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Topical Questions

Volume 656: debated on Monday 11 March 2019

I am pleased to confirm that we are providing £24 million of supplementary funding to local authorities to enable them fully to fund maintained nursery schools for 2019-20. Last week marked National Apprenticeship Week, celebrating apprenticeships and their positive impact on people, businesses and the economy. We have recently confirmed plans for reforms to the relationships and sex education and the health education curricula, to be implemented in schools from September 2020, so that children can be taught about mental and physical wellbeing, as well as about online safety, subject of course to parliamentary approval.

For how many more years can my Great Grimsby constituents expect Great Coates and Scartho state-maintained nursery schools to remain open?

As I said earlier, we recognise the particular place that maintained nurseries have in our system. They often provide additional, high-quality services, which we value. Work is ongoing to assess that value and of course we will make announcements about future spending as part of the spending review.

T2. I am incredibly proud of Peartree Way maintained nursery school in Stevenage. Will the Secretary of State commit to keeping it open for as long as he is Secretary of State? (909701)

I commend Peartree Way maintained nursery school. Maintained nursery schools do a brilliant job because they cater for the most disadvantaged children in our communities. That is why we have provided the additional £24 million that has been mentioned many times today. What happens next obviously depends on the spending review. We are working with the sector, which I want to thank for its hard work in allowing us to understand the additional costs so that we can put our best foot forward in the spending review.

It is great to see the pupils in the Gallery who have been listening throughout Question Time.

In the Government’s vast backlog of Brexit legislation, they recently slipped out regulations that allow them to withdraw the UK from the European University Institute. Legal experts say that that is completely unnecessary and academics warn that it will be deeply damaging. Will the Secretary of State publish the legal advice and allow a debate on the Floor of the House—or, better still, withdraw the proposal and think again?

The Department is working closely with the EUI. The issue is around the convention, which states that the UK cannot be a member of the EUI when it is not a member state. That is why, on exit day, we will automatically fall out of the EUI. We are keen to remain involved, but it would mean looking at further association after exit day.

T3. Will the Secretary of State consider taking schools in Lewes out of paying the apprenticeship levy to help them cope with the rising costs that they face? (909702)

All employers with a payroll in excess of £3 million pay the levy, but many apprenticeships are available that can work for schools, including apprenticeships for school business professionals and teaching assistants. Of course, there is also the postgraduate teaching apprenticeship. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that further.

T5. East Sussex College is an excellent FE college in my constituency. A deplorable situation has developed over the past two years whereby teachers teaching A-level at that college earn, like many others across the sector, nearly 20% less than teachers in the school just down the road. That is not sustainable. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that enough money is ring-fenced for staff wages in the FE sector? (909704)

I am sorry; we struggled a tiny bit to hear the full question. We have several programmes on the subject of FE staff and ensuring that posts are sufficiently attractive. However, it is probably best if I say that either my right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills or I will meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the college in Eastbourne.

I heard perfectly clearly. Does the hon. Gentleman want to blurt out the last sentence very briefly?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. In the past few years, the salaries of FE teachers teaching A-levels and vocational education have ended up almost 20% lower than those of the teachers at the school down the road. What will the Secretary of State or the Minister do to address that?

I am aware of some of the discrepancies between the salaries of FE teachers and schoolteachers. We have several programmes, not least the taking teaching further programme, which will encourage industry professionals into FE teaching. However, as I said, I am aware of some of the issues around recruitment in the FE sector.

T4. Businesses in my area tell me that they need more young people with STEM skills to fill jobs. As well as encouraging an increase in girls taking STEM A-levels—up 27% from 2010—what more is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State doing to inspire and enable girls to study STEM subjects? (909703)

It is absolutely important that girls and women are equally represented at all levels, not only in engineering and STEM, but in all sectors. We invested in programmes such as the advanced mathematics support programme and the stimulating physics network, which aim to increase participation, particularly among girls. This week is British Science Week. I encourage all Members to get involved, not just to stress the importance of STEM education for the future of this country and for the next generation, but to ensure that women and girls can be involved in the wonders of science.

T10. Earlier this afternoon, my hon. Friends the Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) pointed out that in Scotland the achievement gap between the most and least deprived pupils has halved in less than 10 years. The Minister declined to welcome that, because the gap has not got any smaller. Mr Speaker, if the people running education in England think that cutting something in half makes it bigger, is it any wonder that so many schools are struggling to achieve acceptable levels of standards? (909709)

We are proud of our record in reducing the attainment gap in England, but I recognise that one always needs to go further. That starts, of course, in the early years. We are seeing progress at every stage, but there is always more we can do.

T6. Average funding per student for the 16 to 19-year-old age group is less than that for secondary school A-level students. What is the Minister doing to increase college funding to sustainable levels and to see greater parity with secondary schools? (909705)

Like for like comparisons are not always appropriate, because both systems contain different elements. I am very aware of the campaign going on—the Association of Colleges and the Sixth Form Colleges Association have been doing a very good job. I need no persuasion to champion the cause of FE colleges, which have extremely complex courses to deliver and do a fantastic job. We need to get the right balance between schools and colleges. It is the case that colleges are dependent on the educational attainment of those who come in at 16, so that part of the sector matters as well.

The new times tables tests for year 4 come in soon. The test is taken using a machine. Martin, a dad of a boy with autism in Bury, is concerned that not enough provision is being made, or at least communicated to our schools as to what reasonable adjustment can be made. What provision is being made for our students who are anxious learners? Does the Minister agree that children with special educational needs and disabilities need the time and allowances to ensure that their circumstances can be managed?

The Standards and Testing Agency has a protocol in place for adjustments to be made for children with special educational needs. We have piloted a roll-out of the multiplication tables check over the past couple of years. We are rolling it out voluntarily this year and it will be compulsory next year.

T8. As my right hon. Friend knows, Dudley College has submitted an outstanding bid to be an institute of technology. Can she confirm that the IOT programme will go ahead as planned on published timetables? (909707)

I am aware that Dudley College has progressed to stage two of the competition and we expect to announce the outcome shortly. As it is a competition, I obviously cannot comment on that. IOTs are a new kind of prestigious institution. It is important to note that they are not about new buildings, but collaborations between FE colleges, universities and leading employers to deliver the high-quality technical education we need.

At a time when pupils’ emotional and mental health needs are increasing, cuts to our schools mean that teaching assistants are being lost. In Derbyshire, we are about to lose 200 early help staff. The number of school nurses is being halved and child and adolescent mental health services say that they can only see pupils where there is proof that they have attempted to commit suicide. Will the Secretary of State look at the cumulative impact of all the cuts to education and health on our pupils’ wellbeing?

We do recognise the additional demands relating to young people’s mental health. That is why our programme ensures a designated mental health lead in every school, a further roll-out of mental health first aid, a shortened time for CAMHS referrals and support teams operating around schools to help them with mental health needs.

T9. Under the previous Government, schools often found it impossible to exclude even violent pupils because they were tied up by appeals panels, often with little knowledge of the situation. We were right to get rid of them. Does the Minister agree that it is better to invest in pupil referral units, rather than backtrack on that important reform, to keep people safe? (909708)

We support headteachers in using exclusion as a sanction where warranted. We also believe that independent review panels provide for a quick, fair and accessible process for reviewing exclusion decisions in a way that takes account of the rights of the pupil and of the wider school community, and the ability of the headteacher to maintain a safe and ordered environment.

As a former chair of governors, I am sad to report to the House that the Northern Education Trust has failed the children who attend and who have attended the Thomas Hepburn school. The Secretary of State’s Department has agreed with the trust to the closure of the school in Felling in my Gateshead constituency. The other schools in the borough have already accepted additional pupils and are above their plan for September. Will the Secretary of State meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) to discuss how we are going to find places for the other 40 year 7 pupils who do not have places in Gateshead next September?

The hon. Gentleman and I have had a chance on previous occasions to discuss and correspond on the Thomas Hepburn school, and of course I will meet him, as he suggests.

A not insignificant number of parents feel compelled to take their children out of school and into home-schooling as a result of bullying. Will the Department’s call for evidence on home education look at the support being given to these children to try to get them back into mainstream schooling as soon as possible?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. When a child is excluded, where the responsibility for their education lies can be ambiguous, meaning that too many pupils fall through the net. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to clarify who has responsibility for excluded or off-rolled children to stop that from happening in future?

As the hon. Lady will know, we instituted the Timpson review into exclusions, which will report back soon. She will probably also have heard me say that we have to look at the question of making sure that schools retain some responsibility for pupils who are excluded, and I expect to have more to say soon.

A recent report commissioned by the Welsh Government has shown that fining parents for unauthorised school absence has had no impact on raising attendance levels in Wales. Is it not time to have a review of that policy in England and, if the evidence shows that it does not work, to drop it?

Parents have a duty to ensure that their children who are registered at school attend regularly. We have not formally assessed the impact of penalty notices, but comparable data shows that overall absence rates have remained stable in recent years following a downward trend since 2006—a 6.5% absence rate in 2006 fell to 4.7% in 2016.

A number of schools in my constituency are facing severe financial pressures, with some having to merge year groups and rely on parental donations. The Minister says that more money is going into education, but these smaller, rural schools are really struggling. Will he meet me to discuss what we can do for these schools in my area?

As I say, we are spending record amounts on our schools and we have special provision within the national funding formula to help rural, small schools in particular. There is an extra £25 million to ensure that those schools can support themselves and there is a fixed sum for every school of £110,000, but I will meet the hon. Lady and her headteachers to discuss her schools’ particular concerns.

On Friday, I was one of 3.5 million parents who received a letter from their school concerned that costs are outstripping funding. I was threatened with detention unless I asked the Secretary of State this: when it comes to more funding—and I hope that there will be more funding—will he ensure that it goes to those areas that are currently the lowest-funded counties?

Come the spending review, we will of course be looking at funding for education alongside other Departments. Funding for education is vital for our society and the productivity in our economy, and of course, we need to continue to look at how that is distributed through the national funding formula and to consider aspects such as rurality as part of that.