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Topical Questions

Volume 646: debated on Monday 10 September 2018

I know that the whole House would want to wish a happy and successful year to all children starting school this month or going to a new school, including one of the 53 new free schools that opened last week. We also welcome the tens of thousands of new teachers joining the 450,000-strong profession this month and around 30,000 who are due to start their teacher training. We will continue to work with the profession this academic year to build on the progress that it has made happen since 2010, with rising standards, more high-quality school places, and a significant narrowing of the attainment gap between the rich and the poor.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to reduce the number of looked-after children from London who are placed in socially deprived areas of Kent, such as Swale and Thanet? These often vulnerable children have to be educated in Kent, with the costs being borne by Kent schools. Does my right hon. Friend believe that is fair?

I take this matter very seriously, and the Minister for Children and Families recently met the executive headteacher of the Coastal Academies Trust to discuss the issue. We want to reduce out-of-area placements and ensure that looked-after children can access high-quality education provision. We are providing funding through our £200 million children’s social care innovation programme to increase councils’ capacity, so that fewer children are placed far away from home.

Legislation and guidance regarding looked-after children—for example, on such children having their own social worker—is vital to safeguarding their welfare. The recent guide for local authorities published by the Department refers to this legislation and guidance as myth, and actively urges local authorities to dispense with their statutory obligations, thereby cutting vulnerable children adrift. Worse still, only this morning the Minister responded to those criticisms by advising that statutory guidance is open to interpretation. Is it now the Department’s policy that statutory guidance in relation to vulnerable children no longer needs to be followed?

I responded very clearly to the myth-busting document. We consulted directors of children’s services and with Ofsted before we published the myth-busting document, and we made it very clear this morning that no legislation has changed, or is going to change, in any way.

T5. I thank the Secretary of State for taking seriously concerns expressed by my community and me about Whitehaven Academy, and for his Department’s interventions to ensure the swift re-brokerage to Cumbria Education Trust. What measures have been put in place to ensure that what has happened at Whitehaven Academy could not happen to any other school, academy or multi-academy trust? (906772)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. As she hints, we have appointed a strong sponsor for Whitehaven Academy that is already driving forward improvements, backed by substantial funding to improve teaching, resources and the school estate at that school. The overwhelming majority of academies tell a positive story of driving up standards, and the latest published accounts show no regularity exceptions, as they are called, for more than 95% of trusts. The Education and Skills Funding Agency has learned from the experience of the Bright Tribe Trust and other cases, and has made improvements.

T2. Before the recess, the Minister promised me in a written answer that the Carillion apprentices would be supported to find new placements and continue to be paid in the meantime, but just days after the House rose, hundreds were laid off. What will she now do to honour her commitment and support all these victims of corporate failure? (906769)

The Construction Industry Training Board has worked with all 1,148 apprentices. For 776 of them, the issue has been resolved and they have got training places and employers, for 225 we are still looking to find a match for them, and 147 have failed to respond following repeated attempts to get in touch with them. The Construction Industry Training Board should be congratulated on what it has done. It has used letters, emails and texts—every way possible—to get hold of those 147, and it is to be praised.

I welcome the Government bringing forward proposals to introduce first-aid education in our schools. Does the Minister agree that giving children these skills will give them the confidence to save lives, and we can create a new generation of life-savers?

We all know how important it is that young people are given the knowledge to be healthy, happy and safe. That is why, for the first time, all state-funded schools will be required to teach health education. The draft statutory guidance includes content on first aid. I commend my hon. Friend and others in this House who have campaigned on this issue very consistently.

T3. In the north-east, as class sizes continue to grow, the number of teachers has fallen by almost 500 in the past year alone. When can we expect to see Ministers getting to grips with the growing crisis that we face in teacher retention? (906770)

We have record numbers of teachers—450,000, which is 10,000 more. The number actually fell this year, but there are 450,000 teachers in our school system—10,000 more than in 2010. The average class size in secondary schools has risen only slightly since 2010 despite the fact that there are 32,000 more secondary school places, and similarly in primary schools, despite the fact that there are over 500,000 more primary school pupils in our schools. We are working in areas around the country, including the north-east, to improve teacher recruitment and retention in those areas.

The students union at Anglia Ruskin University has recently undertaken a detailed study of mental health issues faced by students, and it strongly recommends the benefits of students registering with two GPs—one at home and one at university. Will my right hon. Friend work with our new Secretary of State for Health to see how this could be made possible in a 21st-century NHS?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that transitions do, in general, pose difficulty for students—transition from school to university, but also transition from one set of health partners to others. The “Minding our future” report published by Universities UK in May states that better sharing of patient records is essential to address potential discontinuity of care. I hear what she is saying about registering with two GPs, but I will be seeking to work with the Health Secretary on how we can make sure that the records are transferred to make sure that students are well taken care of in this period of transition.

T4. The skills and T-level plans are very thin on how SEND—special educational needs and disability—students fit into these reforms, including pupils with ADHD who thrive in the creative and arts subjects. What support will Government give to help those students to participate in T-levels? (906771)

This is extremely important. We are very aware of the specific problems for children with SEND. We are working very closely with a number of providers to make sure that this is available. We have made adjustments on apprenticeships. We will continue to make adjustments to make sure that T-levels are available for all.

One of the most effective engines of social mobility in this country remains the Army. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, contrary to what some are saying today, our schools should remain open and welcoming places for members of our armed forces to come in and inform, inspire and give good career advice to young people, especially those from working-class backgrounds?

Yes, I do. Those partnerships are incredibly important and can provide very important role models.

T6. Newbridge Primary School, a well-performing and much-loved school in Bath, is in desperate need of improvements to its ageing buildings and extensive grounds. The per pupil funding settlement does not allow for any adjustments and barely covers the maintenance of the trees, and due to financial pressures, the council is very limited in what it can do. Will the Minister meet me and a representative of Newbridge Primary School to discuss its options? (906773)

We take the fabric of school buildings very seriously. We undertook a survey of all school buildings in the country. We are spending £23 billion both on increasing the number of school places and improving the quality of school buildings. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady and her constituent to discuss that particular school.

Identifying and supporting children in their early education can often help to ensure that they get on in school and remain in mainstream education. So many who are excluded have communication difficulties or other problems with basic skills. In Mansfield this year, one in four children start primary school without those basic skills. What can my right hon. Friend do to support schools such as Forest Town Primary, which offers a nurture group to help those pupils transition to school, and help other schools to provide that kind of facility?

My hon. Friend is right to identify that area. One element of the early years foundation stage profile is the personal, social and emotional development of children, which is vital. There is a whole range of things we need to think about in this area. One of them is the announcement I made a short while ago about ensuring there is adequate provision of high-quality school-based nurseries, particularly in deprived areas, but we also have to think about what happens at home and in other settings.

T7. The Minister will realise that it is a bit too late to welcome Scottish pupils and teachers back to school, because they have been back for the best part of a month. They are attending schools and universities in what is now the only country in the world where schools and universities provide free sanitary products, funded entirely by the Scottish Government. What discussions has the Minister had with his counterpart in the Scottish Government about extending that scheme to England? (906774)

We have allocated £1.5 million from the tampon tax fund to that and are looking at further evidence, to see whether there is a link to absenteeism from school.

West Oxfordshire’s thriving high-tech businesses are in urgent need of employees with technical skills. What steps is the Department taking to provide STEM careers advice in schools?

My hon. Friend is right to identify that critical need for business. Of course, we have very low unemployment in this country—the lowest since 1975—and that makes recruitment a challenge for many, but we also need to ensure that those skills are there. That is one reason why digital will be one of the first T-levels that is in place. There are many great schemes, as he alludes to, that help to give young people careers advice and make them aware of the possibilities of STEM subjects. It is not just STEM ambassadors. We need to thread this through our entire careers education programme.

T8. Do Ministers accept figures from the Local Government Association that suggest there will be a shortage of 134,000 secondary school places in five years’ time? Should well-performing local authorities not be able to open new schools? (906775)

The hon. Gentleman should know that since 2010, we have created 825,000 school places and are on track to have 1 million new school places. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, that is the biggest school expansion programme for at least two generations. That is in sharp contrast with what happened between 2004 and 2010 under the last Labour Government, which cut 100,000 school places from our system.

Students and teachers at Wilsthorpe Community School in Long Eaton have begun the new academic year in a new £16 million school building, funded by the Department. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that demonstrates the Government’s commitment to improving school facilities for all, and will he join me on a visit to the school in the near future?

My hon. Friend is right to identify what is going on. My right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards has just talked about the £23 billion of expansion and improvement capital that we have over the five-year period. We are committed to ensuring that we have the right number of places but also the right quality of places. She is right to highlight that point.

T9. I have a number of autistic children in my constituency who are unable to access proper education. I have a six-year-old who can only attend one hour a day. I have another who can only attend a classroom with 30 children and the nearest provision is 20 miles away. When I speak to heads, they want to provide support, but they do not have the funding for SEND. When will the Secretary of State ensure that children with autism can get ring-fenced funding and schools can provide properly for them? (906776)

High-needs funding for children and young people with complex special educational needs, including those with autism, is £6 billion this year—the highest it has ever been—and an increase from £5 billion in 2013. We have increased overall funding allocations to local authorities for high needs by £130 million in 2017-18 and £142 million in 2018-19, and we will increase this further, by £120 million, in 2019-20.

Will the Minister update the House on the progress of the national assessment and accreditation system for children’s social workers?

NAAS is progressing extremely well. In early results, it has had a satisfaction rating of something like 86% for those very excellent social workers who have been through the system, and we look to continue that success.

T10. The Government have pledged to train a teacher in every school in mental health first aid. Identification is one thing, but provision is another, and in some areas the provision of mental health support is absolutely dismal, particularly for children and adolescents. Will the Secretary of State therefore today pledge to match Labour’s election promise of placing a counsellor in every high school? (906777)

Our plan on mental health, as put forward in the Green Paper, contains three important elements: there is the designated senior lead in each school; there are the support teams in or around schools; and there is piloting the shorter wait time for children and young people’s mental health services. More broadly, the Government are investing £1.4 billion to improve children and young people’s mental health services. Quite rightly, there is a much wider appreciation of these issues now than there ever has been, and schools have an important part to play in this alongside society as a whole.

Following his meeting last week with the Family Rights Group to discuss the care crisis review, will the Children’s Minister now consider developing a long-term strategy for reducing the number of children being taken into care?

My hon. Friend had a debate on the care crisis review last week. We recognise that the number of care order applications and the number of children in care have risen, meaning more work for local authorities. That is why we are working across Government, as I articulated in that debate in Westminster Hall last week, to ensure that local authorities and the courts have the resources that they need.

Nationally, only 6% of care leavers make it to higher education in comparison with the nigh-on 50% of young people who go to university year on year. This is a tragically low figure. What steps is the Department for Education taking to ensure that those leaving care have the same life chances as any other young people?

Care leavers are an important part of the overall strategy for support for children in need, which we have reviewed. Very importantly, we are also launching the care leaver covenant on 26 October, with which we will continue to maintain further support for care leavers; obviously, we have already extended the system of personal advisers to the age of 25.

Does the Secretary of State want to join me in congratulating North Yorkshire County Council children services department and its director, Stuart Carlton, on achieving the country’s first ever perfect score—outstanding in every area inspected by Ofsted? Furthermore, does he agree that that is very good news for the most vulnerable children in places such as Scarborough and Whitby?

I am more than happy to join my right hon. Friend in those congratulations. It was a great pleasure to visit his constituency recently to meet some of the people involved in the local opportunity area and see the extent of their ambition for children and young people in the area, for which they are much to be commended.

Under this Government, children with special needs are six times more likely to be excluded than their peers. In Norwich, headteachers have described provision for special educational needs as a complete mess because of a funding shortfall. Will Ministers commit to increasing funding support for these children to ensure that they get the education they do not just deserve, but is their right?

The Government have launched the most ambitious SEND reforms in a generation and are committed to improving outcomes for children with special educational needs. More than 98% of statements of SEN were reviewed by 31 March deadline for introducing education, health and care plans. The hon. Gentleman talks about funding, but we have given £391 million to local areas to support implementation of the new duties in the Children and Families Act 2014.