Improving Education Standards

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 2:59 pm on 29th November 2018.

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Photo of Anne Milton Anne Milton Minister of State (Education) 2:59 pm, 29th November 2018

I, too, want to pay tribute to some of the speakers in this debate. I must mention Emma Hardy, because she is so passionate about this subject that she could have had the whole debate to herself. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards for opening the debate and setting out all the things we are doing to improve education in schools. I completely reject what the Opposition said. While the Schools Minister and I have different responsibilities in education, we have a shared aim to improve quality and have high standards. I pay tribute to all those who contributed to the debate, and it is clear that everybody has a passion for education and a desire for this county to set high standards of education at every level and to keep on raising those standards.

Let me reiterate some of the improvements that there have been. The phonics screening check has increased since its introduction from 58% success in 2012 to 82% in 2018; that is a 24% improvement. Between 2016 and 2018 the proportion of pupils reaching the expected standards has risen from 66% to 75% in reading tests and from 70% to 76% in maths. [Interruption.] Opposition Members do not like hearing this stuff. Critically, the gap between disadvantaged pupils and others in secondary schools narrowed by 10% between 2011 and 2017.

My right hon. Friend the Schools Minister opened the debate by talking about many of those figures and commenting on the impact of the improvements in teaching and learning. I pay tribute to King’s College in my constituency, which has made a massive improvement. In the words of Ofsted,

“staff have transformed the atmosphere in the school through raising expectations of pupils’
behaviour.”

Principal Alastair McKenzie should rightly, along with the staff, be proud of what he has achieved. My hon. Friend Neil O'Brien mentioned the need for good behaviour and order in schools, and King’s College shows what can be done when schools put their mind to that.

I praise my right hon. Friend the Schools Minister for the work he has done, and I say to those on the Opposition Front Bench that no one is better read in teaching methods. Against considerable opposition, he has driven ahead, because he, like me, knows that young people and children deserve nothing less.

I am fully aware of the funding pressures in FE. Opposition Members mentioned austerity as if it just dropped on us from the sky; it came upon us as a result of the financial crisis, and Conservative Members do not want our children and grandchildren to be burdened with paying back the debt that Opposition Members would rack up.

The results in FE are very good. Some 82% of colleges are outstanding or good, and the proportion of good or outstanding general colleges has increased from 69% to 76% over the last year, while 83% of sixth-form colleges and 80% of independent learning providers are outstanding or good. Of learners who completed FE courses in 2014-15, 58% got jobs and 22% went into further learning. Some 90% of 16 to 19-year-olds completing level 3 courses at sixth-form colleges and 86% completing level 3 courses at other FE colleges went on to further learning or sustained employment.

The figures are good, but I know that there are significant funding pressures in the FE sector. My hon. Friend Richard Graham raised that point, and he, like me, will continue to raise the critical role that FE plays in improving social mobility, giving younger people a chance and older people a second or even third chance. FE plays a critical role in productivity and improving social mobility, and I am sure hon. Members will not hesitate to highlight that to the Chancellor.

I want to mention two things that are behind many of the reforms we have made in apprenticeships and technical education. The Richard review in 2012 said that apprenticeships should be redefined, that the focus should be on their outcome, that they should recognise industry standards and that it should be clearly set out what apprentices should know. It also stated that apprenticeships should be meaningful and relevant for employers, that apprentices should have achieved a level 2 or 3 in English and maths before they can complete their apprenticeship, be it in functional skills or at GCSE, and that some off-site learning was essential, with a minimum duration of a year. We have ensured all those things.

Apprenticeships are available to all, at every level from level 2 to level 7, with 20% of the learning off the job and a meaningful assessment at the end, which gives apprentices a currency that they can take to future employers. It is critical that we get them right. In fact, there is a tsunami of apprenticeships coming. I recently visited an NHS trust that is now spending 20% of its levy, and it will be spending its levy out by 2020. That is the way we can get the skills this country needs and give young people—and, indeed, older people—the opportunities they need.

I also want to mention the Wolf review, which made a number of findings and conclusions regarding vocational and technical education. Those findings have largely guided many of the reforms, along with the work that Lord Sainsbury has done. It is vital that we take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get technical education right. The introduction of T-levels will be critical to ensuring that we have technical qualifications that are on a par with academic qualifications. I have mentioned the contribution of Lord Sainsbury, which, along with the work of the Gatsby Foundation, has guided much of our work on the forthcoming T-levels. As I said, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for change.

I want to mention a number of the contributions that have been made today. My hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy never misses an opportunity to praise those working in the public sector. He mentioned exclusions, and I know that a review is being led by Edward Timpson, who spent a long time as a Minister in the Department for Education. That review will be reporting in the new year. Emma Hardy made many contributions, and I know that she will use every opportunity to raise the issue of further education funding. Her college has been through a difficult time, but it has had considerable financial support. The bit that frequently gets missed is the £330 million that we spend on supporting the FE sector. There is more to come down the line, and that funding is critical to getting colleges such as hers back on track.

My hon. Friend Neil O’Brien raised a terrible incident of bullying in his constituency. Hearing about it today bears no relation to how terrible the impact is when we watch it online. Relationships and sex education and personal, social, health and economic education have a role to play, and he also mentioned the role of behaviour in schools in young people’s lives. That is indeed critical, as are many other issues.

My hon. Friend was appropriately moved by those who have turned around the lives of young people. I have the best job in the Government, because I spend my life doing things like attending the national apprenticeship awards, which I did last night, and hearing stories of young people who have turned their lives around —who have had that second, third or fourth chance and have got an apprenticeship and some qualifications so that they can start a life that they never would have thought possible when they left school.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle also paid considerable attention to off-rolling, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards would be happy to meet her to talk about that. He was not present in the Chamber at the time, and I am sure that she would like a more detailed conversation.

Vicky Foxcroft was absolutely right to say that education is at the heart of so much. As a former Public Health Minister, I know that education correlates more closely to health than to many other things. She also mentioned crime, and we have much to do in that area. We have a project running in five cities, including Leicester, the west midlands, Manchester, Leeds and London. I have been listening to the details of the work that is being done down in Bristol, which has been brilliant in increasing diversity and turning young people away from crime.

In closing, I must mention a couple of issues briefly. We all face a world, politicians as much as anybody else, in which our lives are dominated by social media. It is not only the children who are affected; the problems that teachers face are not dissimilar to those facing their pupils. A number of Departments are working to ensure that the impact of social media on all our lives is reduced, because its adverse effects on mental health and the stresses it brings are truly dreadful in some instances.

I must also mention the role of WorldSkills. You might not be familiar with it, Mr Deputy Speaker; I suggest you go to the website. WorldSkills sees 50 or 60 countries competing in a similar number of disciplines, with some of the national winners coming from our devolved Administrations. I am particularly disappointed that the Scottish Government are not going to contribute financially to WorldSkills, particularly bearing in mind the success of some of the young people in Scotland.

My right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers highlighted the successful performance of young people and the improvement of many. Like me, she sat on the Opposition Benches during the Blair and Brown years, when performance most certainly did not match the words that we heard from the then Government—there was nothing on further education or technical education, just a lot of political rhetoric, I am afraid.

My hon. Friend Dr Offord raised some of the issues around teacher recruitment. I know that the Schools Minister would be happy to meet him again, but he is right that social mobility is at the heart of why we need good-quality education.

I do not blame the current Opposition Front Benchers—they possibly were not involved at the time, and I am much older than many of them—but I do blame the Labour party of all those decades ago for how we saw children’s education sacrificed to pursue political ideology. I remember—[Interruption.] Opposition Members say it is nonsense. I remember the Inner London Education Authority, which banned punctuation, banned grammar, banned capital letters and refused to let the police into schools. All of us on the Conservative Benches involved in education—I also give considerable praise to our officials in the Department—want to make sure that, wherever someone comes from and whoever they know, everybody gets the chance to get on in life that they deserve. We will never cease in our mission to make changes, refine what we are doing and take on political rhetoric and ideology to make sure that young people get the education that they deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered improving education standards.