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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 630: debated on Monday 6 November 2017

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

Foster Carers

The national fostering stocktake is currently under way, and it will report to Ministers with recommendations by the end of the year. It is exploring a wide range of issues, including the recruitment and retention of foster carers, giving us a better understanding of the current situation. The House should be aware that we have invested £900,000 supporting local authorities to develop new and innovative ways to recruit and train foster carers.

I have had the privilege of meeting some of our Nottingham foster carers, and I know what an amazing job they do, often for very little monetary reward. However, local authority children’s services departments are under immense pressure—we have record numbers of young people in care, yet some departments have been forced to cut specialist support staff—and potential foster families are also under pressure, including from Government policies such as the bedroom tax. I welcome the national stocktake, but it is long overdue. What steps will the Government take to address the urgent need to recruit additional carers?

I certainly echo everything the hon. Lady says about the value of foster carers. Indeed, 74% of looked-after children are in foster care, and the stocktake will give us more information on which to base our future policy. I met foster carers last week to discuss some of the problems they face and, indeed, the support we can give them following the stocktake.

Does the Minister agree that, with the care system under increasing pressure, there is now a need for a root-and-branch, fundamental review of the care system in England, in the same way as there has been in Scotland?

Certainly, the stocktake is part of this, and one of the most exciting developments has been the way in which innovation has been brought forward in this area. We have invested £200 million in the innovation fund, and I recommend that right hon. and hon. Members have a look at the No Wrong Door policy, which is working very well in North Yorkshire, or the Mockingbird constellation, which is a hub-and-spoke system to support foster carers dealing with some of the more difficult children.

What steps is the Minister taking to address the 61% decline in total apprenticeships from May to July 2017?

The great thing about someone being a foster carer is that they do not need to carry out an apprenticeship, and I encourage people thinking about applying to do so. Although there is a surplus of fostering places, one of the problems we face is having foster carers with the right type of home—for example, large sibling groups are hard to place—and we have a lack of sufficiency in some parts of the country.

I pay tribute to foster carers for the amazing work they do for our looked-after children nationally. In my experience, foster placements can be challenging for the carers, depending on the needs of the children. Will the Minister outline what extra training can be provided to improve the quality of placements and of decision making?

Good local authorities do give their foster carers the support they need, and I have already mentioned the innovation funding that has helped them to do that more effectively. There are other ways in which we can help foster carers. For example, when an allegation is made against a foster carer, it can be treated it in a different way from one against a social worker or a teacher. I hope that that will be addressed by the fostering stocktake, which is being very ably run by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers.

Exam and Assessment Framework

In November 2013, Ofqual, the exams regulator, published a regulatory assessment of the potential cost and delivery impact of the reformed general qualifications. As part of its ongoing work, Ofqual is committed to overseeing the introduction of the new exams and to evaluating their effectiveness. I want to add that we have recently consulted on the future of primary assessment, setting out our plans to establish a settled and trusted system.

The new vocational exam framework assessment will need to change. Those who study tree surgery can fell trees only in the autumn. Harvesting is likewise seasonal, and animal husbandry assessment periods do not match the assessment framework. Such assessments should occur at a time when they are appropriate, and other sectors are saying the same. Will the Minister relax the tight assessment periods, so that colleges can assess their students’ skills properly?

We have to ensure that the assessment system is robust, so that students can be sure that their hard work is properly recognised and employers understand that the qualifications presented to them reflect the quality of their studying and the skills that they have acquired.

I wonder what the Minister’s reflection is on the fact that in the maths higher paper for this year’s GCSE, the pass mark was just 18 out of 100. Does he think that pupils sitting that exam would have been given the confidence to go on to do maths A-level? I can tell him that as a 16-year-old, I was the only girl in my sixth-form college to do further maths and maths A-level. Had I sat a GCSE paper that was impossible—not rigorous—I would not have chosen those subjects.

The new GCSE is significantly more demanding academically. That is to ensure that there is a better fit with maths A-level and more preparation for students to go on to study it. The comparable outcomes system ensures that roughly the same proportion of students achieve grades 1 to 9 as achieved A* to G last year. That is why students might get a lower mark for a C grade or grade 4 this year, but as the students and schools become used to the new curriculum, I expect that figure to rise in future years.

There is a lot of nodding and shaking of the Huddersfield head, but let us hear the words out of the mouth of the hon. Gentleman.

I tried for many years when the Minister was on my Select Committee to get him to be more pragmatic and less ideological about these things. On this day of all days—the 25th anniversary of Ofsted—will he talk to Ofsted about what is going on? We are silo-ing so many young people in further-education colleges up and down the country. They cannot get on with their lives and cannot get on to apprenticeships because they cannot get a GCSE in English and maths.

Maths and English are key skills that young people need if they are to get on in life. There is a direct correlation between the income young people and adults earn if they have those GCSEs and if they do not have those GCSEs. The rules say that those with a D or grade 3 in those GCSEs are expected to continue studying them. Those with lower grades can take stepping-stone qualifications in English and maths at further-education college. That is the best preparation for a long-term, successful career.

Apprenticeships

Apprenticeship starts for women have gone up from 52% to 53% approximately; for people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, they have gone up from 10.4% to 11.2%; and for those with learning disabilities or difficulties, they are up from 9.9% to 10.3%. There is a great deal of work going on to broaden participation. The apprenticeship diversity champions network and the Careers and Enterprise Company are both doing an excellent job. I could go on, but I will not try your patience, Mr Speaker.

I am glad the Minister agrees that people with learning disabilities can make a valuable contribution to the workplace. She has mentioned the numbers, but will she say what the Government are doing to increase the chances for those with learning difficulties and disabilities to access apprenticeships?

Indeed, I will, and I know that my hon. Friend has a particular interest in this. We have said that we will implement the Maynard taskforce recommendations in full. That includes introducing flexibility, so that the English and maths requirements can be adjusted for a defined group with a learning difficulty or disability. We have also made British sign language qualifications an alternative to English functional skills for those who have it as their first language. Of course, I am working closely with my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

I welcomed the announcement in July of a new apprenticeship procurement process for non-levy employers. What assurances can the Minister give that the Department is now better placed to award apprenticeship funding to those employers who are so keen to train our young people?

My hon. Friend is right that the procurement that was launched in July will ensure that there is good geographical coverage, stability of provision and high-quality apprenticeship training for small and medium-sized enterprises, but I accept that this has been an unsettling time. We are making £440 million available between January 2018 to April 2019 as an interim measure before employers get on to the proper apprenticeship system.

The Social Mobility Commission recommends that the application process for apprenticeships should be made clearer and simpler, and be better co-ordinated across institutions, so applicants can see what courses are available and what their outcomes will be—a bit like what happens when applying for university courses. Do the Government intend to introduce such a scheme?

We are looking at a number of measures. As the hon. Lady rightly says, clarity is very important. The long-awaited and eagerly anticipated careers strategy will set out some work on this, but a lot of other work is going on. We have to make sure that apprenticeships are easy to apply for and that it is easy to see exactly what they will give apprentices at the end of their apprenticeships.

The Young Women’s Trust points to a gender pay gap of 8% between women and men apprentices. What are the Government doing to close the gap?

I will not miss an opportunity to remind businesses that they have until April next year to report their gender pay gaps. [Interruption.] That includes unions and Departments. I am pleased that apprenticeship starts for women have gone up, but I recognise there are issues around pay. The bottom line is that we want to ensure access for all young women in particular, but older women, too, many of whom are taking up apprenticeships as a way of returning to the workplace.

Ofsted says that 37% of apprentice providers are not of good quality, and that does not include the 1,200 subcontractors. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that Ofsted should inspect subcontractors? Will she review the extent of subcontracting and ensure that all apprentices receive the quality training they deserve?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he did excellent work in this area in his previous role. What matters to me is that every pound spent produces a pound’s worth of good, high-quality training. We are looking at subcontracting to ensure money goes to where it is needed: producing high-quality apprenticeships that young people and employers value.

If we are looking to broaden apprenticeship participation, it helps to have as many people starting them as possible, but total apprenticeship starts in the three months since the levy came in, in spring, are down by a disastrous 61%. Why are Ministers not doing anything to promote traineeships, which can be game-changers for people accessing apprenticeships? With a 30% drop in traineeship starts by 19 to 24-year-olds this year and last week’s critical comments from the Education Policy Institute, is it not time they did something?

It is disappointing that the hon. Gentleman expresses dismay about apprenticeships. We need to talk apprenticeships up. There was a 47% increase between February and April 2017. We know there has been a fall in the number of starts, but that was anticipated because we have brought in a brand new system. He is absolutely right that traineeships play an important part in ensuring a path on which young people can travel to get on, but I urge him to speak up for apprenticeships and apprentices and to do everything in his power to encourage employers to take on apprentices.

School Performance

5. What comparative assessment she has made of the educational performance of schools in the UK, with (a) Japan and (b) Germany. (901601)

Educational performance in primary schools is continuing to improve in England, with maths scores improving from 2011 to 2015, and science scores improving significantly, too. Japan is among the highest performers in international assessments. Our primary school pupils are outperforming their peers in Germany.

My right hon. Friend is correct: our spending is above that of Japan and Germany. What is clear is that spending and investment alone are insufficient. We need the right strategy. Our work on an improved curriculum, investment in teacher development and new schools not just being council-run are key measures lifting up school standards in England.

Youth unemployment in Germany has long been significantly lower than here. What lessons are the Government seeking to learn from the German system, particularly about technical and practical education?

Youth unemployment rose by nearly 50% under the last Labour Government, and one of the best ways to make sure young people have opportunities is to have a thriving economy, but as the hon. Gentleman reiterates, a strong education system, including a strong technical education system, is critical, which is why we are introducing our reforms on T-levels.

An important measure of educational performance is employability. In Germany, youth unemployment stands at 6.4% and in Japan, 5.1%; in my constituency, it stands at 1.6%, down 80% since 2010. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating schools in my constituency on getting their pupils work ready?

I pay tribute to those schools; they are clearly doing an excellent job making sure that children are not only attaining academically but getting the skills they need to be successful in the workplace. That is not the case in the rest of the UK. In Wales, where Labour is in charge, standards are now falling.

One way to improve the educational performance of UK schools would be to allow the creation of more good school places. Will the Secretary of State provide some much-needed clarity on the 50% cap on faith admissions for new free schools, which is holding up a number of school places in the pipeline?

The hon. Lady will probably be aware that we have created 735,000 new school places since 2010, and we will make announcements on the faith cap in due course, but again I have to contrast our record with the reduction of 100,000 school places in the last six years of the last Labour Government.

I have no doubt that, in any assessment of the performance of UK, German and Japanese schools, schools in Harrow West would perform particularly well. Headteachers there are telling me, however, that we need more investment in our schools, so that they do not have to cut the number of teaching assistants or replace experienced teachers with newly qualified teachers. What assurances can the Secretary of State offer the House that the Chancellor has got that point as well?

Under the new national funding formula, all schools will get a cash rise in their budgets. As much as anything, the challenge now is finally to address the regional disparities that still exist in our education system.

University Church of England Academy

6. What assessment she has made of progress at University Church of England Academy in Ellesmere Port since it was placed into special measures. (901602)

Ofsted judged University Church of England Academy to be inadequate in June 2017. The west midlands regional schools commissioner has been working with the University of Chester Academies Trust to help improve academic standards at the school, and an educational adviser visited the school in July to provide support. The trust has appointed a new chief executive officer and chair, and an application for emergency strategic school improvement funding and support from a local outstanding secondary school has been submitted.

This school, which his consistently failed to reach the required standard, has been letting down kids in my constituency for far too long. How long will the Minister give it before he steps in?

We always take swift action when either schools or academies fail—that has been the hallmark of this Government—which is why there are 1.8 million more pupils in good or outstanding schools today than in 2010.

The Minister, with his last answer, has widened the scope of the question somewhat. I would have argued that there was a rather long distance between Ellesmere Port and the hon. Gentleman’s constituency of Cambridge, but thanks to the Minister, the hon. Gentleman can expatiate.

The salutary example of such schools is a warning to schools such as St Philip’s Primary School in my constituency that are being forced into academisation. Extraordinarily, although there is a consultation, parents have been told that it is a foregone conclusion. Why is the Secretary of State so opposed to parental choice?

Actually, the academies and free schools programmes are increasing parental choice, because parents now have a choice of provider. It is not just the local authority providing schools; up to 500 new free schools have now been established, by parent groups, teachers and educational charities, and they are raising academic standards right across the board.

Given the broadening of the question, may I tell the Minister that I have met constituents who are parents at Freeston school, in Normanton, which has been hit by the shocking collapse of Wakefield City Academies Trust? They were promised a consultation on the school’s future—they are worried about the future of special educational needs provision and about the school losing its name, its identity, its uniform—but all they have been offered is a meeting in another school in another town. They will have to travel miles and book tickets online—or else they cannot go. Does the Minister agree that that is not proper parent consultation and that Normanton parents need consultation in Normanton, at Freeston, before the consultation ends, and will he urge the Education Secretary to honour the commitment she made to me to meet me and other affected colleagues, because this is very serious?

Wakefield City Academies Trust had taken over many schools that had been underperforming for years. We were not happy with the performance of that multi-academy trust, which is why we took swift action, and why the schools in that trust are being re-brokered to more successful trusts such as Tauheedul Education Trust, one of the most successful multi-academy trusts in the country. We will not stand still while schools underperform; we take action. We re-broker academies, or we turn failing schools into academies.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

May I follow up the question asked by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)? As the Minister will know, owing to the spending moratorium that Wakefield City Academies Trust imposed on High Crags Primary School, which is in my constituency, the school built up a surplus, or balance, of £276,000. In recent days that money has been transferred from the school’s account, without its authorisation and without its prior consent, and transferred to the trust. Surely the Government cannot stand aside and allow £276,000 to be taken out of the budget of a school in one of the most deprived parts of my constituency. Will the Minister do something to ensure that the money is reinstated for the benefit of pupils at that school?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. High Crags Primary School was put into special measures in June 2015, before it became a sponsored academy. In 2016, just 23% of its pupils reached the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, compared to a national average of 53%. The school is now being re-brokered to be supported by the highly successful Tauheedul Education Trust, and Wakefield City Academies Trust will not be able to retain any of the reserves that it holds at the point of dissolution. Schools, including High Crags, will receive the resources and support that they need in order to raise academic standards.

Last week the Minister told me in a written answer that he would not publish a report on Wakefield City Academies Trust by the Education and Skills Funding Agency because it would be

“obstructive to the process of ensuring all the schools are placed with new trusts.”

Surely any financial issues are being disclosed to potential new trusts. What on earth is in the report that is so damaging to schools that it cannot be disclosed—or is it just so embarrassing to Ministers that they would rather hide behind excuses?

The issue of Wakefield City Academies Trust was not about finances, but about academic standards in the schools in that trust. That is why we are re-brokering all the schools in WCAT to other, more successful multi-academy trusts in the area. We are concerned not with making party political points, but with raising academic standards in each of the schools that serve pupils in those areas.

Universities UK/Universities Scotland

7. When she last met representatives from Universities UK and Universities Scotland; and what matters were discussed at those meetings. (901604)

I have regular contact with sector bodies such as Universities UK as part of our wider engagement with the sector. I met representatives of UUK in October and also in September, when I made a speech to its annual conference entitled “Embracing accountability and promoting value for money in Higher Education”.

Mr Speaker,

“Scotland is losing out in the recruitment of international students…because the UK has one of the least competitive policies on post-study work in the English-speaking world.”

That is a direct quotation from the website of Universities Scotland. Will the Minister work with the Home Office and the Scottish Government to ensure that Scottish universities can make stronger post-study work offers to international students?

There is no cap on the number of international students who can come to study in Scotland, or in any other part of the United Kingdom. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that there has been a 24% increase in the number of international students coming to study at Scottish institutions since 2009-2010.

Despite any increases that the Minister may cite, the diversity of those students has narrowed dramatically. Higher education depends on the ability to attract and retain talent from across the world. The Minister will be aware that since 1998, Canada’s provincial nominee scheme has operated successfully, allowing provinces to vary immigration policy to suit their own requirements. I understand that the UK Government are anti-immigration, but Scotland is not. Will the Minister tell Universities Scotland what discussions he is having with the Home Office about the reinstatement of the post-study work visa?

The Government have commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to provide an assessment of the benefits of international students to the UK economy and our universities. As I said to the hon. Lady’s colleague, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), Scottish institutions have experienced a 24% increase in the number of international students coming to study at them since 2009-10.

Of course, it is not just students who are having problems. Dr Jessamyn Fairfield is a physicist originally from New Mexico, but now lecturing in Galway. In August Dr Fairfield arrived in Cardiff to do a science show. Her parking pass and entry to the festival were considered payment in kind and she was denied entry to the UK. Similar cases have been documented involving academics attending conferences. Ironically, Dr Fairfield is back in the UK this week to receive a prize for scientific engagement. So what assurances can the Minister give to academics like Dr Fairfield, who is in Parliament today, that the UK remains open for conferences and academic events?

We want the UK to remain the go-to place for scientists, tech investors and researchers in the years to come post-Brexit. We have given many assurances to EU researchers around the continent that they are welcome in the UK. We want their contribution to continue, they are hugely valued, and we have every expectation that that is going to continue to be the case.

I wonder if the Minister told Universities UK how the Department was funding the Prime Minister’s announcements on student finance. Can he confirm that those will cost the Department £175 million in this spending review period, and can he guarantee that this will not be funded by yet more cuts to the rest of the education budget?

I ask the hon. Lady to wait for the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget in a few days’ time, because all the details of the funding of those announcements will be set out then.

Special Educational Needs

The Children and Families Act 2014 heralded a transformation in support for children and young people with special educational needs. The transition period between the old and new systems, from statements to education, health and care plans, will end in March 2018.

In my area, there is a chronic shortage of special needs school places. In Kent, nearly 7% of students with statements or EHCPs are not educated in the school setting, which is well above the national average. Does the Minister agree that every child in the UK is entitled to a school education, and will he instruct the Department for Education to support local authorities who are struggling to meet that need?

I absolutely agree; we are on the same page on this. In Kent, schools have not been experiencing any reduction in high needs top-up funding in respect of pupils for whom they are receiving funding in the last academic year.

It is over three years since the Minister’s Department introduced significant changes to the special educational needs system. Two reports in the past month provide a damning indictment of how these reforms are going: Ofsted says there are significant areas of concern in one third of areas; and the local government ombudsman says families are suffering long delays in getting the right support. Does the Minister accept that these reforms are not working, and what does he intend to do?

The hon. Lady must have been looking very hard indeed to find a parent who does not welcome these changes. Unlike statements and learning difficulty assessments, the new plans run from ages 0 to 25 where appropriate, and bring together in one place an assessment and details of planned provision for a child or young person’s education, health and social care needs. The plans are driven by outcomes, have a strong focus on preparation for adult life, and include a section describing the views and aspirations of the child or young person themselves and their parents or carers.

One child in 100 is on the autistic spectrum, and 70% of those children will go to mainstream schools. The Government have a proud record in supporting autism; what more can be done to encourage best practice across the mainstream school sector?

Schools receive up to £6,000 for each child as part of their funding formula, and if they need to apply for additional money, that money is forthcoming. We are keen to ensure that children with particular problems, including autism, are quickly identified and given the help they need, and the new scheme does that.

Extracurricular activities including sport ensure a well-rounded education for all our students, and this is particularly important for those with special educational needs. Can the Minister tell me what support schools can get to provide those extracurricular activities?

It is absolutely true to say that all children benefit from better access to sports provision, not only physically but academically. I am pleased that we have doubled the primary sport and PE premium using money from the soft drinks levy. I am also a big fan of cadet forces, and we have used £50 million from the LIBOR fines to fund that activity. I would like to see more state schools with cadet forces.

We all support and recognise the need for additional funding for high needs grants and special needs. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have received £4 million under the review of the funding formula, but Stoke-on-Trent City Council has written to the Secretary of State asking for £3 million of that to be clawed back to fund high needs grants, taking it away from the schools it has been designated for. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) to discuss this? We have both written to the Minister asking him to ensure that the schools that desperately need that money can retain it.

Local authorities, including Stoke-on-Trent, can apply to disapply 0.5% of their funding and deploy it in that particular way.

Free Childcare

13. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the roll-out of 30 hours of free childcare. (901610)

The early intelligence that we are gathering about the autumn term is very encouraging. More than 216,000 parents have received eligibility codes for this term and more than 90% have found places. Independent evaluation of the early delivery areas found that a quarter of mothers and one in 10 fathers had increased their working hours. Providers are willing and able to deliver the offer to working parents.

I welcome the Minister’s reply, but has he seen the online campaign entitled “Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding”? The truth is that providers are really struggling to provide the 30 hours of childcare that the Government say they should. A woman in my constituency, Claire Gallagher, is rated outstanding as a childminder, but she has faced a 32% cut in her hourly rate from £6.05 an hour to £4.10, despite the Government’s claim that no provider would be more than 10% worse off. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Treasury to ensure that this policy is adequately funded in the upcoming Budget? If there have not been any such discussions, when will there be?

I was going to advise the hon. Lady to pursue an Adjournment debate on this matter, until I realised that in fact she had just had one.

We carried out detailed work using Frontier Economics, which reported in July 2017, and we have increased the funding to £4.94 on average from £4.56. I have met a number of nurseries that seem to be outliers that, unlike most, are unable to deliver for that price. We have asked them to supply detailed information to find out why that is. Is it because they are not working to the ratios that others are? Is it because they have high property costs? We would be keen to see that detailed information and to find out why they are outliers, so that we can work with them to ensure that they can deliver within the money, as the majority of providers are doing.

Constituents of mine who use or work in nursery facilities on both sides of the England-Wales border report the capacity issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) has just mentioned. The Minister says that 90% have found places. Will he tell us how many of that 90% have got the full 30 hours?

Well, it is certainly up to them. The evidence that I get when I visit nurseries up and down the country is that many parents are actually taking extra hours and paying for the wraparound hours. When I was at a nursery in Wolverhampton two weeks ago, parents there told me that they already had their children in the nursery and were having trouble finding the funding for that, but that when their children turned three in January, they would then get access to the 30 hours funding. So the vast majority of parents are accessing the full 30 hours. Also, they can mix and match between childminders, nurseries and other voluntary sector providers.

Last week, I met Cheryl Hadland, the managing director of Tops Day Nurseries, which includes the much-valued nursery at Musgrove Park Hospital, to discuss what the 30 hours of free childcare means for nurseries. The recruitment and retention of nursery workers is that organisation’s ongoing challenge, and staff account for 70% of its costs, which relate to the minimum wage and the living wage. I applaud this Government’s commitment to the 30 hours of free childcare, which has been welcomed by parents. However, will the Minister ensure that any increases in the living wage and the minimum wage are taken into account, so that nurseries can successfully deliver this service in Taunton Deane?

The hon. Lady’s eloquence has ensured that Taunton Deane makes Wavertree look like a model of pithiness.

We are of course well aware of the cost pressures that may fall upon nurseries, and we are keen to work with them to address some of the business management decisions that they may need to make in order to live within the funding that we are making available. As we have discovered, the mean cost of funding is £3.72 per hour, and our funding is £4.94 per hour and therefore allows for adequate funding, as the evidence has shown.

16. Nearly 200,000 children in Britain fall behind by the age of five, and one children’s centre closes every single week. In order to improve life chances, does the Minister believe that funding for Sure Start should be ring-fenced and that the closures should be stopped? (901613)

Local authorities make decisions about how best to address the needs of children from underprivileged backgrounds. Much has changed since 2010, including the early years pupil premium and the 15 hours of free childcare for those who would qualify for free school meals, for example. It is up to local authorities to decide how best to deliver that. Indeed, my local Sure Start centre raised with me the issue of the many children who should be at the centre who are not. That is a role for those who are going out to mentor people in their communities.

The Minister’s colleague, the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), wrote to a constituent stating that the funding of the 30-hour entitlement is based on the premise that 15 hours was for educational provision and the additional 15 hours was just for general care without an educational focus. However, the Conservative party has always promised high-quality early education, so was his colleague correct or not?

No, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) was not correct. Indeed, she made that clear when I spoke to her about it; she had misheard something that was said to her. The hon. Lady keeps falling into the trap of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Indeed, she has also lured some journalists into that trap. Will she finally admit that the policy is working successfully and that children are receiving the childcare they need?

GCSE/A-level Standards

We are reforming GCSEs and A-levels to make them more knowledge based and academically rigorous, to match the best education systems in the world and to keep pace with the demands of universities and employers. The reforms are intended to ensure that pupils, employers, colleges and universities can have confidence in the qualifications.

A teacher came to my surgery on Saturday to say that while she was determined to provide the best teaching of the new history course, which has a tougher exam, she was finding it hard to do that when asked by the school to cover for a colleague on maternity leave whom the school did not feel that it could replace. Is there any help that can be given to schools as they face the twin challenges of budget pressures and the introduction of a completely new history course?

I am pleased to tell my right hon. Friend that help is available. While core school funding has been and is being protected in real terms, we understand that schools are facing cost pressures due to higher employers’ national insurance contributions and higher contributions to teachers’ pensions. We will continue to work to deliver the initiative set out in the schools buying strategy to help schools get the best value for their non-staff expenditure, such as through regional purchasing hubs, and we will support schools in managing their staff and workloads by implementing flexible working and by deploying support staff effectively.

There is no single model for rigorous assessment. I recently held a series of meetings with year 12 and year 13 students in schools across my constituency, and one issue of concern to them all was the move away from coursework to closed exams. They believe that such exams provide an incomplete assessment of their abilities, discriminate against those who are unwell on the day of an exam, and are a contributory factor in the growth of mental health problems. Will the Minister agree to look at those concerns?

We looked carefully at that issue. We found that controlled assessments were consuming vast amounts of teaching time and a culture of resits was taking up more teaching time. Ofqual said that the controlled assessment system was not the most reliable way of assessing pupils.

Education Spending

We have been very clear that, with the additional £1.3 billion we are investing in our schools, overall funding will be maintained in real terms per pupil for the next two years, as the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed. Of course, if parents want to check the actual funding for their school, they can see it on the Department for Education website, which has to comply with Office for National Statistics standards, unlike some of the websites that put up inaccurate data.

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the additional £3.7 million that we have secured for Shropshire will ensure that there are no cuts to any of our schools? Will she do more to ensure that websites such as School Cuts are confronted about the erroneous information they are putting out, which is causing a lot of concern among parents?

Indeed, it is very much scaremongering. The Department for Education’s published formula illustrations show, as my hon. Friend says, that his Shropshire schools are gaining an additional £3.7 million by 2019-20, of which £2.6 million will be allocated in 2018-19. The websites he mentions are fundamentally misleading, and their claims are based on flawed calculations. They say that money to schools is being cut when it is increasing, and they say that teacher numbers will go down although they are going to go up. Of course, that is all contrary to the Leader of the Opposition’s claims last week, but the national funding formula provides cash gains for every school.

Yesterday it was revealed in The Sunday Times that, on just one day in January, there were more than 50 classes of 50 pupils. The head of one of the schools affected said that that was due to trying to save money on supply teachers as a result of huge budget cuts. Does the Secretary of State agree with that head?

The story was based, I think, on misleading facts. For example, some of the classes were of choirs or restructured PE classes, which would be expected to have more children. The bottom line is that the average primary class size is just 0.7 of a pupil higher than in 2010, despite there being 506,000 more primary school pupils. In fact, the average secondary school class size in 2018 will be some 0.3 of a pupil higher than in 2010. In other words, the figures are broadly stable. In spite of the fact that we have many, many more pupils in the system, we are making places available.

Efficiency Savings

12. What progress she has made on identifying the departmental efficiency savings of £1.3 billion announced in July 2017. (901609)

My Department has been working to identify the efficiency savings that will ultimately result in a cash boost for schools and put £1.3 billion directly into the hands of headteachers. That means that, across the country, funding will be maintained in real terms per pupil over the next two years.

I cannot say that that was a terribly revealing answer, but the Minister for School Standards did better in a recent letter, in which he said that, over three years, the Department will cut about £1 billion from the free schools programme, which he was lauding a second ago, and 37% from the healthy living project. Is that how the Secretary of State is trying to compensate for the cuts she has made to the core schools budget?

Most parents would be staggered that the hon. Gentleman is so against my looking across my Department to make sure that I challenge it and its officials to work as efficiently as we are now challenging schools to be. That is quite right, and I am now able to put the fruits of that initiative into the hands of headteachers, providing them with more money on the frontline. We will be making effective savings, which is actually the way to get more out of our education budget.

Can the Secretary of State confirm the National Audit Office assessment that £2.7 billion has been cut from the schools budget since 2015, and that the £1.3 billion she mentioned earlier will protect budgets only until 2020, after which she will either need new money from the Treasury or she will need simply to deliver another cut to school funding?

As the hon. Lady should know, the next spending review process is yet to get under way. Of course school budgets, alongside every other budget across government, will be agreed as part of that. We had a question earlier about the fact that money and results are not necessarily correlated, and I have to say that if there is one part of our United Kingdom where a Government are failing their children, it is Wales—where Labour is in charge—not England.

GCSE Results

14. What assessment she has made of the effect of the free school and academy programmes on recent GCSE results. (901611)

The free school and academy programmes are helping pupils from all backgrounds to achieve their potential. Pupils in converter academies are achieving top GCSE results and, together with pupils in free schools, are making on average more progress than pupils in other types of schools. Secondary sponsored academies have also improved, often from difficult circumstances, with more pupils achieving good GCSEs in English and maths this year.

I thank the Minister for his response. Crowborough’s Beacon Academy, which is in my constituency, has been named as the best school in East Sussex. It is in the top 3% in the country, with 77% of its pupils achieving five or more passes at GCSE. The headteacher, Anna Robinson, has taken this academy to the top of the league tables. Will the Minister join me in congratulating her and the schools’ students on a great job? Is this not another example of the Government’s education policies enabling our children to reach their full potential?

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Beacon Academy on its GCSE results this year. The provisional 2017 figures show that 56% of its students are entered for the increasingly important EBacc combination of core academic GCSEs. The pupils’ progress puts it in the top 12% of schools nationally on that measure.

I have been independently advised, and I can confirm, that today both questions and answers are notably long.

The Minister mentioned children of all backgrounds. What is the funding allocation for the coming academic year for counselling services and help for transgender children, which the charity Stonewall describes as being in a seriously bad state?

The Government Equalities Office has allocated £3 million for a programme to tackle HBT—homophobic, biphobic and transphobic—bullying. That programme is already in 1,200 schools up and down the country, and it is very successful.

22. As the Government rightly continue to push local authorities to make provision for more housing, the need for additional places at free schools and academies will increase. In my constituency, that makes the case for a new school to serve Radlett, Bushey and Borehamwood all the more pressing. What steps are the Government taking so that there is co-ordination between local authorities and the Department for Education when planning for new school places? (901619)

One of the first things we did when we came into office in 2010 was to double the amount of capital for basic need funding compared with what Labour had spent. Basic need funding for school places is based on a local authority’s own data, and we fund every place that councils say they need to create. Local authority forecasts include key drivers of increased pupil numbers, such as rising birth rates and housing developments. Hertfordshire has already received £197 million for new places between 2011 and 2017, and it is allocated a further £57 million for the next three years.

Relationship and Sex Education

15. When she plans to begin public consultation on the provision of relationship and sex education guidance in schools. (901612)

We are pressing ahead with our engagement process with relevant groups and interested individuals. We will be including parliamentarians over the coming months, and we will also seek the views of young people and parents. As has just been announced, Ian Bauckham, the chief executive officer of the Tenax Schools Trust and an executive headteacher, will advise on this work. He has considerable experience that will help us to ensure that schools teach a quality curriculum. Of course, following the engagement, we will consult on draft regulations and guidance, and we will then have a debate and a vote on the regulations in Parliament.

I do not think that anybody in this place would disagree that the last couple of weeks have shown us the power of teaching our young people to respect each other and to treat each other with respect. With 25 sexual assaults reported in our schools every day, will the Secretary of State please fast-track the policy on what schools should do if a report is made to them? This was promised months and months ago, and it is now urgent. I have a case in my constituency, and I know of others—this is too important to wait.

We will issue interim guidance this term, but the hon. Lady is quite right that if we are to make a longer-term change in the sort of attitudes that drive unacceptable behaviour in workplaces, we have to make a start in schools, which is why we are now updating the relationship and sex education guidance for the first time since 2000. We all recognise the need and we will approach this responsibly.

Topical Questions

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.