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Topical Questions

Volume 633: debated on Monday 11 December 2017

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.]

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.