I am sure we can learn from the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom, as we learn from other countries around the world, on school transport and on how the funding system works, and on the curriculum and other issues. In our new national funding formula, we include an important element of sparsity as a key component. That will be reflected in the way that the schools in Berwick and Northumberland are funded—although not of course in other parts of the United Kingdom, as I am responsible with the Secretary of State only for school funding in England.
I accept that rural areas have their own challenges. In recognition of the extra costs that providing services in sparse rural areas can require, the Government have increased the rural services delivery grant to the most sparsely populated areas from £15.5 million in 2015-16 to £80.5 million in 2016-17. The Department for Transport is also supporting pilots in local rural authorities to determine how integrated transport services can offer value for money.
We keep the school transport framework under review. We have looked at different approaches to providing a national home to school transport framework and we have found that those do not offer better value than the current system, but that is not to say that local approaches will not do so. I encourage all local authorities to keep their transport arrangements under review and to identify ways in which they can improve the services they offer.
The Secretary of State has recently undertaken to review our guidance on home to school transport and I will ensure that this correctly reflects the flexibilities that local authorities have in providing it. I would be interested to hear more about Northumberland County Council’s proposals so that we can consider them in more detail.
On academy sponsorship in Northumberland, I understand my hon. Friend’s argument about the historic lack of sponsor and multi-academy trust capacity in the wider local authority, though I should point out that 13 academies in Northumberland are rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding. It is important to support and encourage local authorities to respond to their own challenges and opportunities, and local partners should work together in the best interests of their schools and pupils.
We must, however, ensure that schools that have become academies are able to enjoy the freedoms afforded by academy status. As such, there are constraints in place that prevent local authorities from establishing multi-academy trusts which mean that no more than 19.9% of trustees or members of an academy trust can be associated with the local authority, including serving councillors.
We are, however, making progress in developing local solutions and using the expertise of established trusts from neighbouring local authorities. The 13 academies I mentioned that are rated good or outstanding should also form the basis of new sponsors of multi-academy trusts in the future. In neighbouring authorities, for example, the Three Rivers Learning Trust—whose lead school is the King Edward VI Academy, rated outstanding by Ofsted—has recently been approved to sponsor underperforming schools. Although currently based in and around Morpeth, the regional schools commissioner’s team is working with the trust to provide further support in wider Northumberland.
Multi-academy trusts from other local authorities are also moving into Northumberland to provide support, including the North East Learning Trust and WISE Academies—two high-performing trusts with good track records in delivering school improvement. Janet Renou, the regional schools commissioner for her area, is fully committed to working with the county council and has already had a productive meeting with Wayne Daley, the new lead member for education, and his team. She is keen to work together to develop joint strategies to increase attainment and capacity across the county.
Lastly, my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed rightly acknowledged that teachers are fundamental to the education system. The quality of teaching is widely recognised as being the biggest in-school factor affecting the outcomes of children and young people. The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, which is why we need to ensure that we continue to invest in the quality of teaching and in the support and development that teachers get throughout their careers. The Secretary of State announced earlier this year that we would be exploring options to strengthen the qualified teacher status to establish a stronger sense of career progression for all teachers, including those at the beginning of their career and more experienced teachers seeking to excel in the classroom or to go into leadership. We intend to consult on those proposals later in the year, and I hope that my hon. Friend and the teachers and school leaders in her constituency will feel able to contribute to that consultation process. However, we recognise that there is more to do to support schools to attract and retain top graduates, and we are taking steps to understand and address school-level variation in teacher supply. Over the past six months, we have been working with schools, multi-academy trusts and local authorities to understand why some schools are facing more significant supply challenges and, crucially, to design and develop solutions to those challenges.
In conclusion, the Government’s record on education over the past seven years is a cause for pride. Last year, 147,000 more six-year-olds were on track to become fluent readers than in 2012 thanks to the introduction of systematic synthetic phonics. However we cut the numbers, England outperformed the rest of the UK in the OECD’s most recent PISA science assessments. The proportion of pupils studying the EBacc core of academic subjects at GCSE has risen from one fifth in 2010 to two fifths last year. The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers is shrinking at both key stage 2 and key stage 4. But we have more to do. We must spread opportunity and excellence to all corners of the country, so that every child—whatever their background and wherever they are from—receives the education that takes them as far as their talents will allow.
Question put and agreed to.