Education Questions

Michael Gove answers MPs' questions on subjects including public examinations, industrial action, university technical colleges, music and academies.

Public Examinations

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that public examinations are set to a high standard. [64599]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): The Government are committed to ensuring that GCSEs and A-levels compare with the best exams in the world, so we will increase the role of higher education in the development of A-levels; we will change the rules on modules and retakes so that GCSE examinations are taken at the end of the course; and we will ensure that proper marks are once more given for spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Mr Leigh: Does my right hon. Friend recall a study by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2008—I think he will because he commented on it at the time—showing that 1,300 of the brightest 16-year-olds found great difficulty answering questions taken from the 1960s and ’70s? Does this not prove that standards have dropped? Is there any evidence that the steps my right hon. Friend is taking will make a real difference so that we can halt the catastrophic decline in the standard of A-levels?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is absolutely right to say that the Royal Society of Chemistry and other learned bodies have pointed out that some examinations our young people sit today simply do not compare with the best in the world. I have asked the Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator to ensure that the tests that our children sit to prepare them for the 21st century are every bit as rigorous as those in the other countries that the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) mentioned, which are currently outpacing us in educational achievement.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): On 9 June, Ofqual apologised for the record number of examination question errors this year and said that every paper had been rechecked. On 12 June, three more examination papers were found with errors in them. Why?

Michael Gove: I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, which is why Ofqual has ensured that there will be an inquiry into the mistakes made by the awarding bodies. This is not the first year, and it might not be the last, in which awarding bodies made mistakes in examinations, but it is a cause of heartbreak for every family affected. We inherited an examination system from the previous Government that needed reform. That is why we are changing both the way Ofqual operates and the way in which awarding bodies are held to account.

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Industrial Action

Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): On how many days annually on average schools were closed owing to strike action between (a) 1979 and 1997 and (b) 1997 and 2010; and what assessment he has made of the likely trends in days lost to such action in the next four years. [64601]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): My Department published detailed information on school closures associated with the industrial action on 30 June. The Department has not collected such detailed figures in the past, so we do not have comprehensive figures for the days lost between 1979 and 2010, and it is not possible to predict the number of days on which schools might close in the event of future industrial action.

Pamela Nash: It is clear from figures available to Labour Members that more strike days were taken under the previous Conservative Government than under the more recent Labour Government. Is that because a Tory-led Government are incapable of sitting around a table and negotiating with teachers, or does the Secretary of State have an alternative explanation?

Michael Gove: I agree with the hon. Lady that negotiation is important. That is why I look forward to talking to representatives of the trade unions later this afternoon and why I value the discussions that we have with them, not just about pensions but about every issue.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): In all the pension negotiations that have led to the recent strikes, the Secretary of State seems to have been a bit of a non-entity. Has he made any representations to his Cabinet Office and Treasury colleagues in support of the teachers’ case on pensions, or has he decided simply to wash his hands of their concerns?

Michael Gove: I note that the hon. Gentleman has promoted me from Marty McFly to Pontius Pilate in just 30 seconds. Far from washing my hands, however, I have been actively intervening to ensure that, across Government, we make certain that pensions for valued public sector workers such as teachers are protected, while at the same time being fair to all taxpayers and reflecting the reforms that Lord Hutton, in his excellent report, suggested we pursue.

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University Technical Colleges

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): What assessment he has made of the level of interest in establishing university technical colleges. [64607]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): My Department has received 37 applications to open university technical colleges.

Mr Wilson: The investment in UTCs and technical academies is very welcome and will, I believe, provide a substantial boost to education standards in the areas that will have them. Has my right hon. Friend given any thought to how we can accelerate the UTC programme so that more areas can benefit from this fantastic programme?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a champion of high-quality vocational and technical education. The Government are doing more for vocational and technical education than any and that is why I am so pleased that he is heavily involved with the bid to ensure that Reading receives an appropriate technical academy. We are doing everything possible to accelerate consideration of those bids and to support as many as possible and I am grateful for the support of the Chancellor.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State will know that many of us hope that the university technical school pilots will be successful and we watch with great interest. Has not an important opportunity been missed of working with the further education sector, which knows a lot about teaching young people from the age of 14 in technical subjects? Is there not a great deal of capacity and potential in that market, too?

Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman makes a characteristically shrewd point, which is why Professor Alison Wolf argued in her report that we should ensure parity of esteem between teachers in schools and those in further education colleges, that the qualified teacher learning and skills status, or QTLS, qualification should be considered equivalent to qualified teacher status, or QTS, and that the links between schools and FE colleges should be improved in a number of ways. As ever, the hon. Gentleman hits the nail squarely on the head.

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Music

Mr Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): What recent representations he has received on encouraging children to study music. [64609]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): We are very lucky that there is so much excellent music teaching in our schools and we are anxious to ensure that it improves even further. That is why we have made £82.5 million available—to make that a reality. In the past few months, we have received almost 4,000 representations on how we can further improve music education.

Mr Hepburn: As the Secretary of State says, the Government have announced this new system of funding music in schools. If it is, indeed, a bidding system, what assurances can he give to the schools and schoolchildren who will inevitably lose out?

Michael Gove: I do not believe that any school or child will lose out. The hon. Gentleman is very lucky that on his doorstep sits the Sage centre, which is an outstanding exemplar of music education. The funds that we have available and the national music plan that we hope to unveil this autumn will ensure that the already high standards that exist in areas such as south Tyneside are augmented even further in future.

Mr Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the recent announcement of a national music competition, the “Next BRIT thing”, which is backed by both the Government and the UK music industry? Is it not an example of the Government’s commitment to nurturing our future musical talent?

Michael Gove: I could not agree more. My hon. Friend puts his case brilliantly.

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Academies

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): How many schools in (a) Harrow East constituency and (b) England have converted, or applied to convert, to academy status. [64612]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): Three high schools in Harrow East have applied to convert to academy status and are aiming to convert in a collaborative partnership with four other high schools in Harrow. A primary school is also aiming to convert in the autumn. More than 1,000 schools in England have applied to convert to academy status since June 2010. The total number of open academies, including those opened under the previous Government, now stands at 801.

Bob Blackman: I congratulate the Secretary of State on leading this quiet revolution in education in this country, freeing schools from the dead hand of local education authorities and allowing them to develop and grow. What role does he foresee local education authorities fulfilling in the future, and what arrangements is he making for the governance of these new schools to enable them to flourish and grow?

Michael Gove: Local authorities have a crucial role to play in education in ensuring fairness of admissions, making sure that the needs of children who have, for example, high-level special educational needs are respected, and making sure that when it comes to behaviour and attendance, there is appropriate collaboration. They also have a critical role to play as champions of excellence. The best local authorities pursue this role with vigour. Not all do, however.

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Topical Questions

Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): I am delighted that my Department, following extremely hard work by the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), and our behaviour adviser Mr Charlie Taylor, has today published new behaviour guidance, which is significantly slimmer, and more focused and effective. It has been widely welcomed by teachers as at last getting to grips with the indiscipline in some of our weakest schools.

Nicky Morgan: I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He recently mentioned that there were about 200 failing primary schools in this country, which is a shocking statistic. Although there is no list, I believe that Shelthorpe primary school in my constituency is one of them. When judging whether a school is failing, what allowances are made for pupils with moderate learning difficulties, cases of social deprivation, cases involving social care and the number of free school meals? Also, the school’s head teacher has asked me to invite the Secretary of State to visit the school.

Michael Gove: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. We specifically take into account not just raw attainment, but the level of progress that children are making in school in order to ensure that any judgment is properly contextualised. The 200 weakest schools are those that have been below floor standards for five years. Let me be clear: that means that more than 40% of students leaving those schools over the past four years have been incapable of reading, writing or adding up to an acceptable level. We absolutely need to take action where schools are failing and where communities are aware that those schools are not performing as well as they should be. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will recognise that such action is necessary.

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Mrs Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Secretary of State reassure the parents, teachers and governors of Moorside school in Halifax that they will get the necessary capital funding for the new build they have been promised for so long, and if so, say when they will get it?

Michael Gove: It is vital to ensure that we have an accurate picture of the schools that are most in need of capital funding. One of the unfortunate consequences of decisions made by the previous Government is that in about 2006 we stopped collecting data at a national level on the state of school buildings, which means that we do not have an accurate picture of the schools that are most in need. The hon. Lady makes a very good case for a school in her constituency, which I know she represents effectively, but we have to look at the picture in the round.

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Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): The baccalaureate’s emphasis on ancient history and Latin will allow our students to cope admirably with the Roman invasion 2,000 years ago, but leave them less able to cope with modern life, because of the neglect of IT. In which century are the Government living?

Michael Gove: It is a source of considerable pride to me that the number of students studying Latin in comprehensives is the highest ever. We are presiding over the greatest renaissance in Latin learning since Julius Caesar invaded. [ Interruption. ] Those who are about to answer should be saluted, as we say in Latin. The critical thing is that we have to ensure that our examinations in every subject are up there with the best in the world. It is striking that before he went to university, one of the iconic figures of the 21st century—Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook—studied Latin, Greek and classical Hebrew.

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Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I recently met parents who send their children to Sceptre school, a Christian-based independent school that has decided to apply for free school status. They said:

“Overall, we will be able to enrich the choice and diversity that will, in turn, drive up standards and increase opportunities.”

Is that not an example of the Conservative-led Government delivering?

Michael Gove: I am hugely grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the enormous interest in our free school programme. Everyone from former advisers in Tony Blair’s No. 10 through to figures from grass-roots faith organisations has embraced that reform. I fear that the only people who are still standing against that wave of the future are the isolated and neolithic figures of the Labour Front Bench.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): The Secretary of State knows that one of the neediest schools that he has to deal with—and it was described as a compelling case by one of his junior Ministers—is Tibshelf, which was built before the first world war. Pit props are holding up part of the roof, and teachers have to tramp between one school and another to keep the show on the road. When is the Secretary of State going to give the Tibshelf people a chance to have their new school built?

Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman is a consistent and effective campaigner on behalf of the parents, children and teachers of Tibshelf school, and I congratulate them on having such an impassioned defender. However, that school is in such poor repair because, under 13 years of Labour rule, money was wasted. It did not go to the front line, and the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, like many poorer students around the country, were failed by an arrogant, unaccountable and out-of-touch Labour Government.

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Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): The Sutton Trust has recently stated that under the previous Government, between 2007 and 2009, a group of 2,000 secondary schools and sixth-form colleges sent fewer pupils to Oxford and Cambridge than just five of our leading independent schools. Will my right hon. Friend join me in deploring that situation, and will he set out what this Government are going to do to put that record right?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that social mobility went backwards under Labour. Poorer students had a better chance of going to university before the Labour Government came to power than after they left office. We are changing that, and we are making sure that with increased investment through the pupil premium, higher standards in the English baccalaureate and a remorseless drive to get the best possible teachers into the classroom, standards rise for the poorest. It is a great pity that the once so-called party of progress is standing in the way of that necessary reform.

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Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), Ministers repeated the confusion about who will, or will not, be eligible for education maintenance allowance. Given the overwhelming evidence that young people need to know whether they will receive EMA so that they can make a decision to go to college, will the Government think again?

Michael Gove: I am grateful for the point that the hon. Lady makes. We are doing everything possible to ensure that the replacement for education maintenance allowance, the discretionary learner support fund, is in place as soon as possible. We had consultations with college principals who said that while they accepted that these were straitened times, they would prefer to have discretion over how that funding was allocated, and we are happy to accede to that general advice.

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Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): At Frogwell primary school in Chippenham I have seen for myself the success of the Every Child Counts drive for early intervention to aid numeracy in Wiltshire schools. How does the Secretary of State propose to monitor the take-up of such programmes now that the budgets that pay for them have been delegated to schools themselves?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Catch-up programmes in numeracy and literacy are hugely important. That is why we are making sure that in our reform of the accountability measures for all schools we take account not only of the raw attainment at the end of primary school but of how children do, particularly when they are from poorer backgrounds or have low levels of prior attainment. It is not for us to prescribe exactly the method, but it is for us to ensure that the poorest are better served.

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Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): Can the Education Secretary confirm that the objective of his schools reforms, particularly the introduction of free schools, is to provide an over-supply of schools, thereby inevitably setting some schools up for failure? Has he made an assessment of the costs and upheaval that that will generate?

Michael Gove: That is an interesting ideological take, but I am afraid that the hon. Lady is wrong. If she wants to talk about setting schools up for failure, she should look at the at last 200 underperforming primary schools that we were discussing earlier. Free schools will introduce innovation and higher standards to some of the areas that are desperately in need of new schools. They will also ensure that the growth in pupil population at primary, for which the previous Government failed to prepare adequately, is at last addressed with innovative new schools in the places that count.

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Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): May I commend strongly to the Secretary of State the proposal for a free school at Breckland school in Brandon—a middle school that was set for closure under the previous Administration? If that happened, there would be no post-11 education in Brandon, but if it gets the go-ahead as a free school there will be education all the way up to 16. That will have a massively positive impact on the community, and I hope that he will commend it.

Michael Gove rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. I remind the House that topical questions and answers are supposed to be brief.

Michael Gove: That was a very effective pitch from a very effective Back Bencher.

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Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with the Secretary of State’s aim to raise standards in primary schools. Will he therefore meet me to discuss why he is seeking to remove the outstanding leadership of a primary school in my constituency that has been praised by his permanent secretary and has this year taken children above floor standards, and where his proposals threaten to make the situation much worse?

Michael Gove: I will be delighted to meet the hon. Lady.

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Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): It appears that the 16 to 19 funding consultation for 2013-14 will not be published until September at the earliest. Will the Secretary of State take steps to ensure that that does not delay the publication of information about the 2012-13 budgets for schools and colleges?

Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman was a great FE principal and is a superb advocate for further education. We will do everything we can to accelerate this process.

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Karl McCartney (Lincoln) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the five schools in my city of Lincoln constituency that have converted into academies, the latest being Ermine primary school? Does he agree that academy status can bring significant benefits to schools across England by providing them with greater freedoms, rather than top-down bureaucracy, as was witnessed under the previous Labour Government?

Michael Gove: That question was epigrammatically brilliant and requires no further elucidation from me, other than to say, “Hear! Hear!”

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Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): Every head teacher and teacher I have spoken to dislikes and has enormous disrespect for the E-bac. I have not come across a single educationalist who supports the Secretary of State. It is causing chaos at key stage 4 and in our schools. Is that what he meant by giving more power and autonomy to teachers?

Michael Gove: The hon. Lady is assiduous, but she has not yet talked to the head teacher of the best school in County Durham, Durham Johnston comprehensive school, who backs the E-bac, as do all the great head teachers to whom I have spoken recently.

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Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Further to Question 13, successive Governments have failed on one area of music. Will the current Secretary of State for Education do something to promote English folk dance and song?

Michael Gove: Oscar Wilde once said that one should try everything in life once apart from folk dancing and incest. I think that he was only 50% right.

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