Education Questions

Michael Gove answers MPs' questions on topics including underperforming schools, free schools, academies and maintained school buildings.

Underperforming Schools

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): What steps he is taking to improve standards in underperforming schools. [56573]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): I want our education system to be the best in the world, which is why we have invested more than £100 million in an endowment fund for the poorest students. We have invested £2.5 billion in the pupil premium, we have expanded the academy programme and we have invested more in expanding elite routes into teaching such as Teach First. We have also raised the floor standards by which we judge schools’ performance. Some 216 secondary schools are below the floor standards with fewer than 35% of their students achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, and 1,394 primary schools are below the floor standards with fewer than 60% of pupils at the end of key stage 2 achieving level 4 or above in English and maths. I wrote to local authorities on 1 March asking them to set out their plans for improving their weaker schools. I received those plans back on 15 April and I am reviewing them.

Mr Speaker: The answer, I am afraid, was simply too long. I hope that answers from now on will be shorter.

Mary Macleod: In my constituency I want the best possible education for all pupils, no matter who they are or where they come from, but organisations such as the CBI are saying that they are concerned by the numeracy and literacy levels of school leavers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should have a zero-tolerance approach to underperforming schools and that we should prioritise literacy and numeracy levels?

Michael Gove: I am sorry, Mr Speaker, that the Government are doing so much that I could not pack it all into one answer. I agree with my hon. Friend that we absolutely need a zero-tolerance policy on illiteracy and innumeracy. That is why we will be ensuring that all students pursue a course in English and maths to the age of 18.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State will know that one of the best ways of improving standards in schools is having a highly qualified and motivated teaching staff. I understand that there has still been no response to the inquiry into the quality of teacher training that the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families conducted when I was its Chair.

Michael Gove: We gave an answer to that excellent report with the publication of our White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching”. From that title, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will draw the appropriate inference that there is nothing more important than teaching.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The James review found that school buildings that are beyond being merely fit for purpose make no real contribution to educational standards and that teaching and leadership are what make the difference to outcomes for children, not least in our weakest schools. Will the Secretary of State explain the difference in spending patterns that will be implemented by this Government as compared with those of the previous Government?

Michael Gove: That is a typically good question from the Education Committee Chairman. Unlike the previous Government, we will not be wasting money on a capital programme that is out of control and bureaucratic. Instead, we will be investing money in making sure that more of the very best graduates go into teaching and we will be expanding opportunities for inspirational figures such as Peter Hyman to open new free schools and target the disadvantaged, who need them most.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Last week, I visited a school in my constituency that struggles to meet the floor targets but which has the most dedicated and outstanding teachers and head teacher anyone could wish for. How will the Government support those outstanding teachers and make them feel that the job they are doing is valued even though, because of all the other circumstances that those children experience in their lives, the school will struggle to meet the floor targets?

Michael Gove: We have made our floor standards not only tougher, by raising them, but fairer so that we take account of progression. Those schools in which there are children from challenging backgrounds with low levels of prior attainment will be judged in the round. We are going to have a new measure in our performance tables that focuses attention on the performance of the 20% of students who come from the toughest backgrounds. It is also the case that our pupil premium will ensure that schools such as the one the hon. Lady mentions, with a high proportion of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, will simply get more money so that teachers can do an even better job.

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Free Schools

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): What recent progress he has made in establishing free schools. [56580]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): The first free schools are due to open in September, less than 15 months since we first invited applications from groups interested in setting up new schools. That in itself is testament to the incredible energy and commitment of the first pioneering projects. Four groups have now entered into a funding agreement, a further 22 have had their business cases approved and six more are under consideration.

Mr Raab: I wholeheartedly welcome that progress. Research by the Adam Smith Institute has found that 42% of profit-making independent schools operate on fees equal to or less than the average pupil funding in state schools. If entrepreneurs can drive up teaching standards and keep costs down, should we not look critically at some of the more dogmatic objections to their potential role in developing free schools?

Michael Gove: I welcome my hon. Friend’s radicalism and idealism. I want to see how the first free schools do when they open in September. Given some of the inspirational figures who plan to lead them, I am convinced that we will see standards rise and that, as we see them rise, the innovations that those figures bring to the state sector will be spread more widely.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): Is it true that there are 100 civil servants in the Department working on the free schools programme? If it is not 100, how many is it? What is the cost of that number of civil servants, and what on earth are they doing?

Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): More than they were under you!

Michael Gove: Yes—a very good prompt from behind me. There are just around 100 civil servants working on the programme and I am delighted that they are, because I am convinced that helping idealistic figures, such as Peter Hyman and Sajid Hussain, a state school teacher who is setting up a school for disadvantaged students in Bradford, is a good thing. We are bringing schools to the areas of deprivation let down by the hon. Gentleman and his party. Instead of civil servants having their time diverted to the sort of politically correct projects that preoccupied the Labour party, at last they are concentrating on driving up standards for the poorest, and I am proud that it is the coalition Government who are doing it.

Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming a number of potential free schools in my constituency, which he knows well, including one that plans to offer a bilingual education and one that plans to help very deprived young people in different areas?

Michael Gove: I am delighted not only that there are free school applications from Brighton, Kemptown, but that Brighton college is playing a part in helping to establish a new free school in the east end of London which is setting out specifically to target talented children from poorer backgrounds. When that is combined with the innovation being shown by the Durand school in Brixton, for example, which plans to establish a state boarding school for disadvantaged children from that area, I have to say that the coalition Government are unleashing a wave of radicalism the like of which will not have been seen since 1944.

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): That confidence is clearly not shared in No. 10 Downing street, because last week it gave a distinctly lukewarm end-of-term report on the free schools policy. Let me quote a No. 10 source from The Independent:

“I guess you'd give Michael a six out of 10. The problem with Free Schools is that the scheme was designed to fill gaps in areas where there are poorly performing schools. But that’s not where the applications have come from.”

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how many of the 26 approved free schools in England come from the 10 most deprived local authority districts?

Michael Gove: May I say, in terms of statements emanating from the centre, how delighted we were on this side of the House to read just last week that the Labour leadership has full confidence in the right hon. Gentleman? We are absolutely delighted that he is where he is, and we hope to see him there for many months to come.

All the free school applications that we have received are either in areas of deprivation and educational underachievement or in areas where pupil numbers are rising fast and there is a desperate need to see new school places. Whether it is Bradford or the east end, Slough or Tower Hamlets, in every single one of those areas poorer children are benefiting as a result of our radicalism.

Andy Burnham: My son has been doing standard assessment tests—SATs—recently, and I have been saying to him, “Read the question and answer the question.” I am tempted to say the same to the Secretary of State. The answer—the answer he would not give—is two, so it is clear that his policy is based on ideology, not on need.

I am more pragmatic than the Secretary of State. I have always said that each local proposal should be judged on its merit, and there is nothing to stop a free school being truly comprehensive if it is set up in the right way. What I object to is the unfair way in which he is siphoning off resources from other schools to pay for his free schools. Will he confirm today that the average maintained school is this year going to get an 80% cut in its maintenance budget to pay for free schools? If that is true, how on earth does he justify it?

Michael Gove: I hope the advice that the right hon. Gentleman has given to his son on how he sits his SATs includes doing his revision and his homework, because I sat open-mouthed as the right hon. Gentleman unveiled his latest position on free schools. It is very different from the answer he gave on “The Andrew Marr Show” on 10 October when he was asked:

“So you are against free schools?”

and he said, “Yes I am”; very different from the answer he gave in The Guardian on 9 November when he said that under Labour

“there would be no more free schools”;

and very different from the answer he gave on 31 January when he said:

“Free schools mean a free-for–all”.

Over the past year, he has been consistently opposed to free schools, and now he says he is in favour—

Mr Speaker: Order.

Michael Gove: Not so much a U-turn—

Mr Speaker: Order.

Michael Gove: More an inglorious retreat—

Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Secretary of State to resume his seat, and let me make it clear beyond peradventure, to the Secretary of State and to the House, that questions are about the policy of the Government and answers, suitably succinct, should be about the policy of the Government. That is how we will proceed from now on.

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Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): How many schools had converted, or applied to convert, to academy status in (a) Lancaster and Fleetwood constituency and (b) England on the most recent date for which figures are available. [56585]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): Three schools have applied and have opened as academies in Lancaster and Fleetwood. Those schools are Lancaster royal grammar school, Lancaster girls grammar school and Ripley St Thomas Church of England high school. The total number of open academies stands at 658, and more than 1,000 schools in England have applied to convert to academy status since June 2010.

Eric Ollerenshaw: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on that success, and I thank him and his officials for their help with regard to Lancaster. Will he ensure that every assistance is given to schools that specialise in teaching children with special educational needs so that they can enjoy the benefits of academy status?

Michael Gove: I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s commitment to ensuring that all children, particularly those who have special educational needs, can benefit from these additional freedoms. I am working with the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) to bring forward proposals to allow special schools to become academies.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The academy programme shows that the one-size-fits-all school is not what we need. May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his support for the groundbreaking boarding school element of Durand academy in my constituency? It will be the first free state boarding school for people from the most deprived areas, and the people of that school and the people of my community will welcome it.

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the points that she makes. She is a consistent champion of helping people from poorer backgrounds to do better in state education. I place on the record my thanks to her for the support that she has given the outstanding team of teachers at Durand academy. I hope that this new initiative ensures that the children at that school continue to have an education of the highest quality. I am sure that we can make common cause of our shared commitment to ensuring that children from poorer backgrounds enjoy the sort of education previously restricted to those from richer backgrounds.

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Maintained School Buildings

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the condition of maintained school buildings. [56586]

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): The Department for Education and Skills took the decision to no longer collect information on the condition of maintained school buildings in 2005 under the previous Government. The review of education capital undertaken by Sebastian James recommends the implementation of a rolling programme of condition data collection to provide a picture of investment needs. To help us consider our response to that recommendation, we have recently asked some local authorities to provide details of the condition information that they currently hold on their estates.

Tony Lloyd: I think the House will recognise that that answer is only marginally helpful. Under the last Labour Government, a lot of secondary and primary schools in inner-city areas such as mine were rebuilt. At the moment, it is very unlikely that any primary schools, even those in great need, will see rebuilding or major refurbishment programmes. When will the money be available to those schools to ensure that children in inner cities get the education they deserve.

Michael Gove: I will say two things. First, I recognise that many schools are in a desperately poor condition and need investment. Secondly, any question about investment can only elicit the reply that the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) gave earlier, which is that when Opposition Members ask for more investment, they should ask themselves one question: who is responsible for the desperate state of the economy that we inherited after 13 years of comprehensive mismanagement?

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): My right hon. Friend made his own personal assessment of the state of the buildings at the Duchess’s community high school in Alnwick, and he pronounced them to be pretty dreadful. When will there be a capital programme to which we can bid for those schools that are most urgently in need of rebuilding?

Michael Gove: My right hon. Friend has made his case consistently and well. I hope to make an announcement about our response to the James review before Parliament rises for the summer recess. That will give explicit details about how we can make available resources for schools whose condition and fabric deserve urgent attention.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): In March this year, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) kindly visited St John Bosco arts college in my constituency. In the Government’s announcement before the summer on their response to the James review, will they state that schools in areas of high social and economic deprivation will still benefit from higher capital support from Government?

Michael Gove: I know that the Minister of State was impressed by the commitment shown by the teachers and parents at the school he visited. The hon. Gentleman has put his case throughout fairly and well. We will do everything that we can to ensure that the schools in the greatest need receive money. We have to prioritise schools where the fabric is most in need of support. As ever when thinking about revenue and capital allocations, deprivation is one of the central factors that we will consider.

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Topical Questions

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): One of my Department’s aims is to ensure that the most talented people possible are teaching our children. Teachers from the European economic area can already teach in our schools. Today I want to extend that freedom to teachers from Commonwealth countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and I hope that other Commonwealth countries such as South Africa, Jamaica and Singapore can join in due course.

Tony Lloyd: Would the Secretary of State like to compare the answer of the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, when he talked about the ecumenical nature of the Government in wanting to meet the needs and hopes of young people in education, to his own horribly brazen party political response, when I asked him about school building for children in inner-city areas? Will he come to Manchester and see some of these schools so that we can discuss how to improve the situation?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning is blessedly ecumenical, but I am afraid I am sometimes more narrowly Presbyterian in my approach. However, it would be a pleasure to visit Manchester again. I have enjoyed it in the past, and I know that when it comes to speaking up for his constituents, the hon. Gentleman does a great job. I would be happy to work with him.

Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is unfairness in the level of per pupil funding for Cambridgeshire schools when set against the national average? Will he join me in urging schools across Cambridgeshire to respond to the Department’s consultation on school funding reform, which finishes on Wednesday?

Michael Gove: Yes and yes.

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the mean-spirited actions of Tory-controlled Wandsworth council, which plans to introduce a charge of £2.50 for children to play in a publicly funded playground? Children there play together regardless of income or background, and for many local children the playground is their back garden, because they live in high-rise flats. Is this localism in action, or will the Secretary of State assure the House that the Government will press councils to ensure that this is not a slippery slope towards a price tag on playtime? [Interruption.]

Michael Gove: As my hon. Friends point out, a slippery slope is often something we would want in a playground. In fairness, however, as the hon. Lady pointed out, we want to ensure that children have the opportunity to play and enjoy play without fees or bureaucracy getting in the way. It is one of the responsibilities of local authorities to ensure that children have an opportunity to play freely, but it is also the responsibility of central Government to sweep away some of the ridiculous health and safety regulations that the previous Government put in place to prevent our young children from enjoying themselves properly.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Within just a few weeks of beginning their initial recruit training courses for the Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force, individuals joining the forces who have been let down in the areas from which they come have had their educational attainment transformed. What lessons can mainstream schools learn from Her Majesty’s armed forces?

Michael Gove: That is a brilliant point from my hon. Friend, who, as some may know, is a Territorial who served in the Parachute regiment. Our proposal to allow people who have been in the armed forces to enter the classroom—our Troops to Teachers programme—will ensure that precisely the sorts of virtues that he talks about become more widespread and are targeted at the most disadvantaged children.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): Bristol is facing a crisis in primary school provision, with an estimated shortfall of at least 3,000 places by 2015. Instead of supporting gimmicky measures such as the 150 places at the new secondary free school in Bristol, will the Minister concentrate on the real needs of parents and pupils in Bristol, and help us get primary school provision in place?

Michael Gove: I note that the hon. Lady is opposed to new secondary school provision in Westbury on Trym. I am sure that her constituents will want to know that she is against an excellent new secondary school—that is very instructive to know—and that she is diverging from the view of her Front-Bench colleagues, who I think are in favour of free schools. There is an urgent need for more primary school places. The last Government were warned by the Office of Government Commerce that they needed to act, but they failed to do so. That is why all local authorities are receiving more money from us to provide more school places for primary school children.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): In Tamworth and around the country, A-level students are now preparing for their examinations, and many will have offers of university places based on their predicted results. Is it not time that we ended this unsatisfactory arrangement and timetabled university applications to come after A-level examinations and results, thereby ending the bureaucracy of clearing?

Michael Gove: It is an intriguing idea. It is not quite as simple as it seems, but we and colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are looking into it.


Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree with Ofqual that the OCR—Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations—GCSE history pilot should end? Shaun Connelly, the head of humanities at Colne Primet high school in my constituency, has contacted me, as he believes that the course has allowed students of all abilities to achieve their potential in history.

Michael Gove: A judgment about which qualifications should or should not count is properly a matter for Ofqual, the independent regulator. One of the points that it makes is that although that particular qualification may have some teaching attractions, only 25% of the content is assessed by an external exam at the end; 75% of it is teacher-assessed. Many of us would argue that the balance between teacher assessment and external assessment should be got right, and that we should have more external assessment.


Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): Head teachers of eight secondary schools serving children in my constituency have taken what they describe as the unprecedented step of writing to the parents and carers of years 11 and 12 students about the impact of Government cuts on sixth-form funding. They are considering cutting the range of courses, increasing class sizes, ending the teaching of some subjects, and reducing guidance and enrichment sessions. They say in their letter:

“we have never been subject to cuts of this magnitude,”


Mr Speaker: Order. I think that we have got the drift of the question.

Paul Blomfield rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. Enough.

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to that letter; I hope that he will send me a copy. I know that he is a new Member, and that he is passionate about raising standards in his constituency, but the reductions in public spending are a direct consequence of the mistakes that were made by the Government who preceded us. I am afraid that the reply that he should give to that letter should graciously acknowledge that fact.


John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Further to Question 13, we have been told for nearly a year that an announcement on the replacement for Building Schools for the Future is imminent, yet we are still waiting. We are now being told that there might be one before the summer recess. The fabric of some schools continues to crumble, and a few are now in a dangerous state. Will we hear an announcement in the next couple of weeks telling us exactly where we are going to be?

Michael Gove: No, I am afraid. I would make two points. Over the comprehensive spending review period we will be spending more every year on school capital than the previous Government spent in every year of their first eight years. It is therefore simply wrong to say that there is no investment in school buildings, because it will be greater than it was in the first eight years under the previous Government. Also, more than 700 schools in the BSF programme are still having their renovation work carried out. Of course we would like to do more, but our capacity to do so is impeded by the bureaucratic mess that we were left by the last Government and by the fact that there simply was not any money left after their comprehensive mismanagement of the economy.

Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): Schools in Hastings have been bitterly disappointed by the recent decision of the local authority, guided by the schools forum, to devolve £1.4 million of excellence cluster funding that had been intended for the most deprived schools. It is now to be shared throughout East Sussex. The rationale appears to be that the pupil premium will make up the additional costs. Can the Secretary of State please clarify whether additional funds from the pupil premium are considered as part of the overall funding when the assessment is made of the minimum funding guarantee?

Michael Gove: I have to say that I am very worried about that. I know that it is a Tory authority, but it sounds to me as though it is doing the wrong thing.


Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): We all agree with education for life, but will the Secretary of State find time to provide education for saving life as part of the school curriculum?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend has lent his considerable weight to that campaign and it is important, whether we are thinking about swimming and physical education or more broadly, that we do everything we can to ensure that life-saving and first aid skills are part of what happens in our schools.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Twelve months ago, the Secretary of State said that there was a compelling case to rebuild Tibshelf school. Meanwhile, the teachers are travelling 6 miles every day, tramping between two schools—Tibshelf and Deincourt in North Wingfield—yet we have heard nothing more from the Secretary of State. It sounds to me as though, like many of us, he is very good at talking the talk, but in government, you are supposed to walk the walk. When is this going to happen?

Michael Gove: It is good to see the hon. Gentleman walking the walk without any mechanical or medical aid of any kind whatever; we are all reassured to see him in fine form. I have to say that the hon. Gentleman, as a former grammar school boy himself, should accept one thing: the difficult economic situation that we inherited and the difficult position that Derbyshire county council put us into after years of Labour rule mean that it is very difficult for us to do the work necessary to repair the school which needs our support so desperately.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): What happens to children under seven when they are the only ones sent to another village because there is no place for them in the local school?

Michael Gove: We are doing everything possible with our reform of the school admissions code, which will be published shortly, to ensure that all children have a high-quality school place. I know that my hon. Friend has argued vigorously to ensure that every child on the Isle of Wight has a school of high quality close at hand. I look forward to working with him and the council.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Parents, staff and students across Sefton have raised concerns about the plans to create academies. Does the Secretary of State understand the need to gain support from parents, staff and students—and, indeed, the wider community—before converting schools to academies? Will he ensure that such major and irrevocable changes cannot be carried out by governing bodies without full consultation?

Michael Gove: The popularity of academies is attested by the increasing number of parents who want their children to go to those schools. I am sure that every governing body contemplating this step will take the appropriate procedures and will ensure that this transformative change benefits all the students.

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