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Topical Questions

Volume 630: debated on Monday 6 November 2017

In October, I had the pleasure to go back to Rotherham to visit my former school, which is now called Oakwood High School. It was absolutely inspiring to meet the students there now, as I was many years ago. I also helped to launch the new DFE-supported Institute for Teaching in Manchester, which will help to drive up standards and produce excellent teachers. Recently, we had the flexible working summit at the DFE to ensure that teaching is a profession for the modern workplace, thereby helping to drive recruitment and retention.

Questions and answers in topicals really must be much shorter from now on. They have become increasingly long over a period and it is not helpful to the House or to the number of contributors.

A survey published today by the Sixth Form Colleges Association shows that funding cuts have caused one third of providers to drop courses in STEM subjects. We know that colleges are also dropping vocational qualifications. Does the Secretary of State agree that this month’s Budget must provide increased funds for colleges and sixth forms so that all forms of 16-to-19 education are on an equal footing for funding?

I am, of course, always bidding for additional funding for education across the board, including technical education. The hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that maths is now the most popular A-level.

T5. Will the Secretary of State join me in celebrating the opening of Newark’s free school? This first new school in the town for a generation aims to reverse the poor standards of education in Newark. It is a brilliant example of how Conservative party policy is transforming the lives of young people in my constituency. (901593)

Indeed, and there are now almost 400 free schools. I very much congratulate the Nova Education Trust on opening the Suthers School. I know that, as the chair of the governors, my hon. Friend will ensure that that school provides young people in his constituency with an excellent education.

T3. Two years ago, the Government promised legal action on the exorbitant costs of school uniforms. When will the Secretary of State keep that promise? (901591)

We have given clear guidance to schools that uniforms need to be affordable, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right that this is an important issue. It is certainly a cost that many parents worry about, and I assure her that making further progress to address it is on our agenda.

New housing developments in my constituency are coming on stream quickly, but the necessary infrastructure, including school places, must be in place to support that growth. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the new funding formula will help to address this issue and ensure that such infrastructure is in place?

Under the new formula, money will follow the child and it will be flexed if they have additional needs. Of course, we work hand in hand with local authorities to make sure that basic need capital funding is available to ensure that we keep up with the need for school places. As I said, there have been 735,000 new school places since 2010. This Government are planning ahead and will continue to do so.

T4. It has been brought to my attention that some academy trusts are increasingly encouraging parents whose children have challenging behaviour to home educate them to avoid those children being excluded. However, the parents are very poorly supported with respect to home education. Is the Secretary of State aware of this trend and is she inclined to do something about it? (901592)

The hon. Lady will welcome the fact that when we recently published the results of the race disparity audit, a key part of the launch was the announcement of a review of exclusions, because we want to make sure that they are dealt with effectively by schools. That sits alongside announcements on improving the quality of alternative provision.

This is exceptionally important. At the heart of this is the fact that we are trying to help young people to understand how commitments and relationships are very much at the core of a balanced life that enables people to be successful more generally. That is why we are looking to update the guidance, alongside the fact that the world in which young people are becoming adults is, frankly, now a much more difficult one. There are all sorts of challenges, not only in communities but, critically, online, so there are lots of reasons to do this.

T6. I recently met headteachers across Hull who told me that one way to mitigate the real- terms cuts in school funding would be to auto-enrol all pupils who are eligible for pupil premium when their family receives benefits. Will the Secretary of State please explore how the Department for Work and Pensions can share data with the Department for Education to make that auto-enrolment happen, so that schools in Hull and other deprived areas of England and Wales receive the additional funding that they so desperately need? (901595)

I take the hon. Lady’s point. It is important that we work with schools—and indeed parents —to ensure that they get all the benefits and support to which they are entitled. I assure her that work is under way to ensure that children and schools are not underfunded, and are receiving what they should receive.

Page 50 of the Conservative party manifesto says:

“We will replace the unfair and ineffective inclusivity rules that prevent the establishment of new Roman Catholic schools”.

It did not promise an interminable review. When will my right hon. Friend implement Conservative policy?

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend responded to that review, but we certainly had a number of responses. We are looking through them carefully and I will update the House in due course.

T7. Universities were shocked when a member of the Government took it upon himself to write to them seeking details of the professionals teaching Brexit-related courses. Is the Secretary of State comfortable with that sort of McCarthyite behaviour? If not, what will she do about it? (901596)

That letter was sent not by the Government, but by an MP acting in an individual capacity. The Government have made it clear that they fully support academic freedom and have recently entrenched that further in law through the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

Under the new national funding formula, West Sussex schools are set to have a funding increase of 10.7%. However, the county has been historically one of the lowest funded. Are there any other measures that can be brought forward to ensure that that historical underfunding is righted?

As my hon. Friend says, the national funding formula aims to address the inequity that has been baked into our funding system for many, many years. That sits alongside the pupil premium investment and the work that increasingly takes place in our schools to make sure that they operate in a way that maximises the educational impact that they get for every single pound. That means a focus on efficiency.

When I used to mark A-level economics scripts, a key aspect of getting a higher grade was knowing the difference between a real-term increase and a cash increase. Why does the Secretary of State choose to set such a bad example to our students by deliberately muddying those two concepts?

The hon. Gentleman might have marked those exams, but I ended up getting a first-class economics degree at university—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] I can tell him that the difference between what we are proposing under the national formula is the fact that under our approach, schools will get a cash increase, but under Labour’s approach, they would have had their cash absolutely frozen. [Interruption.]

Order. I do not know why the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) is hollering from a sedentary position. I always had him down as an academic, indeed a rather cerebral fellow, who is capable of somewhat statesmanlike behaviour, from which he seems to be departing this afternoon—not to be repeated.

Ryders Hayes Primary School in my constituency recently opened a new teacher training facility—it is in a fantastic wood cabin. What are Ministers doing to promote teacher training opportunities and to encourage more participation?

I congratulate the school in my hon. Friend’s constituency. More than half of teachers are trained through school-led systems, which means that schools have more control over the quality of the training that their teachers receive, and that schools can look for graduates and undergraduates to join their staff in the most effective way.

The Support Our Sixth-formers funding impact assessment, which was published today, shows general sixth-form education under real strain. Bearing in mind that each sixth former is funded at £4,500, compared with £5,700 for a pupil aged between 11 to 16, will the Secretary of State take the opportunity of the Budget to use last year’s underspend and uplift funding by £200 for each student aged 16 to 18?

We have maintained that rate across the course of this spending review. It is probably not for me to pre-empt what will be in the Budget.

Will the Minister update the House on the progress of the introduction of the T-level in catering and hospitality? It is eagerly anticipated by the tourism and hospitality sector, and is essential for providing the skilled staff that the sector needs for the future.

T-levels are long-awaited. We are starting down that road—the first few will come online in 2020, and there will be more in 2021 and 2022. I know that there is a great deal of interest in them, particularly from that sector.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that £1.5 billion has been taken out of school budgets since 2015, leading to a real-terms cut in per-pupil funding, which is contrary to what the Conservatives promised in their 2015 manifesto?

There has never been more money flowing into our schools system. The schools budget has risen year on year. Over the next two years alone, it will rise from £41 billion a year to more than £43 billion a year.

Last Friday, I held the Wiltshire festival of engineering, inspiring more than 3,000 children and involving more than 35 businesses and organisations. The Schools Minister kindly attended. The event highlighted that Wiltshire really is a hub of engineering. Will the Minister confirm that the new careers strategy will encourage a better link between schools and businesses, and prioritise sectors with severe skills shortages, such as STEM?

It was a real pleasure to join my hon. Friend at the engineering fair and I pay tribute to her for creating such a wonderful occasion. It was attended by thousands of pupils from years 6 to 9, who will be inspired to take up STEM careers. A-level maths is now the single most popular A-level choice for the fourth year in a row.

The Secretary of State has said a lot about extra money going to schools and classrooms, but Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which is run by the Conservatives and independents, is trying to claw back £3 million of the additional £4 million, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) alluded to. Will the Secretary of State meet us so that we can work together to ensure that the money destined for our classrooms and children actually gets to them?

We have put in place clear rules regarding the extent to which councils are able to switch money between the key funds. There is potential for them to go beyond that, but they would need to make an exceptional case.

The Secretary of State will be aware that Paignton Community and Sports Academy does great work for my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). However, it is hampered by the fact that some of its buildings are from the 1940s. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how we can deal with those old buildings?

Some 50% of schools and colleges, including Huddersfield New College in my constituency, have dropped modern foreign language subjects from their subject choices, citing funding as a reason. What is the Minister doing to reverse this trend?

The hon. Lady raises a very real concern, which is why the EBacc is such an important performance measure for schools. There was a significant drop in the numbers studying foreign languages due to the last Labour Government’s decision to end compulsion at key stage 4. Under this Government, the percentage of individuals taking a modern foreign language has increased from 40% to 47%, but we need to go further.

Contact with nature can provide tremendous spin-offs for schoolchildren’s mental and physical health. Will the Secretary of State indicate whether any formal assessment has been made of projects such as the Forest School project at King’s Hall in Taunton Deane? Might she be inclined to encourage green learning in schools?

As well as being an economist, I am a keen gardener, so I think it is important for our children to learn about the environment around them—not just why it matters, but how to take care of it. We will talk to my hon. Friend about what more we can do.