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Children’s Academic and Practical Skills

Volume 643: debated on Monday 25 June 2018

2. What steps he is taking to ensure that all children have continuing opportunities to develop academic and practical skills. (906001)

Schools must provide a broad and balanced curriculum that prepares pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life.

The team on the Front Bench could not beat Panama or any other country in terms of effort and talent. Is not it a fact that the earlier young children are able to use both their academic and technical skills, the better, and that this Government have cramped the curriculum? Is not it also true that we can only deliver T-levels with the support of the further education sector, which is being destroyed by Government policies and underfunding?

In a wide-ranging question, as they say, the hon. Gentleman presents a number of different aspects, ranging from the World cup to T-levels. He is right about one thing, and that is the earlier children acquire skills and knowledge the better. That is why it is so important we have managed to narrow the attainment gap both in the early years and in primary school.

May I welcome the advances the Government have achieved in this field and my right hon. Friend’s positive approach, contrary to what the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said? What more can be done to tackle the skills shortage in the construction sector?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point about the construction sector, and of course we have considerable requirements because of the need to accelerate residential development. One of the first T-levels will be in construction, and we are working closely with the sector to bring that on.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the concern in the creative industries about the contraction in the number of pupils in maintained schools studying performing arts, and how does he intend to address that problem?

The right hon. Gentleman is correct about the importance of the performing arts. In fact, the number of children taking a GCSE in arts subjects has not really moved very much, but we very much believe in a broad and balanced curriculum, with the breadth of opportunities he would want.

In the funding of these opportunities, where an academy runs up a debt because of the Department’s failure to supervise the academy sponsor, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Department should take responsibility for that debt, rather than leave it with the school, as appears to be the case with the Goodwin Academy in my constituency?

Where it does become necessary to re-broker an academy, as it does on occasions—my hon. Friend and I have had an opportunity to meet to discuss this—there is a bespoke approach to make sure that the settlement for the new arrangement with the new trust is sustainable.

Heads have recently warned that the new GCSEs are “inhumane” and that the “collateral damage”, as they call it, will be the less able pupils. Given that the Health and Social Care and the Education Committees recently found that one of the top causes of child mental ill health is the new exam regime, when will the right hon. Gentleman’s Department take action to assess the impact of the new GCSEs, and will he ensure that private schools that are opting out of the new GCSEs at the moment will be forced to take them as well?

We take the mental health of children and young people extremely seriously; hence the recent Green Paper and the whole programme of activity. To be fair, I do not think that the concept of exam stress is entirely a new one, and at this time of year there obviously is heightened stress among some young people. But the new GCSEs and A-levels have been designed and benchmarked against the leading systems in the world to make sure that we have a leading exam and qualification system.

Whether it is for academic or practical skills, reading and literacy are vital. In contrast to the hon. Member for Huddersfield, does the Secretary of State welcome the fact that pupils in England are outperforming their peers right across the world when it comes to reading and literacy, according to the latest PIRLS—the progress in international reading literacy study—figures?

I very much welcome that. It has been very encouraging to see how, particularly through the focus on the phonics programme, our young readers have improved in their reading so much, and that is reflected in those international comparisons.

The two colleges serving my own constituents are both suffering severe financial pressures. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield is absolutely right: further education is fundamental to providing ongoing education in both practical and academic skills. When are the Government going to look at FE in general and particularly at the two colleges serving my constituency?

There are of course two enormous programmes of benefit to FE colleges. First, there is the apprenticeships programme. Through the levy, the total funding for apprenticeships by the end of this decade will be double what it was at the beginning. The other programme—the hon. Member for Huddersfield and I touched on this briefly—is T-levels, which will bring another half a billion pounds of funding.