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Topical Questions

Volume 618: debated on Monday 19 December 2016

May I, too, wish everybody in the House a happy Christmas?

The latest Ofsted figures show that there are now nearly 1.8 million more children being taught in good or outstanding schools than in 2010. Our Schools that Work for Everyone consultation has now ended, and we look forward to responding to that in due course. In the past few weeks, we have announced a £140 million strategic school improvement fund and published the next stage of the consultation on our national fairer funding formula for schools across England, which will finally bring an end to the historical postcode lottery on school funding. I also had the chance to see our excellent teacher exchange programme in Shanghai, China, earlier this month, as well as to visit many great schools in our own country.

Team GB gave an incredible performance at this year’s Rio Olympic games, bringing home 67 medals. One third of the medal winners went to private schools, compared with 7% of the population. What else are the Government doing to encourage even greater participation in sport in our state schools?

Since 2013, we have provided over £600 million to primary schools through the primary PE and sport premium, which is steadily starting to make a difference. In fact, in independent research, schools reported an 84% increase in participation in extracurricular activities. But we know there is a lot more to do, which is why we have doubled the premium to £320 million a year from autumn 2017.

I, too, would like to wish the Secretary of State and all Members of the House a merry Christmas, but it ain’t going to be a very merry Christmas for our schools. The recent Government consultation document says there will be a floor on schools’ funding so that no school will lose more than 3% of its funding per pupil as a result of the changes to the funding formula—a hugely necessary protection, as some schools face cuts that are too severe to manage. Not only has the National Audit Office shown that, despite the floor, schools are facing funding cuts of 8% per pupil, but it has criticised the Department for failing to make the scale of the coming cuts clear. The Secretary of State has two choices—

Order. The hon. Lady will resume her seat. I am sorry, but if we are going to have a right for the Opposition Front Bench to come in on topicals—I make this clear now, with immediate effect—it must be done very briefly; otherwise, it completely absorbs the time that is for Back Benchers. A single sentence from the hon. Lady will suffice.

Thank you—sorry, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State has two choices: will she cut the funding in 2020, or will she issue guidance to schools on what those cuts will be?

We are consulting on proposals for a new national funding formula. I think everybody accepts the current system is unfair, untransparent and out of date, and it does not support our aspiration for all children to be able to reach their potential and succeed in adult life. There is often little or no justification for the differences that local areas and schools get at the moment. The consultation is now under way, and I have no doubt that hon. Members on both sides of the House will want to respond to it.

The former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), is the most recent senior Conservative to say that the Prime Minister’s plans to include international students in migration figures are not sensible. Will the Secretary of State join the Opposition and commit to doing everything she can to reverse this foolish policy and to ensure that students are removed from the migration statistics?

We value the very significant contribution that international students make to our universities. We welcome them, and we have no plans to introduce a cap on intake. As the Secretary of State recently announced, we will shortly be seeking views on the study immigration route, and all interested parties, including the Opposition, should ensure their point of view is heard.

T2. Getting it right early on is so crucial for life chances. Pen Green in Corby offers flagship nursery provision and early intervention, which local families very much appreciate and value. Would the Minister be willing to come and visit Pen Green, or to meet representatives of it, to discuss how the funding reforms can best support this provision? (907928)

Maintained nursery schools are a very small but very important part of the early years sector, providing high-quality childcare and education often in areas of disadvantage. They have a potentially important role in shaping best practice with other providers in their area. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and representatives of Pen Green to discuss this further.

T3. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that many schools, including the primary school in the most deprived part of my constituency that contacted me on Wednesday, are struggling financially as a result of, among other things, the overheads that are being heaped on them, and that children with special educational needs are likely to suffer most from the financial squeeze? (907929)

In fact, under the national funding formula that we announced last week in relation to starting the consultation on high needs, no local areas will lose out. Indeed, we have been able not only to do that but to ensure that the areas that have been underfunded will be able to gain up to 3% over 2018-19 and 2019-20.

T5. Following the publication of the key stage SATs results on Thursday, we saw that whereas the national average pass rate was 54% and the Lancashire pass rate was 54%, the pass rate in my constituency was 47%. What steps are the Department taking to look at best practice in schools such as those in my constituency with a pass rate of 78%, and what can it do to help the schools that are underperforming? (907932)

I share my hon. Friend’s justifiable concern. We want all schools to use evidence-based teaching such as systematic synthetic phonics and maths mastery. To help spread effective practice, we have established a national network of teaching schools, as well as school partnerships led by schools that excel in the teaching of maths, phonics, and science.

T4. International students are vital to the economy, contributing about £7 billion, according to Universities UK. Will the Minister confirm whether this Government plan to use the new teaching and excellence framework to link student visas to the quality of course and institution as a means of cutting immigration? (907931)

No decision has yet been taken on the best way to differentiate in order to allow our best institutions to continue to attract international students. The Home Secretary has indicated that she will start a consultation in the new year, and all parties are encouraged to contribute to it.

T8. Recognising the mental health challenges faced by an increasing number of young people, what steps is my hon. Friend taking to work with third sector bodies such as YoungMinds and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to help young people and their parents to tackle self-harming, which is blighting the lives of too many children? (907935)

Every child and young person should be able to enjoy good mental health and well-being. My hon. Friend is right to raise the serious concerns about self-harm. That is why we are working closely with the Department of Health to tackle it by funding guidance for schools on teaching about it, and information and training for professionals and parents through the MindEd web portal, as well as providing funding to the YoungMinds parents’ helpline and to the NSPCC’s invaluable Childline. However, we know that there is more to do.

T6. The higher education sector in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland supported SNP amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill to ensure fair, UK-wide representation on the board of UK Research and Innovation. Does the Secretary of State have any plans to look at this issue again, or is she happy to ignore the respected HE voices within the devolved nations? (907933)

The hon. Gentleman will have seen the amendment that the Government tabled to the Bill ensuring that there will be at least one member of the UKRI board with experience of the excellent research that goes on in at least one of our devolved Administrations.

T7. Universities such as Sunderland do a fantastic job in supporting part-time and mature students into higher education. Ministers claim to want to support this, so why was funding for widening participation cut by 50% in the autumn statement? (907934)

The hon. Lady will be encouraged to see that spending on access agreements will increase to some £800 million in the next financial year, up from about £400 million when the previous coalition Government came into office, almost doubling the amount being spent on this important area.

The Secretary of State will remember the historical and ongoing problems with flooding at Tipton St John Primary School. Will she announce an early Christmas present for the people of Tipton St John and of Ottery St Mary by announcing that her Department is going to contribute to the funding solution to relocate the school to Ottery St Mary?

Following my right hon. Friend’s meeting on 12 October with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and county representatives to consider plans to relocate the school, a feasibility study was submitted to the Education Funding Agency. Officials have reviewed the report and have been in dialogue with Devon County Council to address outstanding issues. Once those are resolved, a decision can be taken about whether any central funding contribution can be made, and whether my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) will have a Christmas present.

Given the contribution of EU nationals to the overall numbers of teachers and lecturers, what contingency plans do Ministers have should that source of recruitment diminish?

As I said in an earlier answer, this Government welcome strongly the contribution that EU and international students make to our higher education institutions. There is no plan to introduce a cap on the number of international students. We continue to welcome EU students.

The superb schools across my constituency of Wealden face the double financial whammy of being both rural and small. Under the new funding formula, only eight schools will get an uplift. May I urge Ministers to look again at the schools in Wealden that do not regularly hit the traditional markers of deprivation?

We have kicked off a consultation on introducing a national funding formula. As my hon. Friend points out, we have tried to make sure that it reflects factors that affect schools in more remote locations, as well as those with higher cost bases under the additional costs allowance. She has obviously looked at the impacts on her local schools and I am sure that she will want to provide input into the consultation.

Last Tuesday, more than 2,000 people filled Nottingham’s royal concert hall to hear hundreds of schoolchildren singing and playing together in the Nottingham Music Service “Christmas in the City” concert. Does the Secretary of State agree that the opportunity to learn to play music is hugely important in building children’s confidence and their enjoyment of school, and will she visit Nottingham Music Service to hear more about the wonderful work it is doing in our city schools, where more than 8,000 students are learning to play a musical instrument?

We have announced £300 million for music and the arts. As someone who had the chance to play music during my school years, I know how important it is. I very much hope that those children will get the benefit of the ongoing investment that this Government are putting in.

When will pupils be able to take up places in the new grammars envisaged in the Secretary of State’s policy?

Once we have got through the response to our consultation and, I hope, had the chance to change the law that prevents grammars from being opened, I hope that we will be able to make some progress.

Headteachers in Slough schools were very grateful to the Minister for School Standards when he met them to discuss teacher shortages. Unfortunately—I am sorry to bring this to the Chamber—I have reminded him twice since then that they have not received the letter that he promised them at that meeting. Can I expect it to be sent before Christmas?

I will do my utmost to ensure that they receive a letter. I enjoyed meeting them and they raised some very important points, but we are ensuring that we are filling teacher training places. There are more teachers in our initial teacher training system now than there were last year.