Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 617: debated on Monday 14 November 2016

This Government want to ensure that all children and young people in our country, whatever their background, can go as far as their talents will take them. We set out plans to deliver more good school places in more parts of the country, and I am pleased to say that work on the first opportunity areas is under way. We are already legislating to strengthen our world-leading university sector even further, and now we have introduced a Bill to help deliver consistently high-quality technical and further education. Together with the Government’s commitment to create 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020, these are part of our drive to improve dramatically the skills base in our country, and make it work for everyone—not just the privileged few.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. The Government’s proposed apprenticeship funding changes for young people in deprived areas is of great concern across the House. Given that some 625,000 young people between 16 and 24 remain unemployed, can the Secretary of State explain what is going to happen to the disadvantaged uplift after one year, and provide an assurance that it will be maintained in the long term?

As the hon. Lady has pointed out, we are making sure that the funding is there to maintain the investment that is going into 16-to-18 apprenticeships, particularly in disadvantaged areas. I simply say to her that this is the first time our country has had a broad-based strategy on apprenticeships that is about not just Government investment, but employers investing too. I think the whole House should welcome that.

T6. East Cambridgeshire ranks as the 14th worst area in the country for social mobility. Given its location so close to Cambridgeshire businesses that can help to improve aspiration and standards, does the Secretary of State agree that the area would benefit hugely from the opportunity fund so rightly being promoted by her Department? (907251)

As my hon. and learned Friend points out, one of the underlying principles behind opportunity areas is getting businesses to work with schools and provide opportunities that are good not only for developing the life skills of young people but for setting higher aspirations. I have no doubt that it could work most effectively in East Cambridgeshire, which, as she set out, was recently ranked very low on the Social Mobility Commission index.

Despite investment, the National Audit Office has judged child protection services to be “unsatisfactory and inconsistent”, which suggests systemic rather than local failure. Six years of Tory tinkering, rebranding and outsourcing has resulted in too many children’s services being deemed simply not good enough. Can the Minister tell us how much longer children will have to suffer because of his Department’s failures?

I realise that the hon. Lady wants to press the Government to do right by vulnerable children, but I am sorry that she has tried to create a division on something about which we agree. In fact, over the past six years the Government have intervened in 60 failing local authorities, 34 of which we have turned around, and we are now investing more than £300 million in an innovation programme to ensure that we can do right by children in our care and provide them with the best possible outcomes. I hope the hon. Lady will agree that we should never, ever settle for second best for children who are vulnerable. The work that we are doing is intended to ensure that we give them everything they deserve.

T7. During my visit to The Morley Academy, Michael Cornfoot, the senior assistant principal, inquired about the new nine-to-one grading system for GCSEs. He would like more clarity on how to assess performance against a grade. What work are my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her Department doing to clarify the system and to ensure that students are assessed accurately? (907252)

The purpose of the grade descriptors is to give an idea of average performance at the midpoints of grades 2, 5 and 8. The descriptors are not designed to be used for awarding purposes, unlike the descriptions that apply to current GCSE grades A* to G. The descriptors were, of course, developed with the input of subject experts.

T2. Last week I visited Tech for Life in Newcastle. It provides science, coding and electronics sessions for teachers, but schools say that they do not have the money or the time to take up those opportunities. We currently have a huge, devastating digital skills gap. What are the Government doing to provide, incrementally, additional funding and time so that teachers can become digital champions? (907247)

It was, of course, this Government who transformed the computing curriculum in our schools. We removed the ICT curriculum, which had become outdated and dull, and replaced it with a computing curriculum. We have also provided funds for the training of a whole cadre of teachers who will be able to teach that very difficult subject.

What steps is the Secretary of State taking to improve financial management and accountability in multi-academy trusts and academies, especially academies that were established in some haste before 2010?

We are bringing more transparency to academies’ financing. As my hon. Friend will know from a recent Education Committee session, we are also improving our annual accounts to increase transparency. They will appear alongside the “Academies annual report” that we published previously.

T3. None of the amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill that were tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) were accepted by the Government in Committee. What guarantees can the Minister give members of the Scottish research community that they will be fully represented in UK Research and Innovation? (907248)

The Higher Education and Research Bill will provide mechanisms, through UK Research and Innovation, to ensure that our science and innovation system stays at the cutting edge for decades to come. It will, of course, also ensure that the excellence and expertise that exist in all parts of the United Kingdom are fully reflected in decision-making structures.

Some parents and teachers in my constituency find it frustrating that if Cheltenham’s schools simply received average funding per head, funding pressure could be dramatically alleviated. Can the Secretary of State assure me that fair funding is on the way?

Yes, I can. As my hon. Friend knows, we are going to launch the second stage of our consultation. Ensuring that we have a fair formula which makes our funding follow need involves an incredibly complex calculation, but that is what we are doing. I know that he will look forward to and, no doubt, respond to that second stage of consultation.

T4. When it comes to school improvements, Ministers talk least about what works best, which is getting the best teachers into the schools that need them the most. When will schools in coastal towns be able to count on having the same proportion of outstanding teachers as those in London? (907249)

We have a record number of teachers in our school system—15,000 more today than in 2020—and UCAS’s figures for the 2016-17 intake show that 27,000 graduates are coming into teacher training. We have very generous bursaries—£1.3 billion-worth—to attract the best graduates into teaching.

Last week I visited the excellent Eastleigh College, which is delivering 5,000 apprenticeships and would love the new Minister to come to Eastleigh. It was noted that apprentices gained the maths qualification but were struggling to get through the English qualification. Will the apprenticeships Minister help in this area?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work she does. I will be very pleased to meet her to discuss these matters and to come to see her college.

T5. In 2014-15 the EU-funded Erasmus scheme meant that 1,600 students from Scottish higher education institutions were able to enrich their learning and gain greater understanding of different European people and cultures by studying abroad. What assurance can the Minister give to young people across Scotland that they will be able to continue to benefit from the Erasmus scheme following the UK leaving the EU? (907250)

We welcome student mobility schemes in both directions: the ability of international students and EU students to come to this country and the ability of our students to go and experience the higher education systems of other countries. Clearly, our membership of Erasmus will be part of the broader discussions on our future relationship with the EU.

On Friday I met Futureworks Yorkshire, which has been successful in supporting apprentices through shared apprenticeships, particularly in small and medium-sized enterprises in the construction industry. It seeks assurances about what provision has been made for that in the levy. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and Futureworks to make sure that this successful scheme continues?

Of course I will be pleased to meet my hon. Friend and the organisation he mentions. We are investing heavily in skills and construction and doing everything we can to improve the quality and quantity of apprenticeships.

T8. Nursery providers have been contacting me because they are very anxious about the changes that are likely to result in reduced funding per child. The Minister has been very clear today that that will not happen. Will she meet my local providers so that we can have an exchange of information? (907253)

Ministers may have noted that earlier this month I introduced my ten-minute rule Bill highlighting the issue of school admissions for children suffering from autism. Will the Minister confirm that he will work with me to deal with the situation and improve the present lot of many families?

My hon. Friend will know that in the code of practice, which all schools must adhere to, the rules on school admissions for children with special educational needs and disabilities are very clear. I was present for his ten-minute rule Bill and heard what he had to say, and am very happy to discuss it with him further to see what more we can do to make sure that these children do not miss out on the places they require.

T9. What discussions is the universities Minister having with his Treasury colleagues about their proposed cuts to widening participation funding for higher education? How are we going to get more people with disabilities and from poorer backgrounds into higher education while that money is being cut—by 50% by 2020? (907254)

The amount spent through access agreements by our universities has increased substantially, from about £400 million to over £800 million in the last year. That is a significant amount of resource that universities can put towards widening access and participation. By bringing the Office for Fair Access into the future office for students we will have a more strategic ability to manage our widening participation funds, the student opportunities funds and the access agreement money to the best effect for the use of all young people from disadvantaged backgrounds seeking to benefit from higher education.

T10. The Secretary of State has talked about the fair funding formula she wishes to introduce. Analysis by the National Union of Teachers says the Government’s proposals will mean that Hull schools will lose £13 million and 370 jobs by 2020. Is that correct: yes or no? (907255)

No, it is not, and indeed we have not set out the second stage of the consultation, so there are no figures to base that analysis on.

I have just spoken to a headteacher in my constituency who has already had to let four teachers go and not replace them, whose budget is already in the red and who has told me that further cuts will impact on their ability to deliver top quality education. Can the Minister assure me and that headteacher that fair funding will not come at the expense of schools in Batley and Spen?

As I have said, we have protected the core schools budget and, in addition, we are bringing forward a new national funding formula that will ensure that the funding is spread fairly across schools in England.

Parents and children at the Minerva free school in Westminster were horrified to discover that the temporary lease on their building will expire at Easter next year, and that their new building will not be ready until the autumn of 2018. That means that the children will have to be educated in three separate school buildings over the course of 15 months. Is that acceptable?

The hon. Lady has set out those challenges and I would be very happy to meet her directly to see what we can do to ensure that they will be dealt with effectively.

Encouraging children to take an interest in current affairs can also boost literacy. Will the right hon. Lady welcome the Let’s Read: Leeds initiative organised by the News Foundation and supported by the Yorkshire Evening Post?

Yes, I do welcome that initiative. Whatever works to get children into reading should be encouraged. For some, it will be fantastic novels and books; for others, it will be an interest in what is happening around the world.