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Topical Questions

Volume 621: debated on Monday 6 February 2017

The recent release of school performance statistics confirmed that the hard work of teachers and pupils across the country is leading to higher standards in our schools. Last month I announced a further six opportunity areas aimed at tackling the challenges for young people from early years right through to the world of work. When I announced the first lot of opportunity areas in October, I also made it clear that building a country for everyone means better options for the more than half of our young people who do not choose to go to university. That is why technical education is at the heart of the industrial strategy that the Government published last month. We are determined to create a gold-standard technical route so that the young people who choose to pursue it can get the skills that we, and our economy, need to succeed.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to apprenticeships. Lantoom Quarry in my constituency is a leading provider of high-quality apprenticeships leading to permanent full-time employment in many cases. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that aligning further education and training policy with the needs of employers remains a priority?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Indeed, putting the needs of employers first is at the heart of our apprenticeship reforms. That includes introducing employer-designed standards that test whether an apprentice has the skills, the behaviours and the knowledge that employers need.

This Government allowed two local authorities rated “good” for children’s services to be granted exemptions from statutory guidance, even extending these exemptions when there was no evidence of improvement. Ofsted has since rated them both “inadequate”, finding that for too long children have been left at risk and are suffering harm. Despite growing evidence of the dangers of these opt-out practices, the Secretary of State is determined to push through massive deregulation in the Children and Social Work Bill, which will allow local authorities to opt out of not just guidance but vast swathes of primary and secondary child protection legislation. Why does she think it is okay to experiment with the lives of vulnerable children?

We had a healthy debate about the power to innovate in Committee, but I am afraid the hon. Lady still fails to grasp what we are trying to achieve. Local authorities and social workers tell us that when well-intentioned legislation prevents them from doing what is best for young people, they want to be able to try new ways to ensure that the outcomes for children improve. That is why a whole raft of organisations, including the Children’s Society, have told us that they welcome the Government’s commitment to innovation in children’s social care and support the intention to allow local authorities to test new ways of working in a time-limited, safe, transparent and well-evaluated way. I would have thought the hon. Lady would welcome that, rather than trying to concoct difficult arguments about the way forward that we want to take with the Bill. It is wrong, and she should follow the path that the profession wants to take.

T3. I welcome the recent proposal to re-weight the schools national funding formula, which goes some way towards redressing the historical injustice of underfunding in rural schools in Somerset. Although some of the schools in my constituency, such as Barwick and Buckland, are set to receive about 20% more in two years’ time, other rural primary schools such as Winsham seem to have been treated very differently. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to review these anomalies? (908578)

I would, of course, be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss school funding in Yeovil. Indeed, so efficient are our offices that that meeting is already in the diary for 27 February. I should remind him that in his constituency, school funding rises by some £2.8 million under the new national funding formula, and that 94% of the schools in his constituency will see a rise in funding.

T5. In my constituency, 85% of children who attend an independent nursery do not have access to a qualified early years teacher. The proportion of our children in that situation is one of the highest in England, and it means that they are 10% less likely to be at the expected standards of early development by the age of five. The Minister has said that she wants to increase social mobility, so what effort is she making to do that in Birmingham, Yardley? (908580)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point out that our early years workforce is one of our greatest assets. We will shortly be releasing a workforce strategy, which will outline how we want to improve what already exists. We need to help employers to attract, to retain and to develop their staff to deliver the very highest quality of early years provision.

T4. As part of the fair funding consultation, will the Secretary of State consider establishing a minimum level of funding per school? (908579)

We have had representations from some low-funded authorities about whether their schools need a de minimis level of funding in circumstances in which few of their pupils bring with them additional needs funding. We are looking at that and all the other concerns that right hon. and hon. Members have raised during the consultation process, which is why it is an extended one of 14 weeks.

T6. Following investigations by the Manchester Evening News, two very serious allegations of financial mismanagement have come to light in two multi-academy trusts that operate in my constituency. One is £4.5 million in debt. In the other, lots of money has gone missing. The Minister for School Standards said earlier that the EFA does a good job of holding multi-academy trusts to account, but what more can be done to make sure that that money is recouped and those people are held to account? (908581)

It is important that we have strong governance for multi-academy trusts, as the hon. Lady points out. I would also say that we need equally strong governance for local authority-maintained schools.

T7. My right hon. Friend will be well aware that Harrow is the most multiracial borough in the country. Can she explain to the people of Harrow why every secondary school bar one and every primary school in my borough will see a reduction in expenditure under her plans? (908582)

My hon. Friend will know that 22% of the schools in his borough will see an increase in funding, and per-pupil funding on average in Harrow remains high, at £4,792 per pupil. That is higher than in many local authority areas around the country.

Leeds is reviewing its support for transport to school for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, and there is a risk that people over-16 may not get such funding. Will the Government commit to ensuring that all children in such a situation in the country get the funding they need for transport to school?

The hon. Gentleman will know that during the past few years we have been implementing the new special educational needs system. It is embedding well in many parts of the country, but there are still areas that we want to look at to make sure that every child is benefiting from the changes. I am happy to look at the issue that he raises and to meet him if he so wishes, so that we can try to make some progress.

T8. Following the focus provided by the recently launched industrial strategy, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps the Government are taking to ensure that every child gets the kind of STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—education that they will need in the future to access the undoubted opportunities that will exist? (908583)

We have not only focused on maths and English, but we have in particular made sure that girls in school are taking STEM subjects like never before. That is absolutely vital if we are to have the skills that British businesses need to help us to be successful in the future. I am delighted to say that A-level maths is now the most successful A-level, but we want that progress to continue and to have more STEM graduates in future years.

Adult education can transform lives, address our skills gap and address technology change, yet the number of adult learners has fallen off a cliff and the industrial strategy does not even mention it. Can the Secretary of State have a word about that?

The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that by 2020 we will be spending more on the adult education budget than at any time in our island’s history. We are investing in skills, with millions of pounds for the national colleges and the institutes of technology; we are investing in apprenticeships, with 377,000 over-19s in apprenticeships in the past year; and we are investing in adult education—that is exactly what we are doing.

T9. I am chairman of the all-party group on literacy. Today, with the National Literacy Trust, we are announcing figures showing that 86% of all English constituencies have at least one ward with significant literacy problems. Does the Minister agree that people not being able to read and write is not just an economic issue, but one of social justice? (908584)

I share my hon. Friend’s view about the primacy of reading and writing, which are fundamental to education and to social justice. That is why ensuring that children are taught to read using the method of systematic synthetic phonics—evidence from this country and around the world shows that it works—has been at the heart of our education reforms. As a result, the proportion of six-year-olds reaching the expected standard in the phonics check has risen from 58% in 2012 to 81% in 2016.

What does the Secretary of State say to my constituent Catherine Foster, who received funding in April 2015 for a health and social care diploma with a provider that has now gone into administration? She has no access to her portfolio and no qualification, but a mountain of debt. Will the Secretary of State look into this case and meet me to help Catherine and thousands of other students in this situation?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I am very happy to meet her. I know that the Skills Funding Agency is doing everything possible to make sure that anyone affected by such issues has alternative education provision. I have asked the SFA to offer every possible assistance as well.

T10. Will the Secretary of State provide me with an update on when the performance tables for 2019 will be released, as it is very important for schools in Taunton Deane to be aware of them when advising year 9 pupils about which GCSEs to select? (908585)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of this information. We are currently finalising the details of the technical and applied qualifications that will count in 2019 performance tables, and we will publish the list as soon as possible.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the university technical college bid in Doncaster is vital to improving skills and increasing apprenticeships? Will she, without delay, give the college the go-ahead, or meet the local chamber of commerce and local authority to explain the delay?

I have had a chance to look around a number of UTCs during my time in this role, and many of them are producing an outstanding education that is very different from the education the young people who go to them might otherwise have had. I am well aware that Doncaster wants a response in relation to its UTC application—I very much welcome the backing that the right hon. Lady has given it—and we will confirm the decision shortly.

Too many people leave school without achieving the results they need, but is my right hon. Friend aware of the incredible work done by the British Army at the Pirbright and Catterick training camps in getting people who join those establishments without the necessary grades up to the right grade, and will he undertake to find out what can be learned from those places?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the work of the Army training camps at Catterick and Pirbright to the attention of the House. The Army has a strong track record of delivering high-quality education and training. I would be delighted to discuss these issues further with him.

Sir Michael Wilshaw recently urged the Government to tackle the comparatively low standards in many northern and midlands secondary schools, and Nottingham’s education improvement board has identified teacher recruitment and retention as its No. 1 priority. How can the Secretary of State honestly believe that cutting the funding of every single school in my constituency will help them to attract the best teachers and so raise standards among young people in some of our most deprived communities?

The Government have put huge amounts of funding into the northern powerhouse strategy to help schools across the north to lift their standards. Part of that relates to improving teacher recruitment and retention. It is not just northern schools where we want to see progress; we want to see progress in midlands engine schools and—dare I say it—schools in the east of England.