Prime Minister’s Questions – Childcare & Schools

Jeremy Corbyn: It is three years since the Government announced a policy of tax-free childcare. Can the Prime Minister tell us what the hold-up is?

The Prime Minister: We are introducing the tax-free childcare, along with the 30 hours of childcare, for everyone with three and four-year-olds, with a £6 billion commitment. The start of the 30 hours will come in through a pilot scheme this year.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Treasury website describes it as a “long-term plan”. Well, it is certainly that, because it was announced in 2013 and is apparently not going to be introduced until next year. Why is the Prime Minister’s promise of 30 hours free childcare for three and four-year-olds not available for one in three working parents who want their children to be cared for in a pre-school?

The Prime Minister: First, on tax relief on childcare, we lost a court case against some of the existing providers, so there was a delay. The tax-free childcare will come in in 2017. As for the 30 hours, as I have said, there will be some pilot schemes this year and full implementation next year, which is in line with what we said in our manifesto. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman is helping me to promote Government policy. When I became Prime Minister, of course, I think we had only 10 hours of childcare; then it went up to 12, then 15 and now to 30. Those are the sort of things you can do if you have a strong economy with a sound plan. If you are getting your deficit down and your economy is growing, you are able to do all those things. I am glad that we are able to talk about them.

Jeremy Corbyn: A National Audit Office report published today confirms that one third of the families who were promised 30 hours of free childcare will now not receive it. That is a broken promise. The report also warns that many childcare providers are not offering the new entitlement owing to insufficient funding. As a result, 41,000 three-year-olds are missing out on free early education. Will the Prime Minister intervene, and ensure that those children are given the start in life that they deserve?

The Prime Minister: We want all those children to have the start in life that they deserve. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the National Audit Office report. Let me read to him some of the things that it says. For instance, it says:

“The Department has successfully implemented the entitlement to free childcare for 3- and 4-year-olds, with almost universal take-up of hours offered to parents.”

I think that we should be congratulating the Secretary of State. It also says:

“The Department has made significant progress in providing free entitlement to early years childcare… parents and children are clearly benefiting from these entitlements… Stakeholders are…positive about increasing the entitlement to 30 hours”.

We are able to do all those things because we have a strong and sound economy. What a contrast it would be if we listened to the right hon. Gentleman. Because I regularly subscribe to the Islington Tribune, I can announce to the House that his latest economic adviser is one Mr Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek Finance Minister who left his economy in ruins. That is Labour’s policy in two words: Acropolis Now.

Jeremy Corbyn: That is not much help to the 41,000 children who are not benefiting from what they were promised by the Government.

Let us look further on in the educational life of children. According to the Government’s own figures, half a million children in primary schools are in classes of more than 31, and 15,000 are in classes of more than 40. We are all aware of the importance of both pre-school and early-years education to giving all our children a decent start in life, yet half a million are living in poverty, and many are in oversized classes. Is it not time for a serious Government intervention to sort this problem out?

The Prime Minister: Let me bring the right hon. Gentleman up to date with the figures relating to all those areas.

Introducing the extra hours of childcare is obviously a huge operation for the childcare providers, but although the National Audit Office report said that only 58% of disadvantaged two-year-olds were accessing the free childcare offer, the latest information shows that over 70% are doing so.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of teachers, and overcrowded classes. There are 13,100 more teachers than there were in 2010, because we have invested in Teach First and in bursaries, and we have made sure that teaching is a worthwhile career. As for school places, I want to answer the right hon. Gentleman, because there are actually 453 fewer schools that are full or over capacity than there were in 2010—so that is progress—and there are 36,500 fewer pupils in overcrowded schools.

Why have we been able to do that? We have protected education funding. We have protected the money that followed every pupil into a school. We introduced the pupil premium, and that was the first time that any Government had recognised the extra needs of children from the poorest backgrounds. We have done all that, so our school system is growing, there are more places, and there are fewer overcrowded schools—all because we have a strong economy and the right values in place.

Jeremy Corbyn: The problem is that class sizes are growing. The problem is that there is a crisis of teacher shortages as well. I have been talking to many teachers, as, I am sure, have the Prime Minister and others. I have a question from one, Tom, who says:

“I have been teaching for 10 years, and am currently head of D&T” —design and technology— “at a successful secondary school. With increasing numbers of teachers leaving the profession, will the government now accept that there is a crisis in recruitment and retention?”

Will the Government accept that there is that crisis in this crucial profession?

The Prime Minister: I have just given the right hon. Gentleman the figures. There are 13,000 more teachers in our schools than there were when I became Prime Minister. However, if he is worried about teacher recruitment, perhaps he can explain this. His party proposes to put up the basic rate of tax, starting in Scotland. How will that help? It means that classroom teachers, nursery teachers and secondary teachers will all pay more tax. What we are doing is helping teachers by saying, “You can earn £11,000 before you pay any income tax at all.” I do not think that recruiting teachers is simply about money—it is also about having a good school system, which we have in our country—but it certainly will not help if we listen to Labour and put up people’s taxes.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Prime Minister seems to be in a bit of denial here. Ofsted and the National Audit Office have confirmed that there is a shortage and a crisis of teachers. Ensuring that there are enough excellent teachers in our schools is obviously fundamental to the life chances of children. When 70% of headteachers have warned that they are now having to use agency staff to staff their classrooms, is it not time that the Government intervened and looked at the real cost of this, which is the damage to children’s education and also the £1.3 billion spent last year on agency teachers? We have this agency working situation in the national health service and also in education. Are we not moving into an era that we could term “agency Britain”?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has to look at the facts, rather than talking down the people who are working so hard to teach children in our schools. The facts are these: our teachers are better qualified than ever, with a record 96.6% of teachers in state-funded schools now having a degree or higher qualification. Those are the facts. On those going into teaching, Teach First is the most popular destination for Oxbridge graduates—something that never happened under a Labour Government. If you want to encourage people to go into teaching, you have to know that you have a good school system with more academies, more free schools and higher qualifications, and make sure that we have rigour and discipline in our classrooms, all of which has improved. All of that is possible only if you have a strong and growing economy to fund the schools that our children need.