of local democracy week, I visited two excellent primary schools, Hillcross and The Priory, in my constituency this morning. As I left, the headteacher of one of them asked me about the primary school assessment framework. Can the Minister confirm to the House how long he expects the transitional arrangements to be in place? (906484)

We will be announcing the response to the primary assessment arrangements shortly. It was important that we raised academic standards in our primary schools, and that is why we had a new curriculum introduced by 2014, after two or three years of preparation and consultation. We are raising standards in reading—there are now 147,000 more six-year-olds reading more effectively than they otherwise would be—and we are raising academic standards in maths and in grammar, punctuation and spelling. That is very important, and we will make further announcements about the details of the assessment soon.

T2. In the Higher Education and Research Bill, the Government will allow universities simply to shut down if they fail in the HE marketplace, as though their role in local communities was a matter of no significance or concern to Government. That takes no account of the impact that closures will have on students and lecturers or the businesses and communities around them. Will the Government think again? (906481)

The Higher Education and Research Bill will make student protection plans mandatory for the first time, putting in place systematic protection for students, which at present is very patchy and partial across our higher education system.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question; it is progressing extremely well. In 2012, 58% of six-year-olds passed the check. This year, 81% passed the check. That is a huge improvement in the quality of the teaching of reading in our primary schools.

T4. Can the Secretary of State explain how allowing schools to select all their pupils by religion, abolishing the 50% cap, will in any way help to bring communities together? (906483)

The current rule is generally inoperative for many free schools when they begin, because they are not over-subscribed, and it only kicks in if they are. We are proposing to put in place much stronger, more effective controls to ensure that faith schools that are opening will be community schools. I would very much encourage the hon. Gentleman to read the consultation document, which sets out proposals, including that those schools should demonstrate clear parental demand from parents of other faiths or no faith and that they should twin with primary schools and other schools.

T8. New engineering and infrastructure projects in the south-west mean that skilled workers are in great demand—a fact that I hope will help those at GKN in Yeovil who are sadly grappling with its potential closure, as announced on Friday. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss ways we can boost skills development and preserve and enhance the highly valued skills base we have? (906488)

I am always pleased to meet my hon. Friend, who is a champion of skills in his constituency. He will know that people in Somerset will benefit from the increased number of apprenticeships and the 15 new high-quality technical routes, which he has heard about already this afternoon. The new National College for Nuclear, opening in 2017, will have a base in Somerset, supporting the local workforce to develop their skills and build capacity for the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant. He will also know that there have been 1,160 apprentice starts in his constituency over the past year, with 350 for the under-19s, showing the skills base in his constituency.

The Secretary of State has spoken about social mobility. Where is the evidence, from this country or other parts of the world, that bringing back selection at 11 will increase social mobility? I think the evidence shows the opposite. May I urge her once again to think again about this plan to extend grammar schools and instead work together to raise standards for all children in all our schools?

Of course, the two objectives are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, our school reforms will continue, and they have already seen the best part of 1.5 million children now in good or outstanding schools who were not in 2010. We see attainment driven through grammar schools in places such as Northern Ireland. It is just wrong simply to set on one side schools that are closing the attainment gap for children on free school meals and not look at how we can make that option available to more parents and more children.

On mandarin, I know my hon. Friend will be impressed of the work of St Catherine’s College’s Confucius school and the Eastbourne District Chinese Association. It is clearly important to promote language learning at home. I am pleased to note the uptake in Mandarin, even though I am a French teacher by profession. Can my hon. Friend assure me that we will continue to value opportunities for British students to study abroad?

On the last point, yes. We continue to value travel abroad. Learning a language is key to being able to travel and work abroad, and that is what the Mandarin Excellence Programme is all about. We hope 5,000 students will be fluent in Mandarin, reaching levels of HSK4 and HSK5, which go beyond A-level. We want more young people to take languages in our schools—including the language my hon. Friend teaches—following the fall in the numbers taking GCSEs thanks to the Labour party.

Today is World Mental Health Day. The Government acknowledge there has been an increase in the number of young people affected by anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions, yet so much more could and should be done to prevent them. When will the Secretary of State bring forward statutory compulsory and high-quality personal, social, health and economic education in every single school, so that we can equip the next generation with the skills and confidence to get help early on?

The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of mental health. In September, we announced a package to tackle bullying in schools, which we know is one of the drivers of mental health issues. She is right to raise the broader issue. We are looking at how we continue to ensure that PSHE works effectively in schools, and we are working with the NHS.

Does the Secretary of State agree that our young people need a mixture of routes by which they can go on to succeed, and that that will continue to underpin Government policy moving forward?

Yes, I very strongly agree with my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, we are reforming the academic route for many of our young people. However, for the majority who are more interested in a technical route in education post-16, it is vital that we now bring together different policy areas—apprenticeships, university technical colleges and the work of further education colleges up and down the country—to ensure they deliver for them.

The leaked small schools task force report shows that the Department ignored advice to continue funding small schools to provide universal infant free school meals. This will affect 566 children in the schools represented by the Education Front-Bench team and thousands more children represented by those on the Government Back Benches. Will the Minister today commit to reverse this short-sighted cut and ensure that small schools have adequate funding to feed their infant children free school meals?

I do not quite understand what the hon. Lady is talking about. We are funding free school meals for infant schools at £2.30 a head. On funding rural schools, we are consulting on a formula that will protect rural schools for the long term.

The Minister was just attacked for removing the cap on faith schools. The implication was that they do not promote cohesion. Is it not a nonsense to suggest that our wonderful Anglican and Catholic schools are not broad-based and do not promote cohesion? Above all, they have good academic standards. The unacknowledged point of the cap was to stop 100% Muslim schools. It was simply not effective and was therefore useless, so the Minister was right to do away with it.

I agree with my hon. Friend—he is right. We should reflect on the fact that about a third of our schools are faith schools. Many of our children will have gone to those schools. They have an ethos and a level of academic attainment that we are trying to achieve more broadly across the whole system.

I commend the Secretary of State for announcing, or perhaps forcing, the U-turn on the nasty policy of employers naming foreign employees. Will she now give us another U-turn and announce that schools do not need to ask parents to provide birth certificates, thus potentially turning schools into immigration offices?

This is about making sure we have the right data and evidence to develop strong policy. That is a sensible approach, but it is important we respond to the concerns of schools that see additional numbers of pupils related to migration. We need to have a better sense of the stresses and strains, so that we can target resourcing effectively.

True childcare costs in Twickenham are double the current Government funding formula. Will the Minister meet me to share how we can avert a crisis and ensure that every three and four-year-old in Twickenham will be able to get 30 hours of free childcare?

We recognise that the costs of providing childcare vary enormously across different areas of the country. That is why we have just completed an early years national funding formula consultation, which proposes an area cost adjustment to reflect cost differentials in both staff and premises. Some 88% of areas will see an increase and the hourly rate for Richmond Borough will rise significantly to £5.69 an hour. I will of course meet my hon. Friend to discuss this.

Order. Shrieking from a sedentary position is very unfair on the Member who is trying to secure a hearing from the House. Let us hear Karin Smyth.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Following the report by the Public Accounts Committee on entitlement to free early years education and childcare and a Westminster Hall debate on the subject that I initiated in July, the then Minister promised me that the Department was due to publish the early years workforce strategy document, addressing the shortfall in qualified staff to deliver the 30 hours of free childcare. What progress has been made?

The hon. Lady asks an important question. I am clear that we need to help employers to attract, retain and develop their staff to the very highest possible quality of early years provision. The workforce strategy will be published very shortly.