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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
11 December 2017
Volume 633

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

Social Mobility

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1. What steps her Department is taking to enhance social mobility. [902843]

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22. What steps her Department is taking to enhance social mobility. [902865]

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We have made significant and ambitious reforms to the education system since 2010. We have expanded childcare provision, raised school standards, transformed apprenticeships and increased university access. We will continue to drive social mobility through the whole education system and beyond into careers. Equality of opportunity is essential to make our country one that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.

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In light of the excellent news that we have seen the best improvement in reading standards in our schools for 15 years, not least due to the excellent work of the Minister for School Standards, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that no single measure can boost social mobility more than this kind of dramatic improvement in education standards?

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Absolutely, I do. In fact, it was put forward in the teeth of opposition from many Opposition Members. Last week’s international reading results showed not only that reading in England has improved for pupils from all backgrounds, but crucially that low-performing pupils are gaining the most rapidly. Just 58% of pupils reached expected reading standards in the first national phonic screening check in 2012. That figure is now 81%. There has been no welcome from the Opposition for this progress.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that the recent Social Mobility Commission report showed that social mobility is an issue not just for inner cities but for our shire counties, including Worcestershire? Is that not further justification for a fairer funding formula to redress some of the relative underfunding of so many of our rural schools?

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My hon. Friend is right. This was an important funding reform to ensure that all children are invested in properly. On opportunity areas, we are focusing our effort on areas of the country with the greatest challenges and the fewest opportunities. We have invested £72 million in opportunity areas, some in rural areas. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to flag up the fact that talent is spread evenly, but opportunity is not. We are determined to change that.

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One Member of the House is so keen to demonstrate her commitment to equality that she is wearing what I will call a rainbow pullover, with the rainbow symbol of equality. I am referring to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), to whose contribution we look forward with eager anticipation.

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Sixth form colleges are well recognised for their role in delivering social mobility, yet that is now at risk with an underfunding of £1,200 per student, compared with 11 to 16 funding. Will the Secretary of State act to address this before it is too late?

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As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are putting more money into making sure that post-16 education is consistently gold standard, regardless of whether young people follow academic or technical education routes. I am sure he will have welcomed the announcement in the Budget a couple of weeks ago, of extra premiums for maths students.

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Since the Secretary of State was the only member of the Cabinet to get a pass mark from the Social Mobility Commission, will she now cement her reputation by intervening to stop the catastrophic decline in apprenticeship starts?

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I will set out a social mobility action plan later this week. On the right hon. Gentleman’s claims about apprenticeships, starts remain on track to reach 3 million by 2020. There have already been 1.1 million since May 2015. Rather than talking them down, it would be better if he talked our education system up.

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I congratulate the Minister for School Standards on the incredible work done on young children’s reading. On social justice, will my right hon. Friend consider providing 30 hours of free childcare for foster children, in line with those of working parents, by dropping the eligibility earnings cap for free childcare to £65,000 from the existing £100,000 mark?

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The 30 hours free childcare policy has been incredibly popular with parents. Nine out of 10 say they very much like it and welcome it. We are actively looking at the issue my hon. Friend mentions in relation to foster children.

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As chair of the all-party group on social mobility, I am very concerned to read the Social Mobility Commission’s report and the subsequent comments from the outgoing chair. Will the Secretary of State, or one of her ministerial team, agree to meet the all-party group to discuss where we go from here?

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I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to welcome the plan I will set out later this week. I think the time has come for us all to move on from talking about the problem, which we have done a lot for many, many years, to deciding that we have it within us to work together up and down the country to now tackle it.

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I agree with the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). Last week the Minister for Children and Families used the 30 hours of free childcare as an example of the Government’s commitment to social mobility. He knows that foster children are some of the most vulnerable, often starting school having already fallen behind their peers, and that many would benefit from access to high-quality early years education. Why have they been excluded from the 30-hours offer, and will the Secretary of State tell us when this discrimination will end?

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I am pleased that the hon. Lady implicitly recognises that the 30-hours policy is a good thing, which, ideally, would be extended to more children. As I just said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), we will be looking at that.

Multi-academy Trusts: Financial Accountability

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2. What steps she is taking to monitor the financial accountability of multi-academy trusts. [902844]

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Academies and multi-academy trusts are subject to a much stronger financial accountability regime than local authority-maintained schools. Academies are required to publish audited financial accounts annually, and the Education and Skills Funding Agency oversees compliance with the funding agreement. We take swift and robust action at the first sign of failure, either financial failure or academic underperformance. The auditors gave 98% of academy trust 2015-16 accounts a clean bill of health.

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In my constituency, we have suffered significant cuts in central budgets that support the most vulnerable people in our communities. Hartlepool Council has suffered cuts of almost 50% over the last five years, at a time when demands on services continue to rise rapidly. The council has tried very hard to protect frontline children’s services, but there has nevertheless been a 14% reduction in funding for them, Can the Secretary of State explain how our most vulnerable children and young people will have increased social mobility, given the significant and growing pressures on social care, funding for those—

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Order. First, the question is far too long, and secondly, I am afraid that it does not relate to the matter that we are discussing. We are supposed to be talking about the financial accountability of multi-academy trusts.

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We are spending record amounts on school funding. We are spending £41 billion this year, and that will rise to £43.5 billion by 2019-20. In the new national funding formula, a fair system that previous Governments have shied away from introducing, we give huge priority to funding for the disadvantaged.

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During education questions last month, I raised the case of High Crags primary school in my constituency, which had £276,000 snaffled from its funds by Wakefield City Academies Trust shortly before the trust’s collapse. The school is in a very deprived part of the constituency, and, quite understandably, it wants its money back. Will the Minister tell us what he is doing to ensure that that happens?

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My hon. Friend should know that no academy trust can profit from its schools, and the Wakefield trust will not be able to retain any reserves that it has at the point of dissolution. We are working with all the academies and the preferred new trust to determine what is appropriate support and proper funding.

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I hope that the standard of the question is up to that of the jumper, Mr Speaker, but I fear that it may not be.

Notwithstanding what the Minister has said, the acting chief executive of Wakefield City Academies Trust managed to pay himself £1,000 a day in a company owned by his daughter and to pay £60,000 a year for clerking services. Despite those excessive sums, however, it appears that the audit committee did not meet for a full calendar year to sign off the probity of those payments. How many more academy trusts across the country are in special measures? Into how many more trusts has the Minister sent his special auditors so that they can have a look? He sent them into Wakefield, but he did not tell anyone else about what was going on, leaving the trust to fail in September during the first week of the new term.

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All related-party transactions must be disclosed, and they are. We are working with the trust to transfer all 21 academies to new sponsors with a track record of improving schools and delivering high academic standards. Those transfers will take place in a way that secures the financial future of each school.

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The excellent Priory multi-academy trust has been working with King Alfred school in Highbridge, in my constituency, since the school was placed in special measures last year. They have made some very good progress, but the trust’s board of directors is nervous about formalising the sponsorship until urgently needed repairs have been completed at the school. Will the Minister meet me, along with representatives of the trust and the school, so that we can resolve the impasse at the earliest opportunity?

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Yes, of course; I will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to try to resolve that impasse. We are spending record amounts of capital on our school system: £23 billion in this period.

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I am confused. In 2015 the Education Funding Agency conducted a financial management and governance review of the failed Wakefield City Academies Trust, but the Department refused to publish it, placing the trust’s commercial interests above the interests of the 8,500 pupils. So can the Minister answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh): how many more MATs are in peril on his watch?

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As I said earlier, 98% of academy trust accounts for 2015-16 got a clean bill of health. We take the financial probity of the academy system very seriously. All academies have to publish audited financial accounts, which maintained local authority schools do not. The fact that far fewer schools today are rated as inadequate than in 2010 is a tribute to the structural reforms and the academies programme. Currently, 450,000 pupils are in sponsored academies rated as good or outstanding. Under the watch of the hon. Gentleman’s party these schools were typically underperforming, before we turned them into sponsored academies.

Schools: Capital Funding

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3. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of capital funding for schools. [902845]

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10. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of capital funding for schools. [902852]

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The Government are making a significant capital investment in the school estate: we have committed over £23 billion in capital funding over the period 2016-21. This will create over 600,000 new school places, rebuild buildings in the worst condition at over 500 schools through the priority school building programme, and deliver thousands of projects to improve the physical condition of school buildings. Since 2010, capital funding has resulted in 735,000 new places and revenue funding is at an all-time high at £41 billion.

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Recent research by the National Education Union and Tes found that 94% of teachers pay for essential classroom supplies, including at schools in my constituency where glue-sticks are being brought in by hard-working staff. With this in mind, does the Minister still maintain that Portsmouth’s schools have enough money and resources?

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No parent should be expected to pay for the basic needs of their school, although they can, of course, be asked to fund school trips and extra things. We are spending record amounts on our school system: £41 billion this year, rising to £43.5 billion by 2019-20, and standards are rising in our school system, too, in reading, maths and GCSEs, despite a more rigorous curriculum in our secondary and primary schools.

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Can the Minister confirm that, despite the additional £1.3 billion announced in July, the schools budget is still facing a £1.5 billion real-terms funding shortfall, which nothing has been done to reverse?

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No. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced an additional £1.3 billion in July, as the hon. Gentleman kindly acknowledged. That means that not only have we maintained school funding in real terms, as we did in the last Parliament, but we have maintained school funding in real terms per pupil in this period up to 2020.

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Currently, bids for capital spending on maintenance for schools are assessed on the state of the building. Given that there is significant competition for these bids and it is very difficult to assess the state of buildings in different schools across the country, is there not a case for also assessing the historical underfunding in various areas of our country?

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We deal with the historical underfunding through a fairer national funding formula. On capital funding, we are spending £10 billion between 2016 and 2021 on school replacements, maintenance and improvement. That must be determined according to the condition of the school, and we have conducted a national survey of all schools in the country so that the system is fair.

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Through the Minister, may I thank the Secretary of State and her Parliamentary Private Secretary for their superb response to the question I asked at the last Education questions session? On Friday, I was at Shiphay Learning Academy meeting its headteacher Elaine Gill, to discuss the condition of its building, and particularly the roof. Will the Minister reassure me that there will be an adequacy of funding to seriously consider the bid it is about to put forward to the condition improvement fund?

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Obviously I cannot comment on a particular bid, but we are spending £10 billion on ensuring that we have sufficient capital to replace schools and improve the maintenance of schools. I hope that that answer was as superb as the previous answers that my hon. Friend has had.

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18. The executive member for children on Leeds City Council wrote to me today after writing to the Secretary of State on 28 September about health and safety issues in local education authority schools, including schools that are trying to become academies. The response from the Department was about the condition improvement fund for academies, so I am going to ask again: what funding and support are available for LEA schools with serious health and safety concerns, including concerns about asbestos and fire safety? What funding is the Secretary of State going to provide for those schools? [902861]

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We have allocated £4.2 billion since 2015 to maintain and improve school buildings. Some of that is allocated to local authorities, because they are best placed to know the priorities of the schools in their local authority area.

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Sawtry Village Academy in my constituency is in serious financial difficulty, not least because of the activities of its former head, which included building a sex dungeon alongside his office for his private use. That headteacher is now in prison, but the financial difficulties of the school remain. Will the Minister kindly agree to meet me and representatives of the school to discuss the way forward?

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Yes, I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the financial and academic future of that school.

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Can the Minister confirm that the Budget actually cut education capital funding by £1 billion in this spending review, and that part of that cut involves removing more than three quarters of the healthy pupils capital programme? Perhaps he recalls the Government’s pledge earlier this year that the healthy pupils fund would not fall below £415 million, regardless. Will he now apologise for breaking that promise?

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The hon. Lady has misunderstood the budget process. We have not cut £1 billion from the capital spending of schools. What we have done is convert an element of the healthy schools budget into revenue spending, to ensure that schools are properly funded on the frontline, because we believe that schools need to be properly funded and that is how we have managed to allocate an extra £1.3 billion to school funding—something that she and the school system have called for.

Academic A-levels: Knowsley

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4. What steps she is taking to ensure that academic A-levels are taught in the Metropolitan Borough of Knowsley. [902846]

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Knowsley Metropolitan Borough will benefit from an initial A-level offer in September 2018 through Knowsley Community College’s imminent merger with St Helens College. The 2018-19 prospectus has now been published, setting out the A-level offer available, and the Department is also working with Knowsley’s local authority to ensure the implementation of Knowsley Better Together, which is the wider local plan for improving access to A-levels in Knowsley.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but in a number of meetings with Knowsley MPs over the past year, her Ministers have promised to bring in a recognised excellent provider to restore academic A-level provision to Knowsley. The provision of some college vocational A-levels is a welcome development, but it is not enough. What progress has the Department made on delivering the promises made by her Ministers to local MPs over the past year?

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I was happy to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues, and I am sure she will remember from the letter I sent her following that meeting that I have asked my officials specifically to convene a further meeting locally to agree an approach on the maths support programme, which will focus on improving level 3 maths, and on the English hub roll-out for Knowsley.

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The new A-level provision from next September in Knowsley is very welcome, but will the Secretary of State commit to working with the local authority and the commission established under the leadership of Christine Gilbert to ensure that more young people in Knowsley are able to take advantage not only of academic A-levels but of vocational qualifications?

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We want to ensure that that kind of offer is available for every child in our country, including in Knowsley. As the right hon. Gentleman suggests, there is a lot of work to be done to ensure that the education offer on people’s doorsteps in Knowsley gets better over the coming years. He will know that a lot of work is going on locally, and that is complemented by our national focus on standards. I have written to him about this, and I am happy to do my role in ensuring that we work together to improve education outcomes for children in Knowsley.

STEM Subjects

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5. What steps the Government are taking to encourage pupils to take up science, technology, engineering and maths. [902847]

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The Government are committed to tackling our long-term shortage of STEM skills in order to grow the workforce that we need for a dynamic economy. An additional £406 million for maths, digital and technical education was announced in the Budget, including a new post-16 maths premium and a new £84 million programme to improve the teaching of computing, both of which aim to encourage the increased take-up of STEM subjects.

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Children in England are benefiting from the Government’s focus on STEM subjects, but does the Secretary of State agree that all children in the UK should be encouraged to study such subjects? A shortage of STEM teachers in Scotland risks undermining children’s opportunities, including at Inverurie Academy in my constituency.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Scottish Government have failed to deliver better education standards across the board for Scottish children. In fact, looking at Scotland’s PISA results, standards dropped across all testing areas between 2012 and 2015. That is the Scottish Government’s legacy for their children. Scotland is behind England in science, maths and reading, which is a shocking indictment.

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At last week’s meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on the UK oil refining sector, I met several young ambassadors who had excellent suggestions for encouraging young people to study STEM subjects. One suggestion was that Ofsted should measure the number of engineers that schools produce, rather than how many of their pupils go to university. Will the Secretary of State consider that?

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We are moving in the right direction. The hon. Lady is right to make a point about the pipeline, which means not just better grades at GCSE, but more young people taking A-level maths—now the most popular A-level. We want that to carry on into university and then into careers. We have actually seen a 20% increase in the number of girls taking STEM A-levels, but there is much work to be done.

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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware of the excellent support that we have been given in Haywards Heath by the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), in helping to reopen the sadly closed Haywards Heath sixth-form college. Does the Secretary of State realise that that college would be the perfect location for a STEM college in south-east England?

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My right hon. Friend raises an interesting proposal, and I am pleased that he is working so effectively with the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills. We need not only to improve our investment in STEM, but to change young people’s perceptions of STEM so that they can see what a fascinating career can lie ahead after doing STEM subjects at A-level and, critically, STEM degrees. That is how we can steadily continue to change the situation for the better.

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I am sure that the Secretary of State will know that STEM teachers in Scotland need a university-level qualification in a STEM subject, so we have retained the professionalism. However, my question is about getting girls into STEM. As we approach Christmas, the gender stereotyping in toys is simply depressing, with boys being presented with technical toys while girls are expected to become pretty home makers—even Lego is making the distinction, with princess Lego sets. What representations is the Secretary of State making to toy manufacturers and retailers to ensure that gender-neutral toys are promoted and that girls are encouraged into STEM?

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My right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills will shortly be holding a roundtable on such issues, but she should focus more broadly on the underlying strategy of getting more young girls and women into STEM careers. The good news is that the number of women accepted on to STEM undergraduate courses increased in England by 25% since 2010.

Coding and Programming Education

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6. What steps her Department is taking to promote coding and programming education in schools. [902848]

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We are committing £84 million of new funding between 2018 and 2023 to support computing teaching in schools, which will include training up to 8,000 secondary teachers to teach the new computing science GSCE, a national centre for computing education and an online resource for the A-level. That will support schools in delivering the new computing curriculum, which includes coding from key stage 1, and our reformed GCSE and A-level, both of which have a strong focus on programming.

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Cornwall is one of the fastest growing areas for tech start-ups in the whole country, and it is vital to address the challenges that we face on rural poverty as we move from a place-based economy to a skills-based economy. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the secondary schools and the colleges in Cornwall are ready and raring to go to fill those gaps in that growing market in the economy?

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We recognise both the challenges and the successes in Cornwall. My hon. Friend, of course, is one of Cornwall’s greatest champions. Cornwall and the Scilly Isles is one of the first areas where we are establishing a skills advisory panel with the local enterprise partnership to bring together local representatives, including local businesses; train providers and colleges; and develop a comprehensive analysis of the area’s skills needs to help ensure that skills provision meets those needs.

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The success of T-levels, which will incorporate coding and programming in education, will largely rely on addressing the chronic underfunding of our colleges, so was the Secretary of State disappointed, as Bury College and Holy Cross College in my constituency were, that the Chancellor ignored the pleas to address the great iniquity of post-16 funding? What will the Secretary of State do about it?

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Maybe the hon. Gentleman missed the announcement of £500 million of extra funding for technical education post-16.

Home-schooling

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7. If she will make an assessment of the adequacy of local authorities’ oversight of the education and wellbeing of children who are home-schooled. [902849]

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Local authorities have the power to ensure that children being educated at home by their parents are well educated and safe, but I am not confident the power is being used properly everywhere. That is why the forthcoming consultation on revised guidance for authorities and parents is so important. Every child needs a good education, including those who are home-schooled.

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Mr Speaker, I am ever so slightly disappointed that you did not notice my excellent sweater.

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I have now.

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Has the Department made any assessment of the skills that parents need to home-educate a child successfully?

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Certainly there are some very good examples of home education being delivered, in some cases by qualified teachers, but it is important that home education is not, for example, used as an alternative to exclusion or, indeed, because of the lack of provision of correct special educational needs. We are very much on the case.

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Many Traveller children are home-schooled, yet only 4% go to university, compared with 43% nationally. The race disparity audit showed Traveller children having the worst educational outcomes of any group, so will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can ensure that Traveller children access education like every other child in the UK?

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Certainly Traveller children are the outliers in many of the statistics that we see. Local authorities have no specific power or duty to monitor the quality of home education, although their duty to identify children who may not be receiving suitable education enables them to make informal inquiries and start a process that can, but seldom does, end in a school attendance order.

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Does the Minister agree with the chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, that so-called off-rolling, which includes home-schooling and alternative provision off site, is one of the big scandals in our education system? The Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that 48,000 children are now off-rolled. What will the Government do to give local authorities the powers and capacity to deal with this issue, and to force multi-academy trusts to stop off-rolling people in the pursuit of standards?

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That is certainly against the admissions code. As I have already said, I am not satisfied that these rules are being applied properly on every occasion. That is why we will soon consult on revised guidance for parents and local authorities, with the aim of clarifying how local authorities can take effective action when children are not served well by home education.

Children in Care

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8. What steps her Department is taking to reduce the number of children taken into care. [902850]

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We are driving forward reforms in children’s social care to ensure that all vulnerable children and families receive the highest-quality care and support. We have invested more than £200 million through the innovation programme to test and develop better practice, including testing approaches to help vulnerable children remain safely in their own home.

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With record numbers of children being taken into state care, and with more and more families being subjected to statutory investigation, funding for children’s social care is increasingly directed at such last-resort interventions, instead of at supportive measures to help families at an earlier stage. Given the lifelong cost to children of this skewed model, will the Minister consider a fundamental review of children’s social care to ensure that families are supported to achieve the best outcomes for their children?

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I agree with my hon. Friend that a serious programme of reform for children’s social care is needed. We set out our vision for delivering excellent children’s social care in “Putting children first”. It outlines our reform programme, which seeks to improve the quality of social work practice; create systems and environments where great social work can flourish; and promote learning and multi-agency working, where all involved in supporting children and families can work effectively together.

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The hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) is absolutely right on this, and there should be agreement across the House that early intervention is not only more cost-effective, but more effective in human terms. Does the Minister accept that there is a crisis in the funding of children’s care, and that unless we are prepared to make the money for early intervention available up front, we will simply force local authorities to chase the crisis and not do the early intervention work we need?

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I absolutely agree that early intervention, and innovation to learn how it can be more successful, is vital to delivering good children’s social care. That is why we have our £200 million innovation programme, which aims to ensure that we can best deploy the resources we make available to local authorities.

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The Minister is presiding over a rise in care numbers and a shortage of foster carers. More than 70% of children’s homes are now run for profit. These providers are warning of imminent closures if his Government do not get their act together and tackle the issue of backdated sleep-in shift payments, which have led to debts of up to £2 million for some homes. Where on earth does the Minister propose placing our looked-after children when his Government’s reliance on the private sector fails?

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The hon. Lady draws attention to the figures. Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service statistics show an increase of 14% in care order applications in 2016-17 compared with 2015-16, although the latest available figures for 2017-18 show a plateauing compared with the previous year. I pay tribute to all those who are developing effective children’s care—not only those in the private sector, but the many local authority providers and of course foster carers who operate outside local government employment rules.

Teacher Recruitment and Retention

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9. What recent assessment she has made of trends in teacher recruitment and retention. [902851]

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Teacher numbers are at an all-time high: there are 15,500 more teachers than there were in 2010; postgraduate recruitment is at its highest level since 2012-13; and in 2015-16 we welcomed back 4,200 teachers into the classroom, which is an 8% improvement on the 2011 figure. However, we are absolutely not complacent; we continue to invest in teacher recruitment and are actively addressing the issues that teachers cite as a reason for leaving the profession.[Official Report, 18 December 2017, Vol. 633, c. 3MC.]

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I thank the Secretary of State for her answer, but I draw her attention to the situation in my constituency and the evidence from the School Teachers’ Review Body, which has stated that there is

“a real risk that schools will not be able to recruit and retain a workforce of high quality teachers to support pupil achievement.”

It says that is particularly the case given the predicted increase in pupil numbers. What action have the Government taken to address teacher recruitment and retention? Will she meet me and local heads to discuss this matter?

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Retention rates are broadly stable over a 20-year period. In fact, the overall vacancy rate for all teachers is about 0.3%. The hon. Gentleman asks what we are doing on the quality of the people coming into teaching, and I can tell him that the proportion of people entering teaching with a degree or a higher qualification is now 98.5%, which represents a 4.3% increase since 2010. Indeed, 19% of this year’s cohort of trainees have first-class degrees, which is a higher proportion than in any of the past five years.

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Given that the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 is now on the statute book, will the Secretary of State meet me and the National Custom & Self Build Association so that we can explain how the Act’s provisions can be used to recruit and retain teachers in difficult-to-fill subjects?

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I would be happy to meet, or for a ministerial member of my team to meet, my hon. Friend. This excellent Bill came through Parliament at an important time, and I am happy to talk to him about how we can make sure that young people coming through our education system are connected up with the great career opportunities that await them when they leave.

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Given what the Secretary of State just said about our excellent teachers, I hope that we can all agree that it is time to end the real-terms pay cuts for teachers. However, the Office for Budget Responsibility has warned that this will lead to schools squeezing non-pay spending and reducing the workforce without extra funding. The Chancellor wants us to believe that he has ended the public sector pay cap. The Secretary of State wants us to believe that she has ended cuts to schools. They cannot both be right, so which one of them is putting the “con” into the Conservatives?

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Obviously the School Teachers’ Review Body will be getting its remit letter shortly, but what I have tried to set out is a much broader strategy for teaching as a profession, and not just in relation to financial incentives and making sure that they are in the places where we particularly want teachers to teach. Later this week, we will issue our consultation on strengthening qualified teacher status, which I hope will be welcomed. Of course, we are working hard to remove unnecessary workload. Earlier this year, I held a flexible working summit with the professions and unions to talk about how we can make sure that teachers stay in the profession.

Apprenticeships

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11. What progress her Department has made on meeting its 2020 target for quality apprenticeship starts. [902853]

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12. What progress her Department has made on meeting its 2020 target for quality apprenticeship starts. [902854]

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We are determined to reach 3 million apprenticeship starts in England by 2020. There have been 1.1 million new apprenticeship starts since 2015, but quality is also important. I am pleased that there were 24,600 starts on new employer-designed apprenticeship standards in 2016-17. That is a huge increase from 4,300 the year before.

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Given that average monthly apprenticeship starts are 17% lower than they need to be to hit the Government’s 2020 target, does the Minister agree that local leaders and businesses are better equipped to meet that target than the Conservative Government?

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If he talks to employers, the hon. Gentleman will find that it is only because of the reforms we have introduced, which have allowed employers to be at the very heart of the process, that we have made the progress we have. Numerous Governments have attempted to do something about apprenticeships, but it is only now that we are seeing real change.

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According to a new Sutton Trust report, “Better Apprenticeships”, two thirds of apprenticeships are the result of merely rebadging existing employee training as apprenticeships. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that existing employees are participating in substantial training to develop new skills, and not just being accredited for their existing competence?

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This is critical. I have talked to apprentices and employers about apprenticeships, and there is no doubt that we have a skills shortage. Employers are absolutely determined to make sure that they have the workforce they need to deliver the skills they will need for their businesses in future.

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24. Fareham College, which is a great champion of vocational training and apprenticeships, was recently rated outstanding by Ofsted. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating its principal, Nigel Duncan, and the staff and students who are all working so hard so that those students are equipped with training and skills fit for the future? [902867]

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I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Fareham College. In fact, I recently met an employer who has started an innovative co-operation with that college, which is doing a brilliant job and really addressing the skills shortages in the area. It is good to see employers coming together, working successfully with a local college, and making sure that they have the power behind them to get the skills that are under-represented in the area.

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Will the Minister update the House on her Department’s work to encourage more people with learning disabilities to get involved in apprenticeships and join the labour market?

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Yes. We are doing a huge amount of work; I know that my hon. Friend, as chairman of the all-party group on apprenticeships, is doing a lot of work himself. We have specific targets: we want people with learning disabilities to represent 20% of all apprenticeship starts by 2020. We have made progress, and the trajectory for people with learning disabilities is going up.[Official Report, 15 January 2018, Vol. 634, c. 3MC.]

Family Hubs

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13. What progress has been made on developing family hubs. [902855]

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We welcome the development of family hubs. Many areas are already moving towards this model of support for children and families. However, it is up to local authorities to decide how to organise and commission services in their areas. Local councils are best placed to understand local needs and how best to meet them.

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Following the recent publication of “Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision: a Green Paper”, may I urge my hon. Friend to encourage local authorities to provide better support for parents and carers in the area of mental health?

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In the Green Paper, we commit to working with the What Works centres to publish and promote guidance for local areas to encourage the evidence-based commissioning of interventions aimed at supporting parents and carers, including parenting programmes. We are supportive of councils that wish to roll out family hubs. Ultimately, it is up to local councils to decide the best solutions for their areas.

Apprenticeships

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14. What steps the Government are taking to invest in apprenticeships. [902856]

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We have put in place key reforms to drive investment in apprenticeships: employer-designed apprenticeship standards to meet their needs and drive up quality; and the apprenticeship levy to encourage sustained employer investment. By 2019-20, spending on apprenticeships in England will reach £2.4 billion, which is double what it was in 2010 in cash terms.

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I recently visited Stubbing Court Training, a local training provider in my constituency that specialises in the equestrian area. Given the Government’s recent changes to apprenticeships, will the Minister meet me to talk about how we can ensure that we continue to provide the support that the Government are offering for smaller and more rural employers and training providers?

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I would be extremely happy to meet my hon. Friend. In fact, I recently met my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) to discuss this issue. We need to ensure that apprenticeships work for every community, wherever they are and in whatever sector.

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What are the Government doing to address the reported 61% fall in apprenticeship starts since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy?

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I am a bit disappointed that the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) is not in the Chamber to listen to the rest of this question. If the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) looks at the figures more closely, he will see that there was a sharp spike of 46% between February and April this year compared with the situation in 2016. This year’s starts are therefore down just 2.8% overall. This was entirely as we anticipated. We have brought in new systems, and it is right that employers that are now paying the levy are taking the time to plan. I suggest that Opposition Members need to talk up apprenticeships and apprentices.

Mandarin

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16. What steps her Department is taking to increase the number of pupils studying Mandarin. [902858]

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The aim of our Mandarin Excellence programme, which was established in 2014, was to have 5,000 pupils fluent in Mandarin by 2020, and it is on track to achieve that. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), who originally proposed this idea to me. The programme is now in 37 schools, with more than 1,400 pupils participating, all of whom are committed to eight hours of study—four hours in class and four hours of homework—each week. The intention is that by the time these pupils are in year 13, they will be fluent in Mandarin, reaching the international standard HSK (Level V).

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The answers that are scribbled by those who serve Ministers are very informative, but the trouble is they are too long. It is the responsibility of Ministers to reduce their size. We are all very entertained by the Minister of State, but it would be good if he could do so more briefly.

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Last week, the British Government hosted the UK young leaders’ roundtable and the people-to-people dialogue between the UK and China. Having recently visited China myself and seen the great opportunity that exists, does the Minister agree that having more schools offering Chinese or Mandarin as an option would help to strengthen the global strategic partnership between our two countries?

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Yes, my hon. Friend is right. Last week we invited Minister Chen from China and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to meet 140 pupils who were participating in the Mandarin Excellence project. Minister Chen was impressed, as we all were, by the standard of the Mandarin being spoken by year 8 pupils who had been studying on the programme for just one year.

Leaving the EU: University Staffing

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17. What assessment she has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on staffing levels in universities. [902859]

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EU staff make an important contribution to our universities. The UK and the EU have reached an agreement on citizens’ rights that will allow EU citizens to continue living here broadly as now, which will help to provide certainty to such staff in our institutions.

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Heriot-Watt University and Edinburgh Napier University in my constituency have made staff redundant, citing Brexit and the UK Government’s immigration policies as a proximate cause. Napier University has advised me that potential staff members from other EU countries are turning down job offers. What concrete reassurance can the Minister give these international award-winning universities that Brexit will not further affect their staffing levels?

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That uncertainty is completely unnecessary. I point the universities to the joint report issued last Friday by the Commission and the UK Government that points to our continued participation in programmes such as Horizon 2020 not just up until March 2019, but until the end of 2020. They should appreciate that important reassurance.

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Many of my constituents in East Renfrewshire work in academic research and are concerned about the impact of Brexit on collaboration with European institutions. What reassurance can the Minister give to my constituents that Brexit will not put that collaboration in doubt?

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They can take reassurance from the statement that was put out on Friday. We will participate in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ beyond the point of Brexit—until the end of 2020. That is of fundamental importance to our scientific endeavour.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [902868]

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School standards are rising in England thanks to the Government’s reform, and the hard work of teachers and students. Last month, Ofsted published data showing that there are now 1.9 million more pupils in good or outstanding primary and secondary schools. International results show that England is rising up the league tables and that English students are outperforming their peers across the world on reading literacy. We held the first skills summit with leading British employers at the Department for Education, and we have just published our new careers strategy to ensure that every single young person, whatever their background, gets the right advice that they need for a career. Finally, we have just launched our consultation on accelerated degrees, which will not only be more cost-effective for students, but will enable university to be an option for more students.

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If we want to promote opportunity and reduce inequality, we have to start in the classroom. That is where the pioneering reforms such as the phonics revolution, which was set in chain by the Minister for School Standards, have made such an important difference. But it is the teachers who have made it happen, so will the Secretary of State thank the teachers of Newark and Nottinghamshire—and those across the country—for their hard work?

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Absolutely. Teachers in Newark should be congratulated on the results that they are achieving for local children. It is telling that Labour Members opposed every single change to the schools system that is driving up standards, with the help of teachers and students, including academies and free schools, the phonics check, the new curriculum, GCSEs and A-levels, and accelerated degrees. They never miss an opportunity to talk down schools and teachers, but there is always a deafening silence on welcoming actual improvements in standards. In the end, it is all about party politics.

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I call Gordon Marsden—get in there, man.

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Friday’s National Audit Office report on the higher education market is hugely damaging. It says that the market is failing students and that such practice anywhere else would raise questions of mis-selling. Meanwhile, the Student Loans Company is in crisis. This is all under the watch of the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. What does he say now to the NAO?

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The National Audit Office rightly pointed out that students want value for money, which has been the guiding objective of our entire suite of HE reform programmes. That is why we have set up the Office for Students, which will ensure that universities are held to account for the teaching quality and value for money that they deliver to our students.

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T4. The Secretary of State is absolutely right to shout about the fact that 1.9 million more children are now in good or outstanding schools, including in Corby and east Northamptonshire. That equates to 87% of children in such schools now, compared with 66% in 2010. Does the Minister agree that that is real progress and not, as some have suggested, the result of an increase in the school-age population? [902872]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want every child to have a good school place that provides them with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the future. Thanks to changes made by this Government, and the hard work of thousands of teachers across the country, he is right to say that 87% of children are now in good or outstanding schools compared with 66% in 2010.

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The academic community in the north of Ireland might have a way ahead in the light of the recent Brexit negotiations. Will the Secretary of State give the same reassurance to the academic community in Scotland which, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) highlighted, is concerned about the recruitment and retention of EU nationals?

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I hope that the announcement from the Prime Minister and the European Commission on Friday will have very much allayed many of the understandable concerns that EU workers had about their future status in the UK.

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T6. Many teachers in my constituency tell me that they spend a lot of time on their pastoral care responsibilities, particularly relating to mental health. What are the Government doing to help those schools where children’s mental health is a particularly acute issue? [902874]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Indeed, on 4 December we published “Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision: a Green Paper”. With £350 million of funding, the new measures include new mental health support teams to provide a real step change in the level of early intervention treatment available to pupils, and a clear ambition for a four-week waiting time for specialist NHS services. Of course, we will also provide new training for designated mental health senior leads in schools.

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T2. The House of Commons nursery is an award-winning nursery, and its manager was recently named nursery manager of the year for looking after the children during the Westminster terror attack. Will the Minister join me in commending the staff for their work, and will he also acknowledge the pressure they and other nursery providers are put under by the inadequate funding for the 30 hours of free childcare? [902869]

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I certainly pay tribute to nurseries up and down the country that are delivering fantastic childcare, particularly as part of the 30 hours’ free funding. I am actually getting a little tired of the Labour party criticising the scheme. It is being delivered fantastically well. Some 216,000 parents registered for the September intake, and 93% have taken those places. I look forward to another cohort of children coming in on 1 January.

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T7. The Minister has already spoken about proposals for revised guidance on home-schooling. Warwickshire County Council tells me that there is no requirement for parents to register with the local authority, which can make it difficult for home-schooled children to get the education they deserve. Would such a change be part of the revised guidance? [902875]

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Children who are educated at home are the responsibility of their parents. Compulsory registration is not necessary. What is necessary is that local authorities take effective action in cases where parents are unable to provide a proper education. However, I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss his suggestion.

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T3. The parents of a child who has Asperger’s contacted me recently and explained in depth how their son’s school failed to consider his needs, and the great stress that that caused them as a family. As a signatory to the Ambitious about Autism pledge in the last Parliament, may I ask the Secretary of State what action her Department is taking to ensure that school staff are properly trained and have adequate resources? [902871]

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This is important. We have introduced the much broader education, health and care plans to make sure that young people get a much better assessment of their overall needs. I am very happy, though, to look at the particular case the hon. Lady mentions.

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Parents in my constituency largely have access to schools offering faith-based education for their children, if they desire it, but every one of those schools is over-subscribed. What more can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that there is real choice for parents in faith-based education?

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We greatly value the important role that faith schools play in our education system. They are high performing, they are popular with parents and they make an excellent contribution to our education system. Through the free schools programme, we have facilitated the creation of 71 new state-funded faith schools.

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T5. What impact has the £659 million of cuts to Sure Start and early years investment had on the educational attainment of Britain’s poorest children? [902873]

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Sure Start schemes up and down the country are being delivered by local authorities, and it is up to them to make the decisions. However, we have already discussed the roll-out of hubs by some local authorities, which are proving particularly effective. As I say, it is for local authorities to determine what is best for their children.

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Figures released recently by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) show that the proportion of students in my constituency who get the top grades and go to top universities is lower than in the south-east of the country. What action can the Government take to address that inequality?

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Data published by UCAS today shows that the 18-year-old entry rate to full-time education in Walsall North has increased by 54% compared with 2006. In our last guidance to the director of fair access, we asked that areas with the poorest progression to university received particular attention.

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T8. A maintained primary school in my constituency has received over 20 pupils in year from a local academy because of their permanent exclusion, or because they have been pushed out due to the risk of a permanent exclusion. What more can the Department and local authorities do to disincentivise academies from excluding pupils and pushing them on to maintained primaries? [902876]

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First, the new national funding formula much better helps schools to deal with this issue of students coming into schools in year. Secondly, following the race disparity audit, we launched an exclusions review to make sure that the whole process around how a child is permanently excluded is properly delivered.

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The Minister may be aware that the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee recently voted to block plans to introduce the Scottish Government’s named person policy. Does he agree that that policy is a gross invasion of privacy, totally unnecessary, and diverts vital resources from the most vulnerable? Will he confirm that this Conservative United Kingdom Government have no similar plans for such an unnecessary policy?

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I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is currently no intention to introduce the named person system in England. We want a system that makes sure that children and their families get targeted help and the support that they need. Our “Working together to safeguard children” guidance is clear that services provided to children and families should be delivered in a co-ordinated way.

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T9. The Prime Minister’s refusal to remove foreign students from immigration figures is damaging our universities. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Home Secretary about the financial contribution of overseas students and staff, and their classification in Government immigration statistics? [902877]

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We have a world-class university system that is highly regarded by international students. There is no cap on the numbers of international students who can study in the UK. Indeed, we have seen a rise in the number of Indian and Chinese students coming to do so.

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As my right hon. Friend will be aware, 2018 is the year of the engineer, with one of the aims being to change the perception of engineering, particularly among young women. Will she meet me, in my role as the Government’s envoy for this campaign, to discuss how her Department can work with the Department for Transport to further these aims?

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I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, and I praise the work that he has done on apprenticeships. It was a delight to see him at WorldSkills UK in Birmingham. I also praise the work that he is doing on the year of engineering.

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The Secretary of State might not be aware of this yet, but on 4 December I wrote to her to ask for an urgent meeting to discuss the funding of high needs in Kingston. Kingston’s high needs budget is set to be overspent this year by £6.5 million, or 35%—the worst in London. Will she meet me as soon as possible to discuss this?

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We are providing high needs funding of £5.84 billion to local authorities this year—next year’s figure rises to £5.97 billion—to help them to support children and young people with special educational needs. Earlier this year, we gave local authorities £23 million to support a strategic review of their special needs provision. We have allocated £215 million of capital funding to enable local authorities to create more places for those with special educational needs and disabilities. I would be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss this issue.

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A single-sentence inquiry, perhaps, and conceivably a single-sentence reply.

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Dividing lines of opportunity are now seen much more between metropolitan and rural areas. Will the Minister assure me that the bold creation of apprenticeships and institutes of technology will centre on rural areas as well as towns?

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We want to make sure that institutes of technology are based everywhere around the country. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to flag up the fact that rural areas are a place where we want to see more opportunity.

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What is the Minister doing to help young people with hearing difficulties to obtain apprenticeships?

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A lot of work and a lot of money is going into making sure that young people with learning difficulties can access apprenticeships. That is why we have set targets so that 20% of all apprenticeship starts will be people with learning difficulties by 2020.[Official Report, 15 January 2018, Vol. 634, c. 4MC.]

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It is essential that we highlight job opportunities to our young people when businesses have needs. There are large gaps in the £6 billion landscape industry. Does the Minister agree that there are big opportunities to address that through our careers services?

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It was a delight to launch the careers strategy last week. Its spine will be the Gatsby benchmarks, which are critical. The pilot in the north-east demonstrated just how much progress we can make if schools meet all those targets.

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Class sizes in Barnsley are above the national average. As a former teacher, I know the impact that that can have. Does the Secretary of State accept that it has a detrimental impact on pupils?

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As we have heard routinely today, school standards in England are rising. In the end, that is what parents care about. There are 1.9 million more children in better primary and secondary schools, and the phonics check is improving literacy outcomes tremendously. It would be good if Opposition Members welcomed that for once.

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Will the Minister for School Standards join me in congratulating Swindon Academy, in conjunction with Marlborough College, on doubling its intake this year, with children from all backgrounds now having a real chance of accessing the very top universities?

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I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Swindon Academy. I enjoyed visiting the school with him and meeting Ruth Robinson, its exceptional principal. The school runs special programmes to help the most able children to fulfil their potential, as well as providing very high standards of education across the board.

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If the Department is serious about meeting its apprenticeships targets, surely the Minister will agree with me about the need to reclassify apprenticeships as improved education or training so that young, hard-working apprentices, such as Chloe from Hull, save money on their transport and prescription costs.

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As the hon. Lady will know, transport is the responsibility of local authorities. We are determined to make sure that there are no barriers to anybody taking up an apprenticeship. As I go around the country, it is amazing to hear stories about the programme. I am delighted by its success so far.

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rose—

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It is always good if we can see a smiling Sammy at the end of questions.

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T-levels are being developed in England, but it is not clear whether they will be available in Northern Ireland. Even if they are, the regulatory body will be England-only and based here in England. That has the potential to disrupt higher education, routes to employment and the transferability of skills. Will the Secretary of State commit to working with Northern Ireland’s Department of Education and examination board to ensure that T-levels are made available in Northern Ireland?

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I think that is the hon. Gentleman’s version of a one-sentence question.

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I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that. We want T-levels to be transformative in improving technical education in our country, and I have no doubt that he feels the same way about Northern Ireland. Let us meet up to discuss how we can make sure that the strategy works for every child.