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Topical Questions

Volume 635: debated on Monday 29 January 2018

This Government are committing to providing a world-class education for all our young people, raising attainment and narrowing the gap between the affluent and the disadvantaged. Working with our dedicated teachers and professionals throughout education and beyond, we must continue to raise standards, from early years through to further and higher education, and ensure that the right care and support are always there for society’s vulnerable children. I will work to make sure that our education system offers opportunity to everyone, in every phase and in every place. The successes are clear, with 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools, and the latest figures showing the attainment gap narrowed by 10%, but there is more to do to spread opportunity, particularly in areas of the country historically left behind.

I recently visited Ashmore Park Nursery School in my constituency, which provides outstanding education, as do 60% of nursery schools across the country. Unfortunately, the future of their funding is now in doubt. Will the Secretary of State guarantee their sustainable funding beyond 2020?

I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to her local nursery school. This Government are spending more on childcare and early years than any previous Government, with not only the 30 hours commitment but the extra provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds, and of course there is also the work being done on the hourly rate.

T4. Figures out today show a worrying rise in the number of hate crimes being committed in schools. Does that not underline the vital role that organisations such as the Holocaust Educational Trust have to play in stamping out these abhorrent attitudes? (903605)

Yes, it does. Before “Never again” comes “Never forget.” Every young person should learn about the holocaust, which is why it is the only historic event that is compulsory within the national curriculum. I commend the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust and other such organisations.

The Secretary of State’s predecessor this morning admitted that they were wrong to abolish maintenance grants, that the student finance system is regressive, that variable fees will punish the poorest and that their review is intended to kick the issue into the long grass, rather than make decisions. Apart from that, she is very supportive. But she is right, is she not?

We have a system of higher education finance in this country that means unprecedented levels of disadvantaged people can go to university and our universities are properly funded. In October, the Prime Minister said that we would be taking quick action, raising the threshold for repayment and freezing the top fees for the next academic year. It is also right that we have a full review, looking at all aspects of value for money for young people and others going to university, and at the alternatives to university, such as taking a degree apprenticeship, as we discussed earlier.

T5. What consideration are Ministers giving to implementing the Government’s commitment to ending the faith-based admissions caps for free schools? (903606)

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. I value greatly the contribution that Church and faith schools make to our education system; they are consistently generally high-performing and popular schools. Every child deserves a good school place, which is why the “Schools that work for everyone” consultation set out proposals to enable a wider group of providers, including the Catholic Church, for example, to set up new schools. I am carefully considering the proposals.

T2. Under the Government’s current universal credit plans, 1 million children in poverty in working families are expected to no longer be entitled to a free school meal, including 2,800 in Sunderland. Will the Secretary of State comment on why his Department is not taking this opportunity to ensure that all children in poverty, including those in low-paid working families, receive a free school meal? (903603)

Quite simply, the proposals will involve more children being eligible for free school meals than under the previous system. We have a short-term arrangement for the very early days of universal credit, which is different, but we estimate that around 50,000 more children will be eligible for free school meals than under the old system.

What is the Department doing to help children with special educational needs on their pathway to adulthood and, where appropriate, into the workforce?

We have introduced the supported internship programme for young people with complex needs, which is having a significant impact on supporting young people into work.

T3. Educational institutions in my constituency have lost more than £1.3 million in the past three financial years as a result of the Government’s decision to redirect the underspend in the 16-to-19 education budget away from sixth-form students. Can the Minister confirm whether the review of funding of tertiary education that was promised by the Prime Minister will investigate that underspend and look at returning it to schools and colleges? (903604)

I will look into the precise issue the hon. Gentleman raises, but let me point out that we are spending record sums of money on education for ages five to 16 and beyond— £41 billion on school funding this year, rising to £42.4 billion next year and £43.5 billion the year after. We can provide those sums only if we have a strong economy providing the tax revenues to fund public services, which we would not have under a Labour Government.

My constituency has one of the highest number of children with special educational needs in Kent. Would the Minister therefore join me in welcoming the news that the Aspire free school, which will cater for 168 young people with autism spectrum disorder, is due to be built next year in my constituency? Would he also join me in congratulating local people who campaigned for many years for such a school and the Grove Park Academies trust, which has taken up the baton to deliver that school?

I congratulate everyone involved in campaigning for and setting up the Aspire free school, including the Grove Park Academies trust, which will oversee the development of the new school.

T6. In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, our bereaved community needs its local education services more than ever. I was pleased to see that the proposed merger between Kensington and Chelsea College and Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College has been halted and that an overdue consultation on the future of Wornington College is to be opened. Will the Secretary of State act to secure the financial future of a community-led college along with a diverse and locally representative board, if that is what the consultation requests? (903607)

I was delighted to meet campaigners along with my colleague from DCLG, and I congratulate the Further Education Commissioner on stepping in and having numerous meetings. I know that he is anxious to keep closely in touch with the hon. Lady to make sure that we get the right solution for this precious college—this valuable resource—which has been around for many, many years.

Schools in south Gloucestershire have welcomed the special provision fund, which is providing targeted support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. Can the Minister outline any plans he has to continue that fund beyond 2018, so that south Gloucestershire can continue to improve the standard of provision we provide?

The Department has allocated £250 million of capital funding over and above the basic need funding to help to build new places at mainstream and special schools and to improve existing places to benefit current and future pupils.

Schools in the most deprived areas of Bath are losing between £25,000 and £75,000 under the new funding deal. What should be cut in those schools: teaching posts or mental health services?

No school will see a cut in funding in 2018-19 or 2019-20. Every single school in the country will see an increase in funding of at least half a per cent., and schools that have been historically underfunded in previous Labour Governments will see very significant rises in their school funding.

My constituent Mahzia Hart was head of an outstanding multi-academy primary trust in Bath and north-east Somerset. In 2015, she resigned following bullying on social media, which resulted in false accusations that were investigated by the National College for Teaching and Leadership and which were subsequently dismissed. In January 2017, Mrs Hart took the National Union of Teachers to court for defamation and successfully won her case. Two months later, however, the NUT was able to refer Mrs Hart to the NCTL again. Will the Minister look into this case and investigate? How is it right that teachers’ lives can be made a misery by repeated malicious referrals to the NCTL, particularly by those who have a vested interest?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The regulation of teachers is a very important function of the National College for Teaching and Leadership. I will look into the issue that he raised, and I am happy to meet with him.

T7. Universities Scotland told the Scottish Affairs Committee after the Brexit vote that the Scottish higher education sector could lose out “big time”, while the Royal Society of Edinburgh has called for the reintroduction of the post-study work visa. I welcome its introduction in Edinburgh and Glasgow universities, but can the Minister confirm when he will roll that out across Scotland, or will he ensure that Scotland will be able to tailor its own immigration policy for students? (903609)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear, a lot of work is being done on international students by the Migration Advisory Committee. I am happy to consider the issue of Scottish visas specifically and come back to him on it.

Physical education is a crucial part of the school curriculum. Only last week, I visited Westerton Primary School in my constituency, which has been able to secure a minibus to allow children to attend more sport engagements. That is thanks to initiatives that have increased sport funding in schools, such as the primary PE and sport premium. I have seen the benefits of the policies on the ground. Will the Minister reassure the House that the Government will continue to support sport in schools?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why we introduced the school sport premium, a very important initiative. Sport is very important not only for reducing obesity but for ensuring that children can concentrate in lessons.

The mention of sport gives me a heaven-sent opportunity to congratulate the inimitable Roger Federer on his latest triumph. He just gets better and better.

T8. Visiting my old school, Notting Hill and Ealing High, which produced not only me but the ex-Conservative MP Angela Rumbold, I found concern, among staff and students, about political imbalance in the new A-level history syllabus. It completely omits the 1945 to ’51 Labour Government, asks candidates for Conservative strengths and Labour weaknesses and stops in 1997. By deleting Labour, are they trying to rewrite history? (903610)

The A-level history syllabus was widely consulted on before it was confirmed, and the actual detail of the exam board content is determined by exam boards themselves, which are independent, so long as they conform to the subject content, which, as I said, was widely consulted upon.

With over 30,000 cardiac arrests taking place outside hospitals every year and a disgracefully low survival rate of just 12%, it is no surprise that there is huge public support to make sure that every child is given a half-hour lesson on emergency life-saving skills, so that we can create a generation of life savers. Will the Secretary of State meet me to talk about how we can make that a reality?

My hon. Friend has been consistent in campaigning on this issue for a number of years, and I will of course be happy to meet him to discuss his comments.

The desperate rush to convert schools into academies does not appear to be matched by any rush to ensure adequate financial oversight and value for money. Will the Secretary of State please investigate why the academy trust United Learning received £150,000 to support Sedgehill School in south London, despite the school remaining maintained and United Learning not even becoming its sponsor?

We trust schools to manage their own budgets, and most do so extremely well. We are spending a record amount on schools—£41 billion—and academies are required to publish audited accounts every year, while their financial health is closely monitored by the Education and Skills Funding Agency. I will look at the specific issue the hon. Lady raises, but United Learning is a very successful multi-academy trust that is raising academic standards in schools, including a school in my constituency.

I very much welcome the steps the Government are taking to improve the mental wellbeing of school pupils, but does the Secretary of State agree that extracurricular activities such as sport are also vital in ensuring good wellbeing and mental health and that we should promote them at every opportunity?

Mental health among our young people is indeed an issue of paramount importance—and something, of course, the Prime Minister has given particular attention to—and the Green Paper is an important indication of the way forward, but my hon. Friend is also right to mention that active lives and sport play a very important part.

Not all children arrive at school equal, and those who are homeless and in temporary accommodation have the worst set of circumstances. Mrs Sheridan, a headteacher in my constituency, recently wrote about her pupil Jack, who has become an absentee student since going into temporary accommodation. What does the Minister’s Department say to those children in temporary accommodation?

We know that moving into temporary accommodation can mean changing schools, which is strongly associated with poorer attainment. We provide schools with extra resources to ensure that all pupils, regardless of their home circumstances, can go as far as their talent and hard work take them, but I will look at the case the hon. Lady mentions.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his position, and I do not apportion blame for the problems at Broadfield House in my constituency, which has had school failure after school failure, but can I ask for a meeting to ensure that this facility is back in educational use for the local community as soon as possible?

Wirral Metropolitan College failed to secure funds for non-levied apprenticeships from April this year, despite a positive Ofsted report in October 2017, which highlighted the fact that it is a key player in economic and social development in the region. Concern has been expressed about a number of colleges that are currently meeting the needs of employers but have missed out in the procurement process. Will the Minister ask the Education and Skills Funding Agency to look again at the application from Wirral Met, to ensure that the college can continue to work with employers to deliver vital skills training in Wirral?

We are looking into how we can ease colleges and independent training providers through this process. I should point out that we received more than 1,000 bids totalling £1.1 billion. There will always be providers who are disappointed, but we will be working with those colleges to smooth the transition and ensure that they can provide the valuable training that will ensure that young people have the skills that they need.