Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 638: debated on Monday 19 March 2018

Andria Zafirakou has already been mentioned a couple of times today, and I know the whole House will want to congratulate her on having been awarded the global teacher prize this weekend, beating 30,000 entries from 173 countries.

This Government are committed to supporting all teachers to make sure that children get a world-class education. This month, I announced that we will develop a plan on workload, professional development, flexible working and entry routes into teaching. On Friday we launched the children in need review, to develop the evidence on what makes a difference to children’s educational outcomes so that more children can get a better start in life. I am also today announcing an investment of up to £26 million to boost breakfast clubs in more than 1,700 schools in some of the most disadvantaged areas, complementing our expansion of eligibility for free school meals.

In the light of the recent racist incident in one of our schools in Bath, does the Minister believe the safeguarding policies, procedures and processes in our schools are strong enough, and that the Ofsted inspection regime is adequate in respect of safeguarding?

I was truly shocked to read of the incident to which the hon. Lady refers. Such incidents, and racism in general, must of course have no place in our schools or our country. Schools have to have a policy setting out measures to encourage good behaviour, including the prevention of bullying, and where there are serious concerns, Ofsted has powers to inspect any school without notice.

T2. Shrewsbury College has an outstanding reputation for providing high-quality apprenticeship programmes, yet it was unsuccessful in the latest non-levy apprenticeship tender process, which will put the college and students at a disadvantage. It caters for a huge geographical catchment area, and Ministers and officials need to think again about this. (904452)

This is not a situation we wanted to be in, but we are obliged to undertake these procurement exercises. There were 1,046 bids, for £1.1 billion. Some 700 of those bids were successful and got a total of some £490 million. We have put in transitional arrangements for existing providers that were unsuccessful, giving employers and apprentices stability. As I pointed out to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) earlier, those providers can still access apprenticeship funding by delivering training directly to levy payers, to non-levy payers through subcontracting and to employers receiving transfers from April.

The pensions dispute ground universities to a halt last week. The Secretary of State will be aware that there is a proposal on the table to underwrite the universities superannuation scheme. Although this matter is reserved, the Scottish Government have said that they will give consideration to the proposals from the University and College Union. Given the talk of further disruption, will he commit to doing the same?

As I mentioned in my earlier answer, the agreement on the table was brokered between both parties by ACAS. The dispute is between the universities, which are autonomous organisations, and the lecturers. This is a private pension scheme and one of the country’s largest, with nearly 400,000 members and more than £61 billion in assets. The cost to the taxpayer of underwriting such a scheme could be significant, and any further Government involvement in supporting the USS would need to be considered very carefully.

T4. I know the Minister shares my concern about the horrific sexual exploitation of young girls in Telford. Is he aware of any national inquiry that will specifically investigate all aspects of current and historical cases of child exploitation in Telford? (904454)

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns; it is a terrible case, and tragically not the first of its type. I will write to ask the chair of the new national child safeguarding review panel to look at the places where these appalling crimes have happened, such as Rotherham, Oxfordshire and, indeed, Telford, and to report on whether lessons have been learned and practices improved right across the system.

Last week, the Secretary of State was forced to extend the childcare voucher scheme by six months in order to survive the vote on it that we called. I tried to get some answers last week, but the Secretary of State has given us no clarity on what will happen next. Will he come back to the House with an oral statement and give us a meaningful vote before the scheme ends?

The move to tax-free childcare is of course a Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs policy rather than a Department for Education one, but we made it clear in last week’s debate that there would be an extra six months to look into transitional considerations.

T5. Will the Minister explain the Government’s approach to special educational needs funding in Hertfordshire and other areas? There is concern in many quarters that additional funding allocated to children with special needs is not being adequately ring-fenced at a local level. (904456)

We have increased high needs funding, including by an additional £130 million this year. Local authorities are responsible for their high needs budgets. I have not heard wide concerns about funding not being used to support special educational needs, but I am of course happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.

The hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) has just been elevated by the Minister to membership of the Privy Council. That makes him the first of his intake, and he must be deeply grateful.

T3. I do not think the answer that the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation gave on the pensions dispute at universities was good enough. He cannot sit on the sidelines; he should be doing something to resolve the situation rather than going up and down the country giving lectures on behalf of the Conservative party. (904453)

The Government have not been sitting on the sidelines. We have made sure that we have been in touch with all the interested parties. Our prime concern is obviously for the students, whose education is at stake. It is up to the universities, as the employers, to negotiate with the lecturers as the employees. A deal brokered by ACAS is on the table. At the heart of the dispute is the valuation of the pension scheme, and part of the deal is an independent valuation of the pension scheme in the months ahead, which is why I am disappointed that the deal was turned down the next day. I urge all the parties to get together and to keep negotiating to resolve the matter.

I welcome the news that up to £80 million will be invested in helping small businesses to recruit apprentices. How and when will small businesses be able to apply for that funding?

It is very good news. As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the Government will already pay 90% of training costs for small businesses. We will announce in due course more details on how that money will be distributed.

T6. Headteachers throughout Stoke-on-Trent have told all three of our city’s MPs that they have never quite felt the pinch like they feel it now. Class numbers are rising, support staff posts are being left vacant and the purchase of new equipment is being put on hold, yet if we listen to the Secretary of State we are led to believe that schools have never had it so good and that money is flowing in. Given that the two statements cannot be reconciled, will the Secretary of State say who he believes is inadvertently misleading Members? (904457)

There is no actual or inadvertent misleading of the House. It is a fact that across the system the core skills funding budget will go up from £41 billion this year to £43.5 billion in a couple of years’ time. Beyond that, the national funding formula seeks to correct some of the long-standing imbalances in the system. I was pleased to visit Stoke recently and meet some of the outstanding headteachers who operate in the hon. Gentleman’s area. Funding has been tight for schools and there have been cost pressures over the past couple of years, and we stand behind headteachers and do everything we can to support them.

The University of Cambridge’s announcement that it will now offer apprenticeships has put a quality stamp of approval on that educational route. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that children from all around the country, including from schools in Redditch, are encouraged to apply? Does she agree that the “Opening Doors” programme, which brings children from Ipsley middle school in Redditch to local business MSP Ltd, is key to the raising of aspirations?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on what is going on in her local area; it sounds excellent. A degree apprenticeship is a wonderful way for students to earn while they learn, get a degree, come out at the end of it with several years’ work experience and, probably, be way ahead of their contemporaries who did an undergraduate degree.

T7. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of meeting the father of Oliver King and founder of the Oliver King Foundation. His young lad, Oliver, died at school. His father’s ambition is to get a defibrillator in every school, because the work that the foundation has done identified that that would save the lives of many, many hundreds of people. Will the Government commit to supporting a defibrillator in every school? (904458)

We have funded a considerable number of defibrillators in schools, and we are working with the British Heart Foundation to provide facilities for schools to teach first aid and lifesaving skills in schools.

Pay rises for teachers in schools in my constituency would be most welcome, but there is a concern that those rises will have to be met from the increase in funding that was delivered to schools in the summer. Are there plans, like there are with the NHS, to find a budget outside the existing school funding formula for those pay rises?

The teachers’ pay review body is deliberating at the moment. We have already given our evidence, as, of course, have the consultees. I point out that, since the spending review, an additional £1.3 billion has been found for school budgets.

Can the Minister tell us how many children with special educational needs or a disability will not have an education and healthcare plan by the Government’s deadline of 1 April?

Our aim is that every child will have a plan in time. Those who do not can be assured that their support will be maintained, but most local authorities are on target to deliver the health and care plans.

Over the weekend, I raised the issue of the passporting of childcare payments by Northamptonshire County Council to local providers. I am very pleased that a solution has been found. I am grateful to Ministers for their support and their interest in this issue, but will they join me in thanking the staff of children’s services at Northamptonshire County Council for listening to the concerns and solving this matter so rapidly?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in his thanks, and I would actually like to meet him to look at what other support we can provide. I also commend the director of children’s services at Northamptonshire County Council for doing an excellent job in very difficult circumstances.

Based on Government statistics, 63 schools in my borough will lose funding of £300,000 per annum between 2015 and 2020. Can the Minister tell me what happened to the Prime Minister’s promise to maintain pupil funding?

No school in the country will lose funding under the new national funding formula. The minimum that schools will receive is an extra 0.5% increase, and that will be for schools that have been receiving more than that funding formula would produce. Therefore, no school will lose funding. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, there have been cost pressures in recent years, but we are helping schools to deal with them through school efficiency advisers and buying schemes to enable them to marshal their resources as efficiently as possible.

Recent figures from the Department show that, last year, 4,350 children were adopted in England. That is a near 20% decline from the peak in 2015. Why are adoptions in decline?

The Government are working with the sector via the Adoption Leadership Board to address the issue of adopter numbers early on, to ensure that there remain enough approved adopters for children who are waiting.

Parents whose children use the Fields children’s centre in Cambridge are seeing hours at the nursery cut, the baby room closed, and parents being encouraged to ask their employers to amend their working hours to fit the reduced hours. How does the Minister expect parents and families to cope when he is making their lives so much more difficult?

The experience around the country does not reflect the hon. Gentleman’s view. The opposite is happening. Parents are getting places, especially under the 30 hours a week of free childcare for three and four-year-olds. Almost 300,000 children are now taking up those places, as we announced last week.

Last week I had the honour of chairing in Westminster the second annual Stafford schools debating competition. The standard was excellent, and I pay tribute to Councillor Carolyn Trowbridge and Sam Phillips for their work in organising the competition. What is the Department doing to encourage public speaking and debate in schools across the country?

I join my hon. Friend in commending his constituents who organised this great event. It is true that public speaking, debating and other such activities are really important for developing a rounded young person—the character development that we all want to see. Members of Parliament can also play an important role in this, and many run their own events.

Yes, and I look forward to visiting the constituency of the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy)—I think in his company—very soon. I imagine that his constituents will roll out the red carpet for him; he will be pleased to know that they certainly will not be expected to do so for me.

With the alternative funding that was put in place, it was possible for sixth-form colleges to do other things to ensure that they were attracting the full range of students. More disadvantaged youngsters are going on to university than ever before.

Last week I opened the extension to the Knowle West children’s centre. The previous week the local further education college, City of Bristol College, hosted my apprenticeships fair. Both sectors are telling me that they are desperately short of funding due to cuts. What assessment do the Government make of children’s outcomes as a result of the current funding cuts?

Local authorities are responsible for how they deliver support to families, through children’s centres as well as other support. Many authorities are focusing on getting support directly to families rather than investing in bricks and mortar.

The pupil premium is an important source of funding to level the playing field and improve social mobility. I have asked a number of questions about ensuring that all those who are eligible receive the pupil premium, and about improving its scope. Does the Minister now agree that it is time that we had a review of the pupil premium?

My hon. Friend is entirely correct that the introduction of the pupil premium made an important structural change in how we do these things, by ensuring that the additional resourcing follows the pupils who need it in so that we can narrow the gap. It is also right that we keep these things periodically under review, as she suggests.

The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) is belatedly bobbing, but I am not psychic. It helps to bob all along, if you want to be called.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

What plans do the Government have to support the 1.4 million children and young people affected by the decision to discontinue the specialist contract for speech, language and communication needs?

We are currently in negotiations with the Communication Trust. We are looking at whole-workforce training to ensure that we deliver better quality outcomes for children with speech and other disabilities.

I welcome the news of the £26 million investment in breakfast clubs. How will my right hon. Friend ensure that the most disadvantaged children benefit from that, particularly in coastal communities?

We are using the IDACI—income deprivation affecting children index—methodology, as I mentioned earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), to ensure that this investment goes specifically to the most disadvantaged areas, where it can make the most difference.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

When does the Minister intend to announce the date for issuing the criteria for the pilots to address holiday hunger that were announced just a few weeks ago? Hull is champing at the bit to make its application.

Michelle Gay, headteacher of Osborne Primary School, was in tears when she told ITV just how tough it is to be one of the 361 schools in Birmingham suffering real-term cuts while trying to give kids in one of the poorest and most deprived constituencies in Britain the best possible start in life. Headteachers have asked to meet the Secretary of State personally so that they can bring home to him just how tough it is becoming. Will the Secretary of State be generous and agree to meet them?

As I said earlier, real-terms per-pupil funding in the core schools budget is being maintained across the system, but two things are overlaid on that. First, there is the application of the national funding formula to correct historical imbalances; and secondly, of course, local authorities play a part in reflecting local circumstances. I do acknowledge that with the cost pressures that there have been, things have been tight in school budgets. I will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.