By Joseph Willits
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Perhaps because the time for reading his Christmas Carol is approaching, yesterday's education Topical Questions was full of references to Charles Dickens. Gavin Barwell MP (Croydon Central) began by asking for more. He congratulated Michael Gove's pledge of £8million for additional school places in Croydon, but asked whether "there will be further such tranches of money in future" due to an increase of 10% in the number of children in reception classes.
Barwell had, Gove replied, "Great Expectations" about what I can get out of the Chancellor", prompting shouts of "Hard Times" from the rest of the House. The Education Secretary continued:
"Well, really it is a “Tale of Two Cities”: the City of London under Labour, under-regulated and, sadly, not paying the taxes that it should have; and the City of London under the Conservatives—at last getting the resources into the Exchequer".
Edward Leigh MP (Gainsborough), highlighted the fact that "many members of the Cabinet, including the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, owe their start in life to private education". Leigh asked whether the Government would look to Europe where there are "many more bridges between private and state education … for instance, the state paying the salaries of teachers in private schools", and not rule out "imaginative ways of helping ordinary people to access private education".
Returning to Oliver Twist, Gove said that he wanted to "ensure that we do not just save Oliver and leave the Artful Dodger and the rest of Fagin’s gang to the wolves, but ensure that every child in poverty is helped". Pressure needed to be put on independent schools to "live up to their charitable foundation by sponsoring academies and doing more for all children in need".
On the issue of academy schools, Richard Fuller MP (Bedford) asked what advice Gove would give to early adopter schools that are "well equipped to convert to academies already on the pace in becoming free-standing academies … to the middle area of schools that are considering moving to being an academy but have not yet got up the nerve to make that change?".
"Come on in. The water’s lovely.”, said a jovial Gove, emphasising that schools and headteachers had already seen their standards increase.
Matthew Hancock MP (West Suffolk) questioned Gove on free schools. He asked whether "expressions of interest from parents" would be acknowledged on "official forms and on the forms from the free school … when he makes a decision on whether that free school should go ahead?". Gove praised "fantastic models of citizen action" on the issue of free schools, and stressed that parental "bravery, courage and energy in ensuring that their children get the best possible education" would be supported.