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Topical Questions

Volume 677: debated on Monday 22 June 2020

I know that every child and young person in this country has experienced unprecedented disruption to their education as a result of coronavirus. The Government are committed to doing everything possible to ensure they have the support they need to make up for that lost time in education. That is why on Friday I announced a £1 billion catch-up plan to lift outcomes for all pupils but with targeted support for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who are most at risk.

I thank the Government for their recent U-turn on free school meals over the summer months, but what cross-departmental communications has the Secretary of State undertaken with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to clarify whether that will be extended to those children whose parents are newly subjected to the “no recourse to public funds” restriction?

I will take up this matter with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and write to the hon. Lady in response.

While last Friday’s announcement was welcome, please could the Secretary of State outline how this coming autumn he will support colleges such as East Coast College in Lowestoft as they face the major challenge of supporting those 16 to 19-year-old students whose courses have been badly disrupted? Will he also review the method of funding with regard to capping and lagging payments, which present specific cash-flow difficulties that colleges will have difficulty in overcoming at this time? (903570)

It is our ambition that East Coast College students and all college students will have the opportunity to make up for lost education. Remote learning has been working really well, but we will provide more details soon on how 16-to-19 providers can further support students. Funding allocations for 2020-21 have been guaranteed, and payments will be made in line with the national profile.

I do not know why that answer could not have been given to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), who asked a very similar question but got no sort of answer. The Government must realise that leaving students who have missed level 4 in maths and English out of the catch-up funding is abandoning them at the very time they need such help the most. How can the Government justify leaving them out of that announcement given that a plan for schools was in place last week?

It is clear that the initial focus has been on the school catch-up. There has been a great response from the further education sector, which was quick to move online and to provide a wide range of engaging and innovative classes. We recognise the need for catch-up, particularly for those starting college from school, and we are working to see what more support we can give to make up for the disruption due to covid-19.

In Wolverhampton, we have several outstanding special educational needs and disability—SEND—schools, including Penn Hall and Tettenhall Wood. What is my right hon. Friend doing to help vulnerable children to return to education safely in those schools?

My hon. Friend is a great champion of those schools. I would like to mention Wightwick Hall, a school on the border between his constituency and mine. We recognise that it is really important to ensure that we get the guidance right, and we have been working closely with the sector to ensure that the specialist needs of many of those children, who sometimes have particularly complex health conditions, are met and that they have the ability to return to school at the very earliest opportunity if that is in line with their health needs as well. I hope to have the opportunity to join my hon. Friend on a visit to one of those schools in the not-too-distant future.

The Minister recently defended a relaxation of visits to children in care throughout this pandemic, claiming that they did not remove any fundamental protections for vulnerable children. She added that she was monitoring their use, yet she cannot tell me how many children have gone missing from care in the same time period. Why is that? (903571)

Due to covid-19, we have made some temporary flexibilities for local authorities. They are temporary, not permanent, and they are to be used only where normal procedures cannot be followed. I am told that the number of missing children at this time has decreased.

Across Harborough, Oadby and Wigston, teachers have done a wonderful job of looking after children during lockdown. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to get our schools fully reopened in a way that is safe for both pupils and teachers? (903577)

The Government want all schools to be fully reopened in September. We have produced guidance on protective measures that schools will take, and all staff, children and families will have access to testing if they display symptoms. We are working with local authorities and regional schools commissioners to address any particular local issues, but it is in the interests of all children to be in school with their friends and their teachers.

My question was to the Minister for Universities, the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), but in her absence perhaps I could ask the Secretary of State whether he shares my concern about the recent spate of redundancies in the sector. I have been contacted by many constituents over the past week who are being asked by their employer, Lancaster University, to donate part of their salary back to their employer. Will the Department’s structural transformation fund guarantee that no university will fail? Would he like to comment on the appropriateness of higher education institutions asking employees to donate salaries back to their employer? (903573)

I can assure the hon. Member that I am anything but absent. As we have already announced, we launched a package on 4 May that included re-profiling £2.6 billion of tuition fee funding. We also brought forward £100 million of quality-related research funding, we stabilised the admissions system with student number controls, and we offered more support for students. That was all on top of access to the coronavirus job retention scheme and the business loan support scheme to the value of £700 million. I am more than happy to speak to the university in question directly.

Schools across England, including in my constituency, will benefit from the £1 billion catch-up fund. Will my right hon. Friend commit to ensuring, in that time, that school standards continue to improve, and will he confirm that he will pay another visit to my constituency to see this in action? (903581)

I would be absolutely delighted to join my hon. Friend to visit schools in his constituency in the very near future. It is really important that we understand the vital role that Ofsted plays in making sure that we have strong accountability in schools. One of the aspects that I will ask Ofsted to look at as we are making this significant investment of £1 billion to support youngsters to catch up and support schools is how it has been implemented and how children have been supported in their catch-up plans.

This week is National School Sport Week, run by the Youth Sport Trust, and this year it is being reinvented at home. Inclusive sport has an important role in young people’s mental health, wellbeing and confidence, so will the Secretary of State be engaging in an online sport challenge this week to support National School Sport Week and encourage families to continue with the benefit of school sport? (903575)

On the same theme, recent data from Sport England suggests that one in three children have been less physically active during lockdown, with one in 10 doing no physical exercise at all. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity today, during National School Sport Week, to confirm that the instrumental PE and sport premium for primary schools, which is worth £320 million a year and was introduced by the coalition Government in 2013, will have its funding guaranteed for the next academic year, 2020-21? (903588)

The Government want to ensure that all children get an active start in life and engage in daily physical activity, which is why we launched the school sport and activity action plan last year. We will confirm arrangements for the primary PE and sport premium in the 2020-21 academic year as soon as possible.

As a condition of its funding support for Transport for London, the Government are requiring TfL to withdraw free school travel for under-18s. That will make it even harder to get children and young people back into education, 60% of whom, in London, are from black and minority ethnic communities. Why are the Government so intent on making life harder for my constituents? (903578)

The key is to get more children walking and cycling to school, and using other forms of transport other than public transport, but we are working across Government, with the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, to address the necessary transport issues in order to get children back to school in September.

Last week’s announcement of an extra £1 billion will make a real difference by providing additional support to those children who have fallen behind while out of school. It is imperative that this funding is targeted so that it can have the maximum possible impact. Will this additional money be disbursed in a way in which communities with acute educational challenges, such as Blackpool, can benefit the most? (903590)

The Government will do whatever they can to ensure that no child falls behind as a result of the covid-19 crisis. That is why we have announced a £1 billion package of support, which includes a catch-up premium for schools and a tutoring programme for those in need, including, of course, children in Blackpool.

The covid pandemic has revealed how shockingly dependent this country has become on other countries to train our medical workforce and the previous neglect of training. Will the Minister now prioritise a rapid and substantial increase in training places in our universities and colleges, and capital funding for things such as virtual reality training for doctors, nurses and other medical personnel, not only to staff our NHS, but to provide career opportunities for our youngsters? (903585)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important and very thoughtful point. It is really important that we look at different ways in which we can expand the capacity to train doctors, nurses and all those working in the caring professions. I look forward to working very closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to be able to deliver on that.

It is thanks to the Secretary of State’s careful management of this crisis that more children are able to return to school, but as that happens, the 15 pupils per bubble limit is causing some problems in schools that do not have the resources to split classes. What steps can he take to ensure this is addressed? (903593)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are some natural restrictions on how far schools can go in welcoming children back. Last week, we gave schools added flexibilities to be able to welcome more children back into the classroom. As guidance changes, we will look within Government at how we do everything that needs to be put in place so that every child is back in the classroom in September.

Today is Windrush Day, and I hope the Secretary of State will join me in paying tribute to all those from BAME backgrounds who teach in our schools and are staff in our schools. Has he read the letter I sent him, signed by Members from across this House, asking for a review of the curriculum in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, so that it better represents all communities across the whole of our country? (903596)

I have seen the hon. Member’s letter. On this anniversary of Windrush, as much on as any day, we need to understand the strong feelings on this issue. People do suffer racial prejudice, and we need to eliminate discrimination and bigotry wherever it occurs in our society. So far as the curriculum is concerned, we give schools the autonomy to decide what and how history is taught, provided it covers a wide range of periods of British and world history, but that very autonomy means that schools can and do teach about black and Asian cultures and history. The citizenship curriculum and the new relationships curriculum teach the importance of respect for other cultures and respect for difference.

Thank you, Mr Speaker—last and, hopefully, not least. I would like to place on record my thanks to the governors, teachers and headteachers across the Bolsover constituency, who have managed to get our schools up and going again. However, one of the common complaints I have heard from them is that guidance has often been issued quite late or at inconvenient times. Can the Secretary of State make sure that their complaint is heard, and that in future we will issue guidance with plenty of time? (903598)

By the nature of the crisis, sadly, guidance, which we always want to get out at the greatest of speed, has always faced quite considerable time pressures, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we very much take his words to heart. As we issue guidance for schools about the full return of all pupils in September, we will ensure that this goes out in plenty of time before schools rise for the summer.

To allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.