Nicky Morgan exclusive interview: the education secretary talks to The Student Room

Here at The Student Room, we bagged a rare opportunity to interview the Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP. 

We asked you, the TSR community, to put forward questions about the educational issues you care about most. Now it's time for the answers...

What are the government's priorities regarding current education policy? Will anything change significantly if your party is re-elected next year?

The government has a plan for education that is designed to ensure all children leave school prepared for life in modern Britain. The plan has three key parts: ensuring every child learns the core knowledge in the key subjects such as English and maths, the subjects that universities and employers value the most; ensuring they gain the skills and experiences they need to help them get a job and get on in life; and providing them with the values they need to succeed in modern Britain. 

In this parliament, we have rightly placed a huge amount of emphasis on raising standards in all schools and helping every child to master the basics. This was necessary because of the situation we inherited when we came to office. But I am determined that we should now build on this by highlighting many other important areas of the education system, for example teaching young people the life skills they need to succeed in the world of work. 

I have added a fifth priority to the department’s strategy that is all about supporting schools and colleges to prepare well-rounded young people for success in adult life. This is one of my particular priorities and something I will be focusing on in the years ahead. This includes an emphasis on things like character education, life skills and mental health.

Why is the government increasing the standards for trainee teachers, yet free schools and academies are allowed to employ unqualified teachers?

No education system can be better than the teachers that teach in it. We want the very best people teaching in our schools, and we've made very good progress. There are more teachers with a 2:1 degree or higher than ever before and Teach First is the number one choice of employer for graduates leaving Oxford University. The teaching profession is finally being held in the regard that it deserves. 

We think that headteachers should be trusted to make the decision about who best to employ in their school – it might be that they could employ a native speaker of a foreign language, or a mathematician who has taught in universities but doesn’t hold qualified teacher status. Heads are best-placed to make a decision about the qualifications, experience and knowledge that they need the teachers in their school to have – being a good teacher isn’t just about having QTS.

The heads of high-performing independent schools have long enjoyed this freedom to decide who to employ, and we think it is something that heads in the state-funded sector should have control over too.

This said, the overwhelming majority – 96% – of all teachers in state-funded schools are qualified. And in academies 95% of teachers are qualified. There are actually fewer unqualified teachers now than there were under the last government.

How will the government act on the feedback provided in the Workload Challenge questionnaire?

The workload challenge survey has now closed. It attracted more than 43,000 responses – which just goes to show what an important issue this is. 

Every single response will be read, analysed and the findings will be shared with trade unions through the current programme of talks before the end of the year. 

We will also share the findings with a group of teachers, headteachers and support staff who will act as a ‘sector challenge panel’. 

This panel will help us to develop a programme of action which will be published early next year. 

As I said in my speech to the Conservative conference recently, the problem of teacher workload is a complicated issue. If there were an easy answer we would provide it. But the ‘workload challenge’ has been a really useful process and we are committed to working with teachers to find solutions and share good practice to address the problem.

How do you justify the claim that not studying STEM subjects disadvantages teenagers? Instead of pushing teenagers into dropping subjects like history would it not be better to encourage them to switch to a broader based IB system?

The very point I was making is that I want young people to keep their options open for longer. At the moment I fear too many are put off studying STEM subjects at an early age because sometimes they think they’re not right for them. This is a particular problem for girls. 

It is important that we continue to grow the number of young people studying STEM subjects after the age of 16. The skills and knowledge involved in subjects like maths and science are increasingly important to a wide range of careers.

All schools are required to provide a broad and balanced curriculum, and many young people will be well served by studying a mix of subjects post-16 across STEM, arts and humanities.

It is up to schools and colleges to decide which qualifications to offer their students, including A-levels and the International Baccalaureate. We expect schools to provide their students with advice about which subjects and qualification to choose, including which will support them to progress to their chosen university degree or career. 

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How do you propose to sort out the crisis in secondary and primary school places in some parts of the country, including Brighton and Hove where I live? With a significant number of new free schools opening in areas already with a surplus of places, hasn'

I appreciate that some areas, like Brighton and Hove, are currently experiencing significant growth in the numbers of children and young people of school age. As you alluded to in your question, local authorities are responsible for planning and securing sufficient school places for their area. We work with local authorities to secure these places and provide basic need capital funding to local authorities to help them fulfil their responsibility. 

Local authorities can then use their basic need funding to work with any school (including academies) to expand provision, and can invite proposals for a new academy if they need an entirely new school to help meet demand. 

Supporting local authorities to provide the school places needed is one of our main priorities, that’s why we have committed £2.35 billion in basic need capital funding to support local authorities to create new school places by September 2017. This is on top of the £5 billion we have already allocated for basic need funding between 2011 and 2015. Brighton and Hove has been allocated £17.6 million in basic need funding between 2011 and 2015, and a further £24.7 million for 2015-17. 

We have also allocated £730,000 to Brighton and Hove through the Targeted Basic Need Programme, which was a targeted programme to fund new schools and expansions in areas of the highest need. 

West Hove Infant School (Connaught site) received this Targeted Basic Need money. West Hove’s expansion opened this year to provide an additional 90 school places. 

You mentioned free schools, and in fact free schools are overwhelmingly in areas with a shortage of places. Seven in 10 (72%) of open mainstream free schools have been opened in areas where there was a need for additional school places. For those approved to open in the future, eight in 10 (82%) mainstream schools have been assessed at application stage to be located in areas where there is a need for additional school places.

In the future will there be more emphasis placed on alternative routes to standard education, such as vocational qualifications and apprenticeships?

There has already been considerable emphasis placed on these areas. They are absolutely essential to the success of our long-term economic plan. 

We want every young person to either go to university or do an apprenticeship and 52% of 16- to 19-year-olds and 85% of 14- to 16-year-olds already take at least one vocational qualification. 

The issue this government has tackled is that in the past these qualifications were too easy to pass and not recognised by employers. We have ensured that the technical and vocational qualifications have the rigour and value students need to progress to the next level of education, training or employment.

These will give us an education and skills system that allows every young person to fulfil their potential and that meets the needs of employers.

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Will the Conservatives look to do anything to reduce tuition fees if re-elected next year?

We want more young people who aspire to go to university to be able to do so – so that our young people can get the skills they need to succeed in life. 

That’s why we lifted the cap on aspiration and increased the number of student places - paid for by difficult decisions we took elsewhere. That means more places at top universities are available to young people this year. Next year we are abolishing the cap on student places entirely.

The tuition fees model is actually a system that works to everyone’s advantage. Students don’t pay up front, and as a result we have record numbers of students going to university. Graduates contributions are actually more affordable than before. Every graduate earning more than £21,000 pays £45 less each month, £540 less each year, than under the old system. And in addition we have universities with more cash now than they had at the start of the coalition government. So during these times when money is hard to come by across the public sector, they are able to invest more, recruit staff, improving the quality of the academic experience of students.

I’m particularly pleased that as a result of our reforms more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds now have the chance to go to university. Across the UK the entry rates for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were at record levels last year.

So our reforms are working and our ambition to widen access to university education for all who aspire remains undimmed. 

Should schools be allowed to admit students on the basis of religion even in light of an ever-increasing non-religious population?

We greatly value the contribution that faith schools, which encompass many creeds and reflect our multi-cultural society, make to the education sector. They are generally high performing and popular with parents, which is why many of them are heavily oversubscribed. Nevertheless, the majority of state-funded schools in England are, and will continue to be, schools that admit without reference to faith. 

It is worth emphasising that no school, no matter what type, can refuse to admit children if there are places available. Furthermore, new academies and free schools that have a faith designation must allow for a minimum of 50% of places to be allocated to children without reference to faith where the school is oversubscribed. This means that new faith schools established in areas with the greatest pressure for school places will help meet a demand for general school places - as well as faith places.

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