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Topical Questions

Volume 672: debated on Monday 2 March 2020

This week, I announced a new set of behaviour hubs that are being introduced right across the country to make sure that there are the very highest standards of behaviour in every single one of our schools.

As with all Government Departments right across the country, we are making sure that there are regular communications about the coronavirus. We are communicating to all educational settings to make sure that they have a clear understanding of some of the challenges in dealing with the virus. We are advising that schools should stay open unless advised otherwise by Public Health England, and we are planning for a reasonable worst-case scenario, working closely with other Departments and, of course, Public Health England.

In my constituency of Jarrow, headteachers have told me that they are struggling to make ends meet. Cuts to funding for their schools have resulted in overcrowded classrooms, and teaching and non-teaching staff being cut. Buildings are crumbling. Does the Minister believe, like me, that our teachers and children deserve better?

What we are seeing in the hon. Lady’s constituency is a 6.1% cash increase in what is going to be going to schools and a 4.8% per pupil increase. That is a positive step forward in making sure that every school benefits from the increases in funding that we announced last year.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the apprenticeship levy has been a fantastic success for many young people across the country—not least for constituents of mine in North Norfolk? What can he do to help more small and medium-sized businesses take up the levy, to ensure that more young people can unlock their potential? (901032)

My hon. Friend raises an important point about how we make sure that we get the highest level of training to every business—not just to large businesses but to the small and medium-sized enterprise sector as well. The apprenticeship levy has revolutionised how people think about apprenticeships, and we need to continue to build on that. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend to make sure that SMEs get the benefit.

Across the country, hard-working staff in universities and colleges have been forced to strike against effective cuts to their pay and attacks on education that hurt students and staff alike. So far, the Education Secretary’s response to the crisis is much like the Health Secretary’s response to the coronavirus: wash your hands of it and hope it goes away. Will Ministers finally step in, respond to the urgent letter they received from the University and College Union, urge universities to make a fair offer, and ensure that next week’s Budget gives teachers in colleges the pay that they deserve?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. I want to see a resolution to this matter as swiftly as possible, and I urge both parties to come to a resolution. The people suffering most of all are the students whose studies are being impacted. We need a resolution as swiftly as possible, and I urge both the unions and the universities to get an agreement within the next few weeks.

T4. In answer to written question 8315, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) confirmed that the rate of funding for 16 to 19-year-olds of £4,000 per student in 2013 would be worth £4,435 last year and £4,760 this year. However, the funding is at £4,188. Do Ministers agree that we should increase the rate, as recommended by the Select Committee on Education? (901034)

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have announced increased funding for 16 to 19-year-olds of £400 million in 2020-21. That is the biggest injection of new money in a single year for a decade. As our manifesto made clear, there will be further investment in T-levels and further education college estates, and we will of course be looking again at further education funding as part of future spending reviews.

T3. Will Ministers review the operation of the free school meals cash card, because I believe that £2.30 a day is often not enough for the cost of the school meal? I also understand that the money is not roll-overable and Feeding Britain estimates that this means that £88 million went unspent in one year, when it should have been spent feeding children from low-income families. (901033)

The free school meals factor in the national funding formula will be increased in line with inflation, which is forecast at 1.84%. I will look into the issue further.

T5. Barnet has not benefited from the transitional funding for maintained nursery schools. As a result, our maintained nursery schools are under severe financial stress. May I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that Barnet is included in the long-term funding solution that he has promised for the maintained nursery school sector? (901035)

My right hon. Friend has been campaigning on this issue on behalf of her constituents for a long time. An extra £60 million has been provided for the coming financial year. I know that we are going to be meeting shortly to discuss the particular circumstances that arise in Barnet, and look forward to working with her to find a solution for the maintained nursery schools in her constituency.

T9. According to the Department’s own statistics, Sheffield Music Hub is one of the best in the country, and— alongside Sheffield Music Academy—the only one of its kind not to have a permanent home. There are ambitious plans to create a centre for inclusion and excellence in music education in Sheffield. Will the Minister agree to meet, or ideally visit, the team to see for himself how the project could transform thousands of lives and benefit our city? (901039)

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady and her team. The Government regard music education as hugely important. We are allocating £75 million a year to music hubs up and down the country, and hundreds of thousands of children are being introduced to musical instruments through that programme. I would be delighted to have further discussions on this subject.

T6. Derwentside College in Consett in my constituency is rated No. 1 in the north-east for satisfaction by both students and local employers. What are the Government doing to support great technical and vocational colleges such as Derwentside to deliver more for students in the future? (901036)

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that he did when he was at the Department for Education. I know that this topic is something that he feels very passionately about. The roll-out of T-levels, the expansion of technical and vocational qualifications, and the extra money that we are putting into colleges all make a vital difference. What makes Derwentside College successful is collaboration with local employers—ensuring that it is training people with the right skills really to contribute to the local labour market.

Last week, one of my local schools in Ilford South had to strike against forced academisation. Will the Minister consider writing to the Catholic diocese of Brentwood and asking it to consider this unwarranted intervention, which does not have the support of the parents or the teachers at that school? Already this year there has been a mass exodus of staff from the teaching profession because of the threat of forced academisation—not just in Ilford, but across the country.

Academisation takes place when a school is put into special measures by Ofsted. We want high standards throughout our school system. The academies programme has resulted in standards improving in schools. When we came into office in 2010, 68% of schools were graded good or outstanding. Today that figure is 86%—in part due to the very successful academisation programme.

T7. The Minister will be aware that 9 March is Commonwealth day. Will he undertake to ensure that all schools across the United Kingdom celebrate the Commonwealth’s history, that assemblies and special lessons take place, and that schools are encouraged to fly the Commonwealth flag for Commonwealth week? (901037)

I know that my hon. Friend feels very strongly about this issue. The curriculum gives teachers and schools the freedom to use specific examples from history to teach pupils about the history of Britain and the wider world, and this does mean that there are opportunities to teach pupils about the Commonwealth and Britain’s overseas territories.

When will the Department start mapping the provision of essential services for children with special needs? How else will the Minister recognise that the average spend per child for speech and language therapy is 90p in the west midlands as opposed to £7.29 in London?

We are very happy to look at any suggestions that the hon. Gentleman can put forward, because as part of our special educational needs review we are trying to see how we can best deliver these services for the benefit of every child. If he has some suggestions, I ask him to send them to me.

T10. In my constituency of Bury North, we need to strengthen specialist mainstream provision for primary-age children with autistic spectrum conditions and children with social, emotional and mental health needs. Will the Secretary of State or the relevant Minister agree to meet me and representatives of Bury Metropolitan Borough Council to discuss how we can fund two new bases to provide much-needed support for some of the most vulnerable pupils in my town? (901040)

I thank my hon. Friend for his concern for children with autism and social, emotional and mental health needs. We do understand that there can be challenges for these children in achieving their potential in education, although the vast majority of them go to mainstream schools. Specialist bases within the schools can be a help. We have invested £365 million through the special provision capital fund. I am very happy to meet him to discuss the situation in Bury.

What are the Government doing to ensure that there are enough educational psychologists to assess the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities?

I remind the hon. Lady that we are investing a further £780 million in the special educational needs area, and we do work in this area to improve the quality of these skills.

Achieving net zero emissions and the green jobs of the future means having enough skilled workers in electric vehicle maintenance and zero-energy-bill homes construction, so what are the Government doing to make sure that the supply of these vital workers meets the growing demand?

My hon. Friend is a powerful voice for the environment, and it is no surprise to find that in this area he is right. The UK is leading a new green industrial revolution, and we need a workforce with the technical skills for the future. That is why we have introduced T-levels. We are also investing £290 million in 20 institutes of technology, which will be the pinnacle of technical training.

The Scottish Government have undertaken a review to consider the experiences and outcomes for young people in care in Scotland. Will the UK Government carry out a similar exercise in England?

The hon. Lady will be delighted to hear that we are carrying out an independent care review. Picking up on the comment made by her colleague, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), it is really important that all four nations of the United Kingdom work together and share best practice, and that we look at how we can provide better outcomes for all those children in care.

I thank the Secretary of State for coming to my constituency last week, where he saw MIRA Technology Institute and North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire College working together. I raised with him and his team another educational establishment in my constituency, Hinckley Academy and John Cleveland Sixth Form Centre, where the roof leaks significantly when it rains, causing half of its lessons to be cancelled. Will he meet me to discuss how we could do something about this?

Of course I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. It was great to be able to join him at North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire College and see the amazing work that is being done. I know that he is an incredible champion for all the schools in his constituency, and I look forward to working to find a solution to the problems that he has outlined.

Like many parents up and down the country, I am looking at my phone every five minutes to see whether my daughter has got the place at her first-choice secondary school that we are hoping for. Will the Secretary of State send his best wishes to all the children in Croydon who are waiting to hear and let us know what he is doing in areas of high demand to ensure that people get their first choices?

The hon. Lady highlights a concern at a worrying time for many parents, as they wait in eager anticipation. While I cannot guarantee her child the place that she wishes for, as that would be improper, I very much hope that she gets it. It is vital that we expand the range of educational establishments. That is why the free school programme has been so important not only in areas of London but right across the country, ensuring that we level up in terms of the quality of educational provision.

In the UK, we have an ample supply of creative and talented people working for our video and online gaming companies. Those companies have mastered the art of creating addictive games such as “Grand Theft Auto”, where young people are driven to the next level. Would it not be great if, in education, our children were refusing to leave their games consoles because they were driven to the next grade for their GCSEs? What is the Department doing to incentivise the industry to create addictive educational games that will help our children improve their scores?

Our tech strategy seeks to support teachers to make the right choices about technology that meet the needs of their school and the challenges they face. It was this Government who replaced the ICT curriculum with a computer science curriculum, so that we can lead the world in creating the next generation of computer programmers.